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To Be Both

Who is Arthur Rambo? To hear the name spoken, it is the young radical poet who comes to mind. To see it written conjures instead the image of Sylvester Stallone’s muscle-bound action hero. The disturbing ability to be both, for one individual to contain two apparently opposed personalities, is at the heart of Laurent Cantet’s new film, released in French cinemas this month. When we meet Arthur Rambo, he does not go by that name anymore. He is Karim D., the new star of Paris’s literary scene. A second-generation Algerian immigrant, he has just published a first novel about his mother’s courageous journey from le pays to begin a new life in France which has ‘stunned’ the critics and set the Twittersphere alight with praise. ‘Your story is my story Karim’, ‘Thank you Karim D. You have given me a voice to speak about my own past’ are among the types of comments posted after the young writer delivers yet another charming television interview. The opening shot of the film shows him seated in a studio against a green screen special-effects background. Framed in deception, in other words, is how Cantet introduces us to his protagonist, in an elegant foreshadowing of what will follow. 

For the next fifteen minutes or so we are with Karim as he navigates the crowds, dressed in a sharp tie-less suit, the man of the moment, a smug grin fixed on his face. He is at a party at an upscale venue in Paris. The setting is a high-rise, not of the suburban social housing we will later enter as we step back into Karim’s childhood, but in a neighbourhood that through the huge windows looks like La Défense, the financial district. This is 21st century French publishing: the smoky cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, historically the backdrop for anything associated with the capital’s literary scene on screen, are nowhere to be seen. At this gathering people are talking business. After discussing a film adaptation of his novel with one producer, Karim weaves his way through the trays of canapés and champagne and into a room where strobe lighting illuminates a gyrating crowd. He joins in, taking centre stage, then steps out for a breather on a balcony, the lights of the city behind him.

Enter Arthur Rambo. Someone online has made the connection between Karim and the tweets he posted under this pseudonym a few years before. In an instant all Rambo’s old tweets are shared. As Karim scrolls on his phone, we read what he is seeing, one message after the other. Their vehemence, their vitriol, their crude anti-Semitism and misogyny, is stomach-churning. ‘You have destroyed all my faith’, ‘That’s what happens when you let the suburbs come into the centre’… are the tone of the reaction tweets starting to flow. Karim’s downfall is as quick and as definitive as the drop of the guillotine’s blade. Commentators on the left denounce him as an embarrassment and a fraud, those on the right as a perfect example of what they have always said about the racaille, or scum, of the banlieue.

This is the ninth feature by Laurent Cantet, one of France’s most interesting and understated directors. Born in 1961, he grew up living in a school in a small town in the Deux-Sèvres region of central France where his parents worked as teachers. His introduction to cinema came through a ciné club they organised for pupils, as well as watching classics on television. He initially studied photography in Marseilles but, he has said, soon grew impatient to tell stories and in 1983 enrolled at the prestigious IDHEC, since renamed La Fémis, where many of France’s directors are educated. During his studies he formed a close-knit group with other budding filmmakers in his class – Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand, Robert Campillo – and their friendship has been integral to his work since then, leading to several collaborations on various features. In the 1990s, as he began to shoot his own films, he also joined the collective ‘Les cinéastes des sans-papiers’, an activist group calling for the legalisation of undocumented workers and he has contributed shorts for all their portmanteau films to date: Nous, sans-papiers de France (1997), Laissez-les grandir ici! (2007), On bosse ici! On vit ici! On reste ici! (2010) and Les 18 du 57, Boulevard de Strasbourg (2014).

Cantet’s dominant themes have been clear ever since his first short Tous à la manif in 1997. There he focused on students organizing a protest, and one young man hoping to join them, but held back by family loyalties and his role as a waiter in the bistro where they are gathered. Class dynamics, social issues of various kinds, and the tensions between personal loyalties and political beliefs are the substance of Cantet’s cinema, and this – in addition to a more traditional approach to mise-en-scène – has set him apart from those more typically celebrated as France’s leading auteurs, both domestically and internationally, such as Claire Denis, Léos Carax and Gaspar Noé. More provocative and formally experimental, but less occupied by ordinary lives and struggles, these directors tend to steal the limelight at festivals and have garnered more critical and scholarly attention.

Among Cantet’s stand-out features are his second and third films, which focus on the world of work and our relationship to it. The clash between unions and management is at the heart of Ressources humaines (1999), which examines this through the prism of a father-son relationship. L’Emploi du temps (2001), meanwhile, takes loose inspiration from the Jean-Claude Romand affair to follow a man who pretends to go work each day even after he has been fired from his white-collar job. Cantet’s best-known work that won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Entre les murs (2008), takes place in the education sector. But while that was familiar territory, he has also worked outside his comfort zone, studying the relations between outsiders and locals in two other key films set in Haiti, Vers le sud (2005), and Cuba, Retour à Ithaca (2014).

The idea for Arthur Rambo derives from the case of Mehdi Meklat. This affair sparked a major controversy in France in 2017 when it was revealed that the 24-year-old Meklat, celebrated for his Libération blog, regular radio appearances and his first novel, had a pseudonym, Marcellin Deschamps, under which he posted racist, misogynist and homophobic tweets. Until then he had been that rare thing in France: an Arab media personality. ‘He allowed himself all excesses’, Meklat would later say to explain why Marcel Duchamp had inspired his pen name. He imagined Deschamps doing the same: ‘How far could he go? What would be his limits?’ For Cantet, Meklat presented an enigma that sparked his imagination, much as the mass murderer Romand had done for L’Emploi du temps. ‘I remember’, Cantet said about his discovery of Meklat, ‘the impossibility to me of superimposing these two images of the same character: the witty and politically irreproachable radio columnist and the author of these messages. It was such an enigma that I began to read more on the subject, and watch the videos’.

In the film, Karim echoes Meklat’s defence of his actions for his Rambo persona – it was all about testing the system’s limits, and should be read as playful, ironic, experimental. Cantet examines this by turning the film into a series of mini-trials. Karim has to answer the challenges that come from different people in his life, from his family and old neighbourhood friends to his media-savvy agent and publisher. Their charges vary from bien pensant outrage to emotional bafflement ­– ‘I don’t know who you are’, says his tearful girlfriend, a sentiment shared by his mother – as well the impassioned call from his younger brother to never apologise because he and his friends look up to him and understood what he was doing. This argument, made by Farid in a barren room at the top of the high-rise where Karim grew up, is a chilling revelation for the older brother as he sees the younger generation taking him literally, their own frustrations developing into a more extreme form of resistance that he claims he had never intended.

Cantet deals particularly well in Arthur Rambo with the formal challenge of representing social media on screen. Rather than resorting to the more typical clunky shots of someone reading their phone, the camera hovering over their shoulder, Cantet instead presents tweets onscreen like a block of hovering subtitles. ‘I make the tweets part of the drama’, he explained in a recent radio interview, ‘because I believe the text takes on a terrible weight when it is put on the big screen’. The ‘dazzling quality, and the violence of social media at the time. That’s what I wanted to show by putting the tweets on screen in the film and then showing them unfurl so quickly we no longer have time to read them. They enter our thoughts and live like a parasite, with their big slogans and punchlines… which are a reduction of any form of reflection.’

Who is Arthur Rambo? Who is Karim D.? In the end, Cantet does not solve the enigma presented by his anti-hero. Karim sits in the back of a taxi riding along the Paris ring road at night, heading ‘somewhere, just to get out’, as he writes in a text to his girlfriend. Meklat too got away, to Japan, and then returned a year later to publish Autopsie (2018), an essay in which he sought to explain his actions. This uncertainty, driving into the night with nowhere to go, seems the only ending possible to Cantet’s story. The enigma of Meklat and the fractures his actions exposed remain unresolved – he never apologised, and what he represented both before and after the revelations are still a source of discomfort and debate. That Cantet stayed true to this ambiguity is characteristic of his strength as a director, and it may also explain why the reception of Arthur Rambo in France has been strikingly muted. Meklat offered no closure to what he brought to the surface, and Cantet too resists any false resolution on screen.

Read on: Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘The French Insurgency’, NLR 116/117.

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Convulsions

Here is the first throw of our three-sided die: Surrealism is an accidental codex of invocations that pairs well with materialism. Second toss: Surrealism made sense of sleeping horror (dreams) after Dada made sense of waking horror (war). Last toss: Surrealism is the unconscious response (Freud) to material pressure (Marx). Let’s just say that there are no Surrealist cops and put away the dice. (I feel certain that there are Impressionist cops but cannot prove it.)

Our timeline begins in 1920, in Paris, with the publication of André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s The Magnetic Fields, a weeklong writing session that they published without (allegedly) the benefit of revision. The idea of this ‘automatic writing’ was to bypass any gatekeepers of the mind, and that impulse had wide appeal. Surrealism spread almost as fast and far as photography, to which it also responded. If the recording of facts had been subsumed into the work of the lens, what was left? Surrealism’s answer was the right one: give voice to sensations above and below language and let the movement of the spirit guide the material. As German critic Wolfgang Grunow described it in 1928, Surrealism is ‘idea-photography’. The reverberations of this approach have been deep and wide, many of them complicating the very idea of Surrealism being a single idea. In 1967, Martiniquan poet and revolutionary Aimé Césaire said that ‘Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor’. In 1968, the Chicago Surrealists made common cause with Detroit and Paris and preached the power of both Bugs Bunny and the Black Panthers.

Surrealism Beyond Borders, just finished at the Met in New York and arriving at London’s Tate Modern this week (co-curated by Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale, along with Lauren Rosati, Sean O’Hanlan and Carine Harmand), is an attempt to write some of this sprawl into the timeline and decenter Paris. The proper Surrealist response to an institutional show is probably to switch all the wall texts (and please don’t tag me if you do). The work here stretches from the twenties to the seventies, and is organized into small thematic clumps, which come in different categories. There are ideas (Revolution, the collective, ‘scientific Surrealism’), places (Chicago, Cuba, Cairo) and material varieties (dreams, objects – Dali’s Bakelite telephone host and its plaster lobster guest is one of the only dorm room hits here). That this all succeeds will be obvious to even a sleepy visitor. If it is not too late or too meek to look for something as evanescent as fun – the original revolution? or simply as evanescent as revolt? – this show is stocked with it. I returned to the show several times; it had become a second tinnitus. Did I return in hopes that I could make it stop, that the art might cancel itself out and die down?

Marcel Jean’s Armoire surréaliste (1941) is the perfect doorman, blending the obviousness and mystery that drives so much Surrealism. It’s exactly an armoire, with a real wooden body and unreal, painted doors swinging open to reveal a view of, depending on my mood, hills or clouds or the ocean. The corny bits of Surrealist art are often my favourite, the moments where representation clings to itself and lets a dream melt the frame.

Cuban painter Wifredo Lam is the exhibition’s menacing docent, whose work makes good on his claim that he could ‘act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating images with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters’. His towering canvas, Le présent éternel (1944), is a beige riot of elbows and beaks and bodies that throws Picasso back into the ocean. I fell hardest in love with his elegant black-on-yellow line drawing for the cover of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939), a two-headed alligator with a flowered tail and a bridge for a body. Lam shares a psychic charge with American painter, Ted Joans, also a friend of Breton’s. His 1958 canvas, Bird Lives!, turns Charlie Parker into a hulking animal silhouette vibrating black on white. Joans is also responsible for a thirty-foot long paper work called Long Distance, a cadavre exquis conducted over thirty years with dozens of artists and writers. William Burroughs almost refused to participate because he didn’t draw or doodle unless he was on the phone, so Joans stayed on the line with him while he scribbled (literally) his panel.

I came back the fourth time for Remedios Varos’s triptych, reunited here for the first time since its Mexico City debut in 1961. The three paintings – ‘To the Tower’, ‘Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle’, and ‘The Flight’ – depict a set of girls who bicycle away from a convent to work on a tapestry in a tower. In the final panel, a girl surfs on a sea of coppery foam with her friend. In a notebook, Varo wrote of the first painting: ‘Their eyes are as if hypnotized, they hold their knitting needles like handlebars’, which is an odd note, since they do appear to be holding handlebars attached to their hairline bicycles. ‘Only the girl in the front resists the hypnosis’, she writes. Varo notes that while embroidering the ‘earth’s mantle’ in the second painting, this awake girl weaves a ‘ruse’ into her fabric, which enables her to escape with her ‘beloved’ in a ‘special vehicle’, which I maintain is an umbrella turned upside down.

These are the paintings that Oedipa Maas and Pierce Inverarity see in The Crying of Lot 49. Varo is described as a ‘beautiful Spanish exile’ and the subjects are ‘frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair’. What stuck with me is Pynchon’s description of the middle painting, of the girls weaving the tapestry in the tower: ‘All the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world’. The larger world is often under-discussed in the conversation around Surrealism and the church, which Surrealism simultaneously replicated and replaced. (Breton is often referred to as ‘the Pope’.) That the Varo triptych looks like a series of frescoes is no minor parallel. The early twentieth century saw religion explicitly detached from religion. The soul had to go somewhere to work, and Surrealism was one of the safest harbours.

Connecting this revolution to the one waged with rocks and bodies is slower work. The relevant effect of Surrealism Beyond Borders is to establish adjacency rather than unity as the necessary condition for art and politics to feed each other without restraint. Placing Surrealism in the vicinity of emancipatory work isn’t hard because, as nebulous cohorts go, Surrealists generally favour the right side of history. Haitian historian and novelist Roger Gaillard wrote that Breton ‘helped create, beyond any doubt, a climate among young people of my generation, a confidence in ourselves and in the future’. Haitian poet René Bélance said that while Breton ‘had no intention of disturbing the political order of a country which was not his own’, the ‘banal fact was that to speak of liberty – at that moment – was certainly a subversive act’. In 1945, a reporter suggested that Breton ‘had a hand in the Haitian revolution’, to which Breton responded, ‘Let’s not exaggerate’. ‘At the end of 1945, the poverty, and consequently the patience, of the Haitian people had reached a breaking point’, Breton said, and the Haitians largely drew their ‘vigour from the French Revolution’. Even the problematic father knew the order of revolutionary events.

Resistance was a part of the Surrealist project from the beginning. The Surrealists supported the Rif rebellion in Morocco and became involved in various anti-colonial activities, chief among them a friendship with Aimé and Suzanne Césaire. The decentering of Paris has also been around as long as Surrealism itself, it turns out. Etienne Lero, in 1932, and Suzanne Césaire, in 1942, (in the Paris-based, Martinique-driven Legitime Defense and the Martinique-based Tropiques) both contended that literature that remained ‘tethered to French stylistic rules could not adequately represent the reality of Antillean life, culture, and landscape’, as Annete K. Joseph-Raphael describes it in her essay for the exhibit catalogue. Even while rejecting the Parisian tilt, both artists ‘explicitly claimed Surrealism as an antidote to the poisons of colonial violence and cultural assimilation’. Surrealism, then, doesn’t necessarily need Breton, or even Surrealism. This is where the art-historical gives way to the material. You can leave behind a set of shared references and friends and move towards action: surrealizing rather than Surrealism, a practice that predates the artform and exists as a layer of consciousness rather than an affiliative tendency.

In January, at the close of the exhibition’s run at the Met, Fred Moten and Robin D.G. Kelley talked over Zoom with Zita Cristina Nunes about Black, Brown, & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora, an anthology of Black Surrealism published in 2009 and co-edited by Kelley. After almost an hour of discussion, Moten played songs by George Clinton and Klein, and Kelley moved to the heart of the action. ‘For black artists, Surrealism was less a movement to join than a set of practices they recognized as deeply grounded in African and Afro-diasporic culture’, he said. ‘They found in surrealism more of an affinity than an ideological commitment, more recognition than revelation’. In his essay for another anthology, the forthcoming Get Ready for the Marvelous: Black Surrealism edited by Adrienne Edwards, Kelley paraphrases ‘Suzanne Césaire paraphrasing André Breton: “Surrealism will be political or it will not be.”’ He also contends that ‘the key words undergirding Surrealism are not reality, or the Marvelous, but FREEDOM and REVOLUTION’.

That freedom, over time, has morphed, just as Surrealism itself began as a writing exercise and turned into a way of seeing. One of the most relevant freedoms now is the freedom from work itself. In November, at the second annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Surrealism, writer Abigail Susik led a panel on Charles Fourier and laziness, a gloss on her new book, Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (2021). It was uncanny, but not surreal, to attend a surrealist conference on Zoom during the pandemic and see that the ministrations of Parisians one hundred years ago had become not just fashionable but relevant. Susik wrote an editorial that appeared, in slightly different forms, in both The New York Times and the Washington Post this year. I enjoyed seeing Susik discussing ‘permanent strike’ in Bezos’s paper, and quoting a Surrealist proclamation from the 1925 pamphlet, Surrealist Revolution: ‘We do not accept the laws of economy or exchange, we do not accept the slavery of work, and on an even wider scale we proclaim ourselves in revolt against history’. (The Times version was more conservative.) Susik begins her continuum of refusal with the labour shortages after World War I – the context for Surrealism 1.0 – and connects it to the current ‘lying flat’ movement in China.

‘It is remarkable that the post-pandemic labour shortage and “Great Resignation” we are seeing right now in the United States resembles in significant ways the post-pandemic world that the surrealists confronted in the early and mid-1920s’, Susik told me. When France was recovering from a severe postwar labour shortage that had lasted for years, ‘the surrealists refused to comply’, she said. ‘They pulled the ultimate “big quit”’.

An actual dialectic, a deep, political connection that neither settles nor determines, was there from the start. Breton was engaging with socialism and Marxist thought before Surrealism officially began. In 1924, he was talking with the young Socialists of Clarté magazine, engaging, arguing, and trading spicy editorials. Breton and Aragon joined the French Communist Party in January of 1927 and then proceeded to have a series of splits over time with each other and the party. Pierre Naville, a Surrealist who stayed committed to Communism, reflected about all of this in 1989: ‘Indeed, the attitude of the Surrealists scarcely depended on their relationship with political goals, in the practical sense. The majority of them, Breton foremost, were concerned primarily with literary success’. I asked Alan Rose, author of Surrealism and Communism: The Early Years (1991), how this played out. ‘Naville, more than any other group member, understood why Marxism could not accept surrealist principles and was far ahead of the group in endorsing a Trotskyist, rather than Stalinist approach to world revolution’, Rose said. ‘For Naville, the political change preceded the artistic one’.

And at the time, years before Haiti, Breton lived up to the picture that Naville gave us. In the Second Manifesto, written in 1930, Breton wrote, ‘Surrealism is not interested in giving very serious consideration to anything that happens outside of itself, under the guise of art, or even anti-art, of philosophy or anti-philosophy – in short, of anything not aimed at the annihilation of the being into a diamond, all blind and interior, which is no more the soul of ice than that of fire’. This is the syllabus Breton, the better-known version, the Hegelian hothead who was generally opposed to authority even as he accrued it.

There are plenty of reasons to think surrealizing and Surrealism are both healthy now, fulfilling the purpose Michael Löwy described in 2001: ‘a movement of the human spirit in revolt and an eminently subversive attempt to re-enchant the world’. Long associated with American Surrealism, Will Alexander recently published a new book of poems, Refractive Africa (2021), anchored by a long piece called ‘THE CONGO, For the resistance rendered by Casimiro Barrios & Fela Kuti’. Alexander has the same ability to combine states of being and perception as Cesaire and Aragon: ‘as Congolese we replicate the impossible / our physical structure seemingly capable of the bizarre / in Western terminology we remain a dazed compounding / where our body gains no equated merit of itself’.

I see a great deal of surrealizing on Instagram and TikTok, where accounts like @Succ.exe and @onylshitpostsIG mash together sound and image for sequences that tell no linear story and can barely be explained. Two electric drills, joined at the bits, dance on a garage floor to a soundtrack of farts. Post it! Or you can go to hypnogram.xyz, and let AI make you a personalized exhibit. This was what the prompt ‘dark bottle animals Dali’ spat out:

The last time I saw the Met exhibit, I went with Sarah Leonard, publisher and co-editor of Lux. While we walked around, she said that it was a relief to see something in a museum that made her laugh. I emailed her after the show to ask if Surrealism seemed like it had any kind of organic relationship to the work of emancipation. ‘The element of surprise and delight in surrealism feels like a taste of the world I’d like to live in, or like class struggle through the looking glass’, she wrote back. Leonard also reminded me that Angela Carter loved surrealism. ‘She always said that we needed both Marx and Freud’, Leonard said, ‘and I agree’.

Read on: Michael Löwy, ‘Surrealism’s Nameless Soldier’, NLR 29.

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Mithridatisation

In September 2020 Sir Geoffrey Nice announced the creation of the Uyghur Tribunal to ‘investigate China’s alleged Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, against Uyghurs, Kazakh and other Turkic Muslim populations’. On 23 March last year, 17 British MPs signed a parliamentary motion condemning the ‘Atrocities against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang’. On 6 May, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled ‘The Atrocities Against Uyghurs and Other Minorities in Xinjiang’. Between October and December, ‘atrocities’, ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ filled the pages of the international press from the Guardian to Turkish dailies to Ha’aretz. On 20 January this year, a majority in the French parliament ‘officially recognised the violence perpetrated by the People’s Republic of China against the Uyghurs as constituting crimes against humanity and genocide’.

The words ‘atrocities’, ‘massacres’, ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘torture’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ are used interchangeably in such denouncements. In other cases, reference is often made to ‘war crimes’. These terms have become so embedded in the news cycle that they scarcely induce any reaction at all. Their routine inflation weakens their capacity to appal, to stir, even to prompt reflection.

We rarely pause to consider that up until the end of the nineteenth century, such categories were alien to political discourse. They were exceedingly rare objects of moral indignation (see, for instance, Bartolomé de las Casas on the massacre of the indios), which had not yet solidified into justifications for political or military intervention. Nobody had ever been convicted of ‘war crimes’. Acts committed during war were never considered more culpable than the war itself. Vanquished enemies were enslaved or deported, but they weren’t cast as criminals; defeat – and everything it implied – was punishment enough.  

The substantive difference between ‘war crimes’ and ‘atrocities’ is that the former are tried and convicted once a war is over, as a sanction against the defeated party and legitimation for the victors. ‘Atrocities’, on the other hand, are more often mobilized in the interest of waging war; they are one method by which modernity constructs an enemy. The same act can be defined as an ‘atrocity’ before a war is declared and a ‘war crime’ once a war is over. The Uyghurs are certainly persecuted and oppressed by the Chinese state, but the persistent use of ‘atrocities’ by the Western security establishment is a semantic escalation that signals a political transition: away from peaceful diplomacy, towards New Cold War confrontation.

Before the Enlightenment, jurists used the word ‘atrocity’ when discussing punishment – though never with critical intentions, Foucault tells us, for the atrocity of the supplice (torture, quartering) was seen as proportionate to the atrocity of the crime, a formula which laid bare a specific conception of power: ‘a power exalted and strengthened by its visible manifestations…for which disobedience was an act of hostility…a power that had to demonstrate not why it enforced its laws, but who were its enemies, and what unleashing of force threatened them’. It was to eliminate this form of punishment that the Enlightenment introduced a new conception of atrocity, to substitute forms of retribution ‘not in the least ashamed of being “atrocious”’ with ‘punishment that was to claim the honour of being “humane”’. Atrocity was ‘the exacerbation of punishment in relation to the crime’, a novel surplus, irreducible to the accounting of crime and retribution, an excess in relation to the existing economy of infringement.

Another century was needed, however, for the atrocity to acquire its political definition. The first deployment – to my knowledge – of the term ‘atrocity’ by a Western statesman (who, in fact, used it as evidence of a ‘just’ cause for a possible war), was in an invective Gladstone addressed to the Ottomans in 1896: ‘…this is not the first time we have been discussing horrible outrages perpetrated in Turkey, and perpetrated not by Mohammedan fanaticism, but by the deliberate policy of a Government. The very same thing happened in 1876’, but the Sultan’s government, ‘declared that there were no atrocities, no crimes committed by Turks or by the agents of the Government’. Should the Sultan continue to commit these crimes and massacres, Gladstone concluded, ‘England …should take into consideration means of enforcing, if force alone is available, compliance with her just, legal, and human demand.’ 

It wasn’t just any politician, then, who inaugurated the discourse of ‘atrocities’. For over forty years (1852-94), Gladstone dominated British politics (he was Prime Minister for 13 years, Chancellor for another 13, and leader of the House of Commons for 9). It was Gladstone, above all, who invented humanitarian imperialism, or ‘liberal imperialism’ as it was then known, whose heyday would come in the American Century.

Why is it that atrocities hardly appear as an issue in the fifty preceding centuries? Because atrocities were taken for granted. It was common knowledge that power kills, tortures, sweeps away. Nobody threatened to wage war on Charles V for the ‘atrocities’ committed by the Landsknechte when sacking Rome (1527). Before the second half of the twentieth century, the United States never even questioned the genocide of native Americans, the victims of which were in the tens of millions.

Nowadays, atrocities mark the limit of acceptable or legitimate violence. Indignation towards them has become a key part of political etiquette – a means of demonstrating one’s respect for the rules of war, just as one would display one’s manners in a distinguished salon. Like all etiquette, this involves a great deal of hypocrisy. Outrage at ‘excessive violence’ serves to soften or conceal the ubiquitous violence described by Nietzsche, whereby humans inflict harm simply because they can. Exhibiting concern for atrocities is a means of of civilizing the struggle for global power, as if a more ennobled form could somehow change its content. This discourse has the effect of reintroducing an ideological element to war that was largely absent since the peace of Westphalia (1648). Peter the Great of Russia fought the Swedish king Charles X not for ideological reasons, not for civilization, not for good to prevail over evil or to put an end to any genocide, holocaust or massacre, but simply and purely to accrue more power.

The principle according to which only just wars should be fought, or, better still – that a war should first be ‘rendered just’ before it is waged – is a somewhat bizarre and thoroughly modern idea, rooted in the confluence of three long-term tendencies. The first is the Reformation, with its exigency for a redemptive motive for every human action (even for profiting). The second is colonialism, and the notion that wars against the colonized served to civilize them (what Kipling famously called ‘the white man’s burden’). Third is the emergence of public opinion. For it is before this audience that atrocities are paraded in order to justify moving against a constructed enemy (the absence of ‘public opinion’ is another reason why the issue had never been raised in preceding millennia). The atrocity must create a scandal, otherwise it’s ineffective. From this perspective, the politics of atrocities is a symptom of mass communication: first newspapers, then radio and TV, now social media.

In the 1890s, Britain witnessed the triumph of popular newspapers: from 1854 to 1899 the number of dailies in London grew from 5 to 155. Millions of readers were suddenly distressed by stories of atrocities taking place in exotic countries; dark skins, naked bodies, violence. It’s no coincidence that the first great revelations of this type came from the Congo, then the Amazon: atrocities against the ‘savages’. In 1885, the Berlin Conference assigned the Congo to the Association Internationale Africaine, an ante litteram NGO – or ‘humanitarian’ association – which had once employed the famous American explorer Henry Morton Stanley (‘Dr Livingston, I presume?’), and was controlled by the Belgian King Leopold II. This stretch of property measuring 2.6 million km2 was intended to resolve the rivalry between two major colonial powers in Africa, Britain and France (the birth of Belgium in 1830 was a consequence of the defeat of Napoleon, cutting off France’s northeastern provinces, which were integrated into Belgian Walloon). It’s not surprising, then that the campaign against the Belgians’ atrocities in the Congo flared up at exactly the moment Gladstone delivered his speech, nor that it was fanned by the Anglophone press.

When the British government commissioned the Irish diplomat Roger Casement to write a report on the matter, completed in 1904, the document served to establish the rhetorical canon for all future reports on atrocities: accounts of genocide, famine, farced labour, imprisonment, torture, rape, mutilation. One particular episode, reinforced by photographs, struck contemporaries’ imagination: the hands of dead enemies were amputated, so that local conscripts to the Force Publique (the Congo’s military police) could prove that they had really used their bullets, rather than pocketing them. The report enjoyed a global reception, thanks also to Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1907) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo (1909). As a result, in 1908 the Congo was transferred from Leopold’s private holdings to public ownership by the Belgian state.

Casement also wrote the second great report on atrocities: those committed in the Peruvian Amazon’s Putumayo region, where he was sent to investigate in 1910-11, as the company that held the right to exploit the area’s rubber was registered in London and hired Barbadian labour – that is, British subjects. Here the report also certified mistreatments, malnutrition, forced labour, rape, murder, amputations, torture. In 1911, Casement was knighted for his findings. On the extraordinary life of this figure who went from international human rights superstar avant la lettre to concluding his earthly sojourn on the gallows at Pentonville, two texts are worth reading: Colm Tóibín’s ‘Roger Casement: Sex, Lies and the Black Diaries’ (2004) and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (2012).

A great contributor to the dissemination of Casement’s report on Putumayo was the then British ambassador in Washington, Lord James Bryce, noted in the United States for his book American Commonwealth (with its lapidary verdict: ‘in Latin America, whoever is not black is white, in German America, whoever is not white is black’). With the advent of the First World War, it was Bryce that London would entrust in 1915 with the task of compiling a report on German atrocities committed in Belgium. The Bryce Report collected testimonies of various ‘outrages’ perpetrated by German soldiers, but global public opinion was particularly enflamed by one specific case, so much so that it would be cited by states that had until then remained neutral – Italy, the US – as justification for entering the war. The report outlined that ‘a third kind of mutilation, the cutting of one or both hands, is said to have taken place frequently’. A form of historical lex talionis: a decade earlier, photos circulated that showed the Force Publique practicing the very same punishment, now subjected to the Belgians that had introduced it.

The truth is, even if the Germans committed countless ‘outrages’, these specific accusations eventually proved unfounded, though they were still taught in French elementary schools in the 1930s. This leads us to the problems involved in campaigns against atrocities. For one, do they correspond to reality, or do they bend it to their advantage, in order to make the bad guys look a little worse? What’s more, not all atrocities become an object of scandal. Despite its similarity to the very worst of the Putumayo incursions, the British colonists’ hunting of aboriginals in Tasmania never generated comparable clamour.

Finally, efficacy. Sometimes scandals provoked by atrocities prove to be sharp tools. King Leopold’s crimes forced the Belgian state to take the reins of sovereignty in Congo; German atrocities in Belgium facilitated the entry of neutral powers into the war; the Nanjing massacre of December 1937 prepared American public opinion for war against Japan; the My Lai massacre in March 1968 accelerated Americans’ revolt against the Vietnam War; the atrocities at Srebrenica in the summer of 1995 built the foundations of the anti-Serbianism that precipitated intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

Yet there are just as many incidents that produce no such results: after the Putumayo ‘scandal’, Peru wasn’t sanctioned, and indigenous Amazonians continued to be oppressed, if more discreetly. In Rwanda, after the massacres of 1994 everything was forgotten. In such cases, the horrors registered in photographs and documentaries were initially transformed into a sort of monster by which humanity was transfixed, eager yet impotent to fathom the sheer quantity of evil for which it was responsible. The scandal became an occasion for contemplating the heart of darkness inside each of us. But it also induced an inurement to horror. An unintended consequence of the proliferation of campaigns against atrocities has been a kind of mithridatisation, in which we all become peaceful cohabitants with monstrosity.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Tor Krever, ‘Dispensing Global Justice’, NLR 85.

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Rigorous Beauty

Freedom in art is never simple. This is the basic lesson of modernism. Rule follows rupture. Technical restriction opens onto formal innovation, and vice versa. As Theodor Adorno observed in Aesthetic Theory (1970), the artists who came to matter most to twentieth-century modernism ‘rejoiced less over the newly won realm of freedom’ generated by invention and revolt, than ‘they immediately sought once again after ostensible yet scarcely adequate order’.

This dialectic, linking freedom and constraint, is everywhere apparent in Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty, the first show of the artist’s prints at a UK public museum, which runs at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 18 April 2022. Hanging opposite the entrance, Freefall (1993) is the first work encountered. Two metres tall and one and a half wide, of a surpassing chromatic richness, it is unlike any woodcut I have ever seen. Frankenthaler wanted it as large as possible. Working with her frequent collaborator, the printmaker Kenneth Tyler, she adapted her process to fit this demand. Blue is the print’s major note, produced by spraying varying densities of coloured pulp onto a vast sheet of paper that was then stamped with twenty-one jigsawed woodblocks to produce the finished work. As in her paintings and those of her abstract expressionist peers, the extent of Frankenthaler’s surface area allows for a great deal of variation in tone and value. In Freefall’s upper reaches the pigment is dense, and the blues are rich and dark, almost navy. These lighten to ultramarine further down and to the left, at first tentatively, then emphatically, before seeping out into whites, blacks and yellows along the field’s bottom edge. The gradations in Frankenthaler’s colour imply a transparency, a gradual opening up of the visual field, like looking into the faraway distance. This exhilarating effect is compounded by the work’s structure. The image is organised around a diminishing series of irregular rectangles – four at my count – each of which mimes the shape of the frame, like windows opening onto windows, views onto views.

Freefall (1993)

In 1952, aged twenty-three, Frankenthaler made the painting Mountains and Sea by soaking thinned paint into unprimed canvas to form a stained image united to its ground: an expansive field for colour, unbounded by line. She called this method ‘soak-stain’. Like Freefall, her paintings have an endlessness and openness to them. Critics have responded to these qualities: her work is typically written up in terms of spontaneity and freedom. She could speak this way herself. ‘No rules’ reads a quote of hers, printed on the wall just inside the entrance to the exhibition. She says the same thing in a video halfway through, speaking over footage of herself at work in Tyler’s print studio. But the curation at Dulwich – which sets maquettes, preparatory paintings, and proof after proof alongside the finished prints – implies the opposite: that innovation, of the kind she undoubtedly achieved, demanded the most rigorous generation and application of new rules, new technical procedures, new forms of control.

Seeing Radius (1993) hung next to its maquette, one begins to understand why Frankenthaler – whose entire practice as an abstract painter might seem opposed to the rigidities of woodblock printing – devoted so much time and effort to this medium. By the time of her death in 2011 she had been making woodblocks for almost forty years: her first such print, East and Beyond (1973), ushered in half a lifetime of experimentation. It is shown here, alongside representative examples from each of the subsequent decades. Why such consistent application? The woodblock procedure implies clean lines, small scale, a limited colour palette. Her paintings sought the very opposite. ‘This was part of my problem’, she reflected in 1977, ‘how to adjust my gesture, my language, my mark, within the jigsaw’s’ – that is, the woodblock’s – ‘rigid laws?’ This was no simple endeavour. The surface of the Radius maquette is thick, rucked, ridged with coloured paper pulp. This would have been anathema to her paintings, which never project from the wall as this maquette does. Instead they shimmer and recede. In the final, printed version of Radius, however, tactility has been abolished. Colour, dyed straight into the paper then laid on through six woodblocks, floats in veils of thinned green.

Radius was the result of an exacting process, passing through the dense materiality of the maquette to create a final impression of hazy spontaneity. Precision is the lodestar of these artworks, even, perhaps especially, where they seem most imprecise. ‘This does not bother me’, reads Frankenthaler’s handwriting, attached to an arrow pointing towards the blending of colours along the horizontal edge of Essence Mulberry Working Proof 5 (1977). Alongside the final Essence Mulberry (1977), the exhibition contains two ‘working proofs’, one ‘progressive proof’, and three ‘trial proofs’. In fact there were sixty-five proofs in all, each of them found wanting. What the voluminous proofs show is a continual probing – after what exactly? With the exception of Working Proof 1, which fills the whole field with swaying, tree-like shapes, each proof contrasts a rectangular colour field with a large, unmarked area of Japanese Maniai Gampi handmade paper.

Frankenthaler invented her ‘guzzying’ technique for this series. She would use odd tools – a power sander, a cheese grater – to scratch and mark the surface of each woodblock, producing pits and gaps in the colour that compound the effects of the grain. This is most exaggerated in Essence Mulberry Trial Proof 19, where the deep blues and reds of the coloured field are rent by lighter patches that merge into floating, vaguely anatomical vertical forms. The final print of Essence Mulberry is more restrained. It is a balancing act reached between the pigment, the paper, and the wood grain formed from the four blocks of oak, birch, walnut, and lauan plywood that combined to make the image. Frankenthaler’s colour seems to follow the lines of the wood grain, deep red at the edges swaying and fading into blues made purplish by flecks of leftover red before pulling away at the rough expanse of paper.

Essence Mulberry (1977)

Frankenthaler knew what she was working with. The paper on which Essence Mulberry is printed is a marvel: thick, coarse woven, ragged at the edges. But Japan was more than a source of exceptional materials. Engagement with calligraphy and zen philosophy thread through the entire history of abstract expressionism. The title of East and Beyond, no less than its multi-woodblock technique, signals that, right from the start, Frankenthaler wanted her printmaking to point Eastwards. Most of the works here invoke Japan in one way or another: whether via technical procedures, papers, pigments, or some less tangible (more exoticized?) idea of the nation on the part of the artist.

One series is titled Tales of Genji (1998), after Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh-century Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel and an unparalleled record of courtly life in Heian period Japan. Shikibu, another exceptional woman artist – wealthy, cultured, working within and against constraints marked out by her gender – must have felt like a fitting precedent. Frankenthaler collected ukiyo-e prints, those eighteenth and nineteenth-century works of Japanese art in which the technique of using multiple coloured woodblocks to mass produce a diversity of tone was first pioneered. When speaking about printmaking, her discourse was filled with references to ukiyo-e masters like Utagawa Hiroshige and Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The prints in the Tales of Genji series respond to their work. Tales of Genji V uses no fewer than twenty-nine woodblocks to deliver forty-nine colours. The blocks have been ‘guzzied’, producing a calligraphic effect, forming characters that seem almost recognizable. The result is a haze of navy and pink wrapped like a body around a central red figure.

What was the price of all this beauty? Born and raised on New York’s Upper East Side, the daughter of a Supreme Court Judge, Frankenthaler was not the only artist of her generation to fall under suspicion of practicing a kind of elite aestheticism. The same thing happened to Joan Mitchell – also wealthy, also a woman. ‘Detached and uninvolved’ was Grace Hartigan’s judgement upon seeing the first batch of soak-stain paintings in 1953. Hartigan was living hand-to-mouth at this point, trying to find time to paint between temp jobs and rent crises. To her, Frankenthaler’s massive, ethereal veils must have looked intolerably otherworldly. Dismissing them in her journal – ‘I believed her to be talented, but this show makes me wonder’ – Hartigan raised questions about modernism, autonomy and beauty that already had deep roots. An eagerness to read (and dismiss) Frankenthaler’s art in terms indexed to her gender is part of the story. But the relation between beauty and detachment reaches further, across the whole history of modernist painting.

In another room, set apart from the exhibition, a small show called Monet x Frankenthaler is running concurrently. Here two paintings hang side by side: Water Lilies and Agapanthus (c.1914-1917) by Claude Monet and Feather (1979) by Frankenthaler. The pairing is instructive. The Monet is a classic late work from the Giverny period: lily pads, water, weeds, purple agapanthus flowers. Nothing of modernity or capitalism; no hint of city or banlieue. A far cry from Déville-lès-Rouen in 1870, where Monet had painted toxic chimney stacks belching soot over the old town. Even the suburbs of his Argenteuil period have disappeared. Social art historians from TJ Clark to Thomas Crow have seen weakness in the withdrawals of Monet’s late painting: a giving up of the attempt to grasp modernity and nature in imperfect synthesis; each step into the garden another flight into fiction. ‘Detached and uninvolved’ would not be a bad precis of the critical terms here.

Feather (1979)

Frankenthaler’s Feather does interesting things in the context of this critique. It is a mist of thinned acrylic: pink, orange, and green seeping across the field, acquiring no density; smudges of unmixed white sitting on top of the haze like catch-lights cutting through fog. Its dominant terms are natural: light and moisture. But like the plastic paint the image is made from, the effect is synthetic, the colours artificial. The wash of pink at top right looks more like street-level neon than a sunlit garden. At points, where the colours have blended, they form a sickly brown. Beauty comes close to ugliness; nature approaches artifice. In this conjunction, Monet’s painting takes on a different tone. Its brushwork is frenetic, dissolving into a hatch of dislocated strokes and raw canvas at bottom right. And the perspective in which he rendered his scene is extraordinary, just as disorientating as Frankenthaler’s fog. Monet’s painting lurches, from a side-on view of the agapanthus flowers, towards a tipped-forward, top-down vantage on the lily pads. It cycles through painterly modes, trying on technical procedures and discarding them as it goes. Side-by-side, both of these paintings invoke nature, but in a manner that becomes more queasily dislocated the longer you look at them.

Frankenthaler was an artist who worked by conjoining extremes: freedom and constraint; abstraction and (hints of) figuration; nature and artifice. In this she was typically modernist. There is a photograph by Alexander Liberman of her waltzing with Barnett Newman at the New York world’s fair in 1964: abstract expressionism’s most extreme proponent of economy and rigour arm in arm with the style’s most extravagant champion of beauty. Newman’s paintings combine massive, rigid geometries with huge areas of colour. He and Frankenthaler are often counterposed in the critical literature: straight lines versus soak-stains. Unlike her, he never smiled in photographs. But here he beams at her like a child. Looking at the photo, I am reminded of the ways in which gender can overdetermine the contrast between two artists. As this exhibition makes clear, Frankenthaler was just as rigorous an artist as Newman. It is by mediating such concepts as discipline and beauty that her art acquired its lasting value. 

Read on: Zoe Sutherland, ‘The World as Gallery’, NLR 98.

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News from Natoland

Since 3 December 2021, when the Washington Post ‘broke’ the story – based on some aerial photos of tents in a field and other helpfully selected nuggets of US intelligence – the Anglophone world has been subjected to a highly orchestrated media campaign, trumpeting at top volume the ‘massive’ and ‘imminent’ Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the absence of any actual news to report, unnamed US security officials are wheeled out like clockwork to issue pronouncements, NATO figures (Stoltenberg, Borrell) are pushed forward to fill any gaps. Daily front-page headlines hammering home the threat of war have been backed by a loyal chorus of opinion-makers, remarkably unanimous in their views.

Sotto voce, the cat had already been let out of the bag as to the Biden Administration’s main goals. American officials were ‘pushing European countries’ to create a ‘common prescription’ against Russia, a New York Times piece heavily briefed by US security had announced three weeks before. In London, the broadsheet press jumped to, the Financial Times reliably out-hawking Washington, with the Economist piping up alongside. Even the LRB felt obliged to join in with a particularly aggressive piece, whose author was apparently unaware that Georgia, not Russia, had invaded South Ossetia in 2008.

What tropes do the warmongers offer? First, Putin is the unilateral source of aggression, mobilizing a vast invasion force out of the blue for ‘imminent’ action. Second, NATO’s expansion is non-negotiable. Third, it is impermissible under the ‘rules-based [read: US-led] international order’ for borders to be redrawn by force. Fourth, national sovereignty must be inviolate; Ukraine must determine its own foreign policy. What are the realities?

First, far from unilateral, the Russian force is the same as that mobilized last spring in response to NATO’s two-month ‘Defender Europe’ exercise, involving 28,000 American and European troops on Russia’s borders, backed by ostentatiously aggressive US-UK naval operations in the Black Sea. The Russian counter-mobilization on its own side of the border was, as the US acknowledged at the time, ‘standard operating procedure’.

Moscow was also alarmed when the Biden Administration winked at the Ukrainian military’s use of drone warfare in the Donbas in October 2021, when aerial weapons were strictly prohibited by the Minsk agreements – and the lethal escalatory effects of drones had just been demonstrated by Azerbaijan’s 2020 war on Nagorno Karabakh. The Biden Administration had also stepped up NATO exercises in Ukraine itself – the summer 2021 Cossack Mace exercise in the south, between Odessa and Crimea, for example.

Militarily, in a broader perspective it is NATO’s forces that have been on the offensive, advancing 800 miles eastward over the last thirty years, deep inside the borders of the former Soviet Union and now penetrating the Russian-speaking heartlands. The Kremlin proved at first gullible and slow-witted in responding to this, both Yeltsin and Putin willing to swallow US assurances, and then – after the Bush-Blair 2008 diplomatic thrust to expand NATO to Ukraine and Georgia – often inept and clumsy in formulating a more resolute response.

But NATO expansion – subordinating the advanced-capitalist European heartlands to US military command – is a voluntarist imperial strategy, not a question of national defence. Ideologically and strategically, Washington’s liberal-international militarism – dividing the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ states and pledging to regime-change the latter – is a recipe for war, as Stephen Walt has argued. The commentariat’s cry – ‘no sphere of influence for Russia!’ – neglects to add that this is because the US presumes to command a global sphere. Where US interests collude, redrawing borders by force is not a problem – viz. the green light for Turkey’s occupation of northern Syria, not to mention Cyprus, or Israel’s of southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights, or the de facto US-Israeli protectorate in northern Iraq. Relatedly, under the ‘rules-based order’, national sovereignty is at Washington’s bequest. The vice-regal language of operatives like Victoria Nuland, selecting Ukraine’s next prime minister after the toppling of pro-Russian Yanukovych in 2014, speaks volumes about realities on the ground.

Amid the general hysteria, we should welcome even mildly dissenting voices. In addition to Walt, Simon Jenkins warns that NATO’s treatment of Russia virtually guaranteed a chauvinist reflex. Like Anatol Lieven, Jenkins argues that the way forward lay in implementing the confederal constitutional arrangements of the Minsk accords – largely blocked by Kiev’s objections to Donbas ‘home rule’ – plus an end to NATO expansionism, Russian withdrawal and the reinstatement of Ukraine’s borders. Countering narratives of unilateral Russian aggression, Adam Tooze extends the analysis he first developed in Crashed. Anatomizing ‘sphere of influence’ realities, Peter Beinart calls for de facto recognition that Ukraine will remain a buffer state. Rajan Menon and Thomas Graham have proposed a moratorium of 20-25 years on Ukraine’s NATO membership. Robert Kaplan calls for Finlandization. Ross Douthat ponders how the Biden Administration could conduct a successful retreat.

More analytically, David Hendrickson has highlighted the ‘super-aggressive but also super-cautious’ approach of the Biden Administration, following the script of Anders Åslund and others at the hardline Atlantic Council to ‘restore Moscow’s respect for the international rules-based order’ – further militarization of the region under NATO, step-by-step integration of Ukraine in the outer circles of NATO membership, putting the Crimea and Donbas back on the table and ending Nord Stream 2 – with a focus on Ukraine ‘from day one’, as a Biden official said, while at the same time, under pressure from the China hawks, avoiding any large-scale commitment of US forces. That meant gearing up the Old World allies for action.

If the British media has been the most frenzied in Europe, UK politicians have followed suit. Johnson’s warmongering – and Labour leader Keir Starmer’s avid backing for it – was analysed here by Oliver Eagleton. Now Starmer has launched an attack on the UK peace movement, Stop the War – one of the few groups to organize against the current escalation. Assuring Guardian readers that ‘Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakable’ – as if the party’s shameful Cold War and Blairite record left any room for doubt – Starmer rails that Stop the War is ‘giving succour to authoritarian leaders’ and ‘showing solidarity with the aggressor’.

This is the tired old slogan raised against the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the 60s. In the latter case, those of us who founded the VSC were proud to stand with the Vietnamese people against the US bombers and napalm. Many of us opposed both the entry of Soviet troops to crush the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. My own position on Afghanistan was to oppose both the Soviet occupation in December 1979 and NATO’s ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in 2001 (see The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan, Verso 2021).

The millions who marched in Europe and the US in 2003 against the coming invasion of Iraq were not supporters of Saddam, whose authoritarian regime had been nurtured, cultivated and armed for many decades by the United States and its NATO allies. They rightly foresaw the carnage and destruction Bush and Blair would be inflicting on the Middle East and fought to stop it. Do Starmer and MI5 regard Simon Jenkins as a sinister figure in hock to Putin? And let’s not forget the support given by NATO members to the royal torturers and killers who rule Morocco and Saudi Arabia today, inflicting the bloodbath on Yemen. If moral grandstanding is the basis for war, why didn’t the London blowhards stay on in Afghanistan?    

Let’s revive a few more memories. Who backed Putin’s murderous assault on Chechnya in 1999-2000, and watched contentedly as its capital Grozny was razed to the ground? Clinton and Blair did – the latter rushing to Moscow to be the first to congratulate Putin on his subsequent election victory – with other NATO members looking on. Russia was then considered a loyal subordinate, since it backed the West on most issues – not least throwing open its bases to aid the NATO occupation of Afghanistan. Tony Wood’s fine analysis in NLR provides chapter and verse on Putin’s role in the Chechen tragedy as well as the collusion of NATO members at the time.

What has changed is that NATO’s auto-pilot expansionism has put it on course to swallow Ukraine and Georgia, which Russian raison d’état is bound to resist. At the same time, Russia’s blundering militarized response may have served to weaken its hand by throwing away the strongest card it held in Ukraine – the friendship of the Russian-speaking or Russia-oriented half of the population. In 2008, when Bush and Blair pushed through NATO’s ‘open door’ policy to Ukraine and Georgia at the Bucharest summit, barely 20% of Ukrainians supported joining NATO. The majority was split between supporting a military alliance with Russia or maintaining the neutral status enshrined in Ukraine’s 1990s constitution (it was altered by the Zelensky government in 2019 to set national goals of EU and NATO membership).

By 2014, after the Maidan uprising, Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing low-level war in the Donbas region, support for NATO had risen to 40%, but with another 40% of Ukrainians still against. (Ukrainian pollsters now excluded the populous Donbas and Crimea regions, which also affected the figures.) In the western regions – more integrated into EU economic networks via migrant workers in Poland – there is now majority support for joining NATO. But as Volodymyr Ishchenko has written, many Ukrainians feel that NATO membership would forfeit still more of Ukraine’s sovereignty while increasing tensions with Russia, escalating internal divisions among Ukrainians and dragging the country into another of the US’s ‘forever wars’, one of which has just ended in humiliating defeat.

The Western media attack-dogs have been congratulating themselves that, whatever else, their propaganda onslaught has united NATO. Not quite. The relentless spotlight of the past twelve weeks has also shown up its fissures. Germany’s chief naval officer, Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, was forced to resign after telling a military think-tank in New Delhi that all Putin really wanted was a little respect: ‘My God, give him respect! That costs so little, really nothing at all. It is easy to pay him the respect which he desires and really deserves. Russia is an ancient country, Russia is an important country. Even we, India, Germany, need Russia, we need Russia against China.’

The admiral was posing a Maoist-Althusserian question: the NATO masters of war must decide between Russia and China – which is the primary and which the secondary contradiction? Nixon’s visit to Beijing undoubtedly helped to weaken the Soviet Union. Yet the West-China collaboration made the PRC the political-economic force it is today and re-subordinating it will be difficult, if not impossible. Given the Biden family’s lucrative involvement in Ukrainian affairs, not to mention the Clinton-DLC investment in the bogey of Russian trolls swinging the 2016 election, the current administration is unlikely to attempt a parallel move in Moscow. Washington still seems bent on forging a pan-Eurasian counter-hegemonic alliance. Putin and Xi duly issued a joint statement from the Beijing Winter Olympics against the expansion of NATO and deepening economic ties, not least increasing Russian gas imports to China.

The official response to Admiral Schönbach was swift. The new German Minister of Defence, Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat in the Starmer mould, suspended Schönbach immediately from all duties and titles. Embarrassingly, however, the retired General Harald Kujat, a senior figure in the German armed forces and former Chair of NATO’s Military Committee, then gave a TV interview (that rapidly disappeared online): ‘If I were still in office I would have stood up for Admiral Schönbach, and tried in every way to prevent his dismissal… it must be in our interest to achieve a sensible result, to de-escalate and arrive at a relaxation of tension with Russia, of course with consideration of Ukrainian security interests as well.’ Even within Natoland there are differences: Johnson-Starmer preach war-war, many Germans favour jaw-jaw.

British posturing is designed mainly to stress to the White House and Pentagon that a Brexited Britain can be even more loyal than in Blairite times. The dog-like coital lock could be permanently sealed with cement. Meanwhile, Starmer accusing Stop the War of supporting authoritarians shines a light on his own politics. He will do whatever he’s asked to by the British state. If tomorrow Putin is designated a friend, Starmer will go along. He certainly knows something about authoritarianism himself, having expelled dozens of dissident Jews from the Labour Party and suspended his radical predecessor on spurious charges. In McCarthyite fashion, he might proscribe the peace movement altogether and try to force its Labour supporters to quit. He could go further than Blair by making support for NATO a necessary pre-condition for party membership. It would be just an extension of weaponizing anti-Semitism and effectively outlawing criticisms of Israel.

Stop the War is not a political party. It has Tory supporters, as well as many who favour Scottish independence. Its aim is to stop wars waged by the US or NATO, whatever the pretext. The politicians and the arms merchants who back these wars do so not to enhance democracy, but to serve the hegemonic interests of the world’s largest imperial power. Stop the War and many others will carry on the task of opposing them despite threats, slanders or blandishments.  

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Springtime for NATO’, NLR I/234.

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Geringonça’s End

On 27 October 2021, the budget put forward by Portugal’s ruling Socialist Party (PS) was voted down by the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and Left Bloc (BE), resulting in the dissolution of Portuguese parliament, the collapse of the government and an early general election. The subsequent national ballot, held on 30 January, saw the PCP and BE lose half their elected positions while the PS gained an absolute majority. The PCP fell from 6.33% of the vote to 4.39%, the BE from 9.52% to 4.46%. Although the polls showed an increasingly close race between the PS and the centre-right PSD towards the end of the campaign, on election night the former surpassed its 2019 performance by five percentage points – enough to elect more representatives than every other party combined. Its 41.5% gave the PS 119 seats out of a total 230. Turnout rose by almost 10%.

This means that for the next four years, the centre-left Socialists, led by prime minister António Costa, will be able to govern without the need to negotiate with the two main parties to their left. The day after the election, the CIP (Confederation of Portuguese Business) issued a statement welcoming the result and declaring its intention to present ten major proposals to the government, suggesting changes in fiscal policy and the social security system. The implication was clear. Whether or not the PS follows these prescriptions to the letter, the state will now be more susceptible to capitalist influence, both domestic and international. The so-called geringonça has come to an end.

The geringonça, or ‘contraption’, was the name given to the political solution that emerged from the 2015 legislative elections, in which no party received the necessary vote share to form a majority. Although the PS won fewer votes than a coalition headed by the PSD, it was able to form a government thanks to the support of PCP and BE representatives. Their confidence-and-supply deal with the PS brought to an end the administration led by Pedro Passos Coelho (PSD), who, since 2011, had implemented the Troika’s austerity agenda. The geringonça – an arrangement unprecedented in Portugal’s democratic history – suffered its first setback in the 2019 elections, when the left parties’ vote share declined and their joint legislative programme with the PS was not renewed. From then on, the PCP and BE voted with the government on a case-by-case basis. 

Now that the geringonça’s gradual decline has given way to its downfall, it is worth recalling the origins of the term. In a parliamentary debate in late 2015, the former deputy prime minister Paulo Portas remarked, ‘This isn’t a real government, just a kind of contraption.’ The left proudly appropriated the insult and divested it of its disdainful implications. It was indicative of a specific historical moment, when old fissures between the ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ left seemed less relevant, and new political experiments seemed necessary to rupture the austerity consensus. Six years later, the situation is different. The PS’s priorities are more remote from those of the PCP and BE. The cooling of relations seen in 2019, when the three parties abandoned their formal parliamentary agreement, has since morphed into open hostility. 

The PS blames the end of the geringonça on the supposed extremism and intransigence of its partners. According to the Socialists, the PCP and BE were insisting on including a number of impossible demands in last year’s budget, such as raising the monthly minimum wage to 850 euros and repealing labour laws introduced by the previous right-wing government. For their part, the PCP and BE attributed the geringonça’s breakdown to the PS’s desire to govern from the centre – which, so they said, prompted António Costa to engineer the failure of his own budget to precipitate a political crisis and snap election.

It is difficult to make sense of the surprising election results, not least because we still do not have the data from exit polls carried out on election day. We do not know, for example, which parties PS voters supported in past elections or who benefitted from the increased turnout. However, there are various indications that many of those who previously supported the PCP or BE have now switched to the PS. This shift was already apparent from polling conducted after the failure of the budget, which suggested that the PS’s line had more cut-through. Yet this trend seemed to accelerate in the final period of the election campaign, in response to news that the PSD was progressively eroding the PS’s lead, raising the possibility of a right-wing coalition. Left-wing voters were evidently spooked by the prospect of a geringonça of the right, bringing together the centre-right PSD with smaller parties like the ultra-neoliberal Iniciativa Liberal (IL) and neofascist Chega.

Yet if tactical voting contributed to the decline of the PCP and BE, there was no parallel misfortune for the far-right. The PSD roundly failed to overtake the PS, whereas the IL and Chega emerged from the elections greatly strengthened. They increased their number of deputies from one apiece to 6 and 12 respectively. Whereas left-wing voters lent their support to the PS to ward off the right, their right-wing counterparts made no such compromises – with the result that the PS exceeded expectations while the PSD undershot them. In this conjuncture, the PS consolidated its position as the most effective instrument for maintaining Portugal’s social and political status quo. In turn, the radical right affirmed its place as the most effective force for channelling discontent.

Among the many reasons why tactical voting did not take hold on the right was the strategic nous of its new parties. Since its establishment in 2017, the IL has excelled in political communications. It has galvanized opposition to a number of specific policies – social welfare, progressive taxation – while crafting a wider platform that identifies businesses and entrepreneurship as the key to Portugal’s future structural transformation. Meanwhile, Chega has combined its attacks on the Portuguese Social Income programme and racist talking points (particularly anti-Roma ones) with an anti-elite message, presenting itself as the only party capable of making a clean break with establishment politics. In both cases, though by different means, the insurgent right has come to be seen as the sole agent of change. Its two main outlets have mobilized forms of individualism and nationalism which, in recent decades, have become increasingly naturalized in Portuguese society.

The successful manoeuvring of the insurgent right contrasted with its rivals on the opposite end of the spectrum. Although the PCP–BE opposition to the October budget was partly motivated by an immediate political disagreement with the PS, it also signalled a longer-term strategy. The PCP and BE had voted through several previous budgets in which the PS refused to countenance their core policies and dragged its feet over key promises. This caused the steady depletion of the left’s negotiating power and the erosion of its electoral relevance. The hope of the PCP and BE, in withdrawing their support for the budget, was to preserve their political autonomy while forcing a realignment in the geringonça to confront the problems of the post-pandemic era. The left parties reckoned that, if the PS had won the election but not an overall majority, it would have been forced to choose one of two paths: either reopen dialogue with its partners, or come to terms with the center-right.

This attempt to shift the centre of political gravity was an obvious failure. In the end, the price of preserving the political autonomy of both parties was higher than expected. Between October 2021 and the national ballot, the PCP and BE found themselves in an ambivalent position, denouncing the policies of the government while also seeking to revitalize the geringonça. Communicating this ambivalence to the electorate was no easy task. Many former PCP and BE voters ended up viewing them as obstructionists who had mounted a premature and – in the light of the rising of the far-right – irresponsible gamble. Hence the exodus to the ultra-‘responsible’ PS.  

The poor performance of the PCP and BE has elicited two competing explanations on the Portuguese left. The first is that the PCP and BE ended up betraying their revolutionary principles by placing all their hopes in the revival of the geringonça, and are now paying the price for that betrayal. The second is that the leaderships of both parties committed a grave error in voting against the budget: a mistake that evinced their impenitent vanguardism and unwillingness to explore the opportunities for legislative reform created by the geringonça, as well as their sectarian attitude towards the PS.

To these theories we may add a third conjecture: that the problem lay not in an abandonment of revolutionary politics, nor in the leaderships’ reluctance to cooperate with the PS, but in the relationship between these two dynamics. That is to say, the gap between the left’s revolutionary ambitions and its reformist constraints could perhaps have been navigated more effectively if the geringonça, having begun as a parliamentary compromise, had become a political movement in itself.

It is worth considering how most of the ‘victories’ of the geringonça were achieved. These were, above all, the result of intra-party negotiations, in which extended parliamentary wrangling would occasionally issue in new social policies. Rather than giving fresh impetus to the social mobilization that actuated the struggle against the Troika until 2015, the geringonça established a contractual and representative relationship with voters. This gulf deprived forces to the left of the PS of alternative means of self-expression or social mediation. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the BE – whose popularity relies to a large degree on the vicissitudes of media coverage and parliamentary performances – suffered more losses than the PCP, an organization with deep grassroots support.  

Meanwhile, throughout the years of the geringonça, the PS managed to build a reasonable amount of trust with the electorate. Counterposing their moderate social democratic programme to the memory of the austerity inflicted by the right, the Socialists took advantage of Europe’s economic rebound and claimed credit for the popular social policies passed with the help of their left-wing partners. In the wake of the pandemic, large sections of the population desired greater institutional stability, and the PS was best placed to provide it. Looking ahead, the left must confront the perennial question on which the geringonça foundered – how to combine institutional action with social mobilization? – if it hopes to challenge PS hegemony.

Translated by Lisa Leak.

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Luso-Anomalies’, NLR 106.

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Catching a Fish

For many years the work of the American writer Elizabeth Hardwick remained partly occluded by public histories: that of the New York Review of Books, which she co-founded along with Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein in 1963, as well as her relationship with the poet Robert Lowell. A reassessment however has been underway, aided by the publication of her Collected Essays in 2017 – the Uncollected Essays are due later this year – and now Cathy Curtis’s biography A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick. In Anglophone literary circles, Hardwick is in the ascendence, and increasingly heralded as one of the last century’s finest stylists. This is with good reason: show the uninitiated a Hardwick essay, and within a few lines they will readily declare her to have written one of the finest sentences they have read (who else would describe Edward VIII as ‘that being of perfect, blowsy immanence’ or look at a South American journalist’s ‘careful, neat dress’ and see ‘the melancholy mending done at home by mothers and sisters’). The implication though is often that her work amounts to a style detached from the subjects she wrote about.

Hardwick’s brackish, adamantine prose however was a product of the labour required to puncture the liberal platitudes which she saw filling America’s literary pages with anesthetising frequency. ‘Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene’, Hardwick observed in her 1959 indictment ‘The Decline of Book Reviewing’, ‘a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns’. She cut an enviable if understated figure, combining an aesthetic and moral integrity that earned the respect of her contemporaries Mary McCarthy, who became a friend, and Joan Didion, who offered praise none too lightly. But unlike McCarthy, whose tendency towards polemical stridency rarely escaped the liberal fictions she satirised, and Didion, whose conservative politics hampered her ability to discern anything other than moral anomie (at least until her fierce dislike of Reagan initiated a late political awakening), Hardwick never lost sight of the material violence of post-war America. ‘Failure is not funny’, she insisted in her signature 1963 essay on the journalist’s life, ‘Grub Street: New York’. ‘It is cockroaches on the service elevator, old men in carpet slippers waiting anxiously by the mail slots in the lobby, neighbourhood walks where the shops, graphs of consumption, show only a clutter of broken vases, strings of cracked beads, dirty feathers.’

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1916, Hardwick was in many ways an unlikely candidate to become a defining voice of New York letters. Southern origins – even more than the constraints of gender – provoked initial doubts about her ‘mental qualifications’, as she later quipped; later it only added to her mystique (Darryl Pinckney recalls ‘the captivating cadence of her speech’ in an encomium for the NYRB). Her family lived at the run-down North End of the city which, even before the depression, was populated by the uprooted and the rootless. Her father was often looking for work; her mother’s axiom was never to get into debt. In ‘Lexington, Kentucky’, published in 1969, Hardwick evokes the inevitable gravity of lost southern grandeur, a landscape of ‘old pipes, broken clothesline, Coke bottles and the debris of hope’. It was this early education in poverty and hopelessness that made her impatient with the world of east coast intellectuals – as much as she found a home among them – who, as she wrote in an acerbic 1959 essay about Boston, pursued history ‘with its long, leisurely, gentlemanly labours’. Instead, as she writes in her flawless third and final novel, Sleepless Nights (1979), she was interested in lives where ‘history assaults you’.

The granddaughter of an ardent confederate, Hardwick knew how the South was produced in the imagination, and how being on the right side of history was a fiction that one might cling to at great expense, especially as a journalist. The essayist is not absent in her writing, nor a character as in New Journalism – but rather historically implicated. Few among her intellectual milieu wrote on racial tensions with such clarity. Uniquely, she discerned in the 1965 Watts riots a grandeur and a historical trajectory: ‘riots were a way to enter history, to create a past, to give form by destruction’ she wrote in ‘After Watts’. Compare this to Didion’s account in ‘The White Album’ of visiting Huey Newton in jail: listening to Charles Garry’s question ‘Isn’t it true…Huey, that racism got its start for economic reasons?’ she hears the ‘weird interlocution’ and notes only the heat of the small room and the fluorescent light that burns her eyes.

Elizabeth, the protagonist of Sleepless Nights, gives a brief portrait of her mother, ‘who had lived in so many towns it was as if she did not know who she was’, and of her father: ‘He was political, and he got up early in the morning to listen on the radio to the fall of Madrid and the signing of the Munich pact’. A reviewer once accused Hardwick of failing to ‘make sufficient distinctions between the real and the literary’, but for Hardwick, they were on a continuum. Early in the novel, Elizabeth asks: ‘Can it be that I am the subject?’ From that tentative, probing position she arrives at a literary form that decouples novel and author. If the novel’s events come close to Hardwick’s own life, it bears little resemblance to the current vogue of autofiction. It does not so much narrate the self as use the self’s fictions to generate an impersonal history. Her father hovers in the wings, not quite making his entrance; Hardwick is interested, instead, in characters who rarely make their way into the pages of fiction: ‘store clerks and waitresses…old spinsters, solitary music teachers…those who have known the scales of disappointment.’  

Moving to New York in 1940 for graduate study at Columbia, Hardwick published her debut novel, The Ghostly Lover in 1945. It returned to the hushed, stagnant world of Lexington in the 1930s – one quite unlike that of Faulkner’s mythical southern landscapes – and so impressed Philip Rahv that he invited her to write for Partisan Review, the house journal at mid-century for many of the figures who became known as the New York Intellectuals. Hardwick’s first contributions were as a short story writer, with ‘The Mysteries of Eleusis’, an essayist with ‘Poor Little Rich Girls’, where she remarks on the fashion in contemporary fiction (if not in life) to punish ‘the pampered, fast living, rebellious girl’, and as a book reviewer of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, which opens with the enduring line: ‘To be a Negro in America is a full time job’. Hardwick wrote with authority and insight about literary history, contemporary culture and politics for Partisan Review, and subsequently for The New York Review of Books, founded in response to a sense of the diminishing quality of literary writing in America – it aimed to fulfil her clarion call for a literary culture that valued ‘the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting’.

Hardwick has been often criticised for not taking a more outspoken position on the women’s movement (Vivian Gornick’s recent essay, in the New Republic, revising her earlier dismissal of Hardwick, is an interesting reckoning in this respect). Seduction and Betrayal (1974), a collection of essays on literary women who spent their lives as background figures to narcissistic men, was accused of lacking a feminist consciousness. It is framed not as a case for feminism, but rather an investigation into the power of male authorship and the way women have searched for freedom – through desire – and been betrayed in the process. If Hardwick was resistant to sloganeering, and more concerned with individual psychology than political organising, she nevertheless wrestled with the impetus that drove second-wave feminism, ‘the shakiness of marriage’ and the vulnerabilities that it opened up. What she offered was a lucidity of vision, delineating the intimate connections between gender and destiny as well as the wrenching contradictions of female experience. Thus, we find, in an essay on Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976), ‘the girl, perhaps worried that her autonomy is out of line, like an overdrawn expense account, announces that she is going to bear a child’. See also, in her 1953 essay ‘The Subjection of Women’, for the power of compression: ‘childbearing and housekeeping may be repetitive and even intellectually stunning’. Hardwick was finely attuned to the ways in which ‘choice’, as enshrined by the feminist movement, was largely a delusion. She recognised that writing one’s life as a woman was a project undertaken against the grain, an act that would require a recalibration of the work of writing.

‘Biographers,’ Hardwick writes in a 1982 essay on Katherine Anne Porter, ‘the quick in pursuit of the dead, research, organize, fill in, contradict, and make in this way a sort of completed picture puzzle with all the scramble turned into a blue eye and the parts of the right leg fitted together’. The result is often a scarecrow portrait, a masquerade history that does not advertise itself as fiction. Cathy Curtis, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent, acknowledges Hardwick’s admonishments in A Splendid Intelligence. She nevertheless diligently proceeds to narrate the life of a woman who believed that memory was better mined in fiction and that history cannot be neatly compiled. As in her first biography of the painter Grace Hartigan, Curtis is interested in documenting the challenges of achieving artistic excellence as a woman, of the tricky, tiresome balance of creative freedom, economic stability and intimacy in what were, in the forties and fifties, still male dominated spheres. Her endeavour, a muted feminist one that she sets out in the opening, is to tell Hardwick’s life without reducing it to a companion piece to Lowell’s.

The biography is slim – half the size of those of Didion, McCarthy or Susan Sontag – and whilst it offers a satisfactory chronological account of Hardwick’s life and work, it is liable to prompt quiet indignation among the initiated, and not only for its choice of title (at which Hardwick would have flinched). Reading it, one finds plenty of finely researched information and nice turns of phrase. But it is ‘sweet to be pierced by daggers at the end of paragraphs’, as Hardwick writes in Sleepless Nights. One yearns for writing with the intellectual daring of its subject. Curtis’s principal sources are Hardwick’s own letters and work, and there are few revelations for those familiar with them (Hardwick’s daughter Harriet refused to speak to Curtis, fittingly perhaps, since Hardwick did not think highly of oral history). The readings of the work are consistent if often cursory. More might have been made of the intellectual culture Hardwick participated in through Partisan Review and the New York Review of Books were Lowell to be displaced more fully from the centre of Hardwick’s life. The book’s limitations are exemplified by its over-familiarising use of ‘Elizabeth’: a biographical convention that Hardwick would have treated with scepticism, suggesting intimacy with a subject that refused such ease of address. This style lends itself too readily to the neatness that Hardwick opposed; it falls straight down the shaft of memory into the realm of those easily recoverable narratives favoured by book publishing and liberal feminism.

In ‘Grub Street: New York’ Hardwick rebukes members of the literati who congratulate themselves on reading a James Baldwin essay in the New Yorker, appreciating its style but quickly forgetting its incendiary content; a denunciation that is interspersed with a lyrical description of Socialist Labor Party leaflets strewn on the entrance to a subway station: ‘The pages are not thrown away in resentment or disagreement, but cast down as if they were bits of Kleenex: clean white paper with nothing at all written on it, falling into the gutter.’ Style is seductive, as most difficult things are; it can also be a smokescreen (one has only to think of the relation between the idealisation of Didion’s early sentences – the bread and butter of any liberal feminist education – and her conservative politics). Today we might note the rise of a shiny, acerbic style of criticism, largely written by those with an Ivy League education. This criticism shows every sign of its authors having read Hardwick, along with Didion and Sontag, but employs a learned mordancy as if words were something you could simply bite and chew. Deconstruction is a natural way to parade knowledge acquired in prestigious places (and to refuse the accessible voice that the literary marketplace demands of women).

‘Nothing is easier to acquire,’ Hardwick observed, ‘than the prevailing taste’. She saw that a thought had to be constantly wrenched away from platitude, and that the essay proved the best genre to slip out of the net of expectation for women in the second half of the twentieth century. ‘We would not want to think of the essay as the country of old men’, she wrote in 1986, ‘but it is doubtful that the slithery form, wearisomely vague and as chancy as trying to catch a fish in the open hand can be taught’. Hardwick was no collaborator; individuality, she saw, came at a cost. Even the New York Review of Books was principally a venue for publication rather than a workplace (at least from what one gleans from the pages of Curtis’s biography). Hardwick was the finest editor it seems, of her own sentences, but she nonetheless believed in writing for a public that expanded far beyond a coterie of intellectuals; an intellectual culture worthy of its name was at stake in every sentence she wrote. It goes without saying that she would have looked on the current state of education and literary culture with an excoriating disregard, but her work might well be one of the best defences of literature, as the discipline sits precariously, at the centre of the humanities, ready to be dispatched to the side lines.

Read on: Erika Balsom ‘Camera Lucida’, NLR 129.

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Away from the Guns

I.

Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard-based naturalist who died on 26 December 2021 at the age of 92, was often misunderstood by the left. When he launched the field of sociobiology in 1975, he was charged by the Sociobiology Study Group – a critical group set up by Marxist geneticist Richard Lewontin – with trying to ‘justify the present social order’. His work, applying the modern synthesis of genetics and evolution to the interpretation of behaviour, appeared to give a new gloss to discredited biological determinism, and suggest that there was a natural basis for such undesirable characteristics as xenophobia and male dominance.

Despite the conservative implications of some of his work, Wilson did not consider himself a man of the right. In his own words, he was a ‘Roosevelt liberal turned pragmatic centrist’. He considered himself a feminist, and furiously rejected charges of racism. His major intellectual goal, which he termed ‘consilience’, was to unify the sciences through a narrow version of Darwinism. He hoped that the essential questions about art, society and religion could be addressed, in part, as questions about genetics. His major ethical concern was to defend the biosphere, challenge human exceptionalism and cultivate respect for the non-human species he studied. Awareness of the ‘limits of human nature’, achieved by viewing humanity ‘from a distance’ – from a termite’s-eye-view, one might say ­– would undermine anthropocentrism.

He was also a pugilist ‘roused’, as he once wrote, ‘by the amphetamine of ambition’. Nothing could have been more ambitious than to use population biology to explain animal behaviour at every level. In his advice to young scientists, he urged followers to avoid research fields blazing with intellectual battle: ‘march away from the sound of the guns’, he said, before adding, ‘make a fray of your own’. This is what Wilson did, through thirty books on insect civilization, island biogeography, human nature, ecology, extinction, the origins of social life and the roots of creativity, among other themes.  His turn to environmentalism, including his ‘half-earth’ solution to mass extinction, made a significant impact on the ecological left. 

And, if one could forgive his political obtuseness, he wrote beautifully. His descriptions of his field work were excitable, evocative, and dense with delighted observations and perfectly pitched metaphors. This gift won him mass audiences and two Pulitzer Prizes.

II.

Born on 10 June 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, Wilson was raised in a South beguiled, as he wrote in his memoir, by ‘her antebellum dream of the officer and the gentleman’. It was a chaotic childhood, with unhappy parents. When he was seven, in the summer of 1936, he was sent to stay with a family on Florida’s Perdido Bay while his parents fought. He spent two days, in this ‘season of fantasy’, exploring the life on the shore, enthralled by marine life and the evidence of ‘alien purpose and dark happenings in the kingdom of deep water’. The same year, he blinded himself in his right eye in a fishing accident. To this injury he credited his attention to smaller creatures, such as butterflies and ants. Finally, in the winter of 1937, his parents divorced, and he was sent to the private Gulf Coast Military Academy in Gulfport, Mississippi, which he described as a ‘carefully planned nightmare engineered for the betterment of the untutored and undisciplined’. He was gleeful when the Academy was visited by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and populist governor of Alabama Jim Folsom, whom he admired.

Unable to serve in the army during the Second World War, due to the impairment of his right eye, he studied biology at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he was also briefly drawn to the radical left. It was, however, the Darwinian revolution that would capture his imagination. The ‘modern synthesis’, as it was dubbed by Julian Huxley, combined Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian genetics. R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane and Sewall Wright had deployed mathematical population genetics to show that continuous, small-scale genetic mutations could provide the missing mechanism of heredity in Darwin’s theory of evolution. This discovery catalysed Wilson’s conversion from his Baptist upbringing to secular humanism.

The ambition of the modern synthesis was expansive. Influenced by the Vienna positivists, many of its pioneers sought to unify the sciences: a factor in Wilson’s later effort to shoehorn sociobiology into every possible field. It was also infused with the ambition of human improvement, through eugenics. Wilson hoped, in the spirit of pre-war progressivism, that the ‘jerrybuilt foundation of partly obsolete Ice-Age adaptations’ in humanity could be refined through ‘conventional eugenics’.

Fired up by the new discoveries, Wilson would begin his first survey of Alabama ants at the age of eighteen, start his PhD research at Harvard three years later in 1950, join Harvard’s faculty in 1956, and go on, with population ecologist Robert MacArthur, to develop the theory of island biogeography. He would also develop the insights of British evolutionary biologist, W. D. Hamilton, whose obscure paper on the evolution of altruistic traits, ‘The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour’, he read in 1964. Hamilton was struggling to gain an academic position, in part due to his views on eugenics. His theory of ‘inclusive fitness’ argued that the unit of selection was not the organism, but the gene. Since related organisms shared so much genetic material, there was an advantage to kin altruism. Wilson had already become interested in social biology through his study of ant societies. Hamilton’s theory suggested to him the possibility of launching a new discipline.

III.

Wilson first systematically applied Hamilton’s ideas with his 1971 book, The Insect Societies. However, it was with Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), and On Human Nature (1978), that he made his fray. In Sociobiology, he sought to explain the social behaviour of insects, birds and primates with the Hamiltonian principle that each organism, a ‘temporary carrier’ of its genes, was ‘the DNA’s way of making more DNA’. Behaviour, being adapted to its environment, must be governed by its genetic make-up.

Like Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’, also influenced by Hamilton’s work, this way of talking about DNA was pungent mythmaking. In ascribing ultimate agency to genes, Wilson’s metaphor implied a rigid genetic determinism. In Sociobiology and On Human Nature, however, he emphasized the importance of emergent properties, acknowledged that ‘genes have given away most of their sovereignty’, foregrounded the human ‘flexibility’ allowing individuals to ‘play roles of virtually any degree of specification’, and stressed that there were choices to be made ‘among our innate natural propensities’. He rejected claims for a genetic basis of hierarchy and downplayed IQ, a fetish of the right, as ‘only one subset of … intelligence’. In an interview with the New York Times, he explained, ‘I see maybe 10 percent of human behaviour as genetic and 90 percent environmental’.

Nonetheless, Wilson insisted, human nature did restrict social choice. There was, he suggested in Sociobiology, a likely genetic basis for xenophobia, war, the nuclear family, spite, homosexuality, creativity, entrepreneurship, drive and mental stamina. Citing the work of ecologist Garret Hardin, he suggested that ‘human territorial behaviour’ was genetically founded, with the result that when tribes compete over scarce resources, ‘xenophobia becomes a political virtue’. In arguing for the possibility of ‘homosexual genes’, he explained that the ‘homosexual state itself results in inferior genetic fitness,’ and could only be explained by ‘kin selection’: though he was unsure whether ‘such genes really exist’. Of the nuclear family, then under sustained criticism from the feminist movement, he insisted that it was the ‘building block of nearly all human societies’, and that the ‘formalised code’ governing kinship relations had not changed much since hunter-gatherer society. Of universal competition and hierarchy, he explained that the ‘best and most entrepreneurial of the role-actors usually gain a disproportionate share of the rewards, while the least successful are usually displaced to other, less desirable positions.’

Most controversially, in On Human Nature, he tentatively lent credence to ‘racial’ variations. While acknowledging that ‘almost all differences between human societies are based on learning and social conditioning’, he cited research finding ‘significant average differences’ between races in ‘locomotion, posture, muscular tone, and emotional response’. One did not have to believe in ‘biological equality’ as a condition for affirming ‘human freedom and dignity’, he averred. But, without displaying the slightest historical sensitivity, he accepted the framing of variation in terms of the monstrous pseudo-concept of ‘race’. This is notable given the placatory tone of the book, and its effort to distinguish him from crude reductionists and reactionaries.

Wilson’s ahistorical description of species behaviour in terms of the categories of twentieth-century capitalism – neither the ‘nuclear family’ nor ‘entrepreneurship’ are human universals, for example – implied that it would be very difficult to change behaviours like competitiveness, racism or sexism by changing the environment. Later, writing in the New York Times Magazine, Wilson guessed that ‘the genetic bias’ between the sexes was ‘intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies’, although he qualified this as ‘only a guess’ which could not justify ‘anything less than sex-blind admission and free personal choice’. But such a ‘guess’, like the value-laden claims peppering the last chapter of Sociobiology, is indistinguishable from ideology.

Wilson’s claims provoked the formation of Richard Lewontin’s Sociobiology Study Group. Lewontin wrote to the New York Review of Books to warn that discredited biological determinism was being presented as breakthrough research. Ironically, Sociobiology had cited Lewontin’s work several times. Demonstrators began to turn up at Wilson’s lectures, charging that he was legitimizing sexism and racism. Wilson was bitter over the attacks. He considered Stephen Jay Gould, a leading critic of his work, a ‘charlatan’, and framed the battle as one between ‘science and political ideology’, in which Marxism was ‘mortally threatened by the discoveries of human sociobiology’. The sociologist Ullica Segerstrale argues in Defenders of the Truth (2000) that the critics showed ‘astounding disregard’ for what he had written. There is some truth to this: Wilson was frequently misquoted, and wrongly treated as a biological determinist making a case for sexism and hierarchy.

Yet, as Philip Kitcher wrote in Vaulting Ambition (1985), by far the best review of the controversy, this was ‘a dispute about evidence’, not the validity of sociobiological research. Wilson’s most trenchant critics were not extreme culturalists. Lewontin, Leon Kamin and Steven Rose, in Not in Our Genes (1984), rail against the ‘denial of biology’. In part, Wilson acknowledged, there was a dispute about the validity of ‘plausibility arguments and speculation’. As Kitcher put it, when the costs of being wrong are sufficiently high, ‘then it is reasonable and responsible to ask for more evidence’. Not only was there little to no evidence for human sociobiology’s most controversial claims but, as Rose would argue, this style of reasoning posited speculative ‘distal’ (evolutionary) mechanisms for human behaviour such as sexism and xenophobia, when ‘proximal’ (political or social) causes better explained the data. An underlying theoretical issue, as Gould wrote, was Wilson’s stringently adaptationist version of Darwinism which resulted in the false inference that any behaviour that contributed to fitness, and was universal, must have come about through natural selection, and thus be under what Wilson called ‘genetic control’.

IV.

Despite Wilson’s middle-of-the-road politics, the ideological refrains bookending his ambitious salvo resonated with a wider turn to the right. A form of pop sociobiology vastly more vulgar than anything Wilson endorsed held that human destiny was ‘hard-wired’, a claim that entered the conservative ‘common sense’ of the era and fed into human sociobiology’s rebranded successor, evolutionary psychology.

And there is a further, revealing chapter in Wilson’s political opacity. Between 1987 and 1994, according to a recent exposé in the NYRB, he corresponded with the ‘race realist’, J. Phillipe Rushton. Rushton, based at Western University, used Wilson’s work on island biogeography to explain ‘race differences’. Wilson and MacArthur had suggested that the reproductive success of species in islands was determined by the advantages of ‘r/K’ selection. Species that produced large amounts of offspring were ‘r selected’. Those that produced fewer offspring with more parental investment were ‘K selected’. Rushton thought that black people were ‘r selected’ while white people were ‘K selected’.

Wilson did not see a racist pseudoscientist mangling his work. He saw, instead, a ‘courageous’ academic being persecuted. He acted as an academic referee for Rushton’s article, and lobbied Western’s faculty on Rushton’s behalf when he was investigated for academic misconduct. There is no evidence that Wilson was a wholehearted supporter of ‘race realism’. In his 2000 introduction to Sociobiology, he observed that ‘statistical racial differences, if any, remain unproven’. Yet given his claims in Sociobiology and On Human Nature, it cannot be written off as an error of judgment. Rather, Wilson’s predicates, and his historical ignorance, inclined him to credit views that were at odds with his liberal politics.

Wilson’s Darwinian ecological precepts had other political ramifications. An emphasis on the struggle for survival in conditions of competition for scarce resources underlined the biological limits conditioning human civilization. Yet Darwin also stressed the evolved dependencies between organisms, and the necessity of cooperation. As Wilson wrote, humanity had been an ‘ignorant’ steward of the planet, having ‘scarcely begun to conceive of the possible benefits that other organisms will bring in economic welfare, health, and aesthetic pleasure’.

In the latter half of the 1970s, Wilson, alarmed by reports of catastrophically declining biodiversity, embraced the cause of environmentalism. Alongside other ecologists he formed part of the ‘rain forest mafia’. In the same year Sociobiology was published, he wrote of the urgent need for an ‘applied biogeography’ to reduce the rate of biodiversity decline. His biogeographical work with MacArthur had found that the diversity of the population declined with island size. The reduction and fragmentation of natural reserves under pressure from human industrial and agricultural expansion was reducing the ‘islands’ available for biodiversity. A vital source for this view of the value of biodiversity was Ukrainian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s argument, in his programmatic statement of the modern synthesis, Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), that genetic diversity was a store of variability that enabled species to survive changing environments.

Wilson sought a biological foundation for his ethical convictions. In 1979, he coined the concept of ‘biophilia’, suggesting that humans have an ‘inborn affinity’ for other forms of life. The biophilia hypothesis, speculative and based on ‘thin’ evidence as he acknowledged, was an effort at moral persuasion aimed partly at states and scientific establishments, whom he exhorted to invest in research and conservation strategies. Through the 1980s, Wilson wrote copiously and passionately on the threat of extinction caused by the destruction of ecosystems, including a stint editing the journal BioDiversity in 1988. Against ‘spurious’ claims that humanity was merely acting as another ‘Darwinian agent’ by causing species’ extinction, he noted that the ‘rate of extinction is now about 400 times that recorded through recent geological time and is accelerating rapidly’.

This implicitly called for drastic changes to production and consumption. However, like most in the rain forest mafia, Wilson wrote in an eco-Malthusian register. ‘While ants exist in just the right numbers for the rest of the living world,’ he wrote, ‘humans have become too numerous.’ The ‘problems of Third World countries’, he explained, were ‘primarily biological’. ‘Various forms of biological excess’ such as ‘overpopulation’ contributed to deforestation, soil erosion, famine and disease: a position that highlighted the danger of applying Darwinian concepts to complex social problems

Perhaps Wilson’s most implicitly radical suggestion was his ‘half-earth’ thesis. ‘Large plots,’ he wrote, ‘harbour many more ecosystems and the species composing them at a sustainable level … A biogeographic scan of the Earth’s principal habitats shows that … the vast majority of its species can be saved within half the planet’s surface.’ One suspects that such conservation was not just a defence strategy. It spoke to an occulted utopian impulse in his work. As he wrote in The Future of Life (2001), the encounter with wild nature reminded one of ‘the way life ought to be lived, all the time.’ Which is to say, with curiosity, sympathy and a sense of mystery. In his nature writing one finds precisely the transcendental impulse to which he appeals in The Creation (2006), a plea to the fundamentalist Christians in whose tent he was raised to help save the earth. Again, though, Wilson tended to view the issue as a moral struggle against the worst of the human nature. ‘We are still too greedy, shortsighted, and divided into warring tribes to make wise, long-term decisions. … Imagine! Hundreds of millions of years in the making, and we’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity as though the species of the natural world are no better than weeds and kitchen vermin. Have we no shame?’

Wilson continued to rethink the human condition in view of his version of Darwinism. Having decided that Hamilton’s concept of ‘inclusive fitness’ had ‘crumbled’, he wrote in The Social Conquest of the Earth (2012) that humans were shaped by the legacy of two types of selection: group selection favoured ‘honour, virtue, and duty’ whereas individual selection favoured ‘selfishness, cowardice and hypocrisy’. Since group selection could never totally overwhelm individual selection, the ‘human condition’ was one of ‘endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us’. This was elegantly parsimonious: deceptively so given the mass of data on which it relies. Despite its fabular feel, it acknowledged the variety of contradictory human behaviours built into our biological potential.

V.

Wilson was a great naturalist, but also a moralist. Much of his later work seems to be an effort to alert the species to its dark side and limit its damage. His contradictory sociopolitical legacy, and methodological narrowness, cannot but sour the left’s response to him. Yet he was not an ideologue, but a serious scientist. His problematic political speculations represent a fraction of his output. And there is much to critically admire, and radicalise, in the ambition and intellectual breadth with which he studied, catalogued, explained, valued and defended the multitude of life on earth.

Read on: Richard Seymour, ‘Patterning Slowdown’, NLR 131.

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Levelling Off

With Johnson on the ropes over lockdown parties, reception of the Westminster government’s Levelling Up white paper last week was bumpy. The Guardian was ‘profoundly disappointed’, the Telegraph excoriating of an ‘alphabet soup’ of bureaucratic meddling. Attention swiftly returned to moral outrage at the prime minister’s besmirching of Saint Keir Starmer over the Crown Prosecution Service’s failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile, a BBC celebrity and serial child-sex offender, while Starmer was its Director. Starmer’s defenders included Johnson’s own long-serving policy chief, one of a number of senior aides to flee Downing Street in recent days.  

Fulfilling an election pledge to ease the country’s huge regional inequalities would seem important for the Tories’ prospects of retaining the forty or so rustbelt seats in the Midlands and northern England snatched from Labour in 2019, on which their Commons majority depends. But even allowing for the pandemic, it’s taken them a while to get around to it. Hard-right positions on public order and immigration, not to mention a New Cold War foreign policy at Washington’s behest, became apparent some time ago. But regional policy was thrown overboard by Thatcher in the early 1980s, and the current crop of neo-Thatcherites are having to make it up as they go along.

As a rule, talk of ‘levelling up’ doesn’t preview radical measures to come, but rather indicates a wish to forestall them. The term first became common currency in Westminster in the 1860s, when Disraeli’s Tories battled disestablishment of the Anglican Church in British-ruled Ireland. Instead of abolishing the Protestant ascendency, why not set up an inquiry to look at ways to level up Catholic endowments? A century later, Thatcher in Opposition set entrepreneurship and meritocracy against socialistic ‘levelling down’ through high tax and spending. Though it didn’t become part of her repertoire, one of her acolytes, George Osborne, austerity chancellor under Cameron, more recently spoke of building up the North rather than pulling London down. Anyway, it’s not a bad phrase – better than Major’s stale ‘citizen’s charter’ when the Tories were last in a fourth consecutive term in office.

The author of the new Levelling Up paper is Andrew Haldane, seconded to Whitehall from the Royal Society of Arts. Haldane retired last year as Bank of England chief economist after being passed over by Johnson for the post of governor against the advice of the prime minister’s then advisor, Dominic Cummings. In banking and Tory circles (they still overlap), Haldane isn’t what is called ‘sound’. The Financial Times describes him as ‘a free thinker but not a team player’. He comes from a working-class background in Leeds and studied at Sheffield and Warwick, bypassing Oxbridge altogether. In a loose-tongued speech to the Institute of Government, Haldane described his time at the Bank as ‘thirty years of hurt’, drawing on a 1990s football song. The speech was dotted with references to colleagues who had risen further than him – the Bank’s last three governors: Mervyn King, Mark Carney, Andrew Bailey – whose careers Haldane jokingly claimed to have lost sight of.

Haldane became the Bank’s expert in inflation targeting in the becalmed years between the fiasco of an overpriced sterling’s forced exit from the European Exchange Rate mechanism in 1992 and the financial-sector’s implosion in 2008. He subsequently ventured out on a regional roadshow in the name of rebuilding public confidence in the Bank’s operations. The FT pointedly notes that his interest in regional inequalities came despite the Bank lacking a mandate in this area. Haldane closed his tenure at Threadneedle Street by publicly warning of ‘a dependency culture around cheap money’ that had emerged since the launch of quantitative easing in 2009 and been exacerbated by the emergency response to Covid. He urged ‘immediate thought, and action, on unwinding the QE’, fearing a lasting inflationary spiral.

An unorthodox mind but an inflation hawk, Haldane has crafted a white paper that reads better than most, with a historical sweep on the rise and fall of great cities from Jericho and Constantinople to Renaissance Italy. But it offers little in the way of financial stimulus. ‘The cash has already been allocated’, a Treasury source pre-briefed the Telegraph. Haldane rules out ‘dampening down the success of more prosperous areas’, talking instead of spreading opportunity. Gone is Johnson’s earlier suggestion of temporarily relocating the House of Lords to York while Westminster undergoes repairs. Instead, the paper extends George Osborne’s model of legislating for directly elected local mayors as brokers for additional discretionary funding from central government. It pins its hopes on improved coordination across Whitehall to meet twelve overarching targets covering such diverse matters as improving broadband coverage, boosting education and skills, and fostering local residents’ ‘pride in place’. The targets are styled as ‘missions’, a reflection perhaps of the North’s regression in the Whitehall mind – from the ‘growth points’ of the 1960s and the urban ‘regeneration’ projects of New Labour to the current language of colonial evangelism (or is it a fantasy quest?). The missions run until 2030, a far-off date for a Johnson administration whose shelf life can now be counted in days.  

The Times recently published opinion-poll evidence that voters ‘were inherently sceptical about a policy that relies on growing the size of the economic pie for everyone’, and would be happy instead to see London levelled down. The upshot of local-devolution initiatives over the past two decades hasn’t been economic, but political: the creation of springboards for aspirant politicians to prove their popular appeal away from the dead-eyed ranks of Westminster. Today there is Johnson, former mayor of London. Tomorrow, probably, Andy Burnham, the ex-New Labour minister running Greater Manchester and itching to replace Starmer at Westminster. Further down the line is Ben Houchen, the 35-year old Tory mayor of Teeside, adept at pulling in favours from Whitehall and instrumental in the Conservatives’ byelection win in Hartlepool last May. Houchen warns The Times that if Johnson falls, the Tories will ‘go back to square one, where the old politics of a southern Conservative Party fails to reach out to the whole country’. But it is the 2019 Tory intake from traditionally ‘red wall’ Labour seats, less well assimilated to Westminster and fearful of their electoral prospects, who have taken a faltering lead in attempts to topple the prime minister.

You could say that uneven development is what goes on in the background in Britain while voters are dangled tiny counterbalancing measures of regional aid or organisational fixes. Haldane’s white paper attributes the UK’s regional problem to a miscellany of historic factors: ‘globalisation, technological progress, advances in transport, logistics and power, and the shift from heavy industry to knowledge-intensive sectors, as well as the rise of foreign holidays and shift from technical training to university education’. The City of London isn’t named in the 305-page document, except in a couple of graphics, though Haldane is in a position to appreciate its weight on the regional scales. It registers on the political scales again too, now that the passions of Brexit have been spent. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, one of the forerunners to replace Johnson, is a former Goldman Sachs analyst and hedge-fund manager; his Labour counterpart Rachel Reeves was an economist at the Bank of England. ‘In the end, the City work around whatever government is in place’, former Barclays chairman John McFarlane told the Sunday Times in 2019, when Corbyn and McDonnell still loomed. Work around: to fix a problem, to circumvent.

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘Revolt of the Rustbelt’, NLR 105.

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Constituent Power

Geo Maher: The role of grassroots popular power – or what is often called constituent power – in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is generally misunderstood or ignored. How do you understand its place in recent Venezuelan history?

Reinaldo Iturriza: The process of popular subjectification represented by Chavismo remains under-analyzed. The emphasis is almost always placed on the figure of Chávez himself, while the unique historical conjuncture that made his leadership possible is relegated to the background, and in particular the influence of that popular subject without which Chávez would be inconceivable. Something similar happens with the Caracazo, the street-level rebellion of 1989 which many now see as the proximate origin of the Bolivarian process. I am convinced that the general misunderstanding of Chavismo is directly related to the inability to interpret that popular uprising. As uncomfortable as it might be, we shouldn’t forget that the protesters of 1989 were initially vilified by analysts both on the right and the left. At best, the Caracazo was viewed as a pre-political explosion: a food riot, born out of the need to loot basic necessities. In my opinion, though, what happened was a general challenge to the status quo – one that managed to put the state on notice.

After the Caracazo, everything changed. What we sensed intuitively then, we can today affirm wholeheartedly: it was only a matter of time, and of force. We simply needed a political vehicle that was capable of translating the majority’s rejection of the system into a viable alternative. We found it in Chavismo.

GM: Almost ten years ago, just before you took the reins of the Commune Ministry, we discussed the question of internal democracy within Chavismo, the PSUV, and threats to the Bolivarian process – including the relationship between the leadership and the barrios. At that time, you spoke of the need to dismantle a political logic that viewed the people as mere beneficiaries of the government. Does this logic persist? Has it deepened?

RI: This political logic, which we could describe as representative, clientelistic – a welfare logic – has gained much more ground than we would want. Over the past five years, the population has experienced wage devaluation, high inflation rates and then, towards the end of 2017, hyperinflation, with all its destructive impact on social bonds. Since 2014, we saw shortages of consumer goods and long queues to access commercial establishments. The humiliation of trying, often in vain, to stock up on essential products, became practically normalized in Venezuelan society. Amid all this, there were successive waves of anti-Chavista violence: first in 2014, then in 2017, when the country was pushed to the brink of civil war, and finally in 2019 with the self-proclamation of an unknown legislator as ‘interim president’, supported by the US.

Against the backdrop of these events, there emerged what I have referred to as the humanitarianization of anti-Chavista discourse: framing the material and spiritual deprivation of the popular majority as a ‘humanitarian crisis’, which leaves in its wake ‘victims’ whose plight can only be resolved by humanitarian intervention. The effect of this so-called humanitarianism was the dehumanization of the people, reduced to a state that Agamben would call ‘bare life’ – entirely dependent on outside help. However, Chavismo did not counter this discourse, as I think it should have done, by creating conditions for the expression of popular power. On the contrary, the idea that the underprivileged people needed to be ‘protected’ by the government was entrenched. Which is ironic, because in reality it was the opposite that happened: throughout these years, the majority decided to protect what they still considered their government, despite its many errors.

GM: Venezuela has endured a triple crisis that started around 2012: an economic crisis rooted in the exchange rate that quickly threw the entire economy into chaos; a leadership crisis provoked by the death of Chávez in 2013; and the aggression, internal and external, that the enemies of the Bolivarian process unleashed in an attempt to put an end to this experiment in participatory democratic socialism. How do you see the overall balance sheet of the past decade?

RI: I would start by saying that, in general terms, the balance sheets that have so far been drafted by the left are insufficient. Too often, half-truths are repeated and concrete explanations – especially those related to the economic situation – are systematically concealed. It seems to me that the experience of recent years has produced a kind of interpretive shock. One way this manifests is the idea that, after Chávez, we lost course completely, the Chavista political class betrayed the revolutionary programme, and the present crisis is the inevitable result of that betrayal. It seems to me that this narrative is reductive and moralistic. Needless to say, when one accuses an entire political class of treason and tries to explain everything based on this accusation, one is not exactly demonstrating the kind of analytic rigour that Marx deployed in The Eighteenth Brumaire.

It’s true that the death of Chávez prompted a realignment of forces within the government. Some tried to defend the programme of the Bolivarian revolution, as set out in the Plan de la Patria and the Bolivarian Constitution, while others tried to wash their hands of it. As such, contradictory policy decisions were made. Yet these differences did not emerge from nowhere, nor were they merely a symptom of incompetence or inefficiency; they were rooted in class contradictions and political antagonisms within Chavismo itself.

To fully explain such shifts, we need a clear analysis of how fissures within the PSUV came to the fore after Chávez’s death. That, in turn, requires a complete picture of how Venezuela’s class composition has changed since the Bolivarian revolution. Let’s take as true the premise that the working class no longer represents the centre of gravity for government policy, and that this centre has been shifting towards sectors of the bourgeoisie, both within our borders and of course beyond them. The important question then becomes: Since when? When was the tipping point? What mediations help us explain this shift from one historical moment to another? Likewise, if we accept that, toward the end of 2015, the historic Chavista bloc began to fracture and we began to confront a Gramscian crisis of authority, it is necessary to ask why this was able to happen. How was it expressed? What are its political implications? A comprehensive account of Maduro’s tenure must answer these and other questions with political and intellectual honesty. 

GM: During this century, there has been much talk of participatory socialism across Latin America. But only Venezuela has experienced a systematic process of building a new society, beginning in 2006 with the communal councils and continuing in 2009 with the communes. What is the status of the communal project today? How does it interact with the country’s triple crisis?

RI: With the communal councils and later the communes, the foundations were laid for building a more democratic society. The fact that these foundations have managed to survive, upheld by thousands of working-class people throughout the country, is in itself a very important victory – however depleted they may be at present.

Invariably, however, Venezuela’s economic downturn led to a popular retreat from politics. The public sphere contracted. And as the crisis worsened, many who were part of the communal network changed their priorities: day-to-day material realities had to come first. Meanwhile, government support for these spaces dropped off. State functionaries believed it was a waste of time to pour effort and resources into building popular power – especially if those resources were scarce. It was easier to govern through patronage and clientelism, even if this meant undermining the revolution’s social base.

At some point in 2017, if memory serves me right, the government issued a directive that the spokespeople of the communal councils would not be elected by an assembly of citizens, as required by law, but would instead be handpicked by the party. If this order had been implemented, it could have meant the total liquidation of the communal experiment. Indeed, this was the outcome in places where popular organization had been significantly weakened. But, thankfully, in many other places the will of communal leadership prevailed and the directive was resisted.

I remain convinced that communal leadership is the true vanguard of the revolutionary process. The communal spaces must be taken seriously in any plan for national reconstruction. The latter necessarily involves strengthening those experiences that put their faith in social property. Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have been anywhere close to even asking questions like these.

GM: When the PSUV was founded, it was on the promise of being the most democratic party in the world. Disappointment soon followed. When the grassroots rejected pro-government candidates, many were appointed by decree, and the years since have seen the party become less a vehicle for permanent democratic debate than a space for intra-elite power struggles. Yet, recently, after a fierce campaign, Ángel Prado, spokesman for the El Maizal Commune, prevailed in the party primary to become the official PSUV candidate for Simón Planas municipality in Lara State, before winning the post in the country’s mega-elections on November 21st. How important was this victory, and how do you see the state of internal democracy within the PSUV?

RI: After the popular retreat from politics that I have mentioned, Chavismo was defeated in the 2015 parliamentary elections. In light of this setback, the Chavista leadership increasingly appealed to clientelism as a campaign strategy. Yet, contrary to what some PSUV politicians claim, this often provoked fierce resistance from the population. The idea that it is possible to win an election by literally buying the support of voters shows profound contempt for the people – and they know it. As such, the government’s approach can only guarantee victory if a significant part of the population abstains. For reasons that are frankly difficult to understand, this was precisely the tactic adopted by most anti-Chavista parties after their victory in 2015: abstention. These pawns of the US bet on delegitimizing of the Venezuelan government by opting out of the electoral process, but they ultimately played into its hands.

Ángel Prado’s victory is of the greatest political importance for several reasons. First, it showed that, despite countless obstacles, Venezuela’s popular machinery is still capable of defeating the bureaucratic and clientelistic machinery. After all, it was the former that guaranteed Chávez’s electoral victories time and again, and Maduro’s first victories as well. On August 8, during the PSUV’s open primaries, those who controlled that bureaucratic machinery in Simón Planas municipality – a clique gathered around the outgoing mayor – tried to disenfranchise the majority. First, they launched a crude patronage campaign, distributing food, medicine, fuel, electrical appliances and money in a discretionary way. But they also resorted to violence, seeking to intimidate the people who supported the communal candidacy. On the night of 7 August, the first physical attacks occurred, and these continued throughout election day. Finally, since the bureaucracy controlled the polling stations, they tried to suppress turnout by slowing down the process. Many people were exhausted after hours of waiting and went home without being able to vote. But despite all these maneuvers, comrade Prado won 47.9% of the votes, beating his rival by an almost 10% margin.

What factors explain this astonishing victory? For one thing, Prado is the symbolic figurehead of the El Maizal Commune and commands great moral authority among its members. He prioritized direct contact with the people: touring almost the entire municipality, speaking to constituents and, above all, listening to them (whereas much of the party leadership had long disappeared from the territory). His campaign was disciplined and well-organized. Because it was confident that it represented the majority, it was able to withstand the undemocratic tactics of the bureaucracy, which it nonetheless refused to needlessly antagonize or provoke. Simón Planas could therefore be said to represent, on a small scale, a phenomenon that can be identified throughout almost the entire country: effective organizing against elites within the PSUV. Prado’s election has shown that it is possible to defeat this new class – whose eventual overthrow will, I hope, enable the Bolivarian Revolution to recover its lost vitality.

Julia Buxton, ‘Venezuela After Chávez’, NLR 99.