The End of Déby

Of Charles XII of Sweden, who was until 19 April this year the last head of state killed in battle, Voltaire said that he was half-Alexander the Great, half-Don Quixote. While in the trenches of Fredriksten, Norway, a bullet went through his head with the plopping sound of ‘a stone forcefully thrown into the mud’ (according to a witness). Death was instantaneous. Almost equally instantaneous were rumours that enemy fire might not be to blame, especially since the king’s death was followed by a coup d’état and a thorough reform of Sweden’s system of government. Kanem, a desert environment with temperatures averaging 40 degrees, is no Norway, but the demise there of Chad’s president Idriss Déby – reportedly from a bullet wound in the chest – bears a few resemblances to Charles’s Norwegian end. There are the rumours, the bullet wound, and the coup d’état – which is plainly what the rushed succession of Déby’s son Mahamat Idriss Déby is. But the deepest parallel is that, ultimately, Déby was a victim of his belief in the mythology of the warrior king, and in the indispensability of that mythology in what remains the fraying edge of France’s ghost empire in Africa. Déby would never have inspired Voltaire’s quip, but he quixotically saw himself as a Napoleonic Braveheart, a mix of French general and tribal captain. Last August, he anointed himself maréchal du Tchad, symbolically placing himself in the tradition of the maréchaux de France and holding, with a beaming smile, a baton modèle empire (the empire in question is Napoleon’s). But his army is tribal and colonial, not national.

Déby’s career began as part of Chad’s efforts to build a national army, but the country has long had a special bond with that of France. The lands France subjugated at the greatest cost during colonial conquest are typically those where its military’s influence remains strongest, and none took a higher toll than Chad. Commandant Lamy, leader of the French invasion, was killed in battle at Kusseri, in April 1900. Victory there only opened the way for further battles against the highly militarised northern tribal chiefs and sultans, who had easy access to firearms supplied by their putative sovereigns, the Ottoman Turks. It took France two decades to finally assume control, littering the land with ‘here…a Colonel, there a Captain or Lieutenant or an Adjutant, a Sergeant-Major, a Sergeant or a humble Corporal, buried under the sands of the Sahara’, to quote a litany from the British missionary Dugald Campbell. The military imprint was also onomastic. The French-built capital was named Fort-Lamy; Sahr, the country’s third largest city, used to be Fort-Archambault; and the oasis town of Faya was rebaptised Largeau, from the name of the conqueror of Borkou and Tibesti. Just a few years after it was considered ‘pacified’, Chad became the military base of the Free French. The Leclerc division which flew the tricolour on Hitler’s Berghof in May 1945, had left from here with 3000 African troops and 55 French officers. As a result of this feat, Leclerc was the leading figure in the final cohort of the maréchaux de France.

Chad became independent in 1960, though the French army did not relinquish control of its northern provinces until four years later. By then, Déby, born into the warlike desert tribe of the Zaghawa, where men must at all times carry a dagger, was entering his teens. The French military played a key role in the reckless administration of the area by southern Chadians. For many centuries, people in what became southern Chad were preyed upon by northern slavers who established their states on wealth from trade with the Middle East. But for French colonialism, the humid south was the ‘useful Chad’, where school education was expanded and from which administrative aides were recruited. In this vision, the north was a realm of restless nomads and fanatical Islam (in fact, the faith only became hegemonic there in the 20th century) where civilian rule and Western education had no place.

Inevitably, at independence power of administration devolved to the south. Chad’s first president, François Tombalbaye, was inextricably a southern nationalist, colonial collaborationist, and Chadian patriot. In these conditions, civilian rule in the north proved a perverse form of homegrown colonialism. A year after the French lifted their boot, the north revolted. A report which Tombalbaye commissioned from French experts, after a French intervention confronted the insurgency, exposed the extent of the ineptitude and insensitivity of southern administrators. Among other egregious details, the report revealed that women were disrobed and paraded in public and men fined for not cutting their beards, in juvenile attempts at imposing southern cultural norms. Tombalbaye mended fences, released political prisoners, and appointed a government half-composed of Muslims. Faced with France’s failure to quell the rebellion, he radically changed his foreign policy, broke diplomatic ties with Israel and brokered an entente with Sudan and Libya that cut the northern rebels off from their foreign bases and supplies. The rebels shrank from a threat to a nuisance.

Tombalbaye also became convinced that the solution to Chad’s problems lay in cultural renovation and threw himself into the building of ‘Tchaditude’ (‘Chadness’), a sense of national identity that embraced ‘African authenticity’ and rejected Christianity and Islam. That’s when Fort-Lamy became N’Djamena, and Fort-Archambault, Sahr. Tchaditude especially appalled Christians, until then a solid base of Tombalbaye’s regime, and it had no discernible impact on the country’s disintegrating economy. Tombalbaye was killed by a band of gendarmes in April 1975. Within a week, one of the perpetrators gloated on Radio Tchad that the slain president had paid ‘mercenaries’ to watch them, when in fact the mercenaries were working for them. The transparent allusion was to Camille Gourvenec and Pierre Galopin, former French military officers who headed Tombalbaye’s secret police, known as ‘N’Djamena’s Gestapo’. Gouvernec and Galopin had multiple loyalties, including to the French state.

Déby had begun training at the national military academy the year of the coup against Tombalbaye. The following year, he was sent to a castle in French Flanders to receive instruction as a military pilot. One day at the school’s cafeteria, a Chadian trainee had a fit of madness and attacked, dagger out, two of his Tunisian schoolmates. There was some bloodletting, but disaster was averted after Déby lunged at the attacker and subdued him. The attacker was expelled from France, and the peace-maker had to turn in his own dagger. But he had been noticed. Back in Chad, the post-Tombalbaye era had descended into a civil war between ‘Sudists’, under President Felix Malloum, and ‘Nordists’ under rebel chiefs Goukouni Weddeye and Hissein Habré. This wrecked the already tattered Chadian state, which was branded ‘un État néant’ by Jeune Afrique, the Francophone weekly of record on African affairs. (The phrase evidently stung, because Déby recalled it in his last interview with Jeune Afrique, forty years later, in November 2019). It also shifted the balance of power to the north. When Déby returned to Chad in 1979, he was co-opted by Habré who put him at the helm of the northern armies. But if the Francophile Déby’s position reflected French influence, Habré saw himself as the man of the Americans.

Taking advantage of the mayhem, Colonel Gaddafi had invaded a northern stretch of Chadian territory, the ‘Aozou Strip,’ over which he claimed Libyan sovereignty. The Reagan administration resolved to ‘bloody the nose of mad dog Gaddafi’ (in the words of Secretary of State Alexander Haig) and put up their first covert operation – before Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the Contras in Nicaragua – to bring Habré to power. Ultimately, it was French military support that secured the victory against Gaddafi. But for his own grasp on power, Habré relied on a ‘Gestapo’ trained by the Americans which proved far more lethal than Tombalbaye’s. Déby was at first a mainstay in that apparatus of control and repression, but its tribal structure made it inherently untrustworthy from the vantage of the man at the top. Loyalty to the putative nation-state, of the kind which Tombalbaye had sought to foster with Tchaditude, had failed to supersede allegiance to a tribe or a clan within a tribe (Habré himself is a Tubu Daza). As a result, a paranoid Habré lashed out all around him in what looked like genocidal mania, and stoked the very rebellions he dreaded would materialise. Moreover, he imprudently posed as an Americanophile in spite of having invited back the French military. Solidly implanted via the anti-Libyan Operation Manta that morphed into Operation Épervier in 1986, the French army was there to stay. Indeed, Operation Épervier was never terminated, simply segueing into the current ‘anti-terror’ Operation Barkhane. Meanwhile, Déby, who Habré once sought to defang by consigning him to a diplomatic sinecure in Paris, joined a movement of armed dissidents that trekked to Darfur, in western Sudan, and attacked the Habré regime from bases there. Shorn of French support and with the fickle Americans gone, Habré decamped to Senegal and Déby took power in December 1990.

To fully get rid of Habré, Déby mounted a commission that was given free rein to investigate the atrocities perpetrated under him. The official report, which established that upwards of 40,000 people had died in Chad’s gaols between 1982 and 1990, started a long-haul process against Habré – the Senegalese state strenuously resisted getting involved – which finally succeeded in the 2010s. But if the investigation-cum-report stoked hopes that Déby would be a different kind of ruler, disillusionment was swift. Deaths in prison, unrestrained police brutality, torture, ‘compulsory disappearances’ (the phrase is used by human-rights advocates) and other features of the Habré tyranny were soon restored. Compulsory disappearances are the result of inadvertent deaths occasioned by torture, when the damaged body becomes an embarrassment for the regime. This was apparently the fate of Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, not seen since his arrest in 2008. The charismatic leader of the Party for Liberties and Development was respected across the country, and Déby held a bitter grudge against him after they fell out in the late 1990s.  

With Déby, the French had struck gold in Chad, or at least something that looked like it. Déby did not have the dreams of Tombalbaye, which ended up making the man impossible to ‘handle’, and unlike Weddeye and Habré he knew how to live with French control. If the democratisation of the 1990s was an opportunity to resume the task of building a sense of national belonging, this time through participatory rather than authoritarian methods, Déby was not one to seize it. His vision of Chad, shaped by his political experience, was cynically tribalist; democratic formalities merely looked like a way to fake legitimacy and get the necessary winks from the ‘international community’. This approach led him into the same impasse as Habré, and brought about similar rebellions. But the French always stuck by him and saved his skin more than once.

What did France gain in tirelessly propping up a dictator against the aspirations of his people? Such interests are at first sight hard to perceive. They are certainly not economic. Even when Chad became an oil producer in 2003, the players were US companies Exxon Mobil and Chevron, paired with Malaysia’s Petronas. The main explanation is instead that Chad is a prized chasse gardée of the military lobby within the French state, and that this accords with the Élysée’s belief that the French empire somehow survives in Africa in the form of ‘strategic interests’ and ‘responsibilities.’ It is this combination that led, for example, to French support of Hutu supremacists in the Rwandan genocide of 1993-94, even though France had no tangible interests in Rwanda. The only comparable situation is that of Russia in the lands formerly included in the USSR. Like many a Francophone strongman, Déby understood and fully exploited the equation.

But Chad is unlike any other Francophone post-colony, in that military and rebel violence have become the principal mode of political action. For most Chad specialists, this culture of violence must be traced back to the slave economy and to colonial militarism, but it was certainly at an unusually high point in the years when Déby entered the political fray. Déby mastered that culture, or so he thought. His thirty-year reign gave him the stability needed for the building of a Chadian army, if one of a very peculiar cast. Recruitment is national, but leadership is tribal, and is steeped in the mythology of the warrior figure rather than the professional soldier. The result is a brutally efficient fighting force, especially when deployed in fields of action where such an ethos is absent. In this way, Chad’s military became something of a glorified mercenary legion at the service of the French in their ‘anti-terror’ crusade in the Sahel, but also of central African despots and warlords.  

In March-April 2020, Déby enjoyed the glory bestowed on his leadership of a punitive expedition against Boko Haram, in the Lake Chad region. There he won his marshal baton, and perhaps gained a thirst for more such action. The rebel column that descended from Libya, ducking French drone surveillance by skirting into Nigerien territory and emerging in Kanem, looked like an opportunity for that. He may not have known Dugald Campbell’s litany, and did not think a dead marshal might be added to it.

The men who killed Déby in a barren field 400 km from his capital are members of the Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad (FACT), which reportedly has benefited from the largesse of Libya’s strongman Khalifa Haftar. They claim to be Chadian patriots. In propaganda dispersed on social media, they affirm that the trigger for their attack was Déby’s decision to remain in power for life, nullifying Chad’s democracy. They explained that the true target must be France, and the final objective, freedom. They referenced similar situations in other Francophone countries, and called for an anticolonial rising.

As if in response, Emmanuel Macron, who flew in to salute a ‘true friend of France’, vowed ‘not to let anybody put into question or threaten today or tomorrow Chad’s stability and integrity’. In a country that has been the definition of instability for its entire history, the word ‘Chad’ is a tag for the Déby regime. In 2017, at Déby’s request, France had frozen the assets of Mahamat Mahdi Ali, the leader of FACT, branding the man – a French-trained jurist, economist and long-time member of France’s Socialist Party – a terrorist. It must now help the nascent regime of Déby Junior get its bearings, which implies supporting a manhunt into adjacent far east Niger, where the ‘terrorist’ has retreated. As events unfold, one should keep in mind this is Tubu territory, and Mahdi Ali and most of his followers are Tubu. And there is the intriguing fact that last year, a similar Tubu-led politico-military group, the Union of the Patriotic Forces for the Rebuilding of the Republic, emerged in this part of Niger with an equivalent message of revolt against the perpetuation of single party rule in that country by means of fishy elections. But with the repressive apparatus in their hand and the firm backing of the French, there is little chance that such militarised but distant appeals to democracy will frighten rulers in the two countries into opening the political arena. Déby’s end will be seen simply as a lesson about what not to do. 

Read on: Augusta Conchiglia, ‘Ghosts of Kamerun’, NLR 77.



Let’s look beyond the new ministerial decree on the easing of lockdown restrictions (which would require a separate analysis) and dwell for a short while on the figure of Super Mario; the neoliberal, Atlanticist, Europeanist, vaccinizing eminence who for some weeks now has, rather unexpectedly, been committing blunder after blunder. The renown of his profile has immediately elevated these to the status of Super Gaffes. But are they to be explained by ‘clumsiness, inexperience or simple carelessness’ – see the dictionary entry for ‘gaffe’ – or by some factor beyond the ken of the lexicographer? Acoustically the word gaffe evokes gawkiness, but given Draghi’s serious, decorous demeanour and deliberate, icy self-control, that we can exclude. Inexperience or distraction? Or something else? For an answer, let’s proceed case by case.

To begin with, foreign policy. In his first and only trip abroad as prime minister, Draghi extolled the ‘search and rescue’ efforts of the Libyan government in the Mediterranean. Lack of experience or inattention? Hardly. Draghi is neither an inhabitant of the moon nor a Martian landed by mischance in the courtyard of the Chigi Palace. From numerous reports in the press and on television, we all know – including Draghi – that far from ‘rescuing’ anyone, the Libyan government captures migrants who have eluded its coast guards and holds them in veritable prison camps rife with rape, torture and brutalities of every kind. So why his eulogy? It was not the product of inexperience or distraction, but – an open secret – of precise economic calculations of a familiar neo-colonial kind. Sale of arms and extraction of natural resources in Libya are too important for big business in Italy. To paraphrase the French: Tripoli vaut bien une messe.

Just days later on 8 April, at a news conference back in Rome, Draghi termed Erdoğan a ‘dictator’, then immediately added ‘but we need him’. It would be hard to know whether the initial gaffe, which provoked threats of reprisals and a near rupture of diplomatic relations with Turkey, was more serious than the cynical admission that accompanied it. In the first place, as Enrico Letta of the PD pointed out on TV, Erdoğan is ‘technically an autocrat, not a dictator, as he was elected by the people’. Draghi’s sally simply exposed him – absit iniuria verbis – as an amateur ignorant of the rudiments of political science. But why supplement his description with such a revealing mitigation of it? The answer is embarrassingly obvious: Erdoğan keeps a huge number of migrants by force in Turkey, away from Europe, which pays him billions of euros for doing so. Such is our brave defender of the EU from an ‘invasion’ of refugees in flight from wars and humanitarian disasters – for which we ourselves are among those responsible.

At the recent special session of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Draghi instructed the representatives of Italy to vote against lifting the US embargo on Cuba, which has now lasted for sixty-one years, and sanctions on Venezuela, Syria and Iran that are strangling countries devastated by the current pandemic. And what is an embargo but the covert, ‘cleaner’ face of an armed attack? In a spirited open letter to Draghi, the mayor of Crema – a small town in Lombardy where 52 Cuban doctors arrived to fight at our side against Covid during the darkest days of the pandemic – denounced his cynical decision as ‘a gross violation of the civilized values of gratitude, loyalty, memory and solidarity’. In his inaugural speech as premier, Draghi called himself an Atlanticist. What does that mean? Someone in Italy, and in Europe, aligned with the imperial interests of the United States.

What of internal affairs? Two gaffes stand out. The first came with a ministerial decree concerning (belated and partial) relief for those sectors and workers hit hardest by the pandemic, used by Draghi for extraneous ends in the form of a ‘concession’ to tax evasion between 2000 to 2010. Naiveté? Distraction? Far from it: rather the familiar banker’s creed, with its dogma of ‘less state, less taxation, more market, more profits’ (even if illicit).

The second faux pas came during another press conference in early April, when Draghi accused Italian psychologists of jumping the vaccine queue. ‘Vaccinating a 35-year old psychologist is absurd’, he admonished, asking, ‘With what conscience does a young person skip the line?’ Draghi thus appeared to forget that in Italy psychologists are legally classified as health workers, and as such prioritised under his own first Covid decree. Understandably, the profession hit back. ‘Perhaps the government should keep itself better informed about itself’, ironized David Lazzari, president of the National Council of Psychologists. Was vaccinizer Draghi unaware of what premier Draghi had signed? Amnesia, inexperience, distraction, improvisation? No. The more plausible explanation is that Draghi was looking for a scapegoat on whom to blame the failures of his vaccination campaign; a maladroit blow that backfired on him.

In each case, then, a political subtext is legible beneath Draghi’s apparent lapsus linguae. Yet, as the Italian premier’s reputation is eroded by these gaffes, one is left wondering: where exactly does Draghi’s alleged super-competence lie?

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti. An earlier version of this piece appeared in MicroMega.

Read on: Adam Tooze, ‘Just Another Panic?’, NLR 97.


The Parasite

In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, thanks to a combination of cheap rent, easily available visas, the euro, infrastructure investment, budget air travel, lax drug enforcement, liberal sexual mores, a DIY political and artistic culture, a neoliberal-curious Red-Red ruling coalition, and a storied history, Berlin became a major post-industrial hub for tourists and expatriates, with all the splendours and miseries that entails for the people already living there. Although known abroad primarily for its electronic music and visual-arts scenes, the city also became a popular destination for Gen X and Millennial Anglophone writers, which is why it has begun to appear as a setting for their books, including, most recently, Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill (2020) and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (2021).

Because it is Berlin, the ghosts of the twentieth century – of Weimar, the Third Reich, and the Cold War – are always present. Of these periods, the cloak-and-dagger city of spies seems to have cast the longest shadow on the Anglophone literary imagination, as both subject matter and ambient mood. Recent events – CIA spooks at the US embassy tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, Laura Poitras editing Citizenfour from an apartment in Mitte, Russian secret agents assassinating a Chechen rebel in the middle of Tiergarten, Alexei Navalny’s periodic visits to Charité hospital – have done little to diminish its reputation for international intrigue.

This is the Janus-faced city to which Englishman Robert Prowe, his Swedish wife Karijn, and their two daughters relocate in London-based short-story writer and literary critic Chris Power’s debut novel, A Lonely Man. Selling their house in ‘polluted’ London at the height of the market has enabled them to quit their respective jobs in advertising and HR in order to pursue their respective passions as a writer and an upholsterer full-time in the ‘cheaper, greener and less crowded’ German capital. They pay 600 euros a month for their rent-controlled apartment in bourgeois, international Prenzlauer Berg, send their children to state-subsidized day-care, maintain a small circle of friends drawn from Robert’s salad days spent clubbing at Tresor and Berghain and seeing World Cup matches, and summer at Karijn’s family dacha in rural Sweden.

Unfortunately Robert – the author of a well-received if modest-selling collection of short stories – has developed a bad case of writer’s block, which has kept his agent waiting to see the first draft of his novel for the better part of two years. He has had to lean on Karijn, and supplement his income by writing reviews and teaching for an English-language creative writing workshop. But Karijn has grown tired of his self-pity, which has begun to affect their relationship, as well as his relationship with his daughters, with whom he is often impatient and irritable, in part because he blames them for taking time away from his writing.

The stories in Robert’s collection ‘had come from episodes in his own life and anecdotes told to him by friends, family, and strangers he met while travelling. People he had been stranded with; got drunk or got high with. Back then he was always running into people who had stories to tell him’. But thanks to his domestic situation in Berlin, the stories have dwindled, except for one told to him by an Australian woman about her relationship with a man in Vietnam who turned out to be a secret service agent, which probably indicates the tenor of those in the collection. The reason for Robert’s writer’s block turns out to be quite simple. He believes that the value of a story can be measured by the drama of its plot; he believes his own life as an upper-middle-class expat father lacks drama; and he lacks both the imagination to invent a story he has not lived and (if the prose of A Lonely Man is any indication) the stylistic chops to compellingly render the one he has. He fancies himself a devotee of Roberto Bolaño, but this is how our book reviewer and creative-writing teacher describes his idol’s work: ‘It’s definitely not conventional, but that’s one of the things I love about him. He wanted to break the forms, you know?…He took what he read, and things he did, and other things he made up, and…mashed them together’.

Imagine his luck, then, when Robert reaches for the same book – Bolaño’s Antwerp – as a drunk Patrick Unsworth before a reading at the local English-language bookstore. This contrivance, which opens the novel, is the first in the series out of which its plot is constructed. Afterwards, Robert and Karijn run into Patrick again and break up a fight he has got into at a bar in upscale Kollwitzkiez. Patrick offers to take Robert out to dinner to thank him, and despite Patrick having shown himself to be a boorish, violent drunk, Robert accepts. Over dinner and drinks, Robert learns that Patrick has ghostwritten a bestselling footballer’s memoir. On the strength of its performance, he was hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of Sergei Vanyashin, a minor Russian oligarch living in exile in England. Vanyashin possesses information about Putin that he believes, when revealed in the book, will bring him down. There is only one problem: Vanyashin has been recently found hanging from a tree on his country estate. Patrick is convinced that Vanyashin’s death was no suicide and now he – the man who knows too much – finds himself on the lam in Berlin gushing to a total stranger. You can almost see Robert’s eyes widen as he realizes what his long overdue novel’s going to be about.

All novelists are parasites: just ask their estranged family members, ex-lovers, and former friends and acquaintances. If you have the misfortune to know one you should expect that details about your life will wind up as material – gallingly recognizable, gallingly distorted – in their published work, which is why the first fiction in every novel is to be found on the copyright page: ‘any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental’. Realist novelists in particular cannot help but operate in this ethical grey zone. Wherever the line is to be drawn, however, Robert clearly crosses it. Instead of using Patrick’s story as a mere premise – which he could have taken from the headlines of any major newspaper – Robert courts his friendship in order to pump him for information. It is necessary to A Lonely Man that Patrick’s account both is true within the world of the novel and that Robert does not believe him: without the former the plot would have no import; without the latter it would not be able to continue. But Robert’s initial belief that Patrick is inventing the story about Vanyashin makes what he does more, not less, like theft.

It is difficult to determine whether parasitism is at the core of Robert’s character, or whether he is simply an exemplary member of his class. Either way, his political and aesthetic attitudes, as we will see, work hand in glove. The year 2014, in which the novel is set, saw the first signs of the bubble that would make Berlin the fastest growing real-estate market in the world. The bubble was driven in part by migration from the wealthier Bundeslände in the South, but also by that from financial capitals with higher median salaries, stronger currencies and inflated property values like London. Robert knows well enough to express ‘regret’ for participating in the gentrification of neighbourhoods where he once did drugs and partied, but his regret does not inspire him to learn even the most basic German. As soon as living in Berlin becomes in any way inconvenient for him – and thanks to his behaviour with Patrick, it does – he leaves it. ‘This mess with Patrick only increased his sense of the city as a place to be abandoned’, Robert muses from his wife’s Swedish dacha. In these pastoral surroundings, he vows to ‘write in the early morning and take care of tasks around the property before lunch…He would be competent, patient and productive, every flaw – his negativity, his temper, his selfish need for solitude ­– sieved away, leaving only the good’. This is so improbable that the passage reads like a parody of an epiphany. But even if you were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, one thing is certain: Robert will never learn Swedish.

Meanwhile, 2014 also saw the beginnings of a far more consequential movement of persons: the arrival of refugees and migrants to Germany from Syria, Libya, and Kosovo. Robert and Karijn take their daughters to see the protest encampment on Oranienplatz set up to draw attention to the atrocious conditions at Lampedusa, the Italian island that became the point of entry to the European Union for people fleeing and being smuggled from Northern Africa. Here, too, Robert knows well enough to lament the fact that the camp has become ‘another stop on the Berlin tourist trail’, while treating it just like that. Naturally, when one of his daughters asks whether one of the migrants can come and live at their house, he says no, though he is proud of her for asking, and feels guilty for declining. Robert’s politics are a politics of affect, not action, and as with his writer’s block, the affect is impotent self-loathing. The bourgeois household may take the blame for Robert’s failures of self-expression, but when the chips are down, it must remain inviolate.

Which is why it is unusual that Robert expresses genuine indignation when Patrick, who has discovered what he is up to, accuses him of stealing his story. Robert’s justification is telling. ‘Stories are like coins’, he thinks, ‘passed from one hand to another. When you tell someone a story, you give it to him’. The analogy between language and money is as old as coinage itself, and writers, who operate at the intersection between aesthetic and commercial value, have been uncomfortable about it for just as long. But not Robert, apparently. Perhaps that is because on top of being a parasite, he is also a snob. The reason he feels entitled to Patrick’s coin is that he is the lower-middle-class ghostwriter of a footballer’s memoir, that is, in publishing-speak, a downmarket genre. Robert’s real literary training, it turns out, comes less from his reading of Bolaño than from his decade as a copywriter at the advertising agency in London: he knows how to take someone else’s product and rebrand it for the desired market segment. The personal risk of being in the circle of a dead Russian oligarch may have fallen to Patrick, but to tell the story well, Robert implies, requires the literary techniques of a well-reviewed, prize-winning short-story writer such as himself.

Even if this were true, the writing presented in A Lonely Man would not justify such a claim. Although we are led to understand that the flashbacks describing Patrick’s work for Vanyashin are Robert’s handiwork, there is no stylistic, tonal, or vocal distinction with the rest of the novel. The prose is homogenous and – to use Robert’s preferred term – entirely ‘conventional’ throughout. Power’s transitions to the flashbacks are telegraphed with the subtlety of a cinematic dissolve, as though a future screenwriter were their intended audience. The characters are stock (beefy bodyguards, chatty factotum, barely legal model mistress) as are the scenes (a decadent party featuring ketamine, vodka, and mounds of caviar; a boozy brunch at Vanyashin’s country estate). The treatment of post-Soviet history is framed by Western fantasies/anxieties about Russia and is sometimes delivered in expository dialogue that reads like paraphrases of passages from the nonfiction titles listed by Power in the Acknowledgments. The foundational premise of Patrick’s story beggars belief: if you were a minor Russian oligarch with damaging information about Putin would you put it in a memoir – let alone one ghostwritten by your factotum’s old university friend who speaks no Russian and knows nothing about international financial crime? No, you’d leak it as soon as you could to the Russia desk at, say, the Guardian.

Early in A Lonely Man, Robert reads a novel by a ‘woman who had written about a strange real-life encounter with an ex-lover, and a sequence of subsequent conversations she had about it with her family and friends. She made it clear in the text where she had departed from actual events and where she returned to them, but did so in a way that made everything – the declared fiction as well as the declared fact – feel much more real and consequential than a conventional novel’. Power employs this template for Robert’s encounter with Patrick, but in his hands it produces the opposite effect. Because he uses close third- rather than a first-person perspective from the outset, the reader is unlikely to mistake Robert for an actual person, his meeting with Patrick as a ‘real-life encounter’, or anything either says as a ‘declared fact’. Parsing the differences between the ‘first-order fictions’ (what we are told directly about Robert) and the ‘second-order fictions’ (what we are told about Vanyashin via Patrick via Robert) draws attention to Robert’s status as a fiction and not away from it, which in turn diminishes the consequence of knowing what is real in the world of the novel and what is not. A Lonely Man is not, as its protagonist would have it, a series of ‘stacked realities’, but a series of stacked fictions, and with no formal differentiation between ontological registers, the stack collapses on itself. Ultimately the buck stops with Robert, who would do well to remember that just as with coins and stories, literary techniques that are passed between too many hands end up being worn featureless and smooth.

What about Power? Novelists generally dislike when readers judge the morality of their characters ­­– after all, to present a repellent worldview is not to endorse it – and this is often treated as a sign that the reader lacks the sophistication to know the difference. But the dirty secret of middlebrow literary fiction is that moral readings are just as often generated by its own genre conventions. In the absence of compensatory literary pleasures (e.g. an exemplary prose style, formal innovation, insight into the human condition or contemporary life) or compensatory genre pleasures (i.e. entertainment) moral judgment becomes a way of answering the question all novels must answer: why am I reading this? While there are indications that Power is aware how contemptible his protagonist is, hermetically sealing the reader in Robert’s oblivious consciousness limits his reader’s ability to view his novel as satire, or to enjoy sympathizing with the villain. Worse still, the novel’s structure reproduces the ostensible object of its critique – Robert’s parasitism – at the level of its form. In A Lonely Man metafiction is nothing more than the name for the process by which the conventions of a putatively tired upmarket genre (literary novel about the bourgeois family) can suck the blood out of the conventions of a putatively vital downmarket genre (spy thriller) without doing any damage to its status. There is, however, another, less flattering name for it: gentrification.

Read on: Ryan Ruby, ‘Reading the Room’.  


Scandal in Ankara

The European Union has five Presidents: one for the Council, one for the Commission, one for the Parliament, one for the Central Bank, and one for the Court of Justice. (There are also any number of Vice Presidents; after all, we are talking about 27 member states.) Recently, two of the Presidents, those of the Commission and of the Council, went on a trip to see another President, the one-and-only-one of Turkey. From this resulted a scandal, one that is worth reflecting on at some length to continue to learn about that strange beast, the European Union, and its doings.

These days, when Presidents meet, pictures are taken, and this was no exception. Pictures, however, can take on a life of their own. What one saw was the Turkish supremo sitting on a chair, with the President of the Council, Charles Michel, a former Belgian Prime Minister, sitting on another chair right next to him, both grinning into the camera. To their left and right were sofas, two of them, opposing each other, one occupied by the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, the other, facing her, by the Turkish Minister for Foreign Affairs. Hardly had the picture been published when the arrangement was dubbed ‘Sofagate’ by the press, as every self-respecting scandal these days must have a label attached to it that ends in -gate.

What was the scandal? The answer was obvious: Erdoğan, the Turkish misogynist, had humiliated our other President on account of her being a woman. Von der Leyen should have had another chair, not a sofa, perhaps to the other side of Erdoğan, so the two European Presidents would have been framing the one Turkish President, while the Turkish Foreign Minister could have looked from his sofa at an empty sofa across the room. Members of the EU Parliament, having nothing else to do during the pandemic, demanded a debate, and the new Italian Prime Minister, Draghi, called Erdoğan a ‘dictator’, to the applause of all right-thinking left-liberal pro-Europeans. Tempers heated up even more when unofficial pictures emerged, who knows from where, that showed the three Presidents entering the salon to set up for their encounter: one saw Michel marching to the end of the room, throwing himself into one of the chairs, stretching his legs and grinning provocatively at von der Leyen, who first let out a gasp of consternation and then, with a resigned smile, sat down on the sofa to the left. (Not so long ago she, or whoever would have been in her place, might have asked Michel for a duel.)

This sparked a ‘discourse’, as it is nowadays called. While Michel let it be known that he was heartbroken and couldn’t sleep anymore, so ashamed was he after the incident, it turned out that the matter had a prehistory. Apparently European Presidents have separate staffs, and so there seem to have been two separate advance visits to Turkey, preparing the ground for the Great Presidential Reunion. Also involved was the EU’s ambassador to Turkey, a German diplomat (the EU has its own diplomatic service; again, there are 27 member countries). Von der Leyen’s staff seems to have been allowed to inspect the dining room where the three Presidents would be served a good dinner after a good day’s work. The staff discovered that the chairs on which Erdoğan and Michel would be seated were bigger than von der Leyen’s chair, which may have reflected the fact that she is not just a little smaller than the two other Presidents. In any case, her staff got the Turkish state to provide equally small chairs for all three of them, in the service of gender equity.

Nothing, however, is known about what the two advance delegations and the European ambassador did regarding the relative status of the two European Presidents. Maybe they were careful not touch on this sensitive matter and instead relied on a diplomatic handbook that the EU provides to non-EU countries in case they are interested. There it is said that the President of the Council is to be considered equal to a Head of State, whereas the President of the Commission is comparable to a Prime Minister. There is some logic to this as the Commission President is appointed by the Council, rather than the Council President by the Commission. That logic, of course, is not popular with the EU Parliament, which may explain both why the handbook is so little known and why the Parliament got so excited about the Sofagate incident.

So far so good. Still, the longer one thinks about this, the more bizarre the story becomes. First, where was the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (that’s a title!), a Spaniard by the name of Josep Borrell? Should he not have been there too? In fact, he might have sat on von der Leyen’s sofa, looking the Turkish Foreign Minister in the eye, as would have been the appropriate thing for him to do, and of course having his colleague look back into his? Those reading the papers may remember that Borrell had recently visited Russia, with no President in tow, against a background of growing tensions after Biden’s ascent to the US presidency. The trip became a disaster as the EU and Germany had let it be known beforehand that they would not end their sanctions over Crimea and might even add more sanctions over Navalny. Having been publicly humiliated by his Russian counterpart, or so it was made to appear, Borrell seems to have been put in the cooler, for a while if not forever. So could it be that there had to be two European Presidents simply so the Turkish Foreign Minister didn’t have to face an empty sofa (and von der Leyen had to fill what would otherwise have been a black hole)?

This seems far-fetched, although with the EU you cannot fetch from too far sometimes. After all, what needs to be explained here is not just why two Presidents made the trip to Ankara, but why any Presidents at all did so. (Does the High Representative etc. etc. not have a deputy?) Assuming that the dual trip was not just a diversion from the hardships of the Belgian lockdown, one might entertain the suspicion that the diplomatic overkill was to express regret over and ask forgiveness for the harsh words from the EU when a few years ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan turned himself into President Erdoğan and, a short time later, into Dictator Erdoğan – in other words, that the visit was to mark the beginning of another wonderful friendship. One reason why the EU would find this desirable would be the important function Erdoğan has never ceased to perform for the EU’s internal peace and quiet: enabling it, in short, to maintain a liberal immigration and asylum regime pleasing some voters without having to let it take effect, pleasing other voters.

This Erdoğan does by keeping millions of refugees bottled up in Turkey, mostly Syrians driven from their homes by a never-ending civil war prolonged by ‘the West’s’ demand for a ‘regime change’ that it is unable to bring it about – a service for which he collects, one hears, roughly three billion euros per year. Should he cease to do so, hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees would call the bluff on European (i.e. German) largesse, forcing European governments and the EU either to face a revolt from the right, or take on the liberal left in a battle for realistic reform of an unrealistic, politically unsustainable legal regime that serves no other purpose than the signalling of virtue, inwards as well as outwards. With Erdoğan as a robust gatekeeper, appointed by Angela Merkel acting in 2016 as de facto president of the EU, the ‘friendly face’ of Europe (Merkel) can be saved without having to become more than that: a façade. Two Presidents, and maybe a little more cash, now that Erdoğan is short of it and Next Generation EU has learned how to make it out of nothing, are the least Europe can offer Erdoğan for his assistance, as reassurance in a year in which his old ally, Angela Merkel, is supposedly going into retirement.

Without any sofa at all on that fateful day was Osman Kavala, a wealthy Turkish citizen who devotes his fortune to cultural, political and educational projects in his country. Kavala sees himself as a bridge-builder between Turkey and Western Europe, working with Turkish and European partners for democracy in his country and for peaceful relations with its European neighbors. Since October 2017 he has spent his time in solitary confinement, originally accused of having incited the Gezi Park demonstrations three years earlier. In 2019 he was finally tried, and in February 2020 was acquitted of all charges. As he was about to leave the court building he was arrested again, this time for alleged involvement in the so-called Gülen putsch of 2016. The judges who acquitted him are now themselves under investigation for supporting terrorism. In December 2020, four months before the two European Presidents’ trip to Turkey, his second trial began. The prosecutors are demanding lifetime imprisonment for participating in the putsch and an additional 20 years for espionage. The previous acquittal was overturned and the case will be tried again. The European Court of Human Rights and several other European bodies, including the EU Parliament, have repeatedly called for Kavala’s immediate release, to no avail. Indeed, Michel and von der Leyen’s presidential counterpart has several times publicly pronounced Kavala guilty. And he is not the only one. As of July 2020, 58,409 were on trial and 132,954 under criminal investigation for links to the Gülen movement; at least 8,500 were locked away for alleged ties to the PKK; dissenters have disappeared, and detainees are frequently tortured. 

Questions: Might not the two Presidents have made their appearance in Erdoğan’s living room conditional on Kavala’s release? How could Sofagate have crowded out Kavalagate as the European public’s scandal of the week? And why does ‘Europe’, as embodied by the EU, impose sanctions on Putin for Navalny while granting Erdoğan a visit from two Presidents at once in spite of Kavala?

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘Turkey at the Crossroads?’, NLR 127.


Portuguese Alternatives

Back in 2017, you spoke to NLR about the confidence and supply agreement between the Bloco de Esquerda and the Socialist Party (PS). This arrangement enabled Portugal to roll back some of the austerity measures introduced after the crash, including pension freezes and cuts to social security. Yet there were disagreements with the PS over public spending, Portugal’s relationship with Europe, and the need for deeper structural reforms. How did these tensions play out over the following years?  

After it formed a minority government in 2015, the PS adopted some measures that improved workers’ incomes, but it would not accept meaningful changes to public services or democratic control over strategic sectors of the economy. So we were able to reverse the Troika’s major cuts, yet once we began discussing how to properly rebuild our social infrastructure – healthcare, welfare, workers’ rights – well, things got much more complicated. One of the main sticking points was the PS’s refusal to consider any reform to labour laws. Now, with the pandemic, we can clearly see the effect of that refusal, because we have a large number of precarious workers with no recourse to unemployment benefits or other social protections. Many workers who have lost their jobs because of Covid-19 don’t even appear on the official unemployment statistics, so they’re simply left without an income.

It is crucial to understand that, at this point, the PS does not even pretend to have a political project of its own. It sees its role as managing Portugal’s everyday affairs in line with the expectations of the EU. When the Bloco had an agreement with the PS we tried to offer a more transformative vision; but António Costa would not go beyond repealing the austerity measures of the previous government. This made it a constant struggle to keep our agreement alive.

What changed?

During the 2019 election campaign, the PS said that they could no longer be constrained by the Bloco and the Communists; they wanted a ‘free hand’. So now they build legislative majorities on a case-by-case basis, sometimes negotiating with the left, sometimes with the right. This puts us in a very difficult position. On specific issues, we are not unwilling to vote with the government, but we will not do so just for the sake of supporting it. We must agree on a direction for our country. This is problematic, though, since the PS has no clear direction!

That, in a nutshell, is where we are now. Portugal still needs structural change which Costa is unwilling to consider. He justifies this refusal by invoking the threat of ‘imminent crisis’. Because he doesn’t have a majority in parliament, he constantly raises the prospect of a political meltdown which could usher in a conservative government, led by the Social Democrats and propped up by the far-right. Even though all the polls say that the right-wing parties do not enjoy this level of support, Costa uses this possibility to blackmail the left and prevent any discussion of alternative economic strategies. So long as we are trying to stave off an immediate political crisis, we are not discussing broader social questions.

In the Bloco, we have said that we are open to another agreement with the PS if it meets certain conditions: changing labour laws, strengthening the national healthcare system, giving contracts to health workers and boosting the welfare system to ensure everyone has the support they need during the pandemic. We have a minimum proposal that is always on the table. But I don’t think the Socialist Party will agree to any of it: they would only ever accept the minimum of the minimum during the last parliament.

How did the Bloco fare in the elections of October 2019?

We maintained the position we had in 2015: we were the third party, with about 10% of the vote and 19 members elected to parliament.

You voted against the last Costa budget, whereas the Communist Party came to some kind of agreement with the PS, which is what gave them a majority. What concessions did the Communists get?

They didn’t get many concessions. The PS agreed to go a little bit further with some of the social measures for workers whose jobs had been affected by the pandemic. But the support they offered was so minimal, and so uneven, that this barely mattered. Workers in sectors like tourism and culture are still deprived of basic rights, and the government’s €50 monthly pandemic payments are almost meaningless considering the cost of living. So I believe the agreement with the Communists was mostly symbolic. The PS also agreed in principle to increase investment in the national healthcare system – but this pledge had already been made in the last two budgets and never came to pass, so it’s unlikely that it will happen this time.

One must also remember that the Communist Party lost a significant number of votes at the last election, and can only avoid another one by propping up the PS. Their base is relatively old, so it naturally declines as time goes by. And much of their support is drawn from the unions, which have lost touch with younger generations of workers by failing to understand problems of precarious employment or develop new organizing methods. This has led to a decline in union membership, with knock-on effects for the Communists’ popularity. Before they can rebuild their support, they will do their best to avoid facing the electorate. And I think that as long as the Communist Party wants to avoid elections, we won’t have elections.

Portugal has been hit hard by the pandemic in recent months. In late January, its death and infection rates were the highest in the world. Has the government faced substantial criticism for this?

Yes it has. During the first wave, Portugal had one of the best records in Europe for controlling the virus. It started late here, so we had seen what happened in Italy, Spain and Britain, and were already expecting an outbreak. When it arrived people stayed at home, followed the restrictions, and cases started to drop off. But then, during the second wave, we never managed to get the numbers down – partly because we were one of the first EU countries to have more transmissible variants. The Bloco spent weeks calling for various precautionary measures – mass testing, fewer students in classrooms, more teachers, additional staff to help maintain social distancing, improvements to public transport where buses and trains were still crammed with commuters every morning. But the PS didn’t do any of this. They believed that since we’d done well in the first wave, it would be the same for the second. In the event, the government had simply lost control.

Has the Costa government passed any significant new legislation since it was re-elected in 2019?

Not really. They have allied with the so-called Social Democrats, in reality Conservatives, to give more power to city mayors, who can now elect the officials responsible for managing EU funding – which means that, as usual, the two big parties will define the investments, and redouble the public financing of private companies. They’ve also made it more difficult to run for mayoral positions, and they’ve shut down debates in the parliament. We used to debate with the prime minister every two weeks; now we do so every two months. So there have been these small anti-democratic reforms. But we’ve had no major budgetary changes so far.

Both the 2019 parliamentary election and the 2021 presidential ballot had astonishingly low turnout rates: 48% and 39% respectively. What accounts for these figures?

Well, first of all, our voting system is different to that of other countries, because everyone is automatically placed on the electoral list. Even citizens that have lived outside of Portugal for many years are not required to register. And since so much of our population lives abroad, this inevitably lowers the turnout, proportionate to the percentage of registered voters.

In the years after the Revolution, participation rates were higher. People felt they had a stake in the society that was being built. The idea of popular sovereignty was hugely important. But that began to change when the two-party system was consolidated, and many people realized there was not much difference between the Socialists and Social Democrats. On top of this, the EU has spent decades telling us that we cannot decide our own policies. We cannot increase social spending; we cannot nationalize our electricity system or our airports. When the scope of political decision-making is that restricted, people don’t see the point of elections – and you can’t blame them.

There is a big discrepancy between the vote that the PS gets in national elections, and its seats in parliament. In 2019, with 36 per cent of the vote the party took 47 per cent of deputies – a huge difference, due to the D’Hondt version of PR apportionment. Is there any significant movement for electoral reform in Portugal?

In the Azores, there is one full district of all the islands that compensates those who don’t elect anyone from the particular islands themselves, which makes the Azores assembly more balanced than any other in the country. But all the media pressure is to reduce, not increase proportionality in the national parliament, in the direction of creating just a two-party system of the PS and PSD.

It seems a bit strange that there is no demand for a system like the genuinely fair German model. Shouldn’t that be respectable enough – after all it was Germany under Social-Democratic rule in the 70’s that helped advise and finance the victory of the PSOE in 1976?

That’s not discussed here. The debate in Portugal centres on single-member constituencies, which would just consolidate the power of the PS and the PSD in a two-party system.

Is there a generational division in voter turnout?

Yes, as in most countries, the figures for younger generations are lower. But people aged fifteen, sixteen, seventeen – those who are still too young to vote – are perhaps one of the most politicized cohorts Portugal has ever seen. We recently had a disappointing outcome in the presidential election, with the incredibly low turnout that you mentioned. But immediately after it, we had lots of new members joining the Bloco, 70% of whom were under twenty. This is something completely new. It’s the same generation that has organized the school climate strikes; the same one that’s been deeply involved in feminist and anti-racist movements. These activists are still a minority within their generation. But five years ago we didn’t even have this minority. So there is real hope for how they will reshape politics.

Has the Bloco been directly involved in these youth-led social movements?

Yes we have. In cities like Lisbon these movements have attracted huge numbers of people. Thousands turned out in the capital for a series of Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer. In smaller villages in the interior we haven’t seen as much activity. But thanks to social media even a kid living in a rural town can connect with activists on the other side of the country. This makes it easier for the Bloco to reach that newly politicized generation. I don’t know how that will develop, but it’s very striking.

How do you assess the emergence of the far-right Chega and its leader André Ventura? Was his showing in the presidential election just a protest vote, or does it speak to a real upsurge?

There has been a real change on the Portuguese right. The regions where Chega picks up the most votes are some of the most deprived in the country. In Alentejo, or on the outskirts of Lisbon, you have an ageing population, poor working conditions and low expectations. I don’t believe the far-right is now mainstream, but it has the potential to become so, especially if people feel abandoned during the pandemic. That’s a risk the left should take seriously. In recent years the Christian CDS has almost disappeared, and Ventura has performed best in the places where it was once popular. This constituency – of about half a million people – has always had racist views. But with the rise of Chega, their xenophobia has been legitimized. It has gone from implicit to explicit.

One last question. Would it be right to think that, because of the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions, the kinds of collective action that were characteristic of the Bloco in the past have become very difficult?

Yes, collective action and other forms of protest are difficult in the present circumstances. But something interesting has replaced them. For the first time in Portugal, we have a self-organized movement of unemployed people who are asserting their right to the social support that the PS has withheld from them. These groups are holding meetings, signing petitions, appearing on TV and so on. I organized an online meeting about this issue and, to my surprise, hundreds of people joined at short notice. So we decided to schedule similar meetings all over the country, expanding the discussion to include other kinds of precarious employment. This has led to labour organizing in sectors that had never seen that kind of activity before. Of course, one needs to be cautious because these are still small and tentative steps. But we believe it is the Bloco’s responsibility to help these new forms of self-organization. It is still too soon to predict the effect of the pandemic on the political situation. In the short-term, people tend to want stability and continuity above all else. But the social crisis will also undoubtedly have an impact, which could open up the space to discuss alternative models of society. The left must be ready to create that opportunity.

Read on: Catarina Martins, ‘The Portuguese Experiment’, NLR 106.


Correa’s Legacy

In the second round of Ecuador’s presidential election on 11 April 2021, the right-wing former banker Guillermo Lasso defeated Andres Arauz, the candidate supported by Rafael Correa and sections of the left, by 52.4% to 47.6%. An opportunity to break with Lenín Moreno’s neoliberal policies has been lost. Though opportunistically critical of Moreno during his campaign, Lasso will continue in the same harmful direction: advancing the interests of big capital (particularly the powerful banking sector and import-export industry), welcoming foreign multinationals, uniting with other right-wing leaders in Latin America, and submitting to US dominance of the region. How can this disappointing outcome be explained, given the vast anti-austerity mobilizations that shook the country’s political establishment in 2019?

Lasso’s victory was anything but predictable. In the most recent general elections, the two leading forces were the movement aligned with Rafael Correa – which amassed 42 representatives – and Pachakutik, the political wing of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE), which elected 27 members: the best parliamentary result ever for the indigenous movement. In the first round of the presidential election in February, the votes for Arauz (just over 32%) and Pachakutik’s Yaku Perez (just under 19%) added up to a majority, which could have been further increased by the 14% won by the social-democratic candidate. Lasso came second, with an extremely close lead over Perez and 13% less than Arauz. As Arauz and Lasso prepared to face each other in the run-offs, Perez and the CONAIE complained about what they described as massive electoral fraud. The right-wing flank of Pachakutik began advocating a vote for Lasso, while the president of the CONAIE, Jaime Vargas, supported Arauz, joined by the majority of indigenous organizations in the Amazonian part of Ecuador. The country’s so-called progressive factions were split. Amid these discordant voices, the CONAIE defaulted to encouraging a null vote. On election day, 16.3% of ballots were spoiled, and Lasso stormed to victory.

Though Perez and Arauz are more ideologically aligned than Perez and Lasso, the two candidates of the left were divided by more than just the electoral fraud allegations. These were rather a cypher for an antagonism that stretches back over a decade. To understand why a significant part of Ecuador’s popular movement refused to support Arauz, we need to examine the changing face of Correa’s presidency. From 2007 to 2009, Ecuador’s government set a new direction for the country. It led the way in auditing its public finances to identify illegitimate debts and suspend their repayment. In 2007, at the beginning of Correa’s time in office, the government came into conflict with the World Bank and expelled its permanent representative.

The same year, Correa announced the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which promised to leave 20% of the country’s oil reserves (about 850 million barrels) untouched so as to protect biodiversity in the northwest of the Ecuadorian Amazon and roll back the damaging effects of extractivism: deforestation, contamination of running water, greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion, as well as overreliance on international markets. In 2009, the government unilaterally restructured part of its commercial debt and won a victory against private creditors, mainly US banks and investment funds. It also took a number of other positive steps during its first term: democratically adopting a new constitution, dismantling the US military base of Manta on the Pacific coast, and attempting to set up a ‘Bank of the South’ with Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Yet Correa’s second and third terms marked a retreat on all these fronts. His party, Alianza País, became increasingly closed off from the indigenous organizations, the CONAIE, the National Union of Educators (UNE) and the union of Petroecuador (the national oil company). As in Lula’s Brazil, mobilizations by such groups came under regular attack from the executive, who accused them of defending their corporatist privileges at the expense of the national interest.

Correa froze the indigenous community out of the government’s decision-making processes and clashed with the CONAIE over its demand to write the principles of the new constitution into law. In 2009 tensions with these civil society organizations erupted over two measures: the government’s draft water bill – which enabled the privatization of water services and the restriction of community control – and the attempt to open up the mining and oil industries to foreign capital. At a special meeting in September 2009, the CONAIE railed against Correa’s programme, demanding that the government ‘nationalize the country’s natural resources and instigate an audit of concessions in the domains of oil, mining, aquifers, hydraulics, telephone, radiophone, television and environmental services, external debt, tax collection and the resources of social security’.

Later that month, the CONAIE organized rallies and blocked roads and bridges in opposition to the water bill. After weeks of refusing dialogue and claiming that the indigenous movement had been manipulated by right-wing forces, including former president Lucio Gutiérrez, Correa finally agreed to negotiate with the CONAIE in October. His administration conceded on several points – passing amendments to environmental and water legislation, agreeing to initiate a permanent dialogue between the CONAIE and the executive – yet by this time the writing was on the wall. Correa would not mount any challenge to Ecuador’s extractivist-export model, nor entertain the demands of the indigenous movement for greater governmental influence. Things deteriorated from that point. In 2013 Correa abandoned the Yasuní-ITT scheme, citing its unaffordability. His government pursued a free-trade deal with the EU and gradually reversed its non-repayment policies so as to gain greater access to international markets. It adopted reactionary stances on abortion and LGBT rights, and launched an assault on the autonomy of the universities.

In response to these betrayals, in June 2014 a number of progressive organizations led by CONAIE presented the government with a list of demands: greater regulation of the mining and oil industries; an end to the criminalization of protest; a reversal of new liberalizing labour laws; reforms to energy and water policy; an end to ethnic community school closures; rejection of the constitutional reform that would enable unlimited electoral mandates; rejection of the free-trade agreement to be signed with the European Union; and a policy to protect indigenous rights. Correa’s response? The following December his government tried to evict the CONAIE from their headquarters in Quito, but was forced to back down after a major public outcry. He later tried (again unsuccessfully) to silence the left-wing environmentalist group Acción Ecológica by withdrawing its legal status. The state continued to meet peaceful protests with excessive force.

In 2017, Correa’s presidential mandate expired and he was succeeded by his chosen candidate, Lenín Moreno. Almost immediately, the country’s debt rose to a ten-year high, and the new president turned to the IMF for support, negotiating an austerity package that included mass public-sector layoffs and an end to fuel subsidies. That led to the massive popular protests of September–October 2019, which forced Moreno to cancel his cutbacks and roll out some modest stimulus measures. Yet it did not take long for him to reverse course. In 2020 he signed another humiliating agreement with the IMF for a $6.5 billion Covid loan, forcing his administration to commit to a brutal neoliberal reform programme for the following year. He also introduced a bill to grant total autonomy to Ecuador’s Central Bank, removing it from democratic oversight and tying it to the interests of private finance.

Alongside these fiscal measures, Moreno broke decisively with Correa’s symbolic opposition to American empire. He revoked his predecessor’s decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange, handing the Wikileaks founder over to the British justice system, and he recognized the far-right puppet Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela – effectively supporting US-led regime change. All the while, Moreno’s popularity faded to nothing. The final polls of his presidency gave him a mere 4.8% approval rating. Despite Arauz’s attempts to distance himself from Moreno (by promising to repeal the IMF agreement, for example), he remained tainted by Correa’s legacy for many in the indigenous and environmentalist movements. This lingering hostility is what motivated many on the right of Pachakutik to swing behind Lasso instead.

Moreno’s hard-line neoliberal policies will now be extended by Lasso. The new president has announced his intention to lower corporation tax, attract foreign investment, give even more freedom to the financial industry and consolidate free trade by joining the Pacific Alliance. It’s likely that Lasso will also try to integrate leaders linked to Pachakutik and the CONAIE into his administration in order to neutralize potential opposition. If he succeeds, the indigenous movement will become even more divided than it was on the eve of the run-off elections. Yet if he fails, and Pachakutik and the CONAIE return to active resistance, they have the potential to frustrate his ambitions. In October 2019 the CONAIE joined with a range of trade union groups, feminist associations and environmentalist collectives to draw up an alternative socio-economic programme, against Moreno’s IMF-backed model. The following year, more than 180 civil society organizations signed a document demanding the ‘suspension of payment of external debt, and an audit to be carried out on external debt accumulated between 2014 and the present, as well as citizen controls of how the debts contracted were utilized’. This street-level opposition to the IMF and World Bank could form the basis of another popular mobilization along the lines of September 2019, which Lasso’s regime will struggle to face down.

The high number of spoiled ballots in the presidential run-offs signals the disenchantment on which CONAIE could draw. Null votes rose from 1,013,395 in the February vote to 1,715,279 in April – representing about 30% of Pachakutik supporters. Turnout was also on the floor, with 10,501,517 voters and 2,193,896 absentees. Yet the left must contend with the fact that most of the remaining 70% Pachakutik’s vote share was captured by Lasso. So strong was the rejection of Correa’s heritage that these popular forces were willing to ally with the banker if it meant they could keep the former president’s heir out of office. It is fundamental for the future of the popular movement to radically oppose the government that Lasso will form. Now, the challenge for the CONAIE, trade unions, feminist and environmentalist groups is to overcome this polarization between Correism and the traditional right by forging a political alternative.

Read on: Juan Carlos Monedero: ‘Snipers in the Kitchen’, NLR 120.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on the CADTM blog.


A New Myanmar?

More than two months after the coup d’état in Myanmar, the military has not yet managed to take full control of the state beyond its monopoly on violence. In response to a massive civil disobedience movement which has paralyzed the economy through strikes in most key sectors, the Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar Armed Forces are known) is unleashing all its fury on protesters, aiming to terrorize the population into submission. Over 700 civilians have been killed so far. Meanwhile, pundits and the United Nations are warning that the country risks descending into a civil war and becoming a ‘failed state’.

There is a certain historical myopia in those statements: Myanmar never had a ‘functioning state’. The army had been waging several civil wars against the ethnic minorities living in the country’s borderlands since its independence in 1948. Now the Tatmadaw is bringing to Myanmar’s heartlands – where the Bamar majority live – the brutal tactics it has been using for decades in those wars, making little to no distinction between armed combatants and civilians. Yet the violence has a different purpose depending on who is at the receiving end: in carrying out their military operations, soldiers kill Bamar for what they do (opposing its rule); they kill members of those ethnic minorities regarded as ‘national races’ for what they are (as part of a project of political domination and cultural assimilation); and they kill the Rohingya (widely regarded as foreign interlopers from Bangladesh) simply for being in the country. In response to this shared experience of repression, many Bamar protesters are developing a new sense of solidarity with the ethnic minorities – at times even including the Rohingya – while ethnic minorities are joining the civil resistance movement in states like Kachin, Chin and Kayin.

As the repression continues, very few believe the assurances made by the State Administration Council (SAC) – the new junta led by the Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing – that they will hold elections after a year or two and restore the ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ that was designed by the previous ruling junta and launched a decade ago. The Tatmadaw’s experiment with democracy is effectively dead. If the military prevails, any return to a semblance of democracy is likely to give even more powers to the generals – who already enjoyed full autonomy from civilian oversight, 25 percent of seats in parliament and control over the three key security ministries under the 2008 Constitution. Moreover, no one in the civil disobedience movement is willing to accept a return to the status quo. The opposition of ethnic minorities to the country’s centralized model remains particularly unshakeable.

That status quo was a fragile pact between two Bamar-dominated elites – the military and the old pro-democracy camp led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) – which unraveled after the election in November last year and came to a definitive end with the putsch on 1 February. The causes of that unraveling are still unclear, but after ten years of military-guided democracy and five years of Suu Kyi’s government, it has become apparent that the differences between the two elites are not ideological. Both have fundamentally similar visions for Myanmar, from the question of national identity (most dramatically excluding the Rohingya) and national unity underpinned by a sense of Bamar supremacy, to a neoliberal model of ‘progress’ that ignores the poor masses and preserves the inequalities of the extractive economy, largely controlled by the generals and their cronies. Tensions between the NLD and the Tatmadaw, both of which claim ultimate legitimacy to rule the country, are about power – not about what to do with it.

Throughout the transition, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD strategy of engagement with the military had the effect of depoliticizing large swathes of Burmese society, especially the emerging middle classes: she convinced many of her supporters that unpredictable participatory politics could only hinder her attempts to assuage the generals. But the political opening created by the coup also prompted the emergence of new social movements that the NLD had mostly ignored: farmers organizing to fight against large-scale evictions and trade unions striking in the industrial areas for better working conditions. It is not by chance that the latter are at the forefront of the civil disobedience movement in cities like Yangon or Mandalay. Now, the conflict between elites that led to the events of 1 February has evolved into a war between the military and most of the population. There is much more at stake than releasing Suu Kyi and her party’s elected leaders.

It remains to be seen how long the anti-coup movement can endure the brutal repression of a well-armed Tatmadaw. As the possibility of a rebellion within the military becomes more distant by the day, given its strong espirit de corps, the only chance to tip the balance is the creation of a unified front of ethnic guerrillas. Such forces, combined with the ongoing protest movement in central Burma, would seriously overstretch the Tatmadaw. A government in hiding formed by NLD MPs elected in November – the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – is already engaged in negotiations with the ethnic armed organizations to form a ‘Federal Army’; but uniting them would require overcoming historic distrust that runs much deeper than the divisions created by the coup.  

The main source of conflict in Myanmar since independence from the British in 1948 has been a nation-building project imposed by the Bamar at the centre on reluctant ethnic minorities in the periphery. This is predicated on the return to a pre-colonial past in which the ‘national races’ lived in unity, according to a largely fictitious Bamar-centric official historiography. The colonial period was seen as a rupture in that harmony, which would be restored after independence. And a rupture it was, but in a very different sense. The British put the territory which they designated Burma under a single political authority for the first time in history; but what they united by doing this they also separated by establishing a distinction between direct rule in central Myanmar and indirect rule in the borderlands – classifying and dividing groups whose boundaries were previously fluid. The colonial period thus partitioned the country’s ethnic groups, who had very different experiences of that formative period. As such, when nationalism emerged at the beginning of the 20th Century, there was not a common struggle against the British that could coalesce into a multi-ethnic Myanmar nation.

After independence a democratic period gave some autonomy to the minorities, but the project of nation-building was mostly an affair of Bamar elites, suspicious of the minorities who they saw as collaborators with the colonial overlords. Even before the general Ne Win took power in 1962, inaugurating five decades of military rule, this state-building project was taken up by the Tatmadaw against the backdrop of a permanent state of war, as it fought off the Bamar-dominated Communist Party and several ethnic insurgencies. That project intended to expel the putative foreigners that arrived during colonial times: the Indian diaspora of laborers, businessmen and colonial civil servants in central Myanmar, and the Rohingya (whose precolonial roots in Rakhine were denied). Most of the Bamar population were either indifferent to those conflicts or tacitly adhered to the ethnicist conception of the nation, even as they resented military rule.

This project was unaltered when Ne Win was overthrown during an uprising against his regime in 1988, only to be replaced, after killing thousands of protesters, by a military junta that rejected his ‘Burmese way to Socialism’. In this emerging capitalist economy of the 1990s, the Tatmadaw signed a series of ceasefires with some armed groups without reaching a permanent political settlement with any of them. They also managed to co-opt the economic elites of some of the ethnic minorities to partake in the plundering of the rich natural resources in their areas. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces modernized and expanded, swallowing up a large percentage of the national budget while continuing their war against recalcitrant armed groups. One of the ‘three main causes’ expounded by the Tatmadaw over the period was the ‘non-disintegration of the Union’, but the reality is that Myanmar had never been integrated to begin with.

The democratic transition did little to change the situation, despite the signing by a dozen armed groups of a national ceasefire agreement (NCA), which still did not entail a political settlement, during the administration of the former general Thein Sein. Conflicts flared up again, including the war with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), reignited in 2011 after seventeen years of ceasefire. Following the NLD victory in 2015, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi showed little willingness to make political concessions to the ethnic minorities or criticize the military’s heavy-handed tactics.

Yet, despite their distrust towards the NLD, some ethnic armed organizations are already defying the military junta led by Min Aung Hlaing. In the east, the Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest armed group still active, is providing a safe haven for those fleeing the cities and has attacked the Armed Forces in recent weeks. The Tatmadaw has reacted by launching airstrikes on some positions and villages, killing several civilians and displacing thousands. In the north, the KIA is redoubling its attacks against the Tatmadaw. In neighboring Shan state, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) has ramped up its rhetoric against the junta, but has so far avoided a direct confrontation, while fighting another armed group, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The country’s most powerful ethnic armed group with up to 25,000 soldiers, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), has little incentive to enmesh itself in the conflict. At peace with the Tatmadaw since 1989, it gained control of its own territory along the Chinese border – an independent state in all but in name – after making huge profits from narcotics. Backed by China, the UWSA is unlikely to turn against the Armed Forces without its patron’s authorization.

More ambiguous is the position of the Arakan Army (AA), a Rakhine ethno-nationalist organization created as recently as 2009 which in the last two years has engaged the Tatmadaw in a bloody war. The AA signed an informal ceasefire two months before the coup and then kept silent for weeks. The junta has wooed the politicians of the most powerful party in Rakhine state, the Arakan National Party (ANP) giving them positions in its administration, and Rakhine is the only state where the civil disobedience movement has not taken hold, despite several civil society organizations expressing their disgust at the ANP’s collaborationism with the junta. The AA is likely exhausted after its two years of intense fighting against the Tatmadaw, and has issued statements condemning the coup, but so far it has not expressed a firm commitment to fight against it.

In order to attract the minorities to its side, the CRPH has formally rejected the military’s Constitution and released a charter for an alternative one, to be drafted with the ethnic armed groups and political parties. Its aim is to establish a ‘Federal Democracy Union’ that would grant the ethnic minorities a degree of autonomy never seen in the country since independence. In that sense, it is an almost revolutionary document coming from members of a party, the NLD, that showed little tolerance toward the minorities’ demands while it was in power.

But the charter has its limitations. It makes a distinction between ‘fundamental rights’ for citizens and ‘collective rights’ for the ‘national races’ (the original Burmese taingyinthar is rendered in English as the more neutral-sounding ‘ethnic nationalities’). This provision could potentially discriminate against the Rohingya and other groups not regarded as ‘national’, despite assurances from CRPH representatives that the Rohingya will not be left out in the new Burma. It is very unlikely that Rakhine nationalists, who share their State with the Rohingya and are as resentful of the latter’s presence as they are of Bamar domination, could ever accept the Rohingya as a ‘national race’; so the recognition of ‘collective rights’ for the Rohingya remains almost an impossibility. Ultimately, the plight of the Rohingya stems from the pervasive ‘national races’ worldview, and its only solution would be to do away with ethnicity as a political category; but that would be unacceptable for the other ethnic minorities. The charter does not offer a solution to that conundrum, and it is perhaps unfair to demand that that it should, given the pressing circumstances in which it has been drafted. But there is a real danger that, as alliances are formed, the Rohingya will be excluded once again from Myanmar’s body politic.

For now, as the majority of the population faces a long and protracted conflict with the Tatmadaw, the creation of any such Federal Democracy remains a distant possibility. With Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest, the coup and its subsequent repression have unleashed political forces largely dormant in the country’s heartlands during the last decade, as well as a new sense of solidarity among the minorities. The only hope of defeating the junta led by Min Aung Hlaing lies in the borderlands. The ethnic minorities do not share a common history of anti-colonial struggle, but now they face a common fight against the Tatmadaw which could create an altered image of Myanmar nationhood. Throughout Myanmar’s history as an independent country, the project of building a nation-state from the centre to the peripheries has failed. Perhaps the time has come for a leap into the unknown: the attempt to build a different Myanmar from the peripheries to the centre.

Read on: Mary Callahan, ‘Myanmar’s Perpetual Junta’, NLR 60.


Untangle Yourself

Aged sixteen, I read Gwendoline Riley’s Cold Water for the first time, inhaling it over the course of two days, and then read Sick Notes and then Cold Water again. Her first two novels detailed a world I knew well as a teenager: afternoons in Manchester’s Central Library; nights at the Star and Garter; short-lived flings. They felt important to me in a way that few others did at the time. Perhaps for this reason I’ve felt uneasy about writing on her work. At what point does familiarity shade into overfamiliarity; overfamiliarity into a critical handicap?

For example: up until re-reading Riley’s novels in quick succession for this essay, I believed them to be lyrical but basically realistic depictions of everyday life. Somehow, I’d never noticed just how narrow her focus is. None of the following (commonplaces?) appears in her novels:

  • Groups of friends
  • Sexual pleasure being experienced by a woman
  • Full meals being enjoyed by a protagonist or her friends (food exists in Riley’s work but only as an optional extra. Characters consider buying chocolate bars and then don’t; gaze into empty fridges; talk about the sum total of what they ate on the previous day: ‘half a cabbage, shredded’. Full meals are coded as either suburban – and so associated with the protagonist’s mother and tense restaurant scenes – or bestial, and so associated with characters the protagonist finds repugnant, such as the father in First Love (2017), who dies from overeating)
  • Queer women
  • White-collar work
  • Close relationships with siblings
  • Happiness for no particular reason, just because
  • Sport
  • Pets
  • Non-terrible holidays (i.e. for relaxation, not for escape/to pursue someone who is bad for you)

I could go on. Until her latest novel, My Phantoms, Riley has zeroed in on the same handful of themes: unhappy love affairs; life when books and films feel more real and more vital than the people and places around you; British cities (largely Manchester in the early novels); and the protagonist’s difficult relationship with her parents.

Riley grew up on the Wirral but published her debut, Cold Water (2002), while studying in Manchester in her early twenties. You get the sense in interviews that she doesn’t think much of her early work, but that short and sharp first novel set a blueprint for the next four. Cold Water, Sick Notes (2004), Joshua Spassky (2007), Opposed Positions (2012), First Love (2017) – each is told in the first-person by a female narrator who seems set to a different frequency than the world around her. She’s usually over-sensitive, preoccupied with questions of authenticity, bleakly funny.

Minor biographical details and supporting characters vary, but the novels all riff on what are effectively the same three characters (or four, if you read the American man in Sick Notes, Joshua Spassky and Opposed Positions as the same character, which I do). There’s the protagonist and there’s always the protagonist’s mother – an extroverted woman who was physically and emotionally abused by her first husband, the protagonist’s father. Then there’s the protagonist’s father, who is a dim-witted bully.

My Phantoms marks a radical break inasmuch as it strips this already minimal focus back even further: her usual handful of topics is slashed to just one. Placed under the microscope is the protagonist’s mother, Hen, ‘a person without bearings’. As per her daughter Bridget’s perspective, Hen is petulant, self-absorbed, incapable of an original thought, much less an original sentence, desperately insecure and allergic to the idea of therapy. Riley – always at her sharpest when writing about contempt – reaches blistering heights. ‘My mother loved rules’, she writes. ‘She loved rules and codes and fixed expectations. I want to say – as a dog loves an airborne stick’.

Unlike in previous novels, we are only granted access to the protagonist insofar as Bridget relates to her mother (for instance, we’re never explicitly told what Bridget’s job is – it is hinted that she’s probably a university lecturer). It struck me that this might be a clever reversal of the cliché that it’s disorientating for children to imagine their parents living before they themselves existed. As such, we only get the narrator-as-daughter, rather than a fleshed-out character. It gives the novel the sort of tidy claustrophobia typical of rooms devised by Bond villains, walls sliding in on each other.

It isn’t meant as a swipe when I say the outlook in these works is essentially teenage. It’s not that Riley’s work is emotionally stunted, only that her protagonists seem to operate much as Salinger’s do, within a strict self-imposed moral framework (if weaving in Salinger here seems like a stretch – as per a 2004 interview with Riley: ‘I love Salinger most of all’, ‘Buddy Glass…gives me a whole other kind of feeling, some kind of sense in my soul’). Of course, self-adopted rules – as opposed to the social ones followed by Bridget’s mother – are not in and of themselves teenage. But they often stem from that specific moment in life when you venture out into the world for the first time, encountering the inauthenticity and ugliness which governs much of adult life. Devising and imposing rules becomes a way to reassure yourself: I won’t be like that; I won’t become a phony; I won’t lose my dignity.

These self-imposed rules crop up a lot in Riley’s novels: ‘Lose your temper and lose the fight. That’s a life rule, but it’s hard to keep to’ (Cold Water). ‘I just can’t endure conversations which aren’t conversations. I won’t have any part of that’ (Sick Leave). On learning of the protagonist’s habit of not getting into relationships, her lover has the measure of her: ‘So, what, is that a policy decision?’ (Joshua Spassky). ‘Untangle yourself. Stop saying you love him. You’re wearing a groove in your mind. Say it when you mean it. Save money’ (First Love).

Arguably, the first rule of the Riley canon is this one: ‘leave the things that make you lonely. At all costs, leave’ (Sick Leave). Her novels are clear on how a self-respecting person should conduct themselves – this is a lesson imparted through Riley’s protagonists, who have a difficult decision to reach. They can make ugly moral compromises: have passive sex with men they don’t feel much for or escape to America or pursue someone who doesn’t treat them well. Or they can stay true to themselves and make peace with their loneliness, refuse to lower their standards, because what’s the point? As Natalie puts it in Joshua Spassky’s most third-whiskey-at-4am sentence: ‘When you hold another person, I think you’re only ever holding onto your own fathomless situation.’ 

This, I remember vividly from my own teenage years: some persistent hunch that connection was rare, that self-reliance was the main thing. Where did this stem from? Certainly not from inner grit – nobody would consider me ruggedly independent, nor was it contextual (I had and have a close-knit family; an instinct for intense friendships). All the same, the memories that linger from those years are of facing down strange and unsettling scenes on my own: after one ugly incident, buying a bus ticket so I could cry on the top deck – if I had cried in my bedroom, the friends I was living with would have wanted to know what was wrong. So maybe this was why Riley’s novels appealed so much. They deliver a very particular kind of happy ending: her protagonists typically end the novel alone, having achieved some sort of self-sufficiency.

But while the first rule leads to Riley’s version of a happy ending, it creates an issue for her mothers and daughters. They share one key characteristic: they’re lonelier than anyone else in these novels, all the way down to the marrow. The tension between them stems from their markedly different reactions to this loneliness. As per her rule, The Daughter curls in on herself, lives through novels and films and writing, tries to find a hard centre of self-reliance. In contrast, The Mother grows sadder and more desperate, looks for distraction in the form of second husbands, cocktails, new homes, holidays. Riley’s first rule has always meant The Daughter responds to The Mother’s coping strategies with a degree of contempt. In My Phantoms, it has blossomed into full-blown repugnance.

This is a shame. For me, the strongest parts of Riley’s canon on The Mother are the passages that function like that optical illusion which in one moment looks like a vase and the next you realize is two faces. The best passages are those where you think: The Mother is a monster! And, simultaneously: The Daughter is a monster! I love the part in Cold Water where Carmel tries to help her hoarder-mother by cleaning out the fridge, and her mother, who presumably has a better sense of the family’s finances, grows desperate and starts rummaging through the bin bag trying to salvage anything still edible, an image so offensive to Carmel that she pours the bin bag’s contents over her mother’s bed in a rage. Is the best moment of Opposed Positions the mother’s attempt to be ‘practical’ when child-Aislinn reports that she doesn’t have any friends, feels lonely, and suspects she doesn’t exist? When she tries to draw up a list of pragmatic solutions to these existential feelings on the cardboard from a packet of KitKats? Probably, though I also enjoy the exchange when Aislinn refuses to look at photos of the mother’s city breaks with her second husband: ‘“You’re so rude,” she’d say. “Why are you so bloody rude?” Once I came out and said it: “Because you terrify me and I can’t stand it”. “Well then”, she said, “then you must pretend to be interested, like a normal, civilised grown-up.”’

There are moments in My Phantoms when Bridget’s own moral failings in the relationship are implicated. But largely, the novel seems to flatten this complexity. Bridget is a Riley protagonist in outlook, if in not much else. All of the romantic struggles of before? Gone: Bridget has been with the same man for years. Money problems? None to speak of. Moments of desperate neuroticism or loneliness? Quite the opposite, she is quietly satisfied with her lot. Bridget, with her steady outer and inner life, seems largely above criticism.

In contrast, Riley has turned the dial up in creating Hen. Hen is The Mother, but in the worst condition we’ve seen her yet. She is now 68 years old, alone and simultaneously incapable of being alone; living in a ‘student block in a student area’ in Manchester, having been exiled from Liverpool by her brutish second ex-husband. She has a full social calendar and no real friends. She has health issues. She’s The Mother at her most fragile and most infuriating.

The novel also boasts a character who seems to have been invented purely to confirm to the reader – as if intent on winning an argument – that Hen’s awfulness isn’t Bridget’s delusion. On learning that a Riley protagonist is happily coupled up, the reader is agog: what is Riley’s idea of a pleasant man? The Riley canon has boasted approximately as many over the years as it has unicorns. So imagine the disappointment when you realize that John is basically a cipher. The only time you get to hear him speak at any length, it’s about Hen, and his voice is practically indistinguishable from Bridget’s. Conveniently, he’s a therapist, which means his thoughts (‘She’s clearly frightened of engaging. That’s a sad thing. A sad and defensive thing.’) are not just an opinion, but something approximating a diagnosis.

In the earlier novels, there’s a sense that the protagonist is deeply preoccupied with her mother, despite the mother’s failings. In Cold Water, Carmel’s brother suggests that their mum probably didn’t confide in her about re-initiating contact with an old ex-boyfriend ‘because you’d get all obsessed and weird over it’. There’s a sad passage in First Love about Neve trying to get close to her mother as a child, trying to kiss her mum’s bare feet, who reacts with horror (‘“That’s like what a…boyfriend would do,” she said. “Not your daughter. No.”’). That there’s none of this in My Phantoms doesn’t ring entirely true: why lavish so much attention on someone you despise so completely?

Maybe I’m being unfair. The position the novel espouses is an interesting, if chilling one: real connection is challenging, if not basically impossible with certain people. Conversation is 90% showboating, we talk at cross purposes, we make microscopic digs at each other. My Phantoms is a real book, as per that hoary Kafka definition (‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us’). I don’t care how healthy your connection with your mother is or was – it’s impossible to read My Phantoms and not feel something.

All the same. My Phantoms, which is largely composed of vignettes showing Hen at her worst, made me think of a trope from Riley’s earlier novels.

Cold Water: ‘Dad always seemed to photograph Mum when she was off guard; when she’d woken up, when she’d come in from shopping. He thought it was funny. He was trying to get one over on her. That’s why they’re ugly pictures.’

Opposed Positions: ‘He liked to take photographs, too. I know that was a craze for a while. Whenever she was harried or un-made-up would do: when she was cooking, or when she was ill. When she was on the toilet was a favourite (he unscrewed the lock from the bathroom door the day they moved in).’

It’s a brilliant novel, but it’s horrible, too – the book-length equivalent of photographing The Mother on the toilet (a scene Riley already wrote in First Love). Riley has always been especially skilled at psychological minutiae: at teasing out a character’s pretensions, self-delusions, desperations. To train that attention exclusively on The Mother at her lowest points makes for an uncomfortable reading experience. Presumably this discomfort was the primary mission of the novel? If so: Mission Accomplished. My Phantoms is impressive as a refusal to sentimentalize a relationship that’s commonly sugar-coated.

When I finished it, I felt out of sorts. I was either going to call my mother that night and the following night and every night that week, or I was going to never call her again. Our mothers are terrible, but I suspect we’re terrible too.

Read on: Emma Fajgenbaum, ‘Memoirs of an Undutiful Daughter’, NLR 120.


Burnt Terracotta

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a London-born portrait painter whose work would have been showing at the Tate Britain until late May were it not for the second lockdown. The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Yiadom-Boakye studied at Falmouth College of Art and the Royal Academy, gaining her postgraduate degree in 2003, before being offered a major solo exhibition by the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor. After a number of successful follow-up shows and a job offer from the Ruskin School of Art (where she continues to teach on the Master’s programme), she became the first black woman to win the Carnegie Prize in 2018. Her portraits typically depict fictional black figures in settings whose geographical and historical locations are unclear. This ambiguity, combined with the racial profile of her characters, has informed much of the discussion of her work.

A remarkable feature of Yiadom-Boakye’s oeuvre is the range of dispositions and moods that she portrays. Ranging from conviviality, intensity bordering on aggression, contemplative ease and performative eroticism, her figures seem to inhabit a socio-cultural universe that is complex and mysterious. In this world, men and women sit with wild animals at their feet and in their arms (foxes and birds most commonly), and appear entirely absorbed in activities which the viewer can never fully grasp. Her figures live in a space of pure sensuality which is difficult to nail down, as if their raw expressivity outruns the physical forms which seek to contain it.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, ‘Brothers to a Garden’ (2017), Courtesy the Artist, Corvi-Mora, London, and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Photographic reproductions of Yiadom-Boakye’s work do not do justice to its painterly quality. Her backgrounds, rich with depth and colour, are as much a subject as the figures that appear within them, though this is hard to gauge without the physical presence of the canvas. Yiadom-Boakye often uses the dark blues and browns of her backgrounds to camouflage her subjects – a technique that, according to the artist, involves ‘a continuous preoccupation to achieve the right balance between the skin of the figure and the surroundings.’ For the viewer, the effect of this balancing act in which ‘all marks are there to support the figure’ is that of being pulled towards the image by a subject who constantly withdraws. This is carried through dramatically in ‘Fourth Magic’ (2008), where the body of a seated central figure is suggested by the contours of black clothes, out of which his hands and head emerge. The depth of colour in the background resembles something from Rothko’s Seagram paintings. But whereas the American artist filled his spaces with seemingly pulsating rectangular shapes, Yiadom-Boakye occupies hers with a subject who seems to bleed into his surroundings. A flash of light illuminates the figure from above, revealing a handsome dark-skinned man who looks over his shoulder at the viewer, in a gesture that evokes Manet’s ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’.

The influence of Manet appears again in ‘Bound Over To Keep The Faith’ (2012), where one of Yiadom-Boakye’s recurring characters mimics the famous nude’s pose. Here, as in ‘Fourth Magic’, Yiadom-Boakye implicates the viewer in the image. Diderot famously thought there was something vulgar about this kind of performative self-awareness, writing of ‘Susanna and the Elders’ that

The canvas encloses all the space, and there is no one beyond it. When Susanna exposes her naked body to my eyes, protecting herself against the elders’ gaze with all the veils that enveloped her, Susanna is chaste and so is the painter. Neither the one nor the other knew I was there.

For Diderot, preserving the purity of the image was only possible if one fought against the temptation of self-referentiality. Yiadom-Boakye, by contrast, is more equivocal about the role of the beholder.

Her subjects are entirely imaginary, giving them an idealized quality which is lacking in figures studied from life. Certain characters reappear throughout her work, maintaining the same clothes whilst shifting pose, or the same pose whilst changing clothes. This fictiveness allows her to riff on a central conceit of literature: the construction of a world that exists only for the reader. At times, Yiadom-Boakye manipulates this conceit to challenge or confront the viewer – using the intimacy between the subject and spectator to open up a critical dialogue.

In her 2007 painting ‘Nous Étions’ (literally ‘We Were’) she depicts the head and shoulders of a black man with a fierce and steely look in his eyes. Compositionally and stylistically, there are parallels between this image and portraits by Rembrandt – particularly a work like ‘Two Negroes’, whose palette employs a similar burnt terracotta hue. The combination of the title and the citational nature of the painting suggests the inextricability of black subjects from the history of art. The phrase ‘Nous Étions’ could be completed in various ways: either as ‘We Were Here’ – staking out a place for British-Ghanaian artists such as Yiadom-Boakye in the discipline – or, more emphatically, as a retort to the viewer who seeks to erase black subjects from art history: ‘We Were!’ Many commentators have probed the political content of this exchange, with one critic in the New York Times suggesting that Yiadom-Baokye’s work is a twist on 19th century French impressionism that appropriates its aesthetic techniques while eschewing its tendency to ‘centre whiteness’, thereby unsettling the viewer’s expectations.  

Yet this is only ‘political’ in the sense that all novelty is political: it requires some kind of cultural adjustment, some process of getting-used-to. The problem is, if the bar is low enough then novelty is easily won. Understanding Yiadom-Boakye’s work as an exercise in novelty reduces its value to merely changing Manet’s colour palette. Fortunately, her paintings contain more complexity and thoughtfulness than such readings would suggest. While some of them invite this narrow interpretation – engaging in an ironic cat and mouse game with the viewer – others reject that framework altogether. In ‘Brothers to a Garden’ (2017) and the diptych ‘Lie to Me’ (2018), the figures do not seem at all concerned with returning our gaze. What we see instead are characters absorbed in a form of life whose content is never fully disclosed to us. In such works, Yiadom-Boakye turns away from a critical commentary on racial politics and instead embraces a strange form of naturalism, depicting a world which is similar enough to our own to be recognizable, but too distant to be identified with.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, ‘Lie to Me’ (2019), Courtesy the Sharjah Art Foundation.

Yiadom-Boakye has said of her imagined figures that ‘although they are not real, I think of them as people known to me. They are imbued with a power of their own… I admire them for their strength, their moral fibre.’ It would not be an interpretive leap to suggest that the attempt to conjure up such moral exemplars informs Yiadom-Boakye’s whole artistic outlook. Describing the contrast between her earlier and later work, the painter has stated that she went from ‘the sense of trying to illustrate an idea, to allowing the paint to bring something to life, or thinking about painting as a language in itself – that was the major shift.’ To ‘illustrate an idea’ is to inhabit a socio-cultural landscape in which the representation of a black person in a work of art is itself a form of statement-making. This is a boring game to spend one’s career playing, and in her more contemplative and less self-reflective paintings we can see Yiadom-Boakye’s attempt to avoid the straightjacket of an art which exists purely to ‘subvert’.

So averse is Yiadom-Boakye to the political categorization of her later work that she avoids most sociological and cultural markers. She even goes so far as to shun the mixing of male and female characters, remarking that ‘the conventional male/female dynamic is…a narrative that doesn’t interest me.’ Instead, Yiadom-Boakye seems to locate the moral exemplarity of her subjects in their independence. Sexuality is largely absent from her paintings, although sensuality abounds. In ‘A Fever of Lilies’ (2016), where a male and female figure look inquisitively at one another, the characters are separated by different canvases. A gaze that would have been an outward one, returning that of the beholder, becomes a reciprocal interaction between two characters existing in a space and time inaccessible to the viewer. This is a vision of genuine reciprocity. It is, as Andrea Schlieker remarks in the wonderful collection of essays and paintings celebrating Yiadom-Boakye’s latest retrospective, an image of each character ‘safeguarding the other in their autonomy.’

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, ‘A Fever of Lilies’ (2016), Private Collection, © Courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Yiadom-Baokye’s art thus gives the impression of trying to hold together two conflicting tendencies. On the one hand she seems to want – especially in her more recent work – to move away from the idea of an image as a statement, political or otherwise. On the other, this movement is motivated by a moral idea of what it would mean to live a genuinely independent and expressive life. To find this life she turns to a fictitious world, depicting figures who inhabit obscure and enigmatic roles. In a recent interview, Yiadom-Boakye remarked on the absence of concrete time and space in her work, observing that ‘sometimes when things suggest a particular time it becomes concerned with that, I don’t feel concerned with that. I don’t want to be concerned with that.’ Yiadom-Boakye’s concern is not directed towards the world, but towards the activity of her characters – who show what it would look like to live without the baggage of history. In this sense we could say that the true political content of her work involves an attempt to escape from a kind of hollow politicization. What is so enchanting about her paintings is that they present an image of freedom that feels both real and elusive, tangible and affecting yet impossible to fully grasp. It is as if she is trying to flee, entirely, from attempts at categorization. If this retreat is not possible in life then, at least, Yiadom-Boakye’s images show how it could be in art.

Read on: Zöe Sutherland, ‘Artwork as Critique’, NLR 113.


American Interregnum

What trends do you see emerging from the social, health and economic crises produced by Covid-19? What do the post-pandemic reconstructions tell us about the ‘crisis of care’?

Both the pandemic and the response to it represent the irrationality and destructiveness of capitalism. The crisis of care was already evident before the outbreak of Covid, but was greatly exacerbated by it. The pre-existing condition, so to speak, was financialized capitalism – the especially predatory form that has held sway for the last forty years, progressively eroding our public-care infrastructure by disinvestment in the name of ‘austerity’. But in fact, every form of capitalist society works by allowing business to free-ride on unpaid carework. By subordinating people-making to profit-making, it harbours a built-in tendency to social-reproductive crisis.

But the same holds for the current ecological crisis, which reflects a deep-structural dynamic that primes capital to free-ride on nature, without thought for repair or replenishment, periodically destabilizing ecosystems and the communities they sustain. The same holds for our current political crisis, which reflects the severe weakening of public powers by mega corporations, financial institutions, tax revolts on the part of the rich, resulting in gridlock and under-investment in crucial infrastructure. Although this has been made especially acute by neoliberalization, it expresses a tendency to political crisis that is hard-wired into every form of capitalist society. The crisis of care is inextricably intertwined with other dysfunctions – ecological, political, racial-ethnic – which add up to a general crisis of the social order.

Covid’s effects on humans would be horrific under any conditions. But they have been worsened by the fact capital in this period has cannibalized public power – the collective capacities that could otherwise have been used to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. As a result, the response has been hampered in many countries, including the US, by decades of disinvestment from crucial public-health infrastructure. There is a tendency in the US to blame Trump. But that’s a mistake. The disinvestment has been going on for decades.

The Clinton administration in the nineties took the first steps toward this.

Yes, a whole series of US administrations, Democratic as well as Republican, disinvested from essential public-health infrastructure. They drew down stockpiles of essential equipment like PPE, ventilators, masks, depleted vitally important capacities – contract tracing, vaccine storage and distribution – and underfunded critical institutions like research centers, public hospitals, ICU units, government health agencies. Scientists were warning that another viral epidemic was likely, but no one listened. So, when Covid arrived, the US was utterly unprepared. We had virtually no contact tracing – and we still don’t, after more than a year. The public-health authorities simply lacked the ability to organize it and have still not managed to build that capacity up.

The collapse of already weak systems of public care threw all the burdens back onto families and communities – and especially onto women, who still do the lion’s share of unpaid carework. Under lockdown, child care and schooling were suddenly shifted into people’s homes, leaving women to take on that burden on top of other responsibilities – and to do so in small domestic spaces, not able to bear the load. Many employed women ended up quitting their jobs to care for kids and other relatives; many others were laid off. A third group, lucky enough to keep their jobs and work remotely from home, while also performing carework, including for housebound kids, have had to take multi-tasking to new heights of craziness. A fourth group, ‘essential workers’, face the threat of infection daily on the frontlines, fearful of bringing the virus home to their families, while doing what needs to be done, often for very low pay, so that others, more privileged, can access the goods and services they need in order to isolate at home. Which women find themselves in which group has everything to do with class and color. It is as if someone had injected a dye into capitalism’s circulatory system, lighting up all its constitutive fault lines.

In the United States, the outbreak of Covid was followed by an impressive wave of protests, mostly led by young black people, against racist police violence. Did the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ take on a different meaning during the pandemic?

It’s an important question. Why did the resurgence of militant anti-racist activity in the US coincide with the Covid pandemic? Police murders of people of color have been going on for a very long time, as have struggles against them. So why did the protests become so large and sustained at just that moment, in the midst of a horrific health crisis? Some have suggested that the months of lockdown created intense psychological pressure, which found a much-needed outlet on the streets. But I think there are deeper reasons, forged in the crisis, which provoked some major flashes of political insight. The realization that these two apparently distinct expressions of structural racism – disparate vulnerability to death from the virus, and disparate vulnerability to death from police violence – were actually linked, that both were rooted in the same social system.

By the time the protests erupted in May 2020, it was already clear that Americans of color, and Blacks in particular, were disproportionately contracting and dying from Covid. They got worse health care and had a higher rate of underlying conditions, linked to poverty and discrimination, and associated with bad Covid outcomes – asthma, obesity, stress, high blood pressure. They faced greater risks of exposure, thanks to frontline jobs that could not be performed remotely, and to crowded housing conditions. All of this had been widely reported in the media. And it resonated, lending new meaning to ‘Black Lives Matter’.

The slogan had been circulating since 2014, when Michael Brown’s murder by police in Ferguson MO sparked the Movement for Black Lives. Since then there’s been a great deal of organizing, including consciousness-raising and reading groups, forming a new generation of militant anti-racist activists, especially young activists of color. That was the context, the atmosphere, in which reports of the racialized impact of Covid were received and processed. On top of that came George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police, captured for all the world to see in that enraging and heartbreaking video. And so the fuse was lit. In other words, the timing was not coincidental.

The convergence of pandemic and anti-police violence protest expressed the expansion, the deepening, of ‘Black Lives Matter’. A first level of meaning was that, if Black lives really mattered to the US criminal ‘justice’ system, then the multiple forms of racialized violence within it would not exist. When the pandemic hit, it also came to mean: Black lives should not be disproportionately lost and shortened by this lethal mix of exposure to infection and pre-existing health problems – pointing to underlying structural conditions as well.

The electoral impact of BLM was hugely positive, most obviously in the state of Georgia, which turned from deep red to blue, giving its electoral votes to Biden and flipping two Senate seats, giving one to an African-American and the other to a Jew (which is big news in the Deep South) and thereby handing the Dems control of the Senate. The dynamics at work here included white suburban revulsion against Trump as well as massive Black turnout, the latter no doubt galvanized by Black Lives Matter but also prepared by years of ‘get out to vote’ organizing in that state – the sustained hard work of activists on the ground, like Stacey Abrams.

Trump’s defeat in the election was hailed as a victory, but it does not seem that the same enthusiasm was aroused by Biden’s win. How do you read the result of the American elections? Has a ‘progressive neoliberalism’ decisively won out against the reactionary populism of the Trump bloc and the progressive populism of Sanders?

We remain, to use Gramsci’s terms, in an interregnum, where the old is dying but the new cannot be born. In that situation, you tend to get a series of political oscillations, back-and-forth swings between alternatives that are exhausted and cannot succeed. At present, however, we haven’t yet swung back from Trumpism to the full-scale ‘progressive neoliberalism’ embodied by the Clinton and Obama administrations. That could still happen, of course, but as of now the pendulum motion is being checked by the emboldened left wing of the Democratic Party. Trump’s defeat was secured by an alliance between the Party’s establishment neoliberal center, the Clinton-Obama wing, and its left-populist opposition – the Sanders-Warren-AOC wing. Granted, the centrists had engineered Sanders’s brutal ejection from the primary process, despite – or because of – his strong showing, in order to clear the way for the then-stumbling Biden to become the Party’s nominee. But unlike in 2016, the two wings coalesced for the general election. The Sanders faction gave fairly full-throated support for Biden against Trump and in return gained increased voice in policy.

The upshot is that progressive populists and progressive neoliberals are now in a coalition. The populists are the weaker party in this alliance and are not represented in Biden’s cabinet. But their influence has nonetheless grown. Sanders now heads the powerful Senate Budget Committee and is frequently interviewed on national TV, which is new – he was never previously treated as a key spokesperson or commentator. Then, too ‘The Squad’, AOC’s caucus in Congress, has doubled its numbers, winning some important House races in the 2020 election.

And on domestic policy, the centrists have moved to the left. The Dems in both Houses voted unanimously for Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, which contains several items on the progressive-populist wish-list. That package clearly reflects the strength and influence of the Sanders wing. Yet it had the support of Biden’s economic advisers who, while certainly not ‘on the left,’ represent at least a partial break from the Goldman-Sachs alums who ran the Treasury Dept for decades and brought us financialization. Led by Janet Yellen, the new team’s orientation is neo- or quasi-Keynesian; although still committed to ‘free trade,’ they have at least temporarily renounced austerity logic and prioritized full employment over low inflation.

The current state of the Biden administration represents a compromise formation. Its politics of (re)distribution melds some reactivated elements of New Deal thinking with the free trade side of neoliberal political economy, while its politics of recognition includes both meritocratic and egalitarian elements. There are a lot of built-in tensions here, and these are bound to erupt sooner or later. It remains to be seen when and in what form – also, whether they can be resolved and on what terms. In general, the left/liberal alliance is shaky and won’t last forever. But what exactly will replace it remains unclear.

A key variable is the extent to which Biden’s policies will satisfy a population reeling not only from the pandemic’s health and economic fallout, but also from the ‘pre-existing conditions’. Forty years of deindustrialization and off-shoring, financialization, union-busting, McJobification, infrastructural decay – as well as police violence, environmental devastation, the shredding of the social safety net: everything that has worked to worsen the living conditions for the poor, the working class, the lower- and middle-middle-classes.

These are the process that sparked the mass defection from ‘progressive neoliberalism’, in the two-sided populist revolt of 2016 – Trump, on the one hand, Sanders on the other. And both of those movements will continue in one form or another, as long as those processes continue. So, the future of the Biden compromise depends on its ability to make sufficient pro-working-class concessions to keep the left populists on board and to blunt the force of the right populists. Plus, it must also keep the investor class happy. Not an easy job.

The election of Kamala Harris has provoked mixed reactions on the left, between those who emphasize having a black woman as Vice President and those who criticize her past positions on the death penalty and her cover up of abuses of authority as Attorney General of California. What is your analysis?

I’ve never been a big fan of what Anne Phillips once called the ‘politics of presence’, the idea that electing someone who looks like you – for example, a woman or a person of color – is in and of itself a great achievement. Nobody with a feminist bone in her body supported Thatcher. We in the US are clearer about this now, I think, after having elected an African American to the Presidency in 2008. Many people cast that vote with tremendous hopes for a major change, which the candidate deliberately cultivated through soaring campaign rhetoric. And the result was deep disappointment. Once in power, Obama quickly dropped the inspiring talk and governed as a progressive neoliberal. After that experience, no one who thinks at all deeply about politics will feel much excitement about Harris’s ascension to the Vice Presidency. We have an old saying: ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me’.

In any case, Harris – unlike Obama – is neither a political unknown nor a soaring orator. She has a long political track record as a ‘tough on crime’ prosecutor and administrator – and as an ambitious political operator. You’d have to be willfully blind to think of her as a beacon of ‘hope and change’. On the other hand, she is very bright and flexible, good at reading the tea leaves and adjusting her course accordingly. She could conceivably move a little to the left if that course served her ambitions, which include the Presidency for which she is now being groomed as Biden’s number two and presumed successor. But insofar as she is someone who goes with the flow, it’s more important to analyze the flow.

When the Biden compromise collapses, as it must, the liberals will probably attack the left and try to resurrect progressive neoliberalism in some new guise, just as the MAGA forces will try to resurrect their reactionary-populist alternative. At that point, the left will face a crossroads. In one scenario, it would double-down on the forms of shallow identity politics that drive cancel culture and diversity fetishism. In another, it would make a serious effort to build a third alternative, by articulating an inclusive politics of recognition with an egalitarian politics of redistribution. The idea would be to split off the pro-working-class elements of each of the other two blocs and unite them in a new, anti-capitalist coalition, committed to fighting for the whole working class – not only the people of color, immigrants and women who supported Sanders, but also wooing – on the basis of their economic interests – those who defected to Trump. Such a coalition could be understood as a leftwing version of populism. But I see it less as an endpoint than as a transitional stage, en route to something more radical – a deep-structural transformation of our whole social system. That would require not just a politics of left populism, but something more like democratic eco-socialism.

Questions by Alessandra Spano.

Read on: Nancy Fraser, ‘Climates of Capital’, NLR 127.