Canny Reader

The death of J. Hillis Miller, in February, marked the end of an astonishing period in American academic literary criticism – North American really, since the dominant figure, Northrop Frye, was born in Québec and taught in Toronto. The period might be said to start in 1947, with the publication of Frye’s first book, the Blake study Fearful Symmetry, and yielded a body of work drawing on the kind of Continental resources – Marxism and psychoanalysis but also theology, linguistics, hermeneutics, and mythopoetics – that had been accorded little place by earlier formalist approaches. Miller, the author of twenty-five books, was rare among the central figures in devoting his attention to study of the novel, from Emily Brontë to Ian McEwan. The arc of Miller’s career has been described by Fredric Jameson as ‘unclassifiable’, but in bald terms, it was the story of a pair of Francophone mentors, Georges Poulet and Jacques Derrida, who washed up in Baltimore – more specifically, the campus of Johns Hopkins, where Miller taught from 1952 until 1972. Miller welcomed their interventions and ran with them, transforming himself into a leading exponent of two critical schools, one – phenomenology – that remains more or less pegged to its post-war moment, the other – deconstruction – with wider fame and implications, and a more contested legacy.

He was born in Virginia, in 1928, and raised in upstate New York – ‘definitely the boondocks’, he recalled. His mother was descended from Pennsylvania Dutch; one of her ancestors, a Rhode Islander, had been a signatory on the Declaration of Independence. Miller’s father, himself the son of a farmer, was a Baptist minister as well as a professor and an academic administrator who emphasised women’s higher education. But Miller’s upbringing wasn’t especially urbane. When he arrived at Oberlin, to study physics, he had never heard of T. S. Eliot. And when he moved to Harvard for graduate studies, he felt uncomfortable – out of step with what he called the ‘white-shoe tradition’. (Miller later wrote that he and his wife, Dorothy, thought of the shift from physics to English during his sophomore year ‘as a vow of poverty for us both’, adding, ‘That has not exactly happened’.)

The subject of Miller’s PhD was Dickens, not an established area of academic study. ‘The idea was that a gentleman had already read these novels’, he told me, during an encounter in 2012. ‘You don’t have to teach them’. When Miller was hired at Hopkins, he was the department’s first Victorianist: ‘Until I came, everything stopped at 1830’. One effect of the appointment was Miller’s meeting with the Swiss critic Georges Poulet, a member of the Geneva School of phenomenology (though, in fact, he never taught there), who argued that literature embodies the ‘consciousness’ of the author. Miller’s dissertation, notionally supervised by the Renaissance scholar Douglas Bush – whose only comment was that he uses ‘that’ when he means ‘which’ – had been written under the influence of Kenneth Burke, especially his idea of symbolic action. But in the published version, which appeared in 1958, he announced the Poulet-like desire to identify in Dickens’s fiction a unique and consistent ‘view of the world’ and called the novel the means by which a writer apprehends and creates himself.

Miller never formally rejected Poulet, but looking back, he saw his period as a phenomenologist as something like a diversion, even a cop-out. He had always been drawn to ‘local linguistic anomalies in literature’, he said, and consciousness criticism provided a ‘momentarily successful strategy for containing rhetorical disruptions of narrative logic’ through reference to the authorial perspective as a unifying – and grounding – presence. But at a certain point in the late 1960s, he abandoned what he called ‘an orientation toward language as the mere register of the complexities of consciousness’ in favour of ‘an orientation toward the figurative and rhetorical complexities of language itself as the generative source of consciousness’. In The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968), he continued to emphasise ‘intersubjectivity’ – how the ‘mind of an author’ is made ‘available to others’. But by the time of Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (1970), he had begun to embrace what he called ‘a science of tropes’.

It was a shift cemented in 1972, when Miller was hired by Yale, where his colleagues included Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and Jacques Derrida. Talk of a ‘Yale School’ now goes back almost fifty years, but did it really exist? Derrida, for his part, said that he didn’t identify with ‘any group or clique whatsoever, with any philosophical or literary school’. Yet Miller argued that in spite of such ‘complexities’ – i.e. the best-known putative member claiming otherwise – ‘a Yale School did exist’, and characterised its activities as ‘a group of friends teaching and writing in the same place at the same time, with closely related orientations’.

Miller once argued that the Yale critics were united by an interest in the eighteenth century. It’s a bizarre contention, the meta-critical equivalent of counting the people at a dinner table but forgetting to include yourself. Bloom, Hartman, and de Man were certainly engaged in an effort, spearheaded by Frye, to overturn a prejudice against Romanticism enshrined by Eliot and disseminated by the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry. The notable products included Hartman’s 1964 study of Wordsworth, the essays in de Man’s Blindness and Insight (1971), and Bloom’s books on Shelley and Blake as well as The Visionary Company (1961), his foolhardy reading of the entire English Romantic canon. Miller, by contrast, specialised in fiction of the Victorian and modernist periods; as late as 2012, he had never read anything by Samuel Richardson.

So the orientations to which Miller alluded are not altogether clear. Even Deconstruction and Criticism (1979), the ‘manifesto’ of the Yale School, exposed the degree of ambiguity, the conjunction in the title separating Bloom from the ‘gang of four’ who practised something called ‘deconstruction’. Hartman complicated things further in his preface by calling Miller, Derrida, and de Man the true ‘boa-deconstructors’ – a gang of three. Even the book’s intended unifying element, an emphasis on Shelley’s ‘The Triumph of Life’, was lost along the way. Looser points of convergence seem more persuasive. Miller pointed out that what he, de Man, Bloom, and Hartman – a different gang of four – were up to differed substantially from the activities of both the New Critics and Northrop Frye. The late Irish academic Denis Donoghue said that what linked the members of the so-called Yale School was simply that they ‘teach at Yale’.

What remains beyond doubt is that Miller was closely aligned to de Man and Derrida, and that their influence explains the discrepancy between the best books of his early period, The Disappearance of God (1963) and Poets of Reality (1965), and the books he published while at Yale, Fiction and Repetition (1982), and The Linguistic Moment (1985), his book on poetry. Miller first encountered de Man’s work at a Yale colloquium in 1964 where he delivered a version of the paper that became the Lukács essay in Blindness and Insight. Another turning point was Derrida’s appearance, two years later, at the star-studded Johns Hopkins conference, ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man’ – theory’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Miller was teaching a class when Derrida, a thirty-six-year-old lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure, and a last-minute addition ­– delivered his exhilarating lecture, ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’. But he witnessed Derrida in other sessions – for example, he heard him tell the phenomenologist and autofiction pioneer, Serge Doubrovsky, that he didn’t believe in perception.

It was one of many things he didn’t believe in. Derrida’s project, owing debts of varying sizes to Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Freud, was to show that the majority of modern thought remained implicitly metaphysical, and posited a foundation – a Transcendental Signified, the logos or Word – from which many unchecked assumptions derived. The conference had been organised to remedy East Coast indifference to structuralism. In the event – a word that became a crucial part of theoretical vocabulary – the opposite was achieved. Derrida dethroned Claude Lévi-Strauss, and deconstruction was born.

You might say that the effect of deconstruction, in its literary-critical mode, was to augment a presiding canon of largely B-writers (Baudelaire, Benjamin, Borges, Blanchot, etc) with a group of H-figures (Hölderlin, Hegel, Heidegger, Hopkins, to some degree Hawthorne and Hardy), and to replace a set of keywords beginning ‘s’ – structure, sign, signifier, signified, semiotics, the Symbolic, syntagm, Saussure – with a vocabulary based around the letter ‘d’: decentring, displacement, dislocation, discontinuity, dedoublement, dissemination, difference and deferral (Derrida’s coinage ‘différance’ being intended to encompass both). And there was also a growing role for ‘r’: Rousseau, rhetoric, Romanticism (one of de Man’s books was The Rhetoric of Romanticism), Rilke, and above all reading, a word that appeared, as noun and participle, in titles of books by de Man, Hartman, and most prominently Miller: The Ethics of Reading, Reading Narrative, Reading for Our Time, Reading Conrad.

The New York Times, one of various media outlets that offered a beginner’s guide to this new creed, defined deconstruction as the theory that words and texts have meaning only in relation to other words and texts. That better describes the structuralist concept of intertextuality. A typical deconstructionist reading reveals the ways in which a text deconstructs itself, essentially by keeping irreconcilable ideas in suspension. (Caution: paraphrase ahead!) De Man argued, for example, that Hegel’s Aesthetics was dedicated to the same act – preserving classical art – that it reveals as impossible; autobiography at once veils and defaces the autobiographer; a literary text is something that asserts and denies its own rhetorical authority. Harold Bloom, in the recent posthumous book Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles, called de Man’s Shelley an ironist who believed that disfiguration annihilates meaning, and then pointed out that this also describes de Man’s Rousseau, his Wordsworth, his Proust…

If Derrida was the founder of deconstruction, and de Man its most concise and feline practitioner, Miller was responsible for extending its range beyond philosophy and poetry. He defined the novel as ‘a chain of displacements’ – author into narrator, narrator into characters, donnée into fiction. He pointed out that attempts to characterise the literature of a given period as closed or open are undermined by the impossibility of demonstrating whether any one narrative is closed or open in the first place. It’s possible to reply that Miller’s criticism gravitated to novels openly concerned with the challenge of reading signs, with language as something that both uncovers and evades: The Wings of the Dove, Lord Jim, Between the Acts. But in his essay ‘Narrative and History’, he argued that Middlemarch, traditionally considered a realist text, can be seen as displacing ‘the metaphysical notions of history, storytelling, and the individual, and the concepts of origin, end and continuity’ with ‘repetition, difference, discontinuity, openness and the free and contradictory struggle of individual human energies’. The ‘canny reader’s motto’, from his formidable – and longest-gestating – book, Ariadne’s Thread (1992), begins: ‘Watch out when you think you’ve “got it”’.

Miller also emerged as the critic best-placed, or anyway keenest, to stand up for deconstruction – against the right, who saw it as iconoclastic and jargon-riddled, and the left, who saw it as elitist. He was frequently forced to deny that deconstruction was simply nihilist. ‘It’s not that nothing is referential’, he said, ‘but that it’s problematically referential’. His best-known essay, and the most virtuoso display of his thinking in action, ‘The Critic as Host’, which appeared in Deconstruction and Criticism, was a response to M.H. Abrams’s essay, ‘The Deconstructive Angel’, which argued that a deconstructionist reading was parasitic on the ‘univocal’ reading of a text. Then there was the charge, recently repeated by Louis Menand in his book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, that deconstruction was just as cloistered as the New Criticism – that it ignored, in Menand’s phrase, the ‘real-life aspects of literature’. There’s an argument that deconstruction only looked at history when history more or less forced itself onto the agenda when it emerged, in 1987, that de Man had published articles for Belgian newspapers under Nazi control. But Miller had already been engaged in rejecting the view of deconstruction as formalism by another – fancier – name.

In 1986, the year he left Yale for the University of California, Irvine – Derrida went along too – Miller used his first Presidential Address to the MLA Conference to attack the narrowness of newly resurgent historical approaches, and his own later work offered a serial deconstructionist’s riposte. His first formal intervention was Hawthorne & History: Defacing It (1991), an attempt to show that literature never merely ‘reflects’ history, and this was followed by a short book on the relationship between text and images, Illustration (1992), which Jameson called his contribution to ‘“cultural studies” as such’. In the last decade of his life, he produced a study of George Eliot that doubled as an exercise in ‘anachronistic reading’, an account of writing – including the work of Kafka and Toni Morrison – in relation to Auschwitz, and a study of ‘communities’ (always more conflicted than they just appear) in the work of writers as varied as Thomas Pynchon and Raymond Williams. 

But Miller was not content to offer deconstruction as an alternative to what he considered ‘logical’ historicism. He saw it as a truly materialist aesthetics. As long ago as 1972, Jameson argued that opposition to an ‘Absolute Signified’ encoded a critique of the authoritarian and theocentric, and compared the Derridean analysis of the word and its dominance to Marx on money and the commodity. The first overt statement of this position came a decade later in de Man’s essay ‘The Resistance to Theory’, in which he argued that those who dismissed theory as oblivious to social and historical reality exhibited an unconscious fear that it would expose their own ideological mystifications. Then he added, ‘They are, in short, very poor readers of Marx’s German Ideology.’

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that this one sentence determined the course of Miller’s work ever after. He became increasingly insistent on the similarity, even interchangeability, of the two traditions. Rhetorical reading was political reading, with an essential role in teaching citizens how to decode what he called the ‘imaginary formulations of their real relations to the material, social, gender, and class conditions of their existence’. In the 1986 MLA address, Miller called for a deconstructionist understanding of the material base. Later, though, he appeared to suggest that such an understanding had always existed. In ‘Promises, Promises’, a 2001 essay principally concerned with similarities between Marx and de Man, though inevitably emboldened by Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993), Miller called The German Ideology ‘a deconstructive literary theory avant la lettre’, adding ‘If Marx is a deconstructionist, deconstruction is a form of Marxism’. Both were based, in his account, on a refusal to take things for granted, and a need to investigate how a certain sign system – language, the commodity – was established, how it works, and how it might therefore be changed.        

There seems little consensus about the influence or afterlife of the movement to which Miller belonged. For many, it appears to have been something transient. Menand, in The Free World, argues that Derrida’s ‘anti-foundationalism’ never had much effect outside literature departments and ‘some kinds of art practice’. But Camille Paglia, writing in 1993, lamented that post-structuralism had ‘spread throughout academe and the arts’ and was ‘blighting the most promising minds of the next generation’, adding with only a dash of melodrama: ‘This is a major crisis if there ever was one, and every sensible person must help bring it to an end’. And Jameson, writing in NLR in 1995, noted that the ‘maddening gadfly stings’ of Derrida’s attack on metaphysics had hardened into orthodoxy – though he didn’t specify where.

Miller, for his part, liked to emphasise the deconstructive strain in the work of feminist critics such as Shoshana Felman, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Barbara Johnson (who pointed out that the Yale School was always a Male School), and Judith Butler. He never stopped writing and lecturing about Derrida or de Man or the self-immolating tendencies of language or the self-critical faculties of novels or the radicalism inherent in good reading. But he noted with regret that what he called ‘the triumph of theory’ had been undone, and he stopped using the term deconstruction, arguing that ‘a false understanding’ had won the day with the media, and ‘many academics too’.

Leo Robson is lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

Read on: Fredric Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’, NLR I/209.


Pavelić’s Ghost

Like all holidays, the advent of Ramadan unleashes a social media storm of congratulatory memes. Friends, family, and distant acquaintances share photographs of mosques and stylized images of the crescent-and-star superimposed with a snippet of text, ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ or ‘Ramadan Kareem’ – wishes for a bountiful holy month. My twitter feed brimmed with such greetings on the first morning of Ramadan, but one in particular caught my eye, a retweet of Jusuf Nurkić, the Bosnian basketballer who plays centre for the Portland Trailblazers in the National Basketball Association. Nurkić’s message was brief: the hashtag #ramadankareem, three emojis – a crescent moon, a heart, and a pair of hands expressing gratitude or piety – and a caption for the accompanying photograph: ‘Zagreb. 1944 Croatia’. The black-and-white image that Nurkić tweeted depicted a rotunda surrounded by three towering minarets. The sinister political context captured by the photograph was implicit, but the flood of responses to the tweet indicated that it was not lost on Nurkić’s followers. He had posted a picture from a notorious episode in Zagreb’s history: the conversion of a famous art pavilion into a mosque by the Nazi comprador government of the Independent State of Croatia and its leader, Ante Pavelić.

Along with Ferenc Szálasi in Hungary, Ion Antonescu in Romania, and Jozef Tiso in Slovakia, Pavelić was a quisling dictator who rose to power on Hitler and Mussolini’s coattails. His Ustaša Movement seized power in 1941 following the Axis attack on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In short order, they set about cleansing ‘Greater Croatia’ – a region that included most of Bosnia and parts of Serbia’s Vojvodina region, as well as Croatia – of centuries of linguistic, religious and ethnic plurality. Pavelić’s most gruesome legacy was the Jasenovac concentration camp, a marshy abattoir on the floodplains of Slavonia where some 100,000 Jews, Roma, Serbs and anti-fascists were murdered between 1941 and 1945. The Ustaša ambition to Croat ethnic purity was assimilatory as well as genocidal. Drawing on the marginal theories of the 19th Century proto-nationalist Ante Starčević, Pavelić and his cohorts argued that Bosniaks were religiously but not ethnically distinct. In other words, the Ustaše considered Bosniaks to be Muslim – rather than Catholic – Croats, thereby erasing all historically- or culturally-rooted claims to Bosniak distinction. As ostensible Croats, Muslims were desirable components of the Ustaša body politic. Pavelić trumpeted this fascist openness to limited religious plurality by converting Zagreb’s House of the Fine Arts into a mosque in 1944.

The neoclassical-modernist pavilion-cum-mosque had only risen several years earlier, but it was already a weathervane for the region’s rapidly shifting political winds. Initially conceived as a monument to Yugoslav King Petar I, its design was an expression of Ivan Meštrović’s genius. Meštrović was Yugoslavia’s premiere sculptor, a proponent of the Vienna Secession, a disciple of Rodin, and a firm believer in the unity of the South Slavs, the ideological adhesive that bonded Yugoslavia between the wars. His new art pavilion honoured Petar I, a scion of the Serbian Karađorđević dynasty who, from 1918 to 1921, was the first sovereign of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – the predecessor to Yugoslavia. Yet when the pavilion opened in 1938, the rabidly anti-Serbian Ustaše were already consolidating power in Italy under the patronage of Mussolini, who hosted Pavelić in exile for over a decade. Less than six years later, the building was re-dedicated to a dramatically different cause: Muslim-Catholic unity in the new ethnic polity, the Independent State of Croatia. Changes to the building were swift, and mostly cosmetic: the three minarets and interior ornamental motifs befitting a mosque.

These additions proved ephemeral. After the war, Tito’s partisans quickly transformed the building’s function and name again – by 1949, it had become the Museum of the Revolution. This proved to be the site’s lengthiest incarnation, at least thus far. The Museum of the Revolution persisted until 1993, when, in the wake of Croatia’s withdrawal from Yugoslavia and the subsequent war, the building reverted to its original function as an art pavilion and headquarters for the Croatian Association of Artists. Although it remains an exhibition space today, residents of Zagreb still colloquially refer to the building and its surrounding neighbourhood as Džamija, ‘the mosque’, without reflecting on the fascist genealogy of the title. Paradoxically, a trip to Zagreb’s ‘mosque’ does not usually end at the city’s actual Muslim house of worship, a Yugoslav-era campus in a relatively poor, peripheral neighbourhood. Stranger still, ‘the mosque’, a linguistic relic of the Ustaše, resides at the centre of the Square in Honour of the Victims of Fascism, a public space that explicitly condemns Ustaša depredations.

Whether or not Nurkić considered this dense history when he posted his Ramadan tweet featuring the fascist-era image of the mosque, his provocation was clear – the shot scored. One reply to the tweet denounced him as an Ustaša, while another leaned on a common racial-religious slur, branding him a ‘Turk who sold his faith for taxes’. A wag suggested that he had failed to understand the difference between the NBA and the NDH, the Croatian acronym for the Ustaša state. Supportive replies were less common, though a few neo-fascists reared their heads to salute the Portland player. Nurkić’s tweet also inadvertently called attention to an anniversary that passed largely unnoticed in Croatia and the region: the eightieth anniversary of the foundation of the Ustaša state only a few days earlier, on 10 April. In Jutarnji List, Zagreb’s daily paper of record, the journalist Robert Bajruši pointedly lamented that ‘the institutions of the Republic of Croatia have absolutely silenced this terribly important event – terrible in the literal sense of the word’. Nurkić’s Ramadan greeting did Croatian institutions one better, though not in the manner Bajruši might have hoped.  

Many in the region reasonably claim that official silence is preferable to stoking the smouldering flames of communal antagonisms. Pavelić continues to haunt Croatia in many spheres beyond the circles of the far right that openly laud his legacy. Postcards and memorabilia from the Independent State of Croatia, including the very photograph of the mosque that Nurkić repurposed for Ramadan, sell for exorbitant prices in Zagreb’s flea markets, sandwiched between Iron Crosses and busts of Tito. Yet Pavelić and the Ustaše have no place in official memory today – a muteness that contrasts starkly with the socialist era when they were bugbears and collective enemies par excellence.

This official muting of the Ustaša past is a condition of possibility for the political successes of Croatia’s contemporary centre-right party, the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, HDZ). Nostalgic praise for the Ustaše circulates openly in the right-wing circles from which the HDZ draws some of its support, applauded by figures such as the ethno-folk balladeer Marko Perković, known popularly as Thompson. The party itself, however, aspires to the respectability of its Christian Democratic brethren elsewhere in Europe, and officially abjures the Ustaša legacy. Rather than Pavelić, it is Franjo Tuđman, the first president of independent Croatia who died in 1999, who personifies the nation-state today. Tuđman epitomizes a polite Croatian nationalism, as opposed to the barbaric nationalism of Pavelić and the Ustaše. Yet the two are not so easily quarantined. In the context of the warfare of the 1990s, Tuđman and the HDZ partially rehabilitated Pavelić and the Ustaše as earlier architects of Croatian sovereignty. This political resurrection was entwined with the parallel rehabilitation of another World War II-era fascist movement, the Četniks, on the part of Slobodan Milošević and like-minded Serbian nationalists. The violence of the 1990s was the crucible for a politics of memory in both Croatia and Serbia that found new uses for the Ustaše and Četnici, respectively. 

Zagreb recently erected a monument to Tuđman, cementing his status as an embodiment of the nation. Pavelić’s legacy in the city is far less evident. Several weeks ago, I visited the ruins of his official residence, Villa Rebar, on the slopes of the Medvednica mountain north of Zagreb. It rots anonymously at the end of an unmarked dirt road, inhabited only by racist graffiti and a hodgepodge of litter: broken DVDs, condom wrappers, beer bottles. In a room that was once a cocktail lounge, I discovered a pile of discarded primary school textbooks, including a history primer that no doubt fails to mention his name.

Elsewhere, however, Pavelić’s memory resists ruination, and stirs with troubling new vitality. I witnessed stirrings of this resurgent potential several years ago on a summer morning in Madrid’s San Isidro Cemetery. Just as Mussolini sheltered Pavelić in the 1930s, Franco provided safe haven for him near the end of his life; though he initially fled to Italy and then Argentina and Chile after the war, he died in Spain in 1959 as the result of an assassination attempt in Buenos Aires several years earlier. Pavelić’s grave in San Isidro is a potent site of Ustaša memory. When I arrived, I found two strapping young men taking selfies in front of it. Several bouquets had already been deposited that day, and I heard more Croatian than Spanish spoken during my sojourn in the graveyard. Upon departure, I asked the cemetery gate attendant whether Croatian visitors were frequent – ‘Yes, of course’, he replied, ‘they come to see their leader.’

For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of abstention and spiritual reflection. As the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed to Muhammad, it is a period of heightened awareness to the entailments of Islam. It is also a season of peace, when even the most entrenched conflicts frequently abate, if only for a time. Regrettably, Nurkić failed to consider these entailments of Ramadan before tweeting the image of Zagreb’s erstwhile fascist mosque. Had he done so, he might have refrained from such a belligerent incitement in a context in which peace is still a recent achievement. Still, he was evidently unfazed by the conflagration he ignited on Twitter. He went on to score eight points the following day in a close loss to the Boston Celtics.

Read on: Catherine Samary, ‘A Utopia in the Balkans’, NLR 114.


Chile Confounds

It happened again. Chilean elites have twice been confounded in the past year. First, by the resounding vote on 25 October to draft a new constitution, driven by the popular anger that had built up over three decades inside the country’s neoliberal pressure cooker. Second, by the surge of independent candidates in the elections for the Constitutional Convention on 15 May. For several reasons, there had been a virtual consensus among pundits that the Convention would be monopolized by party politics: the electoral rules which favoured candidates who run in lists (benefiting traditional parties and coalitions); the lack of funding and airtime allotted to independents; the numerous opinion polls predicting less than 1% of the vote would go to non-party candidates; the negative effects of the pandemic on turnout. The Convention, they predicted, would end up looking very similar to the current Congress, only with more women and indigenous peoples due to gender parity rules and reserved seats. Because a two-thirds supermajority was needed to approve all articles of the new constitution – a rule imposed in a backdoor agreement between the party leaderships – there was a palpable sense of relief. The electoral process, they thought, had managed to tame the constituent power that erupted during the popular uprisings of late 2019.  

The two-day election in mid-May saw 1,373 candidates competing for 155 seats. Despite President Piñera’s single-digit approval rating, the most conservative projections had given at least 51 seats to Vamos por Chile, the electoral bloc of the right-wing governing coalition plus the far-right pro-Pinochet Partido Republicano. The opposition coalition, which ruled the country for most of the past three decades as the Concertación, was also forecast to win just over a third of the vote. This would have given the two dominant coalitions (which have ruled Chile since the return to democracy) the ability not only to block new constitutional articles, but also to pass provisions that would entrench the structures of the dictatorship era. Projections put Apruebo Dignidad, the electoral pact composed of Frente Amplio (the ‘new left’ coalition born out of the 2011 student movements), the Communist Party, and other small regional left parties, at around 16%. Independents were expected to get between zero and seven seats, barely reaching 5%.

In the end, independent candidates won 35% of the seats. It was the worst electoral result for right-wing parties since the municipal elections of 1971. Although Vamos por Chile is still the largest coalition, it won only 40 seats, or 26% of the vote. That’s just four points higher than the votes cast in the October plebiscite for the option – ‘rechazo’ – that rejected changing the Constitution, and 11 seats short of unilateral veto power. The greatest losers, however, were the parties of the former Concertación, which came in fourth place, winning only 25 seats, or 16% of the vote. The electoral alliance of the new left and the Communists performed slightly better than expected, securing 18% of the seats.

The biggest surprise was the strong results of the Lista del Pueblo (‘People’s List’), which comprised 163 independents. Of these, 27 were elected, making them the third strongest bloc in the Convention with 17.4% of seats. Many of their candidates were prominent figures in the 2019 protests that forced the constitutional plebiscite – such as Tía Pikachú, a nursery teacher who dressed in a bright yellow Pokémon costume to face down water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets in Plaza Dignidad, and Pelao Vade, a leukaemia patient who led marches against exorbitant medical bills. While the Lista del Pueblo candidates all have a broadly anti-patriarchal, anti-neoliberal and pro-democracy orientation, they did not have a unified platform nor internal democratic decision-making procedures in place before the elections. It is yet to be seen whether these 27 independents will be able to rally around a common project and vote as a bloc. Another non-partisan list that performed better than expected was Independientes No Neutrales (‘Non-Neutral Independents’), composed mainly of intellectuals and professionals from the world of NGOs and foundations, which secured 11 seats. The strong showing of grassroots activists and progressive intellectuals contrasts with the weak performance of trade unionists and representatives of more established social movements. Luis Mesina, former vice president of the CUT (Central Workers Union), ran in the Social Movements List with the support of more than 200 organizations, but nevertheless got only 2% of the vote in his district. Candidates from the LGBT community also won only eight seats (5%), despite the heightened visibility of their movement since the 2019 rebellion.  

Behind these auspicious electoral results, which deprived the establishment of veto power, a deep legitimacy crisis is still lurking. About 50% of eligible voters cast their ballot in the plebiscite that initiated the constituent process, while only 43% went to the polls this time to select representatives. More than 1 million people decided to stay home, despite the great variety of candidates and platforms. This decrease cannot be explained away as a ‘pandemic effect’, as infections and hospitalizations were high on both occasions. Rather, it reflected the nature of the vote: while the referendum was a unique exercise of constituent power, the subsequent elections were viewed as part of a more routine political process which is widely perceived as rigged.

In order to make it onto the ballot, unaffiliated candidates had to get hundreds of people to support them – or up to several thousand in the most populous districts. Political parties, by contrast, were assigned slots in relation to their previous electoral results. So, while the former were busy going door to door, the latter were designing their slates and contacting popular independent candidates to co-opt them into the official party lists. The unequal playing field was even more obvious in the media, where candidates running as independents were given 30 seconds of national airtime a day, while parties and lists ran high-definition campaign broadcasts that lasted for several minutes.

On top of this, the fraudulent activities of the traditional parties contributed to the population’s apathy. In 2017, following several high-profile political corruption cases during the second term of Socialist President Michelle Bachelet, a special commission recommended all political parties revalidate their membership rolls to prove the true extent of their social base. A law was passed giving each party a one-year period to re-register its members. Almost all of them, including the Communists, struggled to gather the requisite number of signatures, and therefore were on-track to be formally disbanded. They would cease to exist as political entities and be unable to run candidates for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Yet, after successfully lobbying the electoral commission to relax the requirements and allow the registration of members through non-secure methods, the parties were able to double and even triple their rolls within a month. Given that the majority of the Chilean political establishment participated in this fraud, investigations were swiftly buried. Then, in late 2020, a number of candidates attempted to run as independents and found out they had been registered as members of a political party without their consent. A month before the election, videos started to circulate on social media denouncing the chicanery of the mainstream parties. Alberto Herrera, spokesman for the Lista del Pueblo, raised the issue on a national talk show shortly before the polls opened. If this emboldened some to vote for independents, it also exacerbated popular disenchantment with electoral politics. Ultimately, the combination of low turnout, proportional representation, and multiple candidates and lists per district meant that 80% of those who will write the new constitution were elected with less than 10% support among those who voted (or 4% of eligible voters overall).

Therefore, even if the recent elections were ‘free and fair’ on paper, the process has a precarious legitimacy. Recognizing the need to increase popular participation in the constitutional process, independent representatives are almost unanimous in their support for designing new democratic mechanisms for the Convention. So far, the national media has suggested a number of performative gestures to regain the trust of voters: an itinerant Convention that meets in a different region each month, or a mandate that forces representatives to return to their constituencies and ‘gather voices’. Yet more substantive measures to formalize the relationship between the Convention and the general public are also gaining traction. These will be debated in its first meeting on 5 July, which will determine the internal rules and procedures of the institution. There are at least three binding mechanisms under consideration: plebiscites, citizen initiatives, and constituent cabildos. These are aimed at overriding possible conservative vetoes in the Convention and allowing ordinary people to participate in its decision-making. Some are proposing that articles that have majority support but cannot reach the two-thirds threshold should be automatically put to a national plebiscite. Yet, considering that less than half the population turns out to vote, there is a danger that referenda could be used strategically for anti-democratic purposes. Plebiscites are typically organized from the top down: those that participate often do so out of loyalty to established parties and leaders, and the choice of question can dramatically skew the results. As illustrated by Proposition 8 in California or the face-covering ban in Switzerland, ‘bottom-up’ democratic initiatives can also be exploited by well-funded conservative groups to pass reactionary proposals.

In contrast to the plebiscitarian model – which sees citizens only as individual voters, incapable of collective deliberation – the grassroots constituent process that began with the spontaneous organization of neighbourhood assemblies and cabildos in late 2019 has already been enacting alternative forms of direct democracy. Such groups managed to elect a few delegates (as opposed to representatives) to the Convention, along with a handful of mayors and city councillors. In District 6, which comprises the water-deprived territories in the coastal region of Valparaiso, two local activists have been sent to the Convention: Lisette Vergara, a history teacher associated with the Lista del Pueblo, and Carolina Vilches, a feminist campaigner who ran in the Apruebo Dignidadlist. Both are working with elected officials in municipal government to protect the popular constituent process, and are developing proposals that would make decisions reached in cabildos binding at the local level, radically devolving democratic power. These community organizers are not alone. Similar experiments in deliberative democracy are being refined by a sprawling network of Chilean activists. The extent of their imbrication with the Convention will determine the extent of its success.

To reach the two-thirds threshold of 104 votes and approve participatory mechanisms in the Convention’s regulations, a grand alliance of independents, indigenous peoples, the new left, Communists, socialists, and progressive liberals will be needed. While such a coalition is certainly within reach, it could prove difficult to assemble since parts of the traditional left see plebiscites as the optimum vehicle for advancing a radical programme. They remain reluctant to give binding power to the cabildos. This split may yet allow the mainstream parties to undermine the radical potential of a new constitution. Yet, if the left can unite around the idea that the people themselves must determine their future, then the Convention would make history by recognizing popular autonomous institutions and allowing them to legally exercise constituent power. This would mark an unprecedented breakthrough for the plebeian classes, whose overhaul of the political system designed by Pinochet could definitively alter the place of the Chilean people within the country’s representative institutions.

Read on: Manuel Riesco, ‘Chile: A Quarter of a Century on’, NLR 1/238.


1979 in Reverse

In 1979, when Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker chair of the Federal Reserve, the mandate was clear. Tackle inflation, whatever the cost. And so he did. In late 1980, interest rates reached a record high of 20%, and inflation fell from a peak of 11.6% to 3.7% in 1983. For the capitalist class, this came with an economic and political bonanza. The rate hikes triggered a severe recession, precipitating a wave of restructuring and lay-offs that helped to crush the trade unions, demoralize the left and discipline the global south. The result was a ‘revenge of the rentiers’, and a well-documented surge in inequalities.

Volcker’s ‘1979 coup’, as Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy called it in Capital Resurgent (2004), came in a period when declining systemic dynamism in the advanced-capitalist world – brought on by intensifying competition, with successful Japanese and German catch-ups – was met by rising labour militancy and mass social movements, producing a general crisis of governability. Meanwhile radical forces in the former colonial countries called for a New International Economic Order, based on economic sovereignty and the regulation of multinationals. The 1979 coup was arguably the most consequential factor in turning the tide against these insurgent forces. The hegemony of the dollar was strengthened. Countries in the global south were brought to their knees by the rising cost of debt servicing and forced to adopt structural-adjustment programmes, drawn up by the IMF and World Bank in coordination with the US Treasury. In the global north, pro-US governments liberalized capital flows, subordinating industrial relations and welfare systems to the growing power of finance.

Stabilize prices, crush labour, discipline the south. This was the basic logic of the 1979 coup. For four decades, financial returns were systematically prioritized over labour standards, employment, ecological conditions and development prospects. Now, in 2021, there are signs that this era is finally coming to an end. Yet to what extent, and by what means? The logical unfolding of the swing movement that occurred over forty years ago may help to illuminate the present moment. Are the Biden Plans merely a new inflexion of neoliberal norms, or do they amount to a clear break with the post-79 regime?  

The most exaggerated expression of ‘left optimism’ to date comes from the Wall Street Journal. America’s leading conservative newspaper tells us that ‘Joe Biden may be the most anti-business President since FDR’. His Administration is implementing ‘a Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren agenda that would vastly expand government control over business and the economy.’ The WSJ is not particularly perturbed by Biden’s spending spree; but it is incensed about the planned rise in corporate and wealth taxes, as well as the attempt to bolster union organizing with the Pro Act, ‘the most far-reaching labour legislation since the 1930s.’

The Pro Act could indeed be highly consequential, both economically and politically, if the growing associational power of labour opened space for expanded organization, improved social conditions and rejuvenated working-class politics. Its effect will be undermined, however, as long as there is a large reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers, putting downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Employment in the US remains severely depressed, and Biden famously dropped the $15 minimum wage from the Covid relief package. Nevertheless, reducing unemployment and underemployment appears to be an aim.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus combined with Trump’s packages has injected a total of $5 trillion – almost 25% of GDP – into the US economy, the largest-ever fiscal expansion in peacetime. More than enough to reflate the economy from its Covid-19 trough, this economic voluntarism is an unambiguous departure from the fiscal moderation of the Obama Administration and the dogmatic austerity of the EU. Its ideological significance should not be underestimated.

First, as Serge Halimi noted in the April number of Le Monde diplomatique, one of the most promising features of the American Rescue Plan was its universality. By the end of April, over 160 million Americans had received a Treasury check of $1,400. This was a break with the punitive ideology of neoliberal social subsidies, typically distributed under strict and humiliating conditions. It paves the way for broader measures, with an eye to the 2022 mid-term elections.

Second, the scale of the Administration’s public spending is deliberately designed to generate a high-pressure economy, which necessarily involves an element of inflationary risk. It is on this point that 2021 can be considered a 1979 coup in reverse. As Adam Tooze stressed – hailing the dawn of a new economic era – for decades ‘the bias of technocratic judgement’ has been in favour of price stability and against labour. This is changing – explicitly so. Since 2019, at least, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been referring to arguments developed by Arthur Okun at Brookings in the 1970s, about the social advantages of a high-pressure economy.

Okun, briefly the chair of LBJ’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued in 1973 that accepting slack – the under-utilization of resources, especially labour – as an insurance policy against inflation implied ‘the sacrifice of upward mobility’, while ‘a higher-pressure labour market’ would launch a process of ladder-climbing, in which ‘men formerly in poor jobs move into better ones, making way for women and young people in the less well-paid pursuits’. Wage differentials would narrow, as ‘the same forces that make for more jobs also make for better jobs and more output per worker.’

This seems to be Biden’s strategy: increasing employment, reducing inequality and fostering productivity growth, via high-pressure economic policy. As his speechwriters put it, ‘trickle-down economics has never worked’; the objective should be ‘to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out’. Let’s take a moment to enjoy these words – a plain U-turn from the kind of policies that Democrats like Biden have been implementing for decades. For the left, this represents the result of years of ideological and political mobilization with the Sanders campaigns, and AOC’s rise as the tip of an iceberg of activist endeavour.

Yet it also responds to a situation in which financial markets, supposedly the central nervous system of the economy, have spent the past decade on life-support systems and have lost contact with underlying earnings. In other words, we need to ask: if the 1979 coup showed that the rise of finance entailed the fall of labour, could the 2021 pro-labour turn succeed in dethroning finance?

Brian Deese, head of Biden’s National Economic Council, formerly at investment giant BlackRock, doesn’t represent a break from the usual model of Wall Street-Washington technocrats. Yet in an interview with the NYT last month, he explained the rationale for the Administration’s statist turn. The challenges were (1) climate change, (2) inequality and (3) China. None of these could be tackled adequately by the market, so the state had to step in. It’s worth looking at all three.

Droughts, fires and hurricanes have made climate change a concrete reality in the US, and failure to mitigate it is no longer an option. According to Deese, all economic policy must be climate policy, and to be politically sustainable it must be employment policy too. The Administration has duly deployed its ecological policies under the banner of a ‘Jobs Plan’, to defuse any clash between environmentalism and employment.

In contrast to the stimulus, the main problem with the American Jobs Plan – and the companion American Families Plan, for childcare and education – is that their scale is drastically undersized. Their combined $4.05 trillion makes for big numbers. But this is to be spread out over a decade, so that all-in-all it accounts for just 1.7% of GDP per year – risibly small for the claim to ‘rebuild a new economy’ and a fraction of the $16.3 trillion (or 7.6% of GDP per year) proposed by Sanders’s Green New Deal.

On infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $2.59 trillion of additional investment is required simply to maintain the existing infrastructure for 2020-29 in a state of good repair. Biden’s plan will help to maintain the existing railway sector, but will not expand it to substitute for cars or planes. Biden’s so-called ‘green transition’ aims to ‘clean’ existing processes, not to transform life and consumption patterns. An ill-founded optimism about technological advance complements the imperative to preserve capitalist social relations.

Interestingly, the plan in its current form does not rely on private funding. Financial investors are begging for long-term assets, particularly public-private partnership infrastructure projects. They are worried, explains Larry Fink, Deese’s former CEO at BlackRock, because ‘there are huge pools of private capital standing by’, with a lack of safe projects to invest in. The Biden team is resisting these sirens for now, although it is still promoting that kind of privatization scheme in the global south. One obvious reason is because, as observed by the Financial Times, federal government debt always comes out cheaper than the commercial returns necessary to private-sector infrastructure operators, ‘a cost that ultimately lands on the users of essential services.’ But it was precisely this kind of obviousness that neoliberal thinking stubbornly tried to obfuscate.

Instead, the Biden Administration plans a modest rise in corporate tax, from 21% to 28% – shy of the 35% rate before Trump – and calls for a minimum global rate of 15%. The top rate of income tax will inch up from 37% to 39.6%, and ordinary income-tax rates could be applied to capital gains and dividends for Americans earning over $1m a year. In some states, the combined state and federal capital-gains tax could be above 50% – if the legislation makes it through Congress. Ideologically, its very articulation is a rebuttal of the neo-Schumpeterian claim that incentives for capital owners are the main drivers of innovation and employment. It is all the more compelling in a period when overabundant capital is extremely cheap, private investment is depressed and there is a widely recognized need for public and social infrastructure.

The third element is China’s rise. It would be hard to overstate the strength of American national-imperial thinking here, or the challenges it raises for the internationalist left. Yet an unintended consequence is to further sideline financial markets as an apparatus of macro-economic coordination. Deese puts it bluntly: ‘There’s not a market-based solution to address some of the big weaknesses that we’re seeing open up in our economy, when we’re dealing with competitors like China that are not operating on market-based terms’. This is not a minor concession.

As Isabella Weber documents for the 1980s in How China Escaped Shock Therapy (2021), the balancing act of the CCP road to capitalism was grounded in a debate about the strategy of market reforms. On several occasions, the option of full-blown liberalization was considered, but ultimately set aside. Instead, the PRC engaged in capitalist globalization while keeping what Lenin called the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ under state control. Once Washington recognized that China was not only catching up with, but in some areas surpassing the US, American officials began to consider what Deese described as ‘targeted efforts to try to build domestic industrial strength’ – the measures once mocked as ‘industrial policy’.

With China, as with inequality and climate policy, the Biden Administration is ostentatiously relying on the re-legitimation of state intervention. As the WSJ lamented, the White House seemed to be shifting away from bipartisan assumptions that ‘the public sector is inherently less efficient than the private, and bureaucrats should generally defer to markets’. Combined with tax rises on capital gains, the core interest of the financial class, this can only suggest a reversal of fortune for the hegemony of finance. If the size of the intervention is limited, its logic is distinct from any kind of neoliberal policy.

Since 2008, the financial sector has been dependent upon state support to shore up its returns, which have lost their inherent dynamism. For more than a decade now, financial assets have been persistently inflated by pro-corporate fiscal and monetary policies. Under this regime of escalating plunder, finance has become disconnected from market-based processes. It is sustained by hidden subsidies and central-bank interventions to prop up the structure of liabilities generated by financial leverage and speculation. Financial stability has become a matter of political decision-making, not of market dynamics.

As this situation persists, there is a logical reversal. While states used to be terrified that market liquidity would dry up – a typical feature of crises from the 1990s on – the configuration is now reversed: the financial community is on a permanent public lifeline to ensure liquidity, smooth market clearing and provision of assets.

This socialization of fictitious capital as the new normal is beginning to alter the balance of power between state and markets, and within the capitalist class at the expense of financial rentiers. ‘Bidenomics’ is an early symptom of this reconfiguration. Moves to strengthen the relative position of labour, to overturn rentier-class tax privileges and to reject the neoliberal wisdom that market coordination is always preferable to state intervention: these signals amount to more than just a rhetorical shift. They point to a structural break in the regulation of capitalism, the shockwaves of which will reverberate in the global political economy for years to come.

Is this shift sufficient to tackle the century’s social and ecological crises? Not nearly. Does it alter essential class relations? On the contrary: it strives to re-legitimize the social order. Is it unambiguous? No: while private finance has been kept out of new domestic infrastructure projects, the US is still driving privatization and deregulation in the global south and intensifying its new Cold War on China. Will it propel a new phase of economic expansion? I doubt it, due to the sheer scale of global overaccumulation and the fade-out of the industrialization bonanza. Even so, 2021 will be remembered as the moment when global capitalism was reorganized beyond neoliberalism, a tectonic shift that will irrevocably alter the terrain of political struggle.  

That we have arrived at this moment should not be a surprise. There have been many signs that the neoliberal tool-kit was proving less and less effective for the day-to-day management of capital accumulation. The Eurozone crisis, global waves of ‘populist’ protest, the new assertiveness of digital monopolies, were indications of growing systemic instability. On top of that the pandemic accelerated the pressure for change. At this stage, one of the few things that can be said with confidence is that the possibility of tasting once again the flavour of popular victories is a just little greater than it was five months ago. That’s not much. But for people like me, born in the 1970s or after, it is a first. 

Read on: Cédric Durand, ‘In the Crisis Cockpit’, NLR 116/117.