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Red Lines

On Monday 21 June the Swedish government fell. It was a strange coalition, voted down by another strange coalition. The administration was led by the Social Democrats (SAP), with the right-wing former trade union leader, Stefan Löfven, as Prime Minister. It included the smallest parliamentary party, the Environment Party, and relied on a confidence-and-supply arrangement with Sweden’s two most neoliberal groupings: the Centre Party and the Liberals. Its parliamentary majority was also contingent upon the votes of the Left Party, which last week withdrew its support, joining with the three conservative parties – the Moderates, the Sweden Democrats and the Christian Democrats – to pass a motion of no confidence. The Centre and the Liberals abstained.

Sweden has a parliamentary system based on proportional representation in multi-member constituencies, with the threshold for representation set at 4% of the national vote. Eight parties currently sit in parliament. The reason for the bizarre political games of recent weeks was a deadlock in which neither the left-of-centre – composed of the Social Democrats, the Left and the Environment Party – nor the traditional bourgeois bloc of Moderates, Centre, Christian Democrats and Liberals, could command a majority.

Until recently the third largest party – the xenophobic Sweden Democrats, with roots in the neo-Nazi and white power movements of the 1980s and 90s – was regarded as beyond the pale. In the other Nordic countries, xenophobic parties have formed governments or been invited into bourgeois coalitions. But Sweden remains more open and tolerant than its neighbours, with a significantly larger immigrant population. In 2018 the Social Democrats had their worst electoral result since the introduction of near-universal male suffrage in 1911, winning only 28.3%. Yet they remained the largest party, 8% ahead of the Moderates. After four months of negotiations a government accord was reached, keeping the Sweden Democrats out, and winning the support of the Centre and Liberals in exchange for 73 separate policy commitments.

These included: maintaining possibilities for profit maximation in social services; dismantling the public labour exchanges that were once the lynchpin of the social democratic full employment policy; changing labour legislation to make it easier to fire certain employees; and abolishing rent controls in new housing projects. The list also contained some modest climate policies, more resources for regions and municipalities, and one meagre social democratic proposal: a ‘family week’ which gives parents three days off to spend with their children during the school holidays.

The pact was a major achievement for the Centre and Liberals, who got the SAP to accept a number of policies which had been ruled out by the Moderate-led coalition of 2006-14. In exchange, the Social Democrats got the premiership and split the bourgeois bloc. The Left got nothing, apart from an insulting clause stating that they should have no influence on budgetary decisions. Yet its parliamentary support was necessary for the new government, and in the end it acquiesced to the SAP after intensive talks with Löfven.

The Swedish Left Party grew out of the Communist Party, which since 1964 was the pioneering ‘Eurocommunist’ formation avant la lettre: democratic, critical of the USSR, heterodox and intellectually engaged (it invited the editors of New Left Review to one of its seminars in the 1960s). A small party polling at 4–5%, it was quickly overwhelmed by international headwinds: the invasion of Czechoslovakia (which it condemned), the spread of Maoism, and post-1968 neocommunism. But it survived amid these difficulties, and from 1990 began the process of social democratization, completed after roughly two decades of internal conflict and external anti-communist bombardment. Today, the party sees itself as heir to an earlier form of social democracy, though it rejects the radical independent internationalism of Olof Palme, adhering to a conventional liberal worldview. Jonas Sjöstedt, its leader from 2012 to 2020, became one of the most popular politicians in the country, while his successor, Nooshi Dadgostar – a Sweden-born woman of Iranian descent – has earned respect from her confrontations with the SAP. With a vote of 8% in the 2018 election and a consistent programme of left social democratic, feminist and ecological reformism, the party has performed better than its Eurocommunist counterparts in Italy, France and Spain.

Upon signing the arrangement with Löfven, the Left issued a warning. If the government ever tried to change job security legislation or abolish rent controls, it would immediately call a no-confidence vote. The Social Democrats skilfully avoided the labour rights controversy, getting the two biggest unions to sign a new agreement with employers which relaxed job security in exchange for other provisions: the right to a permanent job after three years of temporary employment, and a publicly financed right to retraining and ‘competence development’. But last month the issue of rent controls appeared on the agenda, with a parliamentary committee proposing market rents in new housing developments. The SAP claimed it was in favour of continued rent controls in principle, but accepted the committee’s recommendation because of its 73-point agreement with the neoliberal parties. To Löfven’s surprise, the Left reminded him of its red line from 2019 and prepared a no-confidence motion. The conservative opposition parties – who are in favour of market rents – opportunistically joined the Left, and the political crisis was detonated. At this point, the Swedish constitution gave the Prime Minister two options. He could resign, prompting negotiations moderated by the Speaker to find a PM acceptable to parliament (which would give Löfven the chance to reassemble a majority); or he could call a snap election. Last Monday he announced his resignation.

***

Sweden’s parliamentary crisis raises various questions about the condition of centre-left politics, the fortunes of European social democracy and the weakness of the left, which may at least be outlined here. While social democracy has suffered a general breakdown rooted in the mutations of finance capitalism, today’s centre-left parties are facing highly differentiated problems and prospects. An understanding of this can be gained by locating the parties in their various democratic systems.

The smoothest terrain lies in front of the Anglo Labour parties of Australia, Britain and New Zealand, which inhabit one part of a (largely) two-party landscape, fortified by first-past-the-post electoral systems. Once a party has gained a seat at a two-party table, under these rules it is likely to win power sooner or later. It may lose its position, as the British Liberals did, but that requires the rise of a new, cohesive, self-conscious class (e.g. the industrial working class in the early 20th century), and the Anglo Labour parties have already taken out middle-class insurance against any repetition of this process. Last October, NZ Labour captured just over 50% of all votes, up 13% since 2017.

Another decent bet on the future of social democracy is the Iberian model, where the centre-left can claim to represent the nation’s democratic transition. In Spain and Portugal, the main right-wing opponents of the government are about the same size as the ruling party, operating in a system of proportional representation. In both cases they have recently overcome the liberal taboo against cooperating with the radical left, thereby gaining some autonomy from the centre-right.  

Meanwhile, the once powerful Nordic welfare state-builders have lost their parliamentary dominance, most likely for ever. They are now cut down to between 20% and 30% of the vote, with the Finnish falling even below that. But they are in competition with a disparate set of centre-right parties, which sometimes allows them to occupy a pivotal position despite their weak poll ratings – hence the social democratic-led coalitions of Denmark, Finland and (until recently) Sweden. More than their sister parties, these organizations have also retained something of their working-class and popular roots.

The mid-European coalition parties – in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland – are located in polycentric political systems of proportional representation, and are accustomed to serving in government. These parties have played a part in the development of national and local welfare states, though often a constricted and subordinate one. They will probably keep this modest role; although the Dutch Labour Party in particular has seen a drop-off in support, gaining only 5.7% of the vote in the two latest elections.

Two grand social democratic parties – in Austria and Germany – are in great trouble, facing unified bourgeois blocs of (mainly Catholic) Christian Democracy. Without the protection of a Westminster-style electoral system, they are in danger of being relegated to third-party status. German polls are currently showing the SPD placed well below the Greens. The historical core of European social democracy is unlikely to play any leading domestic political role in the near future.

Social democracy returned to Eastern Europe mainly thanks to converted communists, but their principal contribution to post-Soviet society has been liberal EU-philia and NATO-fication, rather than social democratic reforms. This imbalance between foreign policy and popular domestic concerns has cost the converts dearly. Social questions have become the preserve of hard-right conservatives, whose popular support has steadily risen. Almost all social democratic parties of Eastern Europe have also been involved in corruption scandals at the highest level. Only in the smallest and the poorest countries in the Balkan periphery – primarily Albania and North Macedonia – could social democracy conceivably retain substantial influence in the coming years.

Finally, we have the casualties: parties lethally wounded in Italy, France and Greece. In all three, but most of all in Italy, the whole party system has become unhinged and volatile. In Italy the PCI and the PSI both dissolved in the early 1990s. The socialists have virtually disappeared, while the prolonged dilution of Italian communism has all but severed its roots in the labour movement. Nonetheless, the Partito Democratico – with its changeable political colours – remains a significant player in the coalition games of this fractured party system.

In France, the Socialist party which carried Mitterand to power was formed only in 1971, and in the presidential election of 2017 its candidate was supported by 6.4% of voters. But it is likely that a new, potentially significant centre-left party of the highly educated middle-classes – Piketty’s ‘Brahmins’ – will soon be established. In Greece, PASOK is trying to regroup by gathering some other centre-left currents into the so-called Movement for Change. The standard-bearer for centre-left decline, PASOK is Europe’s only social democratic party clearly overtaken by a more progressive challenger – apart perhaps from Ireland’s Labour Party, now languishing behind Sinn Féin. Only in southern Europe have significant new left parties and movements emerged in this century: Syriza in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy, La France Insoumise, Podemos in Spain, the Left Bloc in Portugal. But for the time being, their way forward seems limited. With no majority in sight for any of these parties, parliamentary manoeuvring and extra-parliamentary politics are their only foreseeable future.

***

Sweden’s political turmoil is far from over. Löfven – more disposed to compromise than to fight – is hoping to return as premier after new rounds of horse-trading. His chances are slightly better than 50%. The parties which previously backed him as Prime Minister – the SAP, Centre, Left, Environment Party – have 175 seats against the conservative opposition’s 174. But given the Left’s withdrawal, there are MPs in the former bloc whose vote, or even presence, is uncertain. Löfven will be able to return to the role of PM unless there is a majority against him. But in order to get a budget passed he needs to have a majority himself – and the Centre has again refused to countenance any budget negotiations with the Left.

The government coming out of the new Speaker Rounds will probably be even more right-wing than the one which fell on 21 June – either because the conservatives will win the premier lottery, or because the neoliberal Centre will have extorted further concessions from the SAP. The Left, however, can be satisfied that it has stopped the abolition of rent controls for the time being, and improved its poll ratings by refusing to cross its red line. Commentators expect that if a new Löfven government is eventually established, it will have to give something meaningful to Dadgostar in order to get its budget passed.

The Swedish crisis therefore demonstrates the space that still exists for political manoeuvre among the representatives of Nordic social democracy, embedded in multi-party systems with divided right and centre-right parties. Yet the current parliamentary distribution of power in the European systems of proportional representation creates dilemmas for traditional social democrats, as well as newer left groupings: dilemmas between, on one hand, pragmatic negotiations, compromises and influence; and on the other, robust programmes, principles and isolation. Effective politics in these contexts requires a dose of both, but a stable equilibrium between them is elusive.

European social democracy got a second chance at power in the 1990s, after the first neoliberal shockwave in the East as well as in the West. After some initial success, it squandered this opportunity – possibly forever – through tone-deaf neoliberal adaptations. The Third Way produced xenophobic populism and a new hard right while also showing the weakness and narrowmindedness of the left. In Sweden, Dadgostar’s invocation of industrial-society social democracy may have some short-term tactical advantage but is hardly an adequate response to the complex 21st-century challenges facing any socialist project. If such parties are to overcome the dilemmas thrown up by divided parliaments, more creativity will be required.

Read on: Göran Therborn, ‘Twilight of Swedish Social Democracy’, NLR 113.

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Crypto-Politics

Philosophy in the so-called ‘analytic’ tradition has a strange relationship with politics. Normally seen as originating with Frege, Moore, Russell and Wittgenstein in the early 20th century, analytic philosophy was originally concerned with using formal logic to clarify and resolve fundamental metaphysical questions. Politics was largely ignored, according to the Oxford analyst Anthony Quinton, before the late 1960s. Political philosophy, in fact, was routinely pronounced ‘dead’ at the hands of the analysts – so dead that the tepid output of John Rawls (whose A Theory of Justice was published in 1971) could appear as a revival.

At the same time, analytic philosophers were not uninterested in politics. Bertrand Russell is an especially well-known case, but other figures such as A. J. Ayer and Stuart Hampshire – both supporters of the Labour Party (and in Ayer’s case, later the Social Democratic Party) and critics of the Vietnam War – were also politically involved. The reluctance to engage with politics in their professional capacities might seem thus to reflect not lack of political interest, but a view of philosophy as a largely separate sphere. Russell, for example, wrote that his ‘technical activities must be forgotten’ in order for his popular political writings to be properly understood, while Hampshire argued that although analytic philosophers ‘might happen to have political interests, […] their philosophical arguments were largely neutral politically.’

While at times insistent on the detachment of their philosophy from politics – stretching to a pride in the ‘conspicuous triviality’ of their own activity that the critic of ‘ordinary language philosophy’ Ernest Gellner saw as requiring the explanation of social historians – the analysts at other times floated some quite strong claims as to the political value and potential of their own ways of doing things. As Thomas Akehurst has shown, ‘many of the leading British analytic philosophers of the post-war period made it clear that they took analytic philosophy to be in alliance with liberalism’ and ventured that certain analytic ‘habits of mind’ – in particular those associated with the ‘empiricist’ school dominant at that time – might offer a crucial protective against various forms of ‘fanaticism’.

It was less clear how this was supposed to work. The analysts’ own pronouncements on the relationship between their philosophy and politics seem to amount to little more than a declaration of a monopoly on openness, a boast of humility, a set of dogmatic and opaque assertions about the inhospitability of the analytic method to dogma and opacity (‘no-bullshit bullshit’, to borrow the moniker later bestowed on the so-called ‘no bullshit’ school of ‘analytical Marxism’ by its critics). ‘Empiricism is hostile to humbug and obscurity, to the dogmatic authoritative mood, to every sort of ipse dixit’, the Oxford philosopher H. H. Price had written already in 1940: ‘The same live-and-let-live principles […] are characteristic of liberalism too.’ In a similar vein, in his 1950 essay ‘Philosophy and Politics’, Russell describes empiricism (‘the scientific outlook’) as ‘the intellectual counterpart of what is, in the practical sphere, the outlook of liberalism’, and hailed Locke as the exemplification of the ‘order without authority’ allegedly central to both philosophies.

Between them, Russell and Price seem to be suggesting a series of links between 1. clarity, 2. the rejection of epistemic authority (amounting to a value of ‘thinking for yourself’); and 3. the rejection of political authoritarianism, a rejection which is assimilated to 4. liberalism, seemingly interchangeable with 5. democracy. Besides the looseness of the conceptual links in this chain, there are questions to be asked about its attachment to reality: about the relationship of these assertions by the analysts to actual analytic philosophy and philosophers, and to actual liberalism and liberals respectively. When Price lauds an intellectual culture ‘of free, co-operative inquiry, in which anyone may put forward any hypothesis he likes, […] provided it makes sense’ (which presumably means: makes sense to analytic philosophers), he evokes an image of a non-hierarchical, egalitarian discipline that is likely to strike those with experience of the culture of analytic philosophy as something of an idealization, to say the least. As for liberalism, Locke, and ‘order without authority’: what can you say, apart from maybe, ‘Don’t mention the slavery’?

Here we touch on another aspect of the analysts’ inchoate claim to offer a protective against political vice or misadventure. This is the wariness of ‘ideology’ and ‘theory’ (especially of the ‘grand’ variety). As Akehurst parses it, the idea is that a ‘focus on the concrete saves the empiricist from following grand theories, metaphysical chimeras and other strictly meaningless exhortations to devalue reality in favour of dangerous ideological fantasy.’ The thought here is intuitive enough, and liberals are not the only ones to feel its force – something like it is a theme of much anarchist writing, for instance. Yet whatever is to be said about it, it cannot be so simple as ‘Theory bad, Reality good.’ Rigid adherence to ideals, theories or principles can play its part in the commission of atrocities. But, first, what entitles liberals to the assumption that it is only other people who have ‘theories’? And second, can’t there be a converse and equal danger in the lack of fixed principles? Is ‘never torture’ a dangerous piece of dogma? Is it better to cast off such ideological baggage and keep all options on the table, doing as the facts of the situation (as we see them) demand? Liberalism’s history, in any case, boasts its fair share of terrible deeds committed both in the service of ‘grand ideals’ (for what else can we call ‘Liberty’?) as well as in response to the more ‘concrete’ considerations of expedience and profit.

If on the one hand analytic philosophy has presented itself as politically neutral, it has also regarded this very neutrality – this supposed freedom from dogma and ‘ideology’ – as the guarantor of liberal political conclusions. Analytic political philosophy, which has flourished and proliferated since the later part of the twentieth century, has preserved this basic posture. I wrote about this in my first book, The Political Is Political. What struck me about analytic political philosophy as a student (and what my tautological title was meant to capture) was that the subject was both paradoxically depoliticized and also political in covert ways. Under the influence of Rawls in particular, political philosophers have had remarkably little to say about actual politics or history. Armed with a sharp distinction between ‘descriptive’ and ‘normative’ (or ‘is’ versus ‘ought’), characteristic of the analytic approach, they have judged that such matters are the appropriate domain of social scientists. By contrast, the distinctive business of philosophers is to concentrate on the articulation of abstract ‘principles of justice’, often in the form of ‘ideal theory’. The contemporary political philosopher Charles Mills, while a self-identified adherent of the liberal-analytic approach, has criticized ideal theory as a form of ‘ideology’ in a loosely Marxist sense: a distortion of thought that reinforces an oppressive status quo by sanitizing and distracting from its ‘non-ideal’ features (Mills emphasises, in particular, the history and legacy of slavery in the United States).

Not only do philosophers in this tradition neglect real politics, I argued, but they also operate with a series of ostensibly neutral or ‘common sense’ methodological values  – ‘constructiveness’, ‘reasonableness’, ‘charity’ in argument – which invariably turn out, on closer inspection, to be interpreted in such a way as to favour liberal conclusions in advance, ‘begging the question’ against dissenting perspectives that might call for a more radical deviation from the political status quo. The injunction to ‘Be realistic!’, for example, commands virtually universal assent (who wants to be ‘unrealistic’?) but tells us nothing useful until filled out with some judgements as to what ‘reality’ is like and how it might be changed.

These, of course, are exactly the sorts of questions that are in dispute between people of different political outlooks. But what tends to happen in political philosophy, as in the wider world, is that taking account of reality is conflated with proposing less in the way of change, so that ‘realism’ and radicalism are assumed to be in inherent tension. Thus, while the ‘realist’ current in contemporary political philosophy is in one sense a challenge to the dominant approach (of ignoring real history and politics), it often ends up further entrenching a status quo bias, by equating ‘realism’ with small-c ‘conservatism’ and positioning ‘ideal theory’ as the peak of radical ambition.

Illusions of political neutrality, whether within the confines of academia or outside of it, are always deeply political, and usually conservative. (Think of the role that a faux-neutral, supposedly common-sense notion of ‘electability’ has played in British political discourse in recent years.) The answer, as I argued in the case of analytic political philosophy, is not to try to replace false neutrality with a ‘true’ one. The idea that this is possible, let alone desirable, is itself illusory. Judgements and assumptions about what is important, what kind of place the world is and what it could or should become – which is to say, political judgements and assumptions – are always and already embedded in the concepts and values we use to make and evaluate statements and arguments in philosophy and elsewhere. If there is an affinity between analytic philosophy and liberalism, it is perhaps in their mutual tendency to project this sort of illusion – to proceed as if their politics is no politics at all, just ‘realism’, or ‘common sense’. From this vantage point, the opponents of analytic philosophy and of liberalism can only appear respectively as obscurantists and fanatics. It’s no surprise, therefore, that some prominent analysts (Russell among them) became such ardent Cold Warriors.

The observation of G. J. Warnock, in 1958, that analytic philosophy was compatible with ‘a quite striking ideological range’ is clearly true, though Warnock also conceded that ‘there may be some deep-seated similarity of attitude and outlook’ not easily detectable to those who share in it. The political flavour of the school has been predominantly liberal, but it has not been exclusively so (think of analytic Marxists such as G. A. Cohen, or the radicals among the earlier ‘Vienna Circle’ of logical positivists). ‘Liberalism’, in any case, has meant (and continues to mean) different things to different people. Also like liberalism, ‘analytic philosophy’ is a slippery enough category to be resistant to any definitive characterization. It is not that analytic philosophy has any particular, fixed political content or valence. But its tendency toward ahistoricism and abstraction creates a vacuum at its heart, into which comes rushing, too often, too easily and too quietly, the dominant politics of the day. 

Read on: Lorna Finlayson, ‘Rules of the Game?’, NLR 123.

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True Colours

The hopes of the Brazilian left were dashed earlier this month, when the national football team published a statement which criticized President Bolsonaro’s decision to host the Copa America during the pandemic, but confirmed that it would nonetheless participate.

For many in Brazil, this was the latest step in a progressive separation from their fabled national team. Few images are more emblematic of the country than the bright yellow shirt worn by Pelé and the 1970s generation. When Brazilians abroad are asked where they come from, the answer usually invites comments about famous goals and matches. Yet the connection between Brazilians and their seleção is more complex than this might suggest. Football is not easily disentangled from politics, which currently means an affiliation with Bolsonaro.

The ongoing Copa America – the main South American football competition – marks the nadir of the tense relationship that has developed over the last decade between the national team and the general public. So far, the matches have attracted miniscule TV audiences: smaller than those who tune in to watch a Sunday variety show presented by a substitute host, or a second-rate Christian soap opera. That the seleção inspires indifference is all the more striking given its quality, which has improved significantly since its notorious defeat by Belgium in 2018. There is no denying the talent of its current roster – Neymar Jr, Vini Jr, Alisson, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus and so on.

To understand the team’s poor public perception we must go back to the 2013 rebellion. Having won the previous elections with a large mandate, the Worker’s Party (PT) was delivering solid growth rates while reducing inequality and unemployment. It was also preparing to host Brazil’s first World Cup since 1950: an opportunity to redress the historic upset of losing to Uruguay that year. But before the games got underway, a heterogeneous coalition took to the streets under the slogan Não vai ter Copa – ‘There will be no Cup’. The movement highlighted the low level of investment in public services compared to the extravagant cost of the new FIFA-standard stadiums. It challenged the gradualism of the PT’s reforms, stressing the limits of the redistributive model conceived by Lula and continued by Rousseff.  

In an attempt to justify the R$8 billion spent on stadiums alone, the famed former player Ronaldo patronizingly told protesters, ‘You can’t host a World Cup with hospitals, you need stadiums.’ But in the end, the majority of Brazilians got neither. When the stadiums were constructed, exorbitant ticket prices meant that the audiences were overwhelmingly rich and white. Working-class fans were excluded from the sporting cathedrals that their tax money had built. Their absence was supposed to free up space for comfortable seats and new services. The Maracanã, for instance, had once been the biggest football venue in the world, hosting almost 200,000 people – yet by 2014 its capacity had been reduced to under 80,000. (Despite this, the gentrification of Brazilian stadiums has not gone as planned; many of them have proved too expensive to maintain, and now sit half empty during most of the year.) If this sowed disillusionment with the sport, Brazil’s humiliating 7–1 defeat to Germany in the semi-final redoubled it. From that point on, the seleção could no longer be held up as a symbol of national pride.

The 2014 World Cup was also an important moment in the arm-wrestle between football fans and capital. Traditionally, Brazilian clubs are not-for-profit associations; but in practice they are run by privileged groups of amateur managers known as cartolas – or ‘top hats’. Within most clubs, the struggle between this cadre and the fanbase is opaque, and the latter are generally not allowed to vote in internal elections. Even so, Brazilian football has historically resisted the top-down management structures of stock exchange-listed European clubs, which have reduced their fans to mere consumers. Investors saw the World Cup as a golden opportunity to impose this model on Brazil and ‘modernise’ the sport at club level. Business-friendly legislation allowing clubs to become for-profit limited liability companies is currently being considered by the Congress.

After 2014, the national team’s iconic yellow shirt became indelibly associated with the elite layers that swarmed the stadiums. A clear chromatic code separated broadly progressive demonstrations – for better public services, against the parliamentary coup that toppled Rousseff – from proto-fascist rallies against the imaginary communist threat. The first were red, the second yellow and green. Today, wearing the official shirt of the seleção on the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo is an overtly pro-Bolsonaro statement. 

In this context, the 2021 Copa America was an opportunity to redeem the national team. The tournament was originally set to be co-hosted by Colombia and Argentina, but it was relocated due to social unrest in the former and escalating Covid-19 cases in the latter. Brazil was hardly immune from either of these issues. Yet Bolsonaro’s administration unhesitatingly accepted a last-minute offer to host the event, while at the same time failing to answer 53 communications from Pfizer offering its much-needed vaccines. The move was widely condemned, with only 24% of the population supporting it. Opposition from sports commentators was virtually unanimous.

For a brief moment, it seemed likely that the seleção would rehabilitate itself by refusing to participate in Bolsonaro’s vanity project. Following the president’s announcement, the team captain Carlos Casimiro told journalists that the players would issue a response ‘at the right time’. Expectation mounted for a week, with opposition politicians tweeting that ‘Casimiro is our captain!’ Then, on 9 June, just five days before the kick-off, their tepid statement was published. ‘We are against organizing the Copa America’, it said, ‘but we will never say no to the Brazilian national team’.

This was a crushing disappointment. Yet in politics as in football, no defeat is definitive. Patently, Bolsonaro’s Copa America is an attempt to distract from the milestone of half a million coronavirus deaths and the growing resistance to his rule. With the 2022 elections to be held just a few weeks before the World Cup in Qatar, the seleção will undoubtedly return to the national spotlight soon. They may even be called upon to pick a side if, as some commentators are predicting, Bolsonaro uses the spectre of electoral fraud to orchestrate a military coup. At that point, the team’s true colours will be clear.

Read on: Benjamin Markovits, ‘The Colours of Sport’, NLR 22.

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Memory Lapse

In his Sidecar essay ‘Eros After Covid’, Alex Colston asks what psychoanalysis can teach us about living in the wake of a plague year, drawing on Beyond the Pleasure Principle to suggest how we might restimulate our desire after a period in which time itself has seemingly stopped. ‘Freud’s schema for mourning such an experience is counterintuitive’, writes Colston, ‘if not outright scandalous, because it depends on what we might consider a social vice: narcissism.’ It is only through recovering our ‘narcissistic satisfactions’ that we can overcome the loss of time, plus the friends and relatives that may have passed with it. After a prolonged stasis in which various malformations of the psyche have been left to fester, narcissism is the only route back to Eros – ‘that troublemaker that sends us into the world to bind new associations’.

Yet if the basic satisfactions of existing are the cure for melancholia, self-love can also carry side-effects. Colston notes that when Freud ‘invokes the timeless imperative to “love thy neighbour as thyself”, he invites an obvious Freudian rejoinder: ‘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.’ Narcissism can only be the precondition for binding new associations once it accepts a certain level of ignorance about its object. You can only know – let alone love – your neighbour when you admit that you don’t know yourself. Fortunately, given the psychic uncertainty engendered by the long 2020, this is an admission that more people are now willing to make.

Colston’s paradox – in which disconnection from oneself facilitates connection with others – is likely to be a prominent feature of post-lockdown life. It is also the premise of a recent film about pandemics, mourning and time lapses by the Greek director Christos Nikou. Born in 1984, Nikou studied cinema in Athens before landing a job as an assistant to Yorgos Lanthimos, collaborating with him on his breakthrough drama Dogtooth (2009). His directorial debut, Km (2012), was a ten-minute Greek New Wave experiment, capturing a slow, strained conversation between a couple who sit in the front of a stationary car while blood inexplicably appears on their bodies. The short film’s most unsettling feature was its scrambled chronology (the halting dialogue is followed by a still image of a car crash, then a shot of the couple driving down a country road); so it seems appropriate that Nikou’s first full-length work, Apples, should be strangely premonitory. Though it was released on the festival circuit in autumn 2020, and screened in UK cinemas last month, Apples was shot at the beginning of 2019, and can therefore be added to the list of cultural artefacts that unwittingly anticipated Covid (Soderbergh’s Contagion, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men, among many others).

Apples is set in Athens during the early days of a pandemic in which the infected find that their memory has been suddenly and permanently erased. Unable to recall their own names, they experience an extreme version of the self-dislocation Colston describes – losing not just a lockdown year but an entire lifetime. Some of them are re-adopted by their families, but others are forced to enrol in a state-run ‘New Identity Programme’. They are given an apartment, a cash allowance, and a cassette player on which to listen to the instructions of their supervisors – a team of doctors who monitor the amnesiacs’ progress with sinister intensity. The chief physician tells them, first, how to revive their narcissistic satisfactions. A number of solitary activities must be performed to reaffirm the value of living: riding a bike, hiking in the countryside, going to the cinema. Then, once those experiences have congealed into something like an ego, the patients are enjoined to interact with others: attending parties, visiting strip clubs and finding candidates for one-night-stands. They are loaned a polaroid camera with which to capture each of these tasks, the photos slotted into an album that is regularly inspected by the New Identity officials.

At times the patients’ participation in the programme appears no more than dutiful: one scene shows a string of people filing out of a horror film and photographing themselves standing vacantly beside the movie poster. This drudgery is reflected in Apples’ washed-out palette, which moves between the dust-grey streets of the Greek capital and the drab interiors of the New Identity apartments, avoiding the typical shots of classical ruins – as if to imply that the city itself has lost its memory. But there is also something compulsive about the patients’ need to fulfil the next challenge, complete the next mission: as if they are moving up the levels of a video game. With the slate wiped clean by the pandemic, the impulse to accumulate new experiences – layering one on top of the other until they produce a subjectivity – acquires an irresistible appeal. Eros, ‘the troublemaker’, responds to the loss of self-knowledge by seeking out novel intensities, cathecting any object it sets eyes on. Aris, the film’s protagonist, played by a severe and remote Aris Servetalis (best-known for his prizewinning performance in Babis Makridis’s 2012 comedy L), is drawn to this process of self-reinvention following the death of his wife. Although he escaped the virus, his grief leads him to envy those who have forgotten the past and rebuilt an identity ex nihilo. So one evening he boards a public bus, pretends to fall asleep and, upon reaching the final stop, tells the driver that he doesn’t know where he lives. He is taken to the hospital, where he deliberately fails a series of memory tests and gains a spot on the programme.

Yet, having outsourced his mourning to the medical agency, the widower gradually learns that their directives are not enough to recompose a selfhood. As he fills his photo album, the object comes to symbolize the disjointed model of ‘experience’ that the New Identity doctors promote: each moment is frozen in time, isolated on a different page, with nothing to thread them together. Once Aris has progressed to an advanced stage of the course, he is told by his physician that the tasks will now ‘get more complicated’. He is instructed to find a terminal patient in a hospital, visit them daily, attend their funeral, and temporarily move in with the bereaved family. He must also cause a car accident and photograph himself beside the wreckage. Emotional complexity becomes a stand-in for narrative cohesion. The affects he is prescribed grow increasingly potent and surreal – as Eros searches for fresh attachments to meet its infinite demands – but they do not form any kind of unity. Nor do they allow him to develop meaningful relationships, as the simple injunction to absorb experience leaves little room for empathy or reciprocity. (Aris’s brief romance with the female lead, Anna, played by Sofia Georgovassili, is jeopardized for this reason.) The two words of the programme’s title thus begin to tug against each other, as the ceaseless drive for novelty undermines the formation of identity. Sensing this limitation, the protagonist asks his doctors when they will release him. They reply that it will take ‘as long as it takes’. Without a narrative arc, the story of the libido becomes formless – and endless.

What Apples shows us, then, is a variant of the pandemic recovery sequence articulated by Colston: from lack of self-knowledge, to benign narcissism, to Erotic reattachment to the world. Yet the film also demonstrates that this may not be enough to establish what Alasdair McIntyre would call a narrative conception of the self – one which can complete the work of mourning by weaving the traumas of the past into the fabric of the present. When Aris is struggling to process the loss of his wife, this alienated condition does not prompt him to reflect upon his past (as psychoanalysis would advocate). Instead, he eradicates it entirely – going so far as to give up eating apples because he is told that they are ‘good for your memory’.

The upshot of this wilful forgetting is both a fragmentation of experience and a loss of agency. Whereas Colston asserts that narcissism must ultimately give way to an ‘ethics of care’ and ‘the growth of affective ties between people’, by the end of Apples, Aris’s main point of contact is with the doctors who direct his activities. In this alternate reality, a paternalist Greek state freed from Troika fiscal bondage gives generous housing entitlements and welfare payments to the amnesia victims. But such vertical ties between patients and their patrons are a weak substitute for the lateral ties which Colston envisions. Apples depicts a post-pandemic social settlement that is all too probable, in which a top-down ‘ethic of care’ supplants the different forms of community solidarity that emerged in the midst of the crisis.

Though it is politically resonant, at times this portrait of an affect-free society creates aesthetic problems for Nikou, who tries to offset the expressionless acting with a saccharine soundtrack from which his mentor Lanthimos would undoubtedly recoil. The camerawork, too, strives to break down Aris’s icy demeanour through constant closeups with a shallow depth of field, tempting us to search his features for a sign of what he’s feeling. Such formal tricks do not come off. And yet, despite Apples’ dystopian forecast, there are two glistening moments when Aris rejects both the foreclosure of the past and the flattening of interpersonal relations. The first is when he visits a bar with Anna and hears Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’ playing over the sound system. We watch him edge towards the centre of the room and sway tentatively to the music. Then, within the space of a minute, he is dancing as fluently as Checker himself, his rigid and impassive manner radically transformed. This is not just a throwback to a late-fifties cultural meme; it is also a recurrence of something from Aris’s earlier life that he had tried to bury – a capacity that is reactivated by an affective experience which (unlike those imposed by the doctors) was not obligatory or pre-planned. When Aris steps outside the confines of the photo album, he creates this powerful interchange between past and present. He also makes an instant connection with his fellow dancers, as if there is a direct line between recovering his former self and learning to identify with others.

The second moment in which Aris shatters the logic of the New Identity Programme comes at the end of the film, when – on his doctor’s orders – he is feeding soup to a dying man in a hospital bed. The man asks whether Aris is married, and the latter admits, for the first time, that his wife has recently died. The confession seems totally involuntary, and the protagonist is so struck by it that he falls silent. He then returns home to the flat which he had previously abandoned, leaving his cassette player behind. The closing scene fades out while he refamiliarizes himself with this emblem of his past. If the bar episode showed the return of a repressed instinct which precipitated (as Colston would put it) ‘the growth of affective ties between people’, here the causality is reversed: Aris’s empathy with the old man triggers the sudden re-emergence of something bygone. An affective bond brings back what’s been forgotten. In both cases, temporal fragmentation and social atomization are surmounted in the same stroke. It is, Nikou suggests, somehow impossible to sustain a presentist existence while forging strong intersubjective attachments. The ‘community of feeling’, which Freud proposed as an antidote to the collective trauma of world wars and Spanish flu, is co-dependent on narratives which link now to then. After Covid we will bind new associations. But these will be fleeting, shallow, compulsive, if Eros is amnesiac.

Read on: Emma Fajgenbaum, ‘Cinema as Disquiet’, NLR 116/117.

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Diaspora Trouble

It goes down easily at first: a little slug of ice-cold bile in a big warm swig of Manischewitz. Most of Joshua Cohen’s new novel The Netanyahus unfolds between September 1959 and January 1960 on the campus of the imaginary Corbin University, in pastoral Chautauqua County, a region that ‘dismissive, geographically-illiterate New York City-folk’ call ‘Upstate’, according to the book’s narrator, Professor Ruben Blum. Cohen evokes the bucolic campus world of this era with a fluent satiric touch, playing off trademark details – kitschy props, (pipes, gimlets, a Hide-a-Bed), academic banter and undergraduate hijinks – in a tone that shifts between semi-realist and wild slapstick. The dialogue is snappy and interspersed with snicker-ready, drum-roll-to-cymbal one-liners. Superficially, the story is often a sort of breezy hoot. But grave questions and menacing true-life figures lurk about the novel from its inception to the end. ‘Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you’, reads the epigraph, a citation from Ze’ev Jabotinsky, father figure of the Revisionist Zionist movement to which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu’s Likud Party is heir. Netanyahu situated his own political project in Jabotinksy’s hegemonistic lineage, and it is the problem not just for Israel but for Jewish identity as such posed by the Netanyahu clan’s authority that gives the novel its raison d’etre.

The sixth novel of the prolific, wide-ranging American writer, The Netanyahus tracks a visit paid by the historian Benzion Netanyahu (a lightly fictionalized version of the recently deposed Israeli Prime Minister’s actual father) to Corbin University in pursuit of a job. He comes with his wife Tzila and their three sons: Jonathan, Benjamin and Iddo. They are a uniformly horrific bunch and wreak something worse than havoc on their hosts, the Blums. In the novel’s credits, Cohen informs us that the core of the story was recounted to him as fact by Harold Bloom, to whom the book is dedicated, and who himself served as campus coordinator for the real-life Netanyahus’ once-upon-a-time visit to Cornell, when the scholar of medieval Judaism was struggling both to establish himself professionally and to promote his reactionary brand of Zionism in the States.

Despite their homonymic names, Blum is no Bloom, but rather a modest expert in the history of American taxation, who wears galoshes and is a scrupulous, obliging character whose colleagues project upon him Pnin-ish tendencies. In Blum’s case, however, the fragility of his orientation is a factor of his status in Corbindale, where, as the hamlet’s only Jews, he and his wife, stalwart, sympathetic Edith, along with their quite dreadful daughter Judith, ‘faced regular slights’ more passive than aggressive. At the university, where Edith works as a librarian, these condescensions can be especially barbed. Still, Blum is grateful for the changes toward at least greater tolerance that have emerged in the United States since his youth, and at the outset of the book, set in our own time, he surveys, benignly, the further advances that have been made toward enfranchising different marginal communities in recent years. The list of Blum’s own publications makes evident that he has been able to use his seemingly arid, hard-fact driven field to shine fresh light on issues vital to social progress, from abolitionism to the suffragist movement. He sees through that American exceptionalism whereby, as he recounts, the past was only ‘the process by which the present was attained, and the present merely the most current stage of the American superlative, to be overtaken by tomorrow’s liberation and capital’s spread, until the ultimate transfiguration of world history into world democracy’. But Blum mistrusts this view only for its quasi-theological grandiosity. He aligns himself with milder forms of meliorism – indeed seems to treasure the notion of a reasonable open-endedness to the country’s destiny.

Blum’s dismissal of the most extreme, expansionist view of American history though pales before his revulsion at what he was taught as a child in Hebrew school. What was offered up there as history ‘was closed: it was no history, there was no past, no present, no future. Rather, there was time, as round and perfect as the earth, which from the moment it emerged from God’s spoken light had been marked by a constant repetition, not of seasons or harvests…but of oppression, violence and death’. The ‘gaunt, shuffly rabbis’ who instructed him in his youth in the Bronx, presented every persecutor of the Jewish people throughout time as fungible ‘avatars of Amalek, Israel’s original enemy from the deserts’. Eventually, they make clear, there will surely be an American Amalek to contend with as well. As it turns out, the teachings of the rabbis of Blum’s youth prefigure the vision laid out by Benzion Netanyahu.

Blum is a recent transplant to Corbin University – his wife and daughter are still smarting at their move to the sticks. His wife is bored. The daughter is foul-tempered. Blum’s home is fragile. One day, Dr. Morse, his Department Chair, calls him into his office for a cocktail and explains that he has been chosen as a kind of chaperone-consultant for Dr. Netanyahu’s candidacy and campus visit, despite the fact that Blum is an American historian and Netanyahu is a European Medievalist. Can Netanyahu integrate, Morse wants to know, and though he dances around the topic a bit, his decision to saddle Blum with the job comes down to the fact of both men being Jews. Ethnic kinship gives Blum (Morse hopes), inherent advantages in appraising the Israeli’s character; and regardless (Morse makes clear), freights Blum with special obligations. Blum raises objections but these are swiftly, firmly subdued; and so the ground is sown for the entry of a whirling abomination in familial form into Blum’s delicate professional-domestic sphere.

Even before the Netanyahus arrive, Blum’s distaste for his appointed role has been piqued by his preparatory reading of the applicant’s work in which the introductions ‘read like conclusions’, and the conclusions ‘read like prayers’. What rankles Blum as he studies Netanyahu’s writings about the Spanish Inquisition is the way that the author appears to be trafficking in dogma gussied up as history. Using arguments from the real-life Benzion Netanyahu’s problematic but not entirely discredited major work The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain as the basis for Blum’s encounter with the scholar’s writing, Cohen allows his protagonist to expound on how Netanyahu is actually flaunting religious gospel under the guise of facts.

Netanyahu’s research focused on the Church’s decision to begin effectively de-converting Jews who had cast off their native religion to become Catholics. Blum doesn’t challenge Netanyahu’s evidence for this claim, but rather lambasts the professor’s interpretation of the move, which, in his telling, amounted to the Catholics’ abiding need to maintain a population it was compulsory to hate, for which reasons ‘the Jews had to remain a people doomed to suffer’. The anti-Semitism of the Inquisition was not genuinely doctrinal then, but racist in a modern sense. While declaiming on anti-Semitism in Medieval Iberia, Netanyahu is really discussing Nazi Germany. Thus, like the shuffly rabbis of Blum’s childhood, the Israeli academic presented time ‘as a chain of changes that are visited down upon us by the will of God’. Only in Netanyahu’s case, the power of transformation was attributed not to divine whim, but to the world’s innumerable, invariably Jew-hating gentiles who were ‘constantly judging the Jews and oppressing them, and effecting change through their oppressions: converting them, unconverting them, massacring and expelling’. This view of matters, cleansing the past of particularity in favour of timeless axioms, chimes with the novel’s epigraph. History becomes merely a zero-sum game in which any dilution of a person’s primal, ethno-religious identity means death – a type of death, moreover, that’s contagious to the tribal collective as well. Though Cohen never says ‘eliminate Zion or Zion will eliminate you’, that obverse face of Jabotinksy’s pronouncement seems a plausible deduction within the novel’s logic.

Much of the book’s middle section returns to Blum’s home life and much of this is schtick and schlock. We hear a good deal from Blum’s comically old-fashioned father and Edith’s gauchely snobbish mother. Blum’s daughter Judith’s revulsion at her Jewish nose leads to a violently grotesque scene in which she tricks her grandfather into destroying this organ with a door – thereby forcing her parents to give her the nose job they’ve been resisting. (Her lust to deny the particularity of her Jewish history by means of full-on physiological assimilation appears just the flipside of the Jabotinsky/Netanyahu insistence on maintaining total ethnic purity.) The domestic scenes are intermittently funny and occasionally cruel, but often also feel facile – slick, period-piece rehearsals of mid-twentieth century American Jewish foibles. In their midst, Cohen provides a concise summary of Zionist history in relation to the rise of the revisionist brand of nationalism as religion. And then the Netanyahus arrive.

From the moment their half-wrecked car pulls up, blocking the Blums’ driveway, all five Netanyahus display a boorish grab-bag of ugly Jewish stereotypes. They exit their vehicle already screaming, fighting, screeching and raring to ruin. Father and mother, bundled in sheepskins, appear at first ‘indistinguishable and completely androgynous’. The whole family wear ‘identically furry toggle-clasped coats, hopefully bought in bulk at substantial discount’. Benzion is about fifty, ‘his face a tough nut of vaguely Mongol features’. (Later on, he’ll be described as having ‘hooded, steppe eyes’.) Tzila is ‘stocky, quiffhaired’, loud with malapropisms and thoughtless insults. Jonathan, Benjamin and Iddo, whose ages, 13, 10 and 7 respectively seem to be ‘the only disciplined and orderly thing about them’, immediately begin soiling and despoiling everything in their path. A couple of pages into their mess-making, Iddo’s diaper is being changed by Tzila in a maximally unhygienic manner while Benjamin leans over his younger brother ‘flicking at his penis’ before pointing at his diaper and saying ‘chocolate chip brownie fudge poop cookies’. Okay, he’s a kid. One can’t expect a revealing ideological disquisition. Nonetheless, the Grand Guignol the Netanyahus proceed to execute on the Blums, which culminates in diverse acts of property destruction as well as the sexual violation and possible rape of Judith by 13-year-old Jonathan (the future martyred hero of Entebbe), complete with Benjamin voyeuristically gawking at the door, seems to make such a cheap cartoon of the demonic tribe that everything about their characters is at once homogenized and trivialized. The way these children, whose careers will prove so momentous in Israel’s later history, appear as hollow puppet versions of their father’s Id points toward a greater moral difficulty with the book.

Ultimately, The Netanyahus suggests that dignity and real meaning arise from recognizing the myriad specificities of being. By honouring the humble, mundane humanity of each individual with their small quirks and homely passions, rather than subscribing to any overbearing, teleological theses, we may avoid history’s Great Mistakes, nationalistic-religious persecution of another community high among them. Fair enough. But the Netanyahus themselves are conflated into a single, transgenerational entity to make this point, and the blight they represent seems implicitly transferred from the father to the governing principle of Israel at large – the blight that makes Cohen take seriously the existential threat in the Jabotinsky quote he’s chosen for his epigraph.

The serious parts of the book’s latter sections centre on lectures and conversations in which Benzion Netanyahu thunderingly, contemptuously recapitulates his primary thesis. Though this doesn’t develop much conceptually beyond its initial formulation, Cohen is good at rendering the force of Netanyahu’s rhetoric about the eternal historical agon in which he envisions himself and his people as lead actors. Who could disagree that this approach is lethally deluded? But as a reflection on the political morass of contemporary Zion I’m not sure how far it takes us. For the father and the son are distinct in crucial ways, even if both men are reprehensible.

Near the end of the novel, in a passage of dialogue between Edith and Blum that provides the ethical counterweight to the message conveyed by the Netanyahu phenomenon, Edith recalls the seriousness and sincerity with which the couple had approached everything in their youth. ‘We were so earnest and principled but so intense, about democracy and love and death, as if we knew what those things were’. Now, having met ‘this horrible man and his horrible wife’ Edith has had a revelation, ‘I don’t believe in anything anymore and not just that, but I don’t care. I have no beliefs and I’m OK with it; I’m more than OK. I’m glad…I’m glad I’m getting older without convictions’. Blum concurs.

I lived in Jerusalem from the end of the 1980s through the time of Bibi Netanyahu’s first election as Prime Minister in the wake of Rabin’s assassination. His thuggery was always in evidence, although I think few people then would have been able to conceive how long he was to cling to power, presiding over the decimation of the Israeli left, the killing of thousands of Palestinians, the destruction of innumerable Palestinian homes, the exponential growth of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, the compromising of the national judiciary, the consummation of an apartheid system in a country once heralded as the only ‘true democracy’ in the Middle East. Given that he achieved all this in a highly fractured, intensely combative national political arena while under indictment in multiple corruption trials, even those who despise Netanyahu have sometimes conceded that he has a masterful instinct for political survival. This feat of endurance speaks in fact not to monolithic ideological rigidity but to expedient elasticity. Considering Netanyahu’s career some years ago I found myself thinking that he represented the most dangerous species of politician: he has the courage of his lack of convictions. In this sense, one might say that trumping even the Revisionist Zionism inherited from his ideologically absolutist father, Netanyahu embodies a bottomless nihilism not so different from that of the last American president, or the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Another way of looking at the crisis of Western democracy in recent years would be to say that there has, in fact, been a fatal shortage of convictions. Surely we can parse between varieties of convictions and champion those promoting values of justice, equality and freedom without sweeping the lot of them off the table as hopelessly tainted. The extraordinary cascade of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder was driven by an irrepressible conviction that the impunity hitherto accorded police brutality could not be borne if even a nominal American democracy were to survive. Only a profound, even transcendent conviction of the role such wrongs play in perpetuating a history that, while not an endless repetition, is layered with correlative injustices could have inspired a movement that made systemic change feel tantalizingly within reach. In its less zealous iterations, the Jewish approach to time and history is similarly sedimentary; its different strata revealing patterns that resonate illuminatingly across the eras without strictly reproducing them.

Confronted by a slew of nihilistic, misery-profiteering ‘strong men’ leaders, armed with flexible propagandas, we must learn to differentiate between types of passionate, serious beliefs just as surely as between types of individuals and histories. Otherwise, farce will only ever be clocking time before becoming tragedy once again.

Read on: Nick Burns, ‘Chosen Nations’, NLR 124.

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Swexit

On May 26, the Swiss government declared an end to year-long negotiations with the European Union on a so-called Institutional Framework Agreement that was to consolidate and extend the roughly one hundred bilateral treaties now regulating relations between the two sides. Negotiations began in 2014 and were concluded four years later, but Swiss domestic opposition got in the way of ratification. In subsequent years Switzerland sought reassurance essentially on four issues: permission to continue state assistance to its large and flourishing small business sector; immigration and the right to limit it to workers rather than having to admit all citizens of EU member states; protection of the (high) wages in the globally very successful Swiss export industries; and the jurisdiction, claimed by the EU, of the Court of Justice of the European Union over legal disagreements on the interpretation of joint treaties. As no progress was made, the prevailing impression in Switzerland became that the framework agreement was in fact to be a domination agreement, and as such too close to EU membership, which the Swiss had rejected in a national referendum in 1992 when they voted against joining the European Economic Area.  

There are interesting parallels with the UK and Brexit. Both countries, in their different ways, have developed varieties of democracy distinguished by a deep commitment to a sort of majoritarian popular sovereignty that requires national sovereignty. This makes it difficult for them to enter into external relations that constrain the collective will-formation of their citizenry. Britain of course partly solved this problem by becoming the centre of an empire, as opposed to being included in one, defending its national sovereignty by appropriating the national sovereignty of others; while Switzerland became forever neutral and ready to defend itself, as de Gaulle had put it for France, tous azimuts. Constitutionally, British popular sovereignty resides in a parliament that is not bound by a written constitution and can therefore decide everything with a simple majority, no two-thirds or other supermajority ever required. Also, there is no constitutional court that could get in Parliament’s way, nor can the second chamber, the House of Lords. That a supreme court like the EU Court of Justice should be entitled to overrule the British parliament was always fundamentally incompatible with the British idea of democracy-cum-sovereignty, and became a major source of British popular discontent with the EU, leading to Brexit and undoing Brentry. Similarly, that a foreign court with foreign judges should be allowed to overrule a majority of the Swiss people proved incompatible with the Swiss idea of democracy, standing in the way of Swentry and thereby making a future Swexit dispensable.

Obviously, Switzerland is much smaller than Britain, and its national parliament has almost nothing to say. Whereas Britain is a highly centralized state, notwithstanding half-hearted, asymmetrical faux-federal devolution of governmental powers to three quasi-states, Switzerland, with just 8.7 million inhabitants, is a confederation of 26 cantons which have original rights to self-government and a strong voice at the federal level. Moreover, in something like the extreme opposite of Westminster democracy, the Swiss federal government has since 1959 been an Allparteienregierung, including the four largest parties represented in the parliament, with the head of government rotating annually between them – which is why nobody knows the name of the Swiss Prime Minister. The terminus technicus for this is Konkordanzdemokratie (concordance democracy). The way popular democracy comes in is through the established practice of plebiscites on just about anything, at the communal, the cantonal and the national level, binding whatever government is in charge. Add to this the communal exercises in direct democracy where, in some cantons, even the local government budget is voted upon by a citizen assembly, and you get the flavour of the popular, indeed populist, nature of Swiss democracy: a strong anti-hierarchical political culture when it comes to collective affairs, a deep-rooted sense of popular autonomy and its value for a good political life, and an equally deep-rooted suspicion of everybody who claims to know what is in the interest of the Swiss people better than, in their democratic wisdom, the Swiss people themselves.

So where does the EU come in? In both countries, a weird coalition of export-oriented manufacturing industries and the new class of the liberal left, or left-liberals, is attracted by the EU, to remain or to enter, respectively. In Britain that coalition was joined by part of the trade union movement, which was hoping for protection from Brussels against an untamed Conservative parliamentary majority, for less than fully intelligible reasons in light of the dismal social policy performance of Brussels. In Switzerland, by comparison, and perhaps to the surprise of those fond of their anti-Swiss stereotypes, the unions, still operating on the basis of the 1937 Peace Agreement in the metal industry, had enough domestic power, industrial and political, to oppose entry to the EU which, as they rightly feared, would result in pressure on their – high – wages. This turned them into allies of the country’s well-organized and politically powerful small business sector, whose prosperity is protected by a state industrial policy – in EU jargon: ‘state aids’ – which would in large part be illegal under EU competition law.

Otherwise, in Switzerland as in the UK, the ‘European project’ is a favourite of left-liberals, with Swiss joiners sharing with British Remainers a profound suspicion of popular-majoritarian politics. The Swiss liberal left claim that Swiss democracy is too slow, too localist, too provincial – in other words, too Swiss – compared to EU institutions, which are protected against the vagaries of citizen participation and firmly in the hands of a university-educated, ‘cosmopolitan’ elite of experts. Obviously this overlooks that Swiss politics has produced one of the world’s best infrastructures, with a legendary public transportation system and some of the leading universities. It also enabled the country to undertake huge civil engineering projects of Europe-wide importance, like the Gotthard Base Tunnel, adopted by referendum and completed in time and within budget, as part of a railway connection from Rotterdam to Genoa. While as European as possibly can be, the Swiss delivered the tunnel in international cooperation without any need for international hierarchy, only to discover that Germany’s part of the project, the railway route along the Rhine connecting the harbour of Rotterdam to the tunnel, is delayed by decades, EU membership notwithstanding.

If Swiss middle-class desire to be ruled by Brussels bureaucrats rather than their Swiss countrymen and women is more than a result of feelings of guilt for their national prosperity, or of an internalization of anti-Swiss sentiments that may easily be encountered everywhere in the world – then it probably has to do with the fact that plebiscitary-cum-confederal government allows for manifold niches and pockets of populist traditionalism, a kind of ‘diversity’ in sharp conflict with left-liberal ‘diverse’ values and lifestyles. Sometimes this can be quite embarrassing, for example when it took Switzerland until 1971, and in some cantons even longer, to extend the full franchise to women. Sentiments like those expressed by the Greens in Germany in the 1990s, in their slogan, ‘Dear foreigners, do not leave us alone with the Germans’, are widely present in parts of Swiss society today, especially in the cultural sector. Indeed, an astonishing number of Swiss cultural workers have emigrated to bohemian places like Berlin, where unlike Zurich no-holds-barred night-clubs can be found, in an effort to escape from the perceived puritan narrowness and even xenophobia of their home country – a home country, of course, with about 1.5 million foreign workers in all sectors of an economy employing 4.2 million, including no less than 340,000 daily commuters from Germany, France and Italy.

In Brussels, the Swiss dossier resides in the portfolio of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission, who has inherited it from her predecessor, the now forgotten Jean-Claude Juncker. Her failure to make Switzerland capitulate weakens her position further, by once more laying bare the fault lines of the one-size-fits-all ‘ever closer union’. Pressured by imperial-centralist hardliners in the EU Parliament – and, one should assume, by the German and French national governments – the Commission is now threatening Switzerland with retaliation. Many of the existing treaties between the EU and Switzerland will be running out in coming years and will have to be renewed; others will need to be updated. The Swiss are told by the European bureaucracy that without the Framework Agreement this will be difficult and sometimes impossible, which would cost them dear. Less diplomatically, integrationists, frustrated by the Swiss refusal to proceed on the way to imperial unification of ‘Europe’ under German and French hegemony, are publicly speculating whether the Swiss are bad or mad: bad in being egoistically obsessed with keeping their riches to themselves instead of sharing them with deserving Europeans, as the Germans and the French of course habitually do (a last-minute offer by the Swiss delegation to contribute 1.3 billion euros over ten years to help lessen economic and social inequality within the EU[!] was rejected by the Commission) – or mad because unable to recognize their true interests, which obviously include being ruled by the good sense of the Commission and the EU Court of Justice. At the same time, they are occasionally also accused of being too clever by half, trying to get away with ‘cherry-picking’ – something children must never be allowed to do since they must learn to eat what comes to the table, all or nothing.

If the ‘European project’ is to advance as defined by Brussels centralists, it must be made clear to everyone concerned that confederal cooperation, bi- or multilateral, as an alternative to hierarchical domination is not on offer in Europe, as the British were taught, lest other countries, including those already members of the EU, get stupid ideas. Of course, in over seven hundred years of history, the Swiss have survived more testing challenges, as have the British in eight hundred years since the Magna Carta, and there are good reasons to believe that they will also – and in a much shorter period of time – survive the late-twentieth century Frankensteinian construct of merkato-technocracy called the European Union.

Read on: Jon Halliday, ‘Switzerland – The Bourgeois Eldorado’, NLR 1/56.

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Beauty and Sorrow

Sentan de sasuwa sasareruwa soraeewa: this was the name of the prose poem that got Mieko Kawakami noticed in 2006, and whatever it means in Japanese (pity the translator who takes it on) it sounds beautiful. Having started blogging as a way of drawing attention to her singing career, she won the 2008 Nakahara Chūya Prize with a collection including that poem, having ditched the music without regret: ‘I wasn’t allowed to write my own lyrics!’ Since then, whether short or long fiction or experimental poetry, every book has won a prize except for her Long, Long Interview (2017) with Haruki Murakami. (In the course of which she gently but insistently takes him to task for sexism, meeting something of a wall. MK: ‘The depiction of women in your stories … irks some people.’ HM: ‘Really? How so?’)    

Her themes in prose are women, children, poverty, broken families – Kawakami grew up poor in working-class Osaka, with an absent father – quiet rebellions and perverse adaptations; I was reminded of the films of Hirokazu Koreeda, with a harsher edge. There may be love, but sex and romance barely feature, replaced by high-voltage masturbation. Prominent in everything I’ve seen is a grappling with the value of ‘normality’, both social and physical, the latter a metaphor for the former and often accompanied by the temptation of corrective surgery. Also prominent, I can’t resist noting, are evocations of sweat, described with wonderful relish; these characters live in bodies verging on the hyperreal. 

Kawakami, now 44, has published nine works of fiction, though it’s hard to keep count as she often recycles her work. The novella that made her name in Japan, Breasts and Eggs (2008), started life as a series of blogposts, and was subsequently expanded into a much longer meditation on the female sense of self amid limited social and institutional choices, called Summer Stories in Japanese (2019; the translation retains the title Breasts and Eggs). Another novella, Ms Ice Sandwich (2018) modifies a chapter from Yearning, an untranslated work of 2015. That book alternates the voices of boys and girls, exploring how Japan’s ‘patriarchal system’, with its ‘religious-like’ pressures to conform (as she defined it to the Tokyo Weekender last year) becomes enforced in children and adolescents of both sexes. Her way of inhabiting youthful confusion owes much to JD Salinger, discovered through Murakami’s translations; but if Ms Ice Sandwich’s ten-year-old is of a difficult age to ventriloquize – the work buys into the ‘charm’ that typifies much recent Japanese fiction, even when unconventional in other ways such as Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016) – the fourteen-year-old boy who narrates Heaven is given a flat, queasy voice that immersed me completely.

Heaven, the latest work to be translated, is an earlier and more brutal novel, originally published in 2009. It comes from Picador with a deceptive cover: a pair of impeccably uniformed teenagers, eyeing us with sullen cool, when the real protagonists are a total mess. The unnamed narrator, being born with a lazy eye, is persecuted at school by a gang of boys in thrall to Ninomiya – a popular, handsome high achiever, insecure or insatiable, we do not know. The torments range from the verbal to the perversely imaginative to the very violent, accompanied by feeble wit and sycophantic laughter. They leave no mark, like the work of trained torturers. For the victim, this is just the way life is. It doesn’t occur to him to blab to the (seemingly non-existent) teachers, or to his nice but distant stepmother; the father, whom he loathes, is largely absent. But one day – at the cleverly upbeat start to the novel – he finds a note in his pencil case: ‘We should be friends’.

When, overcoming his fear of a trap, he finally meets the writer in a derelict park, she is revealed as Kojima, the expressionless classmate bullied by the girls ‘for being poor and dirty’ and so, as she sees it, his accomplice. Kojima outside school is a revelation: where the narrator has no self-knowledge, lives in a visual and emotional haze, has never had a friend or properly talked to a girl, she is fey, mercurial, intense and fragile, ruled by magical thinking. As their innocent bond develops through more notes and very occasional meetings, during which they often sit in bashful silence, they must still witness each other’s ordeals: ‘Once I saw them yell “Time for a bath!” and dunk her head in the fish tank… Whenever I saw things happen to her, I got this sharp pain in my chest, but there was nothing I could do’.

The inarticulate boy conveys most of his feelings through sensation in this way – ‘Nervousness filled my stomach like a gas’, ‘I noticed how thick and dry my tongue was’ – and asks himself lots of questions that go nowhere, but for Kojima, the world is meaningful and controllable. She used to scissor into the edges of curtains or books, a private ritual that made her feel that nothing was ‘wrong or great. Just normal’. Her unkempt appearance, for which she is bullied, is misleading, for her mother has remarried into money. But because her beloved father was left destitute, Kojima’s unwashed, matted state is deliberate – not the self-punishing discipline of a Christian saint, though she often reminds us of one, but a faithful connection, ‘a way of staying close to my dad, so I wouldn’t forget him’. And her passivity in suffering is not like the boy’s unthinking resignation, but a twisted form of power, which she tries to rope him into: ‘This is our will. We let them do this. It’s almost like we chose this. That’s all the more reason why they can’t leave us alone. They’re so scared, so terrified, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it’. To her, the boy’s infirmity is his blessing: ‘I really like your eyes’. 

The weak are the strong, disfigurement is beauty, squalor is love? Such comforting inversions are not allowed to stand. Ninomiya has a sinister sidekick, Momose, who only watches, and – it is very subtly suggested – has some invisible disability of his own. When they cross paths at the hospital, the narrator confronts him. (This uncharacteristic impulse is left unexplained, a token of the author’s finesse.) A long, riveting, circular dialogue ensues as the boy pleads natural justice and do-as-you-would-be-done-by, languidly countered by Momose’s radical amorality.

‘… that thing you said, about how no one has the right to hurt anybody else. How we should leave you alone because you didn’t do anything? I don’t understand that.’

‘What’s so hard to understand?’ I asked.

‘Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do what they want to.’

Worse, it’s not even about the eyes. ‘And your eyes are messed up, so everyone calls you Eyes. That’s true. But it’s just a coincidence. Your eyes have nothing to do with what happens at school. … It could have been anyone’. Even the symmetry argument founders: ‘Why can’t I do things to people that I wouldn’t want other people doing to my sister? … If you don’t like it, stopping it is up to you.’

Momose’s position is impregnable, because he has nothing to gain from cruelty. He doesn’t even think differentials of character are essences: ‘We can. We do. And you can’t. … Six months from now, a year? Who knows? Who cares?’ His nihilism is purer than that of the Sadean libertines, who reject Christian morality for selfish ends. He harbours neither a will to power nor the conception of a superior man.

The narrator, ever more out of his depth, gropes towards a solution that defies both Momose’s and Kojima’s positions: he might have his eye fixed. He makes the mistake of confiding this to Kojima, who is devastated. Thinking he has lost her begins to lend a disturbing eroticism to her image, and things build from here towards a dreamlike climactic scene, where a Kojima crazed for martyrdom seems horrifyingly to fuse with Momose in the little park where the friends first met. To be honest, I am helpless to interpret the insanity and sorrow of what happens here. And then, without transition, the tone turns sunny for another, more unexpected climax. The two scenes together recall the boy’s feeling about the Chagall exhibition Kojima took him to – ‘Every painting was a moment of destruction coinciding with the birth of something wonderful’ – and the novel’s last word is ‘beauty’.

Heaven is a short book that tackles philosophical, ethical and social issues without ever slowing the momentum or distorting the personality of its adolescent speaker (a translation triumph for Sam Bett and David Boyd). There is just the lightest suggestion, for instance, and without using the word, that the boy is this close to becoming a hikikomori, those young Japanese, mostly male, who never leave their bedroom. By contrast, the hefty, expanded Breasts and Eggs interleaves an affecting personal odyssey with considerable sociological data. At the other end of the scale, Kawakami’s short stories are spellbindingly strange. Pieces from the last decade findable online, like ‘Marie’s Proof of Love’, ‘Shame’ (with extra sweat), and the Salinger homage ‘A Once Perfect Day for Bananafish’, deserve to be collected. And when will we see the poetry?

Read on: Vera Mackie, ‘Feminist Politics in Japan’, NLR I/167.

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Avalanche of Numbers

In the last few weeks, a report has been circulating in the online fora of the ultranationalist Indian diaspora. Its author, Shantanu Gupta, an ideologue closely associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatya Janata Party, ‘tracked the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in India of 6 global publications – BBC, the Economist, the Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times and CNN – via web search results over a 14-month period’. His argument is that these outlets have distorted and exaggerated the effects of coronavirus in India. On what does Gupta base this thesis? On the fact that all these sources have used absolute numbers rather than cases per million. By the latter metric, we are told, ‘India is one of the better performing countries on the global map’. Here he is undoubtedly correct.

Countless times this spring we’ve seen the dramatic, record-shattering daily death counts from India, as it reportedly became the country with the third highest Covid deaths in the world. A quick look at these records: deaths in India reached their highest level on May 18th, with 4,525 per day. The USA topped this morbid leaderboard on January 12th with slightly lower numbers: 4,466. The UK reached its peak on January 20th, with 1,823 daily deaths; Italy on December 3rd with 993.

The problem is, India’s population stands at 1.392 billion. The USA’s is just 332 million, while the UK and Italy have 68 and 60 million respectively. If, then, we were to count the number of deaths per million inhabitants, ranking the highest daily death count yields quite different results: the UK holds a strong lead, with 28 deaths a day per million inhabitant; Italy is in second place with 17; the USA follows with 14; and India comes last, with just 3 per million inhabitants. Regarding the total number of deaths per million since the beginning of the pandemic, each country is almost identical, the only change coming at the very top: Italy clinches gold with 2,091 deaths per million, the UK 1,873, the USA 1,836, and India just 243.

One might argue that Indian statistics are unreliable (a fair objection, no doubt), due to the impossibility of accurately recording deaths in slums and other deprived areas. We now know that the true Covid death count in Peru was around triple the official figure. But multiply the Indian death count by four and it would still be inferior to that of more developed countries with far higher per capita incomes such as the USA, UK and Italy.

So has the pandemic in India been a bed of roses, as Modi has repeated for around a year, and as Gupta still maintains? Not at all. Try selling this to the families brought to ruin buying oxygen tanks on the black market or rooms in facilities with ventilators, or to the millions of precarious workers sent back home on foot, without a penny or subsidy to speak of. Even if, epidemiologically, Covid has not hit India more violently than other countries, it nonetheless spelled catastrophe for the health service and the wider economy. The numbers presented to underscore India’s Covid ‘tragedy’ in reality told an entirely different story. They were a testament to the brutal inequality of Indian society and the awful state of its health service: underfunded, staffed with underpaid workers, and lacking all kinds of vital equipment.

India’s pandemic casualties are but a macroscopic example of how numbers can be made to say anything, often conveying the opposite of what they really mean. In this past year and a half we’ve been submerged, buried, asphyxiated by an ‘avalanche of numbers’, as the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking terms it. In his exceptional The Taming of Chance (1990), Hacking examines the fervour for statistics that took hold of Europe in the 1800s, following the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Statistics, he argues, were endowed with a double dimension: by the 19th century they emerged as pillars of a new mode of governance, and underpinned a colossal epistemological revolution in science (just think of statistical mechanics, the kinetic theory of gases, and the attendant appearance of unsettling concepts: entropy first, the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics after). It was this ‘avalanche’ that gave rise to the human sciences. Modern sociology was made possible by the availability of statistical data; Durkheim couldn’t have written his foundational text on Suicide (1897) without the mass of information provided by censuses. Our contemporary image of human beings derives in large part from the means developed to count them – an image that omits all that cannot be counted or indexed.

Statistics – numbers, that is – were obviously the primary tool for enacting what Foucault termed ‘biopolitics’, a form of governance in which it is essential for the sovereign to know the average life expectancy, the mean age of marriage relative to level of education, the number of possible conscripts at any given time, how long the state would have to pay a life salary, and so on. But a discipline cannot be an instrument of government without becoming a weapon of politics. The manipulation of statistics was born alongside statistics itself, hence the unforgettable, lapidary maxim from Mark Twain in his Chapters from My Autobiography (1906): ‘there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’.

This whole process gave rise to a new artform, as the rhetorical use of numbers ripened into a veritable ‘rhetoric of the number’. The media spectacle we’ve witnessed in the last 17 months has deployed this numerical rhetoric to the full extent of its powers; instructive, threatening, persuasive, dissuasive, distortive. It’s opportune, then, to examine this rhetoric a little more closely. We could begin by asking, as Jacques Durand did in his first, pioneering treatment of the subject: ‘What is a number? Is it a word amongst others, an integral part of language? Or is it a purely scientific object, extralinguistic in nature?’

We may not realize it, but we’re perennially bombarded by numbers used in what might be termed an ‘extra-arithmetic’ register: The One Thousand and One Nights, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fahrenheit 451, The Seventh Seal, Ocean’s 11, Agent 007, 7-Up, 7-Eleven, the ‘number of the beast’ 666. In politics, the rhetorical use of numbers derives ‘from the fact that numbers and statistics – even from official sources – do not hold a mirror to reality but instead reflect, and deflect, it’. Precisely because of this function, numbers produce an effect of irrational persuasion. If I’m told that thousands of people have died in some disaster, I can accept this or I can remain sceptical, but if I’m told that the death count is 12,324, I must take it or leave it in toto. Numbers thus retain a persuasive force comparable to that of an image (‘worth a thousand words’). At the same time, numbers serve to decontextualize and absolutize.

We’re so inundated with numbers that we tend not to perceive just how much of the information we are presented with is superfluous and arbitrary. When we were told, for example, that Malaysia registered a record number of 5,298 cases on the 30th of January, nobody interrogated the reason why this figure was chosen. Why have we never been given daily updates on tuberculosis cases, even if every year it causes the death of around 1.7 million people? Think of the 1.4 million people who die every year in car accidents. Why are we not informed of roadside fatalities in Chile or the Philippines every evening? It’s curious that during Covid’s second wave all mention of deaths in nursing homes vanished; they have literally disappeared from mass media, yet the elderly continue to die in great numbers. The hypocritical sobs for the ‘tragedy of the elderly’ and the crocodile tears for ‘our grandparents’ have now been muted.

So, the first mechanism the rhetoric of numbers employs is the choice of which figures to include and which to omit. To declare the accumulation of total deaths, rather than the rate of mortality relative to the size of a given population, is a shining example of this numerical rhetoric. Rarely does the news – broadcast or print – use relative figures; it generally deals in absolute tallies. Less lethal but just as serious is the doctoring of statistics relating to work, with many curious stratagems at play in assessing the rate of unemployment (in the US, for example, people are not counted as unemployed if they worked just one hour the previous week). Then there are the various figures of speech which we do not have sufficient space and time to analyse at present. With numbers you can use antithesis: ‘A €700,000 fine for missed payment of €1.20’, ‘Murder for €20’; tautology: ‘2021 is not 2001’; repetition: ‘in 12 days, with 12 bottles, your face is 12 years younger’; enumeration: ‘buy two, pay for one’ (a shoe advert) , ‘one exceptional offer, two lifestyles, three advantages’; accumulation: ‘920 tonnes at 920 km/h’. This doesn’t even cover rhetorical devices that mix words and numbers. The list is long.

It’s evident from this brief excursus that numbers are not words like any other, nor are they completely extralinguistic signifiers. Strangely enough, their logic recalls (to come full circle) the use of Hindi words in English-language Indian dailies, which are replete with local terms that communicate what in English would be inexpressible. They represent an exotic solecism embedded in standard English and hark back to a shared local heritage. In everyday consciousness numbers surely enjoy a similar exotic fascination, owing partly to the general public’s imperfect grasp of arithmetic.

What remains to be evaluated is the intention behind this particular wielding of numbers. There’s little doubt here: general panic amongst the population was a poorly-concealed – if not declared – objective of the pandemic response. I don’t wish to say that the pandemic wasn’t to be feared. I do, however, think that authorities around the world considered instilling a long-lasting panic amongst the general public necessary in order for much-needed lockdown measures and curbs on civil liberties to be accepted with such acquiescence. A well-dosed and administered media panic was, and still is, far less costly and intrusive than police measures. And for this aim the rhetoric of numbers has no match.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘Geographies of Ignorance’, NLR 108.

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Friedman’s Last Gasp

Thomas Friedman’s recent column in the New York Times reflecting on Israel’s 11-day destruction of Gaza is a showcase for the delusions of liberal Zionism: a constellation of thought that has never looked so threadbare. It seems that every liberal newspaper needs a Thomas Friedman – the UK’s Guardian has Jonathan Freedland – whose role is to keep readers from considering realistic strategies for Israel-Palestine, however often and catastrophically the established ones have failed. In this case, Friedman’s plea for Joe Biden to preserve the ‘potential of a two-state solution’ barely conceals his real goal: resuscitating the discourse of an illusory ‘peace process’ from which everyone except liberal Zionists has moved on. His fear is that the debate is quietly shifting outside this framework – towards the recognition that Israel is a belligerent apartheid regime, and the conclusion that one democratic state for Palestinians and Jews is now the only viable solution.

For more than five decades, the two-state solution – of a large, ultra-militarized state for Israel, and a much smaller, demilitarized one for Palestinians – has been the sole paradigm of the Western political and media class. During these years, a Palestinian state failed to materialize despite (or more likely because of) various US-backed ‘peace processes’. While Americans and Europeans have consoled themselves with such fantasies, Israel has only paid them lip-service, enforcing a de facto one-state solution premised on Jewish supremacy over Palestinians, and consolidating its control over the entire territory.

But in recent years, Israel’s naked settler-colonial actions have imperiled that Western paradigm. It has become increasingly evident that Israel is incapable of making peace with the Palestinians because its state ideology – Zionism – is based on their removal or eradication. What history has taught us is that the only just and lasting way to end a ‘conflict’ between a native population and a settler-colonial movement is decolonization, plus the establishment of a single, shared, democratic state. Otherwise, the settlers continue to pursue their replacement strategies – which invariably include ethnic cleansing, communal segregation and genocide. These were precisely the tactics adopted by European colonists in the Americas, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Friedman’s function in the Western media – conscious or not – is to obfuscate these historical lessons, tapping into a long legacy of unthinking colonial racism.

One of the central pillars of that legacy is an abiding fear of the native and his supposedly natural savagery. This has always been the unspoken assumption behind the interminable two-state ‘peace process’. A civilized and civilizing West tries to broker a ‘peace deal’ to protect Israel from the Palestinian hordes next door. But the Palestinians continuously ‘reject’ these peace overtures because of their savage nature – which is in turn presented as the reason why Israel must ethnically cleanse them and herd them into reservations, or Bantustans, away from Jewish settlers. Occasionally, Israel is forced to ‘retaliate’ – or defend itself from this savagery – in what becomes an endless ‘cycle of violence’. The West supports Israel with military aid and preferential trade, while watching with exasperation as the Palestinian leadership fails to discipline its people.

Friedman is an expert at exploiting this colonial mentality. He often avoids taking direct responsibility for his racist assumptions, attributing them to ‘centrist Democrats’ or other right-minded observers. Coded language is his stock in trade, serving to heighten the unease felt by western audiences as the natives try to regain a measure of control over their future. In some cases the prejudicial framing is overt, as with his concern about the threat of an ascendant Hamas to women’s and LGBTQ rights, couched in an identity politics he knows will resonate with NYT readers. But more often his framing is insidious, with terms like ‘decimate’ and ‘blow up’ deployed to cast Palestinians’ desire for self-determination as violent and menacing.  

Friedman’s promotion of the two-state model offers a three-layered deception. First, he writes that the two-state solution would bring ‘peace’, without acknowledging that the condition for that peace is the Palestinians’ permanent ghettoization and subjugation. Second, he blames the Palestinians for rejecting just such ‘peace plans’, even though they have never been seriously offered by Israel. And finally, he has the chutzpah to imply that it was the Palestinians’ failure to negotiate a two-state solution that ‘decimated’ the Israeli ‘peace camp’.

Such arguments are not only based on Friedman’s dehumanizing view of Arabs. They are also tied to his domestic political concerns. He fears that if Joe Biden were to acknowledge the reality that Israel has sabotaged the two-state solution, then the President might disengage once and for all from the ‘peace process’. Of course, most Palestinians would welcome such an end to US interference: the billions of dollars funnelled annually to the Israeli military, the US diplomatic cover for Israel, and the arm-twisting of other states to silently accept its atrocities. But, Friedman argues, this withdrawal would carry a heavy price at home, setting off a civil war within Biden’s own party and within Jewish organizations across the US. God forbid, it might ‘even lead to bans on arms sales’ to Israel.

Friedman reminds us of Israeli businessman Gidi Grinstein’s warning that in the absence of a ‘potential’ two-state solution, US support for Israel could morph ‘from a bipartisan issue to a wedge issue’. The columnist writes that preserving the two-state ‘peace process’, however endless and hopeless, is ‘about our national security interests in the Middle East’. How does Friedman define these interests? They are reducible, he says, to ‘the political future of the centrist faction of the Democratic Party.’ A ‘peace process’ once designed to salve the consciences of Americans while enabling the dispossession of Palestinians has now been redefined as a vital US national security issue – because, for Friedman, its survival is necessary to preserve the dominance of foreign policy hawks in the Democratic machine. The argument echoes Biden’s extraordinarily frank admission made back in 1986 that ‘were there not an Israel the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region’.

Friedman then concludes his article with a set of proposals that unwittingly expose the true consequences of a two-state settlement. He insists that Biden build on his predecessor’s much ridiculed ‘peace plan’, which gave US blessing to Israel’s illegal settlements on vast swaths of the occupied West Bank, penning Palestinians into their Bantustans indefinitely. Trump’s plan also sought to entrench Israel’s control over occupied East Jerusalem, remake Gaza as a permanent battlefield on which rivalries between Fatah and Hamas would intensify, and turn the wealth of the theocratic Gulf states into a weapon, fully integrating Israel into the region’s economy while making the Palestinians even more dependent on foreign aid. Polite NYT opinionators now want Biden to sell these measures as a re-engagement with the ‘peace process’.

The US, writes Friedman, should follow Trump in stripping the Palestinians of a capital in East Jerusalem – the economic, religious and historic heart of Palestine. Arab states should reinforce this dispossession by moving their embassies from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. Neighbouring countries are encouraged to pressure the Palestinian Authority, via aid payments, to accede even more cravenly to Israel’s demands. (Of course, Friedman does not think it worth mentioning that Palestine is aid-dependent because Israel has either stolen or seized control of all its major resources.)

Once this subordinate position is guaranteed, divisions within the Palestinian national movement can be inflamed by making Hamas – plus the two million Palestinians in Gaza – dependent on the PA’s patronage. Friedman wants the Fatah-led PA to decide whether to send aid to the Gaza Strip or join Israel in besieging the enclave to weaken Hamas. For good measure, he also urges the Gulf states to cut off support to the United Nations aid agencies, like UNRWA, which have kept millions of Palestinian refugees fed and cared for since 1948. The international community’s already feeble commitment to the rights of Palestinian refugees will thus be broken, and the diaspora will be forcibly absorbed into their host countries.

Such proposals are the last gasp of a discredited liberal Zionism. Friedman visibly flounders as he tries to put the emperor’s clothes back on a two-state solution which stands before us in all its ugliness. The Western model of ‘peace-making’ was always about preserving Jewish supremacy. Now, at least, the illusions are gone.

Read on: Kareem Rabie, ‘Remaking Ramallah’, NLR 111.

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Get It and Waste It

The landlocked, resource-rich Central African Republic has been in a state of almost perpetual turmoil since independence from France in 1960. The latest bout of unrest started with the 2013 overthrow of President François Bozizé, the former army chief of staff. Within a year, the UN had accused Bozizé of ‘engaging in or providing support for acts that undermine the peace, stability or security of CAR’, having tried and failed to take Bangui, the capital. Three-quarters of the country – which is almost the size of France – came to be controlled by 14 separate militias. A peace accord in 2019 brought a brief respite, but this ended in the run-up to the 27 December 2020 presidential election when the Constitutional Court declared Bozizé ineligible to stand because he failed to fulfil the ‘good morality’ requirement. According to the court, he was still subject to a government-issued arrest warrant for his alleged role in murders, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and torture. Everyone knew that the matter was personal. The incumbent, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, previously an obscure academic, was picked by Bozizé to be Prime Minister in 2008, only to be dismissed by Bozizé less than a year later. When the election took place Touadéra swept to victory – although only one third of the electorate was able to vote after militia warfare displaced hundreds of thousands. Various militias have since come together as the Coalition of Patriots for Change, with Bozizé accepting the ‘call’ to be its ‘general coordinator’.

This is the familiar story of an African country with plentiful resources that never reach the general population. Although not in the top league, CAR has significant deposits of high quality – or gem – diamonds, along with gold and uranium. Yet its five million inhabitants are amongst the poorest in the world, exceeded in sub-Saharan Africa only by Niger, which is equally landlocked but mostly desert. According to UN figures, two-thirds of the population are dependent on food aid, itself jeopardised by the fighting. In March alone, there were 34 incidents of looting, nine vehicles were carjacked and two humanitarian workers were injured (one by a bullet). None of this is new. It was perhaps even worse in the colonial period when, between 1890 and 1940, the population was reckoned to have declined by half due to disease, famine and exploitation. Nowadays, CAR is of little strategic interest to the former colonial powers, which is why the ongoing tragedy is barely reported. This is in contrast to, say, neighbouring Chad, where the recent death of the long-serving Idriss Déby captured the world’s attention because of the country’s position in an ‘unusually dangerous neighbourhood’ – Boko Haram in the east, Isis in the north – against which it acts as a bulwark.

Indeed, the only time CAR made any showing on the world stage was in 1977 when the then president, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, declared the country an empire and crowned himself ‘Emperor of Central Africa’ in a two-day ceremony during which he wore a replica of Napoleon’s ermine-lined scarlet cape made by the same Paris firm which embroidered his hero’s uniforms. An embarrassed President Valery Giscard d’Estaing underwrote the spectacle to the tune of $22 million – gold-plated eagle throne, gold crown, 60,000 bottles of champagne and burgundy. As Emperor Bokassa I himself put it: ‘We ask the French for money, get it and waste it.’ And yet he had a point of sorts when he said that he did what he did ‘in order to give dignity to my country in the eyes of the world’ – a country which, as The Washington Post noted at the time, was otherwise ‘best known for supplying platter-lipped women to circus sideshows’.

Then, two years into his reign, even the French were forced to turn on Bokassa after the killing of over one hundred children who protested because they couldn’t afford the school uniform available exclusively in his wife’s shops. The leader and his family were forced into exile and the country returned to being an invisible republic. (In a final twist, Bokassa scuppered d’Estaing’s second-term bid by revealing that he had secretly accepted diamonds worth a quarter of a million dollars, rendering them both political outcasts.) 

As I write, there is no good reason to believe that normalcy will return to CAR anytime soon. Although a 12,000-strong UN mission (along with several hundred Rwandan troops) nominally keeps the peace in the territory still under government control, the government is heavily reliant on the services of Russian mercenaries, following Touadéra’s visit to Putin in 2018 to discuss the exchange of mining contracts in return for weapons. Bangui subsequently granted gold- and diamond-mining permits to Russian companies with suspected links to business mogul, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is a close associate of Putin. Officially, the Kremlin admits to having 535 military experts ‘in line with the international community’s general efforts to strengthen [CAR’s] security structures’. Three freelance Russian journalists who travelled to the country to document the activities of a private security company connected to the Kremlin were attacked and killed (‘in an ambush’). Nonetheless, it is known that one such Russian firm, Wagner Group, employs over 1,000 personnel. Another, Sewa Security Services, guards the airports and ministries and is part of the president’s own detail. The UN has accused both of ‘serious human rights violations’, including mass shootings, arbitrary arrests, torture and attacks on civilian facilities; but it’s unlikely that either they or the president – or Putin, for that matter – will be particularly bothered. If the words of the Russian ambassador, Vladimir Titorenko, are anything to go by, the Kremlin has no plan to wind down its intervention. Titorenko recently warned Bozizé to ‘renounce the armed struggle’ or risk being ‘neutralised’.

What is the rest of the continent doing about this running sore? Precious little. Here in Nigeria, not a line in any newspaper or over the airwaves – and this in a country with more newspapers and radio stations than the entire West African region put together. The government itself has not issued a statement, nor has it been debated in the Senate or the House, despite the claim that Africa is the ‘centre-piece’ of our foreign policy. The African Union, which declared itself satisfied with the conduct of the December elections after observing the process in just four of the country’s 20 prefectures, has since called for ‘dialogue’. Their approach, they explained, was ‘as the weaver when he puts the veil on the wheel. It is not to break it but improve it. We must always try to talk to each other, to cooperate.’ This doesn’t seem to have impressed either side.

The 11-member Economic Community of Central African States has been even less forthcoming – although this has not stopped President Touadéra from continuing to solicit help from neighbouring states. In a visit to Abuja on 24 May, he called on the Nigerian government to assist CAR in rebuilding its army, and on Nigerian citizens to invest in the country. Neither of these are likely prospects. Nigeria’s military has been beleaguered by trying to cope with Boko Haram, to say nothing of the increasing spate of kidnappings, and its business community is reluctant to invest abroad given the lack of support from the country’s foreign missions.

In the meantime, the Central African Armed Forces are effectively pushing back against Bozizé following the attack on Bangui by the Coalition of Patriots for Change. Government troops have reportedly been helped by Russian and Rwandan forces, who not only assisted on the battlefield but also improved the army’s administrative and organizational capacity. According to a statement by Cardinal Nzapalainga, Archbishop of Bangui, ‘A change is underway in the Central African Republic. The armed rebels who had entered the cities have left them and are in the forests’, yet ‘it remains to be seen whether this is real or just temporary peace.’ Judging from the country’s recent history, it is clear which of these options is more likely.

Giovanni Arrighi, ‘The African Crisis’, NLR 15.