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Breathless India

In just the past month, India has officially recorded around 10 million Covid-positive cases and 100,000 Covid-related deaths. As the second wave of the pandemic spirals out of control, India’s healthcare system is facing a chronic shortage of oxygen, hospital beds, vaccines, and critical medicines. Last month, 62 patients died when three of New Delhi’s biggest private hospitals ran out of oxygen. Similar tragedies are unfolding across the country: in Mumbai, Amritsar, Gurgaon, Kurnool, Nasik, Moradabad, Jammu, and Goa. Here and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of patients have found themselves stranded outside hospital buildings, gasping for one final breath or surviving on one rapidly depleting oxygen cylinder.

Last month, the crematoriums in New Delhi ran out of wood. Since then, they have also run out of funeral platforms and ash urns, and have recorded 20-hour long queues. Funeral pyres are now being lit in the parks and parking lots of the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, there is still no news of how the pandemic is affecting the vast swathes of rural India. A recent exposé by the journalists of Dainik Bhaskar, a popular Hindi daily, uncovered more than 2,000 dead bodies secretly buried along the banks of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh. These half-buried, half-burnt bodies, some of them eaten away by kites and stray dogs, are a glimpse of the disaster currently unfolding across the Indian countryside. A new report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that the actual number of Covid-related deaths in India is around 650,000, thrice the official number. It projects that by September India’s death toll is likely to surpass 1 million.

As the spectre of mass death looms, a dramatic political transformation is underway. A host of corporations have stepped in to play the role traditionally reserved for the Indian state. In the last month, Amazon, Paytm, and the Adani group, owned by India’s second-richest man, Gautam Adani, have airlifted and shipped in thousands of oxygen cylinders, BiPAP machines, ventilator units, cryogenic tanks, and portable oxygen concentrators and generators. In turn, the key industrial giants, including Reliance Industries, Tata Steel Ltd, ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel, and JSW Steel, have started producing and supplying medical-grade oxygen to various state governments and hospitals. Some of them, including Reliance, owned by Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India and second richest in Asia, have also started setting up new healthcare facilities. 

The relief efforts of the government, by contrast, have been trifling at best, limited largely to coordinating the logistics of supply chains between different state governments. Even here, rather than fulfilling its responsibility, the BJP has blamed the individual states where it is not in power for the medical shortages they are facing. Its control of oxygen production has been even worse. A recent report revealed that it was only in October – by which time millions were already infected and thousands dead – that the tenders for building 150 oxygen generator plants were floated. Six months later, amidst the deathly clamour of mass breathlessness, the plants remain nowhere to be seen.

With the government now facing growing criticism, it is crucial to grasp that its failure is not simply a case of botched governance, the kind that stems from ‘poor planning’ and ‘bad policymaking’. The government has not so much failed as altogether refused to intervene in the current crisis. And this refusal is not a one-off. It is systemic in nature, part of a drastic neoliberal transformation where every such refusal is accompanied by a deepening dependence on corporations to fulfil the responsibilities of the state.

Consider, for instance, the annual budget presented by the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman earlier this year. Given its pandemic-setting, it was widely hyped by political commentators; Sitharaman herself claimed that ‘the budget will be remembered for 100 years to come’. And yet, what ensued was merely the tragic repetition of a yearly farce: the privatization of yet more state-owned assets; continued cutbacks to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (by 34.5 percent) and the Ministry of Women and Child Development (by 18.5 percent); the reduction of the Corporation Tax/GDP ratio to such a low level (2.5 percent) that Indian citizens will pay more taxes than corporations; and so on.

This systematic withdrawal of the Indian state, particularly from the lives of the poor, is the reason why the Covid-relief efforts have been dependent upon corporate giants. As of 2018, the country had one doctor per 1,453 people and one hospital bed per 2,000, while over 70 percent of its hospitals were controlled by the private sector. And even though Sitharaman claimed a record 137 percent increase in the funds allocated to healthcare in the budget, this increase already included the ongoing Covid-relief efforts, and the actual expenditure amounted to only 0.34 percent of annual GDP. No amount of philanthropy can make up for this ruined infrastructure; in fact, insofar as this aid circulates within the bounds of a deeply iniquitous system, it will only serve to reproduce it.

Commentators have repeatedly underscored the immense scale and speed at which this crisis is evolving. Indeed, its all-pervading character is in stark contrast to other decidedly ‘local’ crises in the country, that have afflicted only specific sectors and groups: the privatization of farming and education; the anti-Muslim citizenship amendments; the settler-colonial violence against Kashmiris; the routine lynching of Dalits; the revocation of existing labour protections; the military-led dispossession of the tribes and Maoists in Central India. As this list of the ‘enemies of the Indian state’ continues to swell, the anti-fascist chestnut – in the morning they came for us, at night they will come for you – has become increasingly popular in the Indian public sphere. The warning is generally directed at the Hindu middle class, which overwhelmingly backs the government, and has enjoyed relative political stability in recent years. As the second wave builds, it seems the wolf of history has finally caught up with them. But it is not that someone­­ has come for them. Rather it is that no one has come to save them. No ambulances, no healthcare workers. Only the invisible hand of capitalist markets, which has shrunk the middle class by 32 million within a few months and is now swiftly choking them to death.

As thousands lie stricken outside hospitals, a black market has sprung up around them: oxygen cylinders and critical medicines are being sold for exorbitant prices while vans transporting oxygen to hospitals are getting stolen. And yet, for a Prime Minister who revels in instructing the millions of unemployed to become ‘self-reliant’– ‘fry and sell pakoras outside public offices’ – this ‘informal economy’ is presumably nothing to lament.  

Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, Narendra Modi unveiled the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, a grand national plan for self-reliance. This sparked a brief surge of panic in the business community, with many noting the uncanny echoes of Nehru’s ‘socialist’ vision of atmanirbharta. Fears of a return of ‘import substitution’ and ‘license raj’ though quickly subsided when the government announced plans to boost private sector investment in social infrastructure, and to open several other sectors, including defence, space, and mining, for private investment. Modi’s rhetoric was in fact only pastiche: it was not the country but the people who were to be made self-reliant, by systematically weaning them off their dependence on the Indian state, while, in turn, making the state itself more dependent on private corporations.

This neoliberal lockstep of ‘refusal’ and ‘dependence’ is perhaps most clearly embodied by last year’s relief package. The sudden imposition of a 75-day national lockdown rendered 450 million migrant workers jobless and homeless. After forcing them to walk thousands of miles back to their native villages, the government announced support measures that were among the lowest in the world – totalling a miserly 1 percent of the country’s GDP. In addition to a meagre 5kg of wheat or rice per month, its proposed financial support for a family of four amounts to only 4 Rupees per day per person, when the poverty line in rural and urban areas is 50 Rupees and 73 Rupees per person per day respectively.

A broad range of heterodox economists and social activists criticized these austerity measures. Some also proposed alternatives. The Heterodox Economists’ Collective called for the government to universalize the Public Distribution System in order to provide free cereals, pulses, and cooking oil to all for the next six months; to make cash transfers of 15,000 Rupees to the bottom 80 percent households to compensate for lost wages; and to guarantee 200 days of work to everyone including the migrants who were forced to return to their native villages. Others, including the leading development economist Jayati Ghosh, offered alternate blueprints designed to revive a faltering economy: both short-term measures to stimulate demand and long-term schemes funded by a range of fiscal and legislative measures, including temporarily suspending the Fiscal Budget Regulation Act, increasing corporation tax, and implementing a 2 percent wealth tax on the top 1 percent.

But the government has refused to even acknowledge these proposals. To put its intransigence in perspective: earlier this year, even the IMF, whose fabled touch is known to turn all things into a Structural Adjustment Program, urged its members to increase public spending, and to not worry about increasing their indebtedness. It would seem that the Indian government has successfully out-IMFed the IMF. Rather than increase public expenditure, it has chosen to hold fast to the ‘correct’ level of fiscal deficit, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Even more striking is the lack of attention these entirely feasible counter-proposals have received in the public sphere. The less said the better, then, about actual utopian questions. (Why, for instance, must the wellbeing of the population be tied to the rate of return?) As the emergent mutual-aid networks struggle to survive the ever-expanding swirl of new viral strains and mutants, there has been growing agreement among liberal and left commentators that voting the BJP out of power is now a precondition for making democratic politics possible again. During the recent elections in West Bengal, the slogan ‘No Vote to BJP’ gained widespread popularity, especially among young urban voters, and proved remarkably successful in keeping the party out of power. Though fledgling in its national appeal, the slogan conveys something essential about the present conjuncture.

This rallying is of course an expression of the disgust that the BJP now widely inspires, directed into an emergency electoral measure. Anyone but the BJP will do. But the strategy remains freighted with pitfalls. For one, what if we simply lapse into a vacuous form of secular populism, which might offer a short-term term electoral alternative to the BJP, but not an alternative to the crisis-riven, neoliberal trajectory of the country? In five years’ time, that may well return an even stronger right-wing Hindutva to power. Given the longstanding decline of the parliamentary left – the CPM-led Left Front won a total of zero seats in the recent elections in West Bengal, a state where it ruled for 34 years, while many of its leaders, voters, and cadres defected to the BJP – the poverty of genuine political alternatives is an urgent question. Just anyone will not do.

Read on: N. R. Musahar, ‘India’s Starvation Measures’, NLR 122.

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Big Man

Family lore has it that during the First Russian Revolution – 1905 – his mother carried anti-Czarist pamphlets in her school knapsack, and that she later worked briefly as a secretary to Rosa Luxemburg. That is where any biographer of Marshall Sahlins might want to begin. Or with the 18th-century mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic Judaism, from whom the Sahlins clan sometimes claimed descent. Born in 1930, Sahlins grew up on Chicago’s West Side, in a family unaffiliated with any Russian faction, but the radical nimbus remained. His interest in anthropology came early, as a boy, playing cowboys and Indians, with a decided preference for the latter. The discipline attracted the children of Jewish immigrants in the interwar decades. Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld, fellow West Siders, also started out in anthropology, which provided critical purchase on their otherwise headlong plunge into American society, along with the means to levitate thrillingly above the folkways of the old country that persisted in their families and neighbourhoods.

Sahlins is sometimes treated as an heir to the grand American anthropology tradition of Franz Boas. In fact, he stemmed from a rival line. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, he studied with the Mencken-like maverick – and anti-Boas brawler ­– Leslie White. A former student of Veblen and a member of the Socialist Labor Party, White had toured the Soviet Union on the eve of the Great Depression and wrote for Party publications under the name ‘John Steel’. He was a paradoxical figure. Culture, in his conception, was both a reflection of a society’s underlying economic constraints, but also an autonomous force organizing its social life. He developed a theory of technological determinism in human history, but also insisted that most of his contemporaries had underplayed the degree to which humans were a symbolically constituted species (these were among the antinomies that Sahlins would try to resolve). White led a relentless, at times ad hominem, campaign against Boas and his students at Columbia, whom he believed had failed to appreciate the gap between primitive societies and the impersonal structures of modernity. Boasians were adept at collecting ethnographic data, White conceded, but they were poor interpreters and theoreticians of their bounty. They seemed to care only about the diffusion of social forms, but not their history. The Boasians, in turn, viewed White as a crude evolutionist who was, consciously or not, abetting the worst of the racial science of the 19th century. As for his student: Sahlins relinquished the technological evolutionism but retained the radical and historical commitments, as well as the intellectual scrappiness. Like his mentor, he detested schools and disciples: there are admirers of Sahlins across the social sciences, but no hard-line Sahlinists.

In 1951, for his doctoral work, Sahlins moved to Columbia where the Boasian dynasty was now being eclipsed by a more radical generation. There was Elman Service, who fought against Franco and forged the typology of band, tribe, chiefdom and state; the anti-fascist anthropologist-poet, Stanley Diamond, who founded Dialectical Anthropology; as well as better known left-wing scholars such as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz. Sahlins’s main influence while at Columbia was the Hungarian exile visiting professor, Karl Polanyi, then in his 60s. It was through Polanyi as well as the classicist Moses Finley that Sahlins got his first prolonged taste of a heterodox theory of the economy. He learned from them not only how artificial and state-conditioned the neo-classical understanding of the market was, but also how alien it was to settings outside the modern North Atlantic. While Finley and Polanyi applied their substantivist economic theory to the ancient world of the Near East and elsewhere, Sahlins started to do the same with Oceania. His dissertation, Social Stratification in Polynesia, which sought to demonstrate how Polynesian culture adapted to various island environments, was an attempt to blend the anthropological materialisms of White and Polanyi. It is a careful, library-produced work that gives a foretaste of the authority, but not the explosive creativity, of its author.

Sahlins, as was the case with Claude Lévi-Strauss, did not conduct as much sustained fieldwork as many of his contemporaries. In 1955-56, Sahlins and his wife spent nine and a half months living on the central Fijian island of Moala, which had 1,200 inhabitants, three Chinese shop-owners, and two outboard motors (though only one was operational). Upon arriving, the couple were frustrated to find themselves treated as superior beings. ‘It is unrealistic to believe that any European can be fully “accepted”; he can never be a Fijian in their eyes’, Sahlins wrote. After a few weeks, however, Sahlins was able to lower himself successfully in the Moalan hierarchy, to the point that he was no longer the first one served the local sedative drink of Kava, but came fifth or sixth. The couple spent most of their time on the island trying to discern pre-colonial rituals and social forms, though many of Sahlins’s most searching findings have to do with how the Fijians made use of colonial developments for their own ends. Colonialism had already thoroughly cannibalized some of the rituals on Moala. In wedding ceremonies, for instance, Sahlins described how families now indebted themselves far more than they ever would have in the pre-colonial period where gifts were made up of replaceable produce from their own land rather than movable goods from the outside. Rituals once meant to solidify kinship ties now threatened to devastate families (and demonstrated how Polanyi was correct to view the ‘rational economic actor’ as a fiction).

In 1965, nearly a half a century before Sahlins’s own student, David Graeber, co-coined the slogan ‘We are the 99%’, Sahlins coined the ‘teach-in’. After his doctorate, Sahlins had moved back to Michigan, where faculty members critical of the war in Vietnam came under fire for their plan to conduct a ‘teach-out’ – to teach their classes off campus. In response, as a consensus-building measure, Sahlins proposed ‘teaching-in’ – occupying classrooms and criticizing the war late into the night. (‘I might have been disposed to binary oppositions because in the 1960s Lévi-Strauss was an oncoming rage in the USA.’) The following year, Sahlins travelled to Vietnam, where he spent only a week but managed to produce ‘The Destruction of Conscience in Viet Nam’, a withering ethnographic report on the tribe of Kennedy-era operatives, whom he memorably described as ‘hard-headed surrealists’. He detailed the way Americans evaded structural questions by blaming ‘graft’ and ‘corruption’, minimized responsibility by conceiving of themselves as ‘advisers’, and channelled their rage for order into the torture of prisoners.

Sahlins was in Paris for 1968, working in Lévi-Strauss’s Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, where he was immediately recognized as capable of holding his own, and even occasionally showing up le maître. A decade later, in Culture and Practical Reason (1976), Sahlins tried to play the peacemaker between Marxists and structuralists. Marxists needed to recognize that structuralists had something to teach them about ‘primitive’ societies, while structuralists needed to acknowledge that Marxists had a unique purchase on the structures of modernity. Sahlins himself was more of an accretive thinker: he didn’t so much move through methodological phases, but compounded them, never really discarding anything, as his library vividly attested. Ultimately, however, Culture and Practical Reason fell on the side of the structuralists – cultural reason over practical reason. Sahlins charged the tradition from Morgan to Marx with willy-nilly positivism. Marxism, itself a product of bourgeois society, had only gone halfway in its analysis of it. For Sahlins ‘production is itself a system of cultural intentions’, as Lee Drummond once put it. Any Crow warrior who stumbled into 20th century Chicago would have been puzzled by the cultural distinctions between steak and kidneys, dog meat and pork, if they relied on practical reason alone, which would, according to Sahlins, see each of these as relatively equal sources of protein.

‘The Original Affluent Society’ – first published in Les Temps Modernes in 1968 – will probably go down as Sahlins’s most widely read essay, though despite its obvious power, it’s also the one most vulnerable to empirical criticism. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sahlin’s epic history of Hawaii in the Sandalwood period, Anahulu [1992], is his most empirically valuable book, but among his least read.) In it, Sahlins argued that far from being an epoch of misery and deprivation, life in the palaeolithic period consisted of a roughly 30-hour work week. With characteristic ferocity, Sahlins tried to account for this by going hour by hour through the palaeolithic working day. There was something quixotic in trying to generalize and tabulate about such a vast expanse of human history, and something anachronistic about trying to jam the concept of ‘leisure time’ into the social lives of cave-dwellers in 8000 BC. But the essay remains a political tour de force, less for its details, than for its bold re-conception of what scarcity can – and has – meant for humans for most of their history. If anything, Sahlins’s development of the argument, Stone Age Economics (1972), is a more urgent book now for the advocates of degrowth than when it was first published.

Even by the standards of postwar anthropology, Sahlins was a formidable critic, capable of laying waste to entire trends and subfields with an essay. A notorious instance was his attack on the ‘cultural materialism’ of Marvin Harris. A widely respected fellow student of White, Harris published a book called Cannibals and Kings (1977), which essentially argued that the Aztecs had practiced cannibalism because they needed the protein. Many hunter-gatherer tribes in Meso-America had practiced ritual sacrifice with a consumption element, but the Aztecs were a giant civilization that instead of quitting the practice – like so many other societies around them – simply upgraded it to civilizational-scale. The reason, according to Harris, was because they couldn’t get enough protein from the Valley of Mexico. In the New York Review of Books, Sahlins subjected this argument to withering criticism. After his trademark athletic tabulating, in which he tried to show that the Aztec elite could not possibly have acquired enough protein from the human limbs that Harris claimed they partly subsisted on, Sahlins pointed to the adequate protein available in a multitude of different forms around them: ‘Why build a temple, when all you need is a butcher’s block?’

The most famous of Sahlins’s many disputes was with the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere about the fate of Captain Cook – a historical episode Sahlins was always prepared to squeeze more insight from. Two years after the American Revolution, Cook had arrived on the main island of Hawaii and been apparently treated by the islanders as a God, but then they later killed him. Why? For Sahlins the answer was that Cook had arrived in the middle of a ritual in which a local god was welcomed on the island, and so he was taken to be that particular god, but when he later returned after breaking a mast, he haplessly entered into another pageant in which the god – which was now, again, himself – was killed and the king of the island restored to his station. Obeyesekere took the view that this was pure exoticization on Sahlins’s part: the islanders clearly had viewed Cook as a possible ally in their wars against Maui, and only killed him when they had determined he was more of a threat than an advantage. Moreover, they never thought he was a god until after his death, as was the case for all Hawaiian royals. There was something curious about the confrontation, as Clifford Geertz noted at the time: Sahlins, the white American scholar, taking the ethno-particularist position, Obeyesekere squarely in the universalist camp. As was often the case with Sahlins, there was something ‘highly carpentered and suspiciously seamless’, in Geertz’s words, about his account. Captain Cook’s perfect timing sets off what appears to be a ballet sequence. But Obeyesekere’s projection of realpolitik onto the islanders seemed even more dubious.

The debate turned out to be not a particularly fruitful episode for the discipline, as it mostly broke down on academic kinship lines. For Sahlins, it was another occasion to pursue what was perhaps his major preoccupation: reconciling the opposition between ‘structure’ and ‘event’ in the social sciences and philosophy. The point was not to privilege either, but to show their inextricableness: an event can only be an ‘event’ from the standpoint of a wider structure, which in turn can be reshaped or shifted by the event. Threading the needle between the event and the longue durée, Sahlins helped clear the way for anthropologists to refocus on the question of historical change that previous generations of structuralists and functionalists had abandoned. The postwar anthropological turn to history, as Joel Isaac has shown, was in large part an attempt to explain the persistence of human institutions, and provincialize state-centric accounts. No one battled the legacy of Hobbes and his vision of the weak sociability of humans more forthrightly than Sahlins, who believed that only by dislodging Western assumptions about the necessity of states as guarantors of human sociability, could the full panoply of possible human flourishing come back into view. In answer to Sartre’s old question: ‘Do we have today the means to constitute a structural, historical anthropology?’ Sahlins was in no doubt: ‘Oui, le jour est arrivé.’

For more than half a century, Sahlins was a member of the University of Chicago’s storied anthropology department. He never lacked for critical targets, either academic or political.  During the Bush years, it was the enlistment of anthropology by the US government in the ‘Human Terrain’ program in the Afghanistan War. In 2013, he dramatically resigned from the Academy of Sciences when he learned of the extent of the program and of the fact that they had inducted Napoleon Chagnon, a former White student who notoriously broke many of the codes of fieldwork and tried to augment the violence among his Yanomamö subjects, into the membership. More recently, Sahlins exposed the network of Confucius Institutes, propaganda mills run by the Chinese government that occupied parts of scores of university campuses in the US, to which he devoted one of his Prickly Pear pamphlets, a very valuable series of short books of which he was co-publisher. What was remarkable was not so much that the Chinese government was running an operation on the fourth floor of the Judd Building at the University of Chicago, but that it took an 83-year-old muckraker to expose it.

A friend of mine once house-sat Sahlins’s dog, a Great Pyrenees named Trinket, whom he had the duty of giving a haircut. ‘She’s too old to go to the doggy salon any longer, so, well, you do your best’, Sahlins told him. My friend explained he had no experience. ‘Do your best’, he said. The verdict was hard on his return: ‘Your best wasn’t very good.’ I remember Sahlins more as a presence than a figure. For decades he kept his fire trained tightly on the economics department, that was still in thrall to Stigler and Friedman, but by the time I arrived, he had sawed off the barrel and brought the whole of Western Civilization into range. My home in the classics department was not spared, since certain Ancient Greeks figured as particular villains in his story. To my shame, I barely knew who the author of Apologies to Thucydides was while I was trying to write an undergraduate thesis on Greek historians. But Sahlins was close with my advisor, and once commented that Thucydides’s History was ‘a good book to read against the grain of the war’. I didn’t realize at the time that he was probably referring to Iraq, not the Peloponnese.

Read on: Jacob Collins, ‘An Anthropological Turn’, NLR 78.

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A True Fascist

Certain words make you feel like you belong to another time. You think you’re at home in the present, but then you’re forced to think again. For me, one such word is ‘antifa’. For the entirety of my childhood, youth and adult life the term ‘fascist’ was the most injurious of insults: the shortened epithet – ‘fascio’ in Italian, ‘facho’ in French – recalling the similar abbreviation that gives us the word Nazi. Then, all of a sudden, ‘anti-fascist’ became a slur, repeatedly used by Donald Trump as a synonym for ‘left-wing terrorist’. My generation came of age in a ‘republic built on anti-fascism’, where – unlike today – that orientation was taken for granted. Now, the term has become a slogan for the subversive left, most commonly associated with black bloc anarchists, portrayed in the media as the specular image of the alt-right.  

What remains unresolved about this word ‘fascist’, which 76 years after the deaths of Hitler and Mussolini, continues to haunt our political imaginary? When it comes to fascism (and fascists), we struggle to see beyond cinematic representations. I remember the first time I listened to a recording of Goebbels at the film archive in Göttingen: to my great surprise, he didn’t bark! His mellow, judicious tone bore little resemblance to the image of the Nazi grandees spawned by post-war Hollywood. In this century, the figure of the ‘fascist’ has become an archetype. It functions as a damnatio memoriae: a sentencing of the past without appeal, and a plenary absolution of the present. For it’s unthinkable that anyone among us might share the patent mental deficiency of most fictional Nazis and Blackshirts.

The Italian-American historian Victoria de Grazia’s new book, The Perfect Fascist, counters such commonplaces through a cathartic immersion in the past. This dive into the first half of the last century purifies us of many ills – including the idea of a ‘fascist temperament’ or ‘authoritarian personality’. De Grazia sets out to show how ‘fascists are made, not born’: how the ‘decent man’ she takes as her subject wound up leading gangs of thugs and collaborating with the SS. Her book also rids us of a deeper, more insidious conviction: that human beings are normatively average – that being ordinary consists of ‘not deviating from the norm’, rather than understanding normalcy (and mediocrity) as a sum of interacting exceptions. In unravelling these themes, the story De Grazia tells us is emblematic of a certain age, although its plot couldn’t have been dreamed up even by Hollywood’s most twisted screenwriters.

Who could possibly conceive of a story that charts the entangled lives of Attilio Teruzzi, ‘the perfect fascist’, and Lilliana Weinman, the opera diva? Teruzzi, of Milanese origin, was born in 1882. His father was a vintner and his mother’s father worked as a farmer for a family of nobles. In fin de siècle Italy, the army was the only institution that presented an opportunity for social ascent to the young Attilio, who decided to enlist, even if he lacked the means or titles to be admitted to a military academy. He was promptly dispatched to Eritrea, where he succeeded in becoming a quartermaster. His good looks and respect for his superiors earned him a place at the academy at Modena, the Italian equivalent of West Point, Sandhurst or Saint-Cyr. As an officer he participated in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 and the conquest of Libya, where he was wounded, decorated, and hailed back home as a war hero.

During the Great War he conducted himself honourably. He joined the Freemasons and became aide-de-camp to General Giuseppe Vaccari, earning himself a promotion to Major. To illustrate the prospects awaiting officers of his rank after the war – provided they survived trench warfare – it is sufficient to note that the other assistant to General Vaccari at the time was a certain Raffaele Mattioli: later a friend of the renowned economists Piero Sraffa and John Maynard Keynes, CEO of one of the largest financial institutions in Italy (Banca Commerciale), putative saviour of Gramsci’s Quaderni and, after the Second World War, the first to finance Enrico Mattei’s newly founded petroleum company, ENI.

At this point in the narrative, the ‘childhood’ of our protagonist-leader – to paraphrase the title of one of Sartre’s celebrated short stories – is already rife with contradiction. For one thing, how did a Freemason rise to the forefront of a movement, party and regime that decried a global conspiracy of ‘Judeo-Masonic’ origin? (This seems anomalous until we learn that several fascist leaders were, in fact, Freemasons: Italo Balbo, Giuseppe Bottai, Emilio De Bono, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, Roberto Farinacci and Achille Starace, to name just a few. Fascism’s relationship to Freemasonry bore a resemblance to the US military’s policy towards homosexuality: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’.)  

The First World War was a turning point for Teruzzi. The Kingdom of Italy’s victory translated into defeat for Italians, whose opportunities for social mobility were drastically diminished. In this context, fascism would present itself as the only means to ‘elevate’ one’s status. Little by little, our ‘decent man’ became increasingly involved in the movement. At first, he oversaw the brutality of the squadristi against workers’ associations and parties, participating in the March on Rome as a handsome war veteran – fascism’s ‘virtuous face’ – before being implicated in the assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. It was around this time that Teruzzi met Lilliana Weinman in Milan. She was the daughter of Jews from Austrian Galicia that, after emigrating to New York, had made a fortune by ‘patenting a design for elastic trouser belts’. They reinvested their wealth in their daughter’s career: Weinman was a young woman with a burning aspiration to become an opera singer. ‘I feel I will become a great prima donna’, she writes, ‘and a great prima donna’s prerogative is to take, not to give.’

Through Weinman, de Grazia reflects on the relationship between fascism and Jewishness, confronting all the standard cliches. On the one hand, we know of many Jews who adhered to fascism up until the Racial Laws of 1938. To them it was a ‘patriotic’ movement, a check on the growing menace of Bolshevism. Some illustrious German Jewish scientists were driven out by Nazism but would have gladly continued furthering Germany’s ‘glory’ if given the chance. Equally, Italy’s National Fascist Party took an ambivalent view of Jews at least until 1937. For several years, Mussolini’s lover and muse was the Venetian art critic Margherita Sarfatti, who loved him to the point of writing a laudatory account of his life and converting from Judaism to Catholicism (though this did not exempt her from exile once the Racial Laws came into effect). Even Roberto Farinacci, who distinguished himself for his merciless antisemitism, employed and confided in his Jewish secretary Jole Foà, but neither their intimacy nor her convinced fascism could prevent her deportation and ultimate demise at Auschwitz. Weinman – who for many years declared herself a fascist – wasn’t Teruzzi’s only Jewish partner. After parting ways with her he fell in love with the Cairo-born Roman Jew Yvette Blank, with whom he had a daughter. In the final, convulsive months of the war, when the fascist regime amounted to no more than a puppet maneuvered by Kesselring, Teruzzi would do everything to save Blank from the last consignments destined for the camps. It was to the modest lodge she had opened in Procida that he would return in 1950 following his release from prison, before dying in April of that year.

Here another subtext of The Perfect Fascist becomes apparent: the symbolic violence that fascism exercised on women, thematized more thoroughly in another essential book by de Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1920-1945 (1992). A Royal Decree of 1939 outlined the specific roles in the workforce that were suitable for women: typists, telephone operators, stenographers, banknote or ticket counters, shop assistants and seamstresses. Under fascism, school fees doubled for female students and female teachers were prohibited from teaching literature, philosophy and history. But despite the open chauvinism and misogyny of the regime, many women remained unwaveringly loyal. On the eve of WWII, 3,180,000 women were enlisted in the Party’s organizations – many of them in the Fasci femminili (Women’s League). My grandmother was an out-and-out fascist, although after the war she became a professor in a discipline prohibited to women by fascism. My primary school teacher, a middle-aged Jewish lady, still identified as a fascist ten years after the war had ended (by which time her two children had emigrated to the new-born state of Israel).

A further piece of received wisdom dismantled by de Grazia’s work is the monolithic – at times granitic – conception of totalitarian regimes. As she follows Teruzzi’s journey from member of parliament to Deputy Minister of the Interior, from Governor of Cyrenaica to leader of the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party, from Inspector-General in Spain during the Civil War to Minister of the Colonies (even if these were lost by then), de Grazia sketches the intrigues of the regime’s upper echelons: Farinacci’s revolt, attempted conspiracies against the Duce, the contempt ex-generals working for the regime had for its political strategists, the party’s web of internal wiretaps (even its leaders weren’t above suspicion), and the vacillations which many people experienced between the desire to replace an aging ruling class and the thirst for its patronage.

A good portion of the work is dedicated to Africa, where Teruzzi began his military career, and where he returned on two occasions: first as a governor in Libya (1926-28), then as brigadier general of the Blackshirts in the invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. In these chapters we witness the spectacle of an opera singer from New York performing the role of colonial governess paid homage by Bedouin tribes. Africa was where colonialists could vent their lust (note the alliance of racism and machismo in one of colonial Italy’s most famous songs, Faccetta Nera: ‘Pretty black face, beautiful Abyssinian / Wait and see, for the hour is coming! / When we are with you / We shall give you another law, another king’). It was there that Italy pursued its dream of modernity, just as colonialism – in its ‘traditional’ form – was waning. Teruzzi carried out public works in Libya and built roads in Ethiopia, both of which burned through state finances in a striking exemplar of fascist imperialism’s lack of economic rationality. (To think that, at the same time, the Italians in Libya were sitting on oceanic oil reserves which were never exploited).

The abyss that separated the fascist regime’s self-image and Italy’s true position in the hierarchy of world powers is evident from the net result of the counter-insurgency campaign it waged in Libya. At its close in the early 1930s, ‘the army had killed 1,226 rebels, captured 296 rifles, killed 2,844 camels and captured 842, captured 18,070 goats and sheep and killed another 5,050, seized 172 cows and 26 horses’. Evidently, the retributory seizure of camels and goats did not amount to adequate preparation for a World War against the United States.

If the comparison is permissible, Teruzzi could be said to bear some resemblance to Julien Sorel from Stendhal’s The Red and The Black. Sorel exhibits qualities that allow him to clamber from his small town in the Jura to the salons of Paris, but the traits that lead to his rise also limit it, and ultimately contribute to his death. For Teruzzi these attributes were his military experience, his loyalty, his dependability and his mediocrity, which rendered him toothless as a potential rival (Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano considered him ‘mediocre, but loyal, very loyal’). Thanks to these, Teruzzi found a way to the top of the social ladder (the actress Anna Magnani was, for a time, a bridge partner of his). But it was this very fidelity that turned him into an executor, an unbridled accomplice of the regime’s infamies. His personal demise coincided with that of the regime. ‘At the time of the liberation’, De Grazia writes, ‘three or four, or as many as seven “Teruzzis” were lynched’: unfortunate resemblances based on his distinctive beard.

De Grazia makes clear that her story is not a biography: ‘It is a social history of a man who, as he makes his way in the complexity of his political and human relations, often captured from the vantage point of his women, shows us how Italian fascism really worked’. A social history, that is, which helps us to specify exactly what being ‘antifa’ should entail.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘What Is Trump?’, NLR 114.

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Scotland’s Manager

On May 6, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) came within 2,000 votes of winning an outright majority at Holyrood, the country’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh. Holyrood’s proportional voting system was designed to discourage majority results. Sturgeon has won every election she has fought as SNP leader – six in seven years. By the time the next Scottish election takes place in 2026, the SNP will have held power at Holyrood for 19 years, more than two-thirds of the total lifespan of the parliament itself. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, Scottish nationalism has become virtually hegemonic. The SNP has no serious electoral rivals; the party draws support from a sizeable cross-section of demographic groups.

Sturgeon is the lynchpin of this success. She has been a member of the Holyrood chamber since it was created, or ‘reconvened’, by the House of Commons, in 1999. She became (de facto) leader of the opposition at the age of 34, deputy first minister and health secretary at 36, and first minister at 44. Journalists have spent the last few months poring over the breakdown of Sturgeon’s relationship with her bitterly estranged former boss and mentor, Alex Salmond. Increasingly, however, Salmond – who ran the Scottish government with Sturgeon as his deputy between 2007 and 2014 – looks like a supporting act in the history of modern Scottish nationalism. His newly established party, Alba, took less than 2 per cent of the vote on May 6.

Sturgeonism blends blandly progressive rhetoric with a nebulous form of big tent politics. Sturgeon grew up, in the 1970s and 80s, in Irvine, a small town on Scotland’s industrial west coast, where the values of post-war British Labourism run deep. Yet she has more in common ideologically with European Christian Democrats like Angela Merkel – and even with North American liberals like Justin Trudeau – than she does with Jeremy Corbyn or Tony Benn. Comparisons have sometimes been made to Tony Blair. But Sturgeon is a technocrat, rooted in Scotland’s devolutionary bureaucracy, and shares none of Blair’s populist instincts, particularly on cultural issues like immigration, citizenship, and assimilation. She has been lauded for her ‘steady’ handling of the Covid crisis and grounds her appeal in a Merkel-esque claim to ‘sound’ public management.

The pivotal moment in Sturgeon’s leadership came after the UK general election in 2015, when the SNP crushed Labour in its Central Belt heartlands, turning staunchly working-class cities like Glasgow into nationalist strongholds. Sturgeon’s campaign pitch was left-wing: more powers for the Scottish Parliament, an end to Conservative austerity, and the abolition of Britain’s Clyde-based nuclear deterrent. (The SNP emerged as a major electoral force in the 1960s and 70s, on the heels of the anti-nuclear folk movement.) Yet once Labour – the SNP’s traditionally dominant rival – had been dispatched, Sturgeon, eager to broaden her coalition, changed tack. Flagship pledges to overhaul Scotland’s historically unequal patterns of land ownership, reform the Gender Recognition Act and replace the Council Tax with a fairer system of local government levies were shelved or watered-down. From then on, Sturgeon – a solicitor by training – governed Holyrood from the centre, pressing her own ultra-cautious, vaguely cosmopolitan identity to the forefront of Scottish national life.

Sturgeon has two overriding goals: to consolidate the SNP’s grip on Scotland’s electoral landscape and to extricate Scotland from Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain. Europe is central to her strategy for independence. Long before the Brexit vote, SNP politicians had been making regular trips to Brussels as part of a ‘para-diplomatic’ push to strengthen Scotland’s continental ties and smooth its future entry into the EU – efforts that have accelerated since 2016. Although the threat of a Spanish veto looms, nationalists are confident that the strategy is working (the Sanchez government has indicated its willingness to allow Scottish membership, while PP politicians have played down comparisons between Scotland and Catalonia). Privately, the SNP continues to reassure EU policymakers that Scotland will be a compliant partner in the European project.

Sturgeon styles herself as a social democrat but runs Scotland through a process of national brokerage that meticulously avoids even the slightest hint of class antagonism. The SNP’s base is disproportionately young and poor. In the run-up to the May election, Sturgeon complemented the sweeping centre-left reforms implemented during the early years of SNP government – the abolition of university tuition fees, free personal care for the elderly, an end to drug prescription charges – with a fresh suite of redistributive policies. The party was now formally committed to the creation of a national care service, she announced, and to doubling weekly welfare payments for Scottish families.

At the same time, business interests frame and inform almost every aspect of her governing agenda. In 2019, investigative journalists at The Ferret revealed that Scottish government ministers had met repeatedly with lobbyists from the tech giant Airbnb to discuss the regulation of so-called ‘holiday lets’, which experts blame for exacerbating shortages of affordable accommodation in Scottish tourism hot spots like Edinburgh. The SNP subsequently teamed up with Tory legislators to dilute proposals aimed at reining in the short-term rental sector. Twelve months later, when Scotland was in the grip of its first Covid surge, housing activists called on Sturgeon to impose a rent freeze in Scottish cities. Instead, the first minister enacted a temporary moratorium on evictions and instructed her finance secretary, Kate Forbes, to set up a multi-million bailout fund for landlords. The fund’s objective was to ‘protect incomes’ in the commercial property market; the income of renters, apparently, did not warrant the same support.

Keen to soften the edges of Scottish separatism, the SNP has run an extensive corporate outreach programme. In 2016, Sturgeon invited Andrew Wilson, head of the Edinburgh PR firm Charlotte Street Partners, to rewrite the economic case for independence along market-friendly lines. And in 2020, she asked Benny Higgins, the ex-CEO of Tesco Bank, to map out Scotland’s fiscal recovery from Covid. Both appointments backfired. Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission report was published in 2018 and recommended a decade of spending constraints post-independence. Meanwhile, in an interview with The Times last summer, Higgins launched an unprovoked attack on environmental campaigners, whom he described as ‘ideological zealots’ determined to ‘throw economic growth and jobs under the bus.’ The outburst was embarrassing for Sturgeon, who has spent huge amounts of time laundering Scotland’s green image on the international stage.

Sturgeon’s preference for tepid managerialism at the expense of structural change has produced some striking policy failures. Inequality in the Scottish education system has remained persistently high throughout her seven-year tenure as first minister, despite a supposedly landmark promise, made in 2015, to eliminate the classroom attainment gap. And Scotland now consistently registers the highest drug-related death rate in Europe, with overdose numbers concentrated in the country’s two most deprived cities: Glasgow and Dundee. (In April, Sturgeon conceded that she had taken her ‘eye off the ball’ with regards to Scotland’s drugs crisis.)

Yet these failures have done nothing to undermine Sturgeon’s popularity or dent the SNP’s electoral dominance. To some extent, Scottish nationalists have been blessed with weak opposition. Faced with 150,000 British Covid deaths, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have set an exceptionally low bar for administrative competence. Labour, meanwhile, remains landlocked by the constitutional divide; unable to ditch its traditional antipathy to independence and equally powerless to stop low-income Scots shifting in large numbers away from the Union.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeonism works because Sturgeon is the ideal devolutionary leader. She has spent her entire parliamentary career at Holyrood, navigating the limits of Scotland’s home rule settlement and pandering to Scottish middle-class anxieties. Independence, as Sturgeon sees it, means the gradual extension of Edinburgh’s legislative autonomy and, eventually, the permanent restoration of Scotland’s place in Europe. As deputy first minister in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, Sturgeon was deployed by the Yes campaign to argue that self-government would barricade Scottish institutions from the worst of Westminster’s austerity reforms. These are the hard boundaries to her political vision. So far, all the evidence suggests that they suit Scottish voters just fine.

Read on: Tom Nairn, ‘Scotland and Europe’, NLR 1/83.

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Not Over Yet

If your country is part of an international empire, the domestic politics of the country that rules yours are your domestic politics too. Whoever speaks of the Europe of the EU must therefore also speak of Germany. Currently it is widely believed that after the German federal elections of 24 September this year, Europe will enter a post-Merkel era. The truth is not so simple.

In October 2018, following two devastating defeats in state elections in Hesse and Bavaria, Angela Merkel resigned as president of her party, the CDU, and announced that she would not seek re-election as Chancellor in 2021. She would, however, serve out her fourth term, to which she had been officially appointed only seven months earlier. Putting together a coalition government had taken no less than six months following the September 2017 federal election, in which the CDU and its Bavarian sidekick, the CSU, had scored the worst result in their history, at 32.9 percent (2013: 41.5 percent). (Merkel’s record as party leader is nothing short of dismal, having lost votes each time she ran. How she could nevertheless remain Chancellor for 16 years will have to be explained elsewhere.) In the subsequent contest for the CDU presidency, the party’s general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, appointed by Merkel only in February 2018, narrowly prevailed over two competitors. After little more than a year, however, when Merkel publicly dressed her down for a lack of leadership, Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned and declared that she would not run for Chancellor in 2021 either. A few months later, when von der Leyen went to Brussels, Kramp-Karrenbauer got Merkel to appoint her minister of defense. The next contest for the party presidency, the second in Merkel’s fourth term, had to take place under Corona restrictions; it took a long time and was won in January 2021 by Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of the largest federal state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). To prevent the comeback of an old foe of hers, Friedrich Merz, Merkel allegedly supported Laschet behind the scenes.

While Laschet – a less-than-charismatic Christian-Democratic middle-of-the-roader and lifelong Merkel loyalist – considered the party presidency to be a ticket to the CDU/CSU candidacy for Chancellor, it took three months for this to be settled. As CDU/CSU politics go, the joint candidate is picked by the two party presidents when they feel the time has come, under four eyes; no formal procedure provided. Thus Laschet needed the agreement of Markus Söder, Prime Minister of Bavaria, who didn’t keep it a secret that he believed himself the far better choice. In the background, again, there was Merkel, in the unprecedented position of a sitting Chancellor watching the presidents of her two parties pick her would-be successor in something like a semi-public cock-fight. After some dramatic toing-and-froing, Laschet prevailed, once more supported by Merkel, apparently in exchange for his state’s backing for the federal government imposing a ‘hard’ Covid-19 lockdown on the entire country.

As CDU/CSU candidate, Laschet is already having a hard time. In early June he will face a state election in Sachsen-Anhalt. Currently the state is governed by a CDU Prime Minister, who heads a coalition of his party (which won 30 percent of the vote in 2016) with the SPD (11 percent) and the Greens (5 percent), formed to keep the AfD (24) and Die Linke (16) out. If the state is lost, Laschet’s enemies, certainly Söder, will find ways to publicly blame him for it. As for Germany as a whole, by early May electoral support for the CDU/CSU had fallen to 23 percent (below where it was before the pandemic; the party’s worst ever result) while the Greens had risen to an unprecedented 26 percent, making them the strongest party for the first time. The SPD, Merkel’s long-time coalition partner, remained stable at 14 percent, followed by the AfD with 12 and Die Linke with 6 percent. Asked who they would want to be Chancellor, Laschet, like the SPD candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, was favored by 21 percent. 28 percent picked the Spitzenkandidatin of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old newcomer who has never held government office and who, like Merkel, has always stayed aloof of her party’s factional divisions; 30 percent were undecided.

If the election result is roughly along these lines, forming a government may prove difficult. Whoever ends up as Chancellor, his or her party will be smaller than ever before relative to their largest coalition partner. CDU and CSU might be able to govern with the Greens, but they would do so only if they were the stronger party, with Laschet as Chancellor and perhaps the FDP as a third partner; call this Laschet/Baerbock. This assumes that the SPD would refuse to continue to serve as junior partner of the Christian Democrats, precluding Laschet/Scholz. The Greens might form a government with the SPD, either Baerbock/Scholz or, unlikely, Scholz/Baerbock, which would however require getting either Die Linke or, more preferable for the Greens, the FDP on board, none of which would be easy.

Under the German constitution a Chancellor remains in office until the Bundestag elects a successor. As long as coalition talks go on, Merkel will therefore wield the full constitutional powers of a Bundeskanzler. While in 2017/18 it was in her interest to bring the coalition negotiations to a fast conclusion, this time agreement will end rather than renew her term. Not being directly involved in the talks, Merkel can influence them from the outside, either obstructing or helping them along, depending on the direction she favors. Moreover, as acting Chancellor she may be able to nail down commitments in European and international politics that would be difficult to abandon for the government after her; alternatively, she can point to the coalition talks to put off unpleasant decisions. In 2017/18, expecting that once re-elected, she would join his project of ‘refounding Europe’, and apparently misinformed on the German political system, Macron scheduled a public speech at the Sorbonne for the day after the German election, to present to the world and to Merkel his plans for a new European Union. Over the next six months, Merkel and the German public kept repeating that Macron’s ideas ‘deserved an answer’, while expressing regret that without a new government it could not be given – until Merkel’s fourth cabinet was sworn in and other issues took precedence.

Forming the next German government may take even longer than last time. A superficial selection of critical events and issues likely to come up during the transition include: the French presidential election in 2022, when Germany must keep Macron in office against the odds; French demands for a French-German fighter jet system, called FCAS, complete with supporting swarms of drones and satellites, ground stations, artificial intelligence and flying tankers, estimated to cost 300 billion euros between now and 2040 (which would realistically end up at twice as much at least); the role of the EU, if any, in the next Corona wave; the Biden administration’s ‘Buy American’ policy with respect to its infrastructure renewal project; French demands that Germany join its postcolonial wars, about to be lost, in the Sahel zone; American pressures for Ukraine to be admitted to NATO and the EU, challenging Russia; and American and French demands for Germany to abandon the North Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia through the Baltic Sea, as Germany’s ‘energy turn’ (Energiewende) is approaching a simultaneous exit from nuclear energy and soft coal.

What will it mean for Europe when Merkel is no longer in office? What will most obviously be missing is her impressive ability to fudge issues and conflicts by pretending that they do not exist, allowing her, and Germany, to be on both sides of an argument at the same time, or on no side at all — take the finalité of the EU, migration, the US vs. Russia and China, France vs. the United States on the status of Europe, etc. etc. Crucial for this was Merkel’s skillful use of empty and ambiguous public speech, her sphinxlike stereotypical non-answers in the rare situations when she allowed herself to be questioned by journalists from outside her coterie (if you don’t understand her, it’s not bad translation – it’s intended). This fit nicely with the German situation in Europe and beyond, exposed to cross-pressures so hard to address that they are better not addressed at all, to be left to a future that, hopefully, will never come. None of those lined up to succeed Merkel will ever match her skill in this, which makes it likely that European conflicts and German contradictions will increasingly break into the open. After Merkel, the many incompatible promises she made to buy time will, like the proverbial chickens, come home to roost, only to discover that the chicken coop is too small to house them all.

A brief look at how the new government, once in office, will likely deal with some of the current issues in European politics. On the so-called ‘fiscal capacity’ of the EMU, both Laschet/Baerbock and Baerbock/Scholz will be ready to make more concessions of the NGEU kind, financed by more debt to be taken up by the Union. Inside either government, however, there will be warnings against excessive borrowing, given that Germany will have to repay its own Corona debt in the coming decade. Laschet, especially, will have to cope with fears among his supporters of rising interest rates and of German taxpayers having to bail out member states. On the other hand, defending the euro is at the heart of the German national interest; while Laschet will try to lower the price Germany has to pay for it, Baerbock may want to top it up for Green emotional enthusiasm and international public relations, with Scholz warning in the background not to overdo it. On foreign policy and national security, Baerbock/Scholz will be strictly Atlanticist and pro-NATO – pro Biden-the-good-president – whereas Laschet will lean more towards France and Macron’s idea of ‘European sovereignty’. As Chancellor, he will, however, have to accommodate Baerbock and the Atlanticists in the CDU, while Baerbock, as Chancellor or Foreign Minister, will like Merkel need the French-German tandem as a cover for German European hegemony.

There will also be differences on the Eastern flank of the EU, where Baerbock, following the United States, will support Ukrainian accession to NATO and the EU, and finance EU extension in the West Balkans. That she will also cancel North Stream 2 will be a point of contention in a Baerbock/Scholz government. Laschet will be more inclined towards France and seek some accommodation with Russia, on trade as well as security; he will also hesitate to be too strongly identified with the US on Eastern Europe and Ukraine. But then, he will be reminded by his Foreign Minister, Baerbock, as well as his own party that Germany’s national security depends on the American nuclear umbrella, which the French cannot and in any case will not replace. On immigration, Baerbock will steer a more nationalist course, in the sense of more generous admission of refugees to Germany, while her coalition partner, certainly with Laschet as Chancellor and Scholz as Vice Chancellor, will prefer a ‘European solution’, meaning that Turkey and Libya should keep migrants from crossing the Mediterranean.

What all this means is that one must not underestimate the pressures for continuity in German politics, with or without Merkel. Some national interests endure regardless of who’s in government, for example those arising from the fact that Germany is located between four nuclear powers but is itself allowed only conventional weapons. Also, rhetorical Euro-enthusiasm notwithstanding, Germany cannot agree to unlimited Eurobonds being drawn from the EU if Germany would be at risk of becoming liable for them. Germany also needs a reasonably safe energy supply, as well as open markets and favourable exchange rates for its export industries. Domestic pressures making for continuity include the state elections, which unlike the midterm elections in the United States are dispersed over the entire federal electoral term. Already in 2022, the largest state, NRW, will elect a new Prime Minister to succeed Laschet, and both the SPD under Baerbock/Scholz and the CDU under Laschet/Baerbock would get very nervous if their participation in a Berlin coalition failed to help them restore some of their previous electoral support. Centrism über alles?

Read on: Joachim Jachnow, ‘What’s Become of the German Greens?’, NLR 81.

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Throttling Gaza

Violence against Palestinians over the last few weeks has been so horrific that it has come to the attention of those who were previously blind to it. Over two hundred dead in Gaza alone, fifty-nine of them children. Media offices bombed, thousands injured and tens of thousands displaced. Palestinians in Israel have been killed by lynch mobs while the police stand by. As a result, the usual taboos are being broken. Six US Congress members condemned the attacks on Gaza from the House floor, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged Israel as an ‘apartheid state’. Yet the US is far from rescinding its support for Netanyahu. On three occasions during the latest bombardment it has blocked the UN Security Council’s call for a ceasefire, greenlighting the merciless campaign against the Gaza strip. If Trump was the most brazen supporter of Israeli aggression, his successor is not much different.

None of this is new. Gaza has been under attack at regular intervals since 2008, and with each Israeli incursion we have seen a similar pattern play out: ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, huge provocations accompanied by repression on the ground, and F16s raining bombs on Gazans. Human rights organizations – international as well as Israeli – have repeatedly condemned the illegal blockade of Gaza and the forward march of Israeli settler colonialism. Yet their appeals fall on deaf ears.

This is because, sadly, the majority of the Jewish Israeli population supports its government in this endeavour. The position of the far-right – which saw its best ever result in the Knesset elections last March – is almost identical to that of the liberal parties in their zeal for anti-Palestinian crackdowns. The neighborhood offensives in Jerusalem – particularly Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and Wadi Joz, where lifelong residents are to be expelled to make way for Jewish settlers – represent the government’s attempt to show its commitment to Arab-free cities.

What has led us to this point? Ever since the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, the Israelis, backed by the US and the EU, with the collaboration of the Palestinian Authority and the acquiescence or capitulation of the Arab States, established structures that institutionalized Israeli control and occupation of the Palestinian territories. The geographic fragmentation of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, and its separation from both the eastern part of Jerusalem and Gaza, is part of this realignment. In addition, unending American intervention has done its best to demobilize Palestinians so that they cannot effectively resist their oppressors. The leadership of Fatah (synonymous with the Palestinian Authority) act as sub-contractors for the Israeli occupation on every level, forcibly putting down resistance or protest movements whenever they begin to stir. Yet, despite all this, the post-Oslo generations will not give up on the goal of self-determination that the ‘international community’ has denied them. For over a decade, their anticolonial struggle has confronted three separate forms of intervention from foreign powers: diplomatic pressure, foreign aid, and security involvement. It is worth taking a moment to examine these in turn.

The 2006 Palestinian legislative elections are a useful case in point of how diplomatic pressure is used to subjugate and divide Palestinians. We now know, via the Palestine papers published by Wikileaks, that the UK and the US had been enjoining the Palestinian Authority to forcibly repress the Islamist party, Hamas, prior to the vote. When Hamas ended up winning the elections by a wide margin, the PA came under international pressure to prevent them from taking power. The US and its allies imposed sanctions on the Palestinians that decimated the economy. Humanitarian aid which was supposed to keep the population afloat bypassed the new Hamas government, with some of it flowing instead to the personal accounts of PA officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas. The outgoing political party, Fatah, was empowered by Washington to retain its grip on the government, and initiated a crackdown on Hamas which prompted a spate of intra-Palestinian violence. The resulting split in governance between Gaza and the West Bank persists to this day, despite calls for unity from the citizens of the two territories.

Foreign aid is also weaponized to guarantee the permanent subservience of the PA to the IDF. After the 2006 elections, Fatah consolidated its hold over the West Bank and the new Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, pursued what he called a strategy of ‘liberation through reform’. The slow improvement in living conditions, he said, would lay the ground for state-building. Yet in reality, all it did was inflate the foreign bank balances of the Palestinian bureaucracy’s top layer and push regular Palestinians into more debt. Real sovereignty was never given to the PA, which was essentially relegated to overseeing the implementation of small-scale development projects designed by international donors in coordination with Israel. The foreign aid used for these projects is monitored and managed by two agencies: the Joint Liaison Committee and the Task Force on Project Implementation. Israel has a seat on both, while the Palestinian Authority has a seat on neither.

Even when foreign aid has increased in recent years, it has gone to areas which do not alleviate poor economic conditions in the territories. In the period following the 2006 elections, only 1% was allocated to agriculture, despite that being the historic backbone of the Palestinian economy. Importantly, none of the aid or development plans addressed Israel’s obstructionist role. Thus, rather than achieving the stated objectives of the PA – advancing the economy in order to eventually gain the state promised to them by the Israelis – the funding simply entrenched the status quo.

When I interviewed a number of officials in PA ministries, they confirmed to me that American directives set the course for their development projects and political positions. Although they are bankrolled by a number of foreign donors – the EU, the Gulf, Japan – US interests invariably take precedence. One of the most direct means by which the American hegemon interferes in the PA’s internal decision-making processes is through its training programmes. Career advancement for many Palestinian bureaucrats is contingent upon the trainings they attended and certifications they attain. So, when the Americans fund training courses they make sure to hand-pick the participants, excluding anyone known to be a supporter of Palestinian emancipation, and forcing the more critical bureaucrats into early retirement. The training programmes themselves act as a tool for indoctrination, with syllabi amended by American officials to censor the material on Israeli occupation and popular mobilization.

What of security involvement? From 2006 onward, the PA was encouraged to undertake security sector reform to assure Israeli counterparts that the PA and its forces were reliable partners. They took steps to ensure not only that oppositional parties and the Islamists within the West Bank were curtailed, but that any mass uprising – such as that seen during the second intifada – would not be allowed to happen again. The PA has since spent a full third of its budget on its security apparatus, leading to a dramatic increase in police powers and greater coordination with Israel in organizing political repression. As a result, the PA has become increasingly divided from its own citizens, using its authoritarian mechanisms to target journalists, students and dissidents who refuse to accept the current settlement. The infamous murder of writer and activist Bassel al-Araj in 2017 – shot by the IDF after being tortured and imprisoned by the PA for nonviolent protest in his village of Walaja – was emblematic.

These dynamics explain the conditions that we see today, in which the PA has become irrelevant to the mass mobilizations in Jerusalem, the integration of Palestinians within the Green Line into those mobilizations, and the protests against ethnic cleansing within Israeli cities. The PA leaders were absent from the resistance efforts in Sheikh Jarrah and the Old City, while Hamas, too, played little role in the uprisings until the airstrikes began. The protest movement of early May was led by grassroots activists, not political parties.

Since the unrest began the PA has moved in to stop protests in solidarity with Jerusalem and Gaza. Last week Biden called Abbas to reiterate his ‘commitment to strengthening the US-Palestinian partnership’ and stress the need for Hamas to give up its resistance. The PA, in turn, has played its usual role of appeasing and reassuring the US-Israeli axis. When Palestinians gathered in Hebron and outside Ramallah to express their opposition to the airstrikes and expulsions, they were blocked by PA security forces.

The real impact on Israel has been, and will continue to be, from Palestinians on the ground. The Palestinians across historic Palestine, within the Green Line and in the occupied territories, are leading a general strike today (18 May) in conjunction with ongoing protests in the West Bank, Israel and Jerusalem. Whether Palestinians can ratchet up this pressure will be the determining factor in forcing Israeli concessions, even as it emboldens Netanyahu’s far-right cabinet to break the will of the open-air prisoners in Gaza. Although this latest round of resistance may not amount to a third intifada in the sense of a sustained uprising, such acts of defiance will still have a cumulative impact. It is likely that, just as previous protests in Jerusalem mobilized larger swathes of Palestinian society – in 2014, following the kidnap and murder of the 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir by settlers; and in 2017, after restrictions were placed on Al Aqsa mosque – this current wave of discontent will have long-lasting ramifications. Activists within the Green Line in particular are establishing new organizing channels which could change the shape of future mobilizations, whether intifada or not. Sometimes people ask: Won’t the US-EU bloc be forced to impose sanctions on Israel, cut off arms supplies and end subsidies given the scale of Israeli atrocities? But they are living in a dreamworld. The Palestinian people, by contrast, are wide awake.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The House of Zion’, NLR 96.

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Erdoğan’s Zigzags

Turkey’s economy is yet again in turmoil. The Turkish lira lost more than 10 per cent of its value against the US dollar in March, after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fired the central bank governor, Naci Ağbal, who had only been in post since the previous November. The lira’s plunge further increased inflation, which had already risen to 16 per cent after last year’s sluggish 1.8 per cent growth rate. Yet this was merely the latest episode in the ongoing breakdown of Turkey’s capital accumulation regime. The currency crisis of March 2021 followed the rapid depreciation of the lira in 2020 after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was itself a sequel to the currency crisis of August 2018 (precipitated by the country’s changeover from a parliamentary to a presidential system and the diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the US). While different events have triggered these recent upheavals, each one has followed a similar pattern: the government takes steps to lower interest rates and stimulate economic growth, thereby creating higher inflation and currency devaluations, which Erdoğan tries to resolve through a turn to austerity. This cycle has created a degree of political instability whose effects can only be contained through a crackdown on dissent. Yet to fully understand the reason for Erdoğan’s economic zigzags, we need to anatomize Turkey’s model of dependent financialization, along with the conditions that produced it.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Erdoğan, flourished between 2002 and 2013 due to relatively high economic growth stimulated by abundant capital inflows. The two main characteristics of Erdoğan’s neoliberal populist power strategy during these years were financial inclusion through providing cheap loans to lower income groups, and co-option of the poor through a new welfare regime. Back then, international media outlets presented Turkey as a ‘model country’ in which the Islamist government – which defined itself as ‘conservative democrat’ – was modernizing its economy and pursuing democratization as part of its application for European Union membership. The AKP, in turn, used the EU membership process as leverage against Turkey’s Kemalist establishment, concentrated in the Turkish military and the higher courts. This period was characterized by market reforms under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund: privatizations, labour market deregulation and the establishment of a depoliticized governance structure, including central bank independence. The combination of these policies was a key component of the country’s so-called dependent financialization regime, in which domestic demand was stimulated through credit expansion cycles fuelled by foreign investment.

During the first half of the 2000s, the AKP managed to eliminate the most militant part of Turkey’s organized working class via top-down privatizations. By this route, Erdoğan was able to escape from the impasse that the Turkish political establishment had faced during the ‘structural adjustment dilemma’ of the 1990s. While implementing the IMF-brand structural adjustment programmes provided fresh capital inflows which enabled the centre-right parties to stay in power, it also elicited a powerful backlash from working class organizations, which were able to stop some of the significant privatisations drives. Upon his election in 2002, Erdoğan therefore made the elimination of organized labour a top priority, with dramatic results: trade union density in Turkey decreased from 29 per cent in 2001 to 6.3 per cent in 2015, allowing the AKP’s market reforms to proceed unchecked. Simultaneously, household indebtedness – which rose tenfold between 2002 and 2013 – gave rise to a new disciplinary mechanism, making resistance more costly both in the workplace and on the streets, while reconstituting many lower income groups as supporters of Erdoğan’s low interest policies. Such were the pillars of AKP hegemony in the new millennium. Yet the drawbacks of dependent financialization came to be acutely felt during the early 2010s: Turkey’s reliance on capital inflows increased, its industrial structure eroded, and the foreign exchange-denominated debt of nonfinancial corporations increased to historic levels.

In this context, 2013 marked a turning point. International capital inflows slowed down following the US Fed’s announcement that it would taper its quantitative easing programmes – causing volatile growth rates for Turkey and others in the Global South. This period was characterized by financial turbulence, higher unemployment rates and rising inflation. Domestically, the AKP responded by using increasingly authoritarian measures to maintain its supremacy. Its rule was challenged from different angles, by grassroot opposition movements such as the Gezi Park uprising, and by intensified struggles within the power bloc, with the bourgeois factions represented by the AKP confronted by the ‘Güllenists’ (members of the political Islamist group led by former cleric Fethullah Gülen) embedded in the state bureaucracy. This combination of state crisis and capital accumulation crisis – which culminated in the failed coup attempt of 2016 – roiled the Turkish regime for most of the following decade. It has also underpinned the instability of recent months.

The events of March 2021 show how Erdoğan’s government has been paralysed by this conjuncture. Its economic agenda is now dominated by several conflicting accumulation strategies. On the one hand, Turkey’s large bourgeoisie, which has significant access to global financial networks, demands an orthodox monetary policy, the implementation of austerity measures and a pro-Western, pro-EU stance on foreign affairs. Their interests are complemented by the dependent financialization model, which requires higher interest rates to attract investment and drive domestic growth. But on the other hand, much of Erdoğan’s electoral base – small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the construction sector, so-called Islamic capital groups that depend on government contracts and the domestic credit markets – will be hurt by higher interest rates. These groups are therefore demanding the continuation of cheap loans and a strong lira. Hence, central banking policy has become a crucial site of political contestation. Erdoğan continues to mediate between these rival interests, excoriating high interest rates as ‘the mother of all evil’ and postponing austerity measures for as long as possible to prevent another slide in the polls, while quietly submitting to the demands of the bankers whenever push comes to shove.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown these tensions into relief. In June 2020, Turkish policymakers once again tried to lower interest rates to stimulate the economy – but this predictably caused capital outflows and rapid lira devaluation. By autumn of that year, the country was facing a fully-fledged balance of payments crisis which prompted Erdoğan to reverse course and abandon the SMEs, implementing an austerity programme of wage restraint and public spending cuts, supported by interest rate hikes. Initially this strategy succeeded, with 15 billion US dollars of fresh capital inflows to Turkey since November 2020. Yet the turn towards fiscal rectitude alienated the AKP constituency at a time when its support was already waning, causing consternation among the president’s inner circle.

Then on 19 March 2021, Ağbal opted to raise interest rates to 19 percent – a move that threatened to further increase unemployment levels, which had grown to almost a third of the working population. In addition, the rate hikes forced SMEs that do not have access to international loan markets to take loans denominated in lira at unsustainably high rates. The combination of these two factors rendered the political cost of the central bank’s new interest policy untenable. Erdoğan dramatically sacked the governor, as if the rate increases were the latter’s personal initiative. Yet Ağbal’s replacement – supposedly one of the representatives of the ‘low interest rate coalition’ – has now promised to keep interest rates high for as long as it takes to control inflation. Irrespective of their political orientation, it seems, each governor will put the markets first; and Erdoğan won’t stand in their way.   

Turkey’s story is not unique. It is rather an instance of the long stagnation – and consequent rise in political authoritarianism – which has afflicted the global economy since 2008. Nonetheless, there are important national particularities. Turkey faces elections in 2023, so the opposition is currently trying to formulate a popular democratization programme which will loosen Erdoğan’s grip on power by reinstituting a parliamentary system. Despite this, the main opposition parties have presented no solution to the perils of dependent financialization. In essence, their pledge is to revive Turkey’s 2001 IMF programme while securing civil liberties, democratic processes and the rule of law. They thus pit neoliberal centrism against AKP authoritarianism without recognizing that the former is precisely what gave rise to the latter. Beyond these two failed projects lies the struggle against both repression and marketization, but, as yet, this platform has not been articulated by an electoral force capable of challenging AKP hegemony.  

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

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Eros After Covid

1

Jacques Lacan was fond of saying that the tense of the psychoanalytic situation is neither the definite nor indefinite past but the future anterior. The session is a place to articulate desires of what you will have been. Many will not survive this plague year. But for those who do, the future involves a simple predicate: I will have lived through Covid and will make up my life in its aftermath.

The OED tells us that the ‘math’ in ‘aftermath’ is not calculation, like doing your taxes after a year of income; rather, it is the portion of an agricultural field after it’s been harvested and mown. There is sowing, there is reaping, there is manicuring, and then, after surveying the effect of the labour with scythe in hand, there is the aftermath, where the next layer of earth is laid like carpet onto the landscape. For Freud, each of us is always lying, as upon a couch, in the aftermath of some harvest. ‘Aftermath’ in this sense evokes his notoriously untranslatable Nachträglichkeit, used to describe how the psyche makes sense belatedly. A couple of translations – ‘deferred action’, ‘retroaction’ – capture how the past reactivates in the present, but the term is also rendered as ‘afterwardness’, which suggests one can dwell in a grammatical tense like a house, sojourning in a temporality that makes the past not merely past. Psychoanalysis is a field of recollection from which to gather the woolly past and knit it into speech for an analyst. It is a time for surveying dreamscapes, when new associations are retrospectively laid like gossamer onto extant desires. A matter of time: life after Covid will have been.

2

We cannot say exactly what the psychic fallout of the past year will be, although the WHO is now calling Covid-19 a mass trauma on the scale of World War II. Arriving in a political economy which already asserted that society does not exist, coronavirus saw this assumption realized by restricting most association to close family members. People were variously abandoned to mind-numbing isolation and hazardous work conditions. What can psychoanalysis offer in such a situation, both now and whenever we mean when we say ‘afterwards’? There is the question of how our individual psychic lives will be marked by passing through the travails of life and death during Covid. But, perhaps more pressingly, the pandemic confronts society at large with the recurrent question – as much political as psychical – of how to address oneself to a mass death event.

One might rightly wonder whether an adequate response to loss at that scale is even thinkable: the felt obligation to convey empathy toward general suffering is itself a way to suffer against the limits of empathy. In recent decades, psychoanalysis has increasingly emphasized the social genesis of psychic suffering. Freud, for his part, provided an elegant metaphor for how unconscious thoughts are entwined with organic conditions, ‘much as a festoon of flowers are twined around a wire’; and so too with the social and the psychic: the latter blossoms or wilts depending on its social architecture. Though society has persisted in compromised ways during the pandemic, there are distinct malformations of the psyche that attend these compromises. Psychoanalysis can offer a way of talking about those compromise formations – many of which existed before Covid-19, and will remain in its aftermath.

3

In 1974, an interviewer charged Lacan with having a pessimistic view of human progress, to which he replied:

Personally, I would find the idea of an all-encompassing plague, produced by man, rather marvellous. It would be the proof that he had managed to do something with his own hands and head, without divine or natural intervention. All these bacteria overfed for amusement’s sake, spreading out across the world like the locusts in the Bible, would mark the triumph of mankind. But this isn’t going to happen. Science happily saunters through its crisis of responsibility: everything will return to its natural place, as they say. And as I said, the real will win out, as always. And we’ll be as fucked as we ever were.

Well, Jack, it happened. Mankind has triumphed. Yet naturally enough we are still as fucked as we ever were. In such times of crisis, psychoanalysis calls on us to articulate ‘the real’, which Lacan defines in the same interview as ‘everything that isn’t right, does not work, and is opposed to man’s life and his engagement with his personality’. The real is what upends our life and distorts our sense of time. This dysfunction ‘always returns’, and does so on its own schedule, refusing to conform to the regular cycles of the calendar or stars. In our isolation, perhaps what has plagued us more intimately than the plague itself has been the distorted passage of time under lockdown. Over the past year, the semblance of normality has wavered and perhaps the real has come briefly and obliquely into view, but we cannot set our watches by its return.

4

Time is a primordial riddle. Augustine famously confessed that he could only explain what time is if you didn’t ask him. Freud, likewise, never offered a comprehensive theory of psychoanalytic time. In a letter to the matron of French psychoanalysis Marie Bonaparte, written the year before his death, he divulged that ‘as time is concerned, I hadn’t fully informed you of my ideas. Nor anyone else’. Fittingly enough, a psychoanalytic concept of time requires some reconstruction of discontinuous evidence. An admittedly preposterous fundamental is that the unconscious is timeless: ‘In mental life, nothing that has once taken shape can be lost’, and in principle, ‘everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances’. Moreover, the timeless id – that instinctual reservoir of libidinal energy – is a ‘cauldron of seething excitations’ that has neither beginning nor end. Psychic conflict is, in part, a symptom of this asymmetry between the boundless instinctual energy of the timeless unconscious, on the one hand, and a mortal body with its partial memory, on the other. By creating fantasy solutions to the ordeal of mortality, the id primarily ensures that ‘every one of us is convinced of his own immortality’.

If ‘everyone owes nature a death’, as Freud (misquoting Shakespeare) wrote, how does death enter into the psychic picture? In 1913, Freud went on a walk with Rainer Marie Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé. Rilke was distraught over the transience of all worldly beauty. (‘Before us great Death stands / Our fate held close within his quiet hands’, he would later write, in what appears to be a presentiment of the coming wars and epidemics.) Freud, failing to convince his company that the transience of beloved objects was what made them precious, concluded that ‘what spoilt their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning… since the mind instinctively recoils from anything that is painful’. Better to ‘lift Life’s red wine’ with Rilke than to acknowledge the onrush of mortal time.  

5

After his summer walk with his sensitive companions, Freud set out on a path to determine just how death functions before we die. It was a timely preoccupation, as the effects of war neurosis blossomed in returning soldiers and the Spanish flu killed millions over the following decade. Psychoanalysis had to be scaled up, beyond the ends of the chaise longue, to account for these historical traumas. The concept of afterwardness found practical expression in such suffering – working through the recent and deep-seated past. But there was a problem. Freud had maintained since 1896 that the psychoanalytic process was a matter of rearranging memory traces. Yet the traumas of war refused assimilation and re-transcription. We repeat what we can’t remember, and the traumatized were beset by compulsive repetitions because they could not mend their past into new memories and associations. The experience of mass death had become an unassimilable kernel.

This affliction became personal for Freud when he lost his daughter Sophie to complications of the flu in 1920. Freud’s biographers have shown how he concealed the fact that the boy who played the repetitive fort-da game in Beyond the Pleasure Principle was Sophie’s son. She had died in January and Freud finished the text in May, so it is reasonable to speculate, with Jacqueline Rose, that the text retrospectively works through the afterlife of her death. The child’s game, in which he threw away a cotton ball (‘Fort! Gone!’) and reeled it back (‘Da! Here!’), simulated the disappearance and reappearance of his mother. By concocting this simple narrative, the child adjusts to the rhythm of mortal time – the discontinuous perception of what is there and then gone. Moreover, Freud contends, the child transforms the passive pain of the mother’s absence into an active game that symbolizes and overcomes the loss. The fort-da game is an object-lesson in learning to live with loss. Freud offered this heuristic to depict ‘normal development’, as opposed to the psychic configuration of those suffering from war neuroses. Yet it was also an ambiguous gesture of a grandpa wishing his young grandson well in the wake of their shared loss.

Philosophers have long maintained that mortality gives our existence its temporal structure by bringing each of us to a full stop. Psychoanalysis does not deny this so much as deepen it by adding a qualification: we cannot imagine our own death (Lacan called it an article of faith), and in its place we develop fantasies that keep the pain of mortality – or the pain of time itself – at arm’s length. For this reason, death always appears accidental. The fantasy of immortality contends with time through the intimations of death produced by the absence, and ultimately the death, of others. It is not our own death, but the passing of others – and thus the experience of living through an unassimilable loss – that is the origin of trauma. As Cathy Caruth writes, trauma is ‘the story of an impossible responsibility of consciousness in its own originating relation to others, and specifically to the death of others’. We are often powerless to respond to this experience. If in its wake we cannot reorganize our relation to the world, then the ‘death drive’ takes over, manifesting in the symptoms of repetition compulsion. The death drive works, Freud says, ‘in silence’. Yet the prompt of psychoanalysis is to ask that we try to speak anyway, however impossible the address, so that we might learn to live with each other through the vicissitudes of time.

6

What can this teach us about weathering the losses of the long 2020, a year which has itself somehow been lost to time? When a beloved object is lost, Freud writes, ‘reality passes its verdict – that the object no longer exists – upon each one of the memories and hopes through which the libido was attached to the lost object’. Detachment from the mother is merely the archetype of separation and distance that later accidents of time inevitably imitate. Freud’s schema for mourning such an experience is counterintuitive, if not outright scandalous, because it depends on what we might consider a social vice: narcissism. Forced to decide whether we will share in the fate of the lost object, we are tempted to identify with the image of what we’ve lost in a kind of melancholic stagnation. But, writes Freud, against this impulse we must yield to the ‘narcissistic satisfactions in being alive to sever [our] attachment to the non-existent object’. Through this narcissistic enjoyment we regain a perhaps strained capacity to love again, an ability to bind new associations.

The repetition of living beyond loss is crucially different from the death-driven repetition compulsion induced by trauma, which fixes you in place. The first form of repetition was figured, in Freud’s mind, by his grandson. The child’s game, he wrote, expressed an ‘immense cultural achievement in successfully abnegating his drives (that is, abnegating the gratification thereof) by allowing his mother to go away without his making a great fuss’. The child, whose irreparably lost object was one he never possessed, had reinvented the beguiling game of desire. His game is one we all play by re-finding ways to love that can recreate and sustain life through the crises of mortality. It is a response to pain and loss which does not leave us mired in the timeless inertia which Freud equated with death itself. As social life recommences on wider and wider scales, we will have to contend with what Lacan called ‘the neurosis of destiny or the neurosis of failure’: the capacity for the real to disastrously return unbidden. Living with one another becomes problematic because we all have complexes, inhibitions, traumas and resistances when it comes to what Freud called Eros – that troublemaker that sends us into the world to bind new associations. Only an ethics of care, to which we are always inadequate, that would require heeding and respecting the real of other people’s pain, offers a way out.

7

In a public discussion with Albert Einstein about the origins of warfare in 1932, just years before Nazi violence would exile Freud from his home in Vienna, Freud argued that the will toward war was merely an effect of the destructive instinct. That instinct, he maintained to the end, is ineradicable. The countervailing means against war are ‘to bring Eros, its antagonist, into play against it’: the growth of affective ties between people can combat the destructive instinct. This call for a ‘community of feeling’ is a remarkably sentimental one for Freud, who even invokes the timeless imperative to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ as a precept for the collective work of Eros. The psychoanalytic challenge to this statement would, of course, be that we hardly know ourselves, and that to reduce another person to the poorly taken measure of your own self is likely to miss the other person entirely. Better to say that one should love one’s neighbor not as oneself – or, to put it in the language of the Sanders campaign, ‘fight for someone you don’t know’, which includes yourself.

For leftists, the condition of class war often appears interminable, replete with countless losses, failures, false starts and false ends. For this reason, the left repeatedly finds itself in a state of mourning, grieving over the defeat of its most recent projects (Sanders and Corbyn among them). In this context, psychoanalysis can not only provide a vocabulary for the predations of capitalism; it can also teach us how to overcome those losses so that we might ‘fail better’ – a repetition renewed with every generation under conditions not of their making. If serial failures threaten to sunder the community ties that sustain emancipatory work, then perhaps the antidote is psychic ‘care’ as defined by Lisa Baraitser: ‘the arduous temporal practice of maintaining ongoing relations with others and the world’. To live with, and struggle for, others – their infinite demands and desires – is a vexed part of sustaining the horizon of leftism. Experiences of estrangement, loss, pain, grief, and trauma are potentially the most availing shared predicate of the afflicted; but they are also a formidable barrier to social community given the isolating effects of privation. What psychoanalysis would call the ethical relation to another’s pain – its prompt to address the impossible – tallies with the leftist programme of building solidarity in the face of almost immovable limits. This impossible work of Eros is what makes the transformations of revolutionary time possible. A matter of repetition: the struggle for communism will have been.

Read on: Phillip Derbyshire, ‘Vicissitudes of Psychoanalysis’, NLR 110.

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Abandon Ship

In an era of startling novelties, the decline of British Labourism feels like old times. A Labour Party promising ‘a new leadership’ purged of the Corbyn left lost the Hartlepool parliamentary byelection last Thursday to Boris Johnson’s governing Conservatives on a 16 per cent swing. On the adjacent coalfield, Durham County Council slipped from the Party’s control for the first time since 1925. It was one of eight local councils lost by Labour, in local elections which saw the Tories take 36 per cent of the popular vote to Labour’s 29 per cent.

Wales aside, where there was a pandemic-related incumbency bounce for the Labour-run devolved administration, Labour’s ex-industrial heartlands in Outer Britain are one by one abandoning ship. Scottish Labour imploded between 2011 and 2015 as the Nationalists swept the board. It now trails in third place in Holyrood elections behind the unmixedly pro-Union Conservatives. In northern England and the Midlands the red wall fractured along the Brexit divide in 2019, handing Johnson his Commons majority.

To borrow a line from Eric Hobsbawm, the heavy-industrial North East used to be Labour with a capital L. Situated about 25 miles down the coast from the larger Newcastle–Gateshead conurbation, Hartlepool hadn’t returned a Tory to Westminster in decades. New Labour’s Peter Mandelson, a former Hartlepool MP ennobled by Gordon Brown, and lately an unofficial adviser to Starmer’s team, was all over the news on Saturday explaining that Jeremy Corbyn was to blame for its loss. How convincing is that explanation?

Though usually red, Hartlepool has been blue before. A medieval town with a Victorian industrial-port annexe, it was enfranchised by Disraeli’s Tories in 1867 and returned the dockyard developer of modern West Hartlepool, Ralph Ward-Jackson, in the Conservative interest. Afterwards it voted Liberal before turning Conservative in 1924 and Labour in 1945.

The seat reverted to the Tories during the consumer prosperity of the late fifties, but Macmillan threw away his advantage through economic deflation to protect sterling on the currency exchanges. The closure of Hartlepool’s shipyard pushed the local unemployment rate into double figures. Labour regained the constituency only for Callaghan to shutter its state-owned steelworks in 1977 as part of a package of cuts agreed with the IMF to stabilize the pound.

In the early nineties, Blair levered Mandelson into Hartlepool as a safe Labour seat adjoining his own Sedgefield constituency. Discontent broke out in New Labour’s first term after the Bank of England governor, granted freedom to raise interest rates by Brown, agreed with a journalist’s assessment that rising unemployment in the North East was an acceptable price to pay to curb inflation in the South. The chair of the group of northern Labour MPs told the BBC that ‘there are regions of this country that are just being ignored’.

Household incomes in Hartlepool slipped further behind the UK average, and the town’s real unemployment rate stood at 19 per cent. Labour lost control of the borough council in 2000, Mandelson’s election agent among the casualties. A separate mayoral contest was won by a football mascot standing as an independent. Mandelson himself came through unscathed despite two ministerial resignations over corruption allegations. In 2004 Blair parachuted him across to Brussels to become an EU commissioner. Higher public spending had quieted backbench dissent, but Labour was run hard in the byelection contest to replace him by the anti-Iraq War Liberal Democrats.

New Labour is not the beacon of electoral success that Mandelson claims. Through neglect it poisoned its own well. With greater candour than of late, he concluded his 2010 memoir, The Third Man, admitting regret that New Labour hadn’t formulated an active industrial policy before the financial crisis hit.

When the growth stopped we were left without a credible vision of how we would meet people’s concerns about their families’ economic future. This was what made the difference in many of the Midlands seats that we won in 1997, retained in the next two elections, but had now lost. Real disposable incomes were either stagnant or falling by the end of the Parliament. The economy was not delivering sufficient numbers of decently paid, skilled jobs.

One of the local authorities that was subsequently hardest hit by the Cameron government’s spending cuts and welfare restrictions, in 2016 Hartlepool defied it to vote 70 per cent in favour of leaving the European Union. In the pro-Remain big cities, the talk was of pitchforks and a Peasants’ Revolt. Nevertheless, Labour performed strongly in Hartlepool under Corbyn the following year on an anti-austerity ticket, securing 22,000 votes, up from 14,000 under Miliband. In 2019, by contrast, once the Party had strapped Corbyn to a policy of reneging on the referendum verdict, the Conservatives would probably have carried the seat if it hadn’t been for competition on the right from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

‘Hartlepool has always been a working-class town. But it is not a working-class Labour Party anymore’, a first-time Tory voter tells a delighted Telegraph. Only 2 per cent of Labour’s 2017 parliamentary intake came direct from manual occupations while 12 per cent had previously worked as trade-union officials. The larger part consisted of Party workers (38 per cent) and professionals (19 per cent). What was once the Party of Handworkers and Brainworkers, in the Fabian Sidney Webb’s rendering, now overwhelmingly comprises the latter alone.

And what brains. Writing in Unherd last September, Labour life peer Maurice Glasman, founder of the socially conservative Blue Labour tendency, hailed Starmer’s flag-and-families party-conference speech as an electoral game-changer, ‘the first time that Starmer could speak directly to the nation about who he was and what he stood for’:

Labour is under no pressure to develop a manifesto, it needed a general direction of travel, a sense of mission and of vision. A sense of the temper of the man who was leading it. And he seized the opportunity to express the ethics of a profoundly conservative person in a way that no member of the Conservative front bench possibly could.

The complacent Tories were in for a shock, Glasman argued. ‘They can no longer draw comfort from the quiet man who sits alone before them.’ Starmer was poised to take back Labour’s working-class heartlands by tapping their social patriotism. ‘I cannot stress it enough. If you don’t love your country, the red wall will never love you’, explained political consultant Deborah Mattinson, author of Beyond the Red Wall (2020), a focus group compendium. In her own speech to conference, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds pledged Labour to fiscal restraint in contrast to the ‘cavalier’ Rishi Sunak.

Hartlepool represented the first electoral test of this new ideological brew. The campaign was run from on high. Labour’s candidate, Paul Williams, who lost his seat in nearby Stockton in the last election, was reportedly handpicked by Jenny Chapman, Starmer’s political secretary, who lost her own seat in Darlington in 2019. Starmer nominated her for a peerage last year. The Northern Echo characterised Williams as ‘an avid Remainer and second-referendum campaigner’. As if to compensate, Labour headquarters in London were ‘obsessed’ by Union Jacks and the Cross of St. George, a local organiser has complained to the Guardian. ‘There was no fleshing out what the flag means, or what policies have changed because we’re now patriotic. It was just: bung a flag up.’

Meanwhile the Tories, led locally by the 34-year-old mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, focussed on economic development. A latter-day Ralph Ward-Jackson, generously backed by a sympathetic Treasury, Houchen has nationalized the struggling local airport and obtained Free Port tax status for Teesside in a bid to attract corporate investment that he says ‘previously would have wandered off to Holland or Germany’.

On election day, Labour attracted just 9,000 votes, barely half the Conservative total, whose candidate, Jill Mortimer, took 52 per cent of the vote. Houchen secured his own re-election with 73 per cent. The conclusion is obvious: Hartlepool was a defeat for the right in which the right was represented by the leaders of the Labour Party.

Writing in the weekend edition of the Financial Times – more aggressively neo-Blairite than ever under editor Roula Khalaf – Mandelson demands that a sectional mass membership and ‘hard left’ trade-union affiliates be expelled from Labour’s governing counsels. ‘Starmer needs to wipe the slate clean’, he insists. An unnamed party source briefed that the leadership will ‘accelerate the programme of change in our Party’.

In a botched reshuffle, Starmer has appointed as his new shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, an anti-welfare veteran of the Miliband frontbench. Behind the scenes, Deborah Mattinson has been brought in as director of strategy where she joins head of policy Claire Ainsley, author of The New Working Class (2018), overconfidently subtitled How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.  

Labour hasn’t won a general election since the 2008 financial crisis. Is its decline terminal, or will Mattinson and Ainsley ultimately succeed in producing political affinities with estranged working-class supporters under laboratory conditions? Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system props up the debilities of the established parties, as the Conservatives showed after their rout in 1997. Labour remains strong in the big cities where voters have nowhere else to go. The Lib Dems have yet to recover face from the Cameron coalition and the Greens are only just beginning to break through, buoyed by disillusioned Corbynites.

Unless things worsen still further, the Parliamentary Labour Party may yet keep Starmer on as a placeholder against the left until after the next general election. A second northern by-election lies on the immediate horizon, however. No two constituencies are exactly alike, but Labour’s majority in Batley and Spen is under 4,000, and another Tory gain would really set the cat among the pigeons.

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘Revolt of the Rustbelt’, NLR 105.

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Blasphemy Wars

Last month, Pakistan witnessed some of the most violent clashes between protestors and security forces in the country’s recent history, which left 6 police officers and 12 protestors dead. The protests were led by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a right-wing religious group that came to prominence defending the ‘honour’ of the Prophet Muhammad after the publication of blasphemous cartoons in France last year. The unrest not only expressed the profound contradictions embedded in the Pakistani state; it also demonstrated the tragic consequences of a weakened internationalist left.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws can be traced back to the competing religious nationalisms of Colonial India. The eruption of a mass anti-colonial movement in the region after the First World War coincided with an increase in political violence among Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities. Known in colonial lexicon as ‘communal tensions’, these clashes tore apart the social fabric of India, leading eventually to the partition of the subcontinent along religious lines in 1947.

In the 1920s, blasphemy became a flashpoint for the growing antagonism between Hindus and Muslims, as Hindu extremist organizations published vitriolic books targeting the prophet Muhammad and the Muslim community. The backlash to these texts – including the murder of a Hindu publisher in 1929 by a young Muslim carpenter, Ilm Din – provided the template for both popular Muslim sentiment on this question and the state’s response to it. Eager to maintain order, the colonial government drew up laws that made intentional insult and injury to other people’s religious beliefs punishable. These were ostensibly meant to provide a legal avenue for resolving disputes between different religious communities, and included protections for ‘reasonable criticism’ of religion. Yet the government aggravated tensions by imposing the death sentence against Ilm Din, turning him into a martyr for many Muslims, who attended his funeral in their thousands.

Following the creation of Pakistan, Islam once again became a political issue, when in 1953 Islamist parties led deadly protests calling for the minority Ahmadiyya community to be officially declared non-Muslim for denying the finality of the Prophet. The government initially refused to bow down to this demand, yet an even larger and more violent movement in 1974 caused Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s administration to capitulate. The legal codification of religion that began in British India was used to exclude an already marginalized community. Three years later, Bhutto’s government was overthrown by General Zia-ul-Haq in a military coup. Zia was backed by the United States in its ‘Jihad’ against the Communist government in Afghanistan. As the military regime clamped down upon leftists and pro-democracy organizations, it revitalized political Islam to shore up support. One of the most glaring examples of Zia’s opportunistic use of religion was the strengthening of blasphemy laws in 1986. The amendments to the law introduced by the dictatorship not only included the death penalty for the crime of blasphemy; they also stated that even if an off-hand remark was interpreted as being blasphemous, it could be punishable by death.

The passing of this law fuelled more accusations of blasphemy, which rose from less than 10 cases between 1947 and 1986 to more than 1,500 cases over the following thirty years. Its ambiguous language allowed people to weaponize such charges in a plethora of private conflicts, including many cases of property disputes. One of the most shocking abuses of the law occurred at a university campus in the city of Mardan in April 2017. Mashal Khan, a journalism student, was organizing against the corrupt practices of the university administration. In response, the university authorities launched a smear campaign against Mashal, accusing him of blasphemy and placing him under official investigation – just one month after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for a decisive crackdown on blasphemous social media posts. As a result, a mob of angry students dragged him out of his room and lynched him while dozens of policemen stood by. A state inquiry later proved that the blasphemy allegations were entirely false. This gruesome incident highlighted the ease with which false accusations could be wielded to eliminate potential opponents.

In 2011, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard for criticizing the blasphemy laws. Mumtaz Qadri, the policeman who killed Taseer in broad daylight, was arrested and hanged in 2016. But he was immediately hailed as a hero by the religious right, who invoked the memory of Ilm Din against the sovereign power of the state. Qadri’s actions gave a renewed impetus to the Islamist movement across the country, which was further strengthened with the emergence of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a wheelchair-bound cleric whose tirades against the West and their subordinates in Pakistan distinguished him from an uninspiring political class. Rizvi formed the TLP in 2015. In a country devastated by foreign interventions, drone strikes and a crumbling economy, his message had immediate cut-through.

The cleric’s moment of triumph arrived in 2017, when it was rumoured that the government planned to remove fidelity to Prophethood from the oath of allegiance undertaken by legislators. This came at a moment of growing tensions between the civilian government led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the country’s military, which had long been conspiring to depose the party and install cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan as Prime Minister. (These machinations were nothing new: the Pakistani military has a long history of destabilizing elected governments through proxies in order to maintain its grip on key political, economic and security decisions.)

Rizvi announced a sit-in in Islamabad over the government’s decision, blocking the main highways for days. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Movement yielded to the pressure and announced its support for the protests. As clashes intensified between police and the protestors, the military leadership stepped in, calling for a ‘truce’ between the two sides. The government was thereby forced into a humiliating capitulation. Over the following days, viral videos emerged of senior military officials handing Rs. 1000 (approx. $7) cheques to each protestor, revealing the covert support for the movement within sections of the security state.  

Since the government’s climb-down in 2017, an emboldened TLP has made further inroads into the country’s political system. In the 2018 elections, the military managed to manufacture a majority for Imran Khan, who displaced the two traditional parties to become the new PM. What received less attention, however, was how the TLP garnered the fourth largest vote share. While Rizvi died of Covid-19 in November 2020, the organization continues to grow in popularity under the leadership of his 26 year-old son, Saad.

The recent clashes can only be understood within this larger history of state-led discrimination. They were triggered by the beheading of the French schoolteacher, Samuel Patty, following accusations of blasphemy. The incident, along with the consequent rise in Islamophobia in France, became the focal point for demands by TLP to expel the French ambassador. In November 2020, as TLP protestors once again blocked major highways, Imran Khan signed an agreement with TLP, accepting their central demand and promising to discuss the matter in parliament.

This was a delaying tactic intended to diffuse a potentially explosive situation, but the decision came back to haunt the government when Saad Rizvi announced a ‘Long March’ in April 2021 to enforce the terms of their agreement. While Khan had previously used the TLP as a tool for blackmailing political opponents, the party’s hardline nationalism was now threatening the interest of the country’s ruling elite, which is dependent on foreign loans and Western military equipment. As such, the PM gave a televised address explaining that, despite his earlier promises, he would not be expelling the French ambassador. The security forces subsequently arrested Saad Rizvi, prompting street battles between protestors and the police which culminated in over a dozen deaths. In the wake of this chaos, the government decided to ban TLP, designating it a ‘terrorist’ organization.

Yet after almost a week of intense clashes, Khan, whose abrupt policy reversals have earned him the title of ‘U-Turn Khan’, announced another round of negotiations with the TLP. Acknowledging the prevalence of its ideology in parts of the state apparatus, the government decided to release arrested TLP activists and the party was allowed to petition for a review of its ban. It also agreed, for the second time, to bring the resolution to expel the French ambassador to parliament, hoping that lawmakers would reject it.

When the resolution was tabled, the scenes in parliament were like a dark comedy, with nearly all legislators going out of their way to avoid discussing the topic. The supposedly liberal PPP boycotted the session, arguing that the government should have consulted their party earlier, while PML-N, which was the target of TLP’s protests in 2017, condemned the government’s crackdown on the protestors while stopping short of endorsing the expulsion of the ambassador. Even government legislators themselves claimed that they supported the TLP’s demands ‘but not its methods’. Their paralysis highlighted the inability of the country’s traditional political class to challenge an ideologically ascendant far-right.

While this power bloc threatens to go the way of India’s Congress, the public finances are in freefall. The European Parliament recently passed a resolution condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and religious persecution, warning that it could bring the country to its knees by removing its trading privileges. Meanwhile the IMF continues to tighten its stranglehold on the economy. Pakistan signed a punishing $6 billion agreement with the financial institution in 2019 which demanded unprecedented cuts to higher education, privatization of health services and freezing salaries of government employees. For the first time in 70 years, the country has a negative growth rate, while unemployment and inflation continue to skyrocket. The IMF has also directed the country’s policymakers to make its central bank ‘independent’ so as to remove it from democratic pressures.

At the same time, Pakistan is witnessing a mushrooming of popular dissent against the ravaging effects of global capitalism, led by revitalized movements of workers, students, women and ethnic minorities. In November 2019, students in more than 50 cities coordinated mass protests via the Progressive Students Collective, demanding an increase in spending for higher education, restoring student unions (banned by the military dictatorship in 1984) and the establishment of a public holiday in memory of Mashal Khan.

Another organization that has inspired the country’s youth is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), whose young leaders come from the minority Pashtun group. Pashtuns have faced the brunt of the War on Terror in the shape of religious extremism, military operations, drone strikes and enforced disappearances. Now they are fighting back, calling for an end to the militarization of the region and formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hold the Pakistani deep state accountable for its actions. Unsurprisingly, leading members of both the Progressive Students Collective and the PTM are facing sedition charges through a colonial law that can lead to a life sentence for ‘conspiring against the state’.

Pakistan is also seeing a resurgence of labour militancy, as workers’ living conditions continue to deteriorate. Last October, hundreds of government employees staged an ‘IMF Out’ protest in Islamabad to reject the IMF-imposed austerity measures. A month later, farmers from across the province of Punjab organized the largest ever mobilization against the exploitative practices of multinational fertilizer and seed companies. The Khan government responded by firing tear-gas shells at the protestors, one of whom was killed. The event demonstrated the widespread discontent simmering beneath the surface of Pakistani society, as well as the government’s willingness to appease its global creditors by using brute force.

Serious talks are now underway among militants of these movements to form a new political force that could confront the current deadlock and beat back the TLP. The affective power of religion in Pakistan shows that, far from producing ideological homogeneity, capitalist modernity reproduces and accentuates pre-modern symbolisms, which find their clearest expression in populist movements. The decadence of Pakistan’s political culture and the subservience of the state to global powers have created a pervasive paranoia about the threat posed to its native religion and ‘national security’. In the absence of a popular anti-imperialist vocabulary, legitimate criticisms of the West lapse into essentialist binaries which serve the TLP. Public rage is directed towards phantoms, and emancipatory alternatives are foreclosed. Today, many forget that the Muslim world – from Indonesia to Pakistan, Lebanon to Afghanistan – was once home to mass left-wing movements that were systematically crushed by right-wing forces under the tutelage of the ‘enlightened’ West. Now these reactionary Islamist ideologies, supported by the US and its client states, have become Frankenstein’s monsters. Yet, alongside them, a progressive coalition is beginning to re-emerge.  

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Revolutionary Perspectives for Pakistan’, NLR 1/63.