‘Has anyone seen Rosemary Tonks?’ began an unusual announcement in London’s Evening Standard in November 1998. The request was on behalf of the publisher Bloodaxe Books, who were keen to reissue her poetry but explained that ‘we haven’t managed to speak to anyone who’s seen her since the seventies’. At the close of the decade Tonks had seemingly vanished, absconding from Hampstead and her career as a celebrated writer. No further poetry appeared, no new novels were added to the run of six that she’d published between 1963 and 1972, and it was widely believed she’d put a ban on anyone ever republishing them. The collected poems, Bedouin of the London Evening, finally appeared after her death in 2014. An introduction by the publisher Neil Astley revealed that Tonks had in fact been living in Bournemouth. ‘In illness you want to be alone’, she’d once said about her stint in Paris recovering from polio. In 1979, following a series of personal crises – the sudden death of her mother, the collapse of her marriage, burglaries, a lawsuit, an operation to correct detached retinas that left her partially blind for several years – she had retreated to the coast.

Perhaps Tonks had been threatening to do as much in her 1965 poem, ‘Ice Cream Boom Towns’: ‘Hurry: we must go south to escape / The bubonic yellow-drink of our old manuscripts’. An irresolvable restlessness, the sense of being out of joint with yourself and the world, goes back further than her difficulties of the seventies. ‘I was a guest at my own youth’, she writes in ‘Running Away’; ‘My private modern life has gone to waste’ in ‘Bedouin of the London Evening’. The feeling of finding yourself in the wrong life is also present in The Bloater (1968), which has been reissued this month. The most remarkable of Tonks’ novels, it had long been legendarily unavailable. It opens on Min, collapsed with world-weariness – ‘a form of tiredness which is like drunkenness… there are varied layers of brand-new tiredness inside the massive, overall exhaustion, so that you go on falling through one after another’. Later, Min tells Claudi that she’s ‘so miserable and frustrated’ she’d like to ‘lie down in some lousy stinking old Beckett play and just rot there’. Plagued by FOMO after gossiping with Jenny about their respective love lives, she phones up Billy to ask, ‘Am I being left out of things?’ But when Min does find herself properly in the world, she’s shattered by the recognition that her life isn’t her own.

Even prior to disowning her back catalogue, Tonks claimed not to think all that much of her novels. ‘It just proves the English like their porridge’, was her response to an editor’s congratulations on the success of her fifth novel, The Way Out of Berkeley Square (1970). But although the remark’s flamboyant contempt and self-flagellating high-mindedness are classic Tonks, neither The Bloater, nor the rest of her novels, are that. The blurb on the new edition calls it a ‘sparkling’ comedy. ‘Exuberantly jaundiced’ or ‘blithely savage’ might be more accurate – and I’d argue that if the novel merits reappraisal, it’s precisely because of this awkward implacability. The novel appeared disguised as a gently racy social comedy, but Tonks – just like Min, her bristling, incorrigible bullshitter of a protagonist – cannot help but send up the conventions and proprieties of the form into which she’s plotted. It’s one way, short of disappearing, of tolerating not being how or where you ought to be.

The Bloater was originally published in 1968, though it’s not that sixties, but another one, a decade of relentless brown – brown ale, brown walls, brown corridors, brown light, brown days. Min works at the ‘electronic sound workshop’, a fictionalised BBC Radiophonic Workshop, with whom Tonks collaborated on a sound poetry broadcast, Sono-Montage, in 1966. There’s not much youth-quaking modernity here either. The staff are sexually frustrated bureaucrats bunkered ‘like a tinned shepherd’s pie’ down some endless corridor, where ‘the light is so bright you don’t even look ugly. You simply look like yourself’. The one spot of glamour is lovesick Jenny – surely a version of Tonks’ collaborator, Delia Derbyshire – with her bangles and glittered blue-black hair. But Tonks won’t have that either; Jenny’s face is only half made-up ‘until the evenings when she puts on the other half’.

The set-up is a marriage plot turned on its head. Min is married to George, and the novel follows her as she shuttles antically between two alternative suitors. There’s the eponymous Bloater, an exuberantly embodied, man-mountain of an opera singer, as gamey and oily as his cured herring namesake. Min finds him repulsive and cannot get enough of him. Then there’s Billy, who is ‘exact, contemporary, very masculine and controlled’; the way he talks to Min is like ‘a piece of fine dentistry… he stops up all aches and pains’. George meanwhile is hardly there at all. The ‘keeper of unprinted books at the British Museum’, we briefly glimpse the back of his pyjama jacket as he turns over in bed, emanating mute discontent. So vague a figure is George that one night Min switches off the lights in their home and locks up, leaving him eating dinner in the dark. Their house too seems strangely insubstantial, almost as if it doesn’t have any walls, and it’s unclear who lives there. A painting is cantilevered through a first-floor window. A slice of terrine is stored in the glove compartment of a car. Everything is ‘somehow running against the grain’, so that Min continually has to reapproximate the scenes of ordinary life.

But this isn’t really a book that cares about the breaking of marital vows. It is less concerned with bringing lovers together than with Min’s farcical efforts to escape from other people. The Bloater and Billy are two sides of the same coin, representing what Min is trying to avoid: having a body, having to contend with the bodies of others, being seen, being known. In the jacket note for her first poetry collection, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms (1963), Tonks laid out her poetic ambitions: ‘I want to show human passions at work,’ she writes, ‘and give eternal forces their contemporary dimension in this landscape’. Here, however, she shows Min wriggling this way and that to avoid feeling at any cost. The risk of closeness is ‘all the suffering which is yet to come’.

Desire in the novel is constantly being cast out by disgust. The Bloater is an altogether disgusted book – excessively, theatrically so ­– and especially with the body: smarting gums, ‘pestilential’ armpits, bed sores, ‘cruel’ fingers, claggy over-powdered noses. Min has ‘the new welfare state disease’, gout, while the Bloater has catarrh. Their entanglement finally ends when she blurts out, ‘I don’t like your smell’. If Min’s not placing the world and the people in it at arm’s length by finding them repulsive, she’s trying to numb herself with what she calls ‘phony pleasures’, or else warding off intimacy with a clenched and calculating defendedness. Conversations are conducted like a game of Battleships. The point is to ‘win’, or, at least, not to surrender, lest your interlocutor colonises your mind or annihilates you. ‘She’s gone too far, and is forcing me to live her life’, Min says of a light chat in the pub with Jenny.

Tonks isn’t much interested in redeeming or absolving her protagonist, though it’s hinted that she shares a background a bit like her own. She does, however, get her happy ending with Billy. Finally, she coincides with herself: ‘I’m not the spectator I’m accustomed to being; I’m not in front of him, nor am I getting left behind.’ But it’s winkingly dashed off, as if to say, come on now, don’t be ridiculous. All kinds of things happen in The Bloater, but the real story is subterranean.


Tonks wouldn’t thank you for referring to her as an ‘English novelist’, profiles from the period comment, as if they’re indulging a daft pretension. But she rightfully claimed kinship with a nineteenth-century tradition of French writing, especially Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Her fiction writing, however, with its fascination for the secret chaos that exists between people, is more like her French contemporary, Nathalie Sarraute. Either way, you can understand why she was keen to disaffiliate herself from British literary culture. A 1970 Guardian profile includes the observation that ‘I have never met anyone who was so hurt by critics’. But, reading the reviews, I don’t think it was simply a case of Tonks being sensitive. Rather, perhaps her Francophilia was a response to the prevailing attitudes amongst critics of the time, who were tediously stuck on a nationalist, narrow and incurious idea of ‘the English novel’.

In any case, there’s more to the difficulty of placing Tonks’ writing, and the unhomeliness of The Bloater. In a 1963 interview she comments that ‘I could communicate if only the English weren’t quite so English’. And she wasn’t, exactly, but neither did she belong anywhere else. She was raised and lived mostly in Britain, but her life was profoundly altered by her family’s links to the colonies. Her father died in Nigeria before she was born, in Kent in 1928. She was brought up in boarding schools before joining her mother, who’d remarried, in Lagos, where her stepfather later died. Tonks married at 20 and went with her husband to India and Pakistan for his work, before returning, via a year in Paris, to London in 1953. She’d contracted paratyphoid fever in Calcutta and polio in Karachi, which left her with a withered right hand. Though not a colonial writer per se, she’s not quite an English writer, either. Tonks’ cosmopolitanism is a troubled thing – it’s that of someone who has left parts of herself behind elsewhere and carries elsewhere indelibly with her. In The Bloater, a shift in the light can render London more like Paris or St Petersburg. It’s a less pronounced version of an effect of her poetry, where a familiar London flickers in and out, becoming Egypt or the Baltic Sea. The equator might well run through Chelsea; Covent Garden is full of souks. But she’s not invoking other places as metaphors for some exotic, faraway imaginary. For Tonks, elsewhere is right here, bathed in the same brown light.


‘You can cure your reading with your life’, Tonks says, gnomically, during the same 1963 interview. It’s an offhand comment about the anxiety of influence, but the remark has a broader resonance with the way that, for her, living and writing sat uneasily with one another. Early on, her literary work seemed to provide a means to get to the real heart of things. ‘I know that to get through to you, my epoch,’ she writes in ‘Epoch of the Hotel Corridor’, ‘I must take a diamond and scratch / On your junkie’s green glass skin, my message’. But, over time, she came to see the literary world as the thing that had drawn her away from the proper stuff of life. ‘I think it diabolical,’ she comments, ‘this getting of a poet out of his or her back room and the making of them into public figures who have to give opinions every 20 seconds’. Later, this was to harden into violent disavowal.

Throughout the seventies, following the death of her mother, she’d drawn sustenance from various spiritual practices: Sufism, tarot, Taoist meditation, yoga. However, after a period of ill health followed by a series of bizarre supernatural experiences, she came to reject these as diabolical, and instead took up fundamentalist Christianity. She staged a double exorcism in her garden in Bournemouth, burning five suitcases’ worth of ancient Asian, African and Middle Eastern artefacts bequeathed by an aunt, along with the manuscript of a vast unpublished novel about the search for God, as two kinds of false idols. Perhaps, in some way, she was also attempting to vanquish those foreign, restless, unhomed bits of herself. In October 1981, she was baptised in Jerusalem. Born again, she became Rosemary Lightband, discarding the name that feels like an aptronym – at once fearsome and ridiculous, seeming to denote something of its owner’s skinless hauteur – for her married name, though she was already divorced.

I’d like to be able to tell it as a story of refusal, or of mystical transformation, against the typical accounts of people who, like Tonks, just get up and walk away from their lives – those narratives that prescribe the kind of existence it’s acceptable to have, hitting familiar marks: self-destructiveness and self-sabotage, reclusiveness, squandered potential, tragic decline. But it wasn’t. The diaries of her later years record a slow and torturous form of self-immolation. She devoted her attention to the bird song and ticking of clocks that she understood as messages from God. Mostly, she sounds terrified: of the incursions of Satan, the malign influence of other people, even more so of herself and her own mind. She was sometimes to be found commuting up to London to hand out copies of the Bible, the only book she now read, at Speaker’s Corner. In her house just behind the sea front, she worked at painfully winnowing herself away to make a vessel for God’s love.

Clearly, she was intent on making a complete break with her former self. But one can see in Rosemary Lightband a mutation of Tonks’s facilities as a writer into something else. Those same habits of mind – the form-seeking, the heightened awareness, the relentless self-interrogation – metastasized. In a letter to her great-niece from 1987, she writes that her former life was exactly ‘the preparation needed’ for studying the bible, ‘because your mind is alerted to unravelling mysteries hidden in words’. There’s an unassuming passage towards the end of The Bloater in which Min is rueing her domestic failures, but also seems to be reflecting on the source of her difficulties. ‘I know that one of my weaknesses is the fact that I can’t see dust’, she says. ‘I’ve been taught to see the fish lying in a stream, which means that I can penetrate through the glass clothes of a river and see its insides.’ This gift of obscene seeing was Tonks’ too. A writer like her, so vigilant about signs and symbols, so deep within her regime of self-punishment, must have read significance into her misfortune, especially the loss of her sight. Perhaps she decided that if you can’t cure your reading with your life, or your life with your reading, or your life with a different one, you must stop yourself from looking underneath the water.

Read on: Angus Wilson, ‘Condition of the Novel (Britain)’, NLR I/29


What’s It For?

This year Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory turns fifty-two, and still that forbidding text, with its pages-long paragraphs and elusive, paradoxical argumentation, has not said everything it has to say. In a recent NLR article, Patricia McManus cited the book’s reflections on the relationship between artistic form and judgments of value in her response to Joseph North’s call for a ‘left literary criticism that would also be a radical aesthetic education, one which aimed to cultivate modes of sensibility and subjectivity that could contribute directly to the struggle for a better society’. That Adorno would have anything to contribute to this struggle is far from given. For many readers, with its conceptual vocabulary that is grounded in the German aesthetic tradition and its belief that philosophy should dictate the terms of art, the book may seem to belong far more to the past than the present. And yet it seems that Aesthetic Theory still has some light to shed on the question of what art can and – perhaps more saliently – cannot achieve in a world no less unfree than it was when Adorno left it.

A striking resonance with NLR’s present discussion of literary criticism can be found in Adorno’s call for ‘the study of those alien to art’. This is Aesthetic Theory’s equivalent of the figure of the ‘ordinary reader’, with whom the criticism of the past decade has, according to McManus, been increasingly preoccupied: the individual who, blissfully unaware of signifiers, discourses and the other paraphernalia of literary scholarship, simply reads what they like, and doesn’t read what they don’t. Is such a figure merely a projection, a symptom of the legitimacy crisis gripping the academy, as Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan argue? Or, as Rita Felski, Amanda Anderson and Toril Moi have it, could a better understanding of the ways in which readers actually read be the basis for a criticism more fully engaged with the wider world?

Adorno’s position on this question is typically dialectical. This figure is presented not without a tinge of elitist hauteur: ‘Those who have been duped by the culture industry and are eager for its commodities were never familiar with art’. And yet, their lack of familiarity is said to afford them a clarity that the regular opera-goer, museum patron or literary critic lacks. They are ‘able to perceive art’s inadequacy to the present life process of society – though not society’s own untruth – more unobstructedly than do those who still remember what an artwork once was’. The person who squints at a work of modern art and demands, ‘What’s it for?’, has in this sense, a more lucid view of art’s standing today than the critic does – namely, that ‘nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore…not even its right to exist’.

Insofar as such passages meld a condescending lack of familiarity with those outside the academy to the deep self-loathing within it, they seem to bring together the weaknesses of both sides of the ‘ordinary reader’ debate. But Adorno isn’t out to idealize or to denigrate. His figure is, rather, a critical check on the ‘committed’ art and criticism of his time. Against Benjamin, virtually the only critic of Adorno’s lifetime considered worthy of sustained engagement in Aesthetic Theory, Adorno takes as axiomatic that the democratization of art was a failure. Rather than bringing art to the masses, in Adorno’s view the work of art’s mechanical reproduction simply produced a more refined form of mass culture – see the grumblings around the publishing world that ‘literary fiction’ is simply an elitist marketing designation – while the cultural homogenization of the classes destroyed the coherent and identifiable publics for whom the artwork was intended.

This historicization of the relationship between art’s producers and its ‘consumers’ is a minor component of Aesthetic Theory’s critique of a critique engagé. When seen from the perspective of the individual without artistic sensibility, he argues, it becomes clear that the categories of such criticism are fired from a pistol – launched, that is, without any rigorous conceptualization of what an artwork actually is. Brecht’s dictum that literature should be ‘no less intelligent than science’ and should therefore yield knowledge as true and as actionable as the social and even the natural sciences, appears rather more vulnerable when one imagines explaining it to the non-reader. ‘There is no answer that would convince someone who would ask such questions as “Why imitate something?” or “Why tell a story as if it were true when obviously the facts are otherwise and it just distorts reality?”’, Adorno writes. There is a ridiculousness even to the gravest artworks, he argues, the roots of which lie in the archaic character of ‘the mimetic impulse’. The concepts and categories of political criticism, which fold together the seriousness of the social sciences and the moral urgency of the struggle for justice are, therefore, attractive precisely because they place a fig leaf over the artwork – like the evening dress worn by Kafka’s ape in his address to the academy.

For Adorno, therefore, any attempt to derive moral and political education directly from works of literature is bound to stumble on literature’s ‘non-identity’. It is this claim for the autonomy of the work of art – usually paired with the anecdote of Adorno blanching when bare-breasted student demonstrators stormed his lecture hall – that has tended to furnish charges of political quietism, and, more outrageously, conservatism. But one need only set a few sentences of Aesthetic Theory alongside those of the ‘new aestheticism’ that – spearheaded by George Levine’s Aesthetics and Ideology (1994) – invoked Adorno to call for a return to the art object, against its ‘politicization’ by Foucault, Jameson and Said to see the difference. Certainly, insofar as he insists that the artwork, while obviously a fait social, cannot be deduced from its social circumstances, Adorno is at odds with other strains of Marxist criticism. He also resists, at least in my reading, the left-Nietzscheanism of Deleuze and Guattari, whose characterization of artworks as only one kind of ‘assemblage’ on the ‘plane of immanence’ suggests that artistic techniques and effects (no strong distinction is drawn here) are social practices simply because they take place within society.

According to Aesthetic Theory, what distinguishes the artwork from the rest of perceivable reality is that it orders its material according to its own logic. In the case of literature, this is most obvious in the transposition of non-linguistic experiences into language. But it is also manifest in the more granular business of style – something considered unworthy of critical attention in the current historicist paradigm. Adorno, however, asserts that art’s social function derives precisely from its distinction from other commodities, modes of production, services and forms of information. The self-imposed rationality according to which the artwork selects and arranges its constituent elements parodies the rationality of the social world. The artwork attains a critical function not in what it says, but in what it does: ‘It accuses the rationality of social praxis of having become an end in itself and as such the irrational and mad reversal of means into ends’. The horrors of technological rationality gone mad – above all, the Holocaust – are never far from Adorno’s analysis of Beckett and Kafka’s ‘negativity’. But even the lightest verse by Eduard Mörike, he argues, has a political character, simply because its elements appear to have come together of their own volition, free of the cruelty with which the social world makes everything within it identical with itself. A left criticism taking its cues from Aesthetic Theory would not, then, endeavour to bring the artwork closer to the social world. Instead, it would seek to move them farther apart.

Adorno is, to say the least, elusive about what this would entail. Aesthetic Theory is sparing with its oughts, shoulds and musts. One way to understand the book is as attempting to set limits on other conceptions of the work of art. Aesthetic Theory, indeed, often seems to be inveighing against the paradigms of the present. It is difficult not to read Adorno’s claim, for example, that the technologies, social processes and ideologies without which the artwork could not exist are crystallized within it as a defence of aesthetic experience against the Foucauldian episteme. Its resistance to the total politicization of art, meanwhile, could be addressed to the post-George Floyd American academy. It also voices no small ambivalence about the kind of materialism proposed by McManus, which is understandably gaining currency in a climate of widespread unionization drives by graduate student workers in American universities. In Adorno’s terms, a criticism that would take account of the actually existing material conditions – where there is ‘too much to read, too little time’, as McManus writes – would have to reckon with the displacement of these forces within the object of study for it to be something more than a ‘mere’ sociology of the university and publishing world. Such critical models ultimately retain the same obsession with the reality principle that dominates the administered world – with seeking to ‘punish’ art for claiming to be more than it is by making it less.

It would be no small betrayal of Aesthetic Theory’s unwavering negativity to close with an assessment of its ‘positive’ contributions. Nonetheless, in a certain respect it might be said to converge with North’s view in Literary Criticism (2017) that the coming criticism will place particular emphasis on a ‘therapeutic’ – a word I use advisedly in connection with Adorno – ‘rather than a merely diagnostic use of the literary’. Such an emphasis is, paradoxically enough, apparent in Adorno’s insistence on art’s ‘muteness’, that is, on the way that it transforms discursive ideas and concepts into appearances. Even the most discursive artworks have for Adorno more in common with nature, which simply is, than they do with philosophy or politics. ‘Nature’ refers here not just to natural objects, but to everything dominated, mutilated, and repressed by the civilizing process. The work of art becomes a preserve for those aspects of the world destroyed by instrumental reason, offering a negative image of what Jameson, in his own work on Adorno, referred to as ‘a powerful vision of a liberated collective culture’. Adorno therefore shows himself, in this respect, to have more in common with the emancipatory spirit of the sixties than he let on – though in his view, unlike ‘cuisine or pornography’, art achieves this precisely by suspending the immediate sensation of pleasure (‘Anyone who listens to music seeking out the beautiful passages is a dilettante’). A fully realized aesthetics would not, however, champion a regressive anti-rationalism – whose pitfalls fascism proved once and for all – or a sensory hedonism. In keeping with the Frankfurt School’s original programme, it would work in dynamic tandem with psychoanalysis and anthropology, illuminating all that lies in reason’s shadow, and that is needed to rescue reason in its fullest, most capacious sense from its most determined antagonist – itself.

Such a project is considerably more abstract than that sketched out in McManus’s essay, or, for that matter, than anything criticism has attempted since poststructuralism’s iconoclastic moment. But even Adorno’s most abstract considerations are undergirded by an anguished, ethical commitment. Perhaps Aesthetic Theory’s most significant contribution in the present moment is the centrality of suffering to its problems and its categories. For the rescue of aesthetics does not mean discarding criticism’s moral and political commitments. On the contrary, in an era when art has no clear social function, one justification for its continued existence is its ability to ameliorate suffering. Art is the proper vehicle for grasping and expressing suffering because it ‘eludes and rebuffs rational knowledge’. While today’s engaged criticism all too often elides the distinction between the depiction and reality of suffering – a category error Adorno would have blamed on mass culture – an Adornean aesthetics might situate itself among the ethical paradoxes of the therapeutic artwork. The artwork passes the ‘soothing hand of remembrance’ over human anguish, a relief that contains within it no small measure of betrayal. Criticism can give language to these paradoxes, can tease out and transmit consolation. It can tell us, as politics cannot, what can and cannot be said – what can be changed and what has left its scar once and for all.

Read on: Anahid Nersessian, ‘For Love of Beauty?’, NLR 133/134.


Pariah to President

In February 1986, the world was gripped by the ‘People Power’ revolt in the Philippines – the peaceful uprising that ended the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Earlier this month, many watched in disbelief as his son and namesake, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., won the popular vote in the national elections, with the largest share since the end of his father’s rule. Some commentators have explained this stunning result as the product of massive fraud or material advantage – that Marcos Jr. and his camp hacked the country’s election system to rig the results or used their wealth – part of the estimated $10 billion stolen by the Marcos family – to fund a ‘disinformation’ campaign while buying off local politicians. The first allegation is certainly plausible, but so far it has not been supported by credible evidence. The second has been more extensively documented, but still leaves many questions unanswered. Why were millions receptive to Marcos Jr.’s narrative, and why did other candidates fail to counter it? By assessing the historical experience of the Filipino masses after the People Power revolt, perhaps we can shed some light on this political regression.

Marcos Jr. won because of two contiguous failures after 1986: that of liberals to force significant concessions from elites, and that of leftists to advance a compelling alternative to elite rule. Like their counterparts in other postcolonial countries, liberals in the Philippines have struggled to exert their influence on the ruling bloc. This problem persisted after 1986, when a big-tent coalition of centre-left and centre-right groupings led by President Cory Aquino took the reins of the state, restoring what Benedict Anderson called ‘cacique democracy’: the pre-Marcos oligarchic-liberal order in which the masses were allowed to vote, but powerful landed families with extensive patronage networks dominated the political system. Despite heading a self-proclaimed ‘revolutionary transition government’, Aquino failed to compel the country’s oligarchy to redistribute land, pay more taxes or raise workers’ wages.

This trend accelerated during the global economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s, as Aquino and her anointed successor Fidel Ramos worked alongside a series of centre-right technocrats to institute increasingly regressive policies. They all but abandoned the project of establishing a developmental state, prioritizing the interests of investors over a domestic industrialization programme. In lieu of genuine land redistribution, post-1986 administrations promoted ‘market-assisted land reform’, enabling private developers and agribusiness corporations to accumulate more land and consolidate their holdings. Public infrastructure was privatized and fragmented; new consumption taxes targeted the poor; labour reforms drove down wages and conditions; while local producers were hit by an influx of cheap foreign goods. As a result, millions of working- and middle-class Filipinos suffered. Many became worse off than they were under the dictatorship, as land-grabbing dispossessed and displaced indigenous peoples, farmers and fishermen. Wages failed to keep up with inflation and jobs became more precarious, while the social ‘safety net’ was further weakened. Faced with these conditions, many became ambivalent about the post-Marcos era. Disappointment slowly morphed into indignation.

Had the Philippine left been stronger and more unified, this tide of frustration could have taken a progressive turn – allowing people to envision a society beyond both the dictatorship and its liberal-democratic replacement. But this was not the case. Once ascendant, progressives became increasingly disoriented and divided due to intensified state repression, sectarian violence and the dissolution of many workers’ organisations following the collapse of key industries. Their ranks diminished, many on the left argued for eschewing electoral politics altogether. Others supported limited participation: fielding candidates for lower offices or joining ‘tactical alliances’ with the traditional parties of the propertied classes.

Thus, in the decades that followed Marcos’s ouster, no socialist ran for president – and those that ran for party-list representative or senator did so as part of larger coalitions dominated by the liberal centre. Though many organised in rural areas and industrial belts, a radical opposition to the post-Marcos settlement was largely absent from the mainstream, which left the marginalized and dispossessed with no distinctive framework to anchor their resentment, no vocabulary to articulate their indignation. As a correlative, the governing liberals had little reason to adapt their programme in response to left-wing challenge.

This stasis among both liberals and leftists allowed the Marcoses to plot their return to power. Slowly but surely, they prepared the ground for Bongbong’s presidential campaign. Their homecoming from exile inaugurated a decades-long attempt to rehabilitate their legacy, by electing members of the family to local and national offices, forging civil society links, cultivating ties with the business sector and launching an extensive propaganda drive to whitewash the record of the dictatorship. In parallel, public opinion continued to turn against the Aquino-Ramos ascendancy. In one of the first outward signs of dissatisfaction with the post-1986 order, many from the lower classes spurned the liberals’ candidate and voted for the populist former movie star Joseph Estrada in the 1998 presidential elections.

At first, the middle classes continued to defend the liberal centre. In 2001, they mobilised in large numbers to oust Estrada from office and replace him with another Aquino-Ramos endorsee, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. They then stood by her as the urban poor poured out into the streets in an unsuccessful attempt to return Estrada to office. In 2010, it was the same bourgeois stratum that guaranteed the success of the establishment’s presidential candidate, Cory Aquino’s son, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III.

But their patience began to wither during Noynoy’s tenure. His hardline neoliberal programme dented his popularity across all classes – as did his notorious failure to provide relief and expedite reconstruction in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Though the economy expanded, inequality deepened and poverty remained widespread, with much of the new wealth syphoned off by an emerging layer of billionaires. It was for this reason that, in 2016, many of the middle class finally turned their back on the establishment and embraced Rodrigo Duterte, the foul-mouthed, tough-talking right-populist candidate who mocked the moribund politics of the ‘yellow’ liberals.

This abandonment of the centre was not total. A significant section of the bourgeoisie still voted for the establishment’s vice presidential candidate, Leni Robredo, giving her a narrow edge over Marcos Jr. However, while in office Duterte consolidated his popular support by condemning the ‘oligarchy’ (his preferred term) and cracking down on elite families that had fallen out of favour, while pursuing the same free-market programme promoted by the centre. He ridiculed liberal shibboleths like ‘human rights’ or ‘checks and balances’, waging a brutal war on drugs that left around 30,000 mostly poor people dead, as well as jailing an opposition senator, helping to oust a chief justice, punishing his media critics and escalating the military offensive against communist rebels. However, perhaps in recognition of continuing support for certain democratic institutions among the middle and lower classes, he refrained from abolishing congress and declaring martial law.

As the 2022 elections approached, two rebranding projects kicked into gear. The Marcoses accelerated their disinformation drive, while the liberals inched to the left: displaying an openness to moderate pro-worker reforms, yet still rejecting calls for a higher national minimum wage, wealth taxes and decriminalised abortion. They again selected Robredo – a middle-class public-interest lawyer with centre-left sympathies – to be their presidential candidate, and swapped their trademark yellow campaign colour for pink.  

At the same time, a split emerged in the left. Breaking with both the more dominant national-democratic and social-democratic blocs, which endorsed Robredo in the belief that a unity candidate was needed, a smaller coalition of activists presented the first openly socialist presidential ticket in Philippine history, headed by veteran labour leader Leody De Guzman and activist-academic Walden Bello. Convinced that the only way to appeal to lower-class Marcos supporters was to speak to their immediate material concerns, they championed the social policies that Robredo had dismissed. Their manifesto openly called for socialism – something previously unsayable in the public sphere.

Ultimately, though, both the liberals’ reputation-laundering and the socialists’ attempt to ‘stage a presence’ proved insufficient in the face of a well-orchestrated, decades-in-the-making shift to the right. Despite sparking some electrifying debates – which generated widespread curiosity about socialism – the De Guzman-Bello campaign failed to gain much traction beyond its core constituency. The absence of resources and supportive local officials constrained voter reach in an already uneven playing field. In the early days of the campaign they were largely ignored by corporate media, then later they were smeared as ‘communist terrorists’. Many expressed support for their programme, yet viewed their organizational weakness as a liability.

The contrast with Robredo was stark. Unlike De Guzman, she gained the support of certain anti-Marcos political dynasties and received significant amounts of campaign contributions from big donors. But she nonetheless failed to narrow the huge gap between her and the frontrunner. Her ‘inclusive politics’ and good-governance agenda – which failed to distinguish her from the traditional ‘yellows’ – proved incapable of regaining the trust of disenchanted voters. Though she performed well in some of the country’s poorest provinces, she won mostly elite enclaves, upper-middle-class districts and other upwardly mobile middle-class areas which constitute the liberals’ base.

Ultimately, it was Bongbong who secured the decisive votes targeted by both the centre and the left: slums, working-class urban districts, and many of the downwardly mobile petit-bourgeois neighbourhoods across the Philippines. His high-tech propaganda blitz certainly helped to seduce such voters, but Bongbong’s success was mostly based on the recognition that rose-tinted accounts of the post-dictatorship years rang hollow. Political patronage networks likewise worked in Marcos Jr.’s favour; but local leaders would not have risked their own positions had they not sensed that the ground was already shifting beneath their feet and that Bongbong was on course for a landslide.

In the final analysis, what enabled Bongbong to win the presidency was not simply the machinations of his powerful family, but a strong current of resentment – directed at the liberals, unharnessed by the left – that the Marcoses could not have conjured on their own. Inside their trove of lies was a simple message which many believed to be true: that life did not improve after the People Power Revolution. Bongbong’s self-portrayal as a victim of the liberal establishment was effective precisely because many ordinary people see themselves in a similar light. The candidate fostered a strange kinship between himself and the masses, animated by the promise that they would collectively rise again – that a ‘beautiful morning’ awaited them after a long period of darkness, as one of their campaign anthems put it. Insisting on the need for ‘unity’, Bongbong largely refrained from spelling out his policy direction and merely presented different iterations of a single vow: that he would follow Duterte by keeping the yellows out of power. In a society where antipathy to oligarchic liberalism runs so wide and deep, this was enough to carry him to victory.

What the president-elect will do next remains to be seen. His promise to continue Duterte’s project suggests that he will further dismantle the country’s liberal-democratic institutions and implement draconian measures to displace the centre and crush the left – though without abolishing popular suffrage or parliamentarism. He is also likely to further liberalize and deregulate the economy while doling out perks to investors and cronies. The burden of taxation will be further shifted onto the poor, though they will be compensated with minimally increased social provisions (a roadmap followed by Duterte and the Aquinos before him). Bongbong has also announced that he will be re-appointing Aquino III’s secretary for economic development and planning – a former World Bank economist and dyed-in-the-wool free-marketeer – to the same post in his cabinet.

Yet, confronted with a vast and still restive working-class majority, a mercurial middle class and an increasingly assertive upstart section of the oligarchy – all struggling for a larger share of a small pie in a turbulent world economy – Marcos Jr. may be emboldened to exceed the ambitions of both his father and Duterte. Capitalizing on the unprecedented support he has amassed, and taking advantage of the inertia of the opposition, he may finally accomplish what the Philippine right have long been clamouring for: overhauling the post-Marcos constitution to remove restrictions on foreign ownership of infrastructure and environmental resources, limits to executive power and other progressive provisions.

Marcos Jr.’s ability to consolidate authoritarian neoliberalism is by no means assured. Much depends on the outcome of struggles that will ensue within the centre and the left following their defeat. Will progressive liberals reclaim their party from the conservative forces who have largely dominated the political establishment for the past three decades? If so, will they pivot away from neoliberalism towards a more redistributive model? Will the left continue to tail the liberals, or will they come together and build their own autonomous power base? Just as Marcos Jr.’s victory was enabled by forces beyond the Philippine right, the fortunes of his political project will likewise be determined by the choices of his opponents.

Joshua Makalintal contributed to this article.

Read on: Benedict Anderson, ‘Cacique Democracy and the Philippines’, NLR I/169.


Two Populisms

Two governing parties of the nationalist right faced parliamentary elections in April 2022: Victor Orbán’s Fidesz and Janez Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). But the results could hardly have been more different. Fidesz won 54% of the votes, five percentage points more than in 2018, while Hungary’s main opposition alliance – consisting of several liberal parties plus the right-wing Jobbik – garnered only 35%. By contrast, in neighbouring Slovenia, the SDS received a meagre 24% and was voted out of office, while the liberal Freedom Movement (GS) – a newly established outfit led by the former energy mogul Robert Golob – gained the largest vote share, with 35%. International media outlets lamented Orbán’s victory and celebrated Janša’s defeat, the latter supposedly proving that right-populism could yet be beaten by a reconsolidated political centre. 

In mainstream commentary, the SDS is often seen as a younger sibling of Fidesz. Both aim to build a right-wing party-state by gaining control over the press, education system and judiciary. Both use public money to develop vast clientelist networks. Yet, in spite of these common features, the SDS’s socio-economic policies have been closer to those of the liberal centre than to Fidesz’s nationalist programme. Moreover, the trajectories of Hungarian and Slovenian development since the early 1990s have diverged, with far-reaching implications for each country’s political landscape. The prospects for an incoming GS government can therefore be profitably assessed by differentiating the Slovenian experience from that of its eastern neighbour. How do the two compare?


A major selling-point for Fidesz, in multiple election campaigns over the last decade, has been its rejection of the unfettered embrace of foreign capital that had hitherto been pursued by the Hungarian ruling classes. By the mid-2000s, the coalition government led by the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) was thoroughly discredited. The then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted that he had persistently lied about the country’s economic situation and abandoned the social pledges on which he was elected. From 2006 his administration ramped up its austerity measures and sent its popularity ratings into freefall – trends that were further compounded by the global financial crisis. This allowed Fidesz to launch an effective electoral challenge in 2010, promising to fix the economic situation and replace the ideology of ‘international liberalism’ which it argued had constrained Hungary’s national potential. The party received 53% of the vote, giving it a two-thirds parliamentary majority that allowed it to redraft the constitution and entrench itself within the state apparatus.

In the wake of the 2008 crisis, Fidesz saw an opportunity to enhance the role of domestic capital. During its first period in government (1998-2002), the party had not challenged the primacy of foreign investment; yet throughout the 2000s, this imbalance generated increasing dissatisfaction among the homegrown capitalist class. At the same time, Gyurcsány’s austerity reforms, first drafted in 2006 and then radicalized with the IMF programme of 2008, immiserated large swathes of the working population. Sections of the middle class incurred massive foreign exchange debts. As the forint depreciated, they found themselves in a serious predicament, which foreign lenders did nothing to resolve.

Once in power, Fidesz set out to improve conditions for the middle class, which in turn became its primary electoral base. With its heterodox monetary policies and partial confrontation with overseas banks, the party brought relief to Hungary’s embattled debtors. Under Orbán, the national bank pursued proactive monetary policies that favoured the growth of domestic small and medium enterprises, while the government used public tenders, licensing arrangements, taxation and credit policies to favour domestic capitalists in areas such as banking, media, retail trade and utilities. These measures were crucial to building what the Hungarian sociologist Erzsébet Szalai calls a ‘client bourgeoisie’, loyal to the ruling party.  

Of course, Fidesz’s break with neoliberalism was far from total. In export manufacturing, the Hungarian economy continued to rely on foreign capital, providing multinationals with financial incentives and reduced corporate tax rates. Orbán combined generous family benefits for the middle classes with harsh neoliberal workfare schemes. He used public works projects to forge clientelist links with the poorest sections of the population, while simultaneously passing reforms that targeted labour rights and union organizing.

The overall result of Fidesz’s programme was a macroeconomic situation characterized by greater stability than during the first two decades of capitalist transformation. The party successfully decreased the country’s external financial dependency and the vulnerability that flows from it. This was the record on which it ran in 2022, putting ‘bread and butter’ issues like a 20% minimum wage rise, price controls and monthly pensions at the core of its election campaign. The liberal opposition was deeply uncomfortable with such topics. Its economic policies were a throwback to the 1990s and early 2000s – reviving free-market dogmas which had long been delegitimized. It consistently attacked the government’s authoritarianism but neglected the most basic social issues, and thereby failed to reach voters beyond its traditional base.


Slovenia’s course in recent decades makes for a stark contrast. In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, the country’s ruling classes defended policies of selective economic nationalism. They tried to protect the hegemony of domestic capital in banking while opening the economy to foreign capital in export manufacturing. Trade unions were strong and combative enough to influence policymaking through tripartite institutions. This was a model that began to break down once Slovenia entered the EU in 2004 and Eurozone in 2007, before unravelling completely with the financial crash.

Under pressure from financial markets and the constraints of Eurozone membership, successive Slovenian governments – led by both the liberal parties and the SDS – adopted the European agenda wholesale, rolling out austerity, liberalization and privatization. When the SDS, which had led a coalition from 2004 to 2008 just before the financial crisis, returned to power in 2012, it did not question the accelerating denationalization of the economy. Its coalition even drafted the initial plans to sell off indebted banks and state enterprises, which were later implemented with some minor changes by the liberals. Pressure from the EU played an important role in this realignment. In 2013, the European Commission and European Central Bank directly intervened in the restructuring of the Slovenian banking sector, applying the same bitter medicine it had dispensed to other countries under Troika rule (Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Cyprus). As a result, the government was obliged to recapitalize banks at a much higher price than initially calculated, and began to privatize them under the Commission’s supervision. This regressive macroeconomic restructuring severed the close links between the banking sector and domestic capital, while empowering its foreign counterpart. Fidesz’s economic-nationalist agenda was thus entirely foreign to the SDS.

In both countries, the bloc of liberal parties that spearheaded integration into the EU and Eurozone all but collapsed after the outbreak of the global financial crisis. Between 2009 and 2013, Slovenia witnessed mass demonstrations against the corruption of the political establishment, as well as rising labour militancy that rejected the suffocating structures of the traditional trade unions. But unlike in Hungary, this created a power vacuum that was filled by two distinct forces. On the one hand, the period of intense social struggles enabled the formation of a left party (initially called the United Left), which became a strident opponent of the neoliberal settlement and ultimately won nine seats in parliament. On the other hand, there was a proliferation of hastily established, highly personalized parties trading off the expertise of their leaders: the Alliance of Alenka Bratušek, the Party of Miro Cerar, the List of Marjan Šarec, and so on.

These new formations rapidly gained voters’ confidence and lost it just as quickly. Having cobbled together a rickety coalition government in 2013, they continued implementing neoliberal policies with an anti-democratic bent: the constitutionalization of fiscal limits set by the EU, plus the restriction of public referenda on issues related to the budget, international treaties or national security. As their popularity dipped, these technocratic parties made several abortive attempts to shore up a coalition. Their governments were highly unstable. Meanwhile the SDS stood by, ready to capitalize on their inevitable collapse. In contrast to the new parties – which promised to transcend the left-right division – the SDS stressed its hardline anti-communist stance and blamed the problems of the Slovenian economy on the ‘deep state’. It also harnessed social media to mobilize its base, inciting constant hysteria about Soros and refugees among a vocal section of the population.

The last SDS government, which returned to power in 2020, was the first since 2008 that stayed in office until the official end of its term. But whereas Fidesz could consolidate its ruling position, the SDS had been unable to develop an equivalent to Orbán’s client bourgeoisie. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the party managed to form a coalition when two smaller outfits agreed to join it – changing sides in a desperate attempt to prevent early elections in which they would have lost their seats. Yet, having benefited from these parliamentary contingencies, Janša failed to translate them into a lasting majority. Instead, his anti-Covid strategy was botched and haphazard. Charting a chaotic path between public health measures and economic stimulus, he alienated both trade unions and business organizations. Small pay rises, announced ahead of the elections, were insufficient to buy back public confidence. The SDS subsequently tried to borrow from Fidesz’s repressive playbook, using the pandemic as a pretext to extend its influence over the media, police and civil society. Yet in a country with a relatively solid anti-fascist tradition and a politicized layer of liberal civil society actors, that influence could only go so far. When the election campaign got underway in 2022, the opposition set the agenda: highlighting the authoritarian, xenophobic and nationalist aspects of SDS rule. Golob presented himself as a liberal-green, managerial alternative to the hard-right Janša, and was duly rewarded at the ballot box.


Golob’s platform is neoliberalism with an ostensible social consciousness. It foregrounds the climate crisis, problems in the health sector and precaritized jobs. Yet his proposed solutions are uninspiring, consisting mostly of tax cuts, market-friendly green policies and a greater role for private capital in the pension system. In Slovenia, GS is sometimes seen as the heir to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDS) – the dominant centrist force during the transition period, which ruled from 1992 to 2004. LDS managed to accommodate the interests of both export capital and organized labour while forming broad coalitions with other parties. Its export-oriented policy was supported by fine-tuned regulations and a close nexus between state-owned banks and domestic capital. Yet, with EU accession, the institutional basis for this setup was eroded. Eighteen years later, the circumstances have changed significantly. There is no longer a strong domestic capitalist class nor robust trade unions; monetary policy is straitjacketed by the EU; and the extent to which GS can revive its predecessor’s programme remains uncertain.

What is clear is that the last elections significantly narrowed, if not temporarily closed, the possibilities for an alternative to the neoliberal project. In 2014, the United Left entered parliament with almost 6% of the vote. Four years later, that share rose to more than 9%. In the recent national ballot, however, the newly renamed Left barely exceeded the parliamentary threshold of 4%. Since the apex of its popularity, the party has increasingly focused on parliamentary manoeuvring, which has taken precedence over grassroots organizing and local branch activities. Its MPs have dissociated themselves from their initial campaign programme and edged closer to the liberal opposition, ultimately joining a formal anti-SDS alliance known as the Constitutional Arch Coalition. As a consequence, the Left has transformed into an outpost of the urban, educated middle classes: picking up votes from disenchanted former supporters of the liberal parties, while shedding the support of left-wing activists and social movements. Instead of advancing alternatives to SDS policies, it has often defaulted to a mechanical defence of the welfare state.

In sum, since the 2000s Slovenia moved from a selective nationalism with socially attenuating neo-corporatist features to the unbridled dominance of foreign capital. Hungary, meanwhile, opened itself to foreign capital during the transition period, then switched to the selective introduction of national-conservative reforms after the financial crisis. Fidesz’s partial break with neoliberalism has allowed it to cement its political position, while neoliberal continuity in Slovenia accounts for the relative unpopularity of the SDS. If either country is to move beyond its current polarization – between right-wing nationalism and liberal constitutionalism – a revitalized parliamentary left will be required.

Currently, though, socialist and environmentalist forces in the Hungarian opposition bloc are marginal. This is partly because the legislature as a whole has become even more politically heterogeneous since the April elections. The far-right Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland Movement) made it into parliament, which means that the liberal opposition (plus Jobbik) must share the opposition benches with a party that is in many ways ideologically close to Fidesz. This enlarges the government’s political options while putting the opposition under even more pressure to act in a unified manner, so as to avoid sidelining themselves under the present electoral system. That presents an extremely difficult situation for progressive forces, which will struggle to distinguish themselves from the rest of the Hungarian opposition. In Slovenia, by contrast, the Left has already acquired a distinct national profile, yet it has also diluted its platform through coalition-building with the liberals. As of 24 May, the party signed the coalition agreement for a GS-led government: winning real, but limited policy pledges in areas like health, wages and housing, but otherwise acceding to Golob’s neoliberal-oriented programme. Such concessions are only likely to exacerbate the Left’s detachment from its former working-class constituents, who will need a radically different political vehicle to challenge the status quo.  

Read on: Joachim Becker, ‘Europe’s Other Periphery’, NLR 99.


Joining the West

A famous quote from Desmond Tutu – ‘if you are neutral in situations of injustice then you are choosing the side of the oppressor’ – has been widely used and abused since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In numerous fora, it has been deployed to harangue countries into abandoning their neutrality and lining up behind NATO. Never mind that the oppressor to which Tutu referred was apartheid South Africa, a regime actively supported by the Atlantic military alliance. In both Russia and the West, the current moment is characterized by a constantly replenished amnesia.

Earlier this week, Finland and Sweden opted to repeal their longstanding neutrality policies. Both countries submitted applications to join NATO, in a move that was rightly described as historic. Finland has been neutral since it was defeated by the Soviet Union during World War II – signing a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the Soviets in 1948. Sweden, meanwhile, fought numerous wars with Russia between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries but managed to stay out of any further conflict after 1814. Joining NATO discards a centuries-old tradition that has come to define the country’s national identity.

Press coverage of the push for NATO membership has been euphoric. While Sweden has witnessed a limited but still lively debate, in Finland there has been little space for public dissent. Earlier this week, the cover of Finland’s most-read newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, featured an illustration of two blue-and-white figures (the colours of the Finnish flag) rowing a Viking longship towards an illuminated horizon where the four-pointed NATO star is seen rising like the sun. The wooden ship is depicted leaving behind a dark, hulking structure decorated with a red star. The symbolism couldn’t be clearer. Or perhaps it could. Several weeks ago, the online version of Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter featured pop-up animation of the NATO emblem morphing into a peace sign.

In this media environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that support for NATO membership is high: about 60% in Sweden and 75% in Finland. But a closer look at the demographics reveals some cracks in the pro-NATO narrative. For the Atlanticist press, ‘the NATO question’ represents a generational shift, with young people supposedly eager to join against the wishes of their parents, who, we are told, are hopelessly wedded to an outmoded position of Cold War non-alignment. ‘Having been firmly opposed to any NATO move only weeks ago’, wrote former Swedish Prime Minister turned liberal thinktank groupie Carl Bildt, the political class ‘will now face a contest between an older generation and younger ones looking at the world with fresh eyes.’

In reality, though, the opposite is true: the demographic most opposed to NATO membership in Sweden is young men, aged 18-29. And little wonder. They are the segment of the population that would be called upon to join any future military excursion. Contrary to the assumption that Russian aggression has shocked Swedes into unanimous support for the alliance, opposition appears to be on the rise. On 23 March, 44% of young people surveyed were for NATO and 21% against. Last week, 43% of them were for NATO and 32% against: a double-digit leap. Support for membership rises with each age bracket, with the elderly most staunchly in favour. The latest polls from Finland tell a similar story. Polling by Helsingin Sanomat describes the typical NATO supporter as educated, middle-aged or older, male, working in a management-level position, earning at least €85,000 a year and politically on the right, while the typical NATO-sceptic is under the age of 30, a worker or a student, earning less than €20,000 a year and politically on the left.

Some of the most ardent supporters of NATO membership can be found among Sweden and Finland’s business leaders. Last month, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö hosted a ‘secret NATO meeting’ in Helsinki. Among those in attendance were Swedish Minister of Finance Mikael Damberg, top-ranking military officials and powerful figures in the Swedish and Finnish business communities. Chief among them was the billionaire Swedish industrialist Jacob Wallenberg, whose family holdings add up to one third of the Stockholm Stock Exchange. Wallenberg has been NATO’s most enthusiastic cheerleader among Swedish executives. He is a regular participant in the Bilderberg Meeting, an elite group dedicated to spreading the gospel of Atlanticism and free markets. In the weeks leading up to Sweden’s decision to apply for NATO membership, the Financial Times predicted that the Wallenberg dynasty’s stance on Swedish accession would ‘weigh heavily’ on the ruling Social Democrats, over whom he is thought to hold considerable sway.

At the Helsinki summit, Swedish government officials were warned that their country would become less attractive for foreign capital if it remained ‘the only state in Northern Europe outside of NATO’. This, along with significant cajoling from Finland, was one of the decisive factors that led Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist to change tack and swing behind the alliance. Sweden’s Expressen reported that the meeting suggested the business community holds far greater power over foreign policy decisions than previously thought. It’s not hard to see why business are so invested. Swedish defense industry giant Saab is expecting major profits from NATO membership. The company, whose majority shareholder is the Wallenberg family, has seen its share price nearly double since the Russian invasion. Chief Executive Micael Johansson has said that Sweden’s NATO membership will open new possibilities for Saab in the areas of missile defense and surveillance. The company is expecting dramatic gains as European countries raise their defense spending, and first quarter reports reveal that operating profits have already risen 10% over last year, to $32 million.

The considerable influence of business leaders on the NATO question contrasts with that of the general public. Though Sweden has held referenda on every major decision in recent history – EU membership, the adoption of the euro – it will not consult its citizens on NATO. The most prominent politician to call for a vote is Left Party leader Nooshi Dadgostar, but her requests have been flatly rejected. The government, fearing that NATO membership could be voted down once wartime hysteria wears off, has instead taken a ‘shock doctrine’ approach, ramming the policy through while Ukraine is still in the headlines and the public is afraid. They have also said that a referendum would require extensive organization and could not be held for some months. This means the issue of NATO membership would feature in the September election campaign: a scenario the Social Democrats are determined to avoid.

In Finland, however, there is little mainstream opposition to NATO. The issue has been tinged by nationalist sentiment, and opponents of membership are accused of not caring about their country’s security. Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of membership this week, with 188 for and only eight against. Of those eight, one was from the right-populist Finns Party, another was a former member of the same outfit, and the remaining six were from the Left Alliance. The other ten Left Alliance MPs, though, voted in favour. One of the party’s representatives went so far as to propose new legislation that would criminalize attempts to influence public opinion on behalf of a foreign power: a precedent that could in theory leave NATO-critics exposed to prosecution.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has slowed some of this break-neck momentum. Calling Finland and Sweden ‘incubators’ for Kurdish terror, the Turkish president has vowed to block the two Nordic countries’ accession to NATO until they meet his demands. (The alliance requires unanimous approval from all member states for a new country to join). Erdoğan has blasted Finland and Sweden over their refusal to extradite 33 members of the PKK and Gülenist movement, blaming the latter for a bloody coup attempt in 2016. He has also demanded that Sweden lift an arms embargo that it imposed in response to Turkey’s incursions in Syria in 2019.

Kurdish issues have recently had an outsize presence in Swedish politics. When the Social Democrats lost their parliamentary majority last year, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson was forced to negotiate directly with a Kurdish MP and ex-peshmerga fighter named Amineh Kakabaveh, whose vote would decide the fortunes of the government. In exchange for keeping it afloat, Kakabaveh demanded that Sweden lend its support to the YPG in Syria, and the Social Democrats acceded. Now, as of this week, Kakabaveh has chided Andersson for ‘giving in’ to Erdoğan and threatened to withdraw her support for the government. The Social Democrats may have avoided making the autumn elections an unofficial referendum on NATO membership, but their government remains extremely weak, and will face intense scrutiny in the months ahead. Many fear that it will strike a private deal with Erdoğan to sacrifice Kurdish activists and Turkish dissidents if he agrees to wave through its NATO bid. Meanwhile, Croatia’s increasingly audacious president, Zoran Milanović, has erected another, smaller obstacle: promising to block Sweden and Finland’s membership unless Bosnia and Herzegovina’s election law is changed so that Bosnian Croats are better represented.

The media, both foreign and domestic, have frequently described Finland and Sweden’s accession as ‘joining the West’ – picking a side in the Huntington-esque civilizational struggle. This rhetoric is nothing new. Shortly before Montenegro joined the alliance in 2017, the country’s long-reigning premier Milo Đukanović said that the division was not ‘for NATO or against NATO’, it was ‘civilizational and cultural’. Yet it is especially odd, and revealing, to encounter this same auto-orientalism in Scandinavia. One right-wing commentator recently wrote that by joining NATO, Sweden was at last becoming a ‘normal Western country’. He then paused to consider whether the government would soon abolish the Systembolaget, or state liquor monopoly. Here we get a sense of what ‘joining the West’ really means: binding oneself to a US-led power bloc and simultaneously doing away with any nominally socialist institutions – a process that has already been underway for decades.

The abandonment of principled neutrality as a moral option follows the changing meaning of internationalism, especially for the left in the Nordic countries. During the Cold War, the Swedish Social Democrats expressed the principle of international solidarity through their support for national liberation movements in the so-called Global South. No figure better embodied this spirit than Olof Palme, who posed for photos smoking cigars with Fidel Castro and famously excoriated the US aerial bombardment of Hanoi and Haiphong, comparing it to ‘Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville [and] Treblinka’. During the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, however, such ‘active internationalism’ was reconceptualized as ‘responsibility to protect’ certain non-Western victims of aggression. By the same logic, states are now expected to band together in an ‘alliance of democracies’ to confront tyranny and terrorism – through regime change where necessary.

But the decision to join NATO does not just rely on a hollowed-out discourse of solidarity; it is also presented as a vital act of self-interest – a defensive response to the ‘Russian threat’. In Sweden’s case, we are asked to believe that the country is currently facing greater security risks than during both World Wars, and that the only way to address them is to enter a beefed-up military alliance. Although Russia is supposedly struggling to make headway against a much weaker opponent in Ukraine – unable to hold the capital, hemorrhaging troops and supplies – we are told that it poses an imminent threat to Stockholm and Helsinki. Amid such confected panic, genuine threats to the Nordic way of life have gone ignored: the withering away of the welfare state, the privatization and marketization of education, rising inequality and the weakening of the universal healthcare system. While rushing to align with ‘the West’, the Swedish and Finnish governments have shown considerably less urgency in tackling these social crises.

Read on: Göran Therborn, ‘Twilight of Swedish Social Democracy’, NLR 113.


Sculpting History

Images one after the other, combining clips from films and newsreels of the 1950s and 60s, including some we remember from the cinema, and then, in the next frame, an unknown shot of a woman wearing an apron sitting in her kitchen talking about her daily routine, or of children perched on the edge of a sandpit recounting their dreams from the night before. Here we are in a typical sequence from Retour à Reims (fragments), the fourth feature by Jean-Gabriel Périot, which employs the filmmaker’s signature method to survey its subject – in this case, the experiences of women and the working class in post-war France. Périot works by assembling a vast array of visual documents that he has collected, like a curator arranging a new hanging in a gallery to offer a fresh perspective on an artist’s oeuvre.

Since Périot’s early shorts of the 2000s, made when he worked in the multimedia department of the Pompidou, he has honed a distinctive approach that dispenses with many of the familiar attributes of the documentary form. Much of his work begins in the archives and ends in the editing studio. Périot spends years – seven in this case – researching and gathering material on a chosen subject without, he says, an end in mind, only questions that need answers, before intricately weaving them together. The results so far have been impressive, producing an original, eclectic oeuvre that includes his Une jeunesse allemande (2015), an important study of the far left in 1970s Germany and their relationship with the mass media. At the heart of his growing body of work is montage, which Périot compares in its procedures to that of sculpture, where one must

bring out a shape from a block of material while respecting certain details (the veins in the marble, internal movements in wood). You first roughen the material, try to understand it and feel the shape it hides, then you gradually get closer to this shape until you reach the details before polishing the whole thing. Montage is both a very technical job and a very sensitive and very sensory one.

In his latest film, however, Périot departs from his rulebook in one respect, by including a voiceover. To an extent this feature imposed itself as a necessity, given the film is an adaptation of the sociologist Didier Eribon’s memoir Retour à Reims (2009). In the book, Eribon examines his working-class upbringing in the titular city. Desperate to escape an environment that was made worse by his being gay, Eribon’s exit route was that of the classic transfuge de classe, going to university, getting an academic position and becoming a published author. Though born two decades after Eribon, the 48-year-old Périot says the book deeply resonated with his own experiences. But as its title suggests, Périot’s adaptation is far from faithful. Rather, he has selected fragments from the text, stripped it down to two essential themes while leaving out several others, notably that of homosexuality. It would have been too close to home, Périot has said about this omission. He did not want to make the film a personal reflection on his own life, both out of discretion and a fear of narrowing its focus.

The voiceover may be the biggest concession to the film’s source material, but in fact it works to distance us from Périot or Eribon, for it is read by a woman, and this voice most viewers in France will recognize as belonging to Adèle Haenel. As a result, her shadow is cast over the images we see, conjuring not only our knowledge of her fine work on screen with directors including the Dardenne brothers, Robert Campillo, Céline Sciamma, and the duo Gustave Kervern and Benoît Delépine, but also of the controversy she has courted in the last few years. Haenel played a key role in igniting the #MeToo movement in France through her public accusation against the director Christophe Ruggia. This was followed by her walk-out from the 2020 Césars ceremony when it was announced that Roman Polanski had been awarded best director, despite his outstanding charges for child sexual abuse. ‘C’est la honte’, she could be heard saying as she left the auditorium, in an act that inspired an article in Libération by Virginie Despentes that is now one of the movement’s founding texts: ‘On se lève et on se barre’. Most recently, Haenel has announced stepping back from acting to concentrate on her political activity, which has swung radically to the left.

Retour à Reims (fragments) is structured in three parts, though the first two make up most of the film’s one hour and 23 minutes running time, with the third a short epilogue in the form of an arresting fast-forward to contemporary France. Périot begins with Eribon’s grandmother, who was one of the tondues, the women who were paraded in the streets and had their heads shaved in an act of public humiliation for collaboration with the Vichy regime. In footage of these spectacles, we can make out the expressions of the accused, with their mixture of fear and contempt. It is a chilling starting point, not least because it is uncertain how many tondues really did collaborate, and how many were thrown in the same lot for shunning conventions of the time. This section then develops into a more general exploration of women’s lives across the period, knitting together testimony from housewives and young women with scenes from fiction films. The cumulative effect is touching and sad – this is ultimately a tale of limitation and unfulfilled dreams, of women whose lives could have been so much fuller had they been freed from their domestic roles. Among the few recognizable faces is Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, appearing in her kitchen, of course, chopping vegetables – seemingly more aware than most of the other women who appear in the film of the extent her life has not been fully lived. 

In the second part, Périot draws back further to explore the constricted experience of the working class as a whole. This analysis of domination was a key part of Eribon’s book, along with the shift he charts in his own family from leftists to National Front voters. Périot also includes the latter in his fragments. Alongside shots from factories and of workers describing their conditions, we witness the arrival of immigrants from newly independent Algeria and acts of racism. In one film clip, a young white woman enters a bar with a dark-skinned companion; not long after they order coffee an old wino at the end of the counter unleashes a bitter, racist tirade. Politicians also appear on several occasions and Périot pays particular attention to the 1981 election of François Mitterrand. We are left in no doubt that for all the jubilation this provoked on the left, and the nostalgia with which it is recalled by many in France today, Mitterrand was the president who did most to shift the Socialist Party to the right. In one particularly arresting sequence, we see Mitterrand on the day of his inauguration approaching us solemnly by foot along the Champs-Élysées, while behind him clashes take place between crowds and police. It is a nightmarish backdrop. Mitterrand is framed by violence, walking away as if oblivious to the disorder he has created.

The final section represents an unexpected finale. The quality of the images suddenly shifts from grainy and static to high definition, vividly colourful and dynamic. The footage here is not archival, but that of Périot and a few other filmmakers, shot during recent protests across France. After the sobriety of the first two sections, it makes for an invigorating jolt. We see the gilets jaunes protests and are reminded of the shocking police violence that took place in response, as well as other movements that have come out on the streets – environmentalists, feminists, the Nuit Debout protests. With this arrangement, set to rousing instrumental music, Périot makes what appears to be a distinct break from his source material, suggesting that the shift from left to right that Eribon chronicled may have been reversed. Given the stylistic austerity that he has previously adopted, it is surprising that Périot has taken this turn. And perhaps it is disappointing to see him use the powers of montage for a different end: to present an uplifting vision of France rather than depicting the one that currently exists. After all, while the epilogue forges a collective opposition through montage, the disparate protests that have erupted across the country remain just that, at least for now. But there is also something appealing about Périot’s note of optimism – it offers a snapshot of one possible future, as we embark on another five years with Emmanuel Macron as president.

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


Wisdom Accumulates

On 26 June 1930, the oldest parliament in the world, the Icelandic Alþingi, celebrated its thousand-year anniversary with all the pomp and circumstance that the country was able to muster. The festivities culminated in a performance of the ‘Iceland Cantata’ – whose verses the nation’s most celebrated poets had competed to write – in the presence of King and Queen. Those gathered may not have noticed a twenty-eight-year-old man in the audience rolling his eyes and grumbling in frustration. Halldór Laxness, recently returned from North America, and before that an extended stay in a Catholic monastery in Luxembourg, was so dismayed by the libretto’s bloviating rhetoric that he was prompted to respond with his own poem, ‘The alþingi Cantata. To be sung after 1930’. Where in this encomium, he asked, are the farmers? Where are the dairies, the shipwrights, the fisherman? Against the mythical glories of an ancient nation, Laxness invoked the ‘penniless people, which for a thousand years has chewed its bread, weeping the pauper’s tears of hunger, bleeding, torn and tormented by the black art of the exploiter’.

This counter-cantata would comprise the final entry in Poems (1930), Laxness’ first publication after coming back to Iceland. Laxness had changed – returning to his homeland with a new set of principles, a new poetic vision and renewed faith in himself as a prophet. It was a pattern that would repeat itself in his quest to drag Iceland and its literature into the age of modernity.


It is common to say of great writers that they spent their juvenile years in search of a voice. But Laxness possessed his at a young age, like a rough diamond. His debut, Child of Nature (1919), published when he was only seventeen, tells the story of a real estate agent, Randver, who returns to Iceland after three decades in Canada to fall in love and start a farm. The tragic romance eventually finds Randver in a drunken stupor, unable to recall the language of his homeland and so forced to babble in English. Though critics labelled the novel ‘childish’, it was animated by themes that occupied Laxness well into adulthood: the false comforts of nostalgia, the bathos of homecoming, the hard silence of nature.

What Laxness needed to find was not so much a voice as a form. His problem was that he had an overabundance of voice or voices, but no overarching narrative or structure in which to place them. In his search, he was led to reinvent himself again and again, the first time when he chose a nom de plume for the publication of Child of Nature. Born as Halldór Guðjónsson and raised on the Laxnes farm in Mosfellsbær, he chose to shed his patronymic in favour of one that would root him to the land. This act of moulting a past identity would become a ritual – a means of purifying his contact with the essence of the nation. ‘Henceforth my past is reduced to ashes and my future is the song of the northern hemisphere’, he writes in Poems.

As his biographers have observed, Laxness’s life can be told in terms of these moultings – as a sequence of identifications with higher order abstractions and different systems of belief. He made of his own existence a kind of epic, an odyssey through the chaotic world of twentieth century ideas. Throughout, Iceland remained his Ithaca, the homeland to which he promised to return in body and in spirit, always with the aim of liberating it from the hordes of unworthy poet-suitors. As the critic Brad Leithauser has written, ‘Laxness’s ambition was to become a major, truly modern Nordic writer – a legitimate heir to Ibsen and Hamsun and Strindberg – rooted in a Viking culture’. The dialectic of modern and medieval, the fisherman and the Viking, is one constant that underlies Laxness’s many metamorphoses. His third novel, The Great Weaver from Kashmir (1927), is indicative. Often described as the first truly modernist Icelandic novel, the quasi-Surrealist Great Weaver is structured in close accordance with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Joyce, its author wanted to forge the epic within the infinitesimal.

To accomplish this, Laxness had to maintain two contradictory ideas: that Iceland was central, and that it was remote. He needed to assert both the centrality of the peripheral and the peripherality of the central. Iceland boasted one of the oldest continuous literary cultures in Europe. As Laxness put it in his Nobel lecture upon being awarded the prize in 1955: ‘It is a great good fortune for an author to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition’. The Sagas endowed Iceland with a claim to be at the heart of European culture. Yet the island has always been geographically and politically marginal – a waystation for ships, a Danish colony, a base for American NATO troops (which Laxness would vehemently oppose). In Laxness’s view, however, it was from such outlying regions that one could gain an objective view of the world. They are places ‘where wisdom accumulates’, as Susan Sontag writes in her introduction to the English translation of Under the Glacier (1968). The glacier community of that novel lives, seemingly, outside the bounds of history and Christian values, in a pagan dream-world marginal even within Iceland. And yet: ‘No one in these parts doubts that the glacier is the centre of the universe’.


What displeased Laxness most in the summer of 1930 was the state of Iceland’s class-consciousness. In all the nation’s literature, as he saw it, none had grappled with the material realities of life there: the poverty, the abjection, the oppression. His years in the United States and Canada had provoked a transformation as dramatic as any he would experience in his life. What began as an opportunity to be tokenized in exchange for a warm American welcome – giving lectures on Iceland around the country, writing screenplays for Hollywood on Scandinavian subjects – had evolved into a political awakening. One could credit Upton Sinclair (Laxness did, anyway), who introduced him to the communist circles of Hollywood and New York’s literary scene. When Laxness found himself detained and stripped of his passport for a comment made in a newspaper article about Americans being kept in a state of idiocy, it was Sinclair who organised efforts to secure his return to Iceland. Leaving behind his fervent Catholicism, Laxness now embarked on a decades-long embrace of Marxism. In the words of the critic Nicholas Shakespeare, he fixed his ‘childish faith on the Soviet Union’, where he travelled twice; for Sontag he became ‘obtusely philo-Soviet’. Awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, he would begin a slow retreat from the USSR after 1956. But Laxness’s political commitments were never as straightforward as such accounts would have it. In his own time, it was the left who needled him the most. His first socialist novel, for example, Salka Valka (1931-32), was not what many had expected – far too ironic for the serious matter of proletarian revolution.

Originally published as two distinct novels – O Thou Pure Vine (1931) and The Bird on the Shore (1932) – and only later unified, in 1951, into a single book, Salka Valka landed on readers’ bookshelves in much the same manner as any hefty, social realist novel: with a dull thud. To those not on the left, the book seemed anything but ironic, perceived, rather, to be as doctrinaire as anything Zhdanov himself could have conjured. The genre of social realism, unlike its naturalist precursor, never enjoyed a period of uncontested supremacy in European literature, in part because of its reputation for inflexibility. Almost as soon as it took shape, writers from various quarters criticised it on account of its intellectual rigidity and stilted grasp of human emotion. As Alain Robbe-Grillet emblematically put it in the 1950s, the ‘total artistic indigence’ of social realist works is to be expected: ‘the very notion of a work created for the expression of a social, political, economic, or moral content constitutes a lie’.

Yet Salka Valka eludes the indictments of both Robbe-Grillet and its socialist critics. Upon close inspection, clichés are uttered only to be upended by the novel’s dialogical qualities. Laxness forged a synthesis of art and politics by such reversals. With its acerbic wit and idiosyncratic yet deep-seated socialist sympathies, it is neither the book which early left critics lambasted, nor that which was scoffed at by readers of more liberal stripe. To contemporary readers who, thanks to translator Phillip Roughton, can now read a new English translation of Salka Valka, Laxness’s achievement will be plain.


The novel’s two parts are less a continuous narrative than two sides of the same coin. The first volume, which takes place between 1910 and 1914, recounts in epic terms the tribulations of a mother-daughter pair stranded in a remote and backwards fishing town. Sigurlina Jónsdóttir and her daughter, Salvör Valgerður, whom she affectionately calls Salka Valka, land in the village Óseyri destitute and homeless. The Salvation Army and the local fishing business, helmed by the monopolist Jóhann Bogesen, are the twin pillars of the town, and Sigurlina is forced to navigate their influence to find room – literally, a shelter – for herself and her daughter. This volume is in many ways not about Salka, but Sigurlina. Or: it is about Salka witnessing the abject collapse of her mother’s spirit. Sigurlina is wooed by a man named Steinþór Steinsson, a local fisherman, a brute – the living image of the rugged land itself. But in truth, he desires Salka. After an attempted rape, Steinþór’s subsequent flight from town, his penitent return, his ultimate abandonment of Sigurlina at the altar and the death of Sigurlina’s son as an infant, Salka watches her mother wither away in body and soul. One Easter Sunday, she drowns herself.

At the start of the second volume, a decade has passed. In her struggle to find herself, and to avoid ending up like her mother, Salka actively resists the patriarchal world (she is mocked for wearing trousers) and develops an affinity with the oppressed. Thanks in large part to her childhood friend, Arnaldur, who studied in Reykjavik and returned a staunch socialist, Salka takes up the cause of the local fishworkers, helping them to organise a strike against Bogesen. But Salka and Arnaldur, bound into a love affair by their utopian impulses, are wrenched apart by the unforgiving reality of Óseyri’s shores. The strike is broken, Arnaldur leaves, and Salka is left alone with ‘the birds of winter’.

What we have, then, is a novel that begins as an epic only to morph into a social-realist Bildungsroman. But that is not to say that O Thou Pure Vine and The Bird on the Shore are two incongruous wholes. On the contrary, the uniqueness of the project is precisely the way in which its formal transformation is concurrent with the gradual coming-to-consciousness of its world and characters.

If O Thou Pure Vine is an epic, its cosmology is a Christian one adapted to Icelandic climes. The narrator, presuming to know as much about God’s intentions as Salka’s, routinely invokes the divine origins of the weather (‘There never seemed to be good weather in this village, because the Creator was always experimenting with His sky’). The characters themselves, meanwhile, appear as if composed out of the landscape itself, so consubstantial are they with the world they inhabit. ‘I am the waves that break on this beach, I am the wind that plays about these peaks’, says Steinþór. Even though Salka is presented as Steinþór’s moral counterpart, the novel’s monist ontology sees her drawn from the same materials: ‘in her strong, primal facial features dwelt all the merits of the salinity that is and always will be in seawater as long as it breaks against the shore’.

The hinge that binds the two halves together is Sigurlina’s death – or more precisely, the discovery of her drowned body. For Salka, this is the final straw in several senses. Her mother lived her Óseyri years prostrate, in near complete submission to the abuses of Steinþór and the pieties of the Army. As she grows older, Salka questions the rectitude of this way of life, challenging Sigurlina about her desire to have another child with Steinþór. Her mother can only respond that God ‘created me with a woman’s nature, and I cannot oppose it’. With Sigurlina’s death, Salka resolves never to acquiesce to her so-called ‘woman’s nature’ and thus never to trust in God. She would rather put her faith in what she can see, touch, taste. ‘I suppose there’s no other God but fish’, she says near the beginning of volume two, a materialist turn matched by that of the wider narrative, which evolves as the plight of the fishworkers intensifies.

The sighting of Sigurlina’s corpse is also what closes off the epic worldview. This is depicted in miniature by way of jarring juxtaposition. Sigurlina is found clutching ‘a pair of boy’s shoes’, the narrator tells us. They belonged to her dead son, and ‘she had taken them with her into eternity’ in case she found him there, shoeless. What confronts the reader is the incommensurability of the two facts: the shoes are both here, in this world, and they are in ‘eternity’. The epic voice that can speak of empyrean ascension is undercut by the realist one that will not. Reality has gained a new function; it is no longer in collusion with divine will.


Like Laxness himself, Salka Valka switches from one thought-world to another as a means of gaining perspective. The old system of values is revealed as comprising so many pieties, as when the church Dean informs Salka that her mother’s favourite hymn is a fanciful invention of the Army and nowhere to be found in scripture (no system of belief, in fact, comes under as much scrutiny across Laxness’s novels as Christianity). But a man who moves from identification to identification also earns a sort of meta-identificatory perspective. Even from within the Marxist world view to which he then adhered – in later life, he would discard this in his move towards Taosim – Laxness uses his fiction to locate points of weakness. In this way, Laxness is hardly serious when he allows Arnaldur to tell Salka, who wants to help the motherless children of a recently-deceased friend, that lending a hand to individuals is ‘nothing but bourgeois sentimentality and hypocrisy’, and that ­– quoting Sinclair – ‘it’s like throwing a few drops of water into Hell’. After all, Arnaldur only says this after uttering perhaps the crassest sentence in the novel, in response to Salka’s resolve to help the children: ‘I would have let them kick the bucket’.

Even when Laxness believed in revolution, he was unwilling to forget that to be a ‘man of the people’, as he enjoined his audience at the Swedish Academy to be, is still to be a man – that is, an individual. Salka belongs to the ‘humble of the earth’ but she is also, like Laxness, unwilling to dissolve herself into them. For in her sovereign ego lies the capacities to doubt, to point, to laugh. And if nothing else, Laxness’s prose sings right through with laughter. ‘He has an irony rarely found in Nordic letters’, commended Le Monde upon his death in 1998. Perhaps this accounts for his incongruous reception in the Anglophone world, where such subtleties are often lost in translation. But parody is key to his temperament, allowing him both to adhere and not adhere at one and the same time – to be both Arnaldur and Salka. We might, then, ultimately view his changeable affiliations less as a quest for truth than as a bid to find the next kick. ‘I must be getting old,’ he said in the midst of his socialist years. ‘It isn’t as much fun shocking the bourgeoisie anymore.’

Read on: Sille Sigurgeirsdóttir and Robert Wade, ‘Lessons From Iceland’, NLR 65.


Bad Habits

For nearly half a century, acclaimed Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has specialised in giving audiences a bit of what they fancy in the guise of a critique of their fancies. In his most successful ventures – Starship Troopers (1997), RoboCop (1987)the underlying gag allows for some insight into the nature of the institution, ideology or phenomena at hand: under American imperialism, military victory means endless war; in the destitute inner cities of Reaganism, the best cop is a dead cop. The resulting films are gore-splattered festivals of silliness; the major award achievements of his works to date have all been in the fields of special effects rather than script or direction. When Verhoeven has turned from violence to his other major theme, sex, as in Basic Instinct (1992) or Showgirls (1995), he has pioneered a pantomime representation of female sexuality. Only Elle (2016), his penultimate film, heralded as a return from his ironic Hollywood period to a European auteur style, avoided the tone of a clownish striptease, thanks to a magisterial performance by Isabelle Huppert and the strength of its source material, Philippe Dijan’s novel Oh (2012).

In Benedetta, a loose adaptation of historian Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts (1986) – an account of the life and times of Benedetta Carlini, a seventeenth-century nun and reputed mystic in the Tuscan town of Pescia, tried for her sexual relationship with the younger Bartolomea – he turns his focus to the early-modern Catholic Church. Kind of. Benedetta is also Verhoeven’s first film to feature a lesbian sexual relationship at its heart, rather than as ballast for cheap thrills and even cheaper character development. Except Benedetta is not really a film about either of these things, as uninterested in female desire as it is in the transcendent psychology of the mystic or the conniving intrigues of the Medici courts. Rather, it’s an excuse for some bedbound writhing, some CGI snakes, and a lipsmacking papal nuncio, all stitched so baggily together that the sum of the whole is less fun than its parts.

Faith, in particular, is a source of silliness in the film. The potential for the failure of religious conviction it depicts to act as an engine of drama is overlooked in favour of low-level convent intrigue, and so one is left wondering why anyone bothers with vespers, never mind lauds. No one seems to believe with any fervour, except a few unnamed nuns and the wretched and filthy poor who stumble about farting into torches in the town square, genuflecting to closed convent doors, picking up and putting down baskets of chickens. Inside the convent walls, Reformation-creep has set in. The Abbess (a wearied Charlotte Rampling, whose resolute theatrical posture acts as a mast for the drooping sails of the action) admits to having consecrated herself to Jesus out of ennui. When her daughter attempts to denounce Benedetta (Virginie Efira) for feigning her visions and signs of God’s grace, the Abbess confides that religious life is all a ruse anyway – the prosperity of the town and its church functionaries take precedence over truth. This is no revelation to her or to the audience: as we discover in the opening act of the film, eighteen years earlier, after a falling statue of the Virgin failed to crush Benedetta, the Abbess remarked that ‘miracles sprout like mushrooms, and usually they’re more trouble than they’re worth’.

Benedetta’s visions are obviously the product of zealous narcissism and boredom, and no one is fooled or even particularly interested in attempting to be fooled by her stigmata, for which entirely modern explanations are offered: she has fallen into a trance and self-harmed, which is possibly an obscure expression of God’s will but, who cares. This ambiguity could well have been a source of tension for the film – the emergence of a new mystic was always a threat to the Church. Like the human vessels of RoboCops, saints have to die before they can be useful to authority. But Benedetta is sent to the stake for sodomy, not heresy. When two characters expire with the word ‘lies’ on their lips both are merely making observations, not accusations.

In interviews, Verhoeven confessed to having rarely considered nuns before reading Brown’s book. Perhaps as a result, he exhibits a flippant view of the convent, seeing it as window dressing for the violation of taboos, rather than a social and spiritual system of its own. The film’s secular portrayal of religious life corresponds to his unlikely but devoted participation in the Jesus Seminar, a now-dormant working group of iconoclastic New Testament scholars and interested parties (Verhoeven’s academic background lies in mathematics) committed to determining the historical basis of Jesus’s life and teachings through anthropology, ancient history and exegesis (he published a book on the subject, Jesus of Nazareth, in 2010). But where the subjects of his other films – Vegas, insect alien invasions, dysfunctional murder detectives – can withstand an infusion of irony, the same cannot be said of holy orders. Catholicism is perceived by Verhoeven as a melodrama, full of knowing participants along for the ride. In Benedetta, this manufactured unseriousness leads Verhoeven to overlook a truism: one cannot out-camp the Catholic Church.  

Such a view needn’t necessarily condemn the film – the rich canon of cinematic nuns is hardly known for its historical fidelity. But despite effortful performances from Efira and Daphne Patakia in the two lead roles, there’s little delight outside the few moments of slapstick. Disappointingly for Verhoeven, whose penchant for excess has generally produced visual feasts, there’s not much to look at either. The film’s palette flips back and forth from a muddy orange candlelight to a blanched stone, and much of the dialogue is shot in a blockish profile across the central third of the screen. In her book, Brown goes into some detail regarding the painterly aesthetics of Benedetta’s visions, which produced a closed-circuit justification: Catherine of Siena, the historical Benedetta claimed, looked just like she did in the pictures, which meant the visions must have been genuine. For any filmmaker a vision sequence that takes its cues from the art of Renaissance Italy ought to be a source of endless invention and play, the uncanny landscapes of what Yves Bonnefoy called the arrière-pays (isolated clusters of Tuscan towns dotting the hillsides behind portraits of merchants or Nazarene scenes) a fertile setting for wild imaginings in which a sheltered nun might encounter her immortal husband in Christ. Instead Verhoeven gives us a soft-rock Jesus herding lambs in a soft-focus landscape that wouldn’t look amiss on the backwall of a ropey British trattoria. These scenes are played for their ridiculousness, but the few laughs they generate don’t justify the missed opportunity to develop a less bland aesthetic; instead, they just allow us to see Benedetta’s rape and saviour fantasies played out with codpieces and habit-ripping galore.

If religion is merely a form of sanctified daftness, one lacking any power over the protagonists except in the provision of bureaucratic offices in which to pass their days until the next plague, then something else must take its place as the film’s animating concern. In the second half of Benedetta, the plot moves from visions to assignations. Here Patakia as Benedetta’s novice lover manages to create moments of light and sweet naivety, enjoying the privacy afforded by Benedetta’s promotion to Abbess without suspecting surveillance and betrayal (whereas for Verhoeven straight sex always inclines towards performance, lesbian sex is possible only in titillating secrecy, glimpsed through closing doors and peepholes). Verhoeven doesn’t reward her for it though, and instead films her character’s subsequent torture scene with the same waist-up angles as he filmed Benedetta’s ecstasy; if it’s meant as a comment it’s a strangely cruel one, undermining earlier moments of tenderness between the protagonists by drawing parallels with a gruesome set-piece of sexual suffering. Verhoeven’s major deviation from the historical record is to repurpose a Virgin Mary statue into a sex toy, which in interviews he claims was to justify Benedetta’s death sentence (for centuries canon law prevaricated on the sinfulness of lesbianism, but generally agreed that the use of instruments qualified as an impotent form of sodomy and was thereby punishable in the same manner). For a film which has shown so little interest in the reality of its historical material it feels like a tawdry excuse. But then so does Benedetta.

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Church Militant’, NLR 128.


Gary’s Inferno

There is only one thing you need to know about American democracy: it does not exist. Using data collected on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002 – well before Citizens United v. FEC made corruption first amendment protected speech – a 2014 study by two professors of political science at Princeton concluded that ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy’. This finding has significant downstream consequences on all aspects of American life, not least because it is largely unacknowledged, even as its effects, to varying degrees of injuriousness and fatality, are felt by 99% of the population.

The sovereignty of the ‘average American’ is outbid by economic elites as a matter of course, not excluding those supposedly divisive issues (e.g., abortion, gun control, single-payer healthcare) on which there is in fact bipartisan consensus in the electorate, but that does not mean he has become depoliticized as a result. On the contrary, he is more politically engaged than ever before – only his political activities consist in impotently watching cable news, posting about it on social media, arguing with family and friends during the holidays, decking out his lawn and bookshelf with totemic merch and PayPaling donations to whatever politician or cause has most recently shoved its cup into his diminished span of attention. Yes, he sometimes goes to rallies, protests, city council meetings, or even the ballot box, but these activities, whatever he may believe, have become ends in themselves. ‘Politics is downstream from culture’, one of the more astute ghouls recently uncorked in America liked to say, and it is true that the country’s myriad cultural pathologies give its politics their particularly rancid flavour. But the real takeaway from the Princeton study is that, in the daily experience of the average American, politics is culture, culture is politics, and – with one class of exceptions – never the twain shall meet.

Best known for his tenure as the sharp-tongued, hard-to-impress art critic at the Village Voice during the last gasp of the counterculture, Gary Indiana’s insight into this state of affairs is that insofar as the US has become a ‘televised democracy’, it may, like any other aesthetic phenomenon, be reviewed. Now 72, Indiana – born Gary Hoisington in the ‘factory world’ of Derry, New Hampshire in 1950 – has enjoyed an accelerating renaissance since the 2015 publication of I Can Give You Anything But Love. The utterly unsentimental ‘anti-memoir’ touches on his time in Berkeley in the late 60s, the LA punk scene of the 70s, and the downtown art world of the late 80s hollowed out by financialization and decimated by AIDS and the ‘depraved indifference’ of the Reagan and Bush administrations. Semiotext(e) and Seven Stories Press reprints of his collected Voice columns (1985-1988), his early novels Horse Crazy (1989) and Gone Tomorrow (1993), as well as his true crime trilogy Resentment (1997), Three Month Fever (1999) and Depraved Indifference (2002), have followed and been greeted with increasing interest. American readers born in the 80s, in particular, have been drawn not just to his nuclear-grade pithiness, his brazenly queer and bohemian narrative persona and his marriage of the techniques of American New Journalism and French avant-garde fiction, but also to the refreshing absence, rare among members of his generation, of nostalgia and apologetics in his accounts of the political events that have formed the pre-history of their lives.

Fire Season, an eclectic new selection of thirty-nine essays from 1984 to 2021, spans my own, give or take a few months on either end. It makes a compelling case that the window on American democracy closed sometime before I became a teenager: between Bill Clinton’s surprising second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary on 18 February 1992 and the opening of the assisted suicide trial of Dr. Jack Kevorkian on 20 April 1994. In that period, Indiana filed five pieces for the Voice – ‘Northern Exposures’, ‘Disneyland Burns’, ‘Town of the Living Dead’, ‘LA Plays Itself’ and ‘Tough Love and Carbon Monoxide in Detroit’ – that deserve to be regarded as classics of cultural reportage and travel writing. When paired with the more recent art, film and book reviews collected in Fire Season, they connect, as Christian Lorentzen writes in his introduction, ‘the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in ways readers and critics are only beginning to apprehend’.  

In ‘Northern Exposures’, Indiana returns to towns of the Granite State where he grew up to sit in reconverted porn movie houses and rooms that look like furniture showcases and Anglophile prep school auditoria alongside the ‘blue rinse jobs with ropes of synthetic pearls’, ‘Alan Alda types’ or else the ‘dewlapped, earnest preppies’ who have shown up to hear the mercenary, delusional or deranged pitches of half-a-dozen Presidential hopefuls (five Democratic, one Republican). Throughout Fire Season, Indiana shows himself to be landscapist worthy of Bosch and a portraitist worthy of Francis Bacon: he paints with a rich palette of displeasures whose pigments range from the scatological to the refined. What makes the candidates and the people who will vote for them symbiotic is not only that they are grotesque, hideous, odious, scabrous, tacky – to use some of Indiana’s favourite epithets – nor simply – with the exception of Pat ‘Caliban’ Buchanan, who is ‘tediously, exactly’ the frightening bigot and sexual hysteric he appears to be – that they are fake. It is that, like pink urinal cakes in a football stadium bathroom, their half-hearted attempts at concealment have only made everything smell worse. Critics are often praised for their visual abilities and Indiana’s eye for the revealing detail is second to none, but the moral sense is in the nostrils, and New Hampshire reeks of something that has ‘crawled up in you and died’.

New Hampshire’s vices are those of the nation: self-pity (they ‘regard themselves as the only true victims of history’), buck-passing (they ‘admit nothing’ and ‘blame everybody’) and provincialism (they refuse ‘to learn from the larger world’). ‘Of course people are “hurting”’, Indiana writes, giving the campaign cliché the scare quotes it deserves – ‘you usually do hurt after shooting yourself in the foot’. But to shoot oneself in the foot is still a form of agency. If only someone would inject the readership of the Union Leader with a journalistic cocktail of rabies vaccine and truth serum, the logic goes, the residents of this ‘backwards but perhaps not entirely hopeless state’ might start to acknowledge the ‘bad choices’ they have made, replace the ‘bad leaders’ they have put into power and actually fix problems that do not fail to repeat themselves, no matter how bitterly they are complained about.

The degree of civic optimism this presupposes, however miniscule, is no longer in evidence when Indiana flies to Paris a few months later to visit the Euro Disney resort in Marne-la-Vallée. An ‘obvious expression of cultural imperialism’, he writes in ‘Disneyland Burning’, Euro Disney is – no less than New Hampshire – a microcosm of the nation that made it, and not just in the literal sense that you can find Carnegie Deli and Big Bob’s Country Western Saloon there, or even in the sense that Mickey, Minnie et al are ‘genuine American archetypes’. A merger of state and corporation policed by a private security force backed up by gendarmes and staffed by ruthlessly exploited labourers, the ‘superficially varied’ architectural styles of the theme park’s six ‘lands’ ‘articulate…a mode in which any escape from cliché has become impossible’ and ‘presume a universe in which human beings no longer have any minds at all’. Indiana estimates that it would take two hours to make a complete tour of the park, but the average visit requires an outlay of three vacation days because you will spend most of your hard-earned leisure time waiting in line for rides and restaurants while being bombarded with advertisements telling you and hundreds of others how great the experience you’re not having is. Like the off-brand version in Branson, Missouri he will later describe in his essay ‘Town of the Living Dead’, what Euro Disney offers visitors is the slow suicide of this ‘alienated duration’, mort à credit. (Later, making mental notes for a piece on the artist Barbara Kruger, he will say, apropos of Walmart: ‘You can get anything you want at Walmart. The fact that you want it means you are already dead.’) Indiana is not the first to compare Disney’s franchises to concentration camps, but what makes them red-white-and-blue is that you have to pay to get in.

On this description, American culture is something more sinister than merely the means by which political power obfuscates its workings; it is the soft adjunct of a killing machine that reaches its telos in the carbon monoxide pumped through a rubber hose and into the mask held over your face by kindly Dr. Kevorkian. Just as Disney promises the ‘time of your life’ only to deliver dead time, Kevorkian’s ‘Kmart kind of suicide for a democratic era’ promises a dignified death, only to ‘surrender the last remaining mystery to faceless consumerism’. These days, the importance of aesthetic concerns is routinely downgraded in favour of more obviously political ones, but in a country where, as he writes in the Kruger essay, ‘democracy = capitalism = demolition of utopia’, matters of taste and tastelessness are far from irrelevant to the question: how should we live?

If it is to be objected that taking Disney and Kevorkian as the alpha and omega of US culture is to cherry pick from the bottom of the barrel, Indiana does not let its putatively higher precincts off the hook either. The American literary world will later be excoriated for its culture of ‘careerism’ and ‘fatuous self-promotion’ in his introduction to the French transgressive novelist Pierre Guyotat’s memoir Coma. Behind the ‘costume of authenticity’ worn by the first-person narrators of today’s ‘bourgeois literary writing’ – whether memoir, food writing or autofiction à l’Américain – ‘lies the mercantile understanding that a manufactured self is another dead object of consumption…a “self” that constructs and sells itself by selecting promotional items from a grotesque menu of prefabricated parts’. To write such a book is to indulge in the provincialism of personal identity; to read one is to be given yet another anesthetizing hit of ‘cultural morphine’. 

Meanwhile, some thirty miles north of the Disney mother ship in Anaheim, the only genuinely democratic event that occurs in a society where there is no means of peacefully translating popular will into public policy took place. Following the acquittal in the state trial of four LAPD officers charged with the use of excessive force in the beating of Rodney King, thousands of people staged a massive six-day insurrection (or if we must, ‘riot’) in South Central Los Angeles and Koreatown, which lead to over 60 deaths, 2,000 injuries, 12,000 arrests, and $1 billion of property damage. Covering the federal trial a year later in ‘LA Plays Itself’, Indiana does not fail to note that the father of Laurence Powell – the officer with the ‘put-upon, porcine expression of a slow-witted high school bully’ who broke King’s leg with his baton – ‘usually sports one of three differently coloured Mickey Mouse ties’. Nor does he fail to observe that although every politician, including Bill Clinton, that could get in front of a TV camera between 29 April and 4 May 1992 described the insurrection as a ‘wake-up call’, the underlying juridical and socio-economic conditions – the analogy Indiana reaches for is apartheid – that lead to it hadn’t ‘changed an iota’ since. What had changed? Gun sales. Police budgets. The ‘heavier application of cosmetics to a festering wound’.

‘The model really appears to be the old patronizing thing, corporations coming down, helping out, chipping in a little bit, rather than long-term stimulus’, LA Weekly reporter Ruben Martinez tells Indiana. ‘Given that the economic outlook is still piss-poor, and that that’s what set people so much on edge, how can you think there’s not going to be another riot eventually, whether it’s after the trial or some other occasion?’ Fast forward three decades, pausing the tape in Ferguson, Baltimore: the cover of Fire Season features a painting by Sam McKinniss, one of the artists reviewed in it, of an NYPD squad car that got torched during the uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, while then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden – who helped author the 1994 legislation that would give the US world history’s largest gulag – was in Philadelphia calling the murder a ‘wake-up call’.

‘Do I honestly “believe” in democracy?’ Indiana asks himself in his Obama-era travelogue ‘Romanian Notes’, channel hopping between coverage of Tahrir Square and James Clapper’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee about PRISM, a surveillance program so extensive it would have made Securitate, Ceaușescu’s secret police, turn green with envy. The trap for a critic of such unrelenting negations is cynicism; however close he edges to despair, Indiana does not fall into it. Cynicism, after all, is just the flip side of the coin of ingenuousness, a sign that one has lost the ability to make distinctions. Although Indiana knows that democracy is ‘irrelevant’ to the people who run the US and a ‘joke to the people who own it’, he also knows that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you. For critique – of an artwork, of a society – to be meaningful it must be undertaken, at least implicitly, in the name of a preferred alternative. When his wallet is stolen by a Bucharest taxi driver in a companion essay, ‘Weiner’s Dong, And Other Products of the Perfected Civilization’, Indiana is surprised and indignant to learn how many details of his personal life the customer service representative at Chase is able to access based on ‘publicly accessible information’. Surprise and indignation are emotions you are capable of feeling only if you believe things ought to be otherwise.

Fire Season is a vision of hell, but just as every Inferno must have its gradations of offense, it ought to have a place in it for virtuous pagans. The book’s heroes are, first of all, the reporters: Alisa Solomon of the Village Voice, Ed Leibowitz and Ruben Martinez of LA Weekly, Masha Gessen, Anna Politkovskaya. What earns them deserved praise is, quite simply, that they tell the truth. Truth is a much-abused concept in our time; what Indiana means by it is less our gamified sense of fact-checking than an ethos of candour: to ask questions others will not, yes; to point out inconsistencies and outright lies, yes; but also to refrain from omitting ‘complicating facts, mitigating causalities’ from one’s account, or to lard it with ‘exaggerations’. It was for her candour about the Second Chechen War that Politkovskaya was shot four times, once in the head, in a contract-style killing whose timing suggests that it doubled as an obscene birthday present for Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, or both. ‘There is no need for the truth anymore’, a Chechen war widow says in a documentary Indiana watches in ‘I Did Not Know Anna Politkovskaya’, a reflection on the art and function of journalism, the profession for which she gave her life. ‘That is why they killed her’. The widow is right in one sense – despite what Politkovskaya uncovered in Grozny two decades ago, Putin and Kadryov are, as I write, savagely burnishing their résumés as war criminals with the blood of Ukrainian civilians. But we also need the truth, and always will, because it is essential to human dignity. Without it, we are already dead.

The book’s other heroes are its artists (Louise Bourgeois, Tracy Emin, Kruger, McKinnis, Andy Warhol), its filmmakers (Robert Bresson, Louis Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Pierre Melville, Barbet Schroder) and its many writers (Renata Adler, Samuel Beckett, Anya von Bremzen, Jean Echenoz, Guyotat, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Mary McCarthy, Paul Scheerbart, Unica Zürn). What by and large unites this somewhat disparate group is a certain sensibility: a fatalism that does not lead to resignation, a stoicism that does not preclude sympathy, an ironism that is tolerant of human folly, a tragicomic sense of life that is born of unperformed familiarity with grief, psychic extremity or violence. It is a sensibility that Indiana, as a reviewer of their work, shares. As with his reportage and his true crime novels, the idiom of his criticism is equally at home in the gutter as it is in the firmament; it is informed by the conviction that these are the zones of lived and aesthetic experience, however painful they may be to occupy, where something of value can be wrested from a cruel and cretinizing late capitalist social order.

It is noteworthy – but should come as no surprise – how few of the names on the above list were born in the US and how little of the work for which they are best known was done during the years 1984-2021. This sensibility may be diametrically opposed to the one laid out in ‘Northern Exposures’, yet in a way it is also a kind of shooting oneself in the foot. Over and over again, Indiana compares the experience of such art to a symbolic mutilation: Guyotat ‘spoils the flavour of bourgeois literary writing’ and ‘exposes [the class system’s] corruption of feeling’; Bresson ‘ruins one’s taste for mediocrity’, like a cigarette put out on the tongue; Kruger’s work is ‘the ruin of certain smug and reassuring representations, the defacement of delusion’, such as the one about living in a democratic society. The function of good art – and by extension criticism practiced as an art – is to render its audience unfit to serve as an extraction site for the cultural killing machine. Fire season, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is every day now. This is what we’ll need if we’re going to survive.

Read on: Alexander Cockburn, ‘Dispatches’, NLR 76.


Radioactive Righteousness

We’re all going to be radioactive and happy. Contaminated and self-righteous. The Geiger counter will tick furiously as democracy triumphs over barbarism. For in Europe, fingers crossed, we’re headed full-steam towards a nuclear showdown. We are advancing towards the abyss with the same joyous thoughtlessness with which the great powers plunged into the First World War, as recounted in Christopher Clark’s fine work The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012). But, unlike then, today’s sleepwalkers are in an induced narcosis.

Transfixed by the horrors perpetrated in Ukraine, we no longer perceive the escalation that’s unfolding before our eyes. I’m not referring just to Russia’s intensifying war effort and the senseless brutality displayed by its armed forces. Nor to the West’s increasingly heavy sanctions against Moscow, or the influx of ever more powerful and sophisticated weaponry from NATO member states to Kyiv. Rather, the most worrying escalation is in the rhetoric of war. In the present conflict the field of propaganda is decisive, perhaps even more so than the battlefield itself.

In recent weeks, all the tropes of ‘war crimes’, ‘genocide’ and ‘atrocities’ have been adopted (before the war began I wrote for Sidecar on the use of atrocities as a political tool). Let’s be clear: atrocities have surely been committed, and more will come. War is atrocious by definition; otherwise it would be more like a sporting event, a jousting tournament. Yet it is uncommon to call the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a genocide or an anatrocity. Atrocities are committed in all wars, but only decried in some. These categories are evoked with the specific aim of excluding any possibility of negotiation. It’s not by chance that poor Macron (snubbed by the US and mocked by Putin after hours of useless tête à tête) had opposed the verbal intensification represented by accusations of ‘genocide’. You can’t negotiate with a war criminal; deals can’t be struck with a mass murderer. If Putin is the new Hitler, the only thing left to do is to raze the new Reich to the ground. There is no room left for reasoning, so no remedy is possible.

No room, indeed. Who remembers the four rounds of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine held between 28 February and 10 March (three in Belarus, one in Turkey)? A deal seemed possible then; now it’s inconceivable. The feeling we all had from the beginning – that the United States wouldn’t be displeased with a Russian invasion, and that they would do very little to avoid it – was increasingly confirmed as the months went by. As early as March, when it became clear that no one wanted to negotiate a peace deal, one of the leading scholars of Stalinism, Stephen Kotkin (not exactly known for his tenderness towards Russia), warned in an interview with the New Yorker:

The problem…is that it’s hard to figure out how to de-escalate, how to get out of the spiral of mutual maximalism. We keep raising the stakes with more and more sanctions and cancellations. There is pressure on our side to ‘do something’ because the Ukrainians are dying every day while we are sitting on the sidelines, militarily, in some ways. (Although, as I said, we’re supplying them with arms, and we’re doing a lot in cyber.) The pressure is on to be maximalist on our side, but, the more you corner them, the more there’s nothing to lose for Putin, the more he can raise the stakes, unfortunately. He has many tools that he hasn’t used that can hurt us. We need a de-escalation from the maximalist spiral, and we need a little bit of luck and good fortune, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Helsinki or Jerusalem, perhaps in Beijing, but certainly in Kyiv.

Since then, two months have passed, and the situation has deteriorated. On 26 April James Heappey, the British Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, told the Ukrainians they should bring the war into Russian territory. Such figures in the Western foreign policy establishment are aware that, contrary to what common sense would dictate, the stalling of Putin’s military advance has actually undermined the hopes for peace. The Kremlin could never expose itself to Russian public opinion and sit down for talks without having achieved any of its war aims, for that would highlight the failure of its offensive. And NATO, for its part, has no interest in de-escalating the conflict. It will not spare Russia from punishment, either for its atrocities in Bucha or its insubordination before the US hegemon.

The war’s trajectory has shown that Russian military power was overrated. Just as Germany has been defined as an economic giant and a political dwarf, Putin’s Russia has, until recently, been seen as an economic dwarf and a military giant. But a dwarf-giant is an oxymoron, and Moscow’s military might is more realistically commensurate with its economic capacities – a GDP larger than Spain’s but inferior to Italy’s. This was made strikingly apparent on 14 April, with the sinking of the guided missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Whatever the truth about its demise, whether it sank because of a fire – implying that the Russian Navy is in such an appalling state that it was unable to put out such a blaze – or due to a Ukrainian missile attack – indicating that Russia lacks the technology to repel an offensive against its most advanced vessel – the calamity demonstrated what the impasses of the ground war already suggested: that Putin’s Russia can also be defined by the sardonic turn of phrase once used by a Financial Times reporter to describe the USSR under Gorbachev, an ‘Upper Volta with rockets’.

More concretely, though, the Moskva’s shoddy anti-missile defences have taught the Pentagon that if this is the condition of Russian electronic systems, the risk posed by its nuclear arsenal is relative. As Andrew Bacevich notes in The Nation,

most embarrassingly for American policy-makers, the failure of Putin’s ‘special operation’ exposes the overall Russian ‘threat’ as essentially fraudulent. Barring a suicidal nuclear attack, Russia poses no danger whatsoever to the United States. (Emphasis added for the slow-witted.). Nor does it pose a meaningful threat to Europe. An army stymied in its efforts to overcome the scratch force cobbled together to defend Ukraine won’t get very far should the Kremlin choose to attack the European members of NATO. The Russian bear has effectively defanged itself.

Bacevich is too hasty in excluding the possibility of a suicidal nuclear attack, but he’s also wrong on another point. It’s true that Russia doesn’t constitute a serious threat to the United States and its defensive arsenal, itself protected by a web of satellites and avant-garde technology. But what about Europe? European cities are truly at risk, both because of their more modest protections and their contiguity with Russia (that is to say, the relative speed with which Russia could hit them). Berlin lies a mere 1,000km from the Russian border. Let’s not forget that the conflict between NATO and Russia has taken place entirely within Europe; it would be the third time in a little over a century that the United States fights a war on the European continent without having to face its consequences at home (in March, erstwhile CIA Director Leon Panetta conceded that the US was already fighting a proxy war in Ukraine).

By now NATO and the US have begun to speak like victors, openly discussing what punishments to inflict on a defeated Moscow. ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine’, says US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. Meanwhile, Francis Fukuyama predicts that ‘Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine’ – one that ‘will make possible a “new birth of freedom”, and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.’ Moreover, writes Fukuyama, the war will be

a good lesson for China. Like Russia, China has built up seemingly high-tech military forces in the past decade, but they have no combat experience. The miserable performance of the Russian air force would likely be replicated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which similarly has no experience managing complex air operations. We may hope that the Chinese leadership will not delude itself as to its own capabilities the way the Russians did when contemplating a future move against Taiwan.

In short, ‘thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians’, the defence of the free world becomes an unexpected occasion to reaffirm US global hegemony and consolidate an empire which a few months prior had been diagnosed with irreversible decline. As Pankaj Mishra writes, ‘Humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at home by Trump, demoralised the exporters of democracy and capitalism. But Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine have now given them an opportunity to make America seem great again.’ (Everyone takes advantage of war to settle personal scores: Boris Johnson, for instance, is using it to cause problems for Germany, exacting a small revenge for the humiliations suffered during the post-Brexit negotiations).

The main problem is that the more Russia finds itself backed into a corner, the more it will be restricted by its military weakness, and the more it will be tempted to compensate with nuclear threats. We know from experience that threats can’t be drawn out indefinitely – sooner or later they must be carried through, even if they are entirely counterproductive (as Putin has seen, at considerable cost, with the decision to start the war itself). ‘Do not press a desperate foe too hard’, Sun Tzu cautioned, some 24 centuries ago.

This is a different escalation to the one Kotkin described, but its effect is the same. As Russia comes unstuck in Ukraine, its enemies are no longer compelled to negotiate; they therefore become more intransigent and change the negotiating terms, leading Russia to intensify its efforts, and so on. The first victim of this cycle is the Ukrainian people. The outcome of stalling negotiations is the shelling of more cities and the death of more civilians. The West will continue to trumpet its values over their corpses (unless it decides to intervene directly and trigger a nuclear war). To paraphrase an old saying: it’s easy to play the hero when someone else’s neck is on the line.

In the meantime, the Russian invasion has already caused irreparable damage. It has shown just how much the environmental question counts for those far-sighted elites that govern society. Any global crisis becomes yet another opportunity to relegate the future of our planet to the lowest rung on the order of priorities. There’s a pandemic, ergo forget about the environment. A war in Ukraine? Let’s start fracking at full blast. They’re already making us swallow the comeback of nuclear energy. More coal plants, more gas from our ‘democratic’ ally al Sisi – anything is better than striking a deal with the perfidious Kremlin.

The second victim of the Russian invasion is the EU, which will emerge in tatters, even if it’s spared the missile strikes. German fantasies of a new Ostpolitik have vanished,French dreams of (relative) military autonomy have been dispelled, and the relations (kept throughout the Cold War) between Rome and the Kremlin have been severed. Above all, any notion of the Union’s political autonomy is now extinguished. Europe in its entirety has realigned itself with NATO, the same organization that Macron termed ‘brain dead’ in 2019. On the contrary, Monsieur le Président: today there are queues outside NATO’s box office.

But there’s more: the Russian invasion, with its aim of ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine, has also given renewed legitimacy to neofascism and authoritarianism across Europe. The right is no longer judged on its dictatorial impulses, but on its relative hostility to or sympathy for Putin. Poland, on trial by the EU for infringing its rule of law, finds itself miraculously elevated to a bulwark of democracy, while Hungary is further ostracized for its tepid anti-Russia stances.  

Putin has performed two miracles. The first has been the creation of Ukraine. If to exist politically a nation must first be imagined as a community, and if this community can only be imagined when the dead become our dead, then the Russian invasion has truly given birth to Ukraine, not just as a geographic entity, not even as a political-diplomatic construct (remember that from the fourteenth century until 1991 Ukraine has always been under foreign control), but as a community, as a feeling of belonging to a people.

The second miracle has been the legitimation of Ukrainian neo-Nazis in the eyes of the world. Of note here, for anyone who might not have read them, are the two fine reports on the European far-right published before the invasion of Ukraine: one in Harper’s, other in Die Zeit, both dealing with Ukrainian neo-Nazis and their leading organization, the Azov Battalion (now a Regiment). When Russian tanks crossed the border, the Azov Battalion became a hotbed of heroes. This transformation verges on the ridiculous – if it wasn’t already tragic. It has been expressed in interviews like the one in La Repubblica, which quotes the commander of the second regiment as saying, ‘I’m no Nazi, I read Kant to my soldiers.’ The commander goes on to cite the well-known conclusion from the Critique of Practical Reason: ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.’ All this is reminiscent of the SS, who were known to have an exquisite taste for German Romantic music.

This goes to show that, in propaganda wars, the law of the excluded middle doesn’t hold. It isn’t the case that if one’s opponent is wrong then their adversary must be right. Lies in war aren’t symmetrical; two enemies are perfectly capable of lying simultaneously. That’s why it’s childish to accuse anyone who questions the Western narrative of the war of philo-Putinism. The fact that Putin is, to borrow Roosevelt’s words, ‘a son of a bitch’, doesn’t mean his enemies are angels. And the opposite is also true; Western political cynicism shouldn’t turn Putin into a saint.

It’s striking that the US always stages the same script, presenting itself as the Empire of Good, sometimes clashing with the Empire of Evil, sometimes with a rogue state or a crazy criminal. For over eighty years we’ve been shown this same Western. In reality, though, human history resembles a Spaghetti Western more than the American variety; a story without heroes and villains, where everyone acts unscrupulously in their own interest, or what they (often wrongly) perceive as such. Let’s just hope that this time round story doesn’t end with Joe Biden riding solo into a sunset blotted out by a billowing mushroom cloud.

P.S. Contrary to most self-respecting commentators, I’d be extremely happy to be contradicted by the facts and admit to committing an enormous error. I’d be happy, most of all, simply to be alive.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Volodymyr Ishchenko, ‘Towards the Abyss’, NLR 133/134.