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Frugal Germany

Whatever happened to the ‘European Army’? Some of us may still remember the public appeal, issued three years ago by the philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, urging ‘Europe’, as identified with the EU, to arm itself, so as to defend its ‘way of life’ against China, Russia and the Land of Trump, and in the act advance its ‘ever closer union’ in a supranational superstate. Cosignatories were a handful of German political has-beens, including Friedrich Merz, then still of BlackRock. Here, for a change, there is good news: the ‘European Army’ is as dead as any army can be and, unlike perhaps the indefatigable Merz who is currently running for the umptieth time for president of the CDU, beyond resurrection.

What sealed its fate? In various ways, never publicly discussed, as is the neo-German custom when it comes to questions of life and death, the ‘European Army’ project was linked to the longstanding German pledge to NATO to increase its military spending to 2% of GDP, i.e., by roughly one half, by some unspecified date in the transatlantic future. It was and is easy to find out that this would raise German ‘defence’ expenditure above that of Russia, not counting the rest of NATO. It is equally easy to note that German military spending can only be on conventional and not on nuclear arms. In the 1960s, West Germany was one of the first countries to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, as a condition of the Western Allies returning some of its sovereignty. Moreover, it was and is obvious that Russia, with its expensive nuclear force, would be unable to keep up with Germany in a conventional arms race, which would lead it to invest in upgrading its ‘nuclear capabilities’. While this should frighten the bravest of Germans, in fact it does not, as merely mentioning issues of this kind marks you as a Putinversteher (Putin empathizer), and who wants to be that?

What exactly the 2% were to be good for, apart from generally adding to the firepower of ‘the West’, was never explained, although it was clearly related to the idea of turning NATO into a global intervention force. Note that the entire German military, unlike the other member countries, is under the command of NATO, aka the United States. Note also, however, that France, too, wants Germany to work towards the 2%. France itself has for years met that target, the reason being that, just like Russia, it is maintaining an expensive nuclear force, and is therefore lacking in conventional muscle. Seen from France, a German non-nuclear military build-up need not necessarily benefit the US but, under favourable circumstances, could benefit France, as it might compensate for its conventional deficit caused by its nuclear surplus.

It is here that the European army of Habermas and friends comes into play. For the French, what Macron calls ‘European strategic sovereignty’ can be achieved only if Germany can be extracted from its Atlanticist military entanglement, wholly or at least in part, in favour of a European-French entanglement. While this would be difficult enough generally, it would be impossible without new units and ‘capabilities’ designated from the beginning for self-determined European rather than US-determined transatlantic purposes. All it takes, however, to discard this prospect is a look at German budgetary planning for the post-Corona near future (if post-Corona it will be). As passed under Merkel as Chancellor and Scholz as Finance Minister, the current five-year budget forecast envisages a decline in defence spending from 50 billion euros in 2022 to 46 billion in 2025, although no less than 62 billion would be needed for an increase to 1.5% of GDP, far short of the 2% NATO target. During coalition talks, military sources let it be known that they had no hope for a turnaround under a government dominated, in their view, by ‘the left’. According to them, the only way under these conditions for the armed forces to repair their allegedly ‘disastrous condition’, due to decades of neglect under successive Grand Coalition Merkel governments, was by cutting military personnel by 13,000, down from 183,000.

Soldiers, like farmers, always complain. However much money you give them, they feel it should be more. But with the huge deficits run by the German federal budget in 2020 and 2021, and with the determination of the incoming Scholz government, with Lindner at Finance, to hold on to the debt brake, not to mention the giant public investment planned for de-carbonization and the ‘digital transformation’, one can safely assume that the dreams of Habermas and Merz of a ‘European army’ were dreamt in vain, and that its hoped-for dividends for both ‘European integration’ and the arms industry will never materialize. The coalition agreement, interestingly, avoids the 2% issue with almost Merkelian chutzpah: ‘We want Germany in the long run (!) to invest three (!) percent of its gross domestic product in international action, in a networked and inclusive approach (?), thereby strengthening its diplomacy and development policy and fulfilling its NATO commitments.’ Nothing on how this is to be paid for, and nothing there for Macron, up for re-election in the spring of 2022, with which to convince his voters of progress toward ‘European sovereignty’, conceived as an extension of French sovereignty – with France post-Brexit being the EU’s only remaining nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, and with German tanks nicely complementing French nuclear submarines, hopefully rendering the AUKUS fiasco forgotten.

Is there a prospect for some sort of compensation? Hope, as a German saying has it, dies last, and this may be particularly true for France in matters European. For four years now, Germany and France have been talking about a French-German fighter bomber, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), to succeed the French Rafale and the German Eurofighter as the two countries’ sixth generation fighter aircraft. Originally FCAS was a French-British project which, however, fell by the wayside in 2017 when the UK chose to go for a plane of its own, the Tempest. Urged by Macron, Merkel agreed to fill the gap. In 2018 Dassault and Airbus Defence signed on as core contractors, and Belgium and Spain were brought in as further project participants. Still, work progressed only slowly, with severe disagreements especially on intellectual property rights, technology transfer and, important for France, arms export policies. Under pressure from Paris, and probably following up on confidential side-agreements in the 2019 Treaty of Aachen, the Merkel government got the Bundestag budget committee in June 2021 to authorize 4.5bn euros as a first tranche, to insure against a possible change in the German parliamentary majority after the September election.

It is no secret that among the German political class, FCAS has few supporters if any. This holds also for the military, who consider it one of those overambitious French grands projets that are doomed to fail due to excessive technological ambition. The system, which officially is to go into operation around 2040, consists not just of a fleet of stealth bombers but also of swarms of unmanned drones that are to accompany the planes on their missions. There are also satellites to support the planes and the drones, and generally to add cyber warfare capabilities to the system, giving it a sci-fi flair that stolid German generals tend to find, at a minimum, frivolous. Recently the German Federal Audit Office, in a confidential report, reprimanded the government for having left open crucial issues in negotiating the agreement, while the Bundeswehr procurement office has expressed doubts over whether the system will ever become operative at all. No doubts over whether FCAS will be expensive. Right now official, or semi-official, estimates are around 100bn euros, while knowledgeable insiders at Airbus believe the bill would be at least three times as high. For comparison, the NGEU Corona recovery fund, to be divided between 27 members states, amounts to 750bn.

Could FCAS be a consolation prize for Macron, to make him forget about the ‘European army’ and ‘European strategic sovereignty’? Perhaps if there was still more money around, but hardly now, after the Great Corona Drain. In Germany FCAS is considered more of an embarrassment than a strategic or industrial opportunity – one of the many problems left by Merkel, with her inimitable skill at making incompatible and unrealizable promises and getting away with it, as long as she was in office. While there are some ‘Gaullists’ left in the German political class for whom the alliance with France – leading, it is hoped, to a French-German/German-French Europe – takes precedence over the alliance with the United States, none of them can be found in the new government.

Indeed, where it might speak of a ‘European army’, the coalition agreement merely foresees ‘increased cooperation between the national armies of EU member states…in particular with respect to training, capabilities, interventions and equipment, as for example already envisaged by Germany and France’. And not to be misunderstood, it adds that ‘in all this, interoperability and complementarity with the command structures and capabilities of NATO must be assured’, declaring even more explicitly a few pages later: ‘We will strengthen the European pillar in NATO and work for more intensive cooperation between NATO and the EU.’ FCAS is not even mentioned, or only indirectly, in language that cannot but hurt French feelings: ‘We are strengthening defence technology cooperation in Europe, especially through high-quality cooperation projects, taking into account national key technologies and enabling small and medium-sized companies to enter the competition. Replacement purchases and systems available on the market are to be prioritized for procurement in order to avoid capability gaps.’ Chances are that the project, if it does not fall apart for technological problems or a tug-of-war over industrial leadership and patent rights, will at some point be abandoned for its costs.

FCAS scepticism is found not just in SPD and FDP. The incoming Foreign Minister, the Green chancellor-candidate-in-vain, Annalena Baerbock, is a faithful Hillary Clinton-type Atlanticist who managed to impose her views on the coalition document throughout. During the coalition talks, the Greens insisted on an early replacement of the Luftwaffe’s aging Tornado fleet with the American F-18 fighter bomber. Not to be confused with the Eurofighter, the Tornados are Germany’s contribution to what NATO calls ‘nuclear participation’ (nukleare Teilhabe). This provides for some European member states, above all Germany, to deliver American nuclear warheads with bombers of their own, with American permission and under American direction. (As far as one knows, the United States or NATO cannot formally command member states to nuke a common enemy, but member states cannot nuke an enemy without American authorization.) For the purpose, the United States maintain an unspecified number of nuclear bombs on European, in particular German soil.

Recently leading figures in the SPD have doubted the wisdom of nuclear participation. The United States for their part have complained about the Tornadoes, first put into service in the 1980s, becoming outdated, demanding more comfortable travel arrangements for their warheads. Currently the few remaining Tornadoes capable of flying – one hears, less than two dozen – stand to lose their (American) license to kill in 2030. Unless one lets the programme wither away, which is what some on the SPD left would prefer, the Tornadoes could in principle be replaced with the French Rafale or the German Eurofighter (both of which are to be replaced, in some nebulous future, by FCAS). It so happens, however, that to be capable of carrying American bombs, non-American planes have to be certified by the United States, which takes time, no less than an impressive eight to ten years. This brings in the F-18, which would be instantly available to inflict nuclear Armageddon on anyone any future POTUS might determine to be deserving of it. It so happens that the F-18 seems to be the favourite of the German military, desperate to preserve their reputation with their American idols and avoid the risks of French technological devilment.

To their relief, speedy procurement of a generously sized fleet of F-18s turned out to be one of the Baerbock Greens’ most unremittingly fought-for demands in the coalition talks. After acrimonious negotiations, they got their way. In the coalition agreement, in language fully comprehensible only to the initiated, the parties announced that they will ‘early in the twentieth legislative period’ – one has to use Google to find out that this is the legislative period now beginning – ‘procure a successor system for the Tornado fighter aircraft’ and ‘accompany the procurement and certification process objectively and conscientiously with a view to Germany’s nuclear participation’. The F-18 being far from cheap for a cash-strapped government, this is more bad news for Macron and his ‘European strategic sovereignty’. While the US won’t get their 2%, at least they get to sell Germany a fair number of F-18s. France, by comparison, is likely to end up empty-handed, getting neither a European army nor, ultimately, FCAS.

Read on: Wolfgang Streeck, ‘Plus Ça Change’, NLR 131.

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Strike Wave

Thirty-five years ago last month – October 1986 – the giant agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere locked out striking members of the United Auto Workers. This event, following shortly on lockouts of meatpackers by Hormel Foods and steelworkers by USX (formerly and today again US Steel) signalled that the punishing waves of layoffs and plant closures of the early 1980s had not satisfied capital’s appetite for working-class blood. In 1959, the year of the previous nationwide steel strike, over half a million workers had walked out. By the time of the defensive action at USX in 1986, there were only 20,000 workers left to do so.

With manufacturing under severe profitability pressures, collective bargaining in the 1980s and 1990s became an orgy of so-called ‘givebacks’ – contract concessions that would have been unthinkable at almost any point in the previous half-century. The UAW, like much of the US labour movement, put up a fight, but eventually begged off. ‘What do you do?’ asked a union official. ‘You can’t control the actions of management.’ In February 1987, both UAW members at John Deere and steelworkers at USX trudged back to work, having accepted a deal with no wage increases in the first case and outright wage cuts in the second – both in return for job security commitments.

The bleeding went on. In 1997 the UAW signed a contract with John Deere that again gave no hourly raises and instituted a two-tier system, with decreased wage rates for new hires. Such structures proliferated across collective bargaining agreements as unions limped into the neoliberal era – evidently the price of survival for a battered labour movement hunted by Republicans and unaided by Democrats.

This month, the UAW settled with John Deere after five weeks on strike, an action launched when the membership rejected an agreement negotiated by union leadership, and renewed after two weeks on strike with the rejection of a second tentative agreement. The 10,000 John Deere workers finally agreed to the company’s offer, overall very similar to the rejected second agreement: a 10% wage increase in the first year, 5% in the third and fifth years, and 3% lump sums in the second, fourth, and sixth years, along with an immediate bonus of $8,500. While the settlement is clearly a victory marking the end of the concessionary years, it does not uproot the hated tier system that divides the workforce, nor get wages back on their pre-1997 trend.

Along with a dozen or two other recent, ongoing or potential labour actions, the John Deere strike forms what has been dubbed ‘Striketober’ – an unexpected revival in working-class militancy in its classic form. Unlike the wave of teachers’ strikes in 2018-2019 known as the ‘Red for Ed’ movement, the current episode spans all sectors: nurses recently settled a strike in Buffalo, coal miners are on the line in Alabama, hospital workers in the Kaiser Permanente health care chain on the west coast, musicians in San Antonio, graduate students at Columbia. Tens of thousands of Hollywood’s technical workers authorized a strike with 99% vote at 90% turnout, and only narrowly ratified a settlement instead by means of arcane electoral rules. Numerous others wait in the wings or have recently settled.

Such militancy represents the sharp, organized tip of a more diffuse phenomenon, the so-called ‘Great Resignation’: the quit rate has been driven to historical highs by the conjunctural combination of accumulated outrage at the workplace brutalities of the pandemic, plus increased working-class confidence and labour market leverage due to the emergency expansions of the social safety net and the recovery of employment.

Even as unemployment falls toward 4%, the labour force participation rate remains two points lower than before the pandemic, and does not appear to be rising: in other words, the uptick in wages and downtick in unemployment are not drawing more people back into labour markets who have decided or been compelled to exit them over the past two years. This fact has lent the current episode of refusal its generally atomized shape, due to the low level of organization across the working class – what would once have been strike action appears today more often in the form of unfilled vacancies. But it also helps to explain the trans-sectoral character of the organized workplace activity, particularly the centrality of overwork in many strikes, as employers calculate that it is preferable to force 12-hour shifts than to raise wages sufficiently to lure nonparticipants back into the workforce.

The weakness of much of the labour movement also has paradoxically created room for the ideological left to establish footholds, around which scatterings of militants may emerge – a subtle shift that deserves some credit for rising militancy across sectors. Once-marginal activist formations have proven able to gain ground within union organizations in teaching, nursing and across the culture industries; a democracy movement has emerged within the United Auto Workers, a union which has become a shadow of its former self, plagued at the top by corruption and incompetence. Most significantly, the rank-and-file reform slate recently captured control of the Teamsters away from the Hoffa dynasty in a landslide election.

While mainly due to the weakness of traditional conservative leadership, this is also in part a superstructural phenomenon. For example, rising militancy among journalists has caused a recovery in labour journalism, in turn magnifying the quantity and quality of images and narratives of labour struggle. Discursively, the labour movement commands attention once again from a broad liberal public that shunned it for decades, and while the significance of this development is difficult to estimate with any precision, its effects appear to be widespread in the current moment: unions receive more favourable responses in public opinion polling, and professional organizers across much of the country have reported anecdotally a significant increase in direct contact from disgruntled workers.

I was born the month of the last John Deere strike; I turned 35 during the recent one. Minimum-wage jobs going unfilled, assembly plant workers voting down contracts – these are new marvels in my lifetime. While it is possible to make conjunctural sense of this episode, the true challenge is to search out a strategic path by which such intensified engagement along what remains an exceedingly narrow front might widen into something more. The present strike wave, such as it is, is a matter of only tens of thousands, not the millions of earlier episodes of US labour history. Workers in the United States have been taught a hard lesson for years that collective action only yields punishment. The effect, over the past generation, has been two-sided, shearing apart the working class along its seams of organization and relative security: with union density down to 10%, union members look out on the millions all around who would gladly do their job for less and become resigned to ineffectual leadership and concessionary bargaining; the unorganized 90% see the inability of unions to deliver, and can make out little reason why they should say yes if an organizer ever comes knocking.

Over the past 35 years, labour’s technicians have tried every trick to get the wheels turning again. They installed new leadership, as when John Sweeney triumphed in the AFL-CIO’s first-ever contested presidential election in 1996, running on a promise to reinvigorate the federation’s organizing capacity and renew its taste for confrontation. They developed the so-called ‘comprehensive campaign’, a method for seeking leverage on employers by means other than direct economic power – most famously in the Justice for Janitors campaign of the late 1990s. They launched modest political adventures, founding groups such as the short-lived Labor Party, New York’s Working Families Party, and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. They engaged in mergers and divorces, combining unions and spinning off new umbrella organizations – most prominently the new federation Change to Win, formed by AFL-CIO breakaways in 2005. They launched major organizing campaigns in sectors from higher education to hospitals to hotels to Southern auto assembly plants. Some of these initiatives counted major successes, some degenerated into fiascos, but none generated movement on the scale of the class as a whole, or even a significant fraction. (The teachers’ strikes, arguably the only exception, occurred almost entirely as an organic expression of rank-and-file militancy and socialist leadership rather than any kind of leadership stratagem.)

What is the nature of the present fragmentation of the US working class? Paul Samuelson, high priest of the postwar neoclassical synthesis in economics, once speculated that the American stagflation problem of the 1970s would only admit a Chilean-style macroeconomic resolution at the point of a gun. An orthodox Keynesian, Samuelson – coiner of the portmanteau ‘stagflation’, uncle of Larry Summers – conceded that the Chicago Boys indeed had a solution that could tame inflation, but objected that such an exploit would require a ‘fascist political state’. Looking back on four decades of neoliberalism, we might say that, in certain respects, Samuelson’s hyperbole contained a kernel of prophecy. Certainly, there existed ample precedent in US history for such a campaign of repression, marking neoliberalism as more continuous with the country’s tradition of coerced labour than whatever novelty Samuelson imagined. Nonetheless, what came after 1979 cannot be understood in narrowly economic terms: the smashing of the labour movement was only the most targeted blow. Punishment rained down indiscriminately on the class as a whole, through political means as well as in industrial relations.

The first waves of mass industrial layoffs triggered a downward cascade in the labour market – the context in which industrial unions first agreed to concessionary contracts. Millions of individuals either relented to lower-wage work than they had accepted previously, or exited the labour market entirely and were thrown back onto family, the illicit and informal economy or the state for their survival. A radical increase in household labour supply followed, as women filed into fast-expanding low-wage service economy jobs to compensate for the vanished family wage, even as an assault on the social state continued to transfer the costs and pressures of social reproduction onto them. Largely, moreover, they joined sectors of the labour market already fenced off institutionally as a zone of low wages and precarious working conditions, particularly in what has come to be called the ‘care economy’, which accounted for 77% of all low-wage job growth for women between 1983 and 2007, as Rachel Dwyer shows.

Punitive social policy further eroded proletarian room for maneuver. After over a decade of state-level erosion of income support for the poor, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform pushed millions into the bottom of the labour market and, as Melinda Cooper observes, granted fathers automatic custody rights to children regardless of prior relationship – in effect terrorizing poor mothers off the welfare rolls and into minimum-wage work. If this were not enough, the apparatus of policing and imprisonment underwent its extreme metastasis in this period – not precisely what Samuelson imagined as the Chilean solution, but close enough.

Already, global competitive conditions and weakening labour law gave potency to managers’ threats of plant closure or subcontracted work. Even for organized workers, employers were equipped for an increasingly asymmetrical conflict, armed with the power to outsource their jobs or to permanently replace them during strikes. The full chain of implications of this power has grown as the surrounding labour market and social policy environment has become increasingly hostile: the power to permanently replace strikers or outsource positions became the power to push workers toward the unlivable minimum wage, throw them back into abusive relationships, and toss their children into cells. There is no need to lock up trade union leaders themselves if you can instead intimidate their members with the threat of criminalized unemployment – if walking out of the factory gates for the last time means walking into the jaws of the jailor. The form of struggle that results from this punitive dimension of the American class system is, obviously, racialized, and occurs more in the streets and prisons than in the workplaces.

Those parts of the expanding service economy shielded economically against capital flight are contained by other barriers, no less potent. Either because they enact labour processes that cannot be relocated due to the necessity of direct human interaction, or because they carry out functions of social importance that attract state support, workers in food service and hospitality, health care, child care and education are not buffeted by the same forces at play in much of the shrunken manufacturing sector. By the same token, however, the service industries are characterized by stagnant productivity, which presses down wages systematically and constrains workers’ leverage, in turn inducing employers to decompose the employment relation itself in order to hold labour costs down.

Such constraints impel workers to engage in political contestation of the social wage as the medium for their own industrial conflicts – as when teachers struggle over classroom sizes, nurses over staffing levels, or Uber drivers over the legal definition of employment. To some degree the productivity constraint has in this way also generated political potentiality, as workers in such circumstances discover they can only win economic gains on the political field, not in industrial conflict alone, and therefore must construct coalitions sufficient to engage broader policy questions – a strategy the labour movement has begun to explore under the name ‘Bargaining for the Common Good.’

The recovery of the labour market from the pandemic’s damage – renewing the belated and warped recovery from the prior crash in 2008 – has stimulated renewal of working-class militancy within the narrow confines of the organized zones, aided by temporary and partial expansions of the social safety net. But this stimulus is unlikely to translate directly into any kind of broader class unity at the social level or a renewal of class polarization within the political sphere, because it arrives in a working class so badly divided by forty years of defeats. Class formation, as Adam Przeworski observed long ago, is a discontinuous process. Its stops and starts lay down historical deposits that form into new conjunctures upon which disparate proletarian elements must again attempt to compose themselves, in the process he describes as ‘struggles about class’, which precede class struggles. ‘In each successive historical conjuncture, some carriers of the relations of production are organized as such, some are not organized in any manner, and some appear in struggles about class organization in forms that do not correspond in one-to-one manner to places occupied in even a broadly conceived system of production.’ The modest but noticeable rediscovery of workplace militancy in the organized rump of the US working class has occurred amid precisely such a discontinuity.

Classically it would have been the task not of the labour movement but of the socialist movement to bring into contact with one another the various struggling fragments – those who are organized as carriers of the relations of production, those not organized in any manner, and those engaged in struggles that do not correspond to any broadly conceived system of production, in Przeworski’s terms. The promising recovery of American socialism in the past decade is not to be made light of, but it too represents a distinct and delimited social stratum – the frustrated young professionals – and its primary points of encounter and affiliation with the broader working class have been in the electoral sphere rather than the more intimate zones of the social and economic.

This current strike wave, then will almost certainly ebb rather than accumulate the way the unrest of the early 1930s did. But even after it recedes, we will be able to see the pools it leaves behind – reservoirs of solidarity, consisting of material victories and new political experiences. These will occupy more of the terrain next year than they did last year; they will be, if still distinct, nearer to one another – and its examples nearer to hand.

Read on: Mike Davis, ‘The AFL-CIO’s Second Century’, NLR I/136.

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Picking Winners

The annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, which convenes the 197 states and territories which have signed on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is one of the anchoring events of climate politics discourse, alongside the release of IPCC reports and increasingly regular occurrence of climate-fueled natural disasters. Since the first was held in Berlin in 1995, when atmospheric carbon levels were around 358 parts per million (today they hover around 414), a steady procession of COPs have produced a great deal of geopolitical drama, but have not yet managed to reduce carbon emissions. 

In 1997 there was the fight over the Kyoto Protocol, widely criticized for concessions to the US insistence on market mechanisms; followed in 2001 by George W. Bush’s announcement that he would not implement it anyway. In 2009, many expected that Barack Obama’s election would clear the way for a legally binding agreement at COP15, in Copenhagen – officially branded ‘Hopenhagen’ by the UN. Instead, negotiations nearly collapsed over bitter disagreement between developed and developing countries, and eventually culminated in a weak deal brokered behind closed doors by Obama and Wen Jiabao. Six years later, the Paris agreement was hailed as a world-historic triumph, even though the voluntary commitments made by individual member states failed to add up to the agreement’s stated goals. As climate activists pointed out, and even the text of the agreement acknowledged, although the agreement set a goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below 2º C’, the aggregated commitments would result in an estimated 3º of warming. Nor were the Paris Accords complete: they dictated that signatories update their pledges five years later. This was the key task set for COP26 in Glasgow.

Although more people are paying attention to the COP process than ever before, there has also been a striking decline in public confidence. The years since 2015 have seen serious challenges to international action of many kinds. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement prompted subsequent acts of defiance from the likes of Bolsonaro, Modi and Putin, while the gilets jaunes protests against Emmanuel Macron’s gas tax prompted new anxieties about the backlash to climate policy. At the same time, rising tensions between the US and China have contributed to pessimism about the prospects for global agreement. The ‘Climate Behemoth’ – a reactionary alliance between right-wing populism and national fossil capital, schematized by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright – has gained popularity, countering the bid for planetary sovereignty they see represented in the COP process. Pledges aside, carbon emissions continue more or less unabated.

In many ways the circumstances of Glasgow recall the disastrous proceedings in Copenhagen: taking place in the aftermath of a world-shaking economic crisis, marked by protest and dissatisfaction, undercut by the failure of a US president to secure domestic climate policy. Even Greta Thunberg’s memorable description of COP26 as a place of talk and no action – ‘blah, blah, blah’ – was less novel than it initially appeared: ‘Blah, Blah, Blah, Act Now!’ had already adorned signs at the Copenhagen protests in 2009. On the uselessness of the talks, Thunberg and the world leaders she indicts likely agree: Xi and Putin did not even bother to attend.

By the conclusion of the conference, a few new agreements had materialized, although most came with caveats. Twenty nations agreed to stop financing global oil and gas projects abroad, although most continue to subsidize oil projects at home – echoing the G20’s commitment to stop financing coal plants internationally, even as member countries continue to use coal domestically. A hundred countries, led by the US and EU – but excluding China, India and Russia – pledged a 30% methane reduction by 2030. A hundred and forty-one countries agreed to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030 – although Indonesia, where primary forest has decreased by approximately 50% since the 1960s, immediately backtracked, calling the terms ‘inappropriate and unfair.’ The US, France, Germany, EU and UK struck an $8.5 billion agreement to help South Africa transition away from coal use – important in its own right, but perhaps even more so as a potential demonstration of the feasibility of a ‘just transition’. Most incredibly, the text for the first time in the history of the COPs includes the words ‘fossil fuels’.

But even most boosters have been forced to admit that Glasgow was a disappointment. By now the problems with the COP process are well-canvassed, ranging from the features of its institutional design to the nature of national sovereignty. The consensus model tends to result in a lowest common denominator approach to agreement. Countries set their own decarbonization goals, but also report their own progress towards them; unsurprisingly, a Washington Post report recently found that progress towards decarbonization is seriously overstated. Absent a global sovereign, there is no way to compel action, even when agreements are reached.

So be it, many would say: too much time has been wasted on global diplomacy when real progress is being made elsewhere. The conventional wisdom on climate politics is shifting away from the need for grand global agreements focused on climate specifically, and instead emphasizing the potential for addressing climate change with economic mechanisms: industrial policy, trade agreements, global finance. This is, in many respects, long overdue. In spite of the massive fossil fuel delegation and distasteful corporate pavilions, COP26 is not really where important investment decisions are made. The UN’s array of environmental agencies has always been a shadow to the fora where global capital makes its rules.

Advocates of green industrial policy in particular challenge the ‘collective action’ framework, suggesting that climate action is no longer a cost to be shouldered, and that free-riding is no longer the central problem to be solved. Rather, the ‘energy transition’ offers benefits in the form of industrial renewal and jobs: instead of shirking their commitments to decarbonize, states will compete for green market share.

The promise that a brighter green future is just around the corner is another familiar refrain of climate politics: back in 2011, for example, Obama promised to ‘win the future’ with investments in ‘innovation.’ But what is genuinely different about this COP is that the private sector is lurching into gear. The recent rash of corporate net-zero pledges and surge of ESG (‘Environmental, Social, Governance’) funds should not be taken at face value, of course. But Chinese state investment in low-carbon technologies, and solar panels in particular, has catalyzed the renewable energy industry and set a challenge to Western governments.

The hope of industrial policy advocates is that the US, EU, and China will compete for the green tech market – at least, the sectors which China does not already dominate – setting off a virtuous circle of competition amongst green capitalists. Politically, state support for fledgling green tech industries is expected to generate constituencies for decarbonization which can serve as a counterweight to the entrenched power of fossil capital. Green industrial policy advocates tend to flatten the differences between labour and capital, suggesting that the central axis of conflict is between carbon-intensive and decarbonizing coalitions, even as clean-energy darlings like Tesla union bust. It is a view which puts most stock in the power of one fraction of capital to counter another; popular mobilization and labour strife feature primarily as threats to stability to be warded off. Joe Biden’s pair of infrastructure bills, for example, take cues not from the public investment-driven Green New Deal of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but from the innovation-oriented Green New Deal of the late 2000s, as outlined by Thomas Friedman and Edward Barbier. The model, which targets subsidies at strategic sectors like clean hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage, is more Silicon Valley than the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Focused on production in one country, industrial policy frequently relies on a methodological nationalism which neglects the global interdependence of contemporary production, while frequently threatening to tip into a more overtly political nationalism where convenient: this is a vision of climate policy that can coexist with, and perhaps even benefit from, increasing antagonism between the US and China. The key elements of its international policy are not grand global agreements but trade deals like the recent US-EU agreement to reduce steel tariffs and incentivize the production of ‘green steel’.  

Industrial policy oriented towards boosting ‘green tech’, however, has limits as climate policy. It does little to directly reduce fossil fuel use, prevent the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, or even directly reduce carbon emissions. It also faces political obstacles of its own. The tariffs and subsidies necessary to nurture emergent domestic industries are likely to garner objections from the WTO. A state which takes a more active role in ‘picking winners’ will face familiar challenges of domestic distributive politics. At the same time, as Cédric Durand has argued in Sidecar, by failing to undertake more substantial planning, states risk a slower and more disruptive transition away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile the still-powerful fossil fuel industry will seek to turn any stumbles to its advantage, as Adam Tooze warns.

From the perspective of many of those gathered at COP26, however, what is perhaps most concerning about the shift to green industrial policy is that it bypasses the many parts of the world which have little hope of competing with the big industrial powers on green tech. There will be ripple effects down the supply chain, of course. Some countries will garner new interest in minerals like lithium and cobalt. Those with relatively intact forests may be able to sell carbon offsets to help multinationals meet their net-zero promises – nearly all of which are currently premised on carbon removal in some form. But many other parts of the world will be surplus to the ‘green economy’, except as consumers of the products it generates. It has long been hoped that developing countries would be able to ‘leapfrog’ fossil fuels altogether and move straight to renewable-powered electricity. The countries most in need of electrification, however, are typically faced with high borrowing costs – a problem which bears directly on the energy transition, since renewable energy infrastructure is often more capital-intensive than coal-fired power plants. The problem of access to finance is made still worse by the fact that, as Kate Mackenzie observes, countries deemed to have a high ‘climate risk’ must pay more to borrow.

There was much talk about climate finance at COP26. But for economist Daniela Gabor, what it revealed was simply ‘status-quo financial capitalism entering its green age’ rather than any more transformative project. The response to Covid-19 spurred talk of the ‘end of neoliberalism’ and the return of the interventionist state. But the response to climate change thus far suggests a less dramatic reorientation: as Gabor observes, thus far the role marked out for the state in climate finance is not to undertake public investment but to ‘derisk’ private investments in green sectors.

A different response to the dead end of the COP process, then, would be to make a lateral move, taking climate justice to the global financial institutions. The political scientist Jessica Green argues that international trade and finance ought to replace the UN framework as the ‘locus of climate policy’, while also calling for major reform to global financial institutions. The problem is figuring out how such long-sought reforms might come about. Labour and environmental movements in countries with valuable minerals or powerful industrial sectors may be able to exert some influence over trade deals, as United Steelworkers did in the US-EU steel agreement. The global reach of green supply chains offers the possibility for more internationalist organizing, as Thea Riofrancos has argued. But the prospects for reform of global trade and financial institutions are hazier.

The global climate justice movement has undoubtedly spurred a change in the conversation. But at present, it simply does not have the power to realize its goals. At COP26, climate justice activists criticized the failure of developed nations to make good on their commitment to spend $100 billion annually on climate finance – a sum agreed on in 2009 in an attempt to salvage the Copenhagen talks. Yet the more ambitious demand, both then and now, is for a framework for loss and damage, which would require open-ended funding for harms incurred as a result of climate change – something which might come close to climate reparations. The argument in favour of it is morally unimpeachable. But it is hard to see what could force the US or EU to agree to a programme that would expose them to liability claims long into the future.

Lacking leverage, the movement has resorted to the tools it has available: spectacle, and, most notably, shame. This year, the foreign minister of Tuvalu, Simon Kofe, gave his COP26 speech knee-deep in ocean waves to symbolize the threat that rising seas pose to his island nation’s existence. This, too, recalled a previous moment of COP politics, in 2009, when President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives held an underwater cabinet meeting prior to the ill-fated meeting in Copenhagen. But if the power players at COP26 have learned to speak the language of climate justice, they have so far remained shameless. Andreas Malm has called for a reevaluation of tactics, arguing that the climate movement must become more combative. Different tactics may help disrupt business as usual – but they are unlikely to solve the fundamental problem of power.

As climate policy is finally incorporated into economic policy, whither the COP process? The COP cycle will continue. But it seems increasingly likely to be an afterthought: a forum where countries with no chance of competing on green tech or being invited to G20-like summits do what they can – which is to say, not very much – to extract concessions from the rich and powerful countries which have built their wealth on ecological destruction, and which are now using that wealth to escape its consequences. In other words, not so much an emergent global sovereign as a charity fundraiser.

Lola Seaton, ‘Painting Nationalism Green?’, NLR 124.

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Rebel Maids

The Brazilian cartoon series Irmão do Jorel offers a cosy-satirical picture of family life, not unlike The Simpsons. Strikingly, however, there is a character with no homologue in the US series: the family’s maid, represented as a purple octopus – amorphous, voiceless, nameless, with eight arms ready to carry out any task requested of her (for a representative episode, see here). The Brazilian entertainment industry has many such images. From blackface turns on TV comedy shows to the maids who form a girl band in the hit telenovela Cheias de Charme, representations of domestic workers pervade the country’s cultural imagination.

Beyond the culture industry, paid domestic work is a daily reality for nearly 6 million Brazilian women, as well as for the millions of households that employ them. It is an occupation strongly marked by the sexual and racial division of labour: 92% of those employed in this category are female, and two-thirds of the latter are black. Restricted to the private sphere, the actual experience of this work has been atomized and largely invisible.

Despite the prevailing silence in Brazil’s public sphere about the realities of domestic work, domestics played a leading role in the 100,000-strong March of Black Women against racism and violence in November 2015. In 2016, a rapper and former maid, Preta-Rara, shared some memories of her time in domestic service on Facebook and was flooded with responses from other domestic workers. The page she set up for them soon garnered thousands of personal stories, from multiple viewpoints – giving voice to the experiences of Brazilian domestic workers in a way that cold official statistics could never do.

In 2019 Preta-Rara – real name, Joyce Fernandes; preta rara translates as rare or precious black girl – produced a compilation of these social media accounts in a book, Eu, Empregada Doméstica (I, Domestic Servant) with the subtitle: ‘The Maid’s Room is the Modern Slave Quarters’. It opens with the story of her grandmother, Noêmia, who began work as a maid at the age of fourteen. Preta-Rara’s mother, Maria Helena, followed the same path, and tells her daughter of the lasting trauma left by never having been taught to read or write. (Preta-Rara herself later made it to college and has taught high-school history, in addition to her music – her first album, Audácia, appeared in 2015 – and establishing a major social-media presence.)

Though some of the stories collected in Eu, Empregada Doméstica recall humane employers, the structural situation of the work means that exploitation is standard. Many depict psychological humiliations: accusations of theft, sexual harassment, moral harassment, effective imprisonment, occupational diseases and chronic exhaustion. Women recall being sent off in their early teens to work in strangers’ houses. Younger children, accompanying their mother to work when there is no one to watch them at home, get mistreated by employers or bullied by their children. Domestic workers often make huge sacrifices to help their children, especially their daughters, avoid going through the same experience. Access to education is frequently seen as the key to change – sometimes provoking mockery and disbelief from their employers. Escape from exploitation and subordination requires enormous individual effort and resources.

Preta-Rara herself recalls the indignity of being forced to use the ‘service’ lift in an apartment block, and to climb eight flights of stairs when it was out of order, because maids were not allowed to use the ‘social’ elevator. A common response emerges, when domestic workers are pushed to their limit: ‘Never going back to that place again.’ It is a phrase that occurs over and over in the contributions, a series of one-woman strikes against an intolerable situation, now brought together by Preta-Rara in collective form.

Nancy Fraser has analysed the heightened contradictions of ‘capital and care’ under today’s form of financialized capitalism, as neoliberal pressures put a squeeze on essential forms of material and affective reproductive labour – birthing and raising children, maintaining households, sustaining personal and community relationships. She argues that every form of capitalist society harbours a deep-seated crisis tendency, as capital’s drive to unlimited accumulation – free-riding on the life world, as she puts it – tends to destabilize the reproductive processes that are indispensable to the perpetuation of society itself, without which there can be ‘no culture, no economy, no political organization’.

For Fraser, these contradictions take different forms in the core and on the peripheries of world capitalism, as also across successive eras or ‘regimes of accumulation’: 19th-century liberal imperialism and colonial extraction; mid-20th century welfare-state Fordism and third-world developmentalism; 21st-century neoliberal globalization. Each, she has argued, produced its own asymmetrical fix for staving off the contradictions of capital and care: the ‘separate spheres’ gendering 19th-century bourgeois life, the expanded welfare provision and male breadwinner of Fordism, the two-earner families of neoliberal emancipation. Each fix in turn entered into crisis. The latest manifestation of this tendency in the US is the ‘crisis of care’ – time poverty, family-work balance – already attracting attention even before the reproductive catastrophe of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet the Brazilian experience – and perhaps, more broadly, that of Latin America – alters this picture. The stories collected by Preta-Rara speak not of epochal ruptures in forms of reproductive labour, but of intergenerational continuities. ‘Almost all women in my family started their lives as domestic servants’, one woman wrote. ‘My grandmother was enslaved – because that’s the right word – from childhood. My mother started to work as a family’s nanny when she was a teenager. My aunt has asthma attacks brought on by excessive work with chemical-cleaning products’.

‘Breaking the cycle of misery to which we were subjected is an arduous task’, wrote another. ‘It means fighting against everything and everyone. My grandmother worked all her lifetime in the fields, my mother was a maid, and I followed in her footsteps. Going against all of this leaves scars, physical and on the soul.’ At stake here are historical continuities traceable back to slavery – the connection Preta-Rara underscores with her subtitle, identifying the maid’s room as the slave quarters. Some of the social media narrators use the colonial term sinhá – ‘madam’ – to refer to their employers. Another makes the same link: ‘I’m always thinking that, if the memory [of paid domestic work] hurts me, I can imagine it must have hurt my mother and my grandmother much more, because, even allegorically, they had to bear the “lash” so that we could eat bread.’

As noted by the Brazilian social scientist and activist Lélia Gonzalez, to understand the place of black women in Brazilian society today, we need to examine their role under slavery. Gonzalez – herself the daughter of a black maid – summarized the historical role of the black mucama: ‘It was her task to keep the master’s house running at all levels: washing, ironing, cooking, spinning, weaving, sewing, and nursing the children born from the “free” wombs of the little senhoras… And after the heavy work at the master’s house, she was also responsible for taking care of her own children, as well as helping her friends who had come from the plantations, etc., who were starving and exhausted.’ The Argentine anthropologist Rita Segato has emphasised the longue durée nature of this ‘transferred motherhood’ in Latin America, dating from the onset of colonialism. It has been naturalized over the centuries by serial cultural forms, predecessors of the purple octopus in Irmão do Jorel.

The developmentalist era in Brazil brought many changes, but – pace Fraser – the underlying role of black women in social reproduction continued throughout. If anything, young girls were dispatched from the interior in greater numbers to work as maids in the booming cities. The social media stories illustrate this process well: ‘My mother comes from a tiny hinterland village and was sent to the capital to work at the age of thirteen’ is a typical beginning. This ‘national care chain’ – the internal migratory flow of girls and women from the Brazilian backlands to the cities, which peaked at the height of the ‘rural exodus’ of the 1960s-80s – has its equivalent in the ‘global care chain’ of which Fraser and others also write: the pull of globalized financialized capitalism inducing the emigration of racialized women from poor countries to undertake social-reproductive work in rich countries where, with the onset of the long downturn and collapse of the ‘male breadwinner model’,  women were heading into waged white-collar work.

Brazil is certainly part of the migratory flow of the global care chain, in keeping with its middle-ranking position in the world economy. Immigrant domestic workers are, for example, Bolivian, Haitian, Venezuelan and Filipina women, whose migratory condition intersects with racial, class and gender rankings. Brazilian women, on the other hand, mainly emigrate to the Global North, especially the United States and Western Europe.

How to explain the continuities in Brazil’s social-reproductive order, compared to the successive regimes that Fraser analyses? Here it may be helpful to draw upon the notion of colonialidad developed by the Peruvian world-systems theorist Aníbal Quijano, who pointed out that ruling classes in early 19th-century Latin America battled to prevent the decolonization of their societies even as they fought for independent states. Through this dynamic, the ‘coloniality of power’ was incorporated into the state-formation process itself. The sexual and racial division of paid domestic labour, and its historical continuity with practices dating from the colonial and slavery periods, underlines the relationship between social-reproductive relations in Latin America and this foundational hierarchy. In this context, the ‘care gap’ is not a recent process. It is a dynamic inscribed in the very ‘coloniality of power’.

Thus, paid domestic work is both an expression of the structural inequities within Brazilian society and the perpetuation of them. Its availability at a low cost for Brazilian middle and upper classes lessens the potential pressure for welfare-state measures aimed at supporting socio-reproduction activities – day-care centres, full-time education, community restaurants, community laundries and care centres for the elderly. As Rita Segato puts it in Crítica da Colonialidade em Oito Ensaios (2021), the continuity of women’s invisible low-paid work allows an ‘evasion of social-sector investment’.

It also dissipates tensions within middle and upper-class families, where women’s ‘double shift’ of domestic labour is alleviated, as well as the demand that their partners and other family members do their share. As the American sociologist Patricia Hill Collins argued in Black Feminist Thought (1990), historically many white families in the US similarly maintained their class position because they used black maids as cheap labour. At the same time, the delegation of domestic work tends to intensify racial and class inequities, accentuating the polarization between women, especially between domestic workers and their female employers.

Brazilian domestic workers have been particularly hard hit during the Covid pandemic, given their fragile or non-existent social protection. They were torn between continuing to work at high risk of infection or stopping work and losing their income. Nor were they given priority-worker status for the vaccine.

The aggravation of precarious social conditions suggests to some that we are moving forward towards the past. In Critique of Black Reason (2013), Achille Mbembe argued that the world is becoming nègre, as capitalism accentuates the exclusion, alienation and degradation of workers in general. From another perspective, the question of care provides a route to the future. For the Madrid collective Precarias a la Deriva, care should be a guiding principle in all political-economic considerations. Fraser argues that struggles over social-reproduction – encompassing housing, healthcare, food security, migrants’ and workers’ rights, day care, elder care, paid parental leave – are ‘tantamount to the demand for a massive reorganization of the relations between production and reproduction’.

Care and social reproduction are also central to movements such as Quilombismo and Bien Vivir, which focus on social practices based on cooperation, solidarity and equality. Production and reproduction go hand in hand in these radically democratic projects. Everyday resistance takes place in multiple ways, even if it is just to say, ‘Never going back to that place again.’ Certainly, Brazilian society will never be emancipated unless domestic workers are emancipated too.

Read on: Guilherme Boulos, ‘Struggles of the Roofless’, NLR 130.

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Bitmagic

March, 1851. In that month, the Kabylia was shaken by an insurrection; Emperor Tự Đức of Vietnam ordered the execution of Christian priests; a concordat in Spain entrusted the Catholic Church with control of education and the press; Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi was staged at the La Fenice in Venice. Nobody paid much attention to what happened in Chicago on 13 March. London for one was busy preparing for the Great Exhibition, while the debate over abolition was raging in the US itself. What had happened on that day in the Windy City? The first forward contract had been signed for 3,000 bushels of grain (a bushel was roughly equivalent to a hectolitre) to be delivered the following June. This agreement signalled the dawn of the futures market, which came to play host to a whole range of derivatives, eventually becoming the dominant instrument of international finance (and indeed its curse). In 2019, 33 billion derivative contracts were registered around the world amounting to a total value of $12 trillion (though their nominal value was $640 trillion).

158 years later, on 3 January 2009, another event went unnoticed, one perhaps of similar historical consequence to that exchange on the shores of Lake Michigan: the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was created. Recall that it had been just over three months since the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008, which triggered the most acute financial crisis since 1930, a crisis caused by derivatives (in this case, subprime mortgages).

That the creation of the first completely virtual currency in history went unnoticed is understandable: the planet had substantially bigger fish to fry. But the absence of political reflection on this new financial product became more and more inexplicable as the number of cryptocurrencies soared, and as their capitalization transformed them into a new branch of global finance equipped with its very own diminutive: DeFi (decentralised finance). According to CoinMarketCap, as of 16 November there were 14,289 cryptocurrencies in existence. The total capital of the companies that created them exceeds $2,600 billion: Bitcoin’s value stands at $1,138 billion, whilst Ethereum’s is $503 billion. In an editorial from September, The Economist observed that the volume of transactions overseen by Ethereum alone in the second quarter of this year amounted to $2,500 billion, equal to the value of Visa’s quarterly worldwide transactions.

Perhaps it’s this maelstrom of billions and trillions that prevents us from grasping the weight of the issue, for numbers of this kind are alien to everyday life; they exist in a stratosphere belonging to the world of magic. In this way, cryptocurrencies become one of the many forms of financial wizardry that determine our lives without us realising (on this numerical rhetoric, see what I wrote in June on the ‘Avalanche of Numbers’).

Yet cryptocurrencies pose a serious political problem, not to mention a theoretical one. Put bluntly, cryptocurrencies constitute an insidious attack on the very idea of the state.

This political import is evident from the growing list of countries that have banned their use: Bangladesh and Bolivia in 2014; Iraq, Morocco and Nepal in 2017; Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia and Qatar in 2018; and most notably China, which declared all transactions with these financial instruments illegal last September. Other states – South Korea, Turkey, Vietnam – have passed partial bans on specific types of transactions. Noticeably, no Western financial power features in this list. Only in September this year did the US make initial moves to regulate the sector, a good twelve years after its emergence.

The fundamental characteristic of cryptocurrency is its absence, at least in theory, of any guarantee from a central authority. Money has always derived its value from a convention based on trust. But this fiduciary quality has taken a radical turn ever since the Bretton Woods system (agreed upon in 1944) pegging the dollar to gold was abandoned in 1971. Since then, currencies have become known as ‘fiat money’, defined as ‘government-issued currency that is not backed by a physical commodity, such as gold or silver, but rather by the government that issued it’. Modern currencies are therefore based on trust in the central authorities that issue them: the Federal Reserve for the dollar, the ECB for the euro, the Bank of England for the pound and so on.

With cryptocurrencies the fiduciary role played by central banks is replaced by the mutual consent of exchanging agents, whose agreement is verified by the algorithms that decipher the double-key encryption in which the currency is codified. This mechanism of exchange and verification is made possible by a database known as the blockchain, a series of transactions represented as blocks, where any given block is marked by the one preceding it in the chain in such a way that it cannot be modified or duplicated. Thus, as The Economist noted, ‘transactions on a blockchain are trustworthy, cheap, transparent and quick – at least in theory’. Conversely, ‘conventional banking requires a huge infrastructure to maintain trust between strangers, from clearing houses and compliance to capital rules and courts. It is expensive and often captured by insiders: think of credit-card fees and bankers’ yachts’. Cryptocurrencies are like chips on a poker table: their worth is assured by an agreement between the players to assign them a particular value.

This is precisely how Bitcoin was born in 2009. Here’s how the New Yorker (wittily) describes it:

There are lots of ways to make money: You can earn it, find it, counterfeit it, steal it. Or, if you’re Satoshi Nakamoto, a preternaturally talented computer coder, you can invent it. That’s what he did on the evening of January 3, 2009, when he pressed a button on his keyboard and created a new currency called bitcoin. It was all bit and no coin. There was no paper, copper, or silver – just thirty-one thousand lines of code and an announcement on the Internet. Nakamoto, who claimed to be a thirty-six-year-old Japanese man, said he had spent more than a year writing the software, driven in part by anger over the recent financial crisis. He wanted to create a currency that was impervious to unpredictable monetary policies as well as to the predations of bankers and politicians. Nakamoto’s invention was controlled entirely by software, which would release a total of twenty-one million bitcoins, almost all of them over the next twenty years. Every ten minutes or so, coins would be distributed through a process that resembled a lottery. Miners – people seeking the coins – would play the lottery again and again; the fastest computer would win the most money.

Just like players at a poker table, ‘miners’ began selling ‘tokens’ they had won in lotteries in exchange for fiat money – dollars, euros or yuan, that is – until a market was created for bitcoins. Currencies emulating Bitcoin then appeared; a deluge that led to the over 14,000 currencies we have today including, to name only the most important: Ethereum, (ETH), Binance Coin (BNB), Cardano (ADA), Tether (USDT), Solana (SOL), Terra (LUNA).

But even though it began as a lottery, or as a game of poker, Bitcoin was since its inception conceived as a political instrument. In fact, with extraordinary – almost suspicious – timing, the elusive Satoshi Nakamoto published his online ‘manifesto’ in the most dramatic phase of the financial crisis – a month and a half after Lehman Brothers’ crash. In February 2009, he would confirm his reasoning behind the creation of Bitcoin, a system,

completely decentralized, with no server or trusted parties, because everything is based on crypto proof instead of trust… The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve.

Naturally, one hardly needed to spell out the reasons for mistrusting conventional finance in the winter of 2008-09. Moreover, for several decades central banks the world over had been shielded from any ‘democratic’ control since the guarantee of their full ‘independence’ from political power. Bitcoin thus presented itself as a tool that could render the state superfluous in its guise as a guarantor of currency of last resort, the final creditors or creditors, that is to say as holder of one of its two remaining monopolies (the other being the monopoly of legitimate violence). Bitcoin was a way of realising Robert Nozick’s ultra-minimalist state in the economic and financial realm, well beyond even the most audacious Friedmanian vision, with the supply of money entrusted to the market. The fascination it provoked in stubborn anti-statists was understandable. For instance, Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, who, as we learn in a recent article in the London Review of Books,

predicts the demise of the nation-state and the emergence of low or no tax libertarian communities in which the rich can finally emancipate themselves from ‘the exploitation of the capitalists by workers’, has long argued that blockchain and encryption technology – including cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – has the potential to liberate citizens from the hold of the state by making it impossible for governments to expropriate wealth by means of inflation.

But anti-finance and anti-bank left radicals – not to mention crypto-anarchists – were also susceptible to its appeal.

Of course, utopias don’t come that easy. The problem with cryptocurrencies is that as more and more are ‘minted’, the code of the subsequent block on the chain becomes increasingly complex, requiring ever more powerful computers to decrypt it. This means that whoever possesses the most advanced computers is able to mine the most tokens.

As a result, a digital arms race began, a fierce contest within the world of nerds. This variegated galaxy of libertarians, anti-finance leftoids and ‘cypherpunks’ has gradually developed into a fully-fledged sect with its own rites and lexicon, its believers, heretics and enemies.

For rather less mystical reasons, Bitcoin’s independence from state control made it irresistible to the world of crime for exchanges on the black market. In recent years, Bitcoin has sometimes been used as a means to sidestep US sanctions and the global tyranny of the dollar (though Iran has a complicated relationship with cryptocurrencies).

Bitcoin and its followers have enjoyed a remarkable proliferation. In 2018 it was calculated that 5% of Americans owned bitcoins. Certain hotel chains began accepting payment in bitcoin, as have PayPal. Cornerstones of finance such as Fidelity and Mastercard have embraced digital assets, and, as The Economist describes, ‘S&P Dow Jones Indices now produces cryptocurrency benchmarks alongside venerable gauges like the Dow Jones Industrial Average’. To come full circle, cryptocurrency futures and other derivatives are now traded on the stock exchange.

At the same time, the very success of cryptocurrency as an idea has undermined its political project ­– for physical, commercial and conceptual reasons.

The physical problem is the result of the ever-increasing number of ever-more powerful computers required to guarantee both the anonymity of users and the non-duplicability of the object of exchange as the number of tokens rises. This consumes a monstrous amount of energy. According to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, bitcoin mining uses 133.68 terawatt-hours (tera indicates thousands of billions) of electricity, a little more than Sweden’s annual consumption (131.8 TWh), and a little less than that of Malaysia (147.2 TWh). Projections say that Bitcoin alone could increase the world’s temperature by two degrees over the next thirty years. Cryptocurrency creators claim to be searching for less energy-hungry algorithms. Ethereum in the meantime marks up its commissions (not coincidentally called ‘gas’) depending on the energy a transaction requires to process. But the problem remains thanks to Bitcoin’s dominant position on the market, and is only aggravated by the growth of its value against the dollar: today a bitcoin is worth $67,000, whilst in September 2011 it was worth just $5. This makes it worth consuming a lot of energy to mine a Bitcoin. And of course, miners install their computers wherever electricity is cheapest: this partly explains China’s hostility to cryptocurrencies; the abundance and affordability of coal there meant that in 2019 it provided 75% of the energy consumed to extract bitcoins. As it turns out, a bitcoin mine is more profitable if it digs next to a coal mine. In short, these imaginary currencies have a devastating impact on our planetary reality. Faced with this undeniable state of affairs, Greenpeace was forced to reverse its decision, made in 2014, to accept donations in cryptocurrencies.

The commercial difficulty lies in the volatility of cryptocurrencies: it is difficult to pay for a cup of coffee with a currency that has a different value when I drink the coffee than when I left home. But stabilising the value in fiat currency would mean losing what is its most coveted asset: its absolute independence from state monetary authorities.  

Conceptually, too, there are issues. They lie in the figure I mentioned at the start: the 14,289 existing cryptocurrencies. Their very number demonstrates an inability to rise to the role, proper to every currency, of ‘universal equivalent’. Even more intriguing is the number of extinct cryptocurrencies, the dead coins, which are around 2,000. To be sure, no currency is eternal, but this figure indicates a veritable monetary pandemic. Their frenzied multiplication and fleeting existence reveal them to be far more crypto than currencies, where crypto signifies not so much cryptography, but rather what is ‘hidden’, ‘covered’, ‘subterranean’ (crypts). Two stories exemplify this.

The first is that of Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency brought to prominence by Elon Musk in 2020 when he announced his decision to invest $1.5 billion in it (the previous year, Musk had announced he would accept cryptocurrencies as payment for Tesla cars, then changed his mind due to ‘environmental concerns’). Dogecoin had been invented in 2013 as a joke by two engineers – Billy Markus at IBM and Jackson Palmer at Adobe – to mock the wild speculation that cryptocurrencies were generating. The perverse result of the joke is that today Dogecoin is valued at $31 billion (thanks above all to Musk). We aren’t far from the tulip mania that gripped the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, or what English speakers call a Ponzi scheme.

The others story is that of the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto himself who, in addition to inventing Bitcoin, wrote a series of texts that have been religiously collected into volumes – today on Amazon you can find no less than 64 that bear his name. All of a sudden in 2011, he disappeared from the scene. It is not known whether he was an individual, or whether his name was used by a collective. His writing makes clear that his English was excellent – more likely British than American – and that he was familiar with the most advanced academic publications in the field of cryptography. Many have tried to track him down, and various names have been suggested. The point is that there aren’t many people in the world capable of designing a program like Bitcoin, a couple of hundred at most, with all evidence of their activities monitored by the militaries and intelligence services of the global powers, since much of the war in cyberspace is fought with the weapons and the defences they provide. Nakamoto knew this world well: the Economist reports that ‘to register Bitcoin.org, he used Tor, an online track-covering tool used by black-marketeers, journalists and political dissidents’– and by intelligence services, we might add. We’ve moved from the realm of the Internet of Value into the murky depths of the darknet. Without resorting to conspiracies, it would be extraordinary if national agencies (as well as large banking groups) were not perfectly aware of what led to the creation of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. If not, we’d be obliged to think of them as completely inept. The acquiescence of the great Western financial powers to the opening of this new $2.4 trillion front should give pause for thought. What’s clear is that whoever he is – person, group, company, military apparatus – Satoshi Nakamoto is one of the richest entities on the planet. If current estimates that he owns 5% of all hitherto extracted tokens (18.78 million) are correct, then at the current price his assets would amount to around $60 billion. So much for idealism.

Considering all these limits we’ve mentioned, in fact, cryptocurrencies appear as only one amongst many means of payment that modern capitalism has been generating for more than half a century. The fact that cryptocurrency derivatives are now being traded only undescored their function as chips in international financial poker. And just as players at the end of the night convert their chips at the cashier, so too do the partisans of cryptocurrency regularly cash in for fiat money – that is to say, they remember that without the state, there is no market. But by building this new house of cards – even if it ultimately collapses – they have taken home a lot of old-fashioned pennies with which to buy skyscrapers, fleets of ships, grand estates, industries and commercial chains. Better still, they’ve undermined the autonomy of the state by using the method favoured by neoliberals, that of starving the beast: stealing its fiscal resources so as to compel it to either reduce services or get in debt not to do so, thereby forcing it to submit to blackmail.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Victor Shih, ‘China’s Credit Conundrum’, NLR 115.

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Zero-Sum Game

In my recent Sidecar piece, I developed the argument that economic disruptions unleashed by surging energy prices – especially in the gas market – can be connected to state climate policies. Adam Tooze, responding in his Chartbook #51, challenges this so-called ‘energy dilemma’ thesis. What Tooze rejects unambiguously is the theory that Western fossil fuel corporations have priced the prospect of climate related policy changes into their investment behaviour, and that this has contributed to the tensions on the supply-side that came to the fore this autumn. While I agree that stronger evidence is needed to reach a definitive conclusion, I nonetheless have several reservations about Tooze’s essay.

In the context of the current crisis, the term ‘energy dilemma’ was coined by Lara Dong, an analyst for the consulting firm IHS Markit, who explained how Chinese authorities have struggled to balance environmental concerns over coal with the need for energy security. Yet this is not a new idea. It can be traced back to the 1970s, when experts became increasingly aware of the tension between achieving affordable and reliable energy provision and limiting the detrimental impact of growing fossil fuel consumption. In 2010, the geographer Michael J. Bradshaw produced a systematic formulation of the dilemma in ‘Global Energy Dilemmas: A Geographical Perspective’, asking: ‘can we have the energy necessary for economic development and, at the same time, manage the transition to a low-carbon energy system necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change?’

Tooze, in his piece, presents the ‘energy dilemma’ thesis as follows:

The canard that continues to circulate is that the supply shortfall is directly connected to climate policy. Too much talk about net zero has discouraged fossil fuel investors, resulting in lower investment, restricted supply and vulnerability to demand shocks.

His creditable aim is to prevent this narrative being used to postpone the green transition. However, it is worth noting from the outset that the definition he presents is a narrow one, limited to the supply constraints that arise from waning private investment in fossil fuels precipitated by climate policies and related discourses. For Tooze, there is an energy dilemma only when climate policies exert an ‘indirect effect’ on private investment that results in limited supply and translates into systemic fragilities.

By contrast, building on Bradshaw’s perspective, ‘energy dilemma’ can be used to refer more broadly to the crisis tendency of capitalism driven by climate policymaking. That is, a dilemma occurs whenever climate policies hamper economic growth. This includes the direct effects of public regulation on economic actors’ operations (in particular, the impact of climate legislation on production, funding activities and consumption patterns) as well as the indirect effects of policy changes – or anticipated ones – on private investment. These elements are closely intertwined. Since both direct and indirect effects place constraints on the supply-side in terms of rising costs or reduced investment opportunities, their outcomes are similar: a cascading effect on volumes, prices and profitability that impacts growth patterns, either directly or via the financial system.

With this broader interpretation of the energy dilemma – in which both direct and indirect factors contribute to a crisis dynamic unleashed by climate policymaking – much of the evidence cited by Tooze does not contradict my thesis but rather confirms it. Take the case of China’s energy crisis. Tooze writes that ‘There is no doubt that deliberate decisions by Beijing to regulate coal-fired electricity generation played a key part.’ Although other details must also be considered, in the context of booming demand a straightforward energy dilemma causality is discernible: binding targets for energy consumption and coal use = energy shortages = manufacturing disruptions and blackouts. This process ‘plays out transnationally and by way of the spillover of Chinese supply constraints both from coal and low-carbon sources, to global LNG markets’ – an observation which appears to give the energy dilemma framework a global dimension, showing how tentative steps in the direction of carbon transition in China fuel tensions on international markets that reverberate in the rising cost of gas, particularly in Europe.

Tooze correctly points out that the attempt of EU authorities to limit their reliance on Russian gas has backfired. The building of oversized LNG storage capacities subsidized by public money in Europe was intended to set up a credible alternative to Russian supply in order to extract cheaper prices from Gazprom. But this integration into global LNG markets has ended up increasing the vulnerability of the region to gas price surges. The internal difficulty of the energy transition is thus compounded by direct exposure to the repercussions of China’s energy metamorphosis. Moreover, Tooze writes that in 2021 ‘the green factor finally does enter the European story’ since ‘a surge in the price of emissions permits in the EU-ETS’, in addition to rising coal prices, prevented European operators from switching back to generating electricity from coal. Here, climate policy directly restricts the possibilities to mobilize cheaper options which would defuse cost pressure – another iteration of the energy dilemma that Tooze purportedly rejects.

However, although many of Tooze’s examples fit within a more broadly conceived energy dilemma framework, the overall thrust of his argument is distinct. He asserts that the dramatic fall in fossil fuel investment since 2015 is not a consequence of climate policies and campaigns but of falling energy prices, themselves related to the American shale-gas revolution of the early 2010s. It is worth interrogating this point further. Focusing on the coal-gas-renewable conundrum in Western countries, we must understand the extent to which the current misalignment between supply and demand is due to decreasing investment in coal, insufficient increase of renewable supplies and/or insufficient investment in gas to bridge the gap – and how climate policies have influenced these interlocking issues.

On this very complex question, Tooze makes two claims. The first is that divestment from coal was mostly driven by a loss of competitiveness vis-à-vis alternative sources of power generation, especially gas. This was clearly a decisive factor in the short-term, but it would be reckless to dismiss the significance of longer-term financial assessments informed by government climate pledges and civil society pressure on investors. For instance, Magnus Hall, CEO of Vattenfal, explained that his company decided in 2016 to divest from coal-fired power generation in Germany for both short-term economic reasons and longer-term prospects related to climate policy:

society is becoming less and less accepting of coal-fired power generation. And there is an economic truth: it is becoming increasingly difficult to make money from coal in Europe. For our part, we sold our mines and power plants because we knew that these assets had become too risky financially.

Tooze’s second claim concerns the ambiguous position of gas supplies. While the use of gas has grown as a substitute for coal – in part because it is a more flexible complement to renewables – investment has increased in the development of LNG infrastructure for imports. However, production has also decreased in Europe and investment in US shale-gas has slackened. Tooze tries to explain the rationale for this slowdown:  

If there is a force holding back new investment in America’s shale industry today, it is not government climate policy, but the insistence by Wall Street that the shale industry actually pay out dividends rather than plowing back its earnings into new drilling.

There are good reasons to doubt this argument. In fact, from the point of view of capital, not investing – or divesting and distributing profits to shareholders – is a logical way to hollow-out a business without a future. In that sense, the financialization mantra, ‘downsize and distribute’, becomes one way to retreat from fossil fuels and reallocate capital to other sectors. Consistent with this, we observe a marked relative devaluation of the Oil & Gas firms’ market capitalization relative to other sectors in the course of the last decade (Figure 1), reflecting investors’ move away from carbon stranded assets and anticipation of deteriorating prospects. The Wall Street Journal likewise acknowledges that ‘Concerns about long-term demand are exacerbating the oversupply of fossil fuels, and companies say they have become more selective about where they invest’, contributing to one the worst-ever write-downs in 2020. All this can be read as evincing a clear – if dramatically insufficient and untimely – shift away from fossil fuel which, in specific segments of the market and amid booming demand, contributed to the recent shortages in coal, gas and electricity generation.


Figure 1. All-World index versus Dow Jones Global Oil & Gas index: last 10 years (FT.com market data)

Tooze states that ‘What 2021 exposes is that the green push since 2015 has been enacted against the backdrop of a regime of low energy prices set by the price collapse in 2014.’ By green push, he means the fact that the replacement of some coal supplies with relatively cleaner gas was supported by a favourable evolution of their relative prices. The big picture is that this is not a viable pathway for green energy, due to methane emissions and underreporting of leakages which suggest that natural gas could be more environmentally destructive that previously thought. However, as far as the energy dilemma debate is concerned, the dividends of a price environment favourable to a shift away from coal simply adds more weight to the idea that the costs of the adjustment are real. Although they were postponed for a couple of years, they are now abruptly manifest.

In this sense, it would be unreasonable to exclude the energy dilemma from our analysis of the present conjuncture. There are straightforward and precise connections between energy market turbulence and climate policies in China and in Europe. The temporary increase in coal supply in China to defuse economic tensions testifies to at least a short-term trade-off between emissions and economic growth. It may be difficult to disentangle the role of low prices from the longer-term decline in private fossil fuel investment since 2015; but we should not dismiss the idea that the latter was partly driven by gloomy forecasts for the sector based on anticipated climate policies. High payouts to shareholders and declining market capitalization can, indeed, be read as symptoms of such forecasts.

Tooze rightly suggests that energy companies are responsible for the myopia concerning the evolution of demand patterns that resulted in insufficient investment in energy. The fact that global investment in renewables and energy efficiency has actually declined since 2015 is indicative of the sector’s lacklustre engagement with decarbonation efforts. Yet although these companies bear collective responsibility, the issue is also systemic. It reveals a deeper coordination problem that enterprises cannot handle via market mechanisms alone. The energy dilemma thesis is in this sense consistent with the IEA’s repeated warnings about the coordination challenges related to the transition, and their exacerbation by slow and inconsistent policymaking:

As the world makes its much-needed way towards net zero emissions, there is an ever-present risk of mismatches between energy supply and demand as a result of a lack of appropriate investment signals, insufficient technological progress, poorly designed policies or bottlenecks arising from a lack of infrastructure.

At present, shortages of coal and gas coincide with booming demand, but if renewable production rapidly expands, electrification accelerates and/or energy consumption significantly slows, a collapse of fossil fuel prices is possible. In spring 2020, oversupply of oil resulting from the pandemic lockdown pushed US prices into negative territory. Further decreases may occur when fossil fuel producers compete to valorize the last sellable resources in a world shifting beyond carbon. However, even if such price slumps take place amid an energy transition, their wider context will be rising costs driven by expensive investment efforts and the deadweight of carbon-asset legacies.

Tooze and I agree on the limits of the price mechanism to guide the green transition and the necessity of macroeconomic planning. When it comes to the energy dilemma question, I sympathize with his reluctance to give fossil-interests any argument that could be used to postpone further greenhouse gas reduction. Yet we must also resist the delusion that crisis tendencies related to climate policy are not at stake. A smooth transition beyond carbon is no longer an option. There is no Pareto-efficient way of eradicating fossil fuel use in a timeframe compatible with the prevention of climate disorders. A zero-sum or even negative-sum game is in play, which means that some parts of the population will bear the cost of the adjustment more than others.

This looming distributive conflict puts drastic constraints on class compromises. At this stage, I do not see what should prevent a large progressive front from rallying in favour of restrictions on the avoidable emissions related to the consumption patterns of the ultra-rich. A class-biased punitive ecology could become an effective means to stop ecologically perverse expenditure from rebounding onto the poorest. It could also be a stepping-stone to broader social mobilizations. Crucially, the primary implication of the crisis tendency is not the impossibility of humanity to handle the challenges of the energy transition, but the additional barriers to collective agency erected by the imperative of capital valorization. Subordinating profit-making to rapid decarbonation is, in my view, a price worth paying for the cause of climate justice.

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

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Theory Daddy

It was a celebration of all the aspects of New York art and culture that Sylvère Lotringer had touched. November 2014: ‘The Return of Schizo-Culture’, staged under the dome at MoMA PS1. It marked the fortieth anniversary of the press Lotringer co-founded: Semiotext(e). Performers ranged from the musician John Zorn to the poet John Giorno.

Lotringer resisted thinking of Semiotext(e) as an avant-garde, but it certainly bears comparison to some of the historic ones. Maybe he reinvented their form or found a way to replace them. Semiotext(e) was certainly more than a publishing house. It was international, inter-generational. It combined workers in many media, who attempted to articulate their time in forms appropriate to it – and whose desires were to change life, or at least endure it.

Like many of the animating figures of the historic avant-gardes, Lotringer’s life was blown off course by war. Born to Jewish immigrants from Poland in Paris in 1938, he was kept hidden in the countryside during the occupation. After, he lived with his family in Israel, before returning to Paris in 1958 where he was active in the Zionist socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. To avoid conscription in France’s war against Algerian liberation he enrolled in the École pratique des hautes études. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf under the direction of Lucien Goldmann and Roland Barthes.

Lotringer’s intellectual formation owes something not only to his teachers but also to movement work as a left-wing militant in postwar France. The everyday life of meetings, groups, manifestos, of publications aimed beyond the seminar room. For ten years he wrote interviews and articles ­– mostly on English modernist writers – for Les Lettres Françaises, edited by Louis Aragon, the former surrealist turned communist cultural commissar. Lotringer was never in the party but breathed the air of its extensive cultural milieu. One way of thinking about his life’s work is that he took the praxis of a militant cultural worker and turned it into an art form.

After bouncing around in Turkey, Australia, and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Lotringer landed at Columbia University in 1972, where he would teach for more than 30 years. With a handful of others, he started Semiotext(e) as a journal in 1974. The filmmaker Jack Smith thought Hatred of Capitalism would have been a better title. That is what the 2001 anthology was called.

The journal had several landmark issues, notably: Schizo-Culture (1978), Autonomia (1980), Polysexuality (1981) and The German Issue (1982). These featured a mix of theory and literature juxtaposed against arresting visual imagery and art. In 1983, Semiotext(e) launched its famous Foreign Agents book series, with Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations. These small black books, with no preface or blurbs, were central to creating the 1980s passion in the Anglophone world for theory.

Once, when he lamented to me how little he had written, I remarked that he had not written much writing but he had authored several authors. Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and Félix Guattari came to exist as figures in American letters in large part through his efforts. Their reception via Semiotext(e) took a different path to the passage of French philosophy into the High Theory practiced in elite humanities institutions. In Lotringer’s hands, it became low theory, the lingua franca of creative workers, avant-garde artists, and downtown bohemians.

Columbia professor by day, Lotringer was also a figure of nightlife, which is where many of us first encountered his warmth and generosity, his curious yet detached, inscrutable engagement. He was not exactly of the East Village scene. He was usually slightly displaced from it. That too was something of a method, a psychogeographic technique of understanding an ambience of the city from its edges. He was, among other things, a nightlife ethnographer, comfortable among those doing their best to refuse work and daylight but not of them. What was contemporary and original in Semiotext(e) came in part from this double practice of learning from the seminar and the soirée, the enlightened and benighted.

Through day and night, work and play, Lotringer came to see a connection between the way New York artists and Parisian philosophers responded to the failure of the festival of liberation in the late sixties, the global crises of the seventies and the rightward turn of the early eighties. In both milieux he found turns toward the materiality of language, experimental practices in social forms, engagement with media as a deepening presence in everyday life, and a refusal of the politics of representatives and representations.

The 1978 Schizo-Culture issue of the journal came out of a conference of the same name that Lotringer organized with John Rajchman in 1975. It brought together William Burroughs, Kathy Acker and John Cage with Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Jean-François Lyotard. The poster for the event was emblazoned with quotes from Deleuze about desire and Foucault on power, which signalled the will to go beyond the Freudo-Marxist dispensations then a commonplace among the New Left.

The Polysexuality issue pushed further into ways of thinking the possibilities of sexual practices as neither utopian nor pathological. Famously, it was typeset in all capitals to slow the reader down, as he, she or they perused the material gathered between the front cover image of a man in erotic congress with his motorcycle and the back cover crime scene photo.

At a time when the Italian Communist Party exercised a certain fascination among left wing intellectuals elsewhere, Autonomia looked beyond it to the Italian far left. It introduced many Anglophone readers to the political and intellectual energies of Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and Franco Berardi. The German Issue likewise looked beyond the increasingly bourgeois-liberal world of postwar critical theory to the margins where the liberal-social democratic pact had little to offer. It put Alexander Kluge next to Ulrike Meinhof. Lotringer extracted both issues at least in part through the kind of street and salon ethnography that yielded his insights into the connections between theory and the avant-gardes in New York.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Agents book series continued to offer intellectual provocations in bite-size chunks. Lotringer was a superb interviewer and made several interview-based books, including Pure War with Paul Virilio, Hannibal Lecter, My Father with Kathy Acker and Germania with Heiner Müller. All remain excellent introductions not just to the signature concepts of these writers but also to their singular intellectual practices.

While it came out in the book series, Still Black, Still Strong (1993) functioned a bit like one of the issues of the journal, although here Lotringer and his collaborators worked as editors in the service of documenting the theory and practice of the Black Panthers. The book includes contributions by Dhoruba Bin Wahad, Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In 1990, Lotringer’s partner and collaborator Chris Kraus proposed a second book series as a counterpoint and corrective to the Foreign Agents. Christened Native Agents, these books challenged the apparent universality of the speaking position in what had become by now the genre of theory. The books both anticipated and contributed to the turn towards situated knowledges, in which the author is no longer the universal enunciator of universal difference. The series includes authors such as Eileen Myles, Bob Flanagan, David Wojnarowicz and Situationist International co-founder Michèle Bernstein.

In 2001, Semiotext(e) moved its base of operations from New York to Los Angeles – tracking with the rise of alternate cultural energy there – and switched distributors from Autonomedia to MIT Press. Hedi El Kholti joined as managing editor. Without detracting from the energy and direction that Kraus and El Kholti have brought to Semiotext(e), it is a tribute to Lotringer that Semiotext(e) has been able to grow and adapt and incorporate them. It is now among other things a major publisher of New Narrative authors, including Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian and Robert Glück. They came out of a San Francisco scene where mostly gay and lesbian writers grappled with the limits of the novel as form for non-heterosexual, non-bourgeois lives, and with the impact of theory’s decenterings of subjectivity.

Lotringer’s own writing is sometimes overlooked. Despite the singularity of his project, it always involved collaborators, and some of his best writing is his dialogs with other writers. The big book never quite materialized, but fragments of that project exist, such as Mad Like Artaud (2015). That book extends Lotringer’s dialogic practice to the past, presenting Antonin Artaud’s madness as a kind of shared affect with all of those around him and after him, including Lotringer himself.

What I remember from nighttime conversations with Lotringer is that the larger project on which he was trying to work was a reading of Artaud, Simone Weil, Georges Bataille as anticipators of that fascism and commodification that would sweep across all of their lives. He saw them as attempting to divert fascism’s primal energies into rituals of expiation, and failing at the task. Postwar history then appears as the wake of that failure.

One could think of Semiotext(e) as distracting him from writing more than an essay on this project (published as The Miserables). Or, as I prefer to see it, one can think of Semiotext(e) as that book. The press is a kind of meta-writing. It’s a book written through many others, updated and revised as it went along. How prescient it was that Lotringer worked his whole life against the embers of fascism of which commodification is not the liberal extinguisher but the accelerant. It’s a project that seems now even more timely than in the decades of Semiotext(e)’s formation when the figure to rail and rally against was neoliberalism rather than neofascism.

In Kraus’s novel Torpor, a Lotringer-like character’s refrain is: ‘it could be worse.’ It’s the mantra of a survivor. Lotringer was incapable of the optimism that animated much of the postwar left. Rather, he gathered and connected the energies that might avoid the worst. He certainly published and encouraged writers of a more utopian bent, but more out of a sense of their value as components in the struggle to avoid the worst.

Lotringer appears as a character in several other books: I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia by Kraus; Great Expectations and My Mother: Demonology by Kathy Acker; Inferno by Eileen Myles. There’s traces of him in more fictionalized form elsewhere as well. He was made to be a character in literature because he was one of those rare people who, for a good many people, drew together a storied era and made it both intelligible and deeply felt. He could have that effect on students, artists, but also people whose lives did not end up centering intellectual or creative labour but needed nevertheless to understand the play of power and desire that shaped the limits and possibilities of their lives.

As I remember it, Lotringer would express a sort of wry ambivalence about the success of the kind of theory he fashioned in the commercial art world. ‘It’s a living’, he might say, and flash that grin. When concepts or modes of writing lost their counter-intuitive force he was inclined to move on. There’s a certain ongoing variation and revision one can find playing out all through the Semiotext(e) list. It wasn’t meant to become, as Deleuze and Guattari might put it, sedentary. It wasn’t meant to have too consistent an identity. Or as Foucault once put it: leave it to the police to see that our papers are in order.

Lotringer taught us certain tactics. To conduct one’s life as a discreet yet visible site of experimentation. To look for the play of concepts between one’s pleasures and one’s struggles. To not settle into too dense a representation of oneself, one’s desires, one’s politics. To find languages adequate to the moment and to find the historical resonances of that moment, perhaps outside narrative arcs one merely inherited, from family, school or party. For those who work and play in certain discrete – and discreet – ways, he remains a model. A kind of genial, encouraging, present yet reserved theory-daddy, I name I call and recall him with love and more than a little irony, camp and otherwise.

Read on: John Willett, ‘Art and Revolution’, NLR 112.

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Ortega’s Synthesis

On 7 November, Nicaraguans went to the polls for the first time since the dramatic spring of 2018, when the country experienced a sustained insurrectionary challenge to president Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista administration. Ortega stood for a fourth consecutive term with no viable opposition: the only other candidates were from marginal government-aligned parties. The dearth of challengers was a result of the Sandinistas’ unrelenting campaign of repression, which intensified in recent months to include the jailing of nearly every announced or anticipated anti-Sandinista presidential candidate, as well as a slew of other political and civil society leaders. Voters sympathetic to the opposition abstained from the election, rallying around slogans like Mi candidato está preso (‘my candidate is in jail’). Predictably, Ortega’s ticket, which also includes his wife and incumbent vice president Rosario Murillo, won a clear majority of votes: about 75%, according to the Supreme Electoral Council.

The 1979 Nicaraguan revolution, which issued in the first Ortega-led government, still occupies a totemic position for many socialists around the world. Arriving in the twilight of the Cold War, the Sandinista triumph promised to revitalize the global left, still reeling from the disappointments of decolonization and the failure of the Soviet experiment. But as international interest in the country receded following the Sandinistas’ surprise electoral defeat in 1990, the chasm between Ortega’s heroic image and political realities in Nicaragua grew ever wider.

Now, with pro- and anti-Ortega factions presenting sharply divergent interpretations not only of the 2018 civic rebellion, but also of the political character of his administration, reasoned debate on Nicaragua has become increasingly elusive. Unless the contradictions of the Sandinistas’ programme can be resolved, another period of unrest is likely to erupt during Ortega’s next five-year term. In this context, it is vital for internationalists to clear the fog of the Cold War and look with fresh eyes on the political-economic coordinates of 21st-century sandinismo.

The neoliberal period (1990-2006) left 70% of Nicaraguan workers unabsorbed by the formal labour market, prompting waves of popular protest in which Ortega, as leader of the opposition, played a prominent role. At the same time, by the mid-2000s a new class fragment had taken shape. An ascendant business sector – including a number of millionaire investors with revolutionary pedigrees, like Ortega himself – now chafed against the thin layer of hyper-wealthy families that had controlled the country’s export economy since the dictatorship era (1936-1979).

Ortega’s return to office in 2007 was, in large part, the fruit of an opportunistic power-sharing agreement struck by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and its historic rival, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). But it was also a rejection the Washington Consensus which coincided with the Pink Tide then cresting in Latin America. In Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, left-led governments were preceded by disruptive social movements that provoked crises in the national political system. Unlike Chávez, Morales and Correa, however, Ortega never promised to deliver transformative change by using the state to meet the demands of grassroots activists. Rather, Ortega pitched himself to both political elites and the wider public as the only figure capable of stabilizing the country’s political system by containing disruptive social conflicts within the state itself. (In this way, he bears a striking similarity to Lula in Brazil – another outsider among the Pink Tide cohort.) 

From the outset, the Ortega synthesis was an unstable class compromise in which the interests of private employers and un- and informally employed workers were sutured precariously together. This contradiction crystallized in the president’s vision of 21st-century Sandinista developmentalism. With one hand, the state extends generous social welfare programmes to unemployed and informal workers, whom it identifies as the protagonists of national development; with the other, it guarantees the acquiescence, and continued investment, of private employers by enhancing the conditions of exploitation in the wage-labour sector, for instance by restricting formally employed workers’ ability to organize.

The day after his inauguration in 2007, Ortega announced Nicaragua’s enrollment in the Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas (ALBA), an incipient economic bloc, led by Venezuela, which sought to resist US hegemony through regional economic cooperation. This new relationship pleased Nicaraguan producers by opening up the Venezuelan consumer market to their exports. For a time it also provided the Nicaraguan state with a reliable source of foreign aid; in 2014, Venezuelan assistance provided Nicaragua with almost a fifth of its annual budgeted income. The Ortega administration used that revenue to fund a range of means-tested welfare programmes, typically targeted at the jobless or informally employed, which provided direct grants of cash, construction materials and agricultural inputs to tens of thousands of poor households.

When Ortega first governed during the 1980s, the Sandinista revolution faced vehement opposition from Nicaraguan elites. When he returned to power in 2007, however, Ortega brought business associations – notably the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) – into government in official advisory roles, while also satisfying domestic investors’ demands for tax reductions. Exploiting the FSLN’s historically strong influence in the labour movement, the Ortega administration established tripartite agreements between the state, employers’ associations and Sandinista-aligned labour federations, minimizing conflict in nearly every industrial sector. The arrangement particularly benefited employers in the free trade sector, which during the 1990s and 2000s had been roiled by strikes and walkouts. New maquila factories proliferated during Ortega’s first term, and by 2012 the free trade sector employed one in six formal sector workers in Nicaragua.

The short-term economic effects of the Ortega synthesis raised eyebrows the world over. GDP expanded by 74% between 2006 and 2014, bringing Nicaragua into line with regional growth rates. Foreign direct investment, much of it aimed at free trade zones, grew at an annual rate of 22% during the same period. But the most impressive figures measured the country’s reduction in poverty. In 2005, the year before Ortega’s election, 48.2% of Nicaraguans subsisted on less than two US dollars per day; by 2017, that number had fallen to 20.1%.

Yet these achievements were never a pathway to socialism, nor even to sustainable developmentalism. Contemporary sandinismo triaged neoliberalism’s unruliest effects by maintaining, through targeted welfare grants, the livelihoods of workers excluded from the formal labour market; this, in turn, produced a steep drop in national poverty rates without disciplining the hyper-exploitative business class. Under this settlement, working-class organizations were co-opted by the state, and the Nicaraguan proletariat remained fragmented – partially enrolled in a constricted formal labour market; partially sustained by welfare programs that could only mitigate, but never transform, the conditions that suppressed wages in the formal sector. In the absence of external support – Venezuelan aid dropped dramatically in the years prior to 2018 – Ortega’s precarious compromise came apart.  

The immediate cause of the protests in 2018 was a proposed social security reform that would have increased personal and employer contributions while imposing a 5% reduction in benefits. Denouncing perceived corruption in the social security administration, university students in several cities organized demonstrations beginning in mid-April. Though they were violently disbanded by the national police and groups of Sandinista supporters, the unrest quickly spread, as urban youth and farmers joined the student uprisings. In May and June, protestors erected tranques – fortified roadblocks characteristic of militant protests in Central America – in neighborhoods and on highways throughout the country, paralyzing travel, limiting commerce, and sparking conflict with the national police.

In addition to organizing through student associations and formal opposition coalitions, militants established local groups (comités) and maintained informal communication through regional and national online networks. They referred to themselves as ‘los autoconvocados’, or ‘the self-organized’. As they mobilized, sections of the country became ungovernable, and stayed that way for months. Opinion polling conducted in the midst of the protests indicated that a majority of Nicaraguans in the most precarious employment situations supported Ortega’s immediate removal from office. Downward mobility, very often associated with ejection from formal employment in Nicaragua, was a significant predictor of dissatisfaction with Ortega. By contrast, those who felt their economic situation had improved or was unchanged since the previous year tended to back the president.

At first, the national business community, represented by COSEP and other chambers of commerce, maintained its support for the administration. Representatives from the free trade sector (including US- and Taiwan-based investors) even appeared onstage with the president when he announced the hasty withdrawal of his social security reform on 29 April. But COSEP soon responded to popular pressure by formally separating itself from the government. After over a decade as a stalwart Ortega ally, Nicaragua’s most powerful business association assumed a clear role in civil society-based opposition coalitions, where it was joined by other private sector groups. Together with associations of farmers and merchant vendors, business organizations staged periodic national work stoppages throughout 2018 that further weakened Ortega’s legitimacy.

The cross-class character of sandinismo was reflected in its opposition. A single narrow objective – Ortega’s removal from office – held together a broad but contradictory coalition, joining intersecting but uneven social sectors whose interests were mostly counterpoised. The demonstrators consistently rejected ideological labels, failing to formulate either a long-term vision or a concrete set of demands. This made the opposition movement especially vulnerable to state repression. For over a decade now, the Ortega government has unleashed the police on striking workers and underwritten settler violence in Nicaragua’s indigenous regions. But the behaviour of the national police force in 2018 was shocking even by those standards.

Groups of armed Sandinistas collaborated with national police to confront and detain protestors, especially during the ‘Clean Up Operation’ that razed tranques in June and July 2018. In a country only a generation removed from civil war, the emergence of these paramilitares had a chilling effect on protests, as did legislation ratified by the FSLN-controlled legislature that effectively criminalized public assembly. On Mother’s Day, hundreds of thousands marched to mourn the university students slain by state forces. Police responded by firing bullets into the crowd.

The rebellion sharply polarized opinion on the international left. Capitalizing on the mutually supportive dynamic between Nicaraguan state media and anti-imperialist observers abroad, the Ortega administration framed the protests as a CIA-orchestrated coup attempt – a narrative broadcast by sections of the Anglophone left with large online followings. Commentators sympathetic to Ortega continue to defend his government as a bulwark of ‘21st century socialism’ amid an ongoing crisis of the Latin American progressive politics. They correctly point out that a resurgent regional right, abetted at every step by international bodies such as the Organization of American States, is invested in the outcome of Nicaragua’s political crisis. The US, moreover, has imposed ‘targeted’ sanctions against Sandinista figures and passed the RENACER Act, a bundle of recommended sanctions which could result in Nicaragua’s expulsion from CAFTA. Ortega’s supporters are right that such mechanisms are intended to usher in a new regime that will neither be progressive nor democratic. But clear-headedness demands we acknowledge the barriers to socialist renewal that Ortega himself has erected. If the country soon takes a rightward turn, its roots will lie in the Sandinistas’ untenable programme, which ties the fortunes of workers to the profits of their exploiters. With the government’s reputation further damaged by the 7 November elections – which a significant portion of the public regards as illegitimate – it is now unclear how long these contradictions can be contained. Ortega has been re-elected, but he may not be president for long.

Read on: Dennis Rodgers, ‘A Symptom Called Managua’, NLR 49.

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Belgian Sorrows

‘I shall not forget the evening I spent in the luxurious restaurant in the Grand Place… beyond its windows the Belgian people went about their usual lives: eating chocolates, crashing their fine cars and wondering whether Belgium was really a country at all’. So recounts the protagonist of Doctor Criminale (1992) Malcolm Bradbury’s satirical novel examining the state of Europe after the fall of the wall. A decade earlier, the Belgian novelist Hugo Claus had given a more pessimistic prognosis for the future of Western Europe’s most unlikely country in The Sorrow of Belgium (1983), where collaborationist Flemish nationalists, despotic nuns, and degenerate policemen make up the central characters. For Claus, the country’s fractures were plain to see. Communist militants were attacking pro-NATO businesses, former military personnel went on rampages in Belgian supermarkets. Two years before in fact, Walter Van Den Broeck had gone as far as writing a fully-fledged scenario of the break-up of Belgium in The Siege of Laken (1980), with soldiers occupying the Grande Place and the royal family seeking refuge in a forest chalet.

Bradbury’s Belgium is, of course, still here. In the 1990s the country split into three new regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels-Capital), siphoning policymaking off to the regional level. By 2011 it had broken records for the longest government formation in modern history, only resolved by a grand coalition à la belge which ended in a resounding separatist victory in the north for the New-Flemish Alliance (N-VA). In the first lockdown season its death toll broke all comparative records; hospitals and care homes were overrun. Last month, regional governments announced a collective retightening of restrictions, with new mask mandates in public spaces and a French-style corona pass. Brussels has barely reached a vaccination rate of 60%, while Flanders and Wallonia head towards the OECD average. The pandemic has re-enflamed older regionalist tensions, with even some staunch Belgian unionists now contemplating the dissolution of the federal social security system – the crown jewel of Belgium’s industrial working class.

Despite all this infighting, an endearing picture of Belgium persists abroad. As The Economist noted earlier this year, Belgium is ‘the world’s most successful failed state’ with Belgians ‘almost as rich as Germans and better off than Britons or the French’. Health services are excellent, wages are high, asset price inflation has never dropped. The abnormally high suicide rate and regional inequality between Wallonia and Flanders aside, Belgians remain well educated, wealthy and secure (‘the country is at peace’, Tony Judt noted in a 1999 report for the New York Review of Books, ‘if not with itself then at least with everyone else.’). More than anywhere in Scandinavia, the country appears as the ideal location for a sheltered, safe, social-democratic paradise.

Yet Belgians’ prosperity has hardly immunized them against a deep sense of disaffection and unease. Belgium’s traditional party democracy is imploding, state capacity is waning, and an emboldened far right is on the rise. In May, a fugitive military corporal named Jürgen Conings went on the loose, hunting for the prominent virologist Marc Van Ranst who previously advised the government on its lockdown policies. The underfunded Belgian military went on a frantic search. Muslim parents withdrew their children from school, tanks cruised through the forests.

The soldier’s body was found in a woodland by his house in late June. He was first spotted by a ranger who promptly sold snapshots of his corpse to international journalists. Later in the day, the local liberal mayor noticed the stench on his weekend bike ride, recognising it because of an earlier habit of digging up burial sites (few inquired further). Both macabre and surreal, the episode was Belgian to the core. It also proved a major ordeal for the new coalition government led by liberal prime minister Alexander De Croo, who replaced an interim predecessor that had been ruling by decree since the start of the pandemic.

Tens of thousands expressed their support on Facebook for Conings’s vigilantism. Most turned out to be relatively wealthy exurban households, occupying a village society without villages. Desperately poor in the nineteenth century, the Flemish were hoisted into the new Fordist middle class by the 1960s and have remained there since. The last became the first in post-war Belgium, but the Flemings never overcame the trauma of a century of linguistic repression, and still suffer from an inferiority complex of Freudian proportions.

For a long time, the Christian Democrats (CD&V) presided over electoral fiefdoms in the Flemish countryside. Party, church and the local history society provided cohesion as the Flemish made their entry into modernity. But this ‘precious fabric’ – a favourite phrase of Bart De Wever, phlegmatic leader of the N-VA, lifted from Tory theorist Theodore Dalrymple – has now been eroded, eaten away by thirty years of consumerism and digitalisation. Flemings no longer look to their local clergyman for voting advice; a new outspoken citizen has leaped into the void without a party card, laptop at the ready. Flanders’ Christian Democrats still had an impressive 130,000 members in 1990; they now count a meagre 43,000 and are polling under 10%. In the same period, the Socialists plummeted from 90,000 to 10,000 members.

No party however has gone through a more unwieldy transformation than the Flemish Socialists. In the south, the francophone Socialist Party rules unencumbered with a membership base larger than its French counterpart in a region of barely 4 million inhabitants. Its Flemish outfit is much smaller. In September 2020, its chairman Conner Rousseau announced a new name for the party: the slick sounding Vooruit (Forward). Elected on a platform of modernisation, Rousseau has followed his namesake in stressing the necessity of direct democracy and of turning his party into a ‘network’. He has also managed to pacify the warring clans within his party. Primarily though, Rousseau has combined vaguely patriotic appeals with loud lamentations about declining state capacity in the age of COVID.

The end result looks more like a Belgian Five Star movement than the conservative Danish Social Democrats. At a recent party conference, Rousseau appeared behind a red curtain, his silhouette projected onto a large screen overhead. When the futuristic music stopped, Rousseau was supposed to dramatically appear, but he got stuck in the curtain; a belated smoke bomb went off as he entered the stage. ‘We’re back bitches’ was his cry. The results of this gamble are unclear: Vooruit is polling only two percentage points higher, just behind the ailing Christian-Democrats.

Belgian politics thus evinces a curious combination of political turmoil and stasis. In many ways, the country’s political centre has fallen out; for the first time in Belgian history, the mainstream bloc dropped under 50% in the European Parliament elections. In Belgium, the party families that classically populated the state since 1893 – the three ‘pillars’ of liberals, socialists and Christians ­– have now lost their joint majority. If anyone was looking for a model of ‘post-classical’ democracy, this is it. Belgium’s twentieth century is well and truly buried. In an interview with a Sunday paper, Christian-Democrat leader Joachim Coens also pondered a transformation of his vehicle into a ‘party-network’ which would consult non-members and organize citizens’ assemblies. He mentioned Samen (Together) as a possible new name; ‘Forward Together’ now became a possible coalition option.

Vooruit has come up with its own variant of what Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti have termed ‘techno-populism’. On one side we have Rousseau, dancing with rappers on his TikTok account. On the other, we have Frank Vandenbroucke, federal minister of public health and luminary of the Socialist Party, who since 2020 has served as the nation’s father figure – the bearer of bad news for a nation eager to return to normal. A Trotskyist in his youth, Vandenbroucke went into government with the Socialists in the 1990s but left after a scandal concerning money for helicopter purchases, during which he notoriously was asked to burn the offending banknotes in a forest. He relocated to Oxford for a PhD with G. A. Cohen and Anthony Giddens, rebranding himself as a staunch social security reformer and supporter of workfare policies. Now, he has returned as the guardian of a more protective and pastoral state.

As in other European countries, protectionism has steadily grown across the spectrum, not least given the mounting cost of energy prices. At the request of EU authorities, Belgium finalized the liberalization of its energy markets shortly before the 2008 crash. This effectively created an oligopoly which forces users to switch providers based on confected deals every two months. Facing a winter of price hikes, even the leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats came out in favour of renationalization, clarifying that he shared the communist line.

Condemned to cohabitation with former sister parties, Belgium’s traditional parties are alarmed above all by the rise of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), which now polls at a menacing 26%, pushing the separatist bloc over 50%. The party was originally formed in the late 1970s as a response to the Egmont pact, one of the country’s attempted compromises between secessionism and federalism. Its initial ambition was that of a separatist pressure group: it would win a plurality and push for a republican break. By the early 1990s, however, inspired by the social nativism of Jean-Marie Le Pen, it began to mutate into a broader anti-systemic force, turbocharging its anti-immigrant rhetoric and issuing open calls for their expulsion. In a country reeling from the Dutroux affair – where a Walloon serial killer was repeatedly able to elude police, spawning the so-called ‘White Marches’ against a dysfunctional justice system – and slotted into the Maastricht order without a clear popular mandate, this message was bound to resonate. In 1991, the party broke through its electoral ceiling on so-called ‘Black Sunday’.

Formerly known as the Vlaams Blok (‘Flemish Bloc’), by the early 2000s the party was forced to rebrand after it was found to have breached anti-racism laws. The new Flemish Interest caused trouble for the traditional parties for a few years but was subsequently surpassed by the more neoliberal nationalism of De Wever’s N-VA, who were able to capitalise on the communitarian stalemate after 2008. The N-VA though was inexperienced when it entered government in 2014. It came out battered and bruised, unable to deliver on its pro-market promises and hamstrung by the veto of southern socialists.

The Vlaams Belang has proven all too adept at exploiting this defeat. Unlike the parties of other hard right impresarios such as Viktor Orbán or Éric Zemmour, the Belang continues to have a solid and wide local base, complete with cafeterias and youth clubs, motor gangs and gymnastic outfits. Its young leader Tom Van Grieken presents himself as the far right’s ideal son-in-law. Since 2015, the party has managed to mobilise its older civil infrastructure for digital outreach: no party spends more on social media. The young, independent MP Dries Van Langenhove – not an official member but elected on the party’s ticket – runs a podcast where he urges followers to abstain from masturbation and remain fit, part of his long-term attempt to preserve the white race (Van Langenhove first achieved notoriety as a member of a far-right chat group at the University of Ghent, posting the usual photos with semi-automatics and frog memes).

Vlaams Belang has also proven effective at exploiting Flemish unease towards a newly assertive, primarily millennial anti-racism and ecologism. Above all, the Belang obsess over the former liberal Antwerp politician Sihame El Kaouakibi, who was accused of embezzling public funds for her private start-up last year. With its distinctly Belgian mode of ethnic brokerage politics, El Kaouakibi represents a new entrepreneurial elite with migrant roots. Another prominent target is the queer student Anuna De Wever (no relation), who has led several school strikes for the climate in the past two years.

Ethnic minorities like El Kaouakibi still face a wall of prejudice, and by any standard the nation is far behind when it comes colonial self-examination. Visitors at music festivals still occasionally sing chants about ‘cutting hands in the Congo’. Some years ago, the refurbished Africa Museum – completed by Leopold II after he handed over his personal Congolese dominion to the Belgian state – held an Africa-themed gathering in its gardens where partygoers came clad in blackface, pith helmets and leopard skins. The museum later issued an apology; even the British Telegraph picked up on the scandal. Belgium’s ‘Great Awokening’ is, in every way, uneven and combined.

Some parameters have begun to shift, however. In April, a radio presenter at the mainstream MNM station was attacked with a vial of acid in a park in Antwerp. Some weeks before, she had featured in a general-interest television programme in which she showed a photograph of her grandfather. The man was later revealed to be Gerard Soete, one of the mercenaries charged with disposing of the captured independence leader Patrice Lumumba, killed on joint orders of the Belgian crown and the CIA in 1961. In the late 1990s he had been approached by Belgian journalists to talk about his involvement in the affair. During an infamous interview, he opened one of the bureaus in his Brussels apartment and got out a box filled with ivory-white teeth – ostensible remains of the acid treatment applied to Lumumba’s disfigured body (The author Ludo De Witte reached the same conclusion in his 1999 The Assassination of Lumumba). In January 2016, a tooth purportedly belonging to Lumumba’s body was confiscated at the residency of Soete’s daughter. His granddaughter said she knew next to nothing of her grandfather’s previous life.

Leopold’s ghosts clearly still haunt the national patrimony. Several of his statues have been defaced in the past year and the current king recently issued a carefully worded apology to the Congo for the atrocities committed during his reign. With a country that never experienced a significant influx of post-colonial immigration, such activism is bound to remain minoritarian – and, more dangerously, unlikely to marshal votes. Looking forward to 2024, De Wever has stated his willingness to move beyond constitutional niceties. ‘I hardly believe’, he declared in an interview with a local newspaper, ‘that anything can be done in a legalistic way anymore. The country is completely jammed’. Instead, he invoked the need for ‘a new coup, a new Loppem moment’ – referring to when the Belgian king convoked socialist and liberal party leaders after the First World War in the village of Loppem, without Catholic consultation. The meeting ratified full male suffrage, new social security mechanisms, and the promise of a Dutch-speaking university.

De Wever’s bombast is more a sign of desperation than fortitude. Above all, he finds himself outflanked by a resurgent far right, capitalizing on his broken separatist and nativist promises. In the centre, Flemish employers’ associations are dissatisfied with his failure to introduce regressive cuts to unemployment benefits and social services. Socially liberal voters uneasy with the party’s intensifying anti-immigration, meanwhile, are deserting the N-VA for the Greens – the party left government in 2019, after all, in protest against the signing of a UN-backed global migration agreement, the so-called ‘Marrakech pact’. The growing communist PVDA/PTB – the last unionist party of the country – meanwhile has issued its own alternative program for 2024, clearly distinguishing its unionism from ‘the “Belgique à papa” which sent children to work in the mines – the Belgium of Leopold II and of colonisation, of the Société Générale, of collaboration and discrimination’.

It is unlikely that De Wever can push for a Catalan-style conflagration in 2024. There is no haughty federal authority which would dispatch troops to Antwerp, as Madrid did with Barcelona. And the constitution’s parity requirements between Flemings and Walloons make a unilateral declaration of independence extremely risky.

It has become a commonplace to describe Belgium as an ‘impossible’ nation, a state living on borrowed time. Destined for Kleinstaaterei or upward absorption into federalist Europe, the country appears as little more than a relic of bourgeois Europe – an ‘accident of nineteenth-century history’, as De Wever likes to say. Many Belgian professionals share a quaint enthusiasm for this Belgian non-identity, seeing it as the ideal model for Habermas’s ‘post-national’ age. A motley collage of Brussels mussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme, René Magritte and the Red Devils football team is often the best marketing teams can come up with.

Belgian reality is far more prosaic, however. Like its Red Devils, the country relies on national champions and star players to deal with its endemic crises – but it never musters enough team spirit to truly overcome them. Belgians are wealthy and secure but have little sense of how they might collectively mobilize that wealth and security. Stuck between federalism and regionalism, Belgium’s successful failed state is left to decompose without ever fully imploding. Chroniclers have of course been predicting the death of Western Europe’s most unlikely country for several decades now. Anno 2021, however, it feels more likely that obituaries will be composed for the United Kingdom before its overseas neighbour.

Read on: Anton Jäger, ‘Rebel Regions’, NLR 128.

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Global Britain?

If the Conservatives’ 2021 Budget demonstrates the limits of their domestic ‘levelling up’ agenda – a modest rise in public spending that fails to repair ten years of austerity – what of the party’s foreign policy? Two years into his tenure, how does Boris Johnson’s promise of a ‘Global Britain’ align with the reality?

To answer, we should first recap the past decades of UK geopolitics. Britain’s international role has long been defined by subservience to Washington, acting as lead attack-dog where regime change has been decreed. This has always been a bipartisan project, but New Labour’s ‘hyper-subalternity’ towards America constituted an extreme, in contrast to the sovereigntist reflexes that sometimes animate the Tory benches. After the abortive militarism of the Blair years, Cameron’s overseas strategy involved a semi-coherent attempt to build a ‘smarter empire’. His government pledged to streamline and modernize the armed forces, with greater emphasis on soft power, trade policy and propaganda – treading a more cautious line than Blair had done in following US diktats. Spending cuts slashed thousands of defence jobs. Troop numbers were depleted and weapons purchases slimmed down – though work went ahead on the pocket-sized aircraft carrier beloved of Blair and Brown as a great-power status symbol.

Contra jingoistic criticisms from the Labour frontbench, this cost-cutting entailed no pull-back in Britain’s ‘global reach’. In 2011, with Obama famously ‘leading from behind’, Cameron joined Sarkozy in pushing for regime change in Libya, unleashing six months of NATO airstrikes that left an estimated 6,000 dead and catalysed a decade of factional violence. He intensified the civil war in Syria, working with Hollande to lift the EU embargo on arming anti-government forces, and established the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to bankroll Assad’s opponents with at least £350 million, foregoing multiple opportunities to support a negotiated settlement that could have prevented the country’s interminable conflict.

Between 2010 and 2016, Cameron deployed troops to Somalia to support lethal US drone attacks; enabled the Saudi cluster bombing of Yemen; redoubled his commitment to the occupation of Afghanistan; launched a bloody ‘counterterrorism’ offensive against a scattered group of Malian dissidents; and applauded Israel’s strikes on Gazan civilians. Many of the UK’s interventions were joint enterprises with France, whose campaign for a more integrated European security policy was largely backed by Downing Street.

Cameron’s minimal display of independence in cutting the defence budget predictably angered the Obama White House, which continually reminded its Atlantic partner of NATO’s spending requirements. To save face, the PM switched tack shortly after the 2015 election and agreed to dedicate 2% of GDP to defence – though he instructed his advisers to find a way of meeting the target without actually burning through more money (for instance, by expanding the definition of security expenditure). Above all, Washington was incensed by Cameron’s refusal to toe the line on relations with the PRC. As the US geared up for a Great Power rivalry, the UK conversely signed onto Xi’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and expanded China’s access to British markets, with George Osborne declaring that ‘No economy in the west is as open to Chinese investment as the UK’. When it came to sabre-rattling against Russia, transatlantic unity seemed superficially to be restored: the US and UK both backed punitive sanctions in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea. But the Obama Administration still had cause to distrust their ally’s resolve, given the Tories’ roster of Kremlin donors. 

After Brexit, the partnership with France unravelled, as Barnier and Macron pushed to inflict maximal damage on Britain to deter future experiments in popular sovereignty. That, along with the imperative to court a Trump-approved trade deal, helped to revitalize the special relationship. As Theresa May replaced Cameron in Downing Street, with Johnson her bumbling Foreign Minister, the UK doubled the size of its SAS force in Afghanistan and facilitated US drone strikes on Pakistan. But the two sides remained at odds over China. Trump’s tariff wall made a sharp contrast with May’s initial campaign to strengthen commercial ties and embrace the Belt and Road Initiative. While Washington pivoted from the Middle East toward Asia, London sharpened its focus on the Gulf monarchies, whose function in financing the UK’s deficit through weapons purchases would become increasingly vital to the post-Brexit economy – allowing Britain to ‘spread its wings across the world’, as Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the DSEI arms fair in 2017. 

Enter Johnson as PM two years later, repurposing the ‘Global Britain’ bombast of the Brexit campaign as ultra-servility to Washington. Johnson and Cummings hired John Bew, a hard-core Labour-Atlanticist in the Bevin mould, to draft their ‘Integrated  Review’ of the UK’s international role. Bew is the author of an admiring account of Attlee’s Cold War record and fathering of the British Bomb, as well as a former holder of the Henry Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy at the Library of Congress, who has consistently praised the special relationship and attacked the notion that ‘non-interference in other nations would leave us secure.’ According to his Review, in the more ‘interconnected, multipolar and contested environment’ of the 2020s, Great Power competition will heighten the significance of ‘middle powers’ which stand between the American and Chinese blocs. In this context, Britain’s task is to foster ‘liberal democracy and free markets’, being ‘more active in shaping the open international order of the future’ – where necessary, by force. It must ‘create armed forces that are both prepared for warfighting and more persistently engaged worldwide’, aiming for an increasingly visible military presence on the international stage.

Hence provocations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, where Johnson sent an aircraft carrier strike group and the warship HMS Richmond in August and September 2021, eliciting a furious response from the Chinese Defence Ministry. Hence too the HMS Defender’s stage-managed confrontation with the Russian military in the Black Sea last June. Such actions are no less dangerous for being purely symbolic: a ‘theatrical exercise without serious British strategic purpose or rationale’, as Anatol Lieven has argued. The UK does not have enough aircraft or escort vessels to make the HMS Queen Elizabeth fully operational, and – as in Afghanistan – remains utterly reliant on the US for support. These deployments are PR stunts to boast of London’s unquestioning loyalty to the Anglo-American compact. Yet as Lieven stresses, the folly of strutting into a war with China would easily overshadow Britain’s disastrous collaboration in the invasion of Iraq. At the very least, these naval missions will further poison Anglo-Chinese relations, while the cause of those fighting for greater equality, freedom and democracy in China is only set back by ramped-up mutual chauvinisms.

If Johnson is susceptible to the charge – articulated by an Atlanticist stalwart in the FT – that performative gestures have become a stand-in for coherent foreign policy, much as culture-war posturing has become a substitute for ‘levelling-up’, he is nonetheless planning to put the taxpayer’s money where his mouth is. Inverting Cameron’s approach, Johnson has approved a £16.5bn rise in defence spending over four years. The RAF reports that this funding will be used for a ‘more regular drumbeat of deployments’ to the so-called Indo-Pacific, aiming to make Britain one of the most prominent actors in the region. The UK has also upgraded its cybersecurity capacities and passed a raft of legislation to facilitate its covert operations. Johnson’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act gives undercover British agents the ability to murder, rape and torture without fear of legal sanction; his Overseas Operations Bill has grants British soldiers a free pass to commit war crimes; and his amendments to the Official Secrets Act recast critical journalists and whistleblowers as enemy spies. All this points to neo-imperial ambitions which, as under Blair, are more than merely gestural.

For Wolfgang Münchau, Britain’s manoeuvres against China signal a larger fracturing of ‘the West’. France and Germany are unlikely to pull their weight in any New Cold War, given their need to protect large export surpluses and push through the EU-China comprehensive agreement. The UK, by contrast, has remade itself as ‘the only European country the US can trust in the pursuit of its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific’. With NATO too internally fragmented to confront America’s chief rival, the organization is likely to play ‘a more peripheral role in the future’, as the UK will ‘gradually cut off from European security policy’ and line up behind the White House.

The AUKUS nuclear pact, designed to escalate the arms race with China while casually marginalizing France, signals this intention. As does Britain’s ambition to expand the G7 into a new ‘D10’: a coalition of anti-China powers that would include India, Australia and South Korea. Johnson and Modi have agreed to work towards an India-UK Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with a provisional deadline set for 2030, which would strike economic deals and combat ‘shared security threats’. In the meantime, Britain has sided with Indian forces in their sporadic border clashes with the Chinese. Next year, the UK hopes to ratchet up its influence by joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade accord comprising eleven nations in the Pacific Rim. If its application is successful, London will attempt to block China’s parallel bid for entry.

While the UK’s liberal-democratic values are trumpeted in the Taiwan Strait, they take a back seat in other parts of the world. Johnson’s government enthusiastically supported the 2019 right-wing coup in Bolivia – using it as an opportunity to gain access to the country’s lithium deposits. It helped fund the campaign to oust Venezuela’s Maduro, and assisted the Columbian police as they led a lethal crackdown on anti-government protests earlier this year. At the same time, Britain continues to consolidate its friendships with despots in the Gulf. The RAF has established a second joint fighter squadron with Qatar as part of a £6bn arms deal, despite the regime’s support for UK-designated terror groups – including al-Qaeda’s outfit in Yemen. Johnson has provided the Omani security services with training and equipment, allowing them to violently disband large-scale protests. And British soldiers have been dispatched to Mahra province in Yemen, where they are assisting Saudi forces implicated in the torture and disappearance of detainees.

The UK sells billions worth of telecommunications interception equipment to each of these dictatorships, as well as aiding them through an opaque ‘Gulf Strategy Fund’ launched in April 2020. Such financial ties are set to deepen. Having spent months cosying up to the Bahraini Crown Prince – who oversees the systematic torture of pro-democracy activists in his country – Johnson is now on the cusp of signing a trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) which would grant City financiers and British pharmaceutical giants greater access to their markets. He has already secured an equivalent agreement with Sisi’s Egypt, giving tacit approval for the scores of extrajudicial killings carried out by its Interior Ministry. Israel – Britain’s other major trading partner – has also received unparalleled support from Johnson’s Cabinet, which has helped security forces repress dissent in the West Bank and opposed an ICC investigation into war crimes in the occupied territories.

Reckless warmongering and arms for the worst Gulf dictators: surely Johnson’s record is an open goal for the Labour opposition? Not under Keir Starmer. If the Labour leader’s domestic goal is to pose – unavailingly – as a more competent Johnson, on China Starmer has positioned himself as more aggressive still. Calling for ‘an end to the naivety of the golden era’, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy has urged the Tories to ban CCP officials from Britain, marginalise China at the UN, step up coordination with the US, and escalate the sanctions regime. Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s foreign policy spokesman on China, has asserted that ‘managing the rise of China is the number one geopolitical challenge the world is facing’, lambasting the Tories for their lack of success in ‘exerting or projecting our influence’ over the PRC. Nandy and Kinnock have also established close ties with the Tories’ foremost Sinophobe, the former Territorial Army officer Tom Tugendhat, who quipped that ‘Stephen Kinnock and I could give each other’s speeches on this subject’. Tugendhat’s ‘China Research Group’ – established to promote such policies as expelling Chinese students from British universities and sabotaging Belt and Road – was once seen as an association of hard-right Tory jingoists; but under Starmer, Labour MPs have been encouraged to join it.

The same pattern holds for other foreign policy decisions. Starmer claimed that the government had ‘badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required’; hinted at his support for an indefinite occupation of Afghanistan; and cheered the Tories’ attempt to immunize soldiers and spies from prosecution – while suggesting that the Overseas Operations Bill did not go far enough in this endeavour. The party welcomed Johnson’s historic expansion of the military budget and called for investment in extra nuclear submarines, expressing its ‘non-negotiable’ support for atomic weapons. 

Such reassurances to the security establishment have, of course, run alongside Labour’s dogged attempts to eradicate any trace of anti-Zionism from its ranks. So far, Starmer has launched a purge against even the most moderate critics of Israeli ethnic cleansing. He has given a green light to Labour Friends of Israel as it lobbies the government to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and implicitly blamed Hamas ‘rocket attacks’ for the Israeli government’s aerial onslaught against a trapped Palestinian population. The government Starmer hopes to lead would continue to supply Israel with the arms needed to maintain its illegal occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. Since Corbyn’s departure as leader and suspension from the PLP, both parliamentary blocs have reverted to the unabashed Altanticism of the new millennium. But whereas Blairism was met with a prominent anti-war movement, its latest variant – Global Britain – is yet to encounter such resistance.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘Toryism After Blair’, NLR 36.