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Quad of Mirrors

The Right to Sex is the first book by Amia Srinivasan, to date the youngest incumbent of the Chichele Professorship of Social and Political Theory at All Souls, Oxford, and an essayist for publications including the London Review of Books. While her family background lies in India, Srinivasan, the daughter of a banker and a choreographer, spent an itinerant and international childhood across Bahrain, Singapore, Taiwan, London and New York before settling in her adult home, the elite Anglophone university. It is from within this institution that her book is written, and as addressing its associated population that it is most profitably read. Though her training is that of the academic analytic philosopher – a designation the publisher’s marketing has been keen to emphasise – the work is more precisely categorised as a contribution to the discipline of feminist legal theory. Situating it within this field helps us to parse the ambiguity of the book’s title. There is no right to sex, on this Srinivasan is clear, but sex itself is properly subject to a system of rights by which male sexual violence towards women might be theorized, if not redressed or prevented.

The book comprises five essays and one ‘coda’ to the central, titular chapter. The first, third and fifth chapters are diligently researched, expertly synthesized accounts of the events, theories and materials which have formed the primary interests of much of the last decade’s popular feminist writing on sexual power and consent. Chapter One, ‘The Conspiracy against Men’ chronicles recent, and some historic, instances in which a categorical ‘belief’ in women’s narratives of sexual violence can overlook and compound intersectional injustices; Chapter Three republishes Srinivasan’s lauded LRB article ‘The Right to Sex’ on the ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) movement, the history of feminism’s anti-sex position and the fine line between preference and prejudice in online dating (it is followed by a numbered coda, ‘The Politics of Desire’); while Chapter Five surveys the literature on connections between the legal prosecution of prostitution and sexual violence, and the harmful, for-profit prison systems which purport to protect women. These essays provide a useful introduction to contemporary feminism, its permutations and positions, for those who may, somehow, have missed the debate.

Srinivasan’s great strength is to condense and arrange these arguments in ways that make their juxtaposing assumptions evident, to highlight particularly the tensions between calls for the regulation of sex, the punishment of sexual violence and the harmful social consequences of carceral legal systems. Of the book’s 279 pages, over a third is occupied with notes and indexes, suggesting a genesis in materials for the ‘Feminism and the Future’ graduate course that Srinivasan co-teaches at Oxford. According to Srinivasan, though, it is not (just) the students who need teaching. The author details her explanations, usually directed at older dons, of the harmful consequences of seemingly playful flirtations in an academic environment. The feminist’s road to Damascus, in this telling, reroutes for a pitstop at high table. Seven years ago, Rebecca Solnit described the phenomenon and consequences of men’s epistemic silencing of women in her bestselling collection Men Explain Things to Me. In 2021, Srinivasan reports that she has reversed the exegetical flow – no mean feat in the kind of prestigious institution in which, as the author often reminds us, she resides.

Chapters Two and Four provide the structural beams of the book and are the places in which Srinivasan takes up the mantle of two of feminist legal theory’s greatest arguments: the illocutionary power of pornography, and the possibility of consent in unequal social relations. It is in these chapters, also, that Srinivasan engages most fully with the book’s presiding feminist thinker, Catherine MacKinnon, whose entry in its index far exceeds that of any other writer. Srinivasan’s relationship with MacKinnon’s legacy is, like many contemporary feminists, uneasy – but we can use MacKinnon to cast light on the kind of sex, and the relationship between sex and gender, in which Srinivasan is most interested. In MacKinnon’s famous phrase, under patriarchal systems of political power, sex takes one form: ‘Man fucks woman; subject verb object.’ This sexual formula is adopted by Srinivasan without much comment or interrogation; indeed, throughout the book she follows MacKinnon’s example in her use of the verb ‘fuck’ to connote the wrong kind of sex, the sex which disempowers, and degrades, as when she describes the norms of internet porn: ‘hot blondes suck dicks, get fucked hard, get told that they like it, and end up with semen on their face.’ (At times, Srinivasan lets the mask slip and stings that are reminiscent of the literature of the height of the second wave slip through, such as her quip that a list of items banned from porn ‘associated with violence’ ought to include the male penis).

Srinivasan’s debt to MacKinnon extends beyond the lexical, however. Crucially, they agree that the act of sex and the experience of gender are inseparable concepts, a connection not just affected by but formed through unjust power relations between men and women. Where MacKinnon writes that ‘male dominance is sexual…men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize hierarchy; gender is one’, Srinivasan amends only slightly to tell us that, sex ‘is itself already gender in disguise.’ If there are violent and dangerous power imbalances between genders at a social and political level then these will necessarily manifest in relations at a sexual level also. MacKinnon’s contribution as a practising lawyer to the legal framework for sexual harassment at work in Title VII lawsuits is the basis of the logic behind recent Title IX legislation of sexual discrimination within universities, to which Srinivasan pays great attention. If MacKinnon’s aim, declared at the start of Towards a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), is to ‘engage sexual politics on the level of epistemology’ then of Srinivasan we can say that she seeks to engage sexual politics on the level of pedagogy.  

Chapter Two, ‘Talking to my Students about Porn’, begins by making porn seem a problem of the past. When it came to the subject in her course, Srinivasan admits, ‘my heart wasn’t really in it.’ It was her students, she tells us, who changed her mind, who convinced her to see the positions of the anti-porn feminists not as ‘hysterical’ but ‘prescient’. This ‘return’ to the problem of porn for Srinivasan and the young people she teaches does not mean a revival of the Manichean categories of the porn wars. Srinivasan goes to great pains to point out the distinction between her concerns and those of the second-wave theorists, including Dworkin and MacKinnon. Today’s young feminist scholars know there is no point in legislating the internet, and that criminalising sex work punishes those who are dependent on it for their self-reproduction rather than challenging male entitlement to sex. Nevertheless, in Srinivasan’s account, students are disturbed by a casual and pervasive violence towards women that they see enacted both by their partners and by the sexual culture in which they came of age, ‘The psyches of my students are the products of pornography.’

Srinivasan, through conversations with her students, comes to see porn not as a stimulus for fantasy, but as an educational tool for sex. What, she worries, is it teaching the kids? Conveniently, she has on hand a readymade focus group in the form of her classroom to whom she poses the question. The responses they provide are damning:

By the time my students got around to sex IRL [‘in real life’] – later, it should be noted, than teenagers of previous generations – there was, at least for the straight boys and girls, a script in place that dictated not only the physical moves and gestures and sounds to make and demand, but also the appropriate affect, the appropriate desires, the appropriate distribution of power.

Here, the internet simultaneously stunts sexual development – delaying experiences of the ‘real thing’ because of the overwhelming availability of porn – and overstimulates it, exposing ‘her’ students to a level of sexual intensity to which they ought to graduate via a more wholesome, authentic and intimate model of sexual intercourse first. But most crucially, it defines sexual activity totally for these young people, ‘sex for my students is what porn says it is.’

Porn, then, is bad because it teaches us to want the wrong things – or so one would think based on the argument so far. Yet this clarity is short-lived. A few pages later Srinivasan writes ‘Porn is not pedagogy, but it often functions as if it were.’ What, we might wonder, is the difference between the form and the function of something which instructs and something which is pedagogical? Either porn educates or it doesn’t. Contained in this distinction is an important, privileged category of action for Srinivasan: teaching. For her, what is pedagogical is only what is ethically good; what is imbued with authority, not just power. To teach wrong desires would, to use the term of her 2019 Yale Law Journal paper, constitute a ‘pedagogical failure’ – would fail to count as teaching. For the rest of the chapter Srinivasan prevaricates on whether porn, which is imbued with social power, actually has the authority to teach young people how to have sex, despite having argued quite convincingly in earlier pages that it does.

Her conclusion is a disappointing evasion: once again the modern technological world confounds to the point of indeterminacy, and Srinivasan can only remind us that the internet ‘blurs the distinction between power and authority.’ Young people ought to be taught that ‘the authority on what sex is, and could become, lies with them.’ This, for Srinivasan would constitute a negative education, and would involve arresting the ‘onslaught’ of images to which young people are exposed, allowing them instead to use their imaginations. Sexual authority ought, in this model, to rest with the individual subject, their freedom realised by thinking and imagining outside the set of social practices within which they have been raised. As a conception of freedom, this is high liberalism, offering up in place of social power the utopia of the blank slate, the unquestionable priority of autonomy.

In her fourth chapter, ‘On Not Sleeping with Your Students’, Srinivasan presents a history of Title IX legislation from the 1980s to today, and what legal theorists Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk recently characterised as ‘bureaucratic sex creep’: ‘the enlargement of bureaucratic regulation of sexual conduct that is voluntary, non-harassing, nonviolent, and does not harm others’. Srinivasan draws on the case of two of her alma maters (Yale and UCL) to show the universal tightening of restrictions that fit this model, while dismissing Suk and Gersen as over-simplifying the issue to one in which consent can be freely given within a teaching relationship. The regulatory expansion Gersen and Suk map, and on which Katherine Franke has also written extensively, was greeted with reservations by some feminists at the time. As Srinivasan points out, they charged the policies with invalidating women’s consensual expression of sexual desire. This heuristic, Srinivasan suggests, is a misdirection of our anger and attention. Instead of debating whether teachers should or shouldn’t be ‘fucking’ their students, we should ask why they wouldn’t simply rather teach them.

On the question of whether there is a place for eros in the pedagogical relationship, Srinivasan concedes that ‘there are many women students who consent to sex with their professors out of genuine desire.’ Interestingly, this goes against the conclusions she reaches in her Yale Law Journal paper, from which large sections of this chapter are reproduced. There, Srinivasan outlines five possible reasons for a young woman student to sleep with her older male supervisor:

1) the student admires and wants to be like her professor, but does not (yet) want to sleep with him; 2) the student’s desire is intense but inchoate: she does not know, or there is no fact of the matter about whether she wants to be like the professor or to have him; 3) the student wants both to be like the teacher and to have him and sees having him as a means to – or a sign of – being like him; 4) the student thinks it is impossible to be like the professor and therefore longs, as a second-best, to have him; 5) the student wants merely to sleep with the professor, and the talk of poetry and understanding is just a form of flirtatious flattery.

In all but one case, sexual desire is in a sublimation of the desire to become the teacher, to attain knowledge, and also, in some cases status. The fifth and final case, and the only one in which the student’s desire is articulated as a motivation rather than false consciousness, Srinivasan describes as ‘wildly implausible’. In trying to formulate a new position that encompasses sexual autonomy and accounts for the distorting effects of power on sex, she risks assuming that there is such a thing as sex devoid of power. But even outside the rigid hierarchies of institutional pedagogy, do we not imbue those we desire with a form of power over us? The central question for Srinivasan here is: does an imbalance of power invalidate sexual desire? Certainly, we know that it might fuel it. We must then ask whether an account of human sexuality that refuses to theorise what is ambiguous and complex in the intermingling of sexual desire and social power offers us much more than a synchronic account of the flip from good to bad.

In both book and journal paper, Srinivasan compares the misidentification of sexual desire for the teacher to Adrienne Rich’s theory of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, in which women sublimate their desires for each other and express them instead through competitive imitation. Rich’s theory, however, is an account meant to explain the lack of conscious (lesbian) desire in the world; Srinivasan’s inversion does the opposite, and discredits (mostly straight) sexual desire – because it is the wrong type – as an errant act of transference. Where Rich aims to add to the volume of desire visible in society, Srinivasan tries to detract from it. In this framing, a student’s pedagogical identity always trumps her sexual identity, even if she doesn’t know it or want it to. The gender roles of this scenario can be reversed or contained within one gender, Srinivasan admits, as in the case of Avital Ronell or Jane Gallop, but generally the relation follows just such a male-female binary. This, then, makes consent in student-teacher relations difficult, when most of the time (four out of five hypotheticals) women students don’t know what they want. When it comes to regulating teacher-student relations, consent-based policies fail not because they patronise or infantilise the desires of women students, but because they ‘do not teach us how to teach well’. The solution? Teach the teachers to teach better: university professors ought to be trained in professional conduct regarding sexual boundaries, just like psychoanalysts. But are analysts the models we want for our pedagogues? And what can any of this tell us about sex outside the university?

In the last decade, a significant movement has taken place within feminism to reject the boardroom as the iconic site of women’s exclusion and oppression. Popular works such as Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser’s Feminism for the 99%, Lola Olufemi’s Feminism, Interrupted and Dawn Foster’s Lean Out targeted what has been referred to as ‘the collusion of gender politics with corporate capitalism’. As a result, feminist discourse has gained a new sensitivity to questions of structural power and coercion, while also being taken up by a reinvigorated activist movement. Within its Anglophone iteration, the dynamic centre of this culture is often to be found within universities; the classroom has replaced the boardroom as the terrain of feminist analysis. The risks of this manoeuvre are evident in Srinivasan’s book, which generalises outwards from the university to diagnose morbid symptoms in a culture that is not bound by the para-legal ethical frameworks of the campus.

The methodology on which Srinivasan’s insights are based is often dubious: why should the opinions of a group of Oxford students, self-selectively interested already in feminism, be taken as representative of the mores of the general young adult population? Despite rising student numbers and the efforts of a new academic cohort each autumn, the majority of human sex still does not take place in college halls. Srinivasan herself concedes the flaw in her reasoning here, when she writes that her students are developmentally much younger than their non-institutionalised counterparts. This does not render them unsuitable for sex, but it does mean that they are unlikely to be having it in the same way. For three years, the university operates a closed system of personal development, unlike anything else in society. Reading issues of desire, power and consent outwards from this solipsistic quad of mirrors will only trick the observer into mistaking their gowned reflection for the sight of the town beyond.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘Which Feminisms?’, NLR 109.  

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Castillo’s Path

Nearly two months after Pedro Castillo’s narrow victory in Peru’s second-round runoff, the new president has only just managed to get his first cabinet appointed. The 73 to 50 vote through which the Peruvian Congress approved the ministers on 27 August came at the end of several weeks of obstruction and outcry from the opposition. This included a prolonged refusal by Keiko Fujimori, the defeated candidate, to acknowledge the result, as well as yet more of the hysterical redbaiting that had marked the presidential campaign. The turbulent weeks since the 6 June election provide a depressingly clear indication of what Castillo can expect in the months (and indeed years) ahead; yet at the same time, they also amply demonstrate the profound dysfunction that brought him to power in the first place.

The Peruvian political establishment has in many ways still not recovered from the initial shock of the first round of voting on 11 April. Though the field was crowded, few expected Castillo, the former leader of the teachers’ union and a native of the northern province of Cajamarca, to emerge as the front-runner with 18% of the vote. Still more surprising was that he did so as the candidate of Perú Libre, an avowedly Marxist-Leninist party, in a country still sharply polarized by the legacies of the Shining Path insurgency and state repression of the 1980s and 1990s.

The campaign for the second-round runoff duly brought a crescendo of anti-communist outrage. In Peru the specific form this takes is terruqueo ­– ‘calling someone a terrorist’; that is, tainting anyone on the left by (imaginary) association with the Shining Path – though the media also conjured the reliable spectres of Cuba and Venezuela. Such was the need for elite unity in the face of the supposed Communist threat that Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who in both the 2011 and 2016 elections had branded Keiko Fujimori a threat to democracy, now hailed her as the representative of ‘freedom and progress’.

The scare tactics almost worked: in the run up to 6 June, Castillo’s poll lead narrowed day by day. But when the votes were finally counted, he had edged home by a mere 44,250 votes – a nationwide margin of 0.2%. The miniscule gap between the candidates’ totals concealed a yawning geographical divide, however. Across much of the country’s interior, especially the poorer highland departments, Castillo won by crushing margins. Five Andean departments – Apurímac, Ayacucho, Cusco, Huancavelica, Puno – reported scores of over 80% for Castillo; in Puno, which borders Bolivia, his total was a staggering 89%. Altogether, Castillo carried 16 of Peru’s 25 departments, in areas that account not only for the lion’s share of the national territory, but also for some of its deepest deprivation. At the same time, it is from these areas that Peru’s mineral wealth is extracted, while the benefits of the boom of the late 2000s and early 2010s were mostly felt elsewhere. Hence the resonance of Castillo’s campaign slogan: ‘No more poor people in a rich country.’

Yet Fujimori carried the more populous coast – most notably the capital, Lima, which contains 30% of the national population, and which she won by 31 percentage points. (Her margin of victory in Lima department, which surrounds the capital region and stretches as far as the Andes, was only 7%.) While there are many complexities to consider – there is much poverty on the coast, too – the disparities of Peru’s geography largely account for the fact that Castillo’s victory provided both a resounding, historic rebuke to coastal dominance and at the same time the slimmest possible mandate.

Fujimori immediately contested the result, alleging ‘systematic fraud’ and demanding that as many as 200,000 votes be annulled. Some of her allegations involved scarcely concealed racism: the votes Fujimori contested were from the predominantly indigenous highlands, and in one case her campaign complained that too many of the election officials had the same surname, and therefore must be related. (In indigenous areas, surnames often recur regardless of kinship.) Though Fujimori’s legal challenges lacked any basis, it took weeks for the courts to exhaust them, delaying Castillo from formally taking office until 28 July. The day of the inauguration was also the two-hundredth anniversary of Peru’s independence from Spain, but the historic occasion was clouded by the ongoing uncertainties of the presidential transition.

Far from winding down with Castillo’s assumption of power, the Peruvian opposition’s campaign to cripple his presidency simply entered a new phase. By August this had come to centre on the designation of the cabinet – usually a formality for a newly elected administration, but this time the focal point of another round of terruqueo and obstruction. The first casualty was Héctor Béjar, a leftist guerrilla in the 1960s who then worked for the progressive military dictatorship of Juan Velasco Alvarado in the 1970s, and has since remained one of Peru’s most prominent radical public intellectuals. His appointment as foreign secretary augured well for the country’s hemispheric policy, not least his vow to remove Peru from the Lima Group, the anti-Maduro coalition formed in 2017. But in mid-August videos surfaced of him making critical comments about the Peruvian Navy and accusing the CIA of funding the Shining Path, and within days he had been forced to resign. (His replacement, Oscar Maúrtua, a career diplomat who also served as foreign secretary from 2005–2006, was a calculatedly unprovocative choice.)

This was an abrupt retreat, and the opposition smelled blood. The day after Béjar’s exit, Lady Camones of the centre-right Alliance for Progress Party told the media that ‘the resignation of the foreign secretary is definitely not enough’. The next target was, if not the entire cabinet, then at least Castillo’s choice of premier, Guido Bellido. Born in 1979 in a rural district of Cusco in Peru’s southern highlands, Bellido is a native Quechua speaker, which in itself brings forth a visceral reaction from elites in Lima. For instance, when Bellido began his address to Congress on 26 August in Quechua, which is one of Peru’s official languages, he was interrupted by deputies complaining they did not understand. Both Castillo and Bellido very much cast themselves as representatives of ‘Perú Profundo’, the country’s long marginalized interior. In that sense, the tussle over Bellido’s appointment is a microcosm of the historic tension between coast and highlands.

But there is a more specific political backdrop to the opposition’s targeting of Bellido, in which Bellido himself is not even the central player. A loyal cadre of the Perú Libre party, Bellido is widely seen as a proxy for the party’s leader, Vladimir Cerrón – a 50-year-old Cuban-trained neurosurgeon and former governor of Junín in the central highlands. It was Cerrón who founded Perú Libre in 2008, initially as a vehicle for achieving power at the regional level. He was elected as Junín’s governor in 2011 and then again in 2018; but in August 2019, seven months into his term, he was removed from office after receiving a criminal conviction for corruption. Further cases against him are pending, including one launched in July 2021 for money-laundering, and another in August 2021 against him and Bellido for ‘terrorism’ over supposed links to Shining Path remnants.

Both Cerrón and Bellido have denied any such connections, but the right has seized on Cerrón’s unabashed embrace of Marxism to paint him as a terrorist sympathizer. Cerrón’s harsh criticism of state repression during the armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s also puts him outside the ideological pale. (Personal factors play a role here, too: his father, Jaime Cerrón Palomino, was a respected leftist academic in Huancayo who was kidnapped and killed in 1990 by state-run paramilitaries; in the wake of testimony given to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2002, four generals were charged with the murder, but they have yet to be tried.)

Keeping Cerrón away from effective power is the opposition’s real goal. No doubt personal animus plays a role, as does the whiff of crookedness surrounding Cerrón – though on that front, most of Peru’s Congress doesn’t have a straight leg to stand on. But the core of the contention over the incoming cabinet was the opportunity it provided for driving a wedge between Castillo and Perú Libre. The former’s ascent was already enough of a blow for Lima’s political establishment. Still more alarming for them was the success of Perú Libre in the legislative elections, held in April at the same time as the first round of the presidential vote. From having no seats in Congress at all, Perú Libre went to being the largest single party with 37 representatives. Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular garnered only 24 seats – an improvement on the 15 it gained in the 2020 snap election, but a considerable drop from the 73-seat tally with which it dominated Congress in 2016–20. The remainder of the 130 seats are distributed between a dozen other parties, most of them arranged across a spectrum from centre-right to right.

The new Congress is therefore highly fragmented, which will make governing the country extremely difficult. Perú Libre’s main ally will be Juntos por el Perú, a Syriza-style left coalition led by former presidential candidate Verónika Mendoza. Though it has only 5 seats, it has played a prominent role in the transition, supplying personnel that are undoubtedly more politically experienced than most Perú Libre cadres, but also much more presentable to coastal elites and middle classes. A key example of this is Pedro Francke, Castillo’s pick as finance minister, who had been on Mendoza’s team and was brought in to soothe the markets after Castillo won. (It briefly worked, though the currency nosedived again when Castillo nominated Bellido as premier.) But this raised hackles in Perú Libre: Cerrón has long made clear his dislike of what he terms the ‘caviar left’, and one of the many challenges Castillo faces is how to hold together the very different components of the left on which his government is built.

There are far larger difficulties ahead, however. Well short of a majority, the incoming government will have to cobble together votes for every piece of legislation it puts forward, in a series of confidence-and-supply-type arrangements. Castillo did in the end manage to get his cabinet through Congress – minus Béjar – but the struggle he had in doing so provides a bitter foretaste of things to come. At the same time, both his success and that of Perú Libre are unmistakable symptoms of the profound crisis of the Peruvian political system, which has now experienced several years of rolling dysfunction. A series of corruption scandals, many of them involving the tentacular Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, led to the ouster of two presidents in succession, as well as graft charges against leading members of the Peruvian congress, including Keiko Fujimori. (She was released from a second spell in jail in May 2020, but more charges were filed in March 2021, in the midst of the presidential campaign.)

Elsewhere in Latin America – Brazil first and foremost – anti-corruption politics have been successfully weaponized by the right, against a coherent rival for power on the left. In Peru, in the absence of such a left, anti-corruption largely became a means of score-settling within the political class, all too obviously cynical and devoid of actual concern for the fate of the country. It was in part the disillusionment sown by years of this that prompted calls for a new constitution, including protests that led to the removal of a third (albeit interim) president in November 2020.

The sense of crisis was hugely accelerated, of course, by the impact of Covid-19. Peru has been among the countries most drastically affected, suffering catastrophic spikes in deaths and infections from early in the pandemic. Though its total figure of 198,000 deaths to date is dwarfed by the casualties elsewhere in Latin America, proportionally it has been hit much harder: at 609 per 100,000, its incidence of death is more than double that of Brazil, and three times higher than Mexico’s. In a country where 70% of workers are in the informal sector, the pandemic reversed whatever gains had been made over the past decade: between 2019 and 2020, per capita incomes dropped by 20%, and the poverty rate rose from 20% to 30% of the population.

It was these overlapping crises – public health disaster plus deepening political disarray plus the ongoing inequalities wrought by a neoliberal extractive economy – that made possible the dual shock of Perú Libre’s advance and Castillo’s victory. If nothing else, they made it abundantly clear that there can be no return to business as usual. But less clear is how much of a transformation Castillo’s government will be able to bring about, given the political constraints and polarized ideological climate in which it will have to operate. Perú Libre’s platform – originally drafted by Cerrón in February 2020, when the party had no seats in Congress – isn’t necessarily much of a guide to what Castillo’s programme will be. Its proposals range from doubling the health and education budgets to nationalizations of mining concerns, and from a ‘second agrarian reform’ (after the one enacted in the late 1960s by the Velasco regime) to a transition away from neoliberalism to a ‘popular economy with markets’.

The effects of the pandemic mean at least some increases in social spending are likely to get through, but it remains to be seen if Castillo can, for instance, revise mining contracts to give the Peruvian state a higher share of resource rents. Perhaps the proposal that is likeliest to be implemented is the call for a referendum on a new constitution. This was already in the air in Peru in late 2020, inspired by the example of neighbouring Chile, and it seems the only way to secure both a mandate and a framework for overhauling Peru’s neoliberal model.

In this context, it is significant that, besides Lenin and Fidel Castro, the main models mentioned in Perú Libre’s programme are Rafael Correa and Evo Morales. Both these Pink Tide leaders, however, were in much stronger positions than Castillo at the outset of their terms, and even if the referendum were to succeed, the balance of forces in Peru is unlikely to produce as progressive a charter as either Ecuador or Bolivia. But in the absence of such a thoroughgoing democratic renewal, a neoliberal restoration on the old terms doesn’t seem likely either. Far more probable is a prolonged and turbulent interregnum.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘Politics and Pandemics’, NLR 125.

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Back to the Workplace

The left’s position within a Labour Party increasingly led by neo-Blairites has taken another knock. On Wednesday, Sharon Graham won the election to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite, one of the UK’s Big Three trade unions and traditionally Labour’s largest donor. She finished 5,000 votes ahead of Steve Turner, the preferred candidate of McCluskey and the broad United Left caucus, on a turnout of 125,000. The union claims 1.2 million members, so that was a turnout of just under 10%, with Graham coasting to victory on the votes of 4.5% of Unite members.

Trade-union donations – Unite pays around £1.3m a year, and contributed £3m for the 2019 election – buy not only a substantial block of seats on Labour’s National Executive Committee but significant influence in electing local parliamentary candidates. Within each union, the general secretary tends to play a quasi-presidential role in deciding policies and appointments. The outgoing McCluskey had spent years taking up the cudgels against the right-wing majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party on behalf of Jeremy Corbyn and his large extra-parliamentary support base. He fought in Corbyn’s corner during the 2016 leadership contest when some Labour MPs wanted him off the ballot paper, and has been a voluble critic of Starmer’s purges and ‘vapid New Labour cliches’.

By contrast, Graham campaigned on a slogan of Westminster versus the workplace, criticizing the union’s ‘obsession’ with the Labour Party. ‘We have tried our political project within Labour. It has failed’, she said. Her manifesto – far more considered than Steve Turner’s bland bullet-point offering – called for investment in sectoral combines of shop stewards to coordinate bargaining agendas as part of a wider overhaul of the union’s culture of industrial bargaining.

Graham was previously head of Unite’s organising and leverage department. ‘Organising’ is a centrally driven effort to rebuild shopfloor structures that have been swept away by deindustrialization and privatization. Essentially, it means employing additional officials dedicated to cultivating and training reps. Its antonym is mere recruitment, which leaves unions vulnerable to membership churn.

‘Leverage’ is the targeted application of pressure short of industrial action to sap an employer’s will – basically NGO-style protest campaigns that don’t rely on the labour movement’s traditional weight of numbers but aim for eye-catching events, amplified by media coverage. Graham claims that Unite’s version of leverage has never been defeated, although its half-cocked use in a bruising industrial defeat at Ineos’s Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013 – there were pickets of a director’s family home – earned the union a bad press without delivering a breakthrough.

Strikes are hard to mount, let alone sustain, in Tory Britain. Statutory restrictions (further tightened by Cameron in 2016), a notoriously flexible labour market and widespread demoralization have led unions to consider alternative approaches. A shift in emphasis from strikes to stunts was signalled when Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers, defeated by Thatcher in a long and bitter strike, opted against industrial action in response to a subsequent round of pit closures coordinated by John Major’s deputy Michael Heseltine, and made do instead with a protest march in London and an attempt to dig up Heseltine’s lawn.

A decade later, during the wave of corporate asset-stripping that marked the New Labour boom, the GMB under Paul Kenny, a bruiser from the old Labour right, brought a camel and needle to the steps of a south London church attended by the head of private-equity firm Permira to illustrate the proverb about the rich getting into Heaven, after the union was de-recognized by a company that the grasping Permira had recently acquired. Chancellor Gordon Brown resisted pressure to curb the activities of such private-equity groups (he now works for one). Kenny retorted with empty threats that New Labour shouldn’t take union support for granted.

Graham’s emphasis on rank-and-file activity has attracted misplaced support from the Trotskyist left, but the Tory press is cautiously optimistic. Although Turner’s approach was more conciliatory than McClusky’s, he had promised continued backing for the Labour left. With Graham, however, the Times comments that ‘If she is true to her word and returns Britain’s second-largest union to its core business of representing members’ interests, her triumph might prove positive’. A ‘hands-off’ relationship between Labour and its largest donor ‘may end up suiting both sides’.

Graham’s warning that there will be ‘no blank cheques’ for Starmer is a rote union demand for face-saving micro-concessions over policy. Distancing is not the same as disengagement: it’s more a case of the labour movement’s traditional deference towards Labour at Westminster reasserting itself. The Labour Party leadership has by and large been short-changing the unions for a hundred years, and it would take a huge effort of will for one of the major affiliates to walk away now. It’s more likely that a politically quiescent Unite will spend the next few years propping Starmer up.

Elsewhere in the Big Three, recent elections have entrenched the right where it was already strong. Christina McAnea became the new general secretary of public-service union giant Unison (1.3 members) in January and proceeded to accuse McClusky of ‘indulgence’ for criticising Starmer. In June, Gary Smith, another Scot, took the top job at GMB (500,000 members), telling the Daily Record that ‘it is Keir Starmer’s problem to sort out the Labour Party, not ours’. Smith was formerly ‘regional’ secretary of GMB north of the Border, where he withdrew support from the Corbyn-appointed leader of Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard. GMB members did not want to get bogged down in an internal Labour Party dispute, Smith insisted. These days many of them vote for the Scottish Nationalists. 

The surprising thing is how Unite diverged from the conformist GMB and Unison under McCluskey and his predecessor Tony Woodley, both products of militant Merseyside, and instead found allies among some of the smaller unions, like railway workers under the bullish leadership of Bob Crow. It looks like that breach within the Big Three has now closed, and champagne corks will be popping again in the office of the Leader of the Opposition.  

Read on: Arthur Scargill, ‘The New Unionism’, NLR 1/92.

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Nigeria’s Malaise

On 28 July, Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, a Dubai-based 38-year-old Nigerian internet influencer better known as Hushpuppi, pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering in a US court. Born in a Lagos slum – his father was a taxi driver and his mother hawked bread – he burst onto the scene in 2014 and quickly totted up 2.4 million Instagram followers as he recorded his increasingly lavish lifestyle. This naturally attracted the attention of the FBI. When he was arrested, detectives seized about $40 million in cash, along with 13 luxury cars worth $7 million. He was charged with defrauding a US law firm of about $40 million, illegally transferring $14.7 million from a ‘foreign financial institution’, and attempting to steal $124 million from an English football club. Initially he protested his innocence; then he came clean and started singing.

Among those he has fingered is Abba Kyari, a deputy police commissioner in Nigeria, whom he allegedly paid $20,600 to detain one Vincent Chibuzo. The latter had apparently threatened to rat on a $1.1 million scam he and Hushpuppi had perpetrated against a Qatari businessman. According to US court documents, Kyari sent a text message to Hushpuppi confirming that the deed was done: ‘We have arrested the guy. He is in my cell now. This is his picture after we arrested him today.’ To which Hushpuppi replied, ‘I want him to go through serious beating.’ Before his recent suspension, Kyari had been one of the most decorated police officers in Nigeria’s short history. An internet celebrity with a milieu of actors and musicians, he also had a reputation for killing alleged criminals and stealing their riches.  

What is the wider national context in which such internet scammers and rogue police officers can flourish? As I write, the US is seeking Kyari’s extradition, but the Nigerian government appears reluctant to comply for the simple reason that he is a member of the Hausa-speaking aristocracy: a group from the Muslim-majority north (as opposed to the Christian-majority south) which has effectively ruled the country since independence in 1960. Compared to the north, the south has greater resources (notably crude oil) and higher levels of education, plus the major port and commercial centre of Lagos. Demographically, southern ethnic groups outnumber their northern counterparts. Shortly after independence, the northern Hausa and Fulani ethnicities made up 29.5% of the population, whereas the southern Yoruba and Igbo constituted a combined 36.9%. Yet the distribution of political power has always run in the opposite direction.

The northern emirs were used as enforcers by early twentieth-century British colonialists who vigorously promoted regional solidarity in the north and exploited cultural-ethnic divisions in the south. When, under British influence, the state adopted the principle of regional per capita representation; this gave the Nigerian government a locked-in northern majority. Northerners were also overrepresented in the military, as the colonial administration identified them as the ‘martial races’ most fit for active service. As the northern leader Ahmadu Bello put it in 1960, ‘We must ruthlessly prevent a change of power. We use the minorities of the North as willing tools and the South as a conquered territory and never allow them to rule over us, and never allow them to have control over their future.’

Northerners ruled for all but two-and-a-half of the years 1960–1999 under a succession of military dictatorships. After an attempted putsch by Igbos in January 1966, a July counter-coup consolidated the power of the northern generals. Igbos were slaughtered in pogroms and forced to flee their homes en masse. When the Igbo colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu led a successionist movement the following year, establishing the independent state of Biafra in the south-east, the government of Yakubu Gowon embarked on a campaign to retake the territory. Armed and financed by the British, he waged a brutal civil war that killed an estimated 50,000 people and prompted a mass famine in which up to two million Biafrans died.

With Nigeria reunited under Gowon and Ojukwu sent into exile, post-war reconstruction efforts channelled southern oil revenues to northern Hausa-Fulani areas. There was little challenge to the country’s hegemonic faction amid a series of faltering attempts to revive civilian rule. However, things changed in 1993, when General Ibrahim Babangida promised to hold democratic elections, and the presidential campaign of southern Yoruba businessman M. K. O. Abiola gained ground. Abiola, a UK-educated military hardware supplier and founding member of the National Sharia Committee, ran on an anti-poverty platform, promising to renegotiate Nigeria’s debt repayments amid a dramatic increase in the urban-slum population – the result of punishing IMF structural-adjustment policies.

Yet, unwilling to cede the presidency, Babangida swiftly annulled the election, sparking riots in the south-west in which over a hundred people were killed by state forces. Journalists were arrested and courts prevented from challenging the annulment. Amid the crackdown, Defense Minister Sani Abacha – a participant in the July 1966 counter-coup and commanding officer in the civil war – seized power. He imprisoned Abiola, escalated repression and appointed military officers to key positions in regional and national government. Southern-based extractivist industries were central to his economic programme, as rising oil prices allowed him to reduce debt and inflation. When Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other prominent environmental activists protested against the activities of Royal Dutch Shell in the Ogoni region, Abacha had them hanged.

However, despite his iron-fisted rule and 3,000-strong personal security service trained in North Korea, Abacha died in mysterious circumstances in 1998 and was buried without an autopsy. Fearful of another attempt at southern secession, the northern power-brokers made a concession to the marginalised ethnic groups. Henceforth, they decided, presidential power would rotate between north and south, with representatives from each region serving a maximum of two four-year terms. If the president was a northerner, the vice-president must be a southerner and vice versa. Olusegun Obasanjo, the first leader under this arrangement, was a south-western Yoruba, seen as a safe pair of hands who would generally do the north’s bidding. He selected an even number of cabinet ministers from both parts of the country and loosened the state’s grip on the media. Yet, in most respects, the military-era model remained intact. Economic policy rested on an oil-driven neoliberal ‘development’ plan overseen by the IMF, which involved mass privatizations and public sector downsizing. Communal tensions were dealt with through a massive expansion of the police force, which regularly beat and tortured detainees. The army was deployed to the Niger Delta to quell secessionist sentiments among a cluster of militant groups, killing thousands of civilians in the process.  

Obasanjo’s successor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, died just three years into his tenure, disrupting the smooth alternation of power. His vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner from the Niger delta, was left to see out the remainder of his term. For the next half-decade, Jonathan presided over a corrupt regime that did nothing to rebalance the country’s geographically inflected power structure, allaying the anxieties of northern elites with billions’ worth of kickbacks. In 2015 he faced off against Muhammadu Buhari, the former army major general who had ruled as military dictator from 1983-85 after toppling the fragile Second Republic. In his first incarnation, Buhari drew worldwide condemnation for imprisoning journalists and executing convicted criminals with a retroactive decree. (His damaged reputation on the world stage was partly why he could be overthrown with minimal resistance after just 20 months in office.) Yet, this time round, southern intellectuals – not excepting the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka – persuaded themselves that he was a reformed character who would rescue the country from the cluelessness of his predecessor. Running as a ‘born-again democrat’, he opportunistically opposed Jonathan’s removal of fuel subsidies – winning the support of the northern urban poor, and picking up 54% of the vote.

Buhari pledged to strengthen the security apparatus and wipe out Boko Haram, which had kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in April 2014 while Johnathan stood by. Yet behind the façade, he was no different to the man who ruled in 1983: a kleptocratic Islamic fundamentalist who often declared his willingness to die for the cause of Sharia. Invested in maintaining Hausa-Fulani supremacy, he was banned by Twitter for his incitement of violence against Igbo dissidents: ‘Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War’, he wrote last June. ‘Those of us in the fields for 30 months who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.’

Among the Igbo groups Buhari has confronted is the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), led by Nnamdi Kanu, which seeks to revive the breakaway state that millions died for in the late 1960s. Kanu, a divisive figure with a Messiah complex (you can watch him on YouTube having his feet kissed by acolytes), started broadcasting on Radio Biafra in 2009 and founded IPOB three years later. In 2015 he was arrested on treason charges and held for twelve months. The high court has designated IPOB a terrorist organization, and state forces have regularly been deployed to assassinate its members. As regional polarization widens under Buhari, such outfits have taken steps toward administering their own territory. In late 2020 Kanu established a paramilitary offshoot, ostensibly to protect farmers in the south-east from bandits and deter Fulani herdsmen who bring their flocks south to graze on Biafran land. The central government responded by burning to the ground several buildings thought to be housing IPOB operatives, prompting weeks-long clashes in January 2021 which ended in a setback for the secessionists.

Since he came to power, Buhari has been steadily appointing northerners to every top position in the army, air force, police, security services and judiciary. ‘I have been with them throughout trying times,’ he said of his former military colleagues, describing the political appointments as a reward for their ‘dedication and suffering’. One such ally, the Police Inspector General Usman Baba, launched ‘Operation Restore Peace’ last May: a large-scale offensive in the south-east to beat back Igbo insurgents. As well as promising a pension review to boost morale among the force, Baba has made the government’s intentions clear. ‘Don’t mind the media’, he told his officers. ‘If anyone accuses you of human rights violation, the report will come to my table and you know what I will do. So take the battle to them wherever they are and kill them all. Don’t wait for an order.’

Alongside the skirmishes in the south, Buhari is busy spending almost $2 billion on a railway line from the northern city of Kano to Maradi in Niger, even though the country’s trade flows in the opposite direction. The megacity of Lagos, home to 20 million people, accounts for 90% of goods entering West Africa. Aliko Dangote, the wealthiest person on the continent, has recently revealed that Lagos State accounts for half his profits from sugar interests. Yet public investment is withheld from these industries and redirected to the north, in line with the government’s ethnic ties and patronage networks – causing high levels of unemployment in the south (sometimes reaching almost 40% in border states). Nonetheless, poverty is even more rampant in the north, with one of the highest illiteracy rates worldwide. Large sections continue to suffer from economic neglect which Buhari’s transport renovations will do little to redress. Endemic corruption has hobbled the healthcare sector, dominated by commercial interests and sapped by an ongoing brain-drain. Huge numbers of northern ‘migrants’ flock to Lagos each year to do work typically shunned by southerners: motorcycle taxi riders, shoeshine boys, water sellers. Frustration at these conditions sometimes spills over into popular protests. But if such disparities breed resentment at the more affluent south, then Buhari and his northern clique remain the ultimate beneficiaries.  

Now, with the next elections looming in less than 18 months, there is talk of the north deserving a third term on the grounds that Yar’Adua’s death robbed them of their rightful time in office. It will be instructive to see whether this disingenuous attempt to cling to power can succeed. The fact that the northern political establishment have yet to name a candidate is perhaps an indication that they are themselves uncertain about the endeavour. The leading contender is Nasir el Rufai, the former minister of the Federal Capital Territory and current governor of Kaduna State, where Islamic police known as Hizbah – not recognised in the 1999 constitution, yet no less powerful for that – have been known to arrest secular police officers for drinking beer. Should el Rufai take the reins, we can assume that the new regime will be continuity Buhari: cronyist appointments, rising inequality, and the entrenchment of northern rule underpinned by violent repression.

The inability of this model to create a productive economy is what accounts for the large number of educated, unemployed youths like Hushpuppi – many of whom naturally turn toward crime. Nigeria’s kleptocracy is equally unable to support a justice system worth the name, hence the ubiquity of corrupt cops like Kyari, who will not be extradited lest he drags other senior officers down with him. Both figures are symptomatic of a malaise that has only deepened under Buhari. This sickness was not cured by one civil war; now we look set to descend into another.

Read on: Rob Wallace & Rodrick Wallace, ‘Ebola’s Economies’, NLR 102.

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21st-Century Gossip

If we try to recall the most widely circulated pieces of gossip from the last century – those we read or heard about (or saw adapted for the screen) – we find: Prince Rainier III’s marriage to Grace Kelly (1956); the divorce of Shah Reza Pahlavi and Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari (the ‘Sad-Eyed Princess’), who were obliged to separate despite being ‘madly in love’ according to the tabloids; the opera singer Maria Callas’s divorce from Giovanni Battista Meneghini, and her subsequent affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (1959); the adventures of Marilyn Monroe and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and his brother Bobby (1954-62); the love story between Onassis and the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, for whom he left Callas (1968); the diamond-studded infatuations and disavowals of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton (1961-76); and the last great scandal of the 20th century, Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s divorce (1996), plus her death the following year. This is the luxurious world of private islands and jewelry, where one’s only piece of nightwear is Chanel No. 5. It is the world of aristocrats – regents, even – heads of state, actors, opera divas and prime donne.

But if we browse the gossip sections of 21st-century newspapers, we no longer see a sparkling world of nobility and celebrity. Instead, we find ourselves in the boardrooms of major corporations. In the second half of the last century the deaths that caused the most commotion – other than the Kennedys, Monroe and Diana – were those of Eva Perón (wife of the Argentinian general and statesman Juan Perón), Albert Camus, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In this century, however, the death that stands out in terms of its global resonance was that of Steve Jobs.

One story that has occupied public attention in recent months, and continues to fill the broadsheet pages, is Bill and Melinda French Gates’s divorce in May 2021. Much like the classic cases of scandal-reporting from the last century, details about the Gates–French affair have gradually been drip-fed by the media, such as Bill’s association with Jeffrey Epstein. But however laden with outrages and infidelities these stories might be, it’s not the sexual content of the hearsay that captures our attention. It’s the money, pure and simple. Luxury has been supplanted by money in the tabloid reader’s fantasies. The distinction between the two is the same as that between eroticism and hard porn. The former is a semiotic unit – its meaning refers to other meanings (like refinement and style) – whereas the latter refers only to itself.

We have read about the dizzying sums involved in Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott’s 2019 divorce: Bezos leaving his ex-wife 4% of Amazon’s shares (worth $38 billion). We know that Steve Jobs’s widow Laurene Powell inherited nearly the entirety of his fortune, estimated at the time to be around $10.8 billion (including 5.5 million shares in Apple). The amount Melinda French Gates will receive is still unclear, though it will certainly be between $3 and $65 billion. In this whirlwind of billions we are struck by another fact. High society ladies of previous centuries completed their education in private colleges (finishing schools), more often than not Swiss, such as the Institut Alpin Videmanette (attended by Lady Diana and, more recently, by fashion magnate Tamara Mellon); the Mon Fertile (Camilla Parker Bowles); the Institut Le Mesnil (Queen Anne-Marie of Greece); the Brillantmont (Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur); but also American, such as Manhattan’s Finch College (Isabella Rossellini). By contrast, their contemporary equivalents have a far more direct path to fortune. Laurene Powell obtained a BA in Political Science, then a BS in Economics from the Wharton School, and finally an MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; in between she spent three years working for Goldman Sachs and Merill Lynch. Melinda Gates graduated from Duke with a bachelor’s in computer science and economics before pursuing an MBA at its School of Business. MacKenzie Scott’s trajectory seemed less predestined: she studied literature at Princeton, where she was taught by Toni Morrison, before writing a number of middle-brow domestic novels. But she underwent an entrepreneurial transformation at Amazon, brainstorming names for the company in its early days and shipping its very first orders through UPS.

Bourdieu noted that women’s education had been revolutionized in the 19th century by changes in the marriage market, as the emerging bourgeoisie came to expect new qualities from their brides. It was no longer necessary for them to possess land, wealth, jewels; but it was vital for them to know how to preside over a salon, play the piano and hold conversation, preferably in French. The education of these ‘madams’ could no longer be confined to sewing and running a kitchen. Now, in the new millennium, we are witnessing another such revolution, where the ability to play Chopin from memory is replaced by the capacity to identify opportune moments to buy or sell subordinated risk swaps on the derivative market. If paparazzi photos used to show celebrities naked, nowadays their bodies are covered but their finances are laid bare. Fortunes are revealed, wallets unbuttoned. Diderot’s Indiscreet Jewels have reverted to their literal meaning.

The Gates’ separation is exemplary. The more we learn about the story, the less its jealousies and indiscretions (real or imagined) seem to matter. Bill Gates had a tartuffesque approach to inviting women for dinner: ‘If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened’, he had the habit of writing in email postscripts. But much more weight has been placed on his rift with Melinda over the management and control of the Gates Foundation, which holds assets valued at around $49.8 billion. The struggle for sovereignty over this kingdom was what made their break-up particularly bitter. This was well-understood by Warren Buffett – ‘the Oracle of Omaha’ – one of the richest men in the world with a net worth of $104 billion, who rules over the conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett joined the Gates Foundation in 2006 and has since invested $33 billion, serving until this year as one of its trustees. As soon as there was word of divorce, he ran for the hills as quickly as his nonagenarian legs allowed him.

It’s astonishing how seldom the philanthropy business has been the object of sustained criticism. It is barely known that, as an institution, the ‘philanthropic foundation’ in its current legal form is relatively recent, dating back to the First World War. From the moment it was dreamt up, the institution – now seemingly as natural and necessary as the air we breathe – was met with raised shields and vigorous opposition, not just from American unions, but from establishment politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. When the proposal was first brought to establish a Rockefeller foundation, Roosevelt observed that ‘No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.’ Taft called on Congress to oppose the plan – describing it as ‘a bill to incorporate Mr. Rockefeller’ – while the American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers growled, ‘The one thing that the world would gratefully accept from Mr. Rockefeller now would be the establishment of a great endowment of research and education to help other people see in time how they can keep from being like him.’ (I discussed the controversy over foundations more extensively in my latest book, Dominio. La guerra invisibile dei ricchi contro i poveri – Dominion: The Invisible War of the Rich on the Poor – published in Italy last October.)

Today we still have only a rough idea of the financial benefits these tax-exempt foundations enjoy. Indeed, most people are unaware that their returns on investments also go untaxed. If the Gates Foundation happens to invest in Microsoft shares, the dividends of those shares (or the capital gains if they are sold) will not be touched by the state. This explains one of the great mysteries of the foundations: however much they donate, their assets continue to grow.

It’s clear that MacKenzie Scott, like many of her peers, hates having so many billions; she donated $4.1 billion in 2020 and another $8 billion in June of this year alone. But according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, on 9 August 2021 her net worth had grown to $59.2 billion (whereas in 2019 it was ‘only’ $38 billion following her divorce settlement). This increase is partly attributable to the fact that Amazon shares rose from $1,789 to $3,341 in the space of two years. Likewise, Laurene Powell’s wealth never seems to diminish despite her vast donations: she was worth $21 billion in 2012; now she has $22.5 billion to her name. Not to mention the spectacular and constant appreciation of the assets held by the Gates Foundation:

YearNet worth ($ billion)
200021.1
200529.1
201037.4
201540.4
202051.9

For all their self-aggrandizing PR, such institutions are ultimately financed by tax exemptions – that is, by public funds. In 2011, for example, the total amount of ‘donations’ made by American foundations was $49 billion; but in the same year, fiscal subsidies to philanthropic works cost the US Treasury $53.7 billion. In other words, American philanthropists donated $4.7 billion less than what they took from the state. They gave away none of their own money, but rather that of others.  

But there’s more: the conduct of a foundation is rarely subject to scrutiny because the donors are under no obligation to answer for their actions. As Joanne Barkan writes, ‘When a foundation project fails…the subjects of the experiment suffer, as does the general public. Yet the do-gooders can simply move on to their next project.’ Alongside this lack of accountability is a tendency to encourage obsequiousness. Before the donors we are all mendicants come to beg for support, a loan, logistical assistance. This feature of the philanthropy economy was enough to scandalize even one of the standard-bearers of the Chicago School, Richard Posner, a man who once supported a ‘free baby market’ – i.e. the unregulated buying and selling of children – as an optimal mechanism for adoption. He remarked in 2006 that

A perpetual charitable foundation is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody. It competes neither in capital markets nor in product markets (in both respects differing from universities), and, unlike a hereditary monarch whom such a foundation otherwise resembles, it is subject to no political controls either. It is not even subject to benchmark competition. The puzzle for economics is why these foundations are not total scandals.

Posner hits the nail on the head. The foundation is a monarchy, absolute rather than constitutional. This is perhaps the key to understanding why the foundation magnates are so often the protagonists of 21st-century gossip. As contemporary royals, wielding all the arcane power associated with such figures, they carry out the same symbolic functions that were once the purview of royal dynasties in the previous century. The Marquess of Boeing, the Archduke of Facebook, the Prince of Google, the Landgrave of Amazon.  

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Reform to Preserve?’, NLR 120.

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Agile Workplace

Sparked by the publication of Harry Braverman’s now-canonical Labor and Monopoly Capital, Marxists and other leftists mounted manifold criticisms of capitalist work regimes throughout the 1970s and 1980s. These discussions, later dubbed the ‘labour-process debate’, primarily focused on the thematic of Taylorism – the influential and enduring set of organizational principles developed by Ur-management consultant Frederick Winslow Taylor, who sought to synthesize industrial workflows by decomposing tasks, standardizing procedures, eliminating waste and siloing labourers. Though many of the labour-process analysts considered the extent to which Taylorist maxims had spread beyond the shop floor – impressing themselves upon so-called ‘white-collar’ work in administrative, clerical and service sectors – there was one nascent field that did not elicit any particular interest: software development. Still predominantly a military endeavour, it was occluded by a focus on workplace automation in general.

Much of the working culture of software communities appears collaborative by design. The labour and knowledge indexed by discussion forums, listservs, how-tos and public code repositories stand in contradistinction to the bureaucratic rationality of industrial assembly lines. Yet, as we shall see, two managerial strategies have thus far prevailed in software development’s history. The supremacy of one of these strategies over the other – Agile and Waterfall, respectively – is cognate to a broader structural renegotiation that took place between capital and labour in the twilight of the twentieth century.

Beginning around 1970, in response to what several NATO Software Engineering Conference attendees had diagnosed as a ‘software crisis’ – wherein unwieldy, difficult-to-manage initiatives routinely exceeded their allocated budgets and timeframes – attempts were made to mould computer programming in the shape of the scientific-managerial doxas then in vogue. Various methodologies were suggested to solidify the field; one – the Waterfall model – was eventually victorious following its adoption by the US Department of Defense. The intent of Waterfall was to systematize the often ad-hoc activity that comprises large-scale software production. Among the features that enabled Waterfall to conquer rival methodologies was its division of software development into six sequential stages: requirements, analysis, design, coding, testing, and operations.

The familiar features of the Taylorist factory floor are here transposed from industry to information technology: each stage corresponds to a dedicated department of specialists, who mechanistically repeat their métier ad nauseum. In Waterfall, work cannot begin on any one stage until work on the preceding stage has been completed and its quality assured, with the only necessary coordination between stages being the assurance of ticked checkboxes. Participatory input is discouraged; requirements provided by managerial strata in the first stage chart the full course for the following five. Improvisatory exploration is suppressed; formalities such as contracts, approvals, specifications and logs abound.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, criticisms of Waterfall in software engineering meshed with a new wave of criticisms of work erupting throughout the Western capitalist world. These expressions of popular discontent did not just take aim at the familiar target of exploitation, as conceived by the trade union movement. Rather, they emanated in large part from a relatively affluent subset of the younger working population, disaffected with the heteronomy of work, and emphasizing affective-existential themes like boredom, dehumanization, inauthenticity and meaninglessness. Marking a shift from quantitative material demands for wage increases, employee benefits and job security, this qualitative critique of working life resonated with the vocabulary of urban intellectual and artistic circles. This is what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello refer to in The New Spirit of Capitalism as the ‘artistic critique’: an attack on bureaucratic calcification and hierarchical segmentation, on infantilizing work routines, stern schedules, and a sense of futility under the rubric of Taylorism.

The artistic critique instituted something of a paradigm shift in managerial literature during the 1990s, as new organizational forms were required to render capitalism seductive once again. The rejection of once-sacrosanct bureaucratic-rational principles of twentieth-century scientific management was so pronounced in this literature that Peter Drucker, prominent management consultant and prognosticator of ‘post-industrial society’, termed it a ‘big bang’. These texts – drafted by business managers, organizational engineers, industrial psychologists and the like – were a laboratory in which a properly twenty-first-century capitalist ethos was concocted: a new ‘spirit’, based on cultures, principles, assumptions, hierarchies and ethics that absorbed the complaints of the artistic critique. What emerged was a novel social arrangement, fashioned especially for skilled workers and the children of middle-class cadres, whose regulative principles were employee autonomy, participatory exchange, temporal flexibility and personal self-development.

Boltanski and Chiapello call this arrangement the ‘projective city’. In the projective city, the vertical command-control structures of the Taylorist factory are supplanted by the horizontal ‘network’, whose absolute and ideal amorphousness comes to dominate life both inside and outside the firm. This transformation imposes new operative compulsions, hierarchies of status, intra- and inter-firm politics, and affective states on wage-earners. In the projective city, the central locus of daily life is the project: the determinate activation of a discrete subsection of the network for a definite period and toward a specific goal.

The project – and its regime of continuous activity, the proliferation of which forms an end in itself – becomes the precondition for the connections between agents in the network. Agents cohere into teams which then disperse once the project’s common endpoint has been reached; success on one project is measured by each person’s ability to make it to the next. Rather than a career spent dedicated to a single specialty within the protective environment of the large firm, agents in the projective city are encouraged to multitask, collaborate, adapt and learn by forging interpersonal connections through successive projects. These agents can then incrementally leverage the skills and connections attained on past projects into more interesting, diverse, and – what amounts to the same thing – prestigious future projects, the very heterogeneity of which becomes their primary mark of esteem.

In the aftermath of Y2K and the bursting of the dot-com bubble, a new workplace methodology called Agile emerged as an attempt to sow these principles in the technology sector. Agile’s manifesto – drafted by an alliance of 17 software developers at a Wasatch Range ski resort in 2001 – consists of a mere four lines and 24 words, outlining grammars of action heretical to the Waterfall bible:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan.

Agile is everything that Waterfall is not: lightweight, incremental, fluid, encouraging plasticity with regard to tasks, roles, scheduling, and planning. Whereas initial stakeholder requirements in Waterfall are binding – often the product of months-long planning – Agile’s recurrent testing of products in-progress allows for feedback, reevaluation, modification and pivoting. So-called ‘lean’ teams are released from their individual silos, pushed toward an ideal symbiosis via an endless ascesis of observing, listening, and questioning. Face-to-face interaction and exchange become conduits for learning and self-development. Team members are interchangeable, picking up variegated tasks as needed by the project, countervailing Waterfall’s tendency toward increasing atomization and autonomization of spheres. Here enters the figure of the Project Manager or Team Lead – whose responsibilities can overlap with the Product Manager or Product Owner, depending on the environment – who acts as a facilitator: connecting individuals, redistributing information, unifying energies, routing vectors.

Today, these values congeal around a set of shared terms and best practices. Much of the vernacular antedates Agile, inherited from previous collaborative workplace methodologies like Scrum, Extreme Programming, DSDM or Crystal – but all have now been absorbed into its lexicon. In the Agile firm, the temporal unit of measure is the sprint, so called for its brevity and its intensity. A sprint ranges between two and four weeks, instilling a sense of urgency in the sprinter. While the activity that takes place within it is not strictly scheduled, a predetermined chunk of work must be completed by the time one reaches the finish line.

On desktop, the sprint is visualized two-dimensionally as a horizontal tableau of epics, stories and tasks. Epics correspond to projects, subsuming several stories and tasks. Stories are kept intentionally vague, merely denoting a single functionality that the finished product must support, in the format of: ‘as a <type of user> I can <action> because <intent>.’ While multiple individuals are assigned to a story, single individuals are assigned to a task, which is the smallest byte of work in the project. In the same vein as the sprint, the stand-up or daily scrum keeps team members on their toes; at the start of each working day, programmers assemble and serially recite the tasks they have achieved since yesterday, and which tasks they intend to achieve before tomorrow.

Agile has now not only usurped Waterfall as the dominant paradigm of IT, it has also spilled into areas beyond software development, including finance, sales, marketing and human resources. In recent years, a wave of gargantuan firms in legacy industries – Barclays, Cisco, Wells Fargo and Centene to name a few – have undertaken company-wide ‘Agile transformations’, plucking ‘coaches’ from top business schools and the Big Four consulting firms, and at the same time creating a vast market for productivity software suites made by big-cap companies like Microsoft, Atlassian, ServiceNow and SAP.

The question that nags is: why are employers across sectors willingly, even at considerable expense, instituting changes of this nature? Only one of two possible answers can suffice. The first is that these concessions are plain acts of benevolence on behalf of executives and shareholders, who aim to placate the legitimate malaise voiced by the artistic critique. The second is that a silent bargain between capital and wage-labour has occurred, with capital steadily shedding impediments to accumulation, and wage-earners forfeiting hard-won security in exchange for putative freedom.

It is clear that Agile dissolves many of the more visible features of hierarchical managerial control. But it does so only to recontain them in subtle and nuanced ways. For one, the self-organizing strategies of teams allow for certain workplace disciplinary mechanisms to take the form of normative compulsions rather than explicit instructions. Here, the complex interpersonal modalities of ‘sprint planning’ are illustrative. At the start of the sprint, teams convene to assess the tasks they’ve prioritized. One-by-one, the Project Manager identifies each task, describes what it entails, and asks if the criteria make sense. The goal is then for the team to map story points to that task, which is a number that defines its level of complexity. The team cannot discuss the next task until all team members have mutually agreed upon the current task’s number of points.

In hardline Agile firms, a device called point poker is used. In this game, team members blindly impute a number to the task – they ‘point’ – and then the Project Manager ‘reveals’, showing the level of complexity that each team member believes the task to be. There is an element of motivation psychology here: no programmer wants to be caught assessing a task assigned to them as exceedingly difficult, an anxiety that exerts a consistent downward pressure on the number of points assigned to tasks. Because points can be doled out until the sum of points reaches the velocity number – the maximum of points that the team can reliably handle before the next sprint – pressure is exerted upon individuals to shoulder a larger workload.

The homeostatic regulation of the Agile team accrues additional advantages to capital. Its internalization of discipline renders redundant much of the managerial and supervisory strata of Waterfall. This is also the case with the necessarily transient nature of the connections between agents in Agile: links to product owners, leaders, managers, teams and outside firms can often last solely for the duration of a single project. A project-centric culture, coupled with the premium placed on lean teams and fungible team members, encourages wage-earners to move freely not only from project to project, but from firm to firm. Hence, we see the proliferation of recently devised hiring instruments like temping, subcontracting, outsourcing, zero-hours, freelancing and permalancing, forming part of the basis for what has come to be known as the ‘precariat’. In this way, through the mores and rhythms of the work itself, relationships are rendered tenuous, and employers are freed from the commitment to long-term employee well-being.  

The virtue most venerated in the Agile environment is autonomy – which, in practice, amounts to a cult of individual performance. All are engaged in a constant battle with ossification. Ceaseless self-education, self-training and self-improvement is required. Workers must practice both the one-upmanship of accruing more responsibilities on projects and the continual anticipation of future competency needs. Threatened by what Robert Castel calls ‘disaffiliation’, an anxious self-consciousness pervades the projective city. Make yourself useful to others – or die. Boundaries between work and non-work disintegrate, not least due to the voluntary labour one must perform to extend one’s network socially. Underlying each project, the long-term personal meta-project is employability. For that, it is not enough merely to complete the task: one must distinguish oneself.

There are also the more familiar corporate control mechanisms that Agile’s progenitors claim no longer exist. Principles of self-determination clash with technocratic implementation. In today’s corporate pantheon, the Product Manager or Product Owner is a kind of hybrid entrepreneurial-aesthetic visionary, embodying the qualities previously associated with the artist of high modernism. The software product is the outcome of his creativity and ingenuity. While his co-workers are not figured as employees, but as formally equal teammates or collaborators, behind this façade the Product Manager enforces an ever intensifying work regime: ticketing systems to monitor activity, daily stand-ups to create accountability, deadlines to meet quarterly revenue streams. By breaking down his reveries into actionable assignments to be fulfilled in the span of days, the Product Manager controls the pace at which technology is created. Decision-making rests upon his word; deploying the product as quickly as possible is his objective. Under this despot cloaked in a dissident’s garb, the Taylorist separation between conception and execution reappears in the projective city: as if Agile has itself succumbed to the rationalization it pledged to banish.

Read on: Rob Lucas, ‘Dreaming in Code’, NLR 62

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The Puzzle

‘Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.’ Franz Fanon’s declaration in The Wretched of the Earth is quoted towards the end of La Discrétion, the new novel by French-Algerian author Faïza Guène. It captures the preoccupations of this gifted writer who, in five previous works of fiction, has explored the contradictory experience of growing up with Arab immigrant parents in the Paris suburbs.

Guène, now 36, came out of the starting blocks fast. After high school she went straight into writing and filmmaking, and at the age of 19 published her first novel, Kiffe kiffe demain. A short autobiographical comedy about a teenager living in a housing estate just outside the French capital, Guène’s debut was a bestseller and translated into 26 languages. Her films were less polished, looking more like home videos with ropey acting and few artistic flourishes, but they revealed much about the subjects that would fuel her later fiction. Her 2002 short feature RTT explored the impact of France’s statutory 35-hour working week on an Algerian family who could not afford to take leisure time; and her documentary, Mémoire du 17 octobre 1961, featured interviews with people who had been present when scores of Algerian independence protesters were killed by Paris police in 1961.

The themes from both these early films re-emerge in La Discrétion. Guène is clear about how the notorious events of October 1961 – a massacre the French government has long refused to acknowledge – have become relevant in her adulthood. ‘I have always felt that something could escape me’, she said, reflecting on her relationship with her parents. ‘Early on I wanted to understand their story. Thanks to the documentary, I was able to make my father speak for the first time about this event that was so important for me. I understood that each generation has its mission to fulfil, and ours perhaps is to collect these stories and recount them.’

La Discrétion marks an upgrade in ambition for Guène, shifting the focus from her own generation to that of her mother, presented in the fictionalized character of Yamina, who grew up in Algeria in the 1950s and left for France during the war of independence. The novel has a simple style and structure. Alternating chapters bring us back and forth from Aubervilliers in 2019 to Algeria in 1949, when Yamina was born, and subsequent flashbacks recall her romance with Brahim, a migrant worker who spent long stretches of time in France during the early eighties. Together they moved to the suburbs and raised their children: three daughters, Malika, Imane and Hannah, and a son, the youngest child, Omar. The novel is told in the third person, though it adopts the voices and viewpoints of the different family members, occasionally decentring Yamina as the protagonist.  

Yamina is kind and unassuming, portrayed with evident tenderness by Guène. She appears not to notice the subtle ways she is treated as a second-class citizen. Or does she? The novel raises this possibility without confirming it, allowing the uncertainty to pervade the atmosphere. Guène suggests that many women in Yamina’s position may have consciously chosen to ignore everyday racism in order to avoid confrontation. Passages like the following suggest the mother’s passivity could be an active choice:

Yamina does not see what the doctor’s coarse gestures communicate. She doesn’t realize that he is abrupt and efficient. Sometimes he even bumps her while lifting her arm to take her blood pressure, but she would never dare point this out to him. As if being in pain was acceptable. As if nothing about herself was serious. In a way, Yamina is protected.

She doesn’t understand in what geometry the world has placed her. Her innocence protects her from the violence of the doctor’s attitude. She does not appreciate the vertical relationship that plays out in the office of the doctor, whom she respects so much, for his position, his years of study and his knowledge. She doesn’t see that invisible ladder on which he perches above her every time he speaks to her.

It makes you wonder if Yamina isn’t doing it on purpose, as she seems incredibly deaf to the anger that calls out to her.

Perhaps, then, could it be she has chosen not to let herself be damaged by contempt?

Maybe a long time ago Yamina understood that if she started picking up on every little thing then it would never end.

La Discrétion’s style is telegraphic, with short sentences giving a conversational rhythm to the prose. This is classic Guène, evoking the sharp dialogue of earlier novels. But the register has also shifted to something more literary. There is not as much direct quotation; instead, Guène injects italicized passages that seem to be snippets of speech, although their appearance on the page does not necessarily coincide with their moment of utterance. Italics are also used to signal set phrases – idioms or marketing slogans:

Omar’s sisters are three radically different personalities. To express their distinctness, their father calls them: morning, noon and night. It makes Brahim laugh. He says all the time: Ah my girls, they’re like medication. It’s morning, noon and night!

These devices give Guène’s narrative a striking precision and authenticity. The story is told in a series of brief episodes – each chapter taking place in a different setting – which range from the Algerian war to a heated conversations on the streets of present-day Paris. The writing is concise but never cold, and the plot is interspersed with haunting descriptive passages, such as this account of Yamina’s visit to the dentist (or l’arracheur, ‘the tooth-puller’, as she calls him):

The sour-tempered man orders her to sit on the wooden stool and open her mouth. The little girl barely has time to take a look at the tools. In truth, there is only a small metal blacksmith’s pliers, unsterilised.

It is worse than the worst nightmare.

The man violently pulls out her tooth, it makes a terrible noise, Yamina will never be able to forget that noise. The tooth carries on crumbling, still stuck in the pliers, under the pressure of the puller’s hand.

Yamina screams, her head is going to explode, blood pouring down her throat. The voices, the noise, the hum of the market that drives you crazy – all of it gradually fades away. Little Yamina’s vision goes fuzzy, she feels herself fainting. She has never known such pain[…]

Now Yamina has to get home alone, walking under the blazing sun.
Until 1973 she would suffer regularly from abscesses and migraines – almost fourteen years, without anyone around her caring.

One day, in front of a pocket mirror, in despair, unable to bear the pain any longer, she hollows out her bloody gum with the help of a vine stalk, and pulls out a large piece, slightly black: the rotten bit of tooth that the tooth-puller left behind.

One cannot help but see some symbolism in the piece of decaying tooth that has been lodged in Yamina’s gum for 14 years: the rot of her ruined childhood, robbed from her by war and exile, which continues to gnaw away throughout adulthood. When the pain becomes too severe, Guène tells us, it will eventually force its way to the surface.

Yet if this is the arc of Yamina’s story, her children’s lives are different – particularly the three daughters. They have not inherited their mother’s meekness, nor her impulse to repress the feeling of cultural dislocation. In one illustrative scene, Malika ponders her arranged marriage and subsequent divorce, explaining to herself why she went through with it. Guène then draws back from Malika’s perspective and elaborates on the condition of first-generation immigrants in France – caught between clashing ‘codes’, and resisting erasure from the society they inhabit:

If older siblings like Malika came to terms with their old rules, it was because they knew the parents were doing the best they could. There had to be rules, after all! They had to invent them!

They had to organize themselves a bit, even if they were only passing through, even if they still believed in a miraculous return [to Algeria]. A life, even a temporary one, takes over. This is how they instinctively invented their hybrid laws, halfway between the home of their memory and this place where they now lived.

Because they lived here. They had to admit it now. It is true that it was going on longer than expected. It must be said that this country is good at stealing years from men, it is good at confiscating their hopes and burying their dreams in thousands of small coffins[…]

It’s not that easy to make the right decisions without understanding all the codes. They were afraid of losing everything, of compromising themselves. They wanted to stay who they are. They did not want to give it up. They refused to be erased, A SECOND TIME. How not to fear erasure? It’s what this country knew best to do, it had already tried to erase them, and now it was going after their children.

La Discrétion is one of several new French novels that explores such issues of belonging and marginalisation in immigrant communities in and around Paris (Fatima Daas’s fiction is another noteworthy example). Yet Guène’s work stands out for its historical sweep, spanning multiple generations and continents. Its achronological narrative connects the events of the 1950s to contemporary experiences, but it does so with a light touch, balancing the seriousness of the subject with a liveliness and humour that resists didacticism. In a memorable scene, Yamina and her daughters discuss whether it is possible to show respect for Algeria while also identifying with France. When one sibling speculates about moving to Paris and getting a job with a half-decent salary, her sister retorts: ‘Hey you, stop playing the smartass, Frenchwoman with her papers – ha! Listening to you youd think you’re called Nadine and grew up in Brittany. What did France ever do for you?

For someone who partly grew up in Brittany and has a cousin there called Nadine, I could well have been excluded from this joke, which is both funny and deadly serious. But Guène’s writing has the opposite effect: you laugh too, either with the family or at yourself, because the tone is one of gentle mockery rather than outright hostility. This wryness has had a peculiar effect on Guène’s reception, however. Her books have found plenty of readers, but they have generally been treated as insubstantial comedies – as if their wit offers an excuse for ignoring their indictments of colonial ideology.

During the novel’s second half, the four children are pursuing their own paths, with Omar causing the least friction – driving a taxi and finding a stable girlfriend. Malika has an administrative job in the Bobigny town hall, where she has already caused a ruffle by speaking Arabic to a man who struggles with French. There is a rule that requires employees to speak exclusively in French, and Malika’s colleague Bianca – who comes from Martinique – snitches on her to the boss. It strikes Malika as a disgrace to Fanon’s legacy that someone from a French-controlled territory has betrayed a colleague from a former French colony. Back at the family home, Yamina tells her daughter to ‘stay discreet’ and keep below the fray. Hannah blows up at this mention of discretion: ‘People are dead because of your discretion’, she bellows, ‘isn’t that enough?’

For the two eldest daughters, Yamina’s past in Algeria is an increasingly troubling presence. It acts as a psychic barrier as they try to build their lives in France. Malika’s response to this impediment is intellectual, whereas Hannah is gripped by an anger she does not understand and cannot channel. Bored one day at work, Malika scours the internet for details about the place where her mother grew up and where much of her family still lives. But while digging through the archives she realizes there is no trace of their surname. It makes her feel as if her life is full of phantoms – as if she too is a ghostly presence, inhabiting a story full of gaps and silences. Malika finally accepts that her biography is fragmented, her memory in pieces, her heritage an unsolvable puzzle. We do not know where she will go from here, but it seems likely she will adopt a similar attitude to Guène: she will keep digging, speaking to people, interrogating neglected episodes from her history, without assuming these will add up to a self-consistent whole.

If Malika’s reaction to feeling incomplete involves a turn outward, Hannah takes a contrasting turn inward. Towards the end of the novel she makes a breakthrough by seeing a therapist to whom she describes the nightmares she has had since she was a girl, in which a young Jean-Marie Le Pen snatches her mother away from her. The therapist is reassuring, evoking Fanon in her reply:

This violence is normal, it’s a part of you, of your history, you carry within you this violence and the humiliations of those before you so that in a certain way you are the inheritorBut you alone can’t carry all this weight. You alone cannot repair the affront.

Imane, the youngest daughter, is less preoccupied with these questions of heritage. By the end of the novel she has left home, moved into a studio in Paris and started a job at Maxi Toys. She is happy enough, but her difficulty in finding a boyfriend makes her contemplate her residual out-of-place-ness:

Too independent for some, not enough for others. She supports freedom of expression but that doesn’t make her Charlie. She is Muslim and feminist. She is French and Algerian. She has neither straight nor curly hair. She is vegan when it isn’t halal. She is modern and reactionary. She is everything and its opposite.

Imane lives in a world that is not ready to welcome her complexity.

In the final pages of La Discrétion we follow the family to the countryside for a surprise holiday to celebrate Yamina’s birthday. They get on well with one another, but the old woman who rents them the apartment is rude and remote. Is this a symptom of her half-deafness, or is it a sign of racial prejudice? The daughters play their childhood game, ‘Racist or Not Racist?’, but they cannot quite settle on an answer. Guène’s spirited ending is also an ambiguous one. She does not set out to crack the problems of inheritance, but the children’s trajectories nonetheless chart various escape routes, even as their environment grows increasingly hostile and intolerant. Yamina’s daughters are not likely to become political activists; but at the level of their everyday interactions, they enact the psychological break with colonialism at the heart of Fanon’s mission.  

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘Just Remember This’, NLR 95.

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Debacle in Afghanistan

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August 2021 is a major political and ideological defeat for the American Empire. The crowded helicopters carrying US Embassy staff to Kabul airport were startlingly reminiscent of the scenes in Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – in April 1975. The speed with which Taliban forces stormed the country was astonishing; their strategic acumen remarkable. A week-long offensive ended triumphantly in Kabul. The 300,000-strong Afghan army crumbled. Many refused to fight. In fact, thousands of them went over to the Taliban, who immediately demanded the unconditional surrender of the puppet government. President Ashraf Ghani, a favourite of the US media, fled the country and sought refuge in Oman. The flag of the revived Emirate is now fluttering over his Presidential palace. In some respects, the closest analogy is not Saigon but nineteenth-century Sudan, when the forces of the Mahdi swept into Khartoum and martyred General Gordon. William Morris celebrated the Mahdi’s victory as a setback for the British Empire. Yet while the Sudanese insurgents killed an entire garrison, Kabul changed hands with little bloodshed. The Taliban did not even attempt to take the US embassy, let alone target American personnel.  

The twentieth anniversary of the ‘War on Terror’ thus ended in predictable and predicted defeat for the US, NATO and others who clambered on the bandwagon. However one regards the Taliban’s policies – I have been a stern critic for many years – their achievement cannot be denied. In a period when the US has wrecked one Arab country after another, no resistance that could challenge the occupiers ever emerged. This defeat may well be a turning point. That is why European politicians are whinging. They backed the US unconditionally in Afghanistan, and they too have suffered a humiliation – none more so than Britain.

Biden was left with no choice. The United States had announced it would withdraw from Afghanistan in September 2021 without fulfilling any of its ‘liberationist’ aims: freedom and democracy, equal rights for women, and the destruction of the Taliban. Though it may be undefeated militarily, the tears being shed by embittered liberals confirm the deeper extent of its loss. Most of them – Frederick Kagan in the NYT, Gideon Rachman in the FT – believe that the drawdown should have been delayed to keep the Taliban at bay. But Biden was simply ratifying the peace process initiated by Trump, with Pentagon backing, which saw an agreement reached in February 2020 in the presence of the US, Taliban, India, China and Pakistan. The American security establishment knew that the invasion had failed: the Taliban could not be subdued no matter how long they stayed. The notion that Biden’s hasty withdrawal has somehow strengthened the militants is poppycock.

The fact is that over twenty years, the US has failed to build anything that might redeem its mission. The brilliantly lit Green Zone was always surrounded by a darkness that the Zoners could not fathom. In one of the poorest countries of the world, billions were spent annually on air-conditioning the barracks that housed US soldiers and officers, while food and clothing were regularly flown in from bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It was hardly a surprise that a huge slum grew on the fringes of Kabul, as the poor assembled to search for pickings in dustbins. The low wages paid to Afghan security services could not convince them to fight against their countrymen. The army, built up over two decades, had been infiltrated at an early stage by Taliban supporters, who received free training in the use of modern military equipment and acted as spies for the Afghan resistance.

This was the miserable reality of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Though credit where credit is due: the country has witnessed a huge rise in exports. During the Taliban years, opium production was strictly monitored. Since the US invasion it has increased dramatically, and now accounts for 90% of the global heroin market – making one wonder whether this protracted conflict should be seen, partially at least, as a new opium war. Trillions have been made in profits and shared between the Afghan sectors that serviced the occupation. Western officers were handsomely paid off to enable the trade. One in ten young Afghans are now opium addicts. Figures for NATO forces are unavailable.

As for the status of women, nothing much has changed. There has been little social progress outside the NGO-infested Green Zone. One of the country’s leading feminists in exile remarked that Afghan women had three enemies: the Western occupation, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. With the departure of the United States, she said, they will have two. (At the time of writing this can perhaps be amended to one, as the Taliban’s advances in the north saw off key factions of the Alliance before Kabul was captured.) Despite repeated requests from journalists and campaigners, no reliable figures have been released on the sex-work industry that grew to service the occupying armies. Nor are there credible rape statistics – although US soldiers frequently used sexual violence against ‘terror suspects’, raped Afghan civilians and green-lighted child abuse by allied militias. During the Yugoslav civil war, prostitution multiplied and the region became a centre for sex trafficking. UN involvement in this profitable business was well-documented. In Afghanistan, the full details are yet to emerge.

Over 775,000 US troops have fought in Afghanistan since 2001. Of those, 2,448 were killed, along with almost 4,000 US contractors. Approximately 20,589 were wounded in action according to the Defense Department. Afghan casualty figures are difficult to calculate, since ‘enemy deaths’ that include civilians are not counted. Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that at least 4,200–4,500 civilians were killed by mid-January 2002 as a consequence of the US assault, both directly as casualties of the aerial bombing campaign and indirectly in the humanitarian crisis that ensued. By 2021, the Associated Press were reporting that 47,245 civilians had perished because of the occupation. Afghan civil-rights activists gave a higher total, insisting that 100,000 Afghans (many of them non-combatants) had died, and three times that number had been wounded.

In 2019, the Washington Post published a 2,000-page internal report commissioned by the US federal government to anatomise the failures of its longest war: ‘The Afghanistan Papers’. It was based on a series of interviews with US Generals (retired and serving), political advisers, diplomats, aid workers and so on. Their combined assessment was damning. General Douglas Lute, the ‘Afghan war czar’ under Bush and Obama, confessed that ‘We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing…We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we’re undertaking… If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.’ Another witness, Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy Seal and a White House staffer under Bush and Obama, highlighted the vast waste of resources: ‘What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion? … After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.’ He could have added: ‘And we still lost.’

Who was the enemy? The Taliban, Pakistan, all Afghans? A long-serving US soldier was convinced that at least one-third of Afghan police were addicted to drugs and another sizeable chunk were Taliban supporters. This posed a major problem for US soldiers, as an unnamed Special Forces honcho testified in 2017: ‘They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live…It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first, they just kept asking: “But who are the bad guys, where are they?”’.

Donald Rumsfeld expressed the same sentiment back in 2003. ‘I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan or Iraq’, he wrote. ‘I read all the intel from the community, and it sounds as though we know a great deal, but in fact, when you push at it, you find out we haven’t got anything that is actionable. We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.’ The inability to distinguish between a friend and an enemy is a serious issue – not just on a Schmittean level, but on a practical one. If you can’t tell the difference between allies and adversaries after an IED attack in a crowded city market, you respond by lashing out at everyone, and create more enemies in the process.

Colonel Christopher Kolenda, an adviser to three serving Generals, pointed to another problem with the US mission. Corruption was rampant from the beginning, he said; the Karzai government was ‘self-organised into a kleptocracy’. That undermined the post-2002 strategy of building a state that could outlast the occupation. ‘Petty corruption is like skin cancer: there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably okay. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.’ Of course, the Pakistani state – where kleptocracy is embedded at every level – has survived for decades. But things weren’t so easy in Afghanistan, where nation-building efforts were led by an occupying army and the central government had scant popular support.

What of the fake reports that the Taliban were routed, never to return? A senior figure in the National Security Council reflected on the lies broadcast by his colleagues:

It was their explanations. For example, [Taliban] attacks are getting worse? ‘That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability.’ Then, three months later, attacks are still getting worse? ‘It’s because the Taliban are getting desperate, so it’s actually an indicator that we’re winning’… And this went on and on for two reasons, to make everyone involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.

All this was an open secret in the chanceries and defence ministries of NATO Europe. In October 2014, the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon admitted that ‘Mistakes were made militarily, mistakes were made by the politicians at the time and this goes back 10, 13 years…We’re not going to send combat troops back into Afghanistan, under any circumstances.’ Four years later, Prime Minister Theresa May redeployed British troops to Afghanistan, doubling its fighters ‘to help tackle the fragile security situation’. Now the UK media is echoing the Foreign Office and criticising Biden for having made the wrong move at the wrong time, with the head of the British armed forces Sir Nick Carter suggesting a new invasion might be necessary. Tory backbenchers, colonial nostalgists, stooge-journalists and Blair-toadies are lining up to call for a permanent British presence in the war-torn state.

What’s astonishing is that neither General Carter nor his relays appear to have acknowledged the scale of the crisis confronted by the US war machine, as set out in ‘The Afghanistan Papers’. While American military planners have slowly woken up to reality, their British counterparts still cling to a fantasy image of Afghanistan. Some argue that the withdrawal will put Europe’s security at risk, as al-Qaeda regroups under the new Islamic Emirate. But these forecasts are disingenuous. The US and UK have spent years arming and assisting al-Qaeda in Syria, as they did in Bosnia and in Libya. Such fearmongering can only function in a swamp of ignorance. For the British public, at least, it does not seem to have cut through. History sometimes presses urgent truths on a country through a vivid demonstration of facts or an exposure of elites. The current withdrawal is likely to be one such moment. Britons, already hostile to the War on Terror, could harden in their opposition to future military conquests.  

What does the future hold? Replicating the model developed for Iraq and Syria, the US has announced a permanent special military unit, staffed by 2,500 troops, to be stationed at a Kuwaiti base, ready to fly to Afghanistan and bomb, kill and maim should it become necessary. Meanwhile, a high-powered Taliban delegation visited China last July, pledging that their country would never again be used as a launch pad for attacks on other states. Cordial discussions were held with the Chinese Foreign Minister, reportedly covering trade and economic ties. The summit recalled similar meetings between Afghan mujahideen and Western leaders during the 1980s: the former appearing with their Wahhabi costumes and regulation beard-cuts against the spectacular backdrop of the White House or 10 Downing Street. But now, with NATO in retreat, the key players are China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan (which has undoubtedly provided strategic assistance to the Taliban, and for whom this is a huge politico-military triumph). None of them wants a new civil war, in polar contrast to the US and its allies after the Soviet withdrawal. China’s close relations with Tehran and Moscow might enable it to work towards securing some fragile peace for the citizens of this traumatised country, aided by continuing Russian influence in the north.

Much emphasis has been placed on the average age in Afghanistan: 18, in a population of 40 million. On its own this means nothing. But there is hope that young Afghans will strive for a better life after the forty-year conflict. For Afghan women the struggle is by no means over, even if only a single enemy remains. In Britain and elsewhere, all those who want to fight on must shift their focus to the refugees who will soon be knocking on NATO’s door. At the very least, refuge is what the West owes them: a minor reparation for an unnecessary war.

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Mirage of the Good War’, NLR 50.

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The Changemaker

Since winning the presidency with a decisive mandate in 2019, Nayib Bukele – the charismatic millennial millionaire president of El Salvador – has launched a major authoritarian crackdown: using the armed forces to intimidate parliamentarians; enforcing a militarized state of exception during the pandemic; attacking independent journalists; prosecuting the political opposition; and orchestrating a legislative coup to replace Supreme Court magistrates and the Attorney General. Backed by a sizeable portion of the population, Bukele is turning a weak neoliberal democracy into a militarized autocratic state. He has reversed the fragile gains of the 1992 Peace Accords, destroying the country’s post-civil war political system in the process. His rise to power, however, can only be understood in the context of that system’s extended crisis.

The bloody Salvadoran civil war pitted a US-backed military dictatorship against the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftist guerilla army made up of five political-military organizations and supported by peasant, labour and student movements. After twelve years of sustained insurgent warfare and scorched-earth repression yielded no clear military victor, UN-sponsored negotiations brought the conflict to a close. The Truth Commission report estimated the war’s toll at 75,000 deaths and 10,000 disappearances, with only 5% of the violence attributed to the FMLN.

The Peace Accords demilitarized the Salvadoran state and established a tenuous liberal institutional framework, but they left its highly unequal, export-driven, US-dependent economy in the grip of the oligarchic class: an incestuous clique of old landowning families with large commercial and financial investments in the region. As the FMLN underwent a complex transition from clandestine guerilla army to political party, the Salvadoran elite followed US directives to implement far-reaching neoliberal reforms. Over the course of four consecutive terms (1989–2009), the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party – founded by the death-squad leader who ordered the assassination of archbishop Óscar Romero in 1980 – enacted sweeping privatizations, deregulation and trade liberalization. This restructuring shifted the axes of accumulation from monoculture exports to maquiladora manufacturing and, increasingly, migrant remittances. Tens of thousands of workers, displaced from the public and agricultural sectors, were pushed into the informal economy or the racialized substrata of US labour markets.

In the late 1990s, the mass deportation of Salvadorans from the US returned thousands of migrants to the working-class neighborhoods around San Salvador, some of whom brought with them the gang culture that flourished in US prisons. This soon took root among large numbers of young people excluded from the country’s postwar neoliberal development. Aided by Washington, ARENA deployed iron-fist policing and mass incarceration against the gangs, prompting their maturation into sophisticated criminal enterprises. Amid rising economic hardship, the FMLN, which had been steadily consolidating local electoral power for over a decade, launched an effective presidential campaign led by progressive journalist Mauricio Funes. In June 2009, he ascended to El Salvador’s highest office with 51% of the vote.

The FMLN’s victory, clinched in the first round, was a repudiation of the order that had failed to deliver on the promises of the 1992 agreement. Yet the FMLN came up against significant obstacles while in power. It was constrained by both exogenous and endogenous forces. The military coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya in neighboring Honduras – backed by the Obama administration – sent a stark warning to the Funes government during its first weeks in office. The US frequently exercised an imperial veto over the FMLN’s social reforms, threatening to sever aid or withdraw temporary immigration protections for the Salvadoran diaspora. The legislature, courts and corporate media worked to destabilize the government, overturning progressive fiscal measures and obstructing development programmes. The Supreme Court even suspended the urban transit system, declaring bus lanes unconstitutional. Further problems were created by an opportunistic pact with the conservative GANA party, founded in 2010 by ARENA defectors. GANA agreed to lend its votes to FMLN, overriding ARENA’s opposition to some legislative changes. But in return it demanded cabinet posts and concessions to capital.

Despite these barriers, the FMLN enacted important social policies over its two five-year terms: building an expansive, Cuban-modeled healthcare system; providing free uniforms, supplies and meals to public school students; paying reparations to victims of war atrocities; and institutionalizing protections for women, indigenous communities and the LGBT population. But the pace of change slowed during the party’s second term under Sánchez Cerén (2014–19), as the impact of the financial crisis reached Latin America. The waning of the Pink Tide and collapse of Venezuelan oil prices left the FMLN increasingly isolated internationally, while the domestic opposition starved the government of funding from its bastions in the legislature and Supreme Court.

Ten years in government took its toll on the FMLN, which became increasingly consumed by the everyday maintenance of state power. After punishing losses in the 2018 midterms, it entered the 2019 presidential race with a defensive strategy and a demoralized base. The revolutionary rhetoric of its first term was replaced by a conciliatory appeal to preserve the gains of the past decade. At the same time, the party’s credibility took a devastating hit, as a series of politically motivated (though not necessarily baseless) charges were levelled against Funes over the misuse of public funds. Enter Bukele in the role of changemaker.

Nayib Bukele is one of many sons of the late Armando Bukele, a wealthy businessman and intellectual of Palestinian descent. A leading figure in El Salvador’s Muslim community, Bukele Sr was also a longtime supporter and financier of the FMLN. After dropping out of college, Nayib had a short-lived career as an entrepreneur, running a nightclub into the ground and working at a family advertising agency. In 2012, Bukele Sr used his connections to launch his son’s political career. Nayib joined the FMLN at the age of 31 and ran for the mayoralty of a small suburb of Nuevo Cuscatlán, where he built up his personal brand – including his signature color, cyan, a notable departure from the FMLN’s traditional red and white. In 2015 he was elected mayor of San Salvador, with his sights set on the presidency.

Bukele’s youth and PR skills brought him broad popularity both within and without a party still led by an aging comandancia. But his ambition and indiscipline provoked increasing conflict with the leadership. In 2017 he was finally expelled from the FMLN after making a sexist remark to an FMLN city councilwoman. With the 2019 presidential elections fast approaching, it was too late for Bukele to register as an independent, and he failed to launch his ‘New Ideas’ party in time to compete. He opted to join the GANA ticket, recruiting FMLN defector Felix Ulloa as his vice-presidential candidate. Presenting himself as a rebellious and irreverent outsider, Bukele hijacked the establishment’s wrecking campaign against the left, attacking both the FMLN and ARENA as enemies of the people. His base was comprised of working- and middle-class Salvadorans, including a large number of fundamentalist evangelical Christians and frustrated former FMLN voters. Factions of Salvadoran capital outside the traditional oligarchy have swung behind him, along with the shadowy military and narcotrafficking interests represented in the GANA bloc. It proved to be an unbeatable coalition. Bukele won easily, with 53% of the vote.

In government, he has surrounded himself with a tight circle of family and friends. His brothers Karim, Yusef and Ibrajim work as unofficial advisors and spokespeople, while his cousin Javier Zablah Bukele presides over the New Ideas party. Two longstanding acquaintances of Bukele, Ernesto Castro and Conan Castro, serve respectively as his private secretary and president of the Legislative Assembly. At least three cabinet members are the president’s former schoolmates. Despite his anti-corruption rhetoric, Bukele’s primary project has been to consolidate this patrimonial power. In lieu of a development strategy, he has dedicated unprecedented resources to publicity, while reversing the FMLN’s modest reforms. Making expert use of social media, he deploys evangelical Christian tropes to present himself as a messianic figure crusading against the demonic forces of the political establishment, gang violence, and a cabal of NGOs, journalists and foreign interests.

Following the legislative coup on 1 May, in which lawmakers voted to replace the Attorney General and all five magistrates of El Salvador’s constitutional Chamber, the president has used the newly subordinate judicial branch to harrass the opposition, targeting the left in particular. On 22 July, police arrested five former FMLN cabinet members on trumped-up corruption charges and issued warrants for several others, including former president Sánchez Cerén. In addition, Bukele has re-politicized the armed forces and expanded their role in public life, pledging to double their ranks. He has directed the vice president to embark on a secretive process to reform the Constitution in the hope that this will ease his path to reelection.  

Bukele’s party swept the February 2021 midterms, winning a legislative supermajority plus the better part of mayorships nationwide. Polls continue to reflect his personal popularity, but after two years of false promises and a deepening economic crisis, that support has begun to falter. Desperate for financing, Bukele has raised the national debt to over 90% of GDP, while courting foreign tourism and tech-bro investors. Yet his autocratic and unpredictable governance style may jeopardize those efforts by imperiling international loans and tanking the country’s credit ratings. Meanwhile, El Salvador’s relationship with the US has reached a historic low. The Biden administration, under pressure to combat the ‘root causes’ of mass Central American migration, views Bukele as a difficult and unreliable subordinate. Caught between a performative commitment to democratic norms and the need for security cooperation to contain migration flows, the US has resorted to aid restrictions and sanctions to discipline El Salvador’s premier. If tensions with the hegemon continue to escalate, the impact on the country’s US-dependent economy will be significant.  

Last June, in a bid to boost foreign investment, circumvent possible sanctions and stimulate illicit economies, Bukele made the controversial decision to impose Bitcoin as legal tender. Yet this cryptogamble is unlikely to pay off. The reform, undertaken with no public consultation and pushed through parliament at rapid speed, is deeply unpopular, eliciting comparisons with ARENA’s disastrous dollarization of the economy in 2001. The Salvadorian left, however, is in no position to capitalize on the discontent. The 2021 midterms reduced the FMLN to near irrelevance, with only four legislative seats and a handful of tiny mayorships. Under the weak leadership of former vice president Óscar Ortiz, a faction associated with the old Communist Party has effectively taken over the organization. This group, which controls the national subsidiary of the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA, now dominates the FMLN’s principal decision-making bodies. It has pushed for increased collaboration with the government, convincing two of the party’s four legislators to vote with New Ideas in an attempt to claw back influence.  

The FMLN’s demise is not predestined. A scenario in which the party returns to its popular roots remains possible, as indicated by the Communist Party’s recent revival in Chile. The remnants of the labour movement have largely been coopted, although feminist, LGBT, student and environmental organizations continue to mobilize against the government. Thousands turned out last May to protest against the lack of provisions for workers and the unemployed during the pandemic. Yet without a progressive electoral force capable of commanding broad support, the right will be best placed to profit from Bukele’s decline. Certain factions of big capital – like the Kriete family, with massive regional aviation, real-estate and agribusiness holdings – have aligned themselves with the ruling bloc, but many others still view Bukele with unease. The 2020 midterms saw a multiplication of small right-wing parties, as Salvadoran big business casts about for viable alternatives. Without a left revival, these forces could eventually anoint Bukele’s successor: someone less erratic, less likely to alienate the US, but no more capable of remedying El Salvador’s structural ailments.

Harald Jung, ‘Class Struggles in El Salvador’, NLR I/122.

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Avoidance Strategies

The prologue to Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel takes the form of a diary. Some 450-pages long – more than double the length of the eponymous work that serves as the book’s second section – it is one of the great evasive acts of twenty-first century literature. Paralyzed by a recently awarded Guggenheim fellowship, Levrero begins the diary in lieu of the novel he is meant to finish. ‘The aim is to set the writing in motion, no matter what it’s about, and keep it up until I’ve got into the habit’, he explains. For just over a year, the prosaic features of his existence – his PC, to which he’s addicted; detective novels; dreams and interpretations; physical ailments; tango; pigeons; women with whom he enjoys varying levels of intimacy – are subject to the gentle, implacable pressure of sustained attention. For Levrero, the guilt of impasse is a generative literary mode. Distractions glitter with significance, blooming into chapter-length digressions or precipitating existential crises. Banality itself seems to illuminate some great, unspoken risk. Levrero establishes a mysterious periphery among the nodes of light concealed in the mundane, the corporate, the hopeless, and the absurd. Neither autobiography nor autofiction, his magnum opus is a kind of solipsistic anti-literature, an extension of Perecian daring, its prodigiousness enabled by its constraint. It is both a grotesque failure and a masterpiece, a fussy, limpid, gorgeous, grumbling work of love and obsession. It is a novel upon which cults are founded.

Mario Levrero was born in 1940, in Montevideo, Uruguay, and died there in 2004. A heart murmur precluded him from attending high school. He spent his teenage years in bed, reading and listening to the radio. His further education was a matter of autodidacticism and chance. (He is said to have discovered Joyce at a Montevidean tango club.) Despite the irreducible nature of his talent, Levrero has been grouped with ‘los raros’, or the strange ones, a multigenerational cohort of Uruguayan writers including Juan Carlos Onetti, Felisberto Hernández, and Armonía Somers. (Fittingly, he rejected the label.) After a brief stint in the Uruguayan Communist Party – he once ate chorizo poisoned by fascists during a march in support of Cuba – he remained staunchly apolitical in later life. His literary endeavours were unpredictable and haphazard. He described his first novel, The City (1970), as ‘an attempt to translate Kafka into Uruguayan’. He ran a used bookstore in his twenties, wrote comic books, articles, and short stories, edited a crossword magazine, and completed some twenty books. He was resistant to publicity, granting only a few interviews in his lifetime. Despite this reticence, his influence on Latin American literature has been enormous. Alejandro Zambra’s experimental formalism is unthinkable without Levrero, as is the light-footed recursiveness of César Aira. ‘We are all his children’, the Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrique has said.

There is a chaotic variance to his oeuvre, from the cerebral abstraction of his early ‘involuntary trilogy’, to the mid-career noir send-up Nick Carter Enjoys Himself While the Reader Is Murdered and I Expire (1985), to the later autobiographical novels Empty Words (1996) and The Luminous Novel, published posthumously in 2005, and now translated into English for the first time by Annie McDermott. (McDermott has written of Levrero’s self-described influences: ‘Mandrake the Magician, a comic-strip hero who hypnotized his enemies, along with Lewis Carroll, tango music from the 1940s, detective novels, the Beatles, and the early days of Tía Vicenta, a satirical Argentinian current affairs magazine.’) What unites these disparate works is a sensibility in which lightness and profundity are inextricable. Levrero’s unassuming prose style admits the quotidian and the speculative alike. He is both dilettante and savant. Levrero the novelist is also Levrero the physicist, the theologian, the literary critic, and the palm reader. The proper form eludes him. This is what makes his fictions so improvisational and exhilarating.

Levrero practices what Michael Hofmann, in reference to Robert Musil, has called an aesthetic of postponement. The Luminous Novel ritualizes the wastefulness, procrastination, and deferment that underlie the endeavour of fiction. The novel is bound by a curious theory of leisure. ‘Leisure doesn’t have its own substance, it’s not an end in itself’, Levrero writes. ‘It’s nothing: leisure is an attitude of the soul, and it can accompany any kind of activity.’ The Guggenheim (which Levrero won in 2000) affords him a large sum of money that should, in theory, free him to write. But this ostensible freedom is freighted with an expectation that confounds his literary impulse. He spends part of the grant money on two chairs (one for reading in, one for sleeping in), and an air-conditioning unit. He writes guilty letters to ‘Mr. Guggenheim’ apologizing for his laziness. Meanwhile the mysterious nature of The Luminous Novel – that is, the novel he should be writing – lurks somewhere farther within the diary. (For hundreds of pages, we have no idea what it is.) It seems to take shape only when he isn’t trying to write it. ‘I’ve developed a kind of contempt, or lack of respect, for the things you obtain through effort’, he writes.

His writing-toward-leisure is in constant tension with a lifestyle entirely unsuited to literature. Instead of writing the diary (itself a suspension of the novel), he stays up every night exploring what he calls ‘the world of the computer’. In Windows operating systems and the far-flung corners of the young Internet, Levrero discovers a vast, hermetic remove. ‘If I’ve gone over to live in the world of the computer, it’s because there’s almost no other world possible for me’, he writes. ‘Where else could I go, what else could I do?’ He plays endless games of Mine Sweeper and Free Cell, downloads hundreds of illegal programs, tweaks files and registries, defrags his hard drive, collects pornography on ancient storage mediums, and tracks the inexplicable blind spots in Word 2000’s dictionary (‘penis’, ‘brothel’, ‘incipience’). That such a world is incompatible with writing – and with life – seems to be its primary draw. His technologist’s zeal doubles as an avoidance strategy, a way to postpone erotic frustration, personal responsibility, and the vagaries of artmaking.

In a novel lacking the traditional materials to sustain forward motion, Levrero’s hypochondria serves as a propulsive narrative anxiety. His various health problems – high blood pressure, haemorrhoids, poor eyesight, bad posture, insomnia, toothache – are private dramas perfectly suited to cloistered, diaristic appraisal. (The diary has always been the hypochondriac’s preferred literary form: Kafka, Darwin, Boswell, and countless others have been seduced by the charitable tolerance of its intimate world.) The novel of ailments must be funny, lurid, or surreal to outpace the reader’s pity and boredom. Levrero uses his maladies as invitations to countervailing digression. Feelings of agoraphobia bring about tales of excursion. His poor posture urges him toward a disquisition on office chairs. There is a sense that life is teaching him something through these trials. A bizarre, inverted gratitude takes shape among them. (‘The name of wisdom is: arteriosclerosis’, he writes.) The taxonomizing of this pain is itself a kind of contestation. It gives Levrero grounds for dignity. He becomes legible in complaint.

Levrero wrote the novel while in his early sixties. Eros is still present, then, though somewhat neutered. Most of the young women Levrero spends time with are maternal figures, taking him for walks, or bringing him stews and milanesas. The one exception is a woman he calls Chl (which we later learn is short for chica lista, or ‘clever girl’). Their once-intimate relationship has over time become a chaste friendship, though Levrero has never abandoned the hope of its rekindling: ‘She’s still the only female presence that can move me to my very core’, he writes. Her appearances dictate Levrero’s emotional stability throughout the novel. He tends to overburden her with redemptive potential. She is linked indelibly to the larger melancholy of aging. Their relationship constitutes a transition between the ideal of spiritual and sexual congress, and the sordid reality of physical degeneration and failure. Levrero mourns in a horny, humiliated, postlapsarian present. Thus the world of the computer, the detective novels, the endless cataloguing of minutiae: insulation to mute the echo of erotic fascination.

Levrero’s secular mysticism lends the novel an astral quality. The diary itself is a sort of hesitant tarot. Prediction, coincidence and inexplicability reign. He is preternaturally attuned to the weird and the phantasmal. He interprets dreams, both his own and those of others. He sees projections of Chl and other figures wander the halls of his apartment at night. He connects telepathically with a bookseller. These instances are not relayed with any sense of winking irony. Levrero is simply undeterred by the outward appearance of things. He is a hermit in the desert electrifying reality with visions, intuitions, and fantasies. His spiritualism broadens his fictional impulse. Uncanniness establishes its own ordering principles, narrative lanes, and fictive speeds. The novel is one long psychical luge, slick with the residues of fate and consequence.

What follows the diary – that is, The Luminous Novel proper – is an unfinished work, only a few chapters long. Insofar as it’s about anything, it circles a few moments in the narrator’s life when a distinct change in perception was registered. ‘Have you ever been looking at an insect, or a flower, or a tree, and found that for a moment your values, or your sense of what’s important, have completely changed?’ he asks. If this sounds like stoner tosh, well, it is. But one goes along with it – indeed, is even moved by it – because Levrero has by now established the purity of his vision. He is the innocent of reality, shepherd of an interior pastoral. He has earned his wonder and his occasional triteness. The pain of perception – ‘an act of surrender’, he calls it – is never less than apparent. It is the pain of ephemerality, and of the writer’s necessary incapacity. ‘The luminous events, once written down, cease to be luminous; they disappoint, they sound trivial’, he writes. But the depletion of the luminous is the very stuff of literature. Even the most distinguished novels are artefacts of deficiency, misapprehension, compromise. Levrero’s gift is to articulate this inevitability in an interesting and sympathetic way.

The seeming pointlessness of the novel, its lack of a discernible narrative mechanism, is not a failing, then, but rather its very reason for being. The novel is:

a pointless task, and that’s exactly why I need to do it. I’m sick of going after things that have points; for too long now I’ve been cut off from my own spirituality, hemmed in by the demands of this world, and only pointless things, only indifferent things, can give me the freedom I need in order to get back in touch with what I honestly believe is the essence of life, its ultimate meaning, its first and last reason for being.

This freedom from form is the quintessential Levrerian pursuit. Form itself is often the unstated antagonist of his works. It seems to raise the spectre of completion or certainty, states incompatible with his vision for the novel. Only by eluding literature does he discover its possibility. This negative approach has been practiced to great effect – in the works of Fernando Pessoa, say, or Jacques Roubaud – though only Levrero is so uniquely and majestically unliterary. His late fictions are taxonomies of distraction, intimate networks of absurdity, beguilement, and (strangely, incredibly) latent romance. When subjected to such scrutiny, even DOS programs and dead pigeons emit ambiguity like a vapor. That it barely hangs together hardly matters. ‘This book, taken as a whole, is a display or even a museum of unfinished stories’, he admits in the epilogue. But to be unfinished is not to be excluded from a kind of wholeness. Levrero’s impossible project is a novel despite itself – and a luminous one at that.

Read on: Eduardo Galeano, ‘The Noose’, NLR 17.