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No Connection

Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch offers the most extreme sign yet of a twenty-five-year process – the mutation of the director’s taste for tweaking the world into a need to rebuild it from scratch, an imperial-utopian project that extends far beyond the realm of typography and décor. The subject is an Anglophone magazine concerned with the life of a place called Ennui-sur-Blasé, but while the history or mythology of The New Yorker and post-war Paris are both somewhere in the mix, and even provide an element of gravitas, it is typical of Anderson’s procedure that details of all kinds have been modified.

The urge to fiddle and fabricate, now dominant and defining, once occupied a supporting role. Though Anderson was eager to stamp his mark on things, he seemed to recognise the limits stubbornly imposed by fact and sense. During the first half of his career to date, a run of work – witty and arch yet poignant – that established him as one of the most distinctive writer-directors in American cinema, a kind of Disney Pinter, characters such as Max and Herman in Rushmore (1999) or the ramshackle family in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) slotted into a series of recognisable, if varyingly stylized and frequently nameless, turn-of-the-millennium locales. So Etheline Tenenbaum’s memoir Family of Geniuses, like the personal-finance guide published by her accountant and suitor Henry Sherman and the plays of her adopted daughter Margot, exists alongside the work of Tom Stoppard and Tom Clancy, Anton Chekhov and Maurice Sendak – or at least his phrase ‘where the wild things are’, which appears in a magazine cover line for an article that designates Margot’s lover, Eli Cash, the James Joyce of the Wild West. And though Margot’s copy of Between the Buttons appears to omit the song ‘Connection’, Anderson was still offering a version of modern metropolitan life in which a depressed thirty-four-year-old may find herself reverting to the enthusiasm for The Rolling Stones that she acquired as an adolescent in the late 1970s.

A degree of contact with reality remained even as Anderson began to cultivate more overtly imaginative tendencies. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), marine life is given a makeover, with talk of the sugar crab and crayon ponyfish, but aboard Steve’s ship the Belafonte, Bowie songs are performed – albeit in Portuguese – and there’s a name-check for ‘Cousteau and his cronies’ long after you might have concluded that Team Zissou is their stand-in. Indeed, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), a bereavement comedy shot on location in India, gave reason to believe that Anderson might be moving in the other direction. That proved anomalous. Since then, Anderson has made five films, all of them animated or set in an overhauled version of the past, that exhibit an impulse towards fabulism and fetishism along with a marked tendency towards the childish or lawless. Though inevitable in the case of his stop-motion Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), its follow-up, the slight coming-of-age fantasia Moonrise Kingdom (2012), set in 1965, revealed this had not merely been a product of the circumstances. We only know for sure that the setting, ‘New Penzance Island’, is situated on the American landmass from a late reference to the ‘U.S. department of Inclement Weather’, and you would be hard-pressed to say whether the New Penzancers are aware of the existence of a place called Vietnam. (Rushmore, by contrast, features a veteran as one of its main characters.)

Clues as to the status of world history became thicker on the ground in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), though to no obvious purpose. The film depicts an eastern-European country, Zubrowka, that undergoes rough, but cartoonish, equivalents of Nazi occupation, Sovietization, glasnost, and perestroika. Similarly, in The French Dispatch, Ennui remains, like its model, a place associated with painting, smoking, sex, coffee and food, though a prison is ‘federal property’, and a student-led riot obliterates ‘a thousand years of republican authority’. The work of Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, and others is mulched to create the French Splatter-school Action group. The events of May 1968 are moved three years earlier, and while the ‘Girls Dormitory Uprising’ has some basis in an objection raised by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the ‘Chessboard Revolution’ is a piece of pure whimsy.

Anderson has previously used the device of presenting his films as quasi-adaptations of invented artefacts: The Royal Tenenbaums is a rendering of a comic novel issued by the Roosevelt Park Branch of a city library, while The Grand Budapest Hotel had a similar relationship to a work of auto-fiction by a celebrated Zubrowkan author. Here we are watching a kind of adaptation of five articles from the Dispatch, or a mixture of the articles and their evolution, composition, and editing. From a local-colour feature by Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) we receive an account of Ennui’s origins and customs. The reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) follows and falls in with the student revolutionary Zeffirelli B. The man of letters Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), appearing as a talk-show guest, recites from memory his profile of the police commissioner’s chef, written when the commissioner’s son was kidnapped by a local gang. The sometime curator J. K. L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton) delivers a museum lecture about an unusual fresco by the criminally insane Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). Even the broad-brush material about the magazine derives from an obituary of the founding – and, as things turn out, sole – editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), a collaborative effort on the part of the staff.

It’s somewhat surprising to learn from An Editor’s Burial, a tie-in collection of articles and excerpts which Anderson calls ‘a great big footnote’, that The French Dispatch originates in a deep love and knowledge of The New Yorker. The film is structured in such a way that it barely touches on the magazine’s workings, while the articles themselves are cheapened or sent up. For the Roebuck Wright story, Anderson cross-pollinates James Baldwin’s moving reminiscence, ‘Equal in Paris’, with A. J. Liebling’s bulletins on French cuisine – and then uses the result as the backdrop for a crime thriller with debts to poetic realism and Kurosawa’s High and Low. Mavis Gallant’s diary of les événements is remade as a surreal and colourful farce. J. K. L. Berensen is an odd case, being based not on S. N. Behrman – the author of a six-part art-world expose which provides some of the Rosenthaler detail – but on the subject of a different New Yorker article, Calvin Tomkins’s snapshot of the London-based American ‘art talker’ Rosamund Bernier.

It’s striking and somewhat depressing that while Bernier told Tomkins that she ‘never slept with’ any of the artists she had known, Berensen says of Rosenthaler, ‘We were lovers’. How this bit of backstory relates to Berensen’s earlier description of an attempted rape in a ‘pigment-locker’ goes unexplained – as does the relationship between Berensen’s conventional art-history lecture and the article that gives the copy-editing department proof-reader such a headache (the film’s opening exchange concerns her split infinitives and dangling participles). But then Anderson’s pursuit of extreme fictionality has developed in tandem with a disdain for seriousness and also rigour. Fredric Jameson, in his 1979 essay ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’, observed that impatience with historical accuracy can be a symptom of a deeper resistance to what he called the substance of historicity and the ‘logic of the content’. A version of this position can be detected in Anderson’s work of the past decade or so. If reality as we know it can be effaced and over-written, why not its less biddable components? Anderson wants to do away with established topography and recorded fact but also rules of other kinds – to disregard cause and effect, building whole films out of non-sequiturs and near-gags. There’s a telling moment in The French Dispatch when someone asks of a Rosenthaler painting, ‘Why is this good?’ and receives the answer, ‘Wrong idea.’

An anything-goes spirit was occasionally evident in Anderson’s early films, for example in Richie Tenenbaum’s line ‘I’m going to kill myself tomorrow’, an allusion to Louis Malle’s The Fire Within that lacks any kind of pretext in the action (Richie cuts his wrists moments later). But now more than ever, local effects – the punchline or pay-off or moment of flippancy – operate in a vacuum, without justifying context or reference. At one point in The French Dispatch, Krementz enters a bathroom and finds Zeffirelli hiding in the bathtub, writing his manifesto. He asks why she is crying. She replies, ‘Tear gas’, then adds, ‘also, I suppose I’m sad’. A variant of this punchline goes back to Anderson’s debut Bottle Rocket (1996) when the wide-eyed burglar Dignan is asked why he no longer works for a well-established local criminal and replies, ‘Because we’re fugitives. And also because he fired me’. But Dignan’s double answer is a plausible bit of character-drawing, rooted in hesitancy about revealing the boring truth, whereas in The French Dispatch the first answer is also true, truer in fact (we know she wasn’t crying before the tear gas was released). A few moments later, Krementz reads Zeffirelli’s manifesto, and describes it as ‘damp’. He pushes her for clarity. ‘Physically? Or metaphorically?’ The confounding comeback – ‘Both’ – has become inevitable, the lunge for a laugh by-passing the steps required to earn it (as if that would be her choice of diagnostic adjective).

The enormities of Anderson’s recent work are not simply the product of his journey but of a seemingly inexorable film-historical logic. Jameson has been justly celebrated for tracing and to some degree codifying these developments, in a series of essays and lectures beginning with ‘Reification and Utopia’ that were collected in a trio of books published in the early 1990s. But Pauline Kael, in her capacity as The New Yorker’s regular reviewer (she has no French Dispatch counterpart) also provided an account of emergent postmodernism via more or less the same judgments – apprehension about Body Heat, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Rumble Fish, enthusiasm for Blow Out, Diva, Blue Velvet, and Something Wild, puzzlement (verging in her case on dismay) at what was unprophetically known as ‘late Godard’. Where Jameson distinguished pastiche from satire and parody to identify the vehicle for a hollow new nostalgic mode, Kael, laying waste to Beineix’s Diva follow-up, The Moon in the Gutter, offered a no less ringing account, announcing the emergence of what she named ‘re-representation,’ a ‘kind of recycling’ that lacked the ‘satirical zest’ of Pop Art and camp, ‘images without substance’. (There’s a case to be made that Kael got there first, with her observations about pastiche and the retreat from meaning in Coppola’s One from the Heart – a review that appeared more than six months before the 1982 Whitney lecture in which Jameson made his first substantial intervention.)

Anderson has always been drawn to the distancing potential of film language and conventions – tableau-style framing, recurrent inter-titles, obtrusive pans and tracking shots, questions being asked in one location but answered in another. But The French Dispatch is a veritable inventory of the postmodern strategies that have emerged since the start of the 1980s (Anderson was born in 1969), and not just in its replication of film styles (the Zeffirelli section, for example, is a mash-up of Godard, Truffaut, and Jean Eustache). There’s also the smashing of the fourth wall, the shorthand signposting of cultural traditions (France being cigarettes, cafés and peeved workers), the gutting of past epochs to create what Jameson has called ‘fashion-plate images’ with ‘no determinable ideological relationship to other moments of time’, and the casting of auto-allusive, persona-laden, or association-burdened actors like Murray, Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz, and Elisabeth Moss (doing a spin on her Mad Men role), as well as the sardonic sylph Timothée Chalamet who, in certain moods, aspires to achieve postmodernism in one person.

It’s notable how many conceits, some of them highly specific, The French Dispatch shares with the recent work of American cinema’s arch-postmodernists, Joel and Ethan Coen – among other things, the use of comedy Communists, a fictional 60s crooner, an ending that joins up with the beginning, an omnibus format with a literary source. But unlike the Coen Brothers, Anderson is unwilling to follow postmodernism to its nihilist, or at least shoulder-shrugging, endpoint. Scene by scene, everything in his recent work is fodder, a feed line, an opportunity for (largely symmetrical) spectacle, a storm in a snow globe. And yet there’s an abiding love of the arc – the origin, turning-point, and pay-off.

Confronted by Godard’s Passion (1982), Jameson wondered whether the film was ‘coherent’ or instead represents ‘some new kind of incoherence’ (new at that point, though not for long). If The French Dispatch offers the piecemeal character of the omnibus film, a narrative analogue of the magazine issue, it makes a feint towards thematic unity – about foreigners looking for peace or belonging. There’s also the lifespan of the magazine whose birth is described in the first line and which ends with the end credits, and the conventional structuring embodied in the articles: Krementz asking, ‘Before it began, where did it begin?’, Roebuck explaining that ‘police cooking began with the stake-out picnic and paddy-wagon snack’, Sazerac that Ennui ‘began as a cluster of tradesman’s villages’ and ‘rises suddenly on a Monday’, Berensen that the story of Rosenthaler’s famous fresco ‘begins in a mess hall’.

Jameson described the two modes of spectatorship invited by modernism (or residual classicism) and postmodern jouissance – ‘active analysis’ vs ‘sitting back to watch it all hang out’. Seasoned Anderson-watchers will be familiar with the nausea induced by alternating between one and the other, tracking his refusal to recognise the bargain he has made. To the question of using English or French, colour or black-and-white, to indulge his fondness for America or France, Anderson gives the postmodernist answer, ‘Both’. Yet he provides the same response to the quandary of whether to opt for postmodern freedoms or classical consolations. (His greed is also reflected in the near-exhaustive incorporation of other media, in this case illustration, TV, journalism, song, painting, cartoon, theatre – a habit among filmmakers that Jameson once argued points to the medium’s designs on producing the Gesamtkunstwerk.)

In the final scene of The French Dispatch, when the staff members gather in Howitzer’s office to compose his obituary, the designer asks if it’s true that the magazine began as a holiday and Sazerac says, ‘Sort of’. But we have already been exposed to the outcome of this collaborative process, in the film’s first line: ‘It began as a holiday’. Any fears about a truth-slighting neatness have been dispelled, by writer-director as by staff writer, the better to realise a sense of occasion. You could construe this as a comment on journalism, or the self-image of journalism, if Anderson weren’t so often in the habit, in a film’s dying moments, of wanting the cake he earlier took pleasure in scoffing.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Anderson’s hostility to choice is his insistence on the trio as persistently conflict-ridden and the site of balance. The same outcome, a sort of volte-face ex machina, occurs again and again – envy and secrecy, jockeying and one-upmanship, simply swept to one side, often with the help of slow-motion and early-70s pop music. A version of the same magic trick occurs in the student section of The French Dispatch, where Krementz restores Zeffirelli to his on-off girlfriend Juliette with the line ‘Stop bickering – go make love’. If the film as a whole aims for a different kind of catharsis, based around a larger group dynamic, the insistence on a tone of bittersweet resignation, so at odds with its stories of death and violence, provides a reminder of the utopianism of which Anderson has always been capable – and a microcosm for his attempt, never cogent but less sustainable than ever, to make the contradictions of his sensibility resemble an achievement of synthesis.

Read on: Fredric Jameson, ‘The Aesthetics of Singularity’, NLR 92. 

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Bitar Investigates

On 14 October 2021, during a protest led by supporters of Hezbollah and the Shia Amal Movement, snipers allegedly affiliated with the ‘Lebanese Forces’ – a Maronite Christian militia – opened fire from the rooftops, killing seven unarmed demonstrators and wounding several others. The situation escalated, prompting an exchange of fire between residents of two nearby neighbourhoods. The embers of the civil war flared. At that moment its return seemed almost inevitable.

The Lebanese political climate is already saturated with the conditions for renewed inter-communal fighting, but so far no group has been willing to push the country into that abyss – partly because no other military outfit can rival the capacities of Hezbollah. Or so we thought. The Lebanese Forces and their leader – convicted murderer Samir Geagea – may now have achieved that status, thanks largely to the unprecedented support of the US and Saudi Arabia. Geagea and his fellow bandits have an extensive record of assassinations and genocidal activity during the civil war, including the infamous 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila, facilitated by the Israeli army.

The incident on 14 October has received tremendous attention in the world media, especially in Europe and the US. But what was stunning about the coverage in the New York Times, Times of London, Le Monde, BBC, CNN etc., was the uniform tendency to misrepresent what has unfolded in Lebanon over the last few years, and convince readers that the suffering of the Lebanese people will dissipate the moment the Hezbollah’s hegemony is curtailed.

There is no denying that Hezbollah has been a formidable political and military force in Lebanon since the early 1990s. But to present the group as having an iron grip on the country elides the complex dynamics that animate its sectarian politics. In fact, Lebanon’s army, banking system, commerce, courts and judiciary, service and tourism industry, educational systems, health services and government agencies are completely outside the reach of the Shia militia. In many of these sectors, the US continues to exert more influence than any actor in Lebanon itself.

The events leading up to the 14 October protest were a case in point. Popular anger has focused on the conduct of Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the explosion at the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020. The current laws in Lebanon restrict the prosecution of senior statemen – especially presidents, prime ministers, ministers, and members of parliament – for misconduct while in office. Such offences must be referred to a special tribunal which has not yet been established (and maybe never will be). Bitar, however, has ignored these restrictions and insisted on questioning certain Hezbollah-aligned ministers.

This has created suspicions of chicanery on the part of the runaway judge. Many Lebanese are convinced that Bitar’s investigation is secretly executing a well-orchestrated plot against the broader political alliance around Hezbollah, which includes the likes of the Amal Movement (controlled by the Speaker of Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri), the Marada Party (led by the Maronite politician Suleiman Frangieh), and some senior Sunni politicians.

It is reasonable that eyebrows should be raised at Bitar’s pursuit of figures who are politically close to Hezbollah. Some have asked why the judge did not pursue other high-profile suspects who appeared to have a more of a direct role in the process by which 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate were improperly stored and detonated last year. It appears that in the early stages of the investigation Bitar did in fact pursue such potential culprits, until he was ordered not to touch them from on-high. Officials close to president Michel Aoun, the Lebanese army and the anti-Hezbollah camp have thereby gotten off the hook. In their place, it seems that Bitar has decided to go after those whom he believes to be the weakest link: Hezbollah. If this tells us anything about Lebanese society, it is that Hezbollah and its traditional allies have no control whatsoever over the judiciary, which remains in thrall to rival political forces.

Lebanese politicians tend to agree that investigating the explosion at the Beirut port should be a national priority. What they disagree on is the direction of the investigation. Each camp wants to move the spotlight off themselves and onto their opponents. Ordinary Lebanese, meanwhile, are suspicious about the politicization of the investigation: instead of finding and punishing those responsible, there is a widespread conviction that the US and its European, regional and local allies are exploiting the legal system in order to destroy Hezbollah’s political coalition and weaken the Shia militia. It is déjà vu all over again. We have seen such travesties before – when attempts by external powers to ‘safeguard Lebanese democracy’ turn out to be soft-power plots to undermine anti-US actors, such as the sham investigation and tribunal for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, used as a proxy battle for the Bush administration to weaken Shia influence.

The current US insistence on the ‘independence’ of the Lebanese judiciary can only be seen through this lens. Less than a year ago, the US pressured the Lebanese courts to free a war criminal by the name of Amer Fakhoury who, as an officer in the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army, was once the lead warden of the infamous Khiam jail, created by Israel and manned by SLA officers to torture and execute those who resisted the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. The US threatened Lebanese politicians and judges that they would be blacklisted and placed under economic sanction if they refused to release Fakhoury (himself a US citizen). Despite the enormous volume of evidence against him, including testimonies by former aides and prisoners, the Lebanese judge overseeing the case relented and released him, and Fakhoury was flown back to the US by private jet. The American hegemon’s project could not be clearer: to turn the Lebanese legal system into a tool in its war against Hezbollah and Iran, even at the risk of tearing the country apart.

Many questions about the port explosion remain unanswered, and it has become impossible for any investigation to acquire even a veneer of impartiality. The ammonium nitrate was, of course, stored at Beirut port following a court order to confiscate it from a ship whose owner had unpaid debts to a Lebanese merchant. So, naturally, the first person one would want to question is the judge who ordered the confiscation. But that judge has been shielded from the investigation by his superiors. In the absence of people to convict, the first culprit in this saga is the Lebanese legal system itself.

The second culprit, however, is the lineup of foreign powers with vested interests in Lebanon. To date, the US, France, UK and even Russia have refused to turn over satellite images documenting the explosion to the Lebanese authorities. They have provided the images from before and after the blast, but not the minutes when the event itself took place. Moreover, following the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah war, a huge fleet of UN observers was stationed in and around the Beirut port at the request of Israel and the US, as part of an agreement between the Lebanese government and the UN. They are assisted by a large cadre of intelligence officers from the US, UK, France and other countries, who work to intercept arms shipments to Hezbollah. Which begs the question: if Hezbollah managed to bring in 2,700 tons of explosives, how did this fail to catch the eye of these officials?

The Lebanese army also faces questions, although Bitar has opted not to ask them. A directive had been issued by the armed forces that any weapon or material that could be used in making explosives must receive special approval before it can be unloaded, stored or transported anywhere in the country (be that via a seaport, airport or land point). How, then, was the ammonium nitrate unloaded and stored without the permission of the army, which has its own observers and base at the site of the explosion?

Whether or not Bitar is personally corrupt, it is clear that he is either politically motivated or has been manipulated by external actors looking to settle scores with Hezbollah. The violence on 14 October took place in exactly the same location where 46 years ago militants from the Maronite Kata’ib party (the mother organization of the Lebanese Forces) ambushed and killed 27 Palestinians riding a bus back from a soccer game. The refusal of the Lebanese judiciary to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators led to retaliations and counter-retaliations, and eventually to civil war. The Lebanese legal system today finds itself in a similar position. Rather than delivering justice, Bitar is contributing to the many mayhems that are ravaging the country. Whatever his intentions, the consequences could be horrific.

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Mid-Point in the Middle East?’, NLR 38.

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Red to Black

Until his death in September, Charles Mills was the most persistent defender of the irreducibility of race in the American academy. Across a nearly thirty-five-year career, he opposed both its reduction to an epiphenomenon of economic exploitation and to a category subsumable under supposedly universal conceptions of the rational human being. By his account both Marxism and liberalism had failed to get race adequately into view; the two chapters of his intellectual life took the form of a critical dialogue with each in turn. It was the immanent critique of the latter, set in motion by what remains his most renowned work, The Racial Contract (1997), that earnt Mills his reputation as one of the Anglophone world’s pre-eminent social philosophers. In his 2016 John Dewey lectures to the American Philosophical Association, he summarised his worldview with an inversion of Rawls’s famous assertion about the foundations of society: ‘a slave society, a white settler state, a white-supremacist polity, is not a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, but a coercive venture by whites for white advantage’.

Born in England in 1951, Mills spent his early years in Jamaica, where his father was a renowned public servant and academic, awarded the Order of Distinction and the Order of Jamaica for chairing the country’s Electoral Advisory Committee during the political and civil disorder of the 1970s. After completing a degree in physics at the University of the West Indies in 1971, a Commonwealth Fellowship took the young Mills to the University of Toronto where under the supervision of Frank Cunningham and Dan Goldstick – Marxists working within the analytic tradition – he completed a doctoral thesis on ‘The Concept of Ideology in the Thought of Marx and Engels’ in 1985. From there, he moved to the University of Oklahoma for three years before spending seventeen years at the University of Illinois, nine at Northwestern and then finally working at the City University of New York until his death. Throughout, Mills maintained an outsider’s scepticism towards the methodology and assumptions of Anglophone philosophy, exacerbated of course by his status as a black academic in a predominantly white field.

The formative period of his intellectual life coincided with the protracted decline of the left both in Jamaica and the United States. In Jamaica, a wave of social tumult had pushed Michael Manley – previously an adherent of the Fabianism of Harold Laski from time spent at the London School of Economics – to attempt to build democratic socialism through coalitions with non-aligned countries and their neighbours in Cuba. He was defeated in 1980 following a series of violent attacks on his party’s base, threats of a coup from the right, economic pressure from the International Monetary Fund, and a visit from the then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to personally inform Manley that the US would not tolerate his country’s insubordination. Meanwhile, in what would become Mills’s adopted homeland, racist myths about the culture of poverty had taken root amongst the right, while the few vestiges of social democracy were under attack. His Dewey lectures set out in clear-eyed fashion the state in which the American left found itself:

The old, turn-of-the-century question as to why there is no socialism in the US has now become, with the rightward shift in the political centre of gravity and the corresponding restriction of possibilities, why there is no (left) liberalism, no social democracy, in the US.

Mills felt that in key respects the bourgeois task of abolishing non-economic hierarchies had not yet been accomplished in either country. Both were riven by deep inequalities that were inseparable from the racial form in which they were manifested. In 1970s Jamaica not one top firm was controlled by black people, despite their making up ninety percent of the country’s population. For the young Mills however, this entanglement of race and class did not justify a move away from socialism, but merely proved that the cultural domain was also a material one. In ‘Race and Class: Conflicting or Reconcilable Paradigms?’, a magisterial essay published in 1987, he sought to explicate the oft-quoted dictum of Stuart Hall that race is the modality through which class is lived, arguing that Hall did not mean to suggest that there was a perfect correlation between the two categories. Rather, racial classifications were the result of conflicts between social groups and represented different relations to economic and political power. On this basis, Mills concluded that ‘the ideologies and cultures of resistance that develop in the Caribbean will be most strikingly characterized by the reciprocal valorisation of blackness, whether in the form of Garveyism, Rastafari or Black Power.’

The dominant forms of Anglo-American Marxism however largely did not exhibit the subtlety of thinking about culture that Mills believed was necessary to navigate the relationship between class and race. Much of his early career was spent wrestling with conceptual matters – questions of history, ideology and morality – which he felt that this work had misconstrued. Analytical Marxism, which took as its starting point G.A Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978), aimed to apply a scientific rigour felt to be lacking in the interpretations emerging out of France and Germany by borrowing the tools of analysis developed by economics and logic to address issues of agency, class interests, and the relationship between base and superstructure. The concept of ideology however – the subject of Mills’s thesis – presented serious problems for this paradigm, since it seemed to suggest that an essential component of Marx’s theory was a rejection, on epistemological grounds, of the autonomy of social practices and morality.

Mills took aim in a 1989 essay at what he saw as Cohen’s technologically determinist understandings of history. In his view, the Canadian Marxist’s thesis that asocial forces of production determine the structure of society was incoherent. Contra Cohen, he asserted that forces of production could not be so easily distinguished from relations of production. In his telling, the binary between the material and the social on which Cohen’s ontology rested fell apart once one recognised that society is constituted by both material and ideal elements. Where Cohen saw the impetus for the development of the forces of production in a supposedly natural human rational interest, Mills argued that it was the struggles internal to a specific society that influenced the use to which productive technologies would be put. This echoed the position developed by the political Marxists Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins-Wood, who had previously argued that economic relations were the results of political conflict between social groups. Mills however believed that the conflicts which determined the development of the forces of production were not only within the economic domain. Instead, they could also include those over racism and sexism.

His primary interventions on this terrain can be found in From Class to Race (2003), which brings together essays from the late 1980s until 2001, showcasing his intellectual development away from Marxism to what he called black radical liberalism. Its argumentative core is that debates around ideology have rested on a fundamental misunderstanding. For Marx and Engels, ideology was no mere pejorative term, denoting a false belief propagated in the interest of reactionary social forces. Mills sought to defend the view that social struggles could determine the course of history and that the ideas of equality and justice which motivated them could not be written of as ‘ideology’ in the limited sense employed by Cohen and others. For racial politics, the potential rewards of this endeavour were considerable. It motivated his attempt to resolve a central problem of Marxist social theory: if morality only served ruling class interests, then how could one defend the moral criticisms launched by the working class (or racialized minorities) against capitalism? Mills correctly observed in a 1994 essay that Marx and Engels were not in favour of a rejection of morality tout court but were instead opposed to the ideological treatment of moral claims as exercising causal power in the world. (It is one of the misfortunes of Marxist theory, which takes itself to be founded on a break with Hegel, that the origins of this critique of idealism in Hegel’s critique of Kant is often ignored.) Moralism cannot, Mills insisted, overcome technological underdevelopment or the absence of class power, but this does not mean that moral claims about the injustice of a particular social order cannot be well-founded, or that they are not worth making.

During this period, Mills also turned his attention to questions of socialist theory and practice. In the Global North he saw the failure of socialism in the dogmatism of its Stalinist adherents, who marshalled the conceptual tools of vulgar Marxism to label any criticism of communism as bourgeois ideology. Particularly moved by Vivian Gornick’s observation of the millenarian cultishness of the mid-century American Communist Party, Mills argued that Stalinism was unwilling to reckon with facts which challenged its own worldview. Broadly correct as this diagnosis was, wasn’t the pathology that Mills diagnosed the result of a division of theory and practice and the transformation of communist party members into the super-structural workers they opposed? Wasn’t the correct response a renewal of the socialist project of embedding theoretical reflection within the lives of the working class, rather than a turn towards liberalism in search of an ideology less hostile to moralism? Mills’s often illuminating analysis of the left’s failures were though never sufficiently localised to allow for a conceptualisation of political strategy. Questions of building a political movement capable of redistributing wealth and power largely eluded him.

In view of the failure of actually-existing-socialism, what was to be done about the transformations brought about by post-Fordist capitalism? A handout for a paper Mills delivered in 1996 at the Radical Philosophy Association sketched a map of the left’s road to power:

Socialism in Our Time: A 500-Year Plan to Be Passed on to Their Grandchildren: As pedants know, if nobody else, the new millennium doesn’t actually start until the year 2001, so this gives RPA members several years to prepare a 500-year plan:

2001-2100: Struggle against white supremacy/majoritarian domination

2101-2200: Struggle against white supremacy/minoritarian domination

2201-2300: Struggle for social democracy

2301-2500: Struggle for socialism

Get your black diapers now!

Mills’s point is clear: despite assumptions that America is a pure bourgeois society, it still retained pre-capitalist remnants of non-economic hierarchies. There could be no socialist revolution without a bourgeois revolution and therefore the struggle against racism was the front on which this battle needed to be fought. Ultimately, the theoretical framework that Mills adopted to illuminate the prevalence of white supremacy was one forged in dialogue with Rawls rather than Marx. The Racial Contract (1997) presented a radical reinterpretation of social contract theory: rather than equality Mills argued that it was in fact the domination of women and non-white people that served as the foundation for modern Western societies. The groundwork for this reorientation had been prepared by his decade of writing in and ultimately against Marxism, but Mills’s immanent racial critique of liberalism does not discard Marxism entirely. Radical feminism also proved to be a key influence, in particular Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988); he later co-authored a revision of his book in the form of a dialogue with Pateman, Contract and Domination (2007).

Detached from a theory of history, society or political practice, in this later period Marxism for Mills remained a tool for recognising forms of domination within the social contract of modern societies. This led him to turn more directly to the ideological field, where he produced sweeping and often brilliant analyses of culture and the history of ideas. Blackness Visible (1998) brings together a series of essays on the racism implicit in the supposed universalism of philosophy, which argue that throughout history philosophers presupposed a subject which anachronistic interpretations have presented as universal. When properly historicised, he argued, it became clear that what Kant and others meant when they wrote about freedom and rationality were properties that they saw as unique to Europeans.

His most incisive critical treatment of liberal thought was perhaps his 2005 article ‘Ideal theory as Ideology’. There he argued that the assumption of a non-coercive foundation of society served as a way of treating racism and oppression as anomalies. The dispute between ideal and non-ideal theory should, Mills insisted, ‘be seen as part of a larger and older historic philosophical dispute between idealism and materialism’. The materialists, in contrast to their opponents, were on the side of a clear-eyed reckoning with the reality of exploitation. A 2007 essay, ‘White Ignorance’, elucidated his view that the Marxist conception of economic exploitation as the foundation of the social order could be employed to explain the persistence of racism, and the creation of social groups with an interest in not recognising the oppression in which they partake. But conceptions of racial exploitation need not rest on the labour theory of value which, Mills argued, ‘has proven to be fatally vulnerable’. It is hard not to read such disavowals as concessions to the liberal philosophical idea of reasonableness. In 1999’s ‘European Spectres’ Mills defended the need to move away from Marxism on this basis. The battle that Marxists face, Mills conceded, was that they:

believe a set of highly controversial propositions, all of which would be disputed by mainstream political philosophy (liberalism), political science (pluralism), economics (neo-classical marginal utility theory), and sociology (Parsonian structural functionalism and its heirs). But the irony is that all of these claims about group domination can be made with far greater ease with respect to race, relying not on controversial Marxist notions, but undeniable (if embarrassing) and well-documented (if usually ignored) facts from mainstream descriptive social theory, and on conventional liberal individualist values from mainstream normative social theory.

Of course, within an academy dominated by liberals working in a Rawlsian tradition what constitutes a reasonable opinion is heavily circumscribed. Wasn’t this a strange and somewhat defeatist concession to make? If Marxist theories of ideology were true – a view to which Mills claimed to be committed – then could they not help explain the blind spots of liberal social theory? Could they not clarify why it was that liberals conceived of society in a way that closed off the possibility of a conception of the collective good; that ignored the existence of class as a determinant of the structure of society; that denied the reality of exploitation as the source of profit; that through mystifying functionalist explanations obscured the historical emergence of social institutions? The pages of this journal, for example, have provided a socialist attack on key tenants of the liberal Weltanschaung: the political Marxism of Brenner and Meiksins-Wood, Peter Mair’s trenchant diagnosis of the hollowing out of liberal democracies, the analytic Marxism of Erik Olin-Wright. But with the political defeat of socialism in the 1990s, Mills seems to have turned away from engaging with those thinkers who offered the most perceptive interpretation of the causes of social oppression.

In his final book, Black Rights/White Wrongs (2017), which collected recent essays about the unspoken racist character of liberal thought, Mills would call for a critical rapprochement with liberalism, proposing that Rawlsian conceptions of justice could be adapted to fight for racial equality. This would only be successful, he insisted, if the social theorist employed the concept of ideology to critique the forms of rationalization that privileged groups use to justify the existing order. Such work was no doubt beneficial in sharpening the eyes of liberalism to the racism of the right as well as within its own ranks. But it is hard to shake the impression that the project of advancing a critique of liberal racism was simply moving with, rather than against, a tide which had washed away any serious challenge to capitalist domination. The afterglow of materialism in his work nevertheless offered a profound challenge to the methodological assumptions of contemporary philosophy, while his emphasis on history, political and culture – not as examples to elucidate arguments but as the sources of philosophical problems – helped to combat the provincialism that still plagues much of the discipline. This attempt to draw attention to the world of conflict and struggle was ultimately his greatest contribution. In spite of the distance he travelled, it should be understood as emerging from, not against, his Marxism.

Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Stuart Hall, 1932-2014’, NLR 86.

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Hong Kong’s Bilderstreit

Shi Xinning, Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China (2000-2001), M+ Sigg Collection © Shi Xinning

It is a mark of Hong Kong’s deeply confused and inflammatory climate that amidst the continuous disciplining of an ever-stronger mainland mother, the city’s cultural elite keeps finding itself caught up in controversies over potentially ‘indecent’ and ‘illegal’ works of art. Among these, a painting by Beijing-based artist Shi Xinning, in which Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain enjoys close examination by the Great Proletarian leader, has been accused of violating the newly implemented National Security Law. The work is loosely based on a photograph of Mao visiting an industrial production fair sometime in the 1960s, with the replacement by the artist of one industrial object for another producing the imaginary documentation of Mao’s encounter with a work of the avant-garde. To this day, Duchamp has never had a retrospective in China, though the ‘Duchamp Effect’, as some theorists like to call it, has been no less internalized there since China’s first brigade of conceptual artists began to produce works often directly related to Duchampian concepts and imagery (a 2016 show at Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art with the title Duchamp and/or/in China investigated this). It was not until 1981 that Duchamp’s Fountain in its authenticated replica form, along with most of his other major works on loan from European and American museums, made their way to Asia as part of a retrospective at Japan’s Seibu Museum-cum-shopping mall.

Hong Kong authorities have been tasked with deciding whether Shi’s work and several others held by the M+ museum – set to open to the public on 12 November – are indeed ‘slandering and humiliating the Chinese government’ and ‘uglifying and defaming the country’s leader’, as the state-owned Ta Kung newspaper had it earlier this year. Accusations of this kind are likely to recur on a regular basis once the museum is in full operation. Another predictable but less interesting target has been Ai Weiwei’s 1997 photograph of him giving the finger to Tiananmen Square (a pseudo-critical gesture that he has done with other monuments from the White House to the Mona Lisa). The looming issue of censorship by soi-disant patriots is causing headaches and embarrassment on the part of the city’s cultural elite and those more cultured individuals of Hong Kong’s capitalist class who have invested some small parts of their fortunes into – and see a good deal of their social distinction reflected in – what will be the world’s largest visual culture museum. Most of the troublesome items are currently part of its Sigg Collection, named after the Swiss former ambassador to China, Uli Sigg, who partly sold and partly donated his collection of over 1,500 works of contemporary Chinese art produced between 1966 and 2012. A symbolic end point, one might think, since it was in 2012 also that Xi Jinping came to power and the terms ‘Chinese Dream’ (zhonguo meng) and ‘The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’ (zhonghua minzu weida fuxing) began to circulate in official communications.

Unlike the world’s largest infrastructure project, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which the US routinely portrays as a risk to American interest, the world’s largest visual culture museum has not yet been the target of foreign philippics. This may well be because contemporary art museums are always among the more entertaining sites of ideological production and display of state power, especially when their architectural spectacle commands nothing short of awe. Part of a by now 9bn USD (70bn HKD) development project, the West Kowloon Cultural District, the museum has double the exhibition space of Tate Modern and quadruple that of MoMA. It has thereby won the global museum race of the last two decades or so and is likely to upstage whatever objects it is – or indeed isn’t – going to house in its 17,000 sqm galleries. Designed by one of the go-to architects for tasteful museum spectacle, the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, the institution’s scale alone makes M+ one of the more sophisticatedly cosmopolitan instantiations of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation and of the Chinese Dream. Local officials and elites generally shy away from using either of these terms, though it is abundantly clear that Hong Kong is deeply implicated in them, and that Beijing has always dreamed on Hong Kong’s behalf.

Shi, who was born in 1969, painted ‘Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China’ in 2000-2001, at a time when the West thought it could still afford to be indifferent to China and when Hong Kong, despite its recent handover in 1997, had enjoyed utmost restraint from CCP rule. It was in the same year that the Chinese performance duo Cai Yuan and Xi Jianjun urinated on the plexiglass protected replica of Fountain at Tate Modern in an act of artistic vandalism others before and after them have also felt the urge to carry out. Back in the mainland, the shadow of 1989 had long given way to hedonism, and it would soon catch up with its Hong Kong counterpart, which today ceases to enjoy its social distinction vis-à-vis China’s rapidly rising upper and middle classes. Shi’s oeuvre is known for giving parodic expression to precisely this new-born hedonism in China by placing the former great leader into lavish settings of American pop and celebrity culture. In that respect, Shi was never far from official doctrine. It was none other than Xi himself who once reassured Obama that the Chinese Dream does in fact have a lot in common with the American Dream.

What has been so instructive about the recent controversy surrounding Shi’s Duchamp-inspired work for the collision between Hong Kong and China is that the fictitious event of Duchamp in China gives expression to an unspoken consensus in the magic formula of One Country, Two Systems. Everyone involved in the spat, from the city’s cultural-cosmopolitan elite, to outspoken CCP supporters, to paranoid democracy activists, is wilfully blind to a central question Shi’s work could inspire, on closer reflection: the social position of productive labour and the new working classes. As John Roberts articulated in his labour theory of culture, it is Duchamp’s staging of a conflict rooted in the urinal’s entangled identity that was able to collapse the modernist separation of artistic from productive labour.

Duchamp’s Fountain, so understood, does three things at once: 1. it appears as common commodity object (a urinal), conjoined with 2. that object’s identity as a product of alienated productive labour (its conceptual identity) and with 3. its newly won status as non-alienated artistic labour (its subjective identity). Shi’s painterly iteration of Duchamp’s readymade staring Mao in the face (and vice versa), as well as his decision to copy the original work’s signature and date ‘R. Mutt 1917’, does a fourth thing as well. It offers a reminder, for those who need one, of the failures of any vanguard movement in the 20th century, whose aim was global working-class solidarity; the failures of the revolution of 1917 and of China’s 1949 version, deeply inspired by the former, but with an inverted logic.

Although in China today, strictly speaking, it is not the capitalist class that is ruling the game, this does not mean that the nation’s new working classes find themselves represented in the party, nor do they see their interests publicly articulated by their nominal adversaries, since the notion of class has been all but dropped from official speeches. The party continues to essentialize it and claim perfect unity between workers’ interests and its own. China’s discursive reality thus increasingly resembles what had always been a convention in Hong Kong, namely the complete absence of class as a category of struggle: a remarkable achievement for one of the world’s most unequal societies. Anyone who has witnessed the years of unrest in the city and its ongoing post-traumatic confusions ought to have noticed that it has never been the goal of any of Hong Kong’s conservative democracy activists and their sympathizers to forge an alliance with, or advocate solidarity between Hong Kong’s and China’s labouring classes, the former being accustomed to market despotism for much longer than the latter. Neither has Hong Kong ever had much chance – or shown any willingness – to become social democratic, so long as its government subsidizes the local billionaires’ property gamble, who in turn supply the masses with shopping malls, whose survival ultimately depends on spending from across the border. These same property tycoons have played a considerable role in shaping the new M+ Museum, and are therefore partly responsible, now perhaps to their own dismay, for letting works like Shi’s become part of its public collection, which could soon become degenerate.

It might come as no surprise that the question of class has not arisen in Hong Kong, where the last labour uprising in solidarity with China dates back a hundred years and where the relocation of manufacturing industry began in the mid-1980s. Any bargaining position for organized labour has been largely undermined by a growing casual labour market and atypical employment, or, as in the recent disbandment of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, by an unwelcome closeness to political aspirations of the wrong kind. It was not for nothing that the city’s great admirer Friedrich Hayek celebrated his eightieth birthday here as guest of honour of the Mont Pelerin Society’s meeting in September 1978. It had long been his fellow neoliberals’ dream to make Hong Kong’s model of minimal taxation, extremely low social spending and permanent austerity for the poor a ‘portable’ model (a term used by Quinn Slobodian in a 2017 lecture he delivered in Hong Kong entitled ‘How Neoliberals made Hong Kong the Measure of the World’). They never did worry all that much about labour uprisings, despite precarious working conditions under British rule. Naturally, art and big money have also always enjoyed the closest elective affinity here, such that capital’s dominance over all forms of public and private life continues to prevent not only the politicization of distributional conflicts but also the spilling over of such conflicts into spheres of cultural production.

The absence of a free electorate, in Hayek’s time still celebrated by neoliberals in conjunction with the ‘successes’ of what they insisted was mild but effective colonial rule, has never really ceased to be a defining feature of Hong Kong. This is especially so today, albeit now with a new uncanny twist: its former colonizers and their allies now routinely decry Hong Kong’s ‘undemocratic’ destiny under China’s ‘capture’, and are busy sanctioning officials for what they view as moral and political violations. The other twist is that the CCP has almost entirely given up its formerly restrained approach through a recent electoral overhaul that has Hong Kong’s police force ensuring that ‘patriots’ govern Hong Kong. But patriots, one may ask, of a regime whose national project of great rejuvenation stands for what exactly? As a reminder, perhaps, that 1949 was a lasting success in terms of national liberation but, ultimately, a failure in terms of class levelling?

If the increasingly direct influence of the CCP on all legal and ideological matters in Hong Kong will not give rise to a long overdue correction of the city’s appalling inequality of wealth, manifested most dramatically in the majority’s housing conditions and a house ownership rate of around 50% (compared to 90% in China and Singapore), then it appears that Hong Kong’s ultra-capitalist way of life has nothing to lose. Unless the neighbouring Chinese fleet is indeed steering its whole enterprise, Hong Kong included, toward a distinctly socialist rejuvenation, one that would have Hong Kong’s billionaire class lose some of its sleep, Shi Xinning’s painting of Mao’s rendezvous with Duchamp has little chance indeed of being understood as an amplification of the readymade’s proletarian gesture. More than one hundred years after Fountain itself was censored for upsetting bourgeois expectations, an invocation of its subversive potential might now turn out to be enough for trouble of an altogether not dissimilar kind.

Read on: Au Loong-Yu, ‘Alter-Globo in Hong Kong’, NLR 42.

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Czech Freefall

Nearly a week and a half ago, parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic ended the four-year tenure of Andrej Babiš, one of Central Europe’s most enigmatic leaders. As polls closed on October 9th, Babiš’s national-populist party ANO achieved 27.1% of the national vote. His main rivals, the conservative Spolu (‘Together’) coalition, squeezed past the incumbent with 27.8% of the popular vote. Despite garnering one less seat in the Chamber of Deputies than ANO’s projected 72, Spolu, headed by the leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), Petr Fiala, is now poised to take control of the Czech government. While the Czech President, Miloš Zeman, retains the official duty of inviting party leaders to form a government, his recent hospitalization has prompted the Senate to move ahead in his stead.

Spolu has already come to a provisional coalition agreement with the Pirates and Mayors coalition to put the five parties in their respective blocs behind a new government. This alliance represents 108 out of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, effectively writing off the possibility of another ANO-led minority government. Beyond this, however, the results confirmed two major trends: the continuing decline of the Czech left and a growing fracture in the traditional party landscape leading to unwieldy coalitions. Seven parties representing four broad factions – social-liberal, national-populist, conservative, and far-right – gained enough votes to enter the lower chamber of the Czech Republic’s parliament. Besides ANO and Spolu, the broadly liberal and centrist Pirates and Mayors coalition earned 37 seats. The far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) of Tomio Okamura, a Czech-Japanese businessman, garnered 10% of the votes.

The campaign by Spolu and the Pirates and Mayors to remove Babiš from power has shaped domestic and international coverage of the Czech elections and reactions on social media. While liberals can celebrate the end of the controversy-laden administration of an abrasive populist billionaire, this misses a far larger shift in the Czech political landscape: a major defeat for progressive forces. While ANO lost just six seats in parliament – an outcome that Babiš rightly recognized as hardly a meaningful loss – two mainstay left-wing parties were evicted from the Chamber of Deputies entirely: the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM). For the first time in the history of the Czech Republic, both parties fell short of the 5% vote threshold nationally needed to attain any seats.

Both the ČSSD and KSČM had seen a large decline in support in recent months. This is largely the result of attempting to cling to power over the course of the past four years by allying themselves with Babiš. Political fracturing has a long history in the Czech lands. One of Czechoslovakia’s most famous statesmen, Edvard Beneš, created a unique marriage of social-liberal nationalism from breakaway bits of Habsburg liberals and disgruntled social-democratic reformists. The communist government that displaced him in 1948 was aided without a deep rift in the Social Democrats to Beneš’s left. Having absorbed the Social Democrats into their ranks, the Communist Party itself proved far from immune from internal strife. Debates between hardliners and reformists crescendoed in the Alexander Dubček-headed Prague Spring, the most liberal and humanistic strain of Warsaw Pact socialism in the 1960s.

The dissident opposition to Czech state socialism in the 1980s also contained various ideological strains. Its most prominent leader, Václav Havel, could only smooth over these tensions by emphasizing their common opposition to communist rule. But the rapidity of the transition to market capitalism quickly emerged as a contentious issue, alongside the viability of the continued binational union with Slovakia. Two years after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, a group of conservative economists led by Václav Klaus left Havel’s Civic Forum. As the Prime Minister of the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, Klaus, the greatest Milton Friedman acolyte in Central Europe, clashed with his Slovak counterpart, Vladimír Mečiar, leading to the dissolution of the unified state. Once the dissolution of Czechoslovakia was complete in 1993, the modern Czech political system took shape. ODS and the Social Democrats alternated in power for much of the 1990s and 2000s, reaching a modus vivendi in which one party dominated parliament and most of the governmental cabinet while the other acted as the primary opposition. The Social Democrats built their support base by focusing on rural residents who felt spurned by the Klaus-led privatization process, which overlapped in some ways with the communist voter base. By contrast, ODS consolidated around a Thatcherite conservatism which coupled monetarist economics and soft-Euroscepticism. This attracted the support of much of the burgeoning wealthy middle-class in and around cities such as Prague and Brno.

ANO’s victory in the 2017 legislative elections marked the first time since 1993 that a party other than either ODS or the Social Democrats provided the prime minister. Babiš originally rose to prominence and found financial success through his part in the development, and later sole ownership, of the agricultural conglomerate Agrofert. In 2011, Babiš used his wealth to found ANO (‘ano’ meaning ‘yes’ in Czech, while also acting as an acronym for ‘Action of Dissatisfied Citizens’) and the party’s initial popularity stemmed from sapping voters from both ODS and ČSSD among those who began to view traditional parties as outdated and corrupt, in addition to widely mobilizing Czechs over 60. After ANO’s entrance to parliament in the 2013 elections, Babiš was named Minister of Finance in Bohuslav Sobotka’s Social Democratic-headed government, where he continued to develop his public-facing profile while retaining his ownership stake in Agrofert.

Despite ANO’s notable electoral success, Babiš’s time as Prime Minister has been fraught with controversy. Numerous conflicts of interest and EU funding scandals arose related to his stakeholdings in media companies and the Czech agricultural sector. Babiš was also alleged to have kidnapped his own son in 2018, moving him across various locations in Ukraine and Russia in order to block his testimony in an anti-corruption probe investigating his father. Babiš hit another stumbling block in the week prior to the elections, as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released the Pandora Papers about global tax evasion. The leaks revealed that Babiš has spent approximately 400 million Czech crowns (roughly $18 million) on various chateaux and properties on the French riviera, purchased through shell companies. Babiš’s premiership has been coloured by shady financial dealings and near constant allegations of corruption, which undermined his initial appeal as a man of the people attempting to take on the post-communist establishment.

Given such scandals, ANO found it difficult to sustain its power in the Czech legislature. Despite controlling 78 seats in the Chamber of Deputies after the 2017 election – the second-best electoral showing for any single party in the country’s history – Babiš led an unstable government. Formally his party was supported only by the Social Democrats, though informally they were often joined by the Communist Party in votes of confidence and budgetary matters. This was the first time that the Czech Communists supported a parliamentary government since the end of communist rule, albeit without any active ministers in Babiš’s cabinet. The KSČM has been largely dependent on support from a small constituency of dedicated pensioners, overwhelmingly retired labourers. The communists have long acted as a protest party on the federal level, removed from the levers of power beyond the municipal level.

The newly perceived proximity of the Communist Party to the ANO government led to further public outcry. For the right-wing opposition, the most promising avenue of criticism was to magnify Babiš’s service as an informant for the Communist-era Czechoslovak secret police, the StB, during the early to mid-1980s. The increased profile of the Communist Party in 2018 also led to the formation of a student-led protest movement called Milion chvilek pro demokracii (A Million Moments for Democracy) which set the resignation of Babiš as its goal. In due time, two electoral coalitions emerged around the project of ousting Babiš. The first bloc, Spolu, unites the right-leaning and financially conservative parties in Czech politics. It is led by ODS, which has consistently claimed at least a quarter of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. ODS’s coalition partners in Spolu are TOP 09 (an acronym that stands for ‘Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity’), a liberal-conservative party that supports orthodox free-market economics but diverges from the Klausite Euroscepticism of ODS by advocating continued Czech integration in the EU and NATO; and the Christian Democrats (KDU-CŠL). Despite meagre results in most elections – they have never achieved more than 31 seats in the Chamber of Deputies – they often take part in government by amorphously supporting both ODS and Social Democrat led coalitions.

The second anti-Babiš coalition, Pirates and Mayors, is a union between the Czech Pirate Party and the Mayors and Independents Party (STAN), nominally headed by Pirate leader Ivan Bartoš. Largely finding success with younger voters in urban centres, the Pirates promote unregulated internet use, economic modernization through education and labour market reforms, and green energy. The Pirates are also a culturally progressive force in parliament as outspoken supporters of LGBT rights. They overlap with the localist STAN in their shared support for anti-corruption policies, the decentralization of government in favour of Czech regionalism, and a broad pro-EU stance. In spite of their leading position in the electoral coalition, the Pirate Party lost 18 seats compared to 2017. It currently only makes up just four of the Pirates and Mayors’ 37, leaving them the smallest single party in the Chamber of Deputies. In the months leading up to the election, the Pirates’ popularity fell under the force of incessant attacks from both Babiš and Fiala, who castigated its ‘neo-Marxist’ platform. Bartoš himself was a lightning rod for his opponent’s criticisms; a former software engineer and anti-fascist activist sporting dreadlocks, the Pirate leader stands out among the traditional appearance of most Czech politicians. The more inoffensive STAN leader, Vít Rakušan, has therefore taken a more active public role in the coalition, standing in for Bartoš in televised debates.

It remains an open question how far the Pirate and Mayors, the only progressive force in Czech politics, can advance. Their alliance with the conservative Spolu bloc is predicated on the defeat of Babiš in the name of preserving democracy and governmental transparency. But it remains to be seen how long the unwieldy five-party coalition can stay united once Fiala ascends to the premiership. Painting last week’s election as a resounding loss for Babiš misses a more important outcome. The real losers are those parties that were ejected from parliament, the Social Democrats and the Communists, as well as the broader Czech left. Both parties had been trending downward in support, with both seeing their worst election results historically in 2017. An alliance with Babiš’s divisive party was the final nail in the coffin. Only President Zeman, a long-time ČSSD leader who started his own social-democratic splinter party in 2009, remains in national-level political office; yet it hardly inspires hope that the Czech left’s chief representative, ensconced in his official residence in Prague Castle, is now a 77-year-old veteran of the Dubček era in ill health.

Heading into the 2021 elections, the Social Democrats had a seemingly attractive platform. Its main economic plank was shifting tax obligations from middle-class Czechs to individuals and corporations with more than 100 million Czech crowns ($4.5 million) in assets. This wealth tax would have paid for the costs of the ongoing pandemic in the health sector and helped to stave off the privatisation of the country’s hospitals. Yet voters felt that key parts of the Social Democratic platform were betrayed during their recent time in government, citing the lack of support for socialized housing and slow movement on further pension extensions. ANO benefited from these failures, as Babiš has successfully claimed credit for the success of Social Democratic policies such as increased maternity leave benefits and tax cuts for families with children. He was thus able to siphon off a small but electorally significant section of Social Democrat voters.

The Czech Pirates now find themselves the junior partners within their own coalition, supporting a government headed by the most conservative party in the country. While the Pirates retain a decent base of public support and goodwill, their challenge will be to stand out from their electoral allies in STAN. Any attempt to act as a progressive element in the ruling coalition will no doubt be an uphill battle. On the one hand, Bartoš’s role in the growth and increased popularity of the party is undeniable. But its current position – with only four parliamentary seats – means that the Pirates must reassess the merits of remaining tied to a coalition that ultimately depleted their vote share without granting them any substantive influence over policymaking.

The outlook for the Communist Party, meanwhile, is particularly bleak. The KSČM lacks the infrastructure to mobilize supporters and the vast majority of its base is made up of aging rural voters. Recognizing the need for renewal, its leader Vojtěch Filip, who had been at the head of the party since 2005, resigned shortly after the election results came in. The deck of public opinion is now stacked against the party. Mainstream historical narratives have been unforgiving about the country’s communist past. These discussions dominate the public sphere, most recently through a widely publicized exhibition titled ‘The Red Century: One Hundred Years of the Existence of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’, hosted in the summer at the Museum Kampa, a popular contemporary art museum located near Prague’s Old Town. The exhibit focused on the authoritarianism, corruption and elitism of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, using twentieth-century history to evoke common criticisms of Babiš’s government. Resistance to the ANO was therefore implicitly compared to dissidence from communism. This fit with the dominant narrative that, ever since the inception of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Czechs have been staunch defenders of democracy. Communism and its associated ills, in this account, were largely forced upon the nation by the foreign power of the Soviet Union, with the Czechoslovak Communist Party its dubious puppet. Such tropes fed into this year’s election cycle, as the five parties set to make up the ruling coalition painted their battle against Babiš as the latest chapter in the national epic, whose heroes fight for a free, fair, and democratic Czech Republic. Such romantic idealization of Czech democracy has a history of masking the shortcomings of the state. The evisceration of the country’s left is its latest casualty.  

Read on: Miroslav Hroch, ‘Learning from Small Nations’, NLR 58.  

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Big Politics

‘Everything we do as citizens is determined by politics; and therefore everything unions do is determined by politics’, Len McCluskey wrote in his first book, a tract on trade unionism published shortly after the 2019 UK general election. Some eighteen months later, in her victorious election manifesto to succeed him as general secretary of Unite the Union, Sharon Graham declared that ‘the politics has failed.’ Her campaign insisted on the failure of Unite’s political project within the Labour Party. Any judgement of McCluskey’s record would seem to rest on what one makes of that indictment. As if to prove this point, McCluskey’s memoir, Always Red, released last month to coincide with the end of his decade-long tenure at the helm of Britain’s most formidable trade union, is dominated by a 180-page narration of his involvement in Westminster politics since 2011. The account of Corbynism therein is one of the most politically astute to date – no surprise given the editorial involvement of Alex Nunns, one of Corbyn’s most impressive former staffers and a historian of the project’s early stages.

When McCluskey began work as a planman on Liverpool’s docks in 1968, post-war trade union power was at its height. ‘You join the union here, son’ was the greeting at the dockland gate. McCluskey’s arrival as a 19-year-old member of the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) came the same year as the election of International Brigadier Jack Jones as its general secretary, and through the early 1970s the union ‘reached the apogee of its influence on British life’, according to Andrew Murray, McCluskey’s chief of staff and official chronicler of the union’s history. By 1969, the T&G had 1.5 million members. It added 250,000 more in the following three years and hit the 2 million landmark in 1977. At this summit it was, in Murray’s telling, ‘the most powerful democratic working-class organisation in Britain’s history.’ Virtually all of McCluskey’s formative experiences, fondly recounted in the book, were in this ‘heroic period; a time when class solidarity…was something we lived and breathed.’

If McCluskey’s time as a lay member of the T&G happily coincided with the tenure of Jones, his industrial hero, then his move into the bureaucracy came at a less fortuitous moment. He became a full-time official for the T&G’s white-collar section in 1979, the same year Thatcher entered Downing Street. Neoliberal ascendancy devastated the industrial worlds of Merseyside with disorienting speed, with T&G membership in the region plummeting from 108,000 to 57,000 in the space of three years. Towards the end of the 1970s, in the twilight of Jones’s period as general secretary, simply keeping factories and other workplaces open became the major preoccupation. In McCluskey’s previous book, he traces the left turn in British trade unionism back to these origins: in Thatcher’s dislodging of unions from their ‘economic role in British capitalism’, and in Blair’s refusal to attempt a restoration.

In the early 1980s, McCluskey was central to organising the nascent left faction (National Broad Left) in the T&G, serving a political-secretarial function to its executive during time off from his duties in union officialdom. He was then ‘stood down from all industrial work’ to assist Liverpool City Council, led by the Militant Tendency, in their battle with Thatcher and Kinnock. This section of Always Red hints at McCluskey’s ecumenical formation. Tony Benn was his political hero, but much was learnt from Communist Party cadres in the T&G’s rank and file – although McCluskey never joined the CP given his discomfort with the Soviet regime. He had even less time for Britain’s Trotskyist outfits, describing them as ultra-leftists who put their ‘own short-term gains before the long-term interests of the working class.’ Militant, however, were the exception that proved the rule: ‘Here were people who lived in my community, worked in real jobs, and spoked a language that dealt with issues that mattered in a realistic and understandable way.’

McCluskey’s involvement in political organising, both inside the T&G and well beyond it, deepened as the industrial horizons of the previous decade rapidly receded. His national ascendancy originated in revulsion at the ‘accommodationist’ ethos of the early New Labour years. T&G general secretary Bill Morris had caught the Blairite bug, selling out the Liverpool dockers and antagonising the Broad Left. Yet the new millennium saw a historic left resurgence in the unions, with McCluskey at the forefront in the T&G: leading the radical opposition to Morris, managing the victorious campaign of Tony Woodley for general secretary in 2003, and subsequently becoming his assistant general secretary for strategy.

In Always Red, two noteworthy things about Woodley stand out: his deft navigation of the T&G’s merger with Amicus to form Unite in 2007, and his establishment of an organising department at McCluskey’s urging. McCluskey got the idea for the latter initiative, he says, from Andy Stern, former President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and arch-enemy of Jane McAlevey, deep organising’s high priest. McAlevey’s first book, Raising Expectations, is in large part ‘the case against Stern’, whom she describes as the leader of a ‘shallow mobilizing’ programme – aiming to grow union membership for the purposes of advocacy, absent any commitment to actually organising workplaces and readying them for strikes. McCluskey came across Stern in the early 1990s, long before the clashes McAlevey describes. But his commitment to Stern’s ‘ethos’ of organising, restated in the book, is intriguing – insofar as it indicates significant detachment from the McAlevey-esque methods to which Sharon Graham and many of Unite’s organisers are committed.

Among the great strengths of the T&G left tradition, as Andrew Murray points out, was its commitment to doing big politics. For McCluskey, the silver lining of a bipartisan neoliberal settlement which weakened unions in the industrial sphere was the freedom ‘to work in different ways’ politically, beyond the constraints of corporatism and the Labourist bureaucracy. In the days of Jack Jones and Frank Cousins, the political stature of the general secretary flowed from industrial strength. For McCluskey, it was something like the opposite: reviving the conditions of possibility for industrial might was the work of politics. A clear and concerted political strategy was adopted by Unite’s executive committee shortly after McCluskey’s election as general secretary in 2011. It aimed to win Labour for working people, win working people for Labour, and build a ‘broad alliance to defeat the Tories and their policies’, laying the foundations of ‘a socialism for the 21st century’.

Did ‘the politics’ fail? At the launch of Always Red in the upstairs of a Westminster pub last month, packed with Labour left luminaries and a handful of lobby journalists, the speeches of Corbyn and McCluskey both homed in on the most convincing case for the triumph of Unite’s political project: the 2017 general election. So too in the book, McCluskey extols Labour’s performance in 2017 as an object-lesson that ‘radical politics can succeed.’ Against the tide, he writes, ‘despite all the efforts of snide, treacherous snakes saying Labour would be obliterated, the country embraced the unashamedly radical prospectus put forward by Jeremy Corbyn’. There is little to dissent from here, and no doubt that Unite was indispensable in facilitating this remarkable – and likely singular – achievement. McCluskey reminds us that as cowards flinched (Owen Jones visited him just after the 2017 election had been called, insisting that ‘it wasn’t too late to change leader’), Unite remained steadfast in its support for Corbyn.

Had McCluskey not unexpectedly backed Ed Miliband’s introduction of one-member, one-vote for Labour leadership elections, Corbynism would never have come to pass. And had Unite not stuck by the project, it may have lasted no longer than a year. In that sense, judgement of McCluskey’s political strategy’s success and the Corbyn project’s value is one and the same. If the latter is correctly understood, despite its obvious failings, as a historic advance for the British left, then the former cannot be dismissed. Straightforwardly, McCluskey was committed first to pushing Labour to the left (2011-2015), and then to the success of a socialist electoral project – sustaining it financially and defending it against an unprecedented onslaught from the state and media (2015-2019). At neither stage was the political prize separable from urgent industrial priorities: namely, opposing austerity and working for the election of a government among whose earliest acts would have been the repeal of Europe’s most restrictive anti-trade union laws.

What of his shortcomings and misjudgements? It is clear from Always Red that, by and large, they were not due to an excess of the political at the expense of the industrial, but rather to deficiencies (or lapses) of socialist politics. This is most stark when it comes to climate breakdown. In its active support for a ‘just transition’, Unite’s public positioning on climate has in recent years been far superior to that of fellow energy unions. McCluskey himself helped persuade Unite’s delegation to Labour’s 2019 conference to support the Green New Deal motion with a 2030 net-zero target, and a ‘workers’ greenprint for a million jobs’ was central to the continuity campaign of general secretary candidate Steve Turner this summer. Yet beneath the surface there is an affinity between McCluskey’s stance on climate and that of the relatively right-wing GMB. In the book, McCluskey emphasises his support for a state-directed just transition, but explains that in its absence, he must defend the ‘good, skilled jobs’ Unite members have in the fossil fuel and aviation industries.

This is an increasingly untenable position. Not only is advocacy for the expansion of such carbon-heavy work a sectional interest antithetical to the general interest, it also expresses a profoundly conservative trade unionism, embodying  the institutionalisation of defeat (as Richard Seymour has argued). Indeed, Unite’s single most successful act of parliamentary lobbying in McCluskey’s time as general secretary was, in a joint effort with GMB, whipping 119 Labour MPs to vote in favour of a third runway at Heathrow in 2018. As the new GMB general secretary Gary Smith explained, ‘It’s jobs and work for us, we’re in the jobs and work business.’

Surveying McCluskey’s record during the Corbyn years more generally, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he often had a fiercer bark than bite, his rhetoric more combative than his political judgements. The mismatch is evident in Always Red. McCluskey gratifyingly denounces the PLP as ‘despicable, spineless people’ and excoriates the People’s Vote lobby, describing the likes of Paul Mason as ‘super-spreaders’ carrying the disease of ‘Remainitis’. On this level, the general secretary appears as the anti-McDonnell: uncompromising, unbowed, not giving an inch to the enemy. But the divergence between McCluskey and McDonnell over Brexit was down to honest tactical disagreements, about both the electoral calculus of Remain vs. Leave and the importance of Labour’s position reflecting that of its activist base. Beyond the European question, McCluskey was often guilty of the ‘knee-jerk conformism’ with which McDonnell has been charged.

During the 2017 election campaign McCluskey warned against Corbyn’s masterstroke speech in the wake of the Manchester terror attack, deeming it ‘too risky’. When it was forecast that Labour would be hammered in that election, Unite considered Emily Thornberry as a potential successor. The following year, McCluskey counselled Corbyn to adopt the full and unamended IHRA definition of antisemitism. He maintains that the leadership should have done so immediately – failing to see the dissonance with his diagnosis of the core of the ‘Labour antisemitism crisis’ as the refusal of Corbyn’s detractors to ‘take yes for an answer’. In the round, McCluskey clearly recognises that such concessions gave the media license for further attacks; yet he puzzlingly seems to think that giving ground more quickly here could have helped clear the path to 10 Downing Street. Not to mention that the opening salvo of McCluskey’s counsel to Corbyn, just before his election as leader, was: ‘You can’t pick John as your shadow chancellor… we think John is too divisive and you’re going to have to think of someone else, maybe Angela Eagle.’ In this light, McCluskey might counterintuitively be seen as a precocious practitioner of ‘McDonnellism’. Such strategic parallels highlight the perils of political retrospectives grounded in narratives of individual betrayal and villainy.

Speaking at a Labour Representation Committee (LRC) meeting at the TUC Congress fringe in 2012, McCluskey sized up the political challenge facing Unite:

Yes, we can move Labour left, we have to move Labour left, but let’s be honest about the task that lies ahead of us. Because the truth of the matter is, there are thousands, tens of thousands, of our activists throughout the trade union movement who tell us that the Labour Party’s dead…When I was running for general secretary in Unite…there wasn’t a single meeting [where members] didn’t ask the question, why are we still paying this Labour Party so much money?

He continued to point out that, in an all-member vote in which the leadership took a neutral stance, Unite would likely opt to disaffiliate from Labour. Nine years later, these remarks convey both the success of McCluskey’s political strategy and the extent to which it was built on quicksand. As the triumph of Sharon Graham’s campaign demonstrated, Unite failed to galvanize enough union members behind its political operation in Labour, or to persuade them of its importance. To that extent, Westminster (and Unite’s ossified bureaucratic club) can be credibly accused of leaving the workplace behind.

Yet McCluskey’s judgement about the centrality of big politics still stands. No amount of workplace or community organising, irrespective of its depth or skill, can circumvent the state. Unite’s new leadership could easily become captive to the anti-politics that (exaggerated for electoral expedience) secured its ascendance, particularly given the fragmentation and decline of United Left – the once dominant faction that has long controlled the union’s executive and secured McCluskey’s election. In Always Red, he writes that at the union’s 2012 and 2014 policy conferences, Unite came ‘closer than most people realised’ to disaffiliating from Labour, and even discussed the idea of a ‘new Workers’ Party.’ Given Labour is now firmly in the hands of forces far to the right of those that drove Ed Miliband’s leadership, it doesn’t seem implausible that such a prospect could surface again. In the best-case scenario, measured by the dictates of the climate timeline, Graham’s agenda would feed into a renewal and radicalisation of Unite’s political strategy without its downscaling, leaving the union and the Labour left in a durably stronger position: deep organising plus big politics. As for McCluskey’s legacy, it remains too early to tell. For now, in the British left’s field of failing again and failing better, it can be said that his political failure was about as triumphant as they come.

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

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Rule by Target

Can a frugal state be totalitarian? Or, in other words, is an anti-statist totalitarianism possible? These questions have been asked countless times during the era of triumphant neoliberalism: beginning in 1973 when Pinochet implemented the economic dictates of the Chicago School, passing through the various military regimes responsible for carpet privatizations (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, etc.), up to the discussions – no matter how wrongheaded – of the ‘sanitary dictatorship’ of neoliberal governance during the pandemic.

Totalitarianism requires a strong, ‘totalizing’ state, at least according to the doctrine promoted by Hayek in his 1944 Road to Serfdom, which in its redacted form, published by Reader’s Digest, sold one million copies. According to Hayek, a society sinks into totalitarianism as soon as the state begins to worry about the economic security of its citizens. The trajectory is irreversible; we start with social security and end up in concentration camps (or gulags). The omnipresence of the state is thus integral to ‘totalitarianism’ in the Arendtian sense.

A recent book, however, has planted in me a seed of doubt. Johann Chapoutot’s Libres d’obéir. Le management du nazisme à aujourd’hui (Free to Obey: Management, from Nazism to the Present Day [2020]), translated this year into Italian and German but, as is often the case, not English. Its central figure is Reinhart Höhn (1904-2000): a jurist, academic and SS general, sentenced to death for war crimes but subsequently pardoned. Höhn was part of a group of intellectuals that provided the theoretical framework not so much for Nazism itself as for the Gestapo, the SS and the occupation of almost all of Europe. His partners in this project included Werner Best (1903-89): a jurist too, but first and foremost a senior police officer in Hessen, then head of the political police, and finally plenipotentiary of occupied Denmark; Wilhelm Stuckart (1902-53), lawyer, jurisconsult to the Nazi party, member of the SS and formulator and compiler of the Nuremberg Race Laws; Franz Alfred Six (1909-75), a doctor of political science and member of the SS; Otto Ohlendorf (1907-51), an economic consultant and SS colonel who studied economics, held a doctorate in jurisprudence and commanded a unit responsible for around 90,000 deaths in Ukraine, before being sentenced to death at Nuremberg and hanged.

The presence of this educated élite at the head of one of the fiercest apparatuses of repression ever conceived, is a marked contrast with the hysterical image of SS officers in many American Second World War films: an image whose coarseness borders on the comical, and banishes the idea that a phenomenon like Nazism could ever repeat itself. We are typically reassured that such ghouls could never again implement such dangerous ideas. Not so in Chapoutot’s portrait. The author explains how these SS intellectuals were called upon to provide a conceptual framework capable of overcoming the enormous logistical difficulties by the conquest of practically the entire continent. In a 1941 text entitled Fundamental Problems for a German Administration of the Great Space, Werner Best wrote that ‘the rapid and powerful expansion of the territories on which the German people directly or indirectly exercise their sovereignty obliges us to review all concepts, principles and procedures through which this sovereignty has hitherto been thought and constructed.’ However much the territory under German dominion might increase, ‘the German people will never be able to afford doubling the number of public servants.’ More would have to be done with fewer personnel, not least because a large part of the male population was conscripted. The procedures of the state needed to be honed, made more flexible. In fact, Best had (unsuccessfully) proposed to Himmler that the public sector adopt a model of relativ lockeren Besetzung (‘relatively “loose” occupation’). The SS intellectuals thus became advocates of flexible management and streamlined protocols, at odds with the caricatured image of the Nazi dictatorship.  

Chapoutot charts the social trajectory of these characters following the defeat of Nazism. After his commuted twenty-year sentence, Franz Six became an advertising consultant for Porsche; Best worked as a consultant for the company Stinnes AG, then became an adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the German Federal Republic. The most interesting story was that of Reinhart Höhn, who, having escaped the death sentence and spent years practicing homeopathy under a pseudonym, went on to found the Akademie für Führungskräfte der Wirtschaft (the Academy for Business Executives) at Bad Harzburg in Lower Saxony. By the time Höhn retired in 1972, around 200,000 German managers had passed through his institution; when he died, the number stood at 600,000. Professors at the school included other ex-SS officers, such as Six and Justus Beyer.

Bad Harzberg taught a style of management by target derived from Höhn’s reforms to the military chain of command. Under this system, the superior officer demands that his subordinates achieve their prescribed objectives, but leaves them free to decide exactly how, intervening only in exceptional cases (management by exception). Regrettably, Chapoutot does not investigate the relationship of the Bad Harzberg technique to the management styles now practiced in the United States. But his narrative shows how these hands-off methods were initially a product of German military expansion, which sought to reconcile a massive administrative operation with a reduced workforce.

The Nazi theorists were famously hostile to law and rights, viewed as creations of inferior Judaic and Latin cultures (Commandments of the Bible and Roman law codes respectively), and foreign to the proud German spirit which claims freedom from legal obligations. As such, they had a deep-rooted distrust of the state as a guarantor, responsible for the enforcement of law. The state was rather seen as a codified, ossified body which obstructs the flexibility and agility necessary for the expansion of Lebensraum. Nazis always talked of Reich (empire), never of Staat (state). Whereas Carl Schmitt saw states as bulwarks of political order, Best developed the idea of a Völkische Großraumordnung (popular order of the Great Space), in which the superior races would create zones of domination around themselves without fear of any normative restriction. Power was the only all-embracing source of political order. Aside from peoples (not, as per Schmitt, states), there existed no other normative points of reference that could be counterposed to the regime established by National Socialism.

For Höhn and his contemporaries, the state is unable to cope on its own when faced with the huge multiplication of tasks and responsibilities entailed by imperial expansion. It was precisely for this reason – to deal with re-armament, war preparations and the administrative challenges posed by the occupation of Europe – that para-state Nazi organizations began to surface, starting with the SS: a ‘private’ police force of 915,000 belonging to the party (even if Nazis always preferred to speak of a Bewegung – a movement – rather than a party). Likewise, Organisation Todt was born as a para-state company and ultimately employed 1.4 million foreign workers to meet civil and military engineering demands during the war. The state thus became one tool among many for achieving the Nazis’ domestic and overseas objectives.

Höhn believed that ‘legal theory has created an illusion, attributing to the state an “invisible personality”, transforming it in a perennial quest for sovereignty’, whereas in reality the state is nothing but an ‘“apparatus” at the service of power’, a tool which ‘the Nazi movement has captured, and to which it has ascribed other duties.’ In a chapter for the edited volume Grundfragen der Rechtsauffassung (Basic Questions for the Conception of Right), he elaborated on this argument: ‘The state is no longer the supreme political entity… It is rather an entity which limits itself to the execution of tasks assigned to it by the leadership (Führung), which operates in the service of the people. In this sense, the state is no more than a simple instrument . . . [to fulfill] the objectives it is assigned’.

It is this subordination of the state to externally-imposed targets and assignments that links Höhn’s theory to contemporary neoliberalism. Contrary to popular belief, neoliberals don’t seek to destroy the state; they know full well that without state there is no market. Rather, they want to invert the relationship of power between the market and the state. Not a market in the service of the state, but a state in the service of the market. Just as for Höhn the state is merely a mechanism equipped to achieve certain ends, so too for neoliberalism the state is a company that serves other companies – an entity that provides a service to be assessed in terms of the parameters of private enterprise (profitability, flexibility, best practices, benchmarking). None of this prevents a microscopic, pervasive control of citizenry, nor does it necessarily threaten the ability to stifle dissent. Just because war is outsourced to contractors (private mercenaries, that is to say) doesn’t mean it is less bloody, or lethal – or ‘total’.

The idea these Nazis passed down to us, then, is that of a heteronomous state, subordinated to external functions, designed to obey a logic which lies outside of it (and comes from a party or a company). This reverses the conventional wisdom. Totalitarianism doesn’t consist in enslavement by an omnipotent state; it rather wishes to impose a regime in which the state itself is enslaved as an instrument of an extrinsic omnipotence. A theory of management born to facilitate the advance of the Panzerdivisionen came to resemble the neoliberal project. We are thus able to resolve the Pinochet paradox, in which a brutal dictatorship violently imposes the free market. But if we were to think beyond 1973, it would be interesting to dwell for a moment on Paul Bremer’s 100 Orders, formulated in 2004 with the objective of instituting a neoliberal regime in Iraq, at the time occupied by the US Armed Forces. As Wendy Brown explains in Undoing the Demos (2015),

These mandated selling off several hundred state-run enterprises, permitting full ownership rights of Iraqi businesses by foreign firms and full repatriation of profits to foreign firms, opening Iraq’s banks to foreign ownership and control, and eliminating tariffs […] At the same time, the Bremer Orders restricted labor and throttled back public good and services. They outlawed strikes and eliminated the right to unionize in most sectors, mandated a regressive flat tax on income, lowered the corporate rate to a flat 15 percent, and eliminated taxes on profits repatriated to foreign-owned businesses.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: William Davies, ‘The New Neoliberalism?’, NLR 101.

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Blind Spots

Forty minutes into the latest film by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, the opening credits begin to roll. It is one of many reminders that the Japanese director has refreshingly little interest in following conventions of duration or sticking too closely to his source material. Previous features have run for four or five hours. Drive My Car clocks in at three. The short story by Haruki Murakami from which the film takes its name is structured around a series of flashbacks, but Hamaguchi dispatches with these in the pre-credits sequence. The film portrays a forty-something actor and theatre director, Kafuku, as he works on a stage production of Uncle Vanya for a festival in Hiroshima, shortly after his wife’s sudden death. The 40-minute prelude informs us of her infidelities with a younger actor, which will haunt Kafuku for much of what follows. In Hiroshima, where he has come in his much-loved red Saab, he is forced to take on a chauffeur to shuttle him back and forth between rehearsals and his hotel. We will spend a lot of time in this car, where an audio recording of Chekhov’s play read by Kafuku’s late wife runs on a loop.

All these elements exist in Murakami’s original story, but Hamaguchi’s film is less an adaptation than an excavation of its various themes, in particular the idea of ‘blind spots’, evoked in a literal sense by Kafuku’s early glaucoma, and metaphorically through the difficulty characters have in understanding each other, and themselves. This is captured in a line from the story that Hamaguchi said inspired him to make his film: ‘maybe that’s the challenge’ a character says to Kafuku one night:

to look inside your own heart as perceptively and seriously as you can, and to make peace with what you can find there. If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.

Using Murakami’s story as a springboard rather than a framework, Hamaguchi introduces many new elements, notably making Uncle Vanya central to the action when in the original it occupied just a few lines. Approximately half the film is taken up by scenes from the play: Kafuku repeating Vanya’s dialogue in the car, the cast at rehearsals delivering their lines in Bressonian deadpan, and the final production on stage. Here Drive My Car follows a rich tradition of films about the theatre, in which the play in question is interwoven with the film’s story and themes – a fine example would be Opening Night (1977) by John Cassavetes, a director who Hamaguchi cites as a key influence.

At the same time, Drive My Car is a charmingly untypical road movie starring a red Saab and a twenty-something female chauffeur. Whenever she appears, the film comes alive, and yet she does apparently so little – straight-faced and tight-lipped, looking more like a character out of a Chaplin noir. She never smiles, just hunches her shoulders over the steering wheel with her gaze set on the horizon, a near-permanent cigarette in her hand or mouth. But she does not complain or judge, and this calm is welcome for Kafuku. Over time it gives way to conversation between them as he shares his deep sorrow and she reveals her own, which leads us to the film’s moving conclusion.

Patience is a characteristic of Hamaguchi’s cinema. He favours long, unhurried takes and allows an event, be it a lunch between friends or a car journey, to play itself out as though it were happening in real time. This was particularly evident in Happy Hour (2015), which explores the daily lives of four middle-class women living in Kobe. Hamguchi’s focus on this social stratum – his characters tend to work in the media or publishing industries, or as relatively successful artists – distinguishes him from the likes of Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose family sagas such as Shoplifters (2018) concentrate on Japan’s underclass.

The quiet, unhurried quality of Hamaguchi’s films sets them apart from another tendency in Japanese cinema that works within the constraints of genre, often horror or noir – exemplified today by the likes of Takashi Miike or Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Hamaguchi’s sensibility is very different. He gives us the time to observe his characters as they live, doing everyday things like taking public transport or cooking breakfast, and this has a cumulative effect, for when a dramatic event does happen, such as a character crying, or some form of violence, its emotional force is all the more powerful. The intelligence and complexity of his screenplays, which often deal with characters who struggle to communicate with each other or articulate their feelings, has been celebrated on the festival circuit. Drive My Car, with its subtle, resonant use of extracts from Uncle Vanya intermixed with the developments in Hiroshima and the red Saab, deservedly won this year’s best screenplay award at Cannes.

‘My child, how heavy my heart is. If you only knew how heavy’ says Vanya to Sonya in Chekhov’s play. We see these last exchanges in the penultimate scene of Hamaguchi’s film, as it is performed on stage with Kafuku playing Vanya and, in the other great performance of Drive My Car, a deaf-mute actress as Sonya. ‘What can we do’, she signs, ‘we’ve got to live!’

As with much of the film, this quiet moment urging us to take courage is both moving and pure cinema.

Read on: Edward Yang, ‘Taiwan Stories’, NLR 11.

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Abiy’s Misrule

The 21 June general election was supposed to be a day of triumph for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The Nobel laureate’s first electoral test since coming to power three years ago, in the intervening period he had imprisoned or forced into exile nearly all credible opposition as well as potential challengers within his own party. He had also invaded two regional states, using federal troops to remove undesirable administrations, and unleashed a reign of repression on other unruly parts of the country. Such actions resemble those of the previous regime of the EPRDF, in which Abiy served as a Minister and surveillance chief. But the level of repression has been such that they are more reminiscent of the bloody regime of Mengistu Hailemariam. Indiscriminate aerial warfare against population centres and public executions of civilians are phenomena from which Ethiopia has been spared since his removal from power in 1991.

Abiy had taken all possible precautions to guarantee electoral success. In many constituencies – particularly in the sprawling and restive Oromia region – only his party, the Prosperity Party, was on the ballot. In other places, where his party’s hold is the weakest and where repression is consequently the greatest, elections were not held at all. This included the entirety of the northern region of Tigray. In areas where the vote went ahead, the full force of the state was mobilized to campaign for Abiy’s party, while what remains of the opposition largely boycotted the spectacle. The stage was set for a resounding victory, befitting of the ‘Seventh Emperor’ (as Abiy has described himself). Yet as Ethiopians were called to the polling stations, the Tigray Defence Forces – the armed resistance to the invading forces, commanded by Tigray’s regional government – launched its first major offensive since the war in Tigray begun in November 2020.

The campaign overshadowed the elections and shattered any illusions that the war was over as Abiy had proclaimed in late November. Tigrayan forces routed the Ethiopian army across the central, northern and eastern parts of the region, forcing their hasty withdrawal. Since then, Tigrayan forces have pushed into the neighbouring Amhara regional state, capturing swathes of territory including the city of Woldiya – home to nearly 200,000 people. The army responded to the defeat with atrocities against Tigrayans. On 24 June, the regime’s air force bombed the market town of Togoga, killing scores of civilians, and subsequently blocked ambulances from evacuating the wounded. (Tigrayan forces responded by downing an aircraft the same day.) All told, the offensive made what many observers have long held abundantly clear: that Abiy’s war on Tigray is unwinnable. 

Soon after the army’s retreat, the bodies of Tigrayans who had been tortured and executed were seen floating down the Tekeze river from Humera, the westernmost city in the region still held by Abiy’s forces. The withdrawal having been redefined as a ‘unilateral ceasefire’, it was immediately replaced by the encirclement and blockade of Tigray, denying its population access to basic goods such as food and medicine. Hundreds of thousands are now suffering under famine conditions, and malnourished children are wasting away in the region’s under-resourced hospitals. Tigrayan forces have sought unsuccessfully to evade the blockade by expanding their operation southwards. With Ethiopia’s rainy season at an end, fighting has once again intensified, with Abiy’s forces seeking to regain lost territory.

In addition to their misadventure in Tigray, Abiy and his government face crisis on multiple fronts. Two officially uninvited armies are operating on what Ethiopia considers its sovereign territory. Eritrea has engaged in systematic abuses of Ethiopian citizens and remains embedded in North-Eastern and Western Tigray despite Abiy’s insistence that its forces would soon depart. Whether he truly wants them to leave is a moot point: Abiy has no means to impose his will. Sudan’s army meanwhile occupies a triangle of land – al Fashaga – that Ethiopia has in the past recognized as Sudanese, but which it has nevertheless retained partial control over until the past few months. As the war in Tigray began, Abiy requested that Sudan fortify its borders. Consequently, the military presence on both sides increased, leading to clashes. Ethiopia at that point renounced its acknowledgement of Sudanese sovereignty over the triangle, which prompted Sudan’s armed forces to expel Ethiopian troops from the area. Sudan now poses a serious military threat to Abiy’s government and its Amhara militia allies, should they not renounce their newfound claim over al Fashaga.

In both cases, Abiy’s powerlessness is clear. In the Oromia region, meanwhile, the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Army has gained strength over the past year, scoring a string of victories that have greatly expanded its areas of operation. It is now confident enough to stage public graduation ceremonies for its new recruits. Here too, atrocities have followed the frustration of the central government. In May, a teenager was publicly paraded to a central square in the city of Dembi Dollo, where he was executed on suspicion of links to the Oromia rebels.

The Ethiopian economy is also suffering from serious problems, exacerbated by deteriorating foreign relations. Most of Abiy’s former patrons in the West – whose support was crucial to the consolidation of his rule – have abandoned him. As a result of the human rights abuses in Tigray, the US and the EU have frozen aid payments, and the US has imposed economic sanctions which are likely to restrict Ethiopia’s access to funds from the World Bank and IMF. Credits and loans from these institutions, which Abiy once likened to ‘borrowing from one’s mother’, have been essential to staving off a full-scale debt crisis.

One must not expect Washington to promote a genuine democratic solution to Ethiopia’s problems. The US is motivated by its own interests – limited to keeping Ethiopia in a stable enough shape that it can continue to support the status quo in the region, which has been imperilled by Abiy’s mismanagement. Since coming to power, Abiy has craved closer relations with Western countries and financial institutions, presenting himself as a free-market reformer opening up the economy to foreign investors. His government’s ‘homegrown economic reform’ agenda is a carbon copy of the recommendations pushed by Washington in recent decades, and he has cultivated alliances with fellow evangelicals in Washington, including the hard-right Republican Senator Jim Inhofe. Initially, Abiy’s government sought – and partially succeeded in attaining – an international realignment that would bring Ethiopia further into the orbit of Western states. Washington’s first response to the war on Tigray was therefore to support it. This only changed when Abiy proved ineffective on the battlefield.

The rift between Ethiopia and the US has compromised the former’s regional standing further, against the backdrop of already souring relations with Egypt, Kenya and Sudan. Responding to this conjuncture, Abiy suddenly announced that he would close over half the country’s diplomatic missions, citing financial pressures. For a state with a strong diplomatic tradition – a founding member of the League of Nations, the UN and the OAU, and the host of the headquarters of the African Union – which has consistently fashioned itself as a lynchpin of pan-Africanism, this certainly signals a lowering of ambition. Missions earmarked for closure include embassies in Nairobi, Cairo, Dar es Salaam, Abidjan, Accra, Kigali, Dakar, Kinshasa, Harare and Algiers.

The fervour that the regime whipped up in the early stages of the war remains strong in several areas across the federation, with continued statements from political and religious leaders that can only be described as genocidal. But in Addis Ababa, a public mood of widespread despair and despondency is also palpable. This is partly due to the war’s economic toll: inflation is sky-high, unemployment soaring. Whatever optimism existed a few years ago about Ethiopia’s unbalanced yet growing economy is now all but gone. Lately, cautious dissent from Abiy’s vain pursual of a military victory at whatever costs has begun to be voiced from within the regime’s heartland. That 24 Ethiopian NGOs – some of which had previously expressed support for the government’s war aims – recently petitioned for negotiations and ceasefire is an indication of the changing mood in the country’s capital. The mayoral candidate of the hitherto strongly pro-war party Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, likewise, has urged the government to negotiate an end to the conflict. Such calls must be understood in the context of the different positions of the two sides: whereas Tigray’s regional government has repeatedly expressed its willingness to negotiate, Abiy’s government has refused to consider it.

Despite being cash-strapped, struggling in the battlefield and facing increasing scepticism from former foreign allies and the Ethiopian public, the regime has dug in. Senior officials have redoubled their belligerent rhetoric, while the regime’s mobilization of ethnic militias has gone into overdrive. Abiy has gone shopping for drones and armaments to restore the advantage UAE’s air force offered him in the early stages of the war. His government has treated foreign envoys and UN officials seeking dialogue on the humanitarian situation with open hostility. On 30 September it announced the expulsion of seven senior UN officials involved in the hampered relief efforts. The UN Secretary General, hitherto seen as close to Abiy, expressed shock at the move. He ought not to have been surprised, however: starving Tigray into submission has been an aim of Abiy’s government since the early months of the war. This project has now developed into a severe and multifaceted crisis that is gripping all corners of the country. More convulsions are to be expected, as the regime tries to get out of this hole by digging further.

Read on: Emilio Sarzi Amade, ‘Ethiopia’s Troubled Road’, NLR I/107.

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Lines of Succession

In Egypt, the 1973 Arab–Israeli War is a timeless event. But nearly fifty years later, the generation that fought on the banks of the Suez Canal and in the Sinai Peninsula is dying. The conflict will soon be resigned to historical memory, its battles memorialized in the media and official proclamations, but nowhere else. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was a teenager in the early 1970s, appeared to acknowledge as much during an educational symposium this week on the anniversary of the war, which came just after the death of one of its most famous veterans, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Tantawi, who was eighty-five years old, fought in both the Six-Day War in 1967 and the War of Attrition in 1967–70, but he distinguished himself as commander of the sixteenth infantry battalion in 1973. Among the first Egyptian detachments to cross the canal into the Sinai, the battalion is perhaps best known for its role in the Battle of the Chinese Farm, a brutal two-day confrontation with the Israeli military on the western edge of the Sinai. The Egyptians retreated from this fortification on 17 October, but not without inflicting significant damage on the enemy. Tantawi was awarded a medal for his courage.

Born in the Cairo neighborhood of ‘Abdeen in 1935, Tantawi graduated from the city’s Military Academy in April 1956, on the eve of the Suez Crisis, and fought alongside Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip soon after. He returned to the Military Academy to teach tactics and in the 1960s travelled to post-independence Algeria, where he established a similar institution. After the 1973 war, he rose through the ranks of the motorized infantry, eventually becoming commander of a division. Tantawi led the Second Field Army, the Republican Guard and finally the Operations Authority. From the mid- to late-70s, his role as Egypt’s military attaché in Pakistan and Afghanistan shielded him from civil-military tensions at home – as President Anwar Sadat repositioned Egypt geopolitically with the signing of the Camp David accords and fought to suppress the country’s opposition.

From top to bottom, the ranks of the military were displeased with Sadat’s unilateral realignment with the United States and rapprochement with Israel. So when a uniformed officer, Khaled Islambouli, opened fire on Sadat during a military parade, it was far from unexpected. A couple weeks earlier, the security forces had reportedly rounded up twenty people – some of them military officers – on suspicion of planning an attack. Aside from exposing the inability of the military to control its personnel, the assassination of Sadat precipitated intense internal surveillance and scrutiny. As Hosni Mubarak’s regime emerged in its wake, so too did a new order in the army, beginning, as it often does, with purges. Those who remained in uniform were sent a stark message: stay in line, and don’t fly too close to the sun. Mubarak found at least one senior-level officer who seemed willing to follow these injunctions: Hussein Tantawi.

During the US-led operation in Kuwait, Tantawi coordinated the deployment of Egyptian forces to the Gulf. He also became the primary liaison between the commander of the Arab forces, Saudi prince Khalid bin Sultan, and the Egyptian leadership. Tantawi was appointed defence minister shortly after the war in May 1991. After moving into the official residence off Ibn al-Hakam Square, his main priority was to oversee the transformation – or ‘modernization’, as the US government called it – of the military from Soviet to Western hardware, training and doctrine. Though Tantawi was receptive to Washington’s reforms, he was constrained early on by other senior officers who remained committed to the Soviet model. Whereas Tantawi had never attended a foreign military academy, his immediate predecessors all received training in the Soviet Union, while two of his successors spent time in the United States. His tenure, much like his background, represented an about-face for the military – and for Egypt more broadly.

When the military rules, soldiers are not just soldiers. Bureaucratic organization in an authoritarian state is often conflictual, so while war may have been the army’s vocation, politics became its specialty. They were forced to balance the competing priorities of loyalty and professionalism, reacting to the whims of the ruler (and sometimes the people). Of the twenty Egyptian defence ministers since the 1952 coup, Tantawi held the position the longest, weathering successive rounds of political violence, popular mobilization and economic liberalization. This was frequently interpreted by Egypt commentators as evidence of his complacency, lack of ambition and deference to Mubarak. Yet such characterizations overlooked an important fact: Tantawi beat the odds. In a country where top military officials are often jailed, exiled, muzzled, cashiered early – and have occasionally died in unusual circumstances – Tantawi’s longevity may have also been a sign of his political acuity.

Tantawi was, in fact, willing to push back against Mubarak at critical moments in his presidency, including the Egyptian revolution of 2011. From the first days of the protests Tantawi made his position clear: that the military would neither mount a coup d’état nor prop up the ailing regime. He believed that Mubarak had not grasped the severity of events on the ground, and doubted that he would cede control of the government even after he had agreed to a formal transfer of power. On 10 February Tantawi called a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces without its formal chairman, the president. The next day, Mubarak resigned and Tantawi took power. He oversaw a referendum on changes to the constitution – presidential term limits, a vice presidency, electoral reforms – and presided over the indictments of senior figures from the outgoing regime. Yet, as protesters continued to flood the streets calling for presidential elections to be brought forward, Tantawi’s forces killed dozens and arrested hundreds – at one point sending armoured vehicles to run over demonstrators staging a sit-in at the state television headquarters. Tantawi became a symbol of the ongoing state violence. His removal, or execution, was demanded by the crowds in Tahrir Square.

Two months after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi came to power, Tantawi was asked to step down from both his military and political positions. He remained an adviser to Morsi and received an honorary Order of the Nile, but otherwise retreated from public life. In his place, the ambitious and adroit Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ascended to the role of defence minister. Morsi had invited the coup-maker in – and before long the unstable civilian government had been toppled by a revitalized military high command.

Prior to the Arab Spring, Tantawi regularly stated that the military would not tolerate succession: a rebuke to Mubarak, who planned for his son Gamal to take the helm. Yet in Egypt, positions of power are often passed from important men to their understudies. One retired Egyptian general described to me the Sisi–Tantawi relationship as that of a mentor and protégé. Another speculated that Tantawi had marked Sisi out to become defence minister ever since he was a young major. While consolidating his iron-grip on the country, Sisi has canonized Tantawi, lauding his heroism and self-sacrifice, and frequently drafting him in for ceremonial duties. Sisi ordered a colossal mosque to be built in his honour, and the military produced a eulogizing film titled ‘A Tribute to Loyalty’. In it, we are presented with a striking succession of Egyptian leaders: Nasser, Sadat, Tantawi, Sisi.

Read on: Hazem Kandil, ‘Sisi’s Egypt’, NLR 102.