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A Normal War

Russian bombs are falling on Ukraine, not American ones. On this level, the moral aspects of the war are clear. But acknowledging this is not the same as a policy response, nor does one flow automatically from it. By refusing to reflect on either the deeper causes of the war or possible ways out of it, the liberal commentariat in the US falls into its usual patterns, in which America figures as the innocent abroad, a do-gooder, for whom each crisis is something external to be acted on, never something it could be responsible for. ‘You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless,’ wrote Graham Greene in The Quiet American. For the narrator, a jaded British journalist in Saigon, this is a kind of insanity, embodied in the character of the title: CIA agent Alden Pyle, freshly arrived in Indochina from Harvard in the early 1950s. ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’

Such is the tone underlying mainstream reactions in the press, where moral outrage is easily spent in a blaze of condemnation of a foreign country that leaves little to spare for its own. Now was not the time to argue about whether Putin’s ‘grievances had bases in fact’, insisted the New York Times as the invasion began. Putin bore sole responsibility for the new Cold War, a ‘potentially more dangerous one because his claims and demands offer no grounds for negotiations’. Most of its op-ed writers concurred, from David Brooks to Paul Krugman and Michelle Goldberg, onto not-so-odd couple Bret Stephens and Gail Collins – the US must show Putin that ‘he will never, ever win this war’. This line carried over to editorials in The New Republic, Atlantic, New Yorker. For Timothy Snyder in Foreign Policy, it was 1939 again, and Putin – as heir to both Hitler and Stalin – had made a Nazi-Soviet pact with himself. At White House press briefings, reporters urged the administration forward: had Biden erred in saying he wanted to avoid World War Three, asked ABC’s correspondent, ‘emboldening’ Putin by ruling out ‘direct military intervention’ too early?  

The business press has proven nearly as incendiary. Each issue of the Financial Times, Economist and Wall Street Journal bristles with calls for further, harsher sanctions that leapfrog the last. Banning Russian banks from SWIFT is now old hat, financial warfare for the faint-hearted. More radical measures aim at provoking overlapping debt, currency and banking crises: a block on Russian banks from dollar clearing and settlement, a ban on trading in its debt on secondary markets, and seizure of two-thirds of its dollar reserves. These joined embargos on advanced technology, by businesses and governments, including Boeing and Airbus equipment to service commercial aircraft; and growing calls to end all oil and gas imports not just to the US but Europe too – winter weather, high fuel prices, and freezing pensioners be damned. The financial journalist Matthew Klein has gone from diagnosing trade wars as class wars to promoting them, with calls for a ‘financial NATO’, endowed with ‘permanent mechanisms’ of coercion and a ‘freedom fund’ to compensate investors for the loss of the Russian market – and ‘(hypothetically) the Chinese one’.

Economic escalation has begun building towards military involvement, rather than acting as an alternative to it. The FT’s Martin Wolf concluded by mid-March that WW3 might be a risk worth taking. Enthusiastic about economic weapons, the media has been positively gung-ho on the physical sort. After two weeks, 17,000 anti-tank weapons had made it to Ukraine, according to the Times, while US ‘cyber-mission teams’ had been set up to aid them in unspecified acts of ‘interference’ against Russia – in ways that are testing the legal definitions of the US as ‘co-combatant’. Only fighter jets and a ‘no-fly zone’ – i.e., bombing Russian airfields – have so far caused any hesitation in these quarters. But there is growing pressure to concede both. The Wall Street Journal demands enough airborne materiel to make a no-fly zone redundant: 28 MiG-29s, alongside Su-25s, S-200s, S-300s, and switchblade drones. From this perspective, $800 million in new aid announced on March 15 was a kind of capitulation, ‘as if Mr. Biden is so wary of provoking Mr. Putin that he’s afraid what might happen if Ukraine won the war.’

This bravado extends to the culture industry at large, where signs abound of a moment akin to that which followed 9/11, when renaming French Fries occupied the dead time between Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. Then as now, to set the attack in context was to excuse it; and there is the rush to do something, which takes a certain pride in not having thought through the consequences. What has changed is not just the erosion of the unipolar moment, but the multiplication of pathways for virtual war, for participating in it, and being manipulated by it: crowd-funding urban militias on Twitter, posting videos of captured tanks or ‘army cats’, to Instagram and TikTok. The result is somewhere between war as the health of the state and war as self-care – with ballerinas, pianists, painters and scientists disinvited from fellowships or shows, against blue and yellow banners and emojis, at no cost to Americans doing it. Warner Brothers will deny Russian teenagers Batman, Twitch will stop paying them to play video games online, Facebook will allow some users to call for their deaths.

Yet if the pitch of hysteria is as high as anything after 9/11 – the free world, civilization, good and evil, all hang in the balance once again – there is less unanimity of opinion behind it. Some of the same outlets demanding punitive sanctions, cultural boycotts and unlimited military aid have also carried dissenting voices. So far, these have been politically eclectic, as likely to be on the right as the left: the IR realist John Mearsheimer; Branko Milanovic, the scholar of inequality; former editor of the New Republic Peter Beinart; the conservative Catholic Ross Douthat who urged caution in the Times, going further than his colleague Thomas Friedman in pointing out that ‘America and NATO are not just innocent bystanders’; the sanderista Elizabeth Bruenig, now at the Atlantic; and on to Tulsi Gabbard and Tucker Carlson, called traitors or worse, as outliers on the left and right in Congress or TV.

Beyond these cases, how has the American left – defined broadly as critical of capitalism, to one degree or another – reacted to the war? A small group has resisted jingoism in all its forms. The Nation’s publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel condemned the invasion but also the ‘rank irrationality’ and ‘arrogance’ of US officials whose drive to extend a military alliance to Russia’s borders provided the context for it. She called on Biden to press for an immediate ceasefire and Russian withdrawal in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality. Keith Gessen, a founding editor of n+1, offered a powerful account of the origins of the war, eschewing pop psychology in favour of history and reportage to question its inevitability. At the other end of the spectrum, some have eagerly joined a liberal smear campaign against alleged putinistas, amongst them George Monbiot in the Guardian and Paul Mason in the New Statesman, the latter calling for a massive military stimulus to prepare for the coming global conflagration. In the US, this role has gone directly to ‘culture vultures’ at New York Magazine or Vice.

The largest cohort – the DSA and Squad left, writers for Jacobin, Dissent, Jewish Currents, The Intercept, and other smaller publications – lies somewhere in between. Their positions differ only by degree and nuance from the State Department line: against broad sanctions, most also object to pouring arms into Ukraine. But their stance is basically defensive, trumpeting their condemnation of Russia rather than criticising Biden or NATO, in part to pre-empt accusations of ‘tankiness’. DSA’s initial statement was meandering and vague, though Democrats lined up to disavow it anyway. AOC, whose star it helped to launch, issued a communiqué a few days later, topping off a denunciation of ‘Putin and his oligarchs’ by insisting that ‘any military action must take place with Congressional approval’. As a rallying cry, this one – in effect, ‘no war of annihilation without congressional approval’ – leaves something to be desired. In Jacobin, Branko Marcetic sounded just as tough, if more concerned about nuclear war. Thanks to Jeremy Scahill, the Intercept continues to document the sheer scale of weapons transfers, but it too has tried to distance itself from a ‘tankie left’ that ‘makes excuses’ for Putin.

This cohort tends to support the ‘good sanctions’ advocated by Thomas Piketty – wielded against ‘the thin social layer of multi-millionaires on which the regime relies’ rather than ordinary Russians. Comparatively humane in spirit, sadly naïve in practice, these proposals misunderstood the motives of the power they sought to guide. Within days, Washington rolled out measures to induce a socioeconomic crisis of ordinary savers and earners, while leaving the rich relatively unscathed. ‘We are going to cause the collapse of the Russian economy’, explained France’s finance minister, matter-of-factly. Closer readings of books by two architects of the modern sanctions regime, Juan Zarate under Bush and Richard Nephew under Obama, might have cleared up some illusions about their purpose. Iranification is the order of the day, not sanctions with a social democratic twist.

In this sense, a significant section of the left has failed to think beyond a liberal interventionist framework, even if it disagrees with aspects of Biden’s response. In Jewish Currents, David Klion outlined NATO’s expansion and the fears of encirclement this aroused, only to dismiss it as irrelevant: the sole explanation is that ‘something fundamental has changed in Putin’s own mind’. In Dissent, Greg Afinogenov kept up the attack on those ‘obsessing’ over NATO – blaming a provincialism on the US left that blinded it to greater Russian nationalism, even as he rejected deeper involvement. For Eric Levitz in New York Magazine, many socialists were simply ‘too ideologically rigid to see the conflict through clear eyes’. There was ‘no basis for believing Western imperialism was the chief obstacle to a diplomatic resolution’. In fact, wasn’t the left morally bound to defend ‘a democratic government struggling against domination by a far-right autocracy’, with arms, sanctions, and the protection of NATO, if that’s what it took? Setting out to complicate the ‘pat ideological answers’ of the left, Levitz reproduced the standard justifications for US intervention from the liberal and neoconservative right – without trying to characterize US foreign policy in general, or situate its specific response here in any longer historical continuum.

Neither the respectable left nor the hardline liberals can explain how spiralling ‘punishments’ are meant to bring a quick end to the war, still less a lasting peace. Could it be they are not designed to, and that the US and its allies see a chance to settle their own strategic interests in the ‘geopolitical pivot’ of Eurasia – in which Ukrainian sovereignty, to say nothing of Ukrainian lives, figures at most incidentally? ‘On NATO territory, we should be the Pakistan’, declared NSA alumnus Douglas Lute. Condoleezza Rice had the same message of support for ‘throwing the book’ at Russia on the grounds that – expressed without a hint of irony – ‘when you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime’. Hillary Clinton was even more explicit: the Russian debacle in Afghanistan in the 1980s ought to be the ‘model’ for Ukraine. Plans to turn Ukraine into a new Afghanistan, from the people who just released the old one into the grip of famine, ought to give pause to anyone concerned about Ukrainians.

Even more striking than the hypocrisy of the imperial core is its continuity of outlook: regime change is the unofficial order of the day. If Biden finally said as much in Poland on 26 March, this simply underscores how little need he feels to compromise with a government in Moscow that Washington views as illegitimate: loser of the Cold War, weaker in all ways that matter, lacking a liberal or democratic fig leaf to cover its domestic predations, the regime is now a pariah of the ‘international community’ too, and no doubt this looks to many in the security ‘blob’ like the best chance they may ever have to be rid of it. It is worth sparing a moment, however, to recall the ineptitude of our rulers, whose previous efforts at regime change have ended in disaster. Even if the blithest assumptions of the US counter-offensive are born out, it is not clear what would be gained by returning Russia to the state of economic and political collapse of the 1990s that gave rise to Putin. Ukraine would remain an issue, however pliant his replacement.

Here the narrow focus of the ‘non-tankie left’ runs into an explanatory impasse. The idea that NATO is incidental to this crisis is belied not so much by ‘Putin’s narrative’ as the available American sources. In 2008, ambassador William Burns, now CIA chief, cabled that Ukraine and Georgia’s aspirations to join the alliance were ‘neuralgic points’ for Russia, which could lead it to intervene militarily. Yet the US continued to hold out the prospect of long-term membership to Ukraine, even as it withdrew from major arms control treaties with Russia and pressed forward with a $1 trillion ‘modernization’ of its nuclear arsenal. In January, Biden rejected two draft security agreements submitted by Russia as the basis for talks in Geneva, including proposals to limit military drills on its border and exclude Ukraine. ‘NATO’s door is open’, was Blinken’s dismissive response.

But the real turning point came earlier, as M. E. Sarotte’s new history of NATO expansion, Not One Inch, makes clear. Taking its title from the agreeement that Secretary of State James Baker proposed to Gorbachev in 1990, that if he assented to German reunification NATO would ‘not shift one inch eastward from its current position’, the book details how the exact opposite came to pass – with the US pursuing swift incorporation of all former Warsaw Pact countries, starting with East Germany, the moment Soviet collapse looked imminent. For those who think the issue of Ukraine begins and ends with Putin, Sarotte relates how the pacifistic Gorbachev furiously insisted to Bush that ‘Ukraine in its current borders would be an unstable construct’, had ‘come into existence only because local Bolsheviks had at one point gerrymandered it that way’ by adding Kharkov and Donbass, and Khrushchev later ‘passed the Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine as a fraternal gesture’. No overtures of any kind from NATO should be made directly to it. When Baker pressed a Russian negotiator over nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and what would happen to them in the event of a war with Kyiv, the naive reply reads as a tragic signpost en route to the present crisis. He ‘responded that there were 12 million Russians in Ukraine, with “many mixed marriages,’” so “what sort of war could that be?” Baker answered simply: ‘A normal war.”’

If much of the left is subdued, there seem to be two main reasons. The first stems from its relationship to the Democratic Party since 2016, which has effectively neutralized it as a caucus and activist base. Absent any movement on social reform legislation, progressives have gone along with the quest to link Trump to Putin, to the point that Russophobia increasingly defines the party as such. On this issue, most of the Squad hardly differ from the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. The second is moral sententiousness, underpinned by a powerfully selective memory. Months after the retreat from Afghanistan and theft of its reserves – and during the US-backed Saudi bombing of Yemen – this country is not in a position to dispense moral lessons. As an upholder of the principle of national sovereignty, its credibility is nil. And the moral vacuity of its position matters, not because it absolves Russia of wrongdoing in a warm bath of reciprocal turpitude, but because it points to the urgent need to proceed on some other basis if the aim is to find a peaceful solution. Crowd-funding bombs to fuel fighting in Kyiv is not that. Nor are indiscriminate sanctions in pursuit of regime change in Moscow. At a minimum, the US left should summon what modest reserves of independence and strength it has to call on its own government to de-escalate, pursue direct and indirect talks, to trade guarantees of neutrality for a ceasefire and troop withdrawal. A refusal to contemplate any alteration to a post-Cold War order forged in hubris by the victors is not toughness. It is war mongering.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘Imperium’, NLR 83.

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Deglobalization

‘The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put an end to the globalization we have experienced over the last three decades’. Thus spoke Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the biggest investment firm in the world which manages $10 trillion in assets. Assuming the situation doesn’t spiral out of control – crossing our fingers and ‘touching iron’ in Italy, wood in Anglo-Saxon countries – this is likely to be one of the longer-lasting outcomes of the war (even if, at present, the picture looks rather different from the wreckage of the European battlefield).  

That doesn’t mean the world will immediately revert to regional economies, customs barriers and restrictions on freedom of capital. Globalization implies a material infrastructure far too massive – Cyclopean, even – to be dismantled with such ease. A glance at container ports such as Busan or Rotterdam is enough to confirm this. Even better: take a look at MarineTraffic, a site that visualizes all vessels at sea anywhere in the world at any given moment. The volume is truly staggering.   

But we should not underestimate what’s happening to the global economy and, above all, to finance. For the current war is not just asymmetric; it is also hybrid, in that it’s being fought on several different chessboards with diverse arsenals. On the one hand there’s Russia, waging a conventional war against Ukraine with tanks, missiles and bombs; but its true adversary is NATO, and ultimately the United States. On the other we have the US, conducting a proxy-conventional war against Russia, and preparing for a guerrilla war in the event that Ukraine is partially or totally annexed, while simultaneously launching a total and direct economic-financial blockade. It’s not by chance that the French finance minister Bruno Le Maire called exclusion from SWIFT a ‘financial nuclear weapon’.

The problem with nuclear weapons, however – be they literal or financial – is that they create radioactive fallout (I’ve recently written for Sidecar on the use and abuse of sanctions as an imperial instrument). In this case, what has been damaged is faith in globalization itself, and hence the very foundation on which it’s built. A globalized economy rests on the assumption that its overall order is more important than the contingencies of individual states. Capital can only move freely between banks in different nations if it is equally secure in any given institution. As such, globalization is based on the conviction that there are no national elites, but rather a single, global one that is invulnerable to the vicissitudes of state politics. This is a promise that enticed the rich in subject countries which hitherto felt subordinate to the imperial core. It presented these provincial elites with a mirage: the end of their subservience, their assimilation into the only dominating force on the planet. Under the regime of globalization, a magnate of any country that buys a house in London or opens a bank account in New York could expect their assets to be secure, irrespective of the fluctuations of global diplomacy. The slogan was ‘billionaires of the world unite’ (under a single transnational homeland): an illusion that has since been exposed by the Ukraine crisis.

If the United Kingdom goes about sequestering the property of Russian billionaires, why would other foreign magnates invest their capital in Belgravia, knowing that it might be targeted should their country fall out of favour with the United States? The billionaires of the world are realizing the falsity of their assumption that money doesn’t smell; under certain circumstances, certain people’s money does smell, badly. The seizure of Russia’s foreign reserves has been even more seismic. As Adam Tooze writes in the New Statesman, ‘The freezing of Russia’s central bank reserves means crossing the Rubicon. It brings conflict to the heart of the international monetary system. If the central bank reserves of a G20 member entrusted to the accounts of another G20 central bank are not sacrosanct, nothing in the financial world is.’ In short, the war has wounded globalization by prompting a loss of faith in the primacy of finance over politics – along with the material problems of provisioning, supply chains and raw materials.

It’s no coincidence that China’s ruling class are the most nervous about such issues. The Chinese deputy foreign minister Le Yucheng’s intervention, at a forum held at Tsinghua University one month after the Russian invasion, was illuminating in this regard. His firmest warning was that

globalization should not be ‘weaponized’…China has all along opposed unilateral sanctions that have neither basis in international law nor mandate of the Security Council. History has shown time and again that instead of solving problems, imposing sanctions is like ‘putting out fire with firewood’ and will only make things worse. Globalization is used as a weapon, and even people from the sports, cultural, art and entertainment communities are not spared. The abuse of sanctions will bring catastrophic consequences for the entire world.

No wonder China fashions itself as a paladin of globalization. It was the latter that, in the space of thirty years, turned China into the world’s second largest economic and military power. Any attempt to contain China implies a reversal of this trend, or at least its modification. (Contrary to received wisdom, there isn’t just one possible form globalization can take, but many; it can be structured in diverse ways, according to different configurations of power).

The election of Donald Trump marked a turning point in this bid to stifle China and, in tandem, decelerate globalization. Yet that election must be understood as part of a wider process, in which the cumulative effect of various events signalled a shift in global equilibria. Over the past six years, we have witnessed a series of ‘decouplings’ of global interfaces and untying of transnational nodes. Trump’s presidency, preceded by Brexit, was followed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In each case, an aspect of globalization was thrown into question. Brexit halted European integration into the global financial markets based in London. With Trump, commercial wars – previously considered a relic of the past – were reignited. Then Covid interrupted crucial supply chains; now, the Ukrainian conflict has convulsed the geography of raw material provision, with the impact of the financial nuclear weapon still to be assessed.

The strategic debate within the US on how China ought to be confronted had already been sparked in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, and continued throughout Obama’s tenure. Among American policymakers there was no univocal response to China’s rise, no ‘masterplan of capital’ that would have pleased the orthodox Marxists of old. In fact, ever since the question’s emergence, there have been pro- and anti-globalist factions, both of whom acknowledge that deglobalization could harm the interests of many powerful economic agents and trigger processes whose effects are difficult to calculate.

But if Trump’s election prompted American elites to reconsider the global order, it was the pandemic that revealed the compromised character of Chinese globalization. It is not frequently noted that, for over two years, Covid-19 was used to justify the complete closure of China to the outside world: a sealing off which hadn’t occurred since the Qing dynasty attempted to block the importation of opium in the 1830s. The complete disappearance of Chinese tourists from other countries was only its most visible expression. From a certain perspective, Covid was the vehicle for the (at least partial) reorientation of China’s economy towards internal consumption; though here too, it merely highlighted a tendency that had begun before Trump’s election.

Globalization, the Chinese trade surplus and the American deficit are often folded together in a semi-mythic narrative. The story goes that China uses part of its surplus to buy US Treasury bonds in order to finance directly the US’s trade deficit – that is to say, American shopping in China. The graph below shows that this was substantially true until 2011 (indeed, we see an exponential increase in the Chinese Central Bank’s acquisition of US treasuries in the early 2000s). Yet the tale is interrupted in 2012. From then on, the amount of federal bonds held by Beijing has not increased – if anything, it has slowly diminished. Even as it continues to accrue an enormous yearly trade surplus, China has stopped buying new American bonds, only partially renewing those it already possesses.

Almost a quarter ($7.6 trillion) of US public debt is held by other countries, but contrary to popular belief, the largest holder of American debt isn’t China ($1.095 trillion in January 2022), but Japan ($1.3 trillion). Nor are oil-producing states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE great acquirers of federal bonds; quite the opposite. Even more significant are the disproportionate amounts held by Luxembourg ($311 billion), Switzerland ($299 billion) and the Cayman Islands ($271 billion). This indicates supranational entities buying up US debt from their own accounts in tax havens (though one must note that in the last year the US has mainly charged Britain, France and Canada). By comparison, foreigners owned about 11% of Chinese government bonds as of January, a quarter of which was in the hands of Russia. Anxieties over Washington’s freezing of Russian reserves were immediately reflected in the value of US bonds, which suffered their worst month in February with the raising of interest rates linked to sales (or non-renewals). Chinese commentators were immediately worried about the country’s US reserves, fearing that in the long run – if conflict with the Americans escalated – they would meet the same fate as Russia’s.

A monetary storm is unlikely. What will follow, as we can see from the graph above, will be a gradual tightening of the belt with few sudden jolts, so as not to provoke the collapse of the dollar (or the revaluation of the renminbi). Yet fractures in global financial relations remain, as if the fabric of globalization has been lacerated. The best symbol of this is the elaborate ritual developing around the G20 summit, scheduled to take place in autumn on the island of Bali. Just to rub salt in the wound, Putin has floated the idea of attending, sowing panic among the NATO G20 members who would have to either tolerate his presence or expel him, risking the opposition and quite possibly the withdrawal of other countries such as India and Saudi Arabia (remember that those who abstained on the UN motion to condemn Russia included China, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and 14 African countries, including South Africa). ‘No member has the right to remove another country as a member’, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has affirmed, ‘the G20 should implement real multilateralism, strengthen unity and cooperation.’

Russia’s exclusion from the G20 would only be possible were it accompanied by expulsion from the World Trade Organization. But this would mean the death of globalization as we’ve come to know it. Evidently, none of the great powers is ready for this kind of dissolution. The US seems increasingly uncertain about deglobalization, as a nostalgic article in Foreign Affairs, ‘The End of Globalization?’, recently suggested. Let’s not forget that Biden faces midterm elections in November, and risks an unprecedented debacle (and a revolt in his own party) if he goes into them with runaway inflation and skyrocketing fuel prices.

The problem nobody seems capable of resolving is the superimposition of different temporal horizons: months of fighting in Ukraine; years of fallout from sanctions; and decades of a new world order (in which the eventual role of Russia remains a mystery, with or without Putin). What is certain is that the Chinese government is taking every precaution to avoid being hit by the unravelling of globalization, knowing full well that they – far more than Russia – are the real target of the US. After the phone call between Biden and Xi on 18 March, an anchor on Chinese state television mockingly paraphrased the former’s request to China: ‘Can you help me fight your friend so that I can concentrate on fighting you later?’

Read on: Fredric Jameson: ‘Globalization and Political Strategy’, NLR 4.

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Familiar Gestures

Reflexive insularities tend to crop up in Alejandro Zambra’s fictions. Two of the Chilean writer’s early novels, Bonsai (2006) and Ways of Going Home (2011), feature stories-within-stories, a narrative reality wilfully compromised by nested iteration. Multiple Choice (2014) adopts the form of a standardized test, providing a rigid armature for post-Pinochet malaise. Born in 1974, Zambra is a leading writer of the ‘children of the dictatorship’, the generation that came of age at the end of Pinochet’s reign. Precociousness, in this context, can be seen as a kind of screen for diffuse apprehension. Gossamer strands of domestic ennui lacerate with hidden implication. The brevity of his novels – most sit at around a hundred pages – belies this depth of inquiry. Each is a little laboratory of narrative effect, mining metafictional potential from the diminuendos of the Chilean middle class.

This is what makes his new novel, Chilean Poet, such a puzzling addition to his oeuvre. One reads its nearly four hundred pages in a state of torpor. Gone is the compressed insinuation of the earlier works. Instead, we’re given something like the easy, nebulous sentiment of a romantic comedy. The novel’s themes – fatherhood, betrayal, inheritance, self-discovery, forgiveness – emerge from a cloying syrup of anecdote. It’s all somehow risibly cinematic, rife with quirk and melancholy, as if Noah Baumbach started reading a lot of Juan Emar, say, or Wes Anderson got really into Nueva Ola. I longed constantly for what Adam Thirlwell has referred to as Zambra’s ‘experiments with brevity’. The novel commits the gravest of literary sins, and one I’d never expect from such an accomplished miniaturist: interminability.

Chilean Poet is broken up into four parts that cover perhaps two and a half decades. In part one, our protagonist, Gonzalo, is a teenager in the Santiagan suburb of Maipú. His girlfriend, Carla, breaks his heart, the pain of which inducts him into the poet’s vocation. Part two, set nine years in the future, finds Gonzalo and Carla reconnecting as adults. Gonzalo struggles to define his tender relationship with Carla’s young son from another union, Vicente. (There is a riff on ‘step-father’ across languages; the beautiful French beau-père is contrasted with the comparative ugliness of the Spanish padrastro.) A tragedy subverts the family’s happiness, and Gonzalo, having written a book of poetry and grown otherwise restless, departs for New York. Part three again jumps forward a number of years. Vicente is now eighteen and an aspiring poet. He meets (and goes down on) a thirty-one year old American, Pru, who is writing an article about Chilean poets in the wake of her own break up. A coming-of-age story unfolds amid the seamy but high-minded Chilean poetry scene, of which Vicente is a fledgling member. In part four, Gonzalo returns to Maipú, happening across his stepson in a bookstore. In the hesitant intimacy of their reunion, a happy ending is suggested, if not specified.

Another Chilean novelist and poet, Roberto Bolaño, looms over the novel. Zambra is obviously and self-consciously referencing his late, world-beating countryman throughout, particularly Bolaño’s masterpiece The Savage Detectives (1998), in which a pair of dope-selling poets seek out the reclusive Cesárea Tinajero, founder of the Visceral Realist movement to which they subscribe. Zambra is of course far from alone in this sampling. The post-Bolaño novel has been all but inescapable in recent years. His heirs are many and tend to accrete around particular aspects of his fictions. There are the sages of apocalypse (Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season); the pop polymaths (Rodrigo Fresan’s The Invented Part); the fabulists of violence (Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings); the border investigators (Carmen Boullosa’s Texas); the alt-historians (Mathias Enard’s Zone); and the pocket surrealists (Cesar Aira’s Artforum), to name only a few. We could ascribe this popularity to Bolaño’s indelible voice – slangy, coolly forecasting, hypnagogic, both humble and cocky – in all of its appealing unliterariness. There is, too, the fluid way he manages tone and register, the effortless dips into dreamlike menace. His compulsive restaging of Benjamin’s dictum on barbarism and culture is reliably disorienting. He generates violent potential from the little fiefdoms of poets and academics that populate his works. The apocalypse could emanate from a symposium; a forgotten novelist might foretell the end of the world. It is here ­– in the barely glimpsed linkages between art, obsession and annihilation – that the Bolañoesque becomes most fully legible. It is also precisely what is missing from the smooth and neutered Chilean Poet.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting Zambra need to have rewritten 2666 (2004). But if he’s going to ape certain aspects of an illustrious forebear, he could have at least chosen the interesting ones. This is doubly true when such referential borrowing is ostensibly part of the novel’s draw. Clues are littered throughout the text. ‘We’re going to find a bunch of savage detectives’, Pru’s New York editor says of her assignment in Chile. After going out for a beer with Vicente and his poet friend, she quips ‘You guys are like Bolaño figures’. These call-backs will doubtless make a certain type of reader nod appreciatively. But the similarities, if they can be called that, end there. The novel could be read as a metacommentary on the obstacle Bolaño represents for Chilean writers, but if Chilean Poet is the alternative, I’d rather return to Santa Teresa, 2666’s semi-fictional border city, where literature seems a dangerous thing rather than stage dressing for a middlebrow meet-cute. Zambra’s detectives ultimately lack the requisite savagery necessary to sustain comparison.

This matter of inheritance – between Bolaño and Zambra, between older poets and younger poets, between Gonzalo and Vicente – is the novel’s organizing principle. It lightly dramatizes how we become derivatives as artists and as men. Jousts against the father begin as occasions for reprisal and end as useless rebellions over one’s fated becoming. Fighting the anxiety of influence leads nowhere, as both of the novel’s male protagonists discover. Gonzalo’s father, a charismatic lech, repeatedly abandoned his many children (between twenty and thirty, we’re told) in pursuit of women and work. At a family reunion of sorts, he announces he has cancer. Later, Gonzalo whispers in his ear that he hopes it advances swiftly. (The primal scene unfolds after a ludicrous singalong of ‘Como la Cigarra’.) But whatever the nature of his hatred, Gonzalo ends up abandoning Vicente in like fashion, pursuing a fellowship on another continent while the boy and his mother remain behind in Maipú. His betrayal is imitative, a trauma reinscribed. If Gonzalo is aware of this, it isn’t made clear in the novel, which seems to advocate for resignation in the face of a predecessor’s whims and impositions. Rage, sadness, yearning and revenge all lead in the same direction: toward repetition, wherein we find our fathers (hereditary and poetic) lodged deep beneath our skins. We act out their most familiar gestures even in our insurrections against them.

Vicente likewise absorbs some part of Gonzalo, becoming a poet as a teenager. Like most poets, he discovers surrogate fathers through his reading:

He didn’t have faith in his school library, but it turned out that the catalogue did include some books on poetry. None by Millán, but there were anthologies where Vicente read poems by César Vallejo (which he found spellbinding and hermetic, though he wasn’t sure exactly what the word hermetic meant), Nicanor Parra (dark and very funny), Gabriela Mistral (arduous and mysterious), Vicente Huidobro (eminently likable), and Oliverio Girondo (playful). As for the poems of Delmira Agustini and Julio Herrera y Reissig, he thought they were like those songs in Italian or Portuguese that he only half understood but nevertheless hummed and danced to with frenzied enthusiasm.

For Vicente, this taxonomy delineates something like an alternative family tree. Having inherited an absent biological father and dealt with the fallout of Gonzalo’s sudden departure, he comes to rely on the more diffuse paterfamilias of poetry. (‘Chilean poetry seems like an immense family’, Pru says elsewhere, ‘with great-grandparents and second cousins, with people who live on a gigantic palafito that sometimes floats between the islands of an archipelago’.) From poems and poetic forms, he gathers the kinds of lessons one might reasonably expect from a father: how to love, how to be loyal, how to forgive, how to endure. The novel suggests that one of the great consolations of art is that it is a freely chosen association, a family one selects rather than inherits.

Though Chilean Poet rarely veers into chauvinist territory – thanks mainly to the prevailing gentleness of Zambra’s prose – it also inadvertently circumscribes its two female leads. Each acts out her own subordinate drama amidst the angsty confusions of men. Carla starts to blur at the novel’s halfway point, having experienced a tragedy that should have brought her into sharper focus, or else recalibrated our understanding of her. Instead, her presence becomes ever more subdued. One begins to see her as a mere winch in the narrative machinery, a mercenary figure Zambra makes use of to advance his tale of fathers and sons. As for Pru, she seems to exist largely as a vessel for male attention. (Her impressive breasts are mentioned more than once.) The poets she interviews, overwhelmingly male, regale her with their quixotic pursuits. She is a blank slate, a passive collector of aphorism and eccentricity. Say what you will about Bolaño’s machismo, but his women are rarely less than funny, horny, loud and poetic; very often they are terrifying. Pru isn’t nearly so lucky, having been rendered an accomplice to her own story.

Chilean Poet is eminently readable in Megan McDowell’s clean translation. I imagine it will make many year-end lists, with its serio-comic briskness, its ostentatious, Woody Allen-like references to Kandinsky and Rothko, its 90s nostalgia (Double Dragon! Winona Ryder!), its charming story of intergenerational divide, and its vaguely mystical invocation of poets, whom some of us still believe to be wonderful and necessary, a species of holy fool. What, then, is it missing? Call it friction. The novel moves with the greased, serial and ultimately wasteful momentum of a Netflix series. It has the feeling of something likewise padded out, as if it were striving to meet a requirement, an insidious sensation in that this generally signals one’s proximity to ‘content’. Zambra’s marvellous feats of compression squeezed such longueurs from his previous fictions. Will the glancing miniaturist return? One hopes so. Sometimes less is a great deal more.

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

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Allies and Interests

The bonfire of so many illusions. Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor, star of his own soft-focus Instagram series, known as ‘Dishy Rishi’ during the country’s strange first summer of Covid, when 12 million found themselves on the government payroll and a decade of debt-reduction paranoia was suspended overnight; Sunak, former hedge funder, married to the daughter of India’s sixth richest tech billionaire, wearer of sliders (£95), brand-rep for luxury coffee mugs (£180), lover of ‘fiction’ (‘all my favourite books are fiction’), famously depicted by the BBC sporting a Superman costume; a man whose ascent from backbench MP to second highest office in the land was as rapid as it was mysteriously scandal-free – a strange state of affairs in a government where financial impropriety appears to be a condition of entry; Sunak, whose Spring Statement to address Britain’s cost-of-living crisis was delivered on Wednesday, declared that ‘this day is an achievement we can all celebrate’, even as his own statisticians warned of the greatest decline in living standards since records began; whose cunning wheeze for income tax cuts in 2024 and fuel duty cuts ‘for the first time in 16 years’ was intended to elicit fawning front pages, but proved that even the supine British media have their limits, with critical write-ups on his mini-budget in the Times, FT, Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail.

Below: fuel prices in Britain since mid-2004. Sunak’s 5p cut is enough to wipe out about a week’s worth of price rises. This cost the government £5bn. Pause for cheers.

The average household will be down around £1,000 after the various measures in the Spring Statement have been implemented. The Office for Budget Responsibility, charged with producing the official forecasts, let it be known they expect an £830 increase in average energy bills in six months’ time – this, on top of the nearly £700 increase now due on 1 April. For those not working, Sunak refused to increase the planned lift in benefits payments and the state pension from 3.1% – matching inflation last year – meaning a dramatic real-terms cut to both. Meanwhile, a £20bn tax windfall was parked, with appalling cynicism, so that it could act as the Conservative Party election war-chest come 2023. The Resolution Foundation predicts that 1.3m people, 500,000 of them children, will be plunged into absolute poverty by then. In Sunak’s Britain, the worse off you are, the worse off you will become.

It’s not that we should expect better from the Conservative Party. It’s that their viciousness usually shows more evidence of planning. Thatcher had a consistent strategy to break the trade unions; Osborne intended to drive benefits claimants into penury. This clear-sightedness has historically reflected the party’s entanglement with the major arms of the state, big business and the media, which it has maintained alongside an extraordinary degree of political-ideological flexibility. This was always its greatest strength; a capacity to oversee national economic reinvention – twice in the last century, in the 1930s and the 1980s – far exceeding Labour, who managed the same trick precisely never. (Attlee accepted the National Government’s settlement; Blair accepted Thatcherism; Wilson, who made attempts to restructure the economy, was crushed on both occasions.)

As Lord Palmerston said of British diplomacy, ‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual’. The same applies to the Tories’ domestic political programme. In Britain’s semi-democracy (unelected head of state; unelected second chamber; official opposition tolerated within limits), the Conservatives have generally reconciled a close focus on their interests with an adaptable approach to their allies. Johnson performed this trick in 2019, moving with extraordinary speed to ditch the party’s liberal, pro-EU wing and recast it as an anti-austerity, pro-Brexit champion of the national interest, as filtered through the so-called ‘Red Wall’. This process has produced some peculiarities. Sunak identifies as a low-tax Thatcherite Conservative; yet as Chancellor he has been forced to accommodate both the demands of the Covid conjuncture and the deep unpopularity of austerity, not least amongst those swing voters in deindustrialized regions. Since he took office, increased state investment – in railways, scientific research, renewable subsidies – has formed a stark contrast with Osborne’s cutbacks, whilst spending on public services has, after a decade of reduction, been increased across the board.

This partly demonstrates the impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s time as Labour leader, in shifting the balance of public opinion back towards spending. But it also reflects the shift in elite opinion in the developed world towards supporting government intervention in the economy, the better to compete with China. The Biden administration explicitly framed the sadly deflated balloon of its spending plans as an anti-China programme, meeting the ‘peer competitor’ directly through a strong domestic economy. The European Union is looking to weaken its once-sacrosanct neoliberal commitments to State Aid and a ‘level playing field’. Even its ordoliberal revulsion at shared liabilities is being eroded, most recently in proposals for EU-wide ‘energy and security’ bonds issued by the Commission.

In Britain, this shifting consensus has seen the Tory government nationalize a ‘strategic’ steel producer, some railways and one gas supplier (with plans to nationalize another currently in the pipeline). In the guise of a ‘Future Fund’, the Treasury has taken equity stakes in more than 150 small businesses across the country, from ‘vegan food makers’ to ‘trendy cinemas’. The national lockdown merely accelerated this statist tendency. Even if one excludes additional Covid spending, the government is now set to spend more as a share of GDP than the average level under Tony Blair.

This has been a managed, intentional process. The Spring Statement, however, had a somewhat different character, representing a kind of gormless political narcissism with Sunak as its avatar. Here, it seems, the forever-war of the Tory Party’s internal factions has come to dominate its political direction – eclipsing whatever traces of an industrial strategy were discernible in Johnson’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda. Like all those at the top of the party, the Chancellor’s imperatives are self-interested: to increase the strength of his Thatcherite cadre relative to Tory dirigistas, and thereby propel himself to Number 10. Yet the result of everyone behaving self-interestedly – through a mixture of factionalism and careerism – is to create kind of random walk with drift, in which different political specks jostle for advantage, but where the overall direction is set by forces beyond their control.

We are now entering a historical moment for which Tory policymaking – despite its past triumphs – is entirely unprepared. What the pandemic heralded, unavoidably and permanently, was the end of that long period of low costs and environmental stability that, in the last four decades, undergirded neoliberal growth. Combined with the apparent breakdown of the old, dollar-centred international monetary system, fragmenting into different regional blocs, the stage is set for not only high inflation but wider price and economic instability sine die.

On this question, as on so many others, Milton Friedman was completely and disastrously wrong: inflation is not a monetary phenomenon. Far better to say, with Jonathan Nitzen, that ‘inflation is always and everywhere a phenomenon of structural change’. It is what happens when the world changes, and money changes with it. The preceding centuries of price and monetary history bear this out: transformations from one inflation regime to another matter far more than the periods between those paradigm shifts. And neither the Tory Party, nor the Bank of England – forlornly pulling on a lever marked ‘interest rates’, knowing full well it will do nothing – is remotely equipped to deal with this realignment. For that would mean moving into the truly taboo regions of price control and wage-setting. From there, one could easily envision a direct challenge to the presumed right of capital to make whatever profit it can.

Since this is a line that no Tory politician will cross, government policy inevitably degenerates into a series of emergency announcements: placing sticking-plasters on a secular crisis without so much as attempting to resolve it. Within this framework, different prime ministerial contenders – Sunak, Truss, Hunt – can argue over the most effective half-measures, and pander to their blocs within the party, but none can present a hegemonic project equivalent to Thatcher’s. Of course, to many ordinary Britons, it is clear that when the most lucrative industries in the country are gas and electricity distribution, there should be a zero-tolerance approach to profiteering. If official politics can’t deliver that, unofficial politics must step in. How long before a British gilets jaunes appears?

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘Britain’s Decade of Crisis’, NLR 121.

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The Belligerati

The defenestration of dignity and common sense may be among the lesser tragedies of war. But in late capitalism the cynical, the sinister and the stupid tend to be enfolded in the same apocalyptic drive. Consider, for a moment, recent gestures of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, currently suffering under Russia’s increasingly brutal assault. As Western states have imposed vigorous sanctions on Russia, though not as severe as those imposed on Iran or Iraq, others have taken their own initiatives. In the United Kingdom, some supermarkets have taken Russian vodka off the shelves. Netflix has put its adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, among other Russian-language dramas, on hold. Throwing its own small yet heroic spanner into the wheels of Russian militarism, the Journal of Molecular Structures has banned papers from Russian academic institutions. Finally, a string of multinationals like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have suspended commercial operations in Russia. McDonald’s cited ‘our values’ in justification.

Like the sanctions themselves, a form of economic warfare that hurts ordinary Russians, these actions make little material difference to Putin’s ability to wage war. Rather, they are expressions of a kind of identity-formation. On the one hand, we hear from the Wall Street Journal that Russia under Putin is returning to its ‘Asian past’, even though its methods of urban assault are comparable to those deployed by the United States and its allies in Fallujah and Tal Afar. And, similarly, from Joe Biden and neoconservatives like Niall Ferguson that Putin is trying to restore the Soviet Union, even though he declares ‘decommunization’ to be among his aims in Ukraine. Though most politicians and journalists would be too sensible to make this logic overt, hysteria about all things Russian entered warp speed on day one of the invasion, especially in the UK. Labour MP Chris Bryant set the tone by demanding, in a tweet he has now deleted, that UK–Russian dual nationals should be forced to choose nationalities. Tory MP Tom Tugendhat suggested that ‘we can expel Russian citizens, all of them’. He later claimed to mean only Russian diplomats and oligarchs, but that isn’t what he said.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian leadership is conveniently airbrushed and lionised, so that it can be identified as an outpost of an idealised ‘Europe’. Daniel Hannan, writing in the Telegraph, declared: ‘They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking.’ Charlie D’Agata of CBS, reporting from Ukraine’s capital, was struck by the same cognitive dissonance: ‘This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.’ On ITV News, a journalist underlined that ‘this is not a developing, Third World nation. This is Europe.’ Tabloid journalist Matthew Wright, on ITV’s This Morning, lamented Putin’s alleged use of thermobaric weapons in Ukraine. ‘To be fair,’ he acknowledged, the US had used it before in Afghanistan: ‘but the idea of it being used in Europe is stomach churning’.

This provincializes sympathy with Ukrainians under siege, reducing what might have become a dangerously universalist impulse – raising standards that could apply in Palestine or Cameroon – to narcissistic solidarity with ‘people like us’. The attachment to Europe is meanwhile libidinized through the figure of Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky, ubiquitously declared a ‘hero’ on the front pages as he channels the Churchill myth. Caitlin Moran of The Times confesses a ‘crush’ on Zelensky. The New York Post reports that women on TikTok are going ‘wild’ for the Ukrainian premiere. In the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker eulogises him as a modern ‘warrior-artist’.

There has been scarcely any realistic reflection on Zelensky’s record as a leader. One of the puzzles about Ukraine’s president is the counterintuitive relationship between his funding source and his election promises. His major donor was the brutal oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky who owns the 1+1 Media Group that broadcast Zelensky’s popular comedy vehicle, Servant of the People. Kolomoisky was an active proponent of war with Russia in Donbass who bankrolled the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and other militias responsible for war crimes. Yet Zelensky was elected on a platform of opposing oligarch corruption, ending the war in Donbass and making peace with Russia.

Since 2019, the president has made little progress on this agenda. Although he talked up his commitment to de-oligarchization, in practice this has meant pursuing those with alleged connections to Russia: sanctioning opposition politician Viktor Medvedchuk – accused of having financial ties to Donbass separatists – and abruptly shutting down three TV stations for broadcasting Russian ‘misinformation’. Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, had his assets seized on as yet unevidenced claims that he funded separatist rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk; and last weekend Zelensky banned 11 Russia-aligned political parties.

Indeed, anti-corruption activities appear to have been assiduously recast as an effort to root out Russian influence, consolidating Zelensky’s grip on power while protecting Kolomoisky. In early 2020, the president sacked prosecutor-general Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who had launched an anti-corruption drive whose targets included Kolomoisky. She was replaced by a former Zelensky adviser. Zelensky also appointed his old school friend, Ivan Bakanov, to head the Security Service of Ukraine; hired Kolomoisky’s lawyer as his administration’s chief of staff; and embarked on a sweeping reform of the security services which Human Rights Watch condemned as a power-grab. Zelensky has also beefed up his alliances within the state by appointing dozens of former colleagues from his TV production company to prominent positions.

What became of peace with Russia? The basis for this would have been Minsk II, signed in February 2015 after the collapse of the initial Minsk Protocol. The accords reflected the armed leverage that separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk achieved with Russian military backing. As a result, Ukrainian governments have always resented their terms while claiming to respect them. Whereas Russia insisted on upholding Minsk II’s commitment to ‘local self-governance’ and elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, Ukraine sought to delay the implementation of such provisions, at least until the withdrawal of Russian forces. To negotiate a peace with his larger neighbour, Zelensky would have needed to accommodate the latter’s priorities, which would have been extremely difficult given the disposition of Ukraine’s parliament. (He faced fierce criticism for simply agreeing to negotiate with Russia while its forces continued to occupy Crimea.) Thus, caving to both domestic and international pressure, Zelensky stuck to Ukraine’s traditional position – refusing to negotiate with Donbass leaders, rejecting federalization and opposing the Russian occupation of Crimea. Not only that; he also increased military cooperation with the US and UK, building new naval bases near the Black Sea which Russia viewed as hostile Western outposts.

In all likelihood, neither Russia nor Ukraine wanted to fully implement Minsk II. Russia could temporise over withdrawing its forces while increasing its influence in Donetsk and Luhansk, converting them into ever more surreally authoritarian enclaves. Ukraine was reluctant to pass the political provisions for as long as Russian military and political power in the region would turn ‘local self-governance’ into de facto autonomy. More fundamentally, as Volodymyr Ishchenko has argued, the Minsk dilemma reflected the broader failure of nationalist projects in post-Soviet Ukraine. In part because of the fragmentation of the capitalist class, no single project has been able to secure the assent of more than half the population. The liberal-nationalist wing that took power after Maidan, with the involvement of a small but influential far-right, was never accepted by the majority in Donetsk and Luhansk, historically the most prosperous, industrially-advanced and pro-Russian areas. While Russia’s actions since 2014 have drained support for it within Ukraine, and the invasion has likely destroyed it for good, this doesn’t mean that Zelensky ever had a chance of mediating the contradictions even if he wanted to. This failure caused his popularity to tank. Though elected with an extraordinary 73% of the vote, by June 2021 over half of the electorate didn’t want him to run again, and only 21% said they would vote for him.

Liberated from informed thinking by official forgetting, however, journalists may still partake of the romance of resistance. The lay priest of liberalism Ian Dunt suggests that passionate Europeanists should send money to the Ukrainian army, while hymning Ukraine as ‘the ideals of Europe, made flesh and blood’. That being the fantasy, there is considerable sympathy for those volunteers who, beseeched by Ukrainian foreign secretary Dmytro Kuleba and egged on by his UK counterpart Liz Truss, have gone to fight Vlad. ITV News treats us to an uncritical interview with British volunteers training with the ‘Georgian Legion’ in Ukraine, initially set up by ethnic Georgians to fight the Russians before being integrated into the Ukrainian army, to fight ‘a war of the West’.

Such sentiments have been canalised into demands for a ‘no-fly zone’ – that is, aerial warfare – in Ukraine, as well as increased military expenditures. The usual journalistic galaxy-brains complain that opposition to a no-fly zone is ‘appeasement’, raising folk memories of World War II as though they were the first to think of it, or demanding that Western powers call Russia’s nuclear bluff. It is clear, though, that the bureaucracies responsible for waging war in NATO do not currently want a no-fly zone, because it implies direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed power. The Pentagon even vetoed a Polish proposal to send Soviet-made MiG-29s to Ukraine on the grounds that it would be close to an act of war. Not for the first time, the punditry, in out-hawking the Pentagon, has become more royalist than the king. The only military assistance that NATO countries plan to offer Ukraine is intended to stimulate a protracted insurgency. As Hillary Clinton gleefully suggested, citing the example of Afghanistan in the 1980s without any hint of regret over two million lives lost and the birthing of a violent global jihadist movement, this would bleed Russia. It would also destroy Ukraine.

The belligerati have a surer bet with the demand for more military spending. In the UK, both Conservatives and Labour front-benchers are on board. In The Times, John Kampfner celebrates Germany’s hard turn to armament as bad news for Putin. In Sweden, where public opinion has for the moment swung behind NATO membership, the Social Democratic government has announced a surge in the military budget. The Economist notes, with some cheer, that European armament is driving European defence stocks sky-high.

This has little to do with rescuing the people of Ukraine from Russian incursions. The most likely endgame is, of course, a negotiated settlement. Zelensky, who may not welcome the devastation of an Afghanistan-style insurgency, is currently giving himself room for a diplomatic retreat, while Russia’s negotiating position is far from maximalist. It seems likely that Putin will have to acknowledge a diminished Ukrainian sovereignty, while Zelensky will have to accept that Crimea belongs to Russia and concede some special status for the eastern ‘republics’ of Luhansk and Donetsk. Given that Ukraine can’t win, NATO won’t directly intervene, and Russia can only triumph at great cost to its own position (and Putin’s standing with a spooked military leadership), there is no advantage to prolonging the war.

Though the current cultural ferment will not deliver Ukraine from Russian cluster-bombs and shelling, it has in part been harnessed to Britain’s culture war. A typical example is provided by Nick Cohen, who appears to write the same three or four columns on repeat. In The Observer, he claims that a new vital centre has seen off an historically pro-Putin far-left and far-right. This is, naturally, politically illiterate. Putin’s champions in the early days when he was pulverising Chechnya were those paragons of nineties centrism, Clinton and Blair. Putin was an active participant in the war on terror, of which Cohen was an especially mindless enthusiast. As late as 2014, Blair was calling for common cause with Putin. But the claim that the anti-war left is pro-Putin has been integral to recent moves at the top of British politics, particularly Starmer’s attempt to witch-hunt the Stop the War Coalition and crackdown on Young Labour for criticising NATO. The Telegraph, taking the gambit a step further, accuses the RMT union of being the ‘enemy underground’ and ‘Putin apologists’ for launching strike action on the London Underground.

To this extent, the culture war over Russia and Ukraine is more about the moral rearmament of ‘the West’ after Iraq and Afghanistan under the ensign of a new Cold War which declares Putin a legatee of Stalin, the resuscitation of a dying Atlanticism, the revitalisation of a moralistic Europeanism after the collapse of the Remain cause, and the stigmatisation of the left after the shock of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, than it is about Russia or Ukraine. More broadly, it revives in a new landscape the apocalyptic civilizational identities that were such a motivating force during the ‘war on terror’, and which have lately fallen into disarray.

Read on: Mary Kaldor, ‘After the Cold War’, NLR I/180.

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The Sensual and the Political

One striking feature of the paintings of Peter de Francia (1921–2012) is that they often evoke an urge to converse. In Algerian Storyteller (1964–5), one of a number of works inspired by the artist’s travels around the Maghreb, a Homeric orator is surrounded by his fellow emigrants, their bodies linked together, creating a concentric circle that radiates from the small yellow lamp in the centre. A year after its completion, the painting was included in ‘Situation 66’, an exhibition organised by a small group of artists in Augsburg who tried to break the Cold War barrier and show art from both Eastern and Western European countries – Grundig, Picasso and Moore were also among the participants. Looking at de Francia’s painting today, the viewer is reminded of cold and hot wars of our own time, with their same mixture of loss, exodus and desperation.

‘Algerian Storyteller’ (1964-5) by Peter de Francia, courtesy of The Fine Art Society © the artist’s estate

De Francia is best known for charcoal drawings often conceived as series, ranging from his satirical Disparates to the metaphorical Fables, that share an affinity with the graphic works of Goya, Daumier and Grosz, as well as socially committed paintings such as The Execution of Beloyannis (1953), The Bombing of Sakiet (1959) and African Prison (1960) that bear comparison with Guttuso, Picasso and Beckmann. Yet in spite of his accomplishments, his work has remained largely unfamiliar to the public. Though one of the greatest humanist painters of the period, de Francia is completely absent from the Barbican’s current survey of post-war British art. This is in stark contrast to Francis Bacon, whose works are also being lavishly shown at the Royal Academy.

Two commercial galleries however have made new efforts to exhibit de Francia’s work. Three months ago, the James Hyman Gallery – whose owner is an art historian and a long-time dealer of de Francia’s work – presented his Disparates drawings alongside five paintings, including three from The Violation of Innocence series completed in the late 1980s. This month, the Fine Art Society has an exhibition across their two locations focusing on de Francia’s paintings, with easel-sized pieces mainly in London and large works in Edinburgh. With one or two exceptions, these are introduced in the accompanying catalogue as ‘pastoral’ paintings that show ‘a different artist’ – the artist of ‘withdrawal’, who purchased a house in the French village of Lacoste in 1957 – apparently in contrast to the ‘engaged’ artist who penned an essay the very same year on ‘art, criticism and commitment’ for the first issue of Universities and Left Review. But are these paintings detached from the more explicitly committed works by de Francia – an artist who was convinced that ‘art is a supreme manifestation of life, inseparably bound up with social and philosophical beliefs’?

De Francia was born in Beaulieu in 1921 to an Italian father and an English mother. Raised in Paris, he took up drawing lessons at the age of thirteen and began to sketch at the Louvre, developing his visual memory and ability to capture movement. A school trip to Fort Douaumont in Verdun was an early confrontation with the cruelty of war: there was more metal around than earth; the bones of soldiers were piled up in the ossuary. He left France for Belgium in 1938 to study at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, but had to flee the country two years later on a bicycle when Germany invaded Belgium. The chaotic scenes of mass evacuation – thousands of people intermingled with livestock heading southwest, the French and British Allies advancing in the opposite direction, German machine guns overhead – resembled Brughel’s Dulle Gret to the young artist, and brought his political consciousness into sharp focus.

Moving to England, de Francia joined the British Army and served in the counter-intelligence unit, tasked with interpreting aerial photographs. Afterwards he received a grant to study at the Slade in London, which he found uninspiring. It was the time he spent in Italy after he left the Slade that proved to be the most formative period for his art. There, he befriended Renato Guttuso – a former partisan and a prominent figure in the PCI who was renowned for his socially committed expressionism. De Francia worked in his studio, revering the Italian painter for his political engagement in life and art. After Italy, de Francia worked briefly in New York, where he met Max Beckmann and George Grosz. Beckmann’s triptychs and Grosz’s depiction of human figures as types rather than specific characters were discernible influences on de Francia’s work. Returning to Britain in the early 1950s, he worked for a short while producing fine art programmes for the BBC, before starting to teach at various art colleges in London, which eventually sustained his painting.

The earliest work in the Fine Art Society exhibition dates from 1951. It is a portrait of de Francia’s girlfriend of the time resting in bed, her arm around the head, her eyes looking slightly downward, absorbed in thought. A blue jumper and grey trousers are painted with expressive brushstrokes, applied in parallel to emphasize the sculptural form of the body underneath. The dominance of the red fabric on the bed resembles Guttuso’s palette. Other portraits from the time on show include depictions of working-class people situated in their daily life: a sun-tanned worker in blue overalls bending over the machinery in a lavender distillery; a Tunisian shoeshine boy resting on some cardboard scattered on the ground, his brush – or a bag in another version – placed near him; a bird seller sitting on a bench in a corner reminiscent of the travellers in Daumier’s The Third-Class Carriage.

‘Shoeshine Boy, Tunis I’ (1957) by Peter de Francia, courtesy of The Fine Art Society © the artist’s estate

These portraits were completed in the same period that de Francia painted a series of portraits of left-wing intellectuals including Eric Hobsbawm and Anna Bostock. Though not included in this exhibition, these are important works in his oeuvre, recording a moment of lively social and intellectual activity which shaped the trajectory of de Francia’s painting. De Francia was close to John Berger, with whom he shared a house, and became one model for the character Janos Lavin in Berger’s first novel A Painter of Our Time (1958). When Berger set up the Geneva Club in 1955, de Francia became an active member. Appropriating the name of the Geneva Conference that marked a brief thaw in the Cold War era, the Geneva Club held meetings in Soho, aiming to ‘stimulate a continental-style social debate’. At these meetings, de Francia met future ULR editors, who invited him to contribute to the journal and advise on visual arts.

A sense of camaraderie entered de Francia’s painting in subtle ways, gradually transforming the theatrical mise-en-scène that characterised his early epic paintings. This is particularly evident in the double- and multi-figure compositions that he produced from the sixties onwards. In the painting of an Algerian couple lighting a lamp, Lighting Lamps (1970), a feeling of mutual reliance is invoked by a repeated pattern of semi-circles: half of the plate that the light falls on, the seats arranged around the lamp, the woman’s folding arms rested on the back of the chair that has been turned around. The semi-circle structure reappears in a couple of paintings depicting women washing their bodies. In one of them, Women Washing (1976), the woman drying her hair turns her face towards the woman wiping her armpit, the latter looks at her companion with slightly opened mouth. Even in the painting of a reclining woman under a window, Reclining Nude with Radio (1970s), the radio that she is tuning conveys a sense of communication.

‘Women Washing’ (1976) by Peter de Francia, courtesy of The Fine Art Society © the artist’s estate

Such sensuous depictions of human bodies are partially achieved through a brightened palette. Browns and blacks become more chromatic while greens and pinks are more saturated. Turquoise green illuminates the space behind a woman washing her feet; a towel in bright lemon yellow links a pair chatting; orange bleeds into brown and pinks turn greys into silvery blues and olive greens. In the Fine Art Society’s London gallery, which has a domestic atmosphere, the exhibits include a cluster of seven glass jars on a small bookshelf. The jars are filled with pigments of vibrant colours – primaries, orange, pink and two shades of green, and next to them lays a worn-out inch-wide brush. De Francia made paints from these pigments instead of using paints from tubes. He applied little medium in painting, which explains why the colours have retained a matt, mural-like quality without oil sheens. He primed his medium-grained linen canvas with a white ground, which helped to enhance luminosity of the colours.

Looking at these paintings of human bodies in intimate space, viewers may well ask: had de Francia retreated from commitment in his art? To answer, it is useful to consider the three methods of committed art that he proposed in his 1957 essay ‘Commitment in Art Criticism’:

Three methods exist, in visual art, of attacking chaos. The establishing of an unblemished, recurrent classicism, standing outside the direct influence of time but using certain basic contemporary symbols: the attempt, let us say, to create a pictorial or architectural morality. This is the kind of task that Léger set himself, by intelligent choice rather than by instinct. Second, an art of violent satire, usually of momentary circumstance, such as that used by George Grosz, or of violent exaggeration of collective or individual grotesqueness, such as that of the late paintings of Orozco. In both these cases the moral aspects of the work are dependent on the use of straightforward or inverted traditional moralities. Finally, there is an art of a deliberately social character, using a pictorial language which is extremely simple, and relying – like Guttuso’s – entirely on dynamic content. The attempt here is to project, by sheer power of imagery, to establish a language of communication which lies outside a formula of aesthetics. It is understood, in such art, that morality is treated as a force created by the content of the work.

This triad of approaches may best sum up de Francia’s own artistic strategies. His early history paintings would belong to Guttuso’s line of attack, which relies on the content of the work to express a moral position. His allegorical works may be categorized as following Grosz’s method, which pushes the power of satire to its limits through typification of human nature and exaggeration of its grotesquery. This includes many of his drawings and some paintings such as Ship of Fools (1972). The paintings of human bodies, meanwhile, especially those in monumental scales, come closest to Léger’s approach, an unadorned classicism aimed at creating an architectural morality.

‘Reclining Figures’ (1974) by Peter de Francia, courtesy of The Fine Art Society © the artist’s estate

A recurrent motif in many of the paintings from the sixties and seventies is the bicycle, painted in eye-catching primary colours. In Reclining Figures (1974), the pensive man leaning against a red bicycle reminds us of the artist’s own experience of pedalling away from the German invasion. In other paintings, it anchors conversations in the way that benches in a garden or chairs under a porch do. In a few paintings featuring a courting couple, the bicycles extend the human bodies, endorsing them with a kind of monumentality. Village Couple II (c. 1982) captures the moment when a black cat emerges from underneath a table, disrupting the quiet company of a grey-haired couple. It jumps onto the head of the child playing on the floor, who raises one arm to catch the cat, arching his back just like the cat does. The lines are all stirred up to tilt, skew, or bend into semi-circles. There is no need for a didactic statement, no need to mention the Falklands, Lebanon, Afghanistan…The dove in the woman’s hands is enough to express an eternal desire for peace.

‘Village Couple II (with Dove)’ (c. 1982) by Peter de Francia, courtesy of The Fine Art Society © the artist’s estate

De Francia was always concerned with the relationship between art and society, believing that social and political changes were needed to help solve problems in art. He argued for legislation to allocate a budget for public art and was outspoken about the relation between art and politics at conferences and in tutorials. In 1980 the newly appointed rector at the Royal College of Art – a designer of coinage who wished to divert resources away from fine art towards more narrowly productive fields – attempted to force de Francia to resign from his position as Professor of Painting, threatening legal action, on account of his political subversiveness. De Francia fought back and remained in position after every tutor and student rebelled by signing a protest letter in support.

‘Philosophers/Man Holding Fish’ (1999) by Peter de Francia, courtesy of The Fine Art Society © the artist’s estate

The latest painting in the exhibition, titled Philosophers (1999), depicts two standing figures engaged in debate in a space half enclosed by shrubs and low walls. The young man on the left, dressed in a blue shirt, holds an open book in one hand and a fish in the other, staring at his interlocutor with a challenging look. With one foot ahead of the other, he resembles the traveller in Courbet’s La rencontre. The old man on the right, with vividly painted yellow shirt and pink scarf, appears to be silent, but his gestures – one hand pointing at the fish and the other reaching to an overturned ancient bust next to his feet – contest the young man. If the encounter can be read as a debate about the validity of painting in our time, then de Francia’s own words from his inaugural lecture at the Royal College of Art in 1973 seem to have suggested a possible answer: ‘Painting has one thing in common with written and spoken language and this lies in the fact that when it attains the power of projecting a force sufficiently strong to create history, it becomes essentially and intrinsically political.’

In a series of interviews conducted at the turn of the new century, de Francia made two sharp observations about the British culture. One is that there is a lack of sensuality but an obsession with sexuality; the other is that any artist who is interested in politics is labelled as ‘political artist’ in a derogatory way. His own paintings have testified that the sensual and the political are not mutually exclusive; or rather, they necessitate one another.

Read on: John Berger, ‘The Moment of Cubism’, NLR I/42.

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Peruvian Stasis

In early February 2022, Peruvian president Pedro Castillo met Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian state of Acre. A photo opportunity for both, the meeting was intended to advance talks over a cross-border road linking the two countries. Footage from the meeting was shared widely on social media. The leaders, maskless, embraced and joked. Bolsonaro took Castillo’s distinctive broad-brimmed straw hat and placed it on his head. The act seemed to mark an inflection point. Since his 2021 electoral campaign, Castillo, a former rural schoolteacher from an impoverished part of Peru who rose to prominence during a strike in 2017, has always appeared in public wearing the hat. A source of mockery for his opponents, the item, typical of the peasantry of the Cajamarca departamento, represents the president’s humble origins. Together with his trademark pencil – a campaign symbol indicating his background as a teacher – it has proved a potent image. Like Castillo’s slogan, no más pobres en un país rico (‘no more poor people in a rich country’), the hat signalled a transformative project that would uplift the poor and excluded. When Bolsonaro placed it on his head, that project seemed to have been jettisoned.

After the meeting with Bolsonaro, Castillo ditched the hat as if to mark a new direction in his presidency. A cabinet reshuffle – his fourth since taking office – appeared to confirm this rightward shift. The initial government reorganization in October 2021 replaced a cabinet led by Guido Bellido of Perú Libre, the Marxist-Leninist and Mariáteguista party that supported Castillo’s presidential bid. Controversial ministers like Iber Maraví, believed to have links to Shining Path, were replaced by ‘moderate’ figures, associated with the centre-left and attached to parties like Frente Amplio and Juntos por el Perú, in an attempt to calm the markets and appease a hostile Congress. The most recent shakeup of Castillo’s team, which led to the ousting of these centre-left ministers, saw the appointment of Héctor Valer, a conservative Catholic, as prime minister, and Óscar Graham, a technocrat, as finance minister. Valer was forced to resign after a few days amid allegations of domestic violence and was replaced by Aníbal Torres: a jurist who had previously supported the candidacy of Yohny Lescano of the centre-right party Acción Popular, before serving as justice minister.

Although Castillo ran an effective election campaign, his victory owed more to the rejection of his opponent in the second round, Keiko Fujimori. Daughter of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who was imprisoned for corruption and human rights abuses, Keiko Fujimori unsuccessfully ran for office on three occasions: in 2011, 2016 and 2021. Over the years, she has inadvertently helped to build the strongest electoral movement in Peru: antifujimorismo. This movement is sustained by the memory of her father’s authoritarian regime and fuelled by the disruptive role of the fujimorista faction in Congress. Its adherents, though politically and geographically diverse, are united by their reluctance to return to the Fujimori years. Yet antifujimorismo presents both benefits and pitfalls for presidential contenders. On the one hand, it commands just enough support to propel a candidate to office, as Castillo’s razor-thin margin of 45,000 votes demonstrated. On the other, antifujimorista voters tend to project different and incompatible visions onto their anointed leader, which he or she cannot hope to reconcile. In this sense, although antifujimorismo constitutes a powerful electoral bloc, it does not a political project or government programme make. Nor has it ever been an active force outside election cycles.

It is useful to distinguish the economic and political variants of antifujimorismo. Economic antifujimoristas view Peru’s neoliberal model, and the 1993 constitution that engendered it, as the main problem facing the country. Their goal is to change the constitution so that Peru can develop more equitable and sustainable forms of growth while loosening the grip of the market. Political antifujimoristas are less concerned with the country’s economic-constitutional model than with its institutional structures, blighted by the prevalence of corruption. Broadly speaking, the current centre-left and left (Frente Amplio, Juntos por el Perú, Perú Libre) are economic antifujimoristas, while the centre-right (the Partido Morado, sectors of Acción Popular) are political ones. In the population at large, the highlands and south tend to fall into the former camp, while parts of Lima and the coast align with the latter. Yet these urban regions have typically been dominated by fujimoristas, which means that, in the country as a whole, economic antifujimorismo is the dominant force.

President Ollanta Humala won the 2011 election on an economic antifujimorista platform, prompting fears that he would govern as a Peruvian Chávez. Yet, when elected, he tacked toward a narrow political antifujimorista programme that ultimately failed to strengthen Peru’s democratic institutions. His successor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski – an architect of the country’s neoliberal settlement – won in 2016 by posing as a political antifujimorista, gaining the tactical votes of economic antifujimoristas in the south. But while in office he too showed minimal commitment to strengthening Peru’s institucionalidad. Castillo, of course, promised a new constitution, economic justice and agrarian reform, combined with social conservatism and a promise to repeal regulatory oversight of transport and education (in a bid to gain votes from those affected by such measures, including informal transport workers). This served him well in the first round, when he swept the southern vote, edging out Verónika Mendoza of Juntos por el Perú (whose progressive pitch on issues like environmental protections and LGBT rights found few takers), and Yohny Lescano (who ran as the leader of Acción Popular but instrumentalized economic grievances in his campaign).

Castillo’s inaugural speech, likely written by his first foreign minister, Héctor Béjar, set out a compelling vision of Peruvian history. Colonialism had created a divided and unequal country, he said. This division persisted despite the birth of the Republic, exactly 200 years ago, which had oppressed and excluded the indigenous peasantry. But his presidency would bring change in the form of a new constitution. ‘This time a government of the people has arrived to govern with the people and for the people, to build from the bottom up. It is the first time that our country will be governed by a peasant, a person who, like many Peruvians, belongs to the sectors that have been oppressed for centuries.’ While the speech contained some surprising proposals – such as a new military service and the expansion of peasant patrols as a parallel security force – the reforms it set out were uncontentious across much of the political spectrum.

Yet, since then, little progress has been made. Castillo’s tenure is all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas. This is partly due to the pandemic, which hit Peru particularly hard given the failure of successive governments to formulate an adequate public health strategy. In his first months on the job, Castillo put his legislative reforms on hold and continued to implement the vaccination programme developed by the previous administration (although now it seems even this may be in jeopardy, following the appointment of the new health minister Hernán Condori: a man who appears to believe in ‘alternative cures’ for Covid-19). The economy has recently started to recover, boosted by strong commodity prices, and the Peruvian currency has increased its value relative to the dollar – which may give Castillo space to pursue his domestic agenda. But whether the recovery can be sustained depends on several factors, including the resolution of social conflicts linked to mining concessions – used by previous governments to stimulate Peru’s highly significant mineral export sector. Rural communities affected by these concessions have adopted direct action tactics against mining companies, such as blocking roads, in an attempt to gain compensation.

Castillo’s stasis is partly due to the strength of the right-wing opposition, which in 2021 ran one of the dirtiest campaigns in living memory, combining overt racism and red-scare tactics in an attempt to delegitimize the electoral process. Since Castillo took office, his rivals in Congress – particularly its president Maricarmen Alva – have tried on several occasions to ‘vacate’ or impeach him. Their obstructionist tactics have already forced the resignation and censure of several ministers, starting with Héctor Béjar. Congress will vote on the latest attempt to impeach Castillo on 28 March. Meanwhile, neofascist groups like La Resistencia, with close ties to the fujimorista movement, have sought to intimidate government ministers, independent journalists and feminist activists. Their efforts have been partly counterproductive, giving Castillo’s government a lifeline by further discrediting the right. Yet they have also proved that the administration is too weak to push through substantive reforms. Castillo’s hat and pencil may have gotten him over the line last year, but they are of little use now that he must deal with a Congress in which his party, though the largest bloc, is still a minority.

Castillo would be better placed to combat this reactionary onslaught were it not for problems within the government. A series of apparently ill-advised ministerial appointments – the result of both pressure from Perú Libre and the president’s poor judgment – have undermined confidence and provided the opposition with easy targets. This trend has recently been compounded by graft accusations against Castillo himself, which, though unproven, have harmed the image of the rural schoolteacher supposedly removed from the venal political class. Castillo, who admitted in an interview that he was unprepared to become president, clearly lacks the competence and dexterity needed to weather the political storms that lie ahead. Legislation to address the shortfalls in education, public health, infrastructure and security has been placed on the back-burner, along with the promised package of constitutional reforms. Instead, the government’s social conservatism has come to the fore, with measures targeting Venezuelan migrants and trans sex workers. It is unlikely that the upcoming impeachment vote will succeed. The right currently does not have enough support in Congress, and Castillo may muddle through for a while yet. But without a dramatic political realignment, neither his economic and constitutional reforms, nor Peru’s desperately needed fight against corruption, will make much headway.

Read on: Efrain Kristal, ‘Screening Peru’, NLR 42.

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Cold Peace

Petrov’s Flu (2021), the latest film by Kirill Serebrennikov, opens with a depiction of a crowded commuter bus in Russia. The atmosphere is febrile, almost violent. In the grip of a fever, the protagonist suffers a coughing fit and moves to the back of the vehicle. Following closely behind him, another passenger shouts, ‘We used to get free vouchers for a sanatorium every year. It was good for the people. Gorby sold us out, Yeltsin pissed it away, then Berezovsky got rid of him, appointed these guys, and now what?’ He concludes that ‘All those currently clinging to power should be shot’. At this point, the protagonist steps off the bus and enters a daydream in which he joins a firing squad that executes a group of oligarchs.

‘These guys’ refers to Putin and his clique, while ‘now what?’ is a question that weighs heavily on the country they’ve created. What kind of society is contemporary Russia, and where is it headed? What are the dynamics of its political economy? Why did they spark a devastating conflict with its closely entwined neighbour? For three decades, cold peace reigned in the region, with Russia and the rest of Europe swimming together in the icy waters of neoliberal globalization. In 2022, following the invasion of Ukraine and the West’s economic and financial sanctions, we have entered a new era, in which the delusions that animated the country’s market transition have become impossible to sustain.

Of course, the fantasy of post-Soviet development has never matched the reality. In 2014, Branko Milanović drew up a balance sheet of transitions to capitalism, which concluded that ‘Only three or at most five or six countries could be said to be on the road to becoming a part of the rich and (relatively) stable capitalist world. Many are falling behind, and some are so far behind that for several decades they cannot aspire to go back to where they were when the wall fell’. Despite promises of democracy and prosperity, most people in the former Soviet Union got neither. Because of its geographical size and politico-cultural centrality, Russia was the gordian knot of this historical process, which constitutes the vital background to the Ukraine crisis. For beyond the military tropism of ‘Great Power’ approaches, domestic economic factors are at least as essential to map the coordinates of the present situation and explain the headlong rush of the Russian leadership into war.

Period I: 1991–1998

Russia’s aggression is part of a desperate and tragically miscalculated attempt to face up to what Trotsky called ‘the whip of external necessity’: that is, the obligation to compete with other states to preserve a degree of political autonomy. It was this same whip that led the Chinese leadership to embrace a controlled economic liberalization in the early eighties, fuelling forty years of mostly successful integration into the global economy while allowing the regime to rebuild and consolidate its legitimacy. In Russia, however, the whip broke the state itself after the Cold War ended.

As Janine Wedel documents in her indispensable Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe (2000), the demise of the Soviet Union resulted in a profound weakening of the country’s domestic elite. During the first years of the transition, the state’s autonomy was minimized to the point that policymaking was effectively delegated to US advisers led by Jeffrey Sachs, who oversaw a small group of Russian reformers including Yegor Gaidar – the prime minister that launched the country’s decisive price liberalization – and Anatoli Chubais, the privatization tzar and onetime Putin ally. Their shock therapy reforms caused industrial involution and soaring poverty rates, inflicting a national humiliation and imprinting a deep suspicion of the West on Russia’s cultural psyche. Given this traumatic experience, the most popular motto in Russia remains ‘the nineties: never again’.

Vladimir Putin built his regime on this motto. A simple look at the evolution of GDP per capita tells us why. The early years of transition were marked by a severe depression that culminated in the financial crash of august 1998. Far from the total collapse described by Anders Åslund in Foreign Affairs, though, this moment in fact contained the seeds of a revival. The rouble lost four fifths of its nominal dollar value; but as soon as 1999, when Putin rose to power on the back of another war in Chechnya, the economy had begun to recover.

Before the crash, the macroeconomic prescriptions of the Washington Consensus had created an intractable depression, as anti-inflationary policies and an obtuse defence of the exchange rate deprived the economy of the necessary means of monetary circulation. Skyrocketing interest rates and an end to reliable wage payments by the state resulted in the generalization of barter (accounting for more than 50% of inter-company exchange in 1998), endemic wage arrears and the exodus of industrial firms from the domestic market. In remote places, the use of money had almost completely disappeared from everyday life. In the summer of 1997, I spent a couple days in the small village of Chernorud, on the western shore of Lake Baikal. The villagers harvested pine nuts and used them to pay for bus fare to the nearby island of Olkhon, as well as accommodation and dried fish, with one full glass of nuts representing a unit of account. The social, health and crime situation was dire. A widespread sense of despair was reflected in the high mortality rate.

Period II: 1999–2008

Compared to this economic catastrophe, the early Putin era was a feast. From 1999 to the 2008 the main macroeconomic indicators were impressive. Barter rapidly retreated and GDP grew at an average annual rate of 7%. Having nearly halved between 1991 and 1998, it fully recovered its 1991 level by 2007 – something Ukraine never achieved. Investment rebounded along with real wages, showing annual increases of 10% or more. At first sight, a Russian economic miracle seemed plausible.

This enviable economic performance was made possible by rising commodity prices, yet this was not the only factor. In addition, Russian industry benefitted from the stimulating effects of rouble devaluation in 2008. The loss of value made locally manufactured goods more competitive, facilitating import substitution. Since industrial enterprises were completely disconnected from the financial sector, they did not suffer from the 1998 crash. Moreover, thanks to the legacy of Soviet corporatist integration, major firms generally preferred to delay wage payments in the nineties rather than lay off their workforce. As a result, they were able to rapidly increase production to accompany the reflation of the economy. The capacity utilization rate increased from about 50% before 1998 to nearly 70% two years later. This, in turn, contributed to productivity growth, creating a virtuous circle.

Another factor was the government’s willingness to take advantage of export windfalls to revitalize state intervention in the economy. The years 2004 and 2005 marked a clear shift in this regard. Privatization was still on the agenda, yet it continued at a much slower pace. Ideologically, the current flowed in the opposite direction, with a greater emphasis on public ownership. A presidential decree of 4 August 2004 established a list of 1,064 enterprises that could not be privatized and named a number of joint stock companies in which the state’s share could not be reduced. State activity was expanded through a pragmatic combination of administrative reforms and market mechanisms. Putin’s most important target was the energy sector, in which he aimed to reassert state control of prices and eliminate potential rivals such as the liberal oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Meanwhile, a combination of new policy instruments and incentives for Russian overseas investment created enterprises that could compete in areas such as metallurgy, aeronautics, automobiles, nanotechnology, nuclear power and of course military equipment. The stated objective was to use funds generated by the export of natural resources to modernize and diversify a largely obsolete industrial base, so as to preserve the autonomy of the Russian economy.

Period III: 2008–2022

One could glimpse a developmental vision in this attempt to restructure Russia’s productive assets. However, strategic mistakes in managing the country’s insertion into global markets, along with strained relations between its political leadership and capitalist class, prevented a proper articulation of this social settlement. The symptoms of this failure became apparent with the 2008 financial crisis and the agonized growth over the following decade. They were first evident in the ongoing reliance on commodity exports – mostly hydrocarbons, but also basic metal products and more recently cereals. Externally, this increasing specialization left the economy susceptible to the fluctuations of global markets. Internally, it meant that policymaking came to revolve around the distribution of an (often squeezed) surplus from these industries.    

Russia’s developmental failure could also be seen in its high levels of financialization. As early as 2006, its capital account was fully liberalized. That measure, along with entry to the WTO in 2012, indicated a double allegiance: first, to the process of US-led globalization, whose keystone was the free circulation of capital; second, to the domestic economic elite, whose lavish lifestyle and frequent clashes with the regime required them to stash their fortunes and businesses abroad. Putin encouraged this outflow of domestic capital, even as he simultaneously adopted macroeconomic policies designed to bring foreign investment into Russia. The resultant internationalization of the economy, combined with its dependence on commodity exports, explains why it was gravely affected by the global financial crisis, suffering a 7.8% contraction in 2009. To cope with this instability, the authorities opted for a costly accumulation of low-return reserves – which meant that, despite its positive net international investment position, Russia lost between 3% and 4% of its GDP through financial payments to the rest of the world during the 2010s.

Hence, in the decade preceding the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian economy was characterized by chronic stagnation, an extremely unequal distribution of wealth, and relative economic decline compared to China and the capitalist core. Granted, there have been other, more positive developments. As a consequence of the sanctions and counter-sanctions adopted after the annexation of Crimea, some sectors such as agriculture and food processing benefitted from an import substitution dynamic. In parallel, a vibrant tech sector enabled the development of a digital ecosystem with an impressive international reach. But this was not enough to counterbalance the structural weakness of the economy. In 2018, mass demonstrations against neoliberal pension reforms forced the government into a partial climbdown. They also revealed the increasing fragility of Putin’s regime, which is unable to deliver on its promises of economic modernization and adequate welfare policies. For as long as this trend continues to undermine his legitimacy, the president’s reliance on nationalist revanchism – and its military expressions – will become all the more intense.

Facing economic hardship and political isolation after its adventure in Ukraine, the prospects for Russia are bleak. Unless it can secure a rapid victory, the government will falter as ordinary Russians feel the economic costs of war. It will likely respond by ramping up repression. For now, the opposition is fragmented, and sections of the left, including the Communist Party, have rallied round the flag – which means that in the short-term Putin will have no trouble putting down dissent. But beyond that, the regime is imperiled on multiple fronts.

Businesses are terrified by the losses they will incur, and Russia’s financial journalists are openly sounding the alarm. Of course, it is not easy to predict the outcome of sanctions – yet to be fully implemented – on the fortunes of individual oligarchs. One must note that the Russian Central Bank deftly stabilized the ruble after it lost one third of its value immediately after the invasion. But, for Russian capitalists, the danger is real. Two examples illustrate the challenges they will face. First is the case of Alexei Mordashov – the richest man in Russia according to Forbes – who was recently added to the EU’s sanctions blacklist for his alleged ties to the Kremlin. Following this decision, Severstal, the steel giant he owns, halted all supplies to Europe, which used to make up about a third of the company’s total sales: roughly 2.5 million tons of steel a year. The firm must now look for other markets in Asia, but with less favorable conditions which will damage its profitability. Such cascading effects on oligarchs’ businesses will have implications for the economy as a whole.

Second, restrictions on imports pose serious difficulties for sectors such as automobile production and air transport. A ‘technological vacuum’ could open up, given the retreat of business software companies such as SAP and Oracle from the Russian market. Their products are used by Russia’s major corporations – Gazprom, Lukoil, the State Atomic Energy Corporation, Russian Railways – and will be costly to replace with homegrown substitutes. Attempting to limit the impact of this shortfall, the authorities have legalized the use of pirate software, extended tax exemptions for tech companies and announced that tech workers will be freed from military obligations; but these measures are no more than a temporary stop-gap. The critical importance of software and data infrastructure for the Russian economy highlights the danger of monopolized information systems dominated by a handful of Western companies, whose withdrawal can prove catastrophic.  

In sum, there is no doubt that the war in Ukraine will be deleterious for many Russian businesses, testing the loyalty of the ruling class to the regime. But the consent of the broader population is also at risk. As socioeconomic conditions further deteriorate for the general population, the motto that served Putin so well against his liberal opposition (‘the nineties: never again’) may soon backfire on the Kremlin. The mixture of widespread immiseration and nationalist frustration is political nitroglycerin. Its explosion would spare neither Putin’s oligarchic regime, nor the economic model on which it rests.  

Read on: Michael Burawoy & Pavel Krotov, ‘The Economic Basis of Russia’s Political Crisis’, NLR I/198.

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Dreadful Present

Kay Dick’s 1977 book They, which has been newly republished in Britain, is a fiction with a story attached. It was plucked from obscurity after almost half a century by the literary agent Becky Brown – a slim orange paperback found languishing amongst the shelves at a Bath branch of Oxfam Books. They is the latest in a steady stream of reappearing books by dead women from the middle of the last century. Perhaps there has never been a better time to be a writer hitherto judged as too strange, too working class, too queer, too intellectual, too foreign, too not-a-man or simply too much. Recent years have seen the republication of the work of Brigid Brophy, Ann Quin, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Christine Brooke-Rose, amongst others. Novels in translation by Clarice Lispector, Tove Ditlevsen and Ingeborg Bachmann, meanwhile, have become Penguin Modern Classics. An awkward, difficult-to-categorise era of literary history has emerged as prime prospecting ground for a publishing industry apparently eager to demonstrate its willingness to right the wrongs of the past, but not yet able to fully address the failures of the present: systemic racism, lack of class inclusivity, endemic sexual harassment, amongst other ills. In the Los Angeles Review of Books recently, Katie da Cunha Lewin warned of the ways in which such narratives of rediscovery, and their elevation of the figure of the neglected woman writer, can risk further solidifying the structures of power they seek to dismantle.

Such questions about the protection and preservation of culture, and what parts of it we rescue and for whom, are central to Dick’s book, which is less a novel or collection of short stories than a series of frightening visions – it bears the subtitle ‘a sequence of unease’. When old books like this one are drawn from the margins back towards the centre of our literary culture, we cannot help but read them for the ways they give the present meaning. Certainly, when encountering They in 2022, the sense of prescience is startling. The book is set in an unnamed but unmistakeable England under an authoritarian regime. It all began as a joke, a ‘parody for the newspapers’, Dick tells us, but ‘[n]o one wrote about them now’ – in fact, newspapers no longer exist. It has become impossible to ‘close the door between work and leisure’, while ‘[n]othing goes right, yet nothing goes really wrong’. Life is tightly surveilled and controlled and there’s a powerful sense of encroaching dread – though for some it is still possible to sun oneself on a veranda with a decent Muscadet, whilst the horror happens nearby but not quite here yet.

Love, creativity, pain, grief and living and working alone are all outlawed but enforcement is chillingly unpredictable. ‘Silent stealth was a greater pain to bear; it was their form of punishment’, the narrator notes. ‘They only took sharper measures if one went beyond the accepted limit.’ A phalanx of anonymous envoys is apt to show up at any time, they may simply quietly remove books from shelves and cart away paintings, a process they call ‘gleaning’, or they may dole out savage retribution: artists have their eyes put out, writers their hands and tongues removed. The injured are allowed a two-week grace period for the expression of pain. The single pair up into ‘family units’ under duress.

They is set amongst a community of artist and writer dissidents rounded up into communal ‘Centres’ along the coast, like a dystopian reimagining of the Bloomsbury group’s Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, where they are granted special dispensation to keep working. When the regime tightens, they continue in careful defiance. Each part of the sequence begins in the natural landscape, made heady and at times out-and-out erotic, but for the most part Dick’s prose is austere and eerily neutral, like the sparse and urgent notation of a dreadful present as proof against future erasure. Characters are rendered flat and unknowable, we find out little about them beyond their names, the way they talk is clipped and odd. Like the hydrangeas blooming defiantly amongst paving stones described in the opening scene of the book, they are ‘an insolent abundance of flourish’. Or, perhaps, as a fisherman the narrator meets on the beach says of his latest catch, they are ‘[s]illy buggers… [s]currying under rocks’. Dick leaves this question open. In They, she is preoccupied by playing out debates about the role of the artist in dystopia – questions of protest, refusal and commitment, as well as collusion. 

In the opening part of the sequence, as news comes through that the Bodleian library has been ransacked, the characters attempt to commit to memory, and thereby preserve, artworks that are being disappeared. Later, a poet whose right arm has been badly burned defiantly continues to write with her left. ‘It’s a matter of survival, not of suicide’, one character says. Though it’s a perspective frequently voiced by characters, They isn’t a straightforward paean to the value of art and the dignity of holding out at all costs – it’s a more complicated, and more profoundly pessimistic, book than that. As it progresses, the narrator begins to question the artist’s strategy, asking ‘Aren’t we keeping dead tombs alive?’ and ‘Can we go on creating for ourselves?’ Hurst, who owns and runs one of the artists’ enclaves, is revealed to be conspiring with ‘they’, permitted to collect and keep the artworks in return for betraying and turning in the artists who created them. The artists maintain a wilful blindness, telling one another that it’s ‘[b]est not to notice these things’. They seems to ask whether this form of resistance – the attempt, as characters put it more than once, to ‘explore the limitations’ – may well amount to the same thing as acquiescence. Every now and again, the narrator speaks of ‘making a stand’, but they don’t.

*

Within the context of Dick’s own body of work, too, They represents a voice regained after a long silence. It was her first work of fiction in fifteen years after a breakdown and suicide attempt in the mid-sixties. She would later recall how the ‘psychological repercussions’ of what she calls her ‘demonstration of free will’ resulted in ‘an inability to work properly and function as a writer’. When she returned to writing, it was at first in conversation with others: two books of literary interviews: the first with her friends, Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith in 1971, the second, Friends and Friendship (1974), with a wider selection of authors from her circle, including Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy. After They she would write one more work of literary fiction under her own name, The Shelf (1984), about a tragic infatuation which drew on one of her own relationships – apparently closely enough that thirty years later it was still being referred to in the literary press as a ‘heartless roman a clef’.

Several of the obituaries written upon her death in 2001 remark upon Dick’s failure to realise further ambitions for a cycle of novels and several literary biographies. These notices are markedly scurrilous, noting her ‘taste for controversy’ and ‘androgynous mental attitude’, her perceived profligacy with money and lovers, as if these were a reasonable quid pro quo for the difficulties she endured. By her own candid account, once she’d got better, what paralysed her writing was money. Upon her recovery, she took on freelance work to support herself and pay off debts and was a prolific literary critic. She did not exactly vanish into obscurity, then – so much so that for years her birthday continued to be recorded in the Times’ society pages – but this kind of work dragged her away from the writing she actually wanted to do. In the memoir that makes up the second half of Friends and Friendship she recalls:

Apart from this despair about money, there was a worse despair; the fact that having to devote so much energy and time to obtaining the very basic monies for living, there was little strength (let alone peace of mind) left for working on the books whose non-completion was daily haunting and tearing away at my mind. I was, for a period, reduced to a total feeling of inferiority, hating myself, placing no value on myself, lacking all confidence.

When she returned to writing fiction with They, it was different in form, style and mood from the novels she had produced in the fifties and early sixties. The critic Lucy Scholes has described it as a ‘surreptitious late-career aberration’, and Carmen Maria Machado in her foreword notes the ‘whiplash’ effect of arriving at They after Dick’s other works.

They is not quite without precedent, though. In the late 1940s, she edited three collections of fantasy and supernatural stories under the pseudonym, Jeremy Scott, which she also used later on for a couple of racy thrillers. In her introduction to one of these volumes, The Mandrake Root (1946), Dick writes of her preoccupation with ‘the whole question of the reality of fantasy’. ‘Each man carries within himself his own fantasy’, she writes, that usually lies ‘untouched in a corner of his brain’ because the ‘unknown is a terrible world, its associations are too ephemeral for the humanly acclimatized mind to recognise, let alone live with’. That nameless dread and how it irrupts into people’s lives can be glimpsed elsewhere in her work. The title of The Shelf refers to the place where we sequester the things that besiege us – in this instance letters sent by the protagonist, Cass, to her lover, Anne, that are returned to her when Anne kills herself. Anne, Cass recalls, had some kind of originary wound, ‘a stigma invisible to the naked eye, yet sentient, attracting brutal responses as some wounded animals attract attack from their kind’. Elsewhere in the book, speculating on what might have caused her friend Maurice to also attempt suicide, Cass cannot find the source of the ‘despair’ that was concealed behind his ‘general impression of solidity’. Writing may be one means by which to keep it at bay. Sophia in The Shelf tells Cass: ‘I had to write…. I’ve always felt the need to explain myself, because I’ve felt so acutely in the wrong’. Recalling her own childhood in Friends and Friendship, Dick remembers how at seven years old, with her mother newly married, what she calls her ‘vie en rose’ – referring to the freedoms she’d enjoyed as her mother’s consort amongst London’s artistic demi-monde – ended abruptly, when she was sent to boarding school. It was then, for the first time, she ‘became conscious of unmentionable matters, never quite defined, yet vaguely menacing’.

Dick was not alone amongst her peers during this period in feeling that the borders between reality and fantasy had gone fuzzy, leaving the conventional forms of literary fiction wanting. A generation of British writers, including Brooke-Rose, Ann Quin, B.S. Johnson, Brophy, Alan Burns and others sought to question the approaches to knowledge of the past, embracing the idea that existence could be understood in terms of a number of different provisional and contingent narratives. Brooke-Rose, who was a friend of Dick’s, understood the modern re-emergence of the fantastic as central to these novelistic experiments. ‘[T]he sense that empirical reality is not as secure as it used to be is now pervasive at all levels of society,’ she would write in her study of this new mood, A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), and ‘if the “real” has come to seem unreal, it is natural to turn to the “unreal” as real.’

Neither was Dick the only writer for whom this sense of existing epistemes collapsing had a personal dimension that was felt in the form of breakdown, breakthrough, or some other alteration of consciousness, and which resulted in transformations in their output. Several of her peers found themselves moving to new styles, forms or genres. Following religious conversion experiences, in the mid-fifties Muriel Spark moved from poetry and literary criticism to writing the brittle, hollowed-out and deeply strange stories she’s now famous for; in the early seventies the poet and novelist Rosemary Tonks gave up writing altogether. After a serious illness, Brooke-Rose claimed she had gained ‘a sense of being in touch with something else’ and upon her recovery, in a manner somewhat akin to Dick, abandoned the social satires she’d written during the fifties to produce a cycle of wildly experimental novels.

*

It feels churlish to do anything other than celebrate a work that has, in unlikely fashion, shuffled its way up to the top of the great, teetering stack of unread books. But we do such books and their authors a disservice if we allow the goodwill that attends such republications to smooth their edges. Reading They, I found myself wishing that Dick hadn’t made the threat cohere, hadn’t finally given an object to the dread that makes the earlier parts of the book so unmooring. Though we are never shown where all this is coming from, in the fifth of the nine parts of the sequence we begin to see how it manifests itself in the form of industrial cities, new-build housing and tower blocks, peopled by feral children and yobs who sling beer cans around and piss in the street.

Earlier in the book, two sinister envoys appear at the narrator’s garden gate and are welcomed in for tea and cake and offered flowers – as if they might yet be redeemable – and in return they put off what we assume to be the enforcers who follow in their wake up the garden path. Meanwhile, the ‘sightseers’, the name Dick gives to the marauding hoards who flock like ‘locusts’ to the artists’ precarious coastal idyll from those urban centres as eager spectators of scenes of surveillance and demolition, are depicted with lurid aesthetic revulsion. They are a ‘uniformity of ugliness’, aroused by carnage and assuaging ‘their apathy with small acts of vandalism’. They ‘jabber like savages’ in ‘indecipherable gang vocabulary’. So very uncouth are they that they ‘prefer concrete’:

Think of their passion for marinas, not for boats, but for the car parks, the amusement arcade, the proliferation of restaurants and blocks of high-tower apartments. They like to see the sea pulverized out of its natural area by concrete. They dislike the beaches for the same reasons; bathing in the sea is too uneasy a freedom, they prefer swimming pools. They like nothing better than to sit in their cars and look at the sea from the safe harbour of a monstrous marina complex.

At length, then, in They the unease is given a form and it is mass culture – pointedly not the invisible regime itself, but its subjects, those represented as narcotised by television and by the pop music piped over public address systems at ear-splitting volumes. As all this comes into focus, Dick’s vision of a peculiarly out-of-time artistic set, bewitched by the landscape or busy in their studios and at their desks and forever setting the table for a nursery tea, like the phantoms of a previous era, whilst brutality is meted out nearby, becomes more ordinary. We’re back in familiar territory here, that of the intellectuals versus the masses, of Richard Hoggart’s ‘shiny barbarism’ and the anxieties about cultural decline, ‘massification’ and the threat to individual expression that were felt by a post-war generation of intellectuals thirty years earlier. That’s not to say Dick invokes the same old metaphysic about the value of art being its ability to act as a moral guide to the ‘good life’. In They its power is about friendship, communion, love – a means of living separately together. Where Dick seems to falter is in extending these capacities of culture to everyone.

In the penultimate part of the sequence, two characters visit an eighteenth-century pleasure garden. In its heyday, it was carefully maintained for the enjoyment of a select few, but now the garden is mostly left to grow into wildness. Its walls are beginning to crumble and the gate is often left unlocked. The ‘sightseers’ don’t go there, though, suspicious of its ‘beauty’ and ‘sensuality’. For the artist dissidents, meanwhile, the garden is a ‘trap’ that lures them in with its ‘dangerous fantasy’ – ‘[i]n the garden it’s easy to forget’. In They, Dick writes her way into, and productively sustains, perennial questions about culture: its social role, its capacities as a form of resistance and the individual responsibilities of the artist. But although she seems at times to implicitly recognise them, she is unable or unwilling to think through the implications of having her dread cohere around the all too familiar spectre of ‘the masses’ as a uniform, passive and pathologised other.

Read on: Patricia McManus, ‘Happy Dystopians’, NLR 105.

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Thanatos Triumphant

Does hegemony require a grand design? In a world where a thousand gilded oligarchs, billionaire sheiks, and Silicon deities rule the human future, we should not be surprised to discover that greed breeds reptilian minds. What I find most remarkable about these strange days ­– as thermobaric bombs melt shopping malls and fires rage in nuclear reactors – is the inability of our supermen to validate their power in any plausible narrative of the near future.

By all accounts, Putin, who surrounds himself with as much astrology, mysticism and perversion as the terminal Romanovs, sincerely believes that he must save the Ukrainians from being Ukrainians lest the celestial destiny of the Rus becomes impossible. The present must be smashed in order to make an imaginary past the future.  

Far from the arch-strongman and master-deceiver admired by Trump, Orbán and Bolsonaro, Putin is simply ruthless, impetuous and prone to panic. The people in the streets of Kiev and Moscow who laughed away the threat until the missiles started falling, were naive only in expecting that no rational leader would sacrifice the 21st-century Russian economy to raise a faux double-eagle over the Dnieper.  

Indeed, no rational leader would.  

On the other shore, Biden conducts a nonstop seance with Dean Acheson and all the ghosts of Cold Wars past. The White House is visionless in the wilderness it helped to create. All the think tanks and genius minds that supposedly guide the Clinton-Obama wing of the Democratic Party are in their own way as lizard-brained as the soothsayers in the Kremlin. They can’t imagine any other intellectual framework for declining American power than nuclear-tipped competition with Russia and China. (One could almost hear the sigh of relief as Putin lifted the mental burden of having to think global strategy in the Anthropocene). In the end, Biden has turned out to be the same warmonger in power that we feared Hilary Clinton would be. Although Eastern Europe now distracts, who can doubt Biden’s determination to seek confrontation in the South China Sea – waters far more dangerous than the Black Sea?

Meanwhile the White House seems to have almost casually chucked its weak commitment to progressivism into the trash. A week after the most frightening report in history, one that implied the coming decimation of poor humanity, climate change rated nary a mention in the State of the Union. (How could it compare to the transcendental urgency of rebuilding NATO?) And Trayvon Martin and George Floyd are now just roadkill rapidly vanishing from sight in the rear-view mirror of the presidential limousine as Biden rushes around reassuring the cops that he’s their best friend. 

But this is not simply a betrayal: the US Left bears its own share of responsibility for the dismal outcome. Almost none of the energies generated by Occupy, BLM and the Sanders campaigns were channelled into rethinking global issues and framing a renewed politics of solidarity. Equally there has been no generational replenishment of the radical mindpower (I.F. Stone, Isaac Deutscher, William Appleman Williams, D.F. Fleming, John Gerassi, Gabriel Kolko, Noam Chomsky…to name just a few) that was once focused laser-like on US foreign policy. 

Nor has the EU for its part conquered the problems of epochal characterization and the foundations of a new geopolitics. Having hitched its star to trade with China and natural gas from Russia, Germany in particular risks spectacular disorientation. The milquetoast coalition in Berlin is ill-equipped, to say the least, to find an alternative path to prosperity. Likewise, Brussels, even if temporarily reanimated by the Russian peril, remains the capital of a failed super-state, a union that has been unable to collectively manage the migration crisis, the pandemic, or the strongmen in Budapest and Warsaw. An expanded NATO entrenched behind a new Eastern wall is a cure worse than the disease.

Everyone is quoting Gramsci on the interregnum, but that assumes that something new will be or could be born. I doubt it. I think what we must diagnose instead is a ruling class brain tumour: a growing inability to achieve any coherent understanding of global change as a basis for defining common interests and formulating large-scale strategies.

In part this is the victory of pathological presentism, making all calculations on the basis of short-term bottom-lines in order to allow the super-rich to consume all the good things of the earth within their lifetimes. (Michel Aglietta in his recent Capitalisme: Le temps des ruptures emphasises the unprecedented character of the new sacrificial generational divide.) Greed has become radicalized to the extent that it no longer needs political thinkers and organic intellectuals, just Fox News and bandwidth. In the worst-case scenario, Elon Musk will simply lead a billionaire migration off planet.

It also may be the case that our rulers are blind because they lack the penetrating eyesight of revolution, bourgeois or proletarian. A revolutionary era may dress itself in costumes of the past (as Marx articulates in The Eighteenth Brumaire), but it defines itself by recognizing the possibilities for societal reorganization arising from new forces of technology and economics. In the absence of external revolutionary consciousness and the threat of insurrection, old orders do not produce their own (counter-)visionaries.

(Let me note, however, the curious example of the speech that Thomas Piketty gave on 16 February at the Pentagon’s National Defense University. As part of a regular series of talks on ‘Responding to China’, the French economist argued that ‘the West’ must challenge Beijing’s rising hegemony by abandoning its ‘dated hyper-capitalist model’ and promoting instead a ‘new emancipatory egalitarian horizon on a global scale’. A strange venue and pretext, to say the least, for advocating democratic socialism.)

Nature meanwhile is taking back the reins over history, making its own titanic compensations, at the expense of powers, especially over natural and engineered infrastructures, that empires once thought to control. In this light, the ‘Anthropocene’ with its hint of the promethean, seems especially ill-fitted to the reality of apocalyptic capitalism.

As an objection to my pessimism, one might claim that China is clear-sighted where everyone else is blind. Certainly, its vast vision of a unified Eurasia, the Belt and Road project, is a grand design for the future, unequalled since the sun of the ‘American Century’ rose over a war-shattered world. But China’s genius, 1949-59 and 1979-2013, has been its neo-mandarin practice of collective leadership, centralized but plurivocal. Xi Jinping, in his ascent to Mao’s throne, is the worm in the apple. Although he has economically and militarily enhanced China’s clout, his reckless unleashing of ultra-nationalism could yet open a nuclear Pandora’s Box.

We are living through the nightmare edition of ‘Great Men Make History’. Unlike the high Cold War when politburos, parliaments, presidential cabinets and general staffs to some extent countervailed megalomania at the top, there are few safety switches between today’s maximum leaders and Armageddon. Never has so much fused economic, mediatic and military power been put into so few hands. It should make us pay homage at the hero graves of Aleksandr Ilyich Ulyanov, Alexander Berkman and the incomparable Sholem Schwarzbard.  

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘Jottings on the Conjuncture’, NLR 48.