Memory and Desire

Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film has been widely characterised as an intervention – humane or political or both – an attempt on the part of Spain’s pre-eminent filmmaker to reckon with the legacy of Franco and the Civil War. The reasoning is clear enough. Parallel Mothers partly concerns the efforts of Janis (Penélope Cruz), a photographer based in modern-day Madrid, to exhume the likely burial site of her great-grandfather, a Republican who was arrested one night in July 1936. It’s certainly true that Almodóvar has never been this close to the fact of fascist violence, and rarely so far, at least in recent decades, from his dependable formula of reminiscing artists (Bad Education, Broken Embraces, Pain and Glory) and anguished or misfiring parent-child relationships (Flower of My Secret, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver, The Skin I Live In, Julieta). But Parallel Mothers, as well as exhibiting traces of these elements, is also continuous with Almodóvar’s temperamental pliancy, reflecting as it does orthodox and to some degree official Spanish attitudes.

There’s a striking belatedness to the intervention. What Parallel Mothers offers is not a portrait of the military uprising mounted by Franco in 1936 or the Civil War, the ensuing dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975, the subsequent decades in which knowledge of his crimes were suppressed, or even the historical-memory movement associated with interventions such as Javier Cercas’s novel Soldiers of Salamis (2001). Instead, it portrays that movement’s orchestrated second wave, as represented by PSOE’s 2007 ‘Law of Historical Memory’, which Cercas himself described as ‘embarrassingly evocative’ of the totalitarian recognition that ‘the best way to control the present is to control the past’. It was around this time that Almodóvar suggested that ‘we don’t forget that period’. Two years after the law was passed he announced that ‘a moment arrives when it’s impossible to renounce memory’, and it is telling that his contributions to this effort, as a producer (of the 2018 documentary The Silence of Others) and now writer-director have come at this advanced, officially sanctioned stage of the process and take the form not of uncovering the secrets of the past, but depicting tributes to the long-dead as a prominent feature of contemporary Spanish life.

For a long time, Almodóvar appeared unequivocal in his belief that history was less a nightmare than a nuisance. Born in La Mancha, in 1949, he moved to Madrid in his late teens, and started shooting in 8mm while working for the state-owned Telefónica. His breakthrough films, Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) and Labyrinth of Passion (1982), emerged from la movida, the populist avant-garde cultural movement that developed in the years after the dictatorship, and celebrated the freedoms of which they were a product. Almodóvar’s early work, inspired by farce and noir, comic books and melodrama, might seem to be reclaiming fascist kitsch – nuns, moustached machismo – as liberationist camp, if it weren’t for an apparent fear of social or political comment. Omitting to mention the post-Franco pacto de olvido (Pact of Forgetting) and the related laws of amnistía, twin pillars of the culture of silence that characterised the transición to democracy (1975-1982) and beyond, Almodóvar presented his work’s indifference to the recent past as either tough realism, or the key to progress. In a 1983 interview with the Spanish film magazine Dirigido Por, he argued that ‘these are ghosts which half the country doesn’t share’. In 1988, he said, ‘I don’t want to let even the memory of Francoism exist in my films’, and again, ten years later, talking to the Argentine newspaper La Nación, he insisted that he preferred to act ‘as if in Spain we had always been modern and frivolous… as if Franco had never existed’.

The scholar Joan Ramon Resina has argued that the transición exploited the category of aesthetic to advance its ‘disremembering’ agenda, inducing the Spanish people to introject ‘political rule as a harmonious, imaginative, even critical projection’ of their own ‘creative acquiescence’. Almodóvar appeared all too eager to play along. As the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín once wrote, ‘his civil war had been with his father’ – a repressive Catholic – and the name of Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo (Desire), reflects the character of his horizons. (Compare, say, Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule, the terms of Sherman’s offer to pro-Union black families along the South Carolina and Georgia coast.) When Almodóvar’s films did allude to the Franco era – as, for example, in a 1974 flashback in High Heels (1991) depicting a Catalan doctor going into exile – it was not to explore the legacy of trauma or the residual Francoism of Spanish society, but to provide a source of contrast, a way to signal how far that society had come, modernity and frivolity abounding. If Almodóvar couldn’t quite expunge Franco’s thirty-five-year rule, he could at least promote the view that his influence died along with him.

This was the impression given even by rare moments of direct engagement. Live Flesh (1997) opens during one of Franco’s states of emergency (moved from 1969 to 1970) when Víctor is born to a prostitute mother on a city bus. It ends, more than a quarter of a century later, with Víctor’s partner giving birth in the back of a car against a markedly different backdrop. Paul Julian Smith, in Desire Unlimited, his study of Almodóvar, describes this as a ‘breath-taking’ volte face and a brave confrontation with the country’s history, but it seems instead a way of denying the past, or at least minimising its relevance. In the first scenes, the streets of Madrid are empty, and Víctor’s mother gives birth only because she is too uneducated to realise that her waters had broken. In the mid-1990s, his partner is better informed, but traffic, commercial activity and general urban good cheer slow their course. ‘You’re much luckier than I was’, Víctor says, addressing the nearly born baby. The people of Spain, he concludes, ‘stopped being scared a long time ago’. 

In reality, there remained plenty of cause for apprehension. Live Flesh was produced shortly after Partido Popular led by José María Aznar – a party founded by senior figures of the dictatorship – came to power after thirteen years of socialist rule. Víctor is married to a wealthy Italian and works as a volunteer at her nursery, but for many unemployment (then at twenty percent, high even by Spanish standards) was a problem. ETA, the Basque separatist group, were engaged in an ongoing campaign of violence, including attempts to assassinate Aznar and the King. But Almodóvar’s head-in-the-sand-ism didn’t only apply to the unfolding present, removed as it may have felt from the darkest days of Franco’s rule, but also the transición. In Bad Education (2004), a man blackmails a former priest who abused him at boarding school. ‘This is 1977’, he explains. ‘This society puts my freedom above your hypocrisy’. And so it proves – his scheme pays off. 

Yet for all Almodóvar’s apparent belief in the fresh start, 1975 as something like a Year Zero, he has also displayed a pronounced emphasis on the burden of inheritance. The key to continuing is to unblock the past. Of the seven films that he has made this century, five, including Talk to Her (2002) and The Skin I Live In (2011), hinge on a flashback structure, while another, Volver (2006), has recourse to a long expository speech, a device also used in Broken Embraces (2009), where a character whose past experiences are not encompassed by the flashbacks gives a blow-by-blow account of her role in the action, then adds – almost by way of justifying the contrivance – ‘I think the catharsis did me good’. While there’s a temptation to suggest that Almodóvar was seeking to allegorise repression, the events exerting power over the present have gone unmentioned on account not of a social contract to forget, or a legal injunction to forgive, but for internal narrative reasons – the clandestine or criminal nature of the activities, or their potential explosiveness. A more likely reading is that such structuring devices, hardly rare in drama, are indispensable to the form that this director has increasingly favoured, melodrama.

There is a fairly obvious example of a director who swerved from stories of the private or individual to the national or collective, a particular favourite of Almodóvar himself: Douglas Sirk. Born in Hamburg to Danish parents, Sirk worked in theatre and film in Germany before emigrating in 1937 to the United States. He established himself with a run of so-called women’s pictures starting with All I Desire (1953), and including All that Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956), but then he made Battle Hymn (1957), in which a fighter pilot arranges the evacuation of Korean orphans, and adaptations of Faulkner’s Pylon, about the legacy of the First World War during the Depression (The Tarnished Angels, 1957), and Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), in which a German soldier turns against the Nazis. But Sirk’s films were always geared to public questions, and another filmmaker, though less immediately comparable, offers a closer and more damning – albeit inverse – precedent for Almodóvar’s progress and its relationship with Franco’s legacy.

Like Almodóvar, Alain Resnais, who was born one hundred years ago this month, had a strict Roman Catholic upbringing, was energised by American culture, especially comic books, experimented with 8mm, lived under fascist rule, and belonged to a movement associated with freedom and dissent – the group identified by the critic Richard Roud, writing in Sight and Sound, as the rive gauche branch of the nouvelle vague. The dozen films that Resnais made that coincided with Almodóvar’s career, between 1980 and 2014, among them L’Amour à mort and Smoking / No Smoking, exhibit a similar interest in theatricality and meta-theatrical tropes (a curtain rising on the action, etc), in old friends reuniting and old passions reviving, as well as a tendency to draw on a repertory company (skewing a little more male in Resnais’s case). The creator of Mélo – literally music but with inevitable connotations of melodrama – also shared a taste for Sirk, for surrealism (Cocteau as well as Dali and Buñuel), for Hitchcock and for Dennis Potter, whose influence can be detected in his lip-synced musical On Connait La Chanson (1998) and Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, in which a comatose woman is sexually abused, the notorious subject matter of Brimstone and Treacle (1982).

A chasm however exists between the way they have dealt with history. From the 1950s until the 1970s, Resnais made a series of documentaries and modernist experiments that considered the recent past as a collective phenomenon. The Statues Also Die (1953), his short documentary about African art, was commissioned by Présence Africaine, the Auschwitz record Night and Fog (1956) by the Committee for the History of the Second World War and Réseau du souvenir, which was devoted to the deportations. While his best-known film, Last Year in Marienbad (1961), produced during this period, might be seen as a study of a more conceptualized past along the lines of Almodóvar’s stories, albeit in a different idiom, the follow-up, Muriel, or The Time of the Return (1963), deals directly with the Occupation and Algeria, while titles like Guernica (1950), All the Memory in the World (1956) – a portrait of the Bibliothèque Nationale – and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)his fiction debut, indicate a frontal approach.

During what could be considered the historical-memory phase of Resnais’s work, he collaborated on two occasions with the Madrid-born novelist, memoirist and politician – and NLR contributor – Jorge Semprún, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War who fought in the French resistance and was interned at Buchenwald. La Guerre Est Finie (1965) told the story of a Spanish Communist planning a strike, based partly on Semprún’s experience. Their second collaboration, Stavisky… (1974), concerned the Jewish financier whose embezzling scheme prompted the 1934 riots in Paris, and begins with Trotsky arriving on the Riviera. (In the intervening period, Semprún had written a novel that touched on Trotsky’s exile, The Second Death of Ramon Mercader, winner of the 1969 Prix Femina, as well as the scripts for Costa-Gavras’s political thrillers and The Confession.) 

It was after Stavisky… that Resnais began to shift from what he called ‘virtuous projects, with grand, noble ideas’ towards divertissements. (Last Year in Marienbad, for all its apparent thematic overlap with Hiroshima Mon Amour and Muriel, had been a harbinger of his taste for play). He may have felt he had done his duty, or perhaps he intuited that an epoch was over, or a stage of a project complete. Historical memory was becoming a subject of study, especially in France. ‘Mémoire’ was the subject of work by Pierra Nora (Les Lieux de Mémoire, 1984-1992) and Jacques Le Goff (Histoire et mémoire, 1988), special issues of L’Écrit du tempsRepresentationsPsychanalystes and Communications, and one might add any number of related breakthroughs, from Deleuze’s philosophy of ‘the phantasm’ to his Bergsonian reflections, on Resnais among others, in his second book on cinema

The intention was not to impose an unfamiliar moral or intellectual agenda but to build on progress already made. Historians could look to an existing discursive tradition, particularly the work of the psychologist Maurice Halbwachs, who had theorised ‘collective mémoire’ and ‘les cadres sociaux de la mémoire’ in the 1920s. And the Pétain era had been immediately followed by an épuration légale – which curdled into an épuration sauvage – as well as a wider desire to take stock. The Commission for the History of the Occupation and Liberation of France was founded in October 1944, the Committee for the History of the Second World War the following year. In 1987, Henry Rousso, a member of l’Institut d’histoire du temps présent, published his monumental study, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944, at one point presenting a chart – a ‘temperature curve’ – with only rare spots of ‘calm’ to emphasise the fervency of debate over what he considered a French civil war (‘guerre franco-française’). In Rousso’s account, De Gaulle, eager to promote his ‘certain idea of France’, helped foment the resistance narrative, which Rousso mocks as résistancialisme, but his eclipse at the end of 1960s, coinciding with the cultural energy injected by les événements, gave way to a ‘counter-myth,’ as embodied in Marcel Ophuls’s documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Robert O. Paxton’s book Vichy France (1972), the novelist Patrick Modiano’s Occupation trilogy (1968-72) and Bernard-Henri Lévy’s The French Ideology (1981), in which wartime France was painted as a nation of avid collaborationists and anti-Semites. (Stavisky…, with a Jewish central character, and set in the decade before the Occupation, was to some degree a product of this turn.) But while there was no consensus, few would have argued for the virtues of silence or forgetting.

Clearly a cultural movement or academic discipline based around remembering the past could have no equivalent in the Spain of that time. The Civil War had been followed not just by decades of Francoist rule but a succession plan – specifically a ‘transition,’ not a rupture or break – in which many of the same surnames dominated. Occasionally with the same forenames, too: Manuel Fraga, the politician who can be heard announcing the state of emergency in Live Flesh, was serving as the president of the Galician regional government when the film came out. (So much for Almodóvar’s chalk-and-cheese book-end structure.) Instead of immediate épuration, there had been decades of continuity, then olvido and amnistía. As Peter Burke once argued, history isn’t determined by the victors but forgotten by them. The counterpart in Spanish historiography to Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome was Paloma Aguilar’s tale of expedient forgetting, Memory and Amnesia: The Role of the Spanish Civil War in the Transition to Democracy.

Since then, there has been a revolution in thinking. Yet even in a context where historical memory has become a cultural norm or obligation, Parallel Mothers reasserts Almodóvar’s suspicion of, or distaste for, anything but a personal past. As in Live Flesh, history is confined to the margins. Janis’s investigation takes the form of an encounter with an archaeologist from the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, a couple of updates by telephone, and then, in the final scenes, a visit to a common grave. The rest of the film is dedicated to its engaging melodrama plot, in which Janis inadvertently takes home the baby of a teenage mother, Ana, who is sharing her room on the maternity ward, and then opts not to reveal the mix-up. Historical-memory processes are reduced to an essentially conceptual role, or as ballast for a story about an act of avoidance (also involving DNA swab tests). 

But while Almodóvar builds an analogy – a parallel – between kinds of behaviour or far-flung epochs, he appears uninterested in what might bridge them, not even the potential impact of familial or societal trauma on the character in whose emotional fate we are asked to invest. When Resnais called the Trotsky sections of Stavisky… ‘a subplot, parallel plot’, he was pointing to connections of a more than symbolic kind. Trotsky and Stavisky were not both merely ‘outsiders’, but Russian Jews, treated as ‘métèques’ in 1930s France, with the same policeman (Gagneux, renamed Gardet in the film) working their cases. Almodóvar’s approach instead recalls the critic Serge Daney’s observation, in the newly translated The Cinema Home and the World, that certain so-called political films command moral and ideological assent through appeal to a ‘metaphysical’ theme – e.g., the ‘abstract courage to resist in general’ – which rather than yielding insight about a concrete struggle, encourages ‘a kind of amnesia’.

But while Parallel Mothers realises this generic danger, being concerned with the kind of burdensome past familiar from Almodóvar’s overtly ahistorical work, it also succumbs to the pitfalls of the Spanish predicament as such. The story he has chosen to tell, in which a single victim of falange violence provides the backdrop, reflects a tendency identified by Cercas and others as a kind of resistancialismo. Nor does Almodóvar resist ‘the sentimentalization of memory’ decried by the novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina, any more than he explored the possibility of ideological coercion – as opposed to the exercise of free will or liberationist energy – in his insistence on forgetting all about Franco. Today he argues that engaging with the falange – it’s unclear where this leaves his earlier contrasting stance – is a necessary condition of finishing with it ‘once and for all’, a position also voiced by Janis in the film, a utopian aim even if it weren’t contingent on achieving an impossible task (‘knowing’ 114,000 murders, three and a half decades of social immiseration, two decades of collusive silence). Resnais, by contrast, elected not to use the customary closing title ‘fin’ in Night and Fog.

But then the story of Spanish collective memory since the end of fascism exists in stark contrast to how things unfolded in France, including the matter of reflecting on its own procedures. Rousso, squaring up to the Vichy syndrome, was eager to acknowledge the precariousness of his own position, as a French observer on a French battle, and aspired to something like the meta-historian’s equivalent of counter-transference, his self-consciousness enabling him to evade at least the more extreme existing forms of flawed thinking. But Parallel Mothers and its accompanying rhetoric show that Almodóvar, in so many ways the most distinctive and independent-spirited Spanish director since Buñuel, has been subservient to prevailing attitudes, moving in one more or less prescribed direction and then another, limiting his work to the status of epiphenomena all the while invoking a position of defiance.

Read on: Ronald Fraser, ‘Reconsidering the Spanish Civil War’, NLR I/129


The Bourgeois Bloc

Just a few months ago, the French political situation seemed to be smiling on Emmanuel Macron. Since his election as president in 2017 there had been no shortage of crises: social (the gilets jaunes), health (the Covid pandemic), diplomatic (the war in Ukraine). Most French people also believed that his record was poor (56%); that the country had deteriorated over the last five years (69%); that his programme was dangerous (51%); and that he had predominantly served the interests of the privileged (72%). Yet, in a contest against Marine Le Pen, whom he had crushed five years earlier, Macron’s return to the Élysée seemed the most likely outcome – in fact, all but assured. It was widely predicted that, having vanquished a far right divided between Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, and a left split between the ‘radical’ La France insoumise (LFI) and the more ‘moderate’, more liberal, more Atlanticist Socialist Party (PS) and Greens (EELV), Macron would make short work of his opponents in the subsequent parliamentary elections.

In the end, though, only the first part of this scenario came to pass. President Macron was indeed re-elected and the left excluded – though only just – from the second round of voting. This is no small matter: neither Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 nor François Hollande in 2017 managed to win a second term. But they were not lucky enough to find themselves in a run-off against the far right. Macron’s re-election nonetheless indicated a worrying trend. When the National Front first made it to the second round in 2002, after unexpectedly beating the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, Jean-Marie Le Pen captured only 18% of the electorate. In 2017, Marine Le Pen nearly doubled her father’s score. And this year she won 41% – 2.6 million more than in 2017 – while Macron’s vote fell by 2 million.

Few seemed troubled by this when the results were announced on 24 April. With the incumbent having secured a second term, most commentators assumed that the Rassemblement National (RN) – penalized by the two-round simple majority voting system and refusing any alliance with Zemmour – would win a derisory number of parliamentary seats. The only contest that seemed to matter was between Macron’s coalition, Ensemble, and the one that Jean-Luc Mélenchon had succeeded in forming around LFI, which brought the PS and EELV under its control. Mélenchon had even proclaimed that if his coalition, the Nouvelle unité populaire écologiste et sociale (NUPES), won, he would become Prime Minister, responsible for the country’s economic and social policy. Le Pen, meanwhile, seemed so resigned to defeat that she limited her ambitions to thirty seats out of the total 577. Suffice to say that no one was interested in her campaign, which was largely concentrated on her own district in Pas-de-Calais.

The results of the National Assembly elections therefore came as a shock. Where the RN previously had eight deputies, it will now have 89, making it the third largest parliamentary grouping after Macron’s 245-seat coalition and Mélenchon’s 151-seat opposition. Without any support from French elites, without a serious programme or compelling electoral campaigns, and with little militant activity or grassroots organizing between election cycles, the far right nonetheless continues to advance. Since it appears unimaginable that Le Pen could become President or Prime Minister, backing her carries little risk, and allows voters to express their frustration when the price of petrol rises or violence erupts outside the Stade de France.

The RN already had strongholds in the north and east of the country, where the scars of industrial outsourcing remain raw. But the party is now spreading its web across the entire country, with the exception of Brittany, most big cities (Paris, Lyon, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Rennes) and suburbs with large immigrant populations, such as in Seine-Saint-Denis. In Aude, a former outpost of the left near the Spanish border, the RN now holds all three seats, including that once occupied by Léon Blum, head of the Popular Front government (1936-38). Le Pen has just been re-elected with a large mandate in the Pas-de-Calais, an old fiefdom of the French Communist Party (PCF), one of whose famous deputies was Maurice Thorez, a former miner who led the party for more than thirty years.

This consolidation of the far right reflects both the failure of Macron, now deprived of a parliamentary majority, as well as that of the left, which remains a minority in the country, particularly beyond the big cities and suburbs. Upon entering the Élysée in 2017, Macron claimed that his election would stem the far right’s surge. The Economist ran a cover image of the youthful new President – ‘Europe’s saviour?’ – walking on water. Under his leadership, it was assumed, France would become a happy isle in the tormented West. For a global bourgeoisie terrified by Brexit and Trump, his arrival on the international scene was the sweetest revenge, heralding the retreat of right-wing populism and the return of the liberal centre. And for once, the good news came from France!

But the illusion did not last long. Eighteen months later, the movement of the gilets jaunes exploded. On 15 December 2018, three of its activists read an address to President Macron from the Place de l’Opéra. ‘This movement belongs to no one and everyone’, they declared. ‘It is the expression of a people who for forty years has seen itself dispossessed of anything that enables it to believe in its future and its greatness.’ No political party or trade union had organized the uprisings, whose participants were mostly drawn from isolated areas, far from public services or media attention: a sort of Gallic fly-over known as la France périphérique.

Revolutionary and patriotic, the new sans-culottes had identified their Louis XVI and some dreamed of a similar end for him. In Macron, they saw an arrogant young banker in the pocket of the multinationals which had dismantled their factories and torn apart their communities. It was difficult to imagine a starker contrast between what the gilets jaunes represented, where they came from and what they thought, and the social and political coalition embodied by the President. The scale of repression meted out to the former was stunning (2,500 were wounded, 24 lost an eye, four an arm). Eventually the movement waned, but in rural areas where it had been powerful, Le Pen and the RN capitalized on its discontent more effectively than Mélenchon and NUPES.

Macron’s ‘bourgeois bloc’, as Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini have termed it, is not an invention of the President himself. It is a political configuration born out of the liberal turn of the left, or what passed for it after it broke with the popular sectors and trade unions. Macron represents a distinctively French iteration of the strategy pioneered by Gary Hart in his 1983 presidential campaign against Walter Mondale, and then pursued by Clinton, Blair, Schröder, d’Alema and Obama over the subsequent decades. In France, what facilitated this merger between a moderately reactionary neoliberal right and a ‘modernizing’ left infatuated with free markets and globalization was the question of European integration.

From 1983, the Socialists François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors were the architects of Europe’s single market and capital liberalization laws. In 1992, in a dazzling prefiguration of what became the bourgeois bloc, Mitterrand and Chirac, who had clashed during the presidential election four years earlier, joined forces in the Maastricht Treaty referendum to advocate for a Yes vote. They rallied a novel coalition of right- and left-wing bourgeois behind them: managers, executives, professionals, as well as teachers, artists, intellectuals. On the other side, opposing the Treaty, was a disparate group of popular actors including the PCF, some Gaullists, the far right and Jacobin Socialists such as Jean-Pierre Chevènement. Despite a lopsided media campaign, the Yes campaign won by only a narrow margin, 51% to 49%.

Thirteen years later, roughly the same coalitions re-formed during another referendum on the proposed European Constitution. Hollande and Sarkozy appeared together on the front cover of Paris Match to endorse the Yes campaign. But this time, closer European integration was decisively rejected, 55% to 45%. In the interim, globalization had advanced, and a sizeable section of the insecure petite-bourgeoisie had come to loathe the neoliberal policies associated with the EU. For those who still needed it, Hollande and Sarkozy’s photo shoot was proof that the traditional left–right cleavage concealed a basic convergence. So when Macron, then Economy Minister under Hollande, resigned from the government in 2016 to forge an alliance with the liberal right intended to override these outdated cleavages, most of the work had already been done for him.

Many in Macron’s inner circle were once close to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialist grandee who was appointed Economy Minister under Jospin before becoming the Managing Director of the IMF. As early as 2002, Strauss-Kahn had laid out a plan for the Socialists to retain power without abandoning the neoliberal programme that cut them off from their popular constituency. His recommendation was simple: the party should not only resign itself to doing without working-class voters; it should learn to actively distrust those who previously formed its social base. The PS, he wrote in his book The Flame and the Ashes, must ignore the proletarian strata who ‘do not vote for it, for the simple reason that, most often, they do not vote at all’, and instead pitch itself to a ‘prudent, informed and educated’ layer. Rather than lamenting the embourgeoisement of the Socialists, Strauss-Kahn described this as a political and moral imperative: ‘Regrettably, we cannot always expect serene participation in a parliamentary democracy from the most disadvantaged group. Not that it is uninterested in history, but its irruptions into it sometimes manifest themselves in violence.’ Fifteen years later, the gilets jaunes would demonstrate as much to Macron, who welded the two fractions of the bourgeoisie into one hegemonic force, defined against the ‘deplorables’ protesting in the streets.

At this year’s election, Macron managed retain the support of Hollande’s electorate in the first round of vote in spite of the regressive policies pursued by his administration: abolishing wealth taxes, reducing social protections for workers, dismantling the rights of the unemployed and laying the groundwork for railway privatization. Ever since the Fifth Republic introduced universal suffrage in presidential elections – that is, from 1965 onwards – every second round of the vote has included a candidate from the traditional right or the traditional left (and often one facing off against the other). This precedent has been shattered in the most spectacular fashion. Whereas in 2012 the Socialists and centre-right totted up almost 56% of the vote between them, by 2022 that figure had fallen to 6.5%. The incumbent has become the choice of the liberal right as well as the bourgeois post-left, which has become increasingly accustomed to (and satisfied with) neoliberal reforms.

Macron likes to present himself as the originator of this coalition, even though it long predates his presidency. As he explained two days before the vote, ‘The radical centre project’ rests on ‘re-grouping several political families, from social-democracy to ecology, the centre, and the right that is part-Bonapartist and part-Orleanist and pro-European’. Sociologically, the bourgeois bloc is defined by this strange synthesis. Ensemble is the ‘party of order’, of property owners and business people. It is a coalition of all those who were scared by the gilets jaunes and reassured by its ferocious repression. In affluent areas like Neuilly or Versailles, Macron’s score has doubled in the last five years, allowing him to flatten the candidate of the official right, Valérie Pécresse, who could only distinguish herself by outbidding him on security and xenophobia (thereby helping to legitimize Le Pen, who looked almost moderate by comparison.) Once Pécresse was successfully ‘triangulated’, Macron then turned to the left’s electorate to beat Le Pen. And when this was achieved, he equated Mélenchon with Le Pen – les extrêmes – in order to dissuade his voters from backing NUPES candidates (who might have formed an parliamentary majority) against RN (which had no chance of doing so). With such cynical manoeuvring, Macron has largely discredited the old idea of a ‘Republican front’ against the far right.

Behind Macron’s centrist project, then, is assembled a conservative electorate of well-heeled pensioners and executives, in proportions that increase with age and income. An exceptional participation rate (88% of 60-69 year olds turned out to vote in the presidential election) amplifies its electoral impact, whereas supporters of Mélenchon and Le Pen are less inclined to use the ballot box (only 54% of 25-34 year olds participated in the first round, down from 72% in 2017). For Mélenchon, winning a parliamentary majority was contingent upon mobilizing large numbers of voters under the age of 35. This was not to be. Yet his campaign achieved several of its key objectives. Most impressively, it demolished the sections of the left that had embraced the right’s economic orthodoxies. Given the declining popularity of Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany and the Communists and Left Bloc in Portugal, not to mention the capitulation of Syriza in Greece, this was a significant outcome – a French exception of sorts.

Mélenchon won 21.95% of votes cast on 10 April, against a mere 4.63% for the EELV and 1.74% for the PS. That enabled him to form an electoral alliance on his terms: increasing the minimum wage, expanding the state sector, lowering of the retirement age, environmental planning, rent controls, higher taxes on high-earners and reinstatement of the wealth tax abolished by Macron. Moreover, Mélenchon’s platform involved defying the European treaties insofar as they would impede his policies – a stance imposed by LFI on the reluctant Socialists and Greens. NUPES may not have won a majority, but it allowed the Socialists and Communists to maintain their seat share, the EELV to form a parliamentary group, and LFI to soar from seventeen to 75 deputies.  

LFI triumphed in overseas territories and advanced in larger towns – increasing its popularity among the young, educated middle classes, some of whom voted for Macron in 2017. The party also made a breakthrough in the banlieues. Its new parliamentary intake includes militants such as Rachel Keke, an Ivoirian-born former housekeeper who became famous for leading a successful strike of precarious workers at the Ibis hotel in Batignolles, Paris. But despite these encouraging signs, the left made little progress in terms of votes in the country as a whole. It fared badly in rural areas and in the former mining, automobile and steel communities of the deindustrialized north and east, where the far right expanded its presence.

Of course, this rightward drift is not unique to France. Lorraine and Pas-de-Calais have their equivalents in Germany’s Saxony, America’s Midwestern rustbelt and England’s Red Wall. Across the West, the left is struggling to unify three heteroclite groups that are indispensable to its electoral victory: the educated bourgeoisie, the proletarians of the inner cities, and the popular classes in peripheral areas and the countryside. Often, in the absence of powerful organizations that can forge ties between these groups, distinct political identities are formed, and firmed up, around issues as diverse as immigration, religion, car use or hunting. A ‘wall of values’ has been erected between different sections of this potential progressive coalition which has enabled the rise of the extreme right. A left-wing electoral campaign every five years is not enough to heal such divisions, which are relentlessly exacerbated by the media and online networks. The bourgeois bloc, by contrast, has a clearer sense of its shared interests, and can more effectively contain internal conflicts.

However, even in the absence of a unified opposition, the new composition of the National Assembly may prevent Macron from implementing his reforms – in particular, the one most important to him and to the European Commission: raising the retirement age from 62 to 65. LFI and the RN oppose the measure, as does a majority of the population. And the gilets jaunes have demonstrated that even an authoritarian president can sometimes be forced to retreat in the face of popular anger. Now, with his majority gone and discontent simmering, Macron will struggle to impose his will.

Translated by Gregory Elliott.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The Centre Can Hold’, NLR 105.


Fresh Disasters

Given how things have been going, defeat for the governing Conservatives in two Westminster byelections yesterday wasn’t unexpected. All the same, the results make another Tory push to topple Johnson more likely.

Tiverton and Honiton in rural Devon (Tory majority: 24,000) fell to the Liberal Democrats on a 30% swing, the third such capsizal in little over a year. On paper it was one of the 50 safest Conservative seats in the country, so you can hear the rattle of Conservative nerves. The Telegraph’s Allison Pearson wrote ahead of the poll that were reversals of such magnitude widely seen at a general election (an unlikely contingency), the Tories would face ‘an extinction-level event’. The Party chairman resigned early this morning.

Meanwhile Labour retook Wakefield in Yorkshire (Tory majority: 3,000) on a 13% swing. Wakefield is one of the pro-Brexit historic Labour seats that fell to the Conservatives in 2019. The byelection there pitted a Tory candidate who had recently lost a vote of confidence among local Conservative councillors against a Labour staffer parachuted in by Starmer against the wishes of the constituency party executive, which resigned en masse protesting ‘jackboot diplomacy’.

Despite that hiccup, last night’s results show that opposition parties are nibbling away at the cross-regional Conservative bloc assembled by Cameron, May and Johnson between 2015 and 2019. An anonymous memo circulating among Tory MPs warns that Johnson is ‘no longer an electoral asset’ but rather a drag on their prospects. ‘He will lose Red Wall seats (with majorities under 10,000) to Labour, and Blue Wall seats (majorities up to 20,000) to the Liberal Democrats. At least 160 MPs are at risk’. YouGov polling suggests that if a general election were held tomorrow, Labour would prevail in 85 of 88 Con–Lab marginals across England and Wales. The shift in opinion would not be enough to secure Labour a parliamentary majority, however. Johnson is still seen as a more credible prime minister than Starmer, against whom frustrated Blairites are manoeuvring ahead of conference season.

For their part, the Liberal Democrats used to be good for around 60 out of 650 Commons seats, on a par with the present strength of the Scottish Nationalists. The product of a 1980s merger between the rump Liberal Party and a breakaway from the Labour right, they were all but wiped out by Cameron in 2015, the ideological sameness of his Tory-Liberal coalition leaving voters little reason to back the monkey over the organ grinder. Today, by contrast, a patter of ‘Tory sleaze’ and reassuring absence of any connection to organized labour make them a low-risk centrist alternative for a swathe of middle England.

The byelections were triggered by the resignation in disgrace of the Tory incumbents: a conviction for sexual assault in one case; complaints that an MP had watched porn on his phone in the House of Commons chamber in the other. Johnson’s own popularity began to slide last autumn when he whipped a vote to protect a former Tory minister and staunch Brexiteer, Owen Paterson, from parliamentary sanctions for over-zealous corporate lobbying.  

Writing in the FT, Camilla Cavendish, head of policy under Cameron, criticized the administration’s ‘over-hasty decisions, a cavalier attitude to convention and a deep cynicism which assumes that, with a weak opposition, nothing matters much’. The Conservative right had fallen prey to a ‘peculiar combination of preening and paranoia’, Cavendish complained, pointing a finger at Tory éminence grise Charles Moore, Johnson’s former boss at the Telegraph and one of Paterson’s vocal defenders. Paterson ultimately resigned and the Lib Dems won his rural North Shropshire seat on a 34% swing, as the first press stories surfaced of after-work parties in Downing Street that breached Covid regulations.

Johnson was fined for a lockdown birthday celebration, the first time police have charged a sitting prime minister. His dishonesty is proverbial, but hasn’t yet scaled the heights of Blair’s Dodgy Dossier, with its spurious intelligence claims about Iraqi WMDs. It’s hard to measure changes in the scale of political malfeasance over time. New Labour was embroiled in sleaze from start to finish, from Pugin wallpaper and the Ecclestone Affair to Lobbygate and Loans for Lordships, not to mention Peter Mandelson’s two resignations – there was enough material by the time of Blair’s departure in 2007 for Tory bloggers to fill a substantial book. But New Labour didn’t come to grief until the financial crisis took the wind from its sails, after which Brown flailed around in a parliamentary expenses scandal.

What may ultimately tell for Johnson is not just the scandals themselves, but the government’s disorientation as it responds to a third year of emergency conditions: the pandemic and now surging prices. Inflation is the highest in the G7 and affects a broader range of goods and services than elsewhere in Europe, partly due to Brexit difficulties. Johnson has so far provided less help to cushion the rising cost of living than either Macron (in an election year) or Scholz and Lindner, once accompanying tax rises are factored in. Nevertheless, the latest £15bn package of subsidies grudgingly disbursed by chancellor Rishi Sunak on 26 May was the straw that broke the Tory camel’s back. ‘This can’t go on. It really can’t. Does anyone seriously believe it can?’, asked Allison Pearson, in a Telegraph column underscoring how intensely Tory members and donors felt about the government’s ‘quasi-socialist’ economic policies, its ‘ruinous’ commitment to Net Zero and the ‘punitive’ weight of personal taxation.

The Telegraph is Johnson’s newspaper of choice and the last surviving Fleet Street broadsheet after cost-cutting rivals downsized to tabloid format. A Tory bastion, the general tenor of its Comment section is that distracted ministers have squandered the opportunities of Brexit and allowed a left-wing ‘Blob’ to expand beyond its customary locales in the BBC, the teaching unions and town halls, smothering all initiative in Whitehall. Johnson and Sunak aren’t villains, just weak reeds. Drift is a common complaint; ‘it has to be arrested quickly’, an editorial warns. Lord David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, who resigned from the government because of its ‘coercive’ Covid restrictions and ‘sub-Labour high-tax, high-spend policies’, uses his new Telegraph perch to demand tax cuts, unilateral tariff reduction and a smaller though still selectively interventionist state.   

Sherelle Jacobs, a Telegraph Comment editor, laments how failures of leadership have brought a ‘promising quasi-populism’ to the point of outright failure. Johnson’s ‘unapologetic faith in British exceptionalism rallied the Tory shires; his rebellious optimism resonated with the Red Wall’, she recalls. But the prime minister has squandered his political capital through fiscal profligacy and personal waywardness. To many, the old Etonian ‘has come to epitomise the Establishment’s worst vices – its tendency to nihilism, its disdainful elitism, and its entrapment in behaviour patterns of mediocrity and muddling through’. Left behind by the tech boom despite rhetoric about world-beating British science, the UK economy has been running on fumes since the 1990s. The ineluctable upshot of ruling-class failure to overhaul the country’s institutions amidst intensified international competition will be ‘a new era of epic decline’ as systemic weaknesses come to a head.

Whitehall’s preoccupations are more immediate. The government has tried to shore up its base through the forcible removal of asylum seekers to camps in Kagame’s Rwanda, currently blocked by the courts; legislation to disapply parts of the UK–EU Withdrawal Agreement; and tough talk against striking rail workers and public-sector pay claims. ‘Should one have confidence in a coherent Boris vision of Britain coming to the rescue?’, wonders Charles Moore. ‘I hope so, but I don’t expect it.’ No disasters, only opportunities for fresh disasters, is Johnson’s credo, with which he regaled Telegraph readers after being sacked from the Tory shadow frontbench in 2004 for lying about an affair.  

Backbench rebels need just 32 more MPs to mark their ballot against the prime minister in the next vote of confidence, whenever it comes. Johnson survived the last one on 6 June by 211 to 148 votes, a margin almost as parlous as that Thatcher recorded immediately before her downfall. Moore backs Johnson against his more self-righteous Tory critics, although less heartily than he once defended Thatcher. He has confidence in the prime minister, but not full confidence. None of the potential leadership candidates cuts through with the public, Moore points out. Yet with midterm Conservativism in such a malaise, the party may anyway choose to roll the dice.  

Read on: Perry Anderson,‘Ukania Perpetua?’, NLR 125.


Star Quality

Last autumn in Paris, I spoke with a gallerist who claimed to have been friendly with the incomparable Hervé Guibert during the brief flare of his thirty-six-year lifespan. Naturally, I wanted details, and wheedled her for gossip over one too many espressos. Did Guibert really drive his long-time infatuation, Vincent – the protagonist of Crazy about Vincent (1986) – to a tragic, alcoholic existence, isolating him from all his friends? Didn’t he owe numerous photographers, benefactors, fellow writers and a clutch of hangers-on significant amounts of money, which he never intended to pay back? ‘Peut-être’, the gallerist sighed, swatting away my evidently all too Anglo-Saxon questions, ‘vraiment un beau gosse … he had – you could only understand this if you met him – such star quality.’

The undentable mythology of Guibert – writer, critic, photographer, and leading literary representative of the AIDS crisis in France until his death from the epidemic in 1991 – thrives off rarity and exclusivity. Each member of his infamously tight inner circle in 1980s Paris, including such halcyon figures as Isabelle Adjani, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Sophie Calle – who retells the tale of trying to seduce Guibert by letting him sleep in her bath water in Exquisite Pain (2004) – was bewitched by ‘dear Hervé’, by his prodigal talent and extravagant beauty, seraphic with his taut blonde curls and azure eyes.

Arthur’s Whims, originally published in France in 1983 as Les lubies d’Arthur, and newly translated by Daniel Lupo, captures Guibert’s embryonic literary sensibilities before his name became synonymous with infamy, one-upmanship and the French literary talk-show circuit. The book, shaped into 59 sections (which could barely be described as chapters), represents a phase in Guibert’s writing before his AIDS diagnosis in 1988, which focussed all his subsequent projects on questions of time and mortal bodily illness. It follows the picaresque capers of ‘two madmen’, Arthur and his boyish lover Bichon – allegedly inspired by a pair of wastrels whom Guibert glimpsed sheltering under a hotel awning during a trip to Naples – as they cajole their way into various adventures on land and sea. Guibert’s narrative does not wear its influences lightly – notably, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and Gustave Flaubert’s ‘The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller’ nor its debt to the French conte or legendary tale. The temptation to read it as a rough draft is almost encouraged by its author, who allows sentences to trail off unresolved and prose fragments to fester.

Starting a work was never Guibert’s problem. His productivity, which gave rise to fourteen volumes before his diagnosis and nine thereafter, was unimprovable. Knowing when to finish, how to accept the hard-stop of a deadline or conclusion, was more difficult – this was the challenge that would ultimately define his writing life. Born in 1955 in a sedately bourgeois Parisian suburb, his mother was a schoolteacher and his father a veterinarian, meaning that his childhood (recalled in microscopic, often baldly autobiographical detail in his 1986 novel My Parents) toggled between arid grammar exercises and gristly visits to the local abattoirs, from which Papa Guibert often returned for supper stained with blood. To escape the quicksand of his family, in which he was both the exalted and intensely scrutinized only child, he moved to Paris proper in his late teens, where, aided by his startling good looks, he picked up casual acting and modelling work. In 1978, following a longstanding interest in the eroticism of photography, he successfully applied to become Le Monde’s lead photography critic. Upon appointment, he had already published Propaganda Death (1977), a baroque collection of ephemera and short vignettes. The work is often classified as ‘autofiction’ – of which Guibert was a lodestar long before it became genre du jour – yet the term hardly encapsulates his literary range.

Indeed, Arthur’s Whims is striking in its distance from the self-interrogations of the genre, exchanging the latter’s documentary aesthetic for expansive fables and inventive myths. Its eschewal of Guibert’s usual ‘I’ (aside from a single moment at the end of the book) makes it distinctive within his oeuvre. Prima facie, the novel has little in common with his more renowned works such as To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1991), a scandalous fictionalized account of both Guibert’s and Foucault’s decline from AIDS, or Ghost Image (1981), a tightly constructed meditation on photography à la Sontag, Sebald and Barthes.

The novel begins by plunging the reader into ‘that difficult zone between wakefulness and sleep’. Its hazy, somnambulating prologue – which Guibert titles ‘The Dream’ – sets the tone for the increasingly far-fetched sequence of events that follows. The eponymous ‘whims’ include slicing body parts from birds amid a great ‘avian massacre’; dressing and parading a hippopotamus in a frayed pink tutu; buying a boat; playing tiddlywinks; murdering priests, and more. Preying on the reader’s exhaustion and repulsion, the text displays an unsqueamish interest in blood and flesh and guts and pus and excrement. Yet in contrast to the fluorescent sexual content of works like Propaganda Death and Crazy about Vincent – in which the narrator and Vincent ravish one another’s bodies while taking an eye-watering amount of drugs – the central relation between Arthur and Bichon is conspicuously chaste. (The raciest it gets is them mutually masturbating under the duvet, ‘without a word’.) Though some critics have described their bond as paternal, the text presents a more ambivalent dynamic, ricocheting between cruelty and companionship.  

Despite its somewhat thinly sketched conceit, the book sustains our interest throughout its one-hundred-and-twelve-page spiral into madness. Its vivacious chapter titles – ‘Break-in-At-The Morgue’, ‘The Foolishness Begins’, ‘How to Eat a Raw Potato’ – evoke Guibert’s earlier writing on photography, and could in fact double as rich prompts for illustrations. The characters’ ‘macabre experiments’ eventually culminate in a sea voyage that imposes some direction on the otherwise freewheeling narrative. A Pacific current carries the pair towards America – their relationship reaches its apogee during a dramatic shipwreck. Bichon twice becomes pregnant after drinking Arthur’s tears, although his abdomen shows no signs of swelling. When Bichon subsequently dies after being impaled through the stomach, the next line is almost shruggingly dispatched: ‘The baby must have also been pierced by the stake.’ Guibert is notorious for his froideur in writing his real friends into his novels; but Arthur’s Whims shows that he can be just as savage to his fictional characters.

The novel concludes, after Bichon and embryo have both met gruesome ends, with Arthur vanishing back into a dreamlike ether: ‘His body disappeared; no excavation managed to unearth it. But he left to the world this small, sardonic self-portrait.’ Guibert refuses to conclude the work without this subtle nod to his propensity for self-fabulation. The ending sets the stage for what is perhaps the best feature of Lupo’s new translation: an appendix essay titled ‘The Bear’ which gives the backstory of the book’s composition. The title refers to the ‘monster’ which Guibert believes he has created with this story; a book which, he claims, ‘arose from nothing, from a lack of adventure’, written on ‘scraps of paper that were quickly exhausted – hotel bills, bank statements, museum tickets’, whose content is ‘slippery, gratuitous, of almost irrelevant stakes.’ ‘The Bear’ gives us Guibert in unapologetically self-deprecating and self-theorizing mode. It reminds the reader that he was always strongest in the realm of the ‘roman faux’, hovering between theory and autobiography, or reflecting on his chosen genre en media res.

Guibert’s famously magnetic qualities once inspired Barthes to write him a gushing unrequited ode. Yet Arthur’s Whims, with its gory imagery and deliberately mangled paragraphs, continually courts the ugly. This could be read as a resistance strategy against the manicured style of the French literary establishment. Yet it also evinces a surprising tenderness, perhaps even a compassion, for the abject or beastly. A resolve, even when beauty is exhausted, not to turn away. Guibert is too often typecast as merely a brittle gossip, cannibalizing the stories of others to increase his own cultural capital. Yet he was arguably harshest with himself: working on multiple manuscripts in tandem; never letting his famed productivity slip, continuing to write in the weeks before his death, while losing his sight to his disease. He knew that, in the end, elegance was a guarantee of nothing. Beauty only carries you so far.

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Teachers, Writers, Celebrities’, NLR I/126.


Crossed Rails

Around twenty years ago, public transport in London suddenly got much, much better. The tube and the buses, which had been neglected for decades by central government, improved remarkably – especially the buses. Of course, London’s transport was always (even per capita) better than that of the rest of urban England. This was helped by the fact that the Thatcher and Major governments had exempted it from the worst – they had not privatized the Underground, and while they had privatized the buses, a clause had left the capital’s buses to be publicly regulated. I moved to London in 1999, and even then, at the start of the New Labour boom, you could still feel the neglect, a dereliction that had been lethal in the Kings Cross fire of 1987, caused by uncollected rubbish under a wooden escalator. Aside from the somewhat toy-like light railway across the redeveloped Docklands, new transport construction hadn’t kept pace with the sharp increase in the capital’s population. And then in a few years, everything changed.

This is owed, it is worth remembering, to Ken Livingstone, in his two terms as Mayor of London. While his record on housing and planning was poor, despite all the socialist rhetoric, on transport Livingstone kept his promises. The buses were turned around, recognized as the main mode of transport for working-class Londoners; fares were kept far lower than in the rest of Britain. Under Livingstone’s watch, Herbert Morrison’s nationalized company, London Transport – rebranded as TfL, Transport for London – introduced the Oyster card, battled with Gordon Brown’s moronic plans to privatize the tube, pointedly powered the buses with Venezuelan oil, and began to take ineptly-run privatized heavy rail lines under its control, in the public-private London Overground, making an immense difference to tubeless inner boroughs such as Hackney and Lewisham. But the most visible transport improvement actually had nothing much to do with Ken’s long-term project to democratize London’s transport, which dated back to ‘Fares Fair’ at the Greater London Council.

The Jubilee Line extension, doubling the size of a truncated 1970s tube line and opened by London Transport in 1999, was a wild contrast with the miserable shabbiness and poor service provided by now-forgotten privatized companies such as Connex and Silverlink. Directed, architecturally, by the Hong Kong Metro’s architect Roland Paoletti, it captured a generation of British designers who were then more likely to be employed abroad than at home at their peak. It was the most impressive public transport achievement in London – in Britain – since London Transport’s 1930s heyday under the Christian Socialist bureaucrat Frank Pick and architect Charles Holden. The Jubilee extension’s stations are among London’s finest buildings, from Hopkins’s concrete Carceri at Westminster to Foster’s cavernous Canary Wharf to Richard McCormac’s delicate Southwark.

But it was expensive, very expensive indeed – a bizarre anomaly in the decade that John Major brought in the Private Finance Initiative. Nothing like it would be tried in TfL’s building projects under Livingstone, particularly the new Overground stations on the rebuilt East London Line, such as Shoreditch, Dalston Junction, Haggerston and Hoxton. The point was to sort out long-running problems and get things done quickly, cheaply and unfussily, as in similarly tightly-budgeted northern projects of the era like the Sheffield Supertram or the Manchester Metrolink. One can maybe praise the intent, but the results on the now extensive Overground can be a little grim – no toilets in the stations, staffing often an optional extra, adding up to a line which mostly ignores (and is, in turn, seldom used by) the elderly, those with children, or those with disabilities. Then came another patch-up job, this time by Network Rail, the extension and rebuilding of the 1980s Thameslink heavy rail network, which involved an ingenious, if cramped new station balanced atop the Victorian Blackfriars Bridge. It was completed a couple of years ago with little fanfare.

Well, the now finally opened Crossrail has a lot of fanfare. It is the one major British public transport project of the 21st century to have escaped Gordon Brown’s parsimony and George Osborne’s axe (unlike mere trams in Leeds, Liverpool and Portsmouth-Southampton), and though planned decades ago, it was commenced under Livingstone in 2007, and obsequiously renamed under Boris Johnson the ‘Elizabeth Line’. Above all else, it is emphatically not cheap or ad hoc. It was, notoriously, constantly delayed and subject to cost overruns, but now you can explore it with your Oyster card, you can see where a lot of the money went – into space.

Farringdon Station

It is hard to overstate how much of a shock it is to go from either the Victorian cut-and-cover brick vaults of the District and Circle, or worse, the claustrophobic, meanly proportioned deep-level tubes built by the American robber baron (and allegedly, partial Citizen Kane inspiration) Charles Tyson Yerkes like the Central, Northern and Piccadilly, into these gigantic stations. The proportions and depth – not to mention the mood-lighting – evoke the Soviet transport systems in Kyiv, St Petersburg and Moscow, as does the strict restriction of advertising. Similarly Soviet are the long, long escalators in stations such as Tottenham Court Road, which take a good two or three minutes to travel up, and are tough on the acrophobic; below, cathedral-scale central vestibules link the platforms. A common aesthetic underground has been created by the lead architects, Grimshaw, a 1980s boutique high-tech firm turned global conglomerate; a great deal of fun has been had with concrete panels, shaped into forms both mass-produced and organic, especially delightfully around the archways towards the platforms and escalators. 

With its long tunnel through almost the entirety of London’s Zones 1 and 2, end to end from Paddington in the west to Canary Wharf in the east, this is heavy, expensive, grandiose engineering, a return to the Jubilee extension’s drama, its richness, and its arse-kissing nomenclature. But architecturally, it isn’t as original or personal. Stations are richly provided with diverting abstract artworks, interesting concrete surfaces, accessible lifts and, crucially, toilets (something far too often absent on the tube), but there’s no stand-out work of spatial flamboyance like Foster’s Canary Wharf or Hopkins’s Westminster. Surface stations are boxy, and carried out either by the Overground’s designers Weston Williamson, or by very safe British/multinational firms such as Aedas (Farringdon), Hawkins/Brown (Tottenham Court Road). Their work here is powerful, but there’s nothing fancy. Outlying stations that have been bolted onto earlier sets of platforms and buildings, such as Southall in the far west and Abbey Wood in the far south-east, are big, airy and functional, but that’s as far as it goes.

Crossrail has been trumpeted as something new in the world of transport, but that’s not quite right. If the Overground is an S-Bahn and the Docklands Light Railway a Rhine-Ruhr style Stadtbahn, then this, like the earlier, less heralded Thameslink reconstruction, is London’s Parisian RER, with a fast service in the centre and dozens of stations stretching a spider’s web right out across the Banlieue. What this means is that the focus that there has been on the photogenic inner-city tunnel – and the fact that most new London transport infrastructure since the 1980s has been about connecting the docklands of the inner east and south-east to the centre – obscures that this is very much a suburban line, which will be mostly used not by people in Whitechapel or Paddington, but in Ealing, Acton, Thamesmead, Ilford and Romford.

This should not be odd – London is still a mostly suburban city, and its suburbs are in many cases as multicultural and firmly Labour-voting nowadays as Lambeth or Tower Hamlets – but it means that a journey across the whole network is quite different to one across the Jubilee extension or the Overground, which move between recently fashionable zones such as Peckham and Hackney (the line from Clapham to Dalston on a Friday night is always crammed to bursting with young professionals on the razz) or high-density, Shanghai-in-the-drizzle new districts such as the Olympic Village or the Royal Docks. It may pass through Whitechapel, Forest Gate and Stratford, but Crossrail is really about Southall, Romford and Thamesmead. Not only that, it links Berkshire to Essex, encompassing such unlikely places as industrial Slough, the relatively self-contained sunbelt town of Reading, Theresa May’s constituency in quintessentially bourgeois Maidenhead, the classic multicultural London suburbia of Ilford, the edges of the London County Council’s sprawling Becontree estate at Goodmayes, the lush garden city of Gidea Park, and finally Brentwood, with its Barratt Homes Cathedral by Quinlan Terry. All these have been dragged forever into the tube map, and hence into ‘London’.

For the moment, to explore the full line, you have to get off at the big termini of Paddington or Liverpool Street and walk across their concourses to take the Elizabeth Line trains that were temporarily branded ‘TfL Rail’ while Crossrail was being delayed – the full service will open only later in the year. But the network makes sense not as a line from Paddington to Abbey Wood, but only if seen as a whole. That is, as a project to unite London’s two major outward growths since the 1970s. One is along the Thames Valley/M4 corridor route of high-tech affluence. It is easy to imagine future extensions that will bring Oxford and Swindon into the tube map, maybe even Newport and Cardiff, in the same way that Bratislava appears on Vienna’s transport map.

The other is the ‘Thames Gateway’ to the east, a swathe of post-industrial dereliction towards which capital has had to be forcibly directed, from the London Docklands Development Company to New Labour’s Urban Renaissance and Livingstone’s Olympic Village, clownishly ‘delivered’ by his Tory successor. It is, as mentioned, this eastern zone which has seen the most new transport investment in the last four decades, in order to make these contaminated wastes with adjacent council estates into places attractive to investors and employers. In the process, the more westward expansion of London has been relatively neglected, especially by geographers and psychogeographers. Post-industrial West London is less gentrified than anywhere else in the capital, and immense sites such as Park Royal, once the largest industrial area in the world, are off very many Londoners’ mental maps. Hipsters seem to face a forcefield just before entering the London Borough of Ealing, and the ‘creative class’ are conspicuous by their absence in Slough and Southall.

New flats in Thamesmead

Stay underground, or on the train, and Crossrail is an eminently rational project, and it should hopefully have the effect of making the miserably overcrowded Central and Jubilee lines more pleasant for human beings to use. It will also make it much easier to get into town if you live in extremely un-‘regenerated’ areas such as the post-industrial Punjabi heartland of Southall or the GLC’s forlorn but beautiful lakeside New Town at Thamesmead, served by Abbey Wood station. Yet there’s no getting away from the role of property in all of this. Housing and office development has been part of London Transport from the start. The Metropolitan Line and its property development arm created the Mock Tudor suburbia of ‘Metroland’, in what was once the county of Middlesex, but since the ’60s has consisted of the London Boroughs of Hillingdon, Hounslow, Harrow, Ealing and Brent; Frank Pick got in on the act at Golders Green and Edgware. Even after nationalization, some of Charles Holden’s most beautiful stations, such as Oakwood in Enfield, were built in open country to stimulate development, which meant commuters buying season tickets, which meant much-needed revenue – unlike many transport networks in big capital cities, London Transport has usually been expected to make a profit.

So there are a lot of really very nasty new spaces that have cropped up as a result of Crossrail. The most notorious is at Tottenham Court Road, where genuinely much-loved places, crucial to the history of London’s popular music, like the Astoria on Charing Cross Road and the music shops and gig venues of Denmark Street, have been either replaced or dwarfed with a series of frankly hideous, funereal black office blocks; the area is surreal enough as it is, and a new entrance mid-way along Oxford Street spits you out into an increasingly bizarre thoroughfare dominated by semi-legal ‘American-style’ sweet shops, many of which have just been raided by police in the aftermath of the Conservatives losing control of Westminster Council for the first time.

Further west – skipping over the still-unopened Bond Street station – the new Paddington station is very convenient for the canalside kipple of Paddington Basin, a particularly bleak office district between the waterways and the start of the Westway. Farringdon station’s entrances are adjacent to massive, boxy, squat offices which will have helped pay for the whole thing. However, this isn’t the case everywhere. Whitechapel, designed by BDP, is a minor revelation, scooping out a formerly grossly dilapidated station via an enclosed glass bridge, the entire complex construction hidden behind the original Italianate frontage of 1876; and rather than the border of new offices at Farringdon or Tottenham Court Road, you’re thrown right into the electricity of Whitechapel Market, an enduringly working-class space, with the glass skyscrapers of the City in the near distance. The closest of these is One Commercial Street, the subject of a notoriously dystopian marketing video. It is still blackened and scarred by a recent fire, a little reminder of how many of London’s ‘luxury flats’ are unsafe. 

One stop from here is Canary Wharf, the malevolent heart of financial London and, deeply unexpectedly, the most delightful of all the new line’s spaces. The station platforms are fairly ordinary, but everything else about it is mindboggling. From the existing DLR and Jubilee Line stations you enter through a long overhead walkway, dressed in pulsing bright colours by the artist Camille Walala, into Crossrail Place, a long complex of restaurants, designed by Foster and Partners, with a roof garden on top. It is one of that firm’s most unusual London projects in a while, its bubbling timber and teflon structure evoking Norman Foster’s one-time enthusiasm for the work of Buckminster Fuller; the garden itself is both banal and utopian, verdant and eerily calm above the station and beneath the skysrcapers. The Ballardian undergrowth leads to a Sports Bar. Rather than ‘Dubai-on-Thames’, this is more Singapore on the West India Dock: a strictly controlled and policed yet fascinatingly odd balance of nature and technology. But the fact remains – stations mean development.

Crossrail Place

This is the reason why many Londoners secretly resent the project. Irrespective of the many people taking photographs of the new stations and the new tunnels (they’re still doing so, several weeks after opening), everyone knows property values are going to go up, up, up, in the places that are made newly accessible. Woolwich, the industrial suburb that has long been one of the cheapest places left to live in London, is going to be almost as accessible from central London as Fulham or Clapham. The kitsch, bricky redevelopment of the 18th century Royal Arsenal complex was already a place apart in Woolwich, feeling wholly separate from this working-class Cockney, West African, Somali and Latvian district. In the six years I lived there during the 2010s I watched that development spread along the river, but it was always constrained by the arterial road that cut it off from the suburb’s centre; at rush hour, Woolwich would suddenly become whiter and more affluent than it was during the rest of the day, but the effect would quickly disappear.

Woolwich’s Crossrail station, substantially funded by the developers, is actually in the Arsenal itself, on a square with the Airstrip One-style name of ‘Victory Parade’, but we can now expect the overpriced brick high-rises of the Arsenal to expand into the entire rest of the place, making it newly unaffordable. Luring bourgeois residents over the dual carriageway into Woolwich proper right now is something called the Dreamachine. Around five years ago, when I was last in the covered Public Market, the space was occupied by the  likes of the Boss Revolution internet cafe next to Silverrite & Lady T’s Catering Service Cakes and Decoration. Well, until late July it contains an experiment in psychedelic ‘Deep Listening’, a slice of Altered States opposite a high-rise Little England.

A similar process is likely to happen at the Olympic Site. Crossrail makes Stratford, once a very mundane East End area, even more spectacularly well-connected. Irrespective of septic leaks, buildings granted by the Olympics such as Zaha Hadid’s rather glorious London Aquatics Centre are actually very well used by people from across London’s multiple fault-lines, but that balance can’t be sustained forever. A couple of stops away is the adjacent suburb of Forest Gate, the working-class area whose inequalities of race and class are heartbreakingly brought out in Joy White’s powerful book Terraformed (2020). As with sporting festivals, new transport networks double as a way of pumping huge quantities of public money into our only real industry, property. However much Crossrail might be useful (it is) and beautiful (it is, mostly), that is also very much what it’s for.

In any case, the fact remains that much of what the network newly connects is seldom visited by people who don’t live there. ‘Welcome, young man’, boomed a smirking, elderly Anglo-Punjabi gentleman at me outside Southall’s new Crossrail station. He was right, I had never been to Southall before, even though my great aunt ran a caff here, until she made enough money to move to the Isle of Wight. West London is often deceptively suburban – the stretch from Ealing to Slough between the Great Western Railway and the Grand Union Canal became densely industrial in the 20th century. This industrial sprawl attracted one of my grandparents, who came here to work in one of these factories, and a little later, the Punjab-born grandparents of the people going about their shopping on a Southall afternoon. Look around the Crossrail station today, and you’ll find the south side of the railway tracks is familiar – the same skyscraping brick-clad ‘luxury flats’ you can find in Whitechapel or the Royal Arsenal. But the north side is something else entirely, an intense, fiercely independent city-within-a-city, where 1920s Chinoiserie cinemas have been carved into shopping arcades full of jewellery shops, and comfortable cafes where people are very much living outside, in the ‘Urban Renaissance’ style, except they’re drinking masala chai next to a ‘Fashions’ emporium rather than flat whites next to Foxtons.

Himalaya Palace, Southall

Another stop on, and you’re in Hayes and Harlington, John McDonnell’s constituency (with Boris Johnson’s, in more affluent Uxbridge, on the other side of the tracks). Here, as in Woolwich, you’re surrounded by what feels like every language and every nationality on earth, in a landscape of caffs and charity shops, loomed over by an astonishing Brutalist telephone exchange. But along the railway tracks, you’ll see the property industry has been here, too. Factories in industrial West London were mostly a matter of light industry, consumer commerce – Hoover, Firestone, Gillette –  and EMI. The record company’s enclave of early 20th century, Detroit-style ‘daylight factories’ – great grids of glass and concrete – has been mostly turned into a long strip of ‘luxury flats’, currently devoid of any facilities aside from a gym and three estate agents. The Astoria may have been demolished and Denmark Street butchered, but music fans can rest assured that in Hayes, they can live in blocks of flats called ‘The Venue’ or ‘The Record Store’.

There is a similar sense of two completely separate parallel worlds coexisting, for the moment, at Thamesmead, which is now finally served by a high-speed service at Abbey Wood (while under construction in the 1960s, this concrete New Town was promised a Jubilee Line station, which was meant to be completed in the 1970s). In a sense, Thamesmead is a cautionary tale of what happens when a part of London isn’t properly connected to its transport network, with its photogenic clusters of towers along lakes and nature reserves – essentially a giant budget Barbican – gradually run down by successive owners after the GLC’s 1986 abolition; some of its most impressive areas were demolished for vacuous and now dilapidated new flats in the 2000s.

In the late 2010s, in anticipation of Crossrail, the Peabody Trust, the venerable social housing developer, took the town over. It is subsidizing its repairs to the estate with swathes of new private and ‘affordable’ housing. A decent new library faces Southmere Lake, and the public spaces have been renovated for the first time in decades, but the plans also entail destroying much of what makes the place interesting, with the lakeside social housing towers under threat of ‘decanting’ and demolition (curiously, Peabody have also subsidized books and exhibitions celebrating the original architecture). There’s a reason for this. Thamesmead is one of the last places an ordinary middle-class Londoner can conceivably buy property without courting bankruptcy, and it seems that serving this constituency by building private brick boxes on the lake is Peabody’s interest here, rather than building the social housing the city desperately needs on Thamesmead’s still abundant post-industrial brownfield sites. Transforming a fascinating social-democratic modernist failure into a mere commuter suburb in easy travelling time of Canary Wharf and Tottenham Court Road and Heathrow will seem like an improvement, to some.

Southmere Lake, Thamesmead

Now that it exists, Crossrail can be seen as multiple things, some good, some bad. It is a way of seeing how Boris Johnson’s London Design Guide has created a thirty-mile linear city of brick-clad high rises along the old industrial belt of railways, the docks, the Thames and the canals. It is a gentrification superhighway, and a line which finally makes getting into town more bearable for working-class people living in Southall or Thamesmead. It is an attempt to finally erase London’s east/west divides, and a convenient means for business travellers to get from Heathrow to Canary Wharf without spending two hours in a taxi. It is, as someone on twitter pointed out, ‘the asian suburban experience line’, connecting for the first time Slough to Southall to Ealing to Whitechapel to Ilford.

What I suspect it is most of all is the last piece of major public transport investment in London we will see in a very long time. TfL is being ostentatiously squeezed of funds, and like most of the railway network, it is not being given the government help it needs to recover fully from the pandemic – a situation of managed decline being fought by the rail unions in the forthcoming all-out strikes. TfL, though by far the most efficient and pleasant transport company in Britain’s idiotically fragmented network, has been barred from pulling the last of the private railway lines in south-east London into the Overground; its bailout has been made conditional on firing staff; and in the week Crossrail opened, TfL proposed to close dozens of bus routes, including lines such as the 12 which I have never seen anything other than full in the 23 years I have lived in London. Crossrail may prove to be a great leap into the future in a network otherwise regressing to the pre-Livingstone era.

All this is being done in part to humiliate Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has still not been forgiven by the government for defeating the Tories so comprehensively in 2016 and 2021, not to mention his polite request for the power to institute rent controls (refused, with contempt, naturally). For all Khan’s timidity, the intensity of development and the ever more surreal escalation of rents and house prices here in the last decade has quite unintentionally, ‘built the Tories out of London’, to a degree not seen since the London County Council of the 1930s under Herbert Morrison. That is to say, the majority of Londoners have had enough. Crossrail is a mixed blessing for them. It will intensify the nightmare for anyone trying to cling on to relatively affordable housing in Stratford, Woolwich or Whitechapel, but it will do something else, too. It will redistribute those who can’t afford to live in these areas, and grant them to the last holdouts of Conservatism in and around the capital. The ‘Elizabeth Line’, with its naff royalist name, will be the agit-train that paints Maidenhead, Romford and Brentwood red. Perhaps when it does so, the Labour Party that currently dominates London to a degree not seen since the 1950s will be ready to imagine a less moronic way to run its public transport than as an expensively engineered rocket fired into the rent gap.

Read on: Owen Hatherley, ‘The Government of London’, NLR 122.


Uphill Battle

The US left has made historic advances on the electoral front in recent years. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid breathed life into a progressive wing of the Democratic Party which will likely become a permanent feature of the US political landscape. Apart from Sanders himself, the most visible expression of this new left has been the Justice Democrats-backed ‘Squad’ of six legislators – mostly working-class women of colour – in the House of Representatives. The Squad played a major role in shaping the Democratic domestic policy agenda in 2020. Its members have inspired countless activists, and it has undoubtedly helped to shift the party’s centre of gravity. What are the prospects for this insurgent force under Biden, and beyond?

Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the United States, boasts blocs in the New York State Legislature and City Council, as well as Chicago’s Board of Aldermen and the Pennsylvania state legislature, in addition to individual members sitting on city councils in San Francisco, Washington DC, Los Angeles and elsewhere. These achievements push well beyond the wildest dreams I had for DSA before the organization’s explosive membership growth began in 2016. Other progressive outfits like the Working Families Party and Our Revolution can tell similar stories. So it’s important not to lose sight of what the left has achieved, nor to discount the possibility of unexpected developments that could open up new horizons in the coming years.

Yet, as Caitlín Doherty points out in the pages of New Left Review, ‘there is scarcely an elected assembly in Latin America or Europe that hasn’t had a much larger and more experienced cohort of socialist or social-democratic deputies for decades.’ The US left, for all its remarkable gains, still finds itself decades behind our comrades abroad. In the House, its presence is at most the ten Justice Democrats-endorsed members, or at least the six explicit members of the Squad. For all their creative organizing tactics and savvy media skills, the Squad have not been able to ensure the passage of any of their signature proposals, from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal. The cause of this failure is not difficult to comprehend and has little to do with strategic decisions made by the members themselves. The reality is that regardless of their political discipline or coalitional-building, no six members of a 435-member legislative body can pull a rabbit out of a hat.


In the current Congress, leftist insurgents have three conceivable sources of leverage to forge majorities around ambitious redistributive reforms: obstructive negotiation; persuasive negotiation and external protest/mobilization; and taking advantage of shifting political or economic conditions generated by the Covid pandemic. So far, none of these strategies has proved effective. To understand why, it is worth considering each of them in turn.

First, insurgents could try to obstruct significant but modest redistributive measures backed by their centrist Democratic colleagues, with the aim of forcing Democrats to pass more ambitious reforms. This was the approach pursued by progressives in the House during negotiations over last year’s Infrastructure Bill. While the bill allocated $550 billion in new spending to revitalize America’s transportation, energy and water sectors, it did not touch the vast array of big ticket items on the left’s wish list. These were offered up in a separate, more expansive bill known as ‘Build Back Better’: originally proposed as a $3.5 Trillion package to dramatically expand government spending. Aware that passing the Infrastructure Bill before the more contentious Build Back Better Bill was tantamount to ceding progressive leverage over the latter, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) initially insisted that the two bills be voted on together. Yet, in the face of opposition from Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who stalled passage of Build Back Better to the point that it looked like both bills might fail, the CPC finally relented and passed the Infrastructure Bill. Predictably, Build Back Better was never passed.

Members of the Squad bravely voted against the Infrastructure Bill, but their six votes were not enough. However, I suspect that if they had been, the Squad would have followed other members of the CPC and fallen into line, just as they rejected activists’ call to ‘Force the Vote’ in early 2021 (that is, to block Nancy Pelosi’s election as Speaker of the House unless she agreed to hold a symbolic – read, doomed – floor vote on Medicare for All). Why would the left-wing legislators capitulate thus? Because the political stakes were simply too high. Biden’s once respectable poll numbers were inching lower and lower by mid-2021, portending almost certain setbacks for Democrats in the midterms. With the prospects of handing Congressional control back to an increasingly radicalized Republican Party in 2022, and of not regaining a governing trifecta for many years to come, progressive Democrats were unwilling to scuttle the chance to deliver at least a partial legislative victory they could tout on the campaign trail.

So the left had little chance of building a king-maker bloc of progressives that might force Democrats to pass Build Back Better. Still, could they have convinced Democrats like Manchin and Sinema that voting for progressive bills was in their political self-interest? After all, polling in late 2021 in both Arizona and West Virginia found that a majority of likely voters supported Build Back Better. This strategy rests on the assumption that members of Congress necessarily have an incentive to take votes that reflect majority public opinion in their districts or states. But if this were true, we would already enjoy most of the more ambitious items on the progressive economic agenda, from universal healthcare to a federal jobs guarantee.

In fact, Manchin and Sinema had several possible reasons for opposing Build Back Better: ideological aversion to higher spending, a desire to be perceived in their states as bipartisan, and possibly an interest in pleasing key donors opposed to the measures. As seemingly endless negotiations between the White House and Senate holdouts demonstrated, no one – let alone progressives – could convince Manchin and Sinema to vote aye. The same holds for changing the senators’ political incentives through the application of outside pressure. There is no doubt that protest can help the left in many ways, from increasing fundraising and revving up voter turnout to pressuring lawmakers to support specific legislation. Yet it can only accomplish so much, particularly against political foes like Manchin and Sinema who may even be rewarded politically for standing up to pressure from the left.

Finally, it is conceivable that the pandemic might have pushed wavering senators over the line on Build Back Better. That is exactly what happened in the case of the American Rescue Plan and Infrastructure Bills, which received support from centrist Democrats during a period of historic uncertainty and social hardship. But rapid economic recovery, rising inflation, fallout from the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and recurring Covid waves made further centrist support of expanded public spending a dead letter by late 2021. Even if we are hit by another recession in the coming years – as is increasingly likely – it is doubtful that this will precipitate a leftward turn on social spending. After all, centrist Democrats place the blame for our current bout of high inflation and the Democrats’ impending electoral woes squarely on the shoulders of government overspending during the pandemic.


In short, at its current strength the left in Congress cannot significantly increase its leverage over policymaking. That said, there are good reasons to believe that the relative influence of the left within the Democratic Congressional caucus will continue to grow. The size of the conservative ‘Blue Dog’ caucus is shrinking, and progressives’ prospects for picking off centrist Democratic incumbents and filling open seats in heavily Democratic Districts look reasonably hopeful. This precedent was set by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush in 2020. More recently, Jamie Mcleod-Skinner unseated the centrist Kurt Schrader in Oregon’s 5th District, and Jessica Cisneros narrowly lost her bid to replace Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th. There are now 111 incumbent Democrats who are not members of the CPC, the vast majority of whom represent strongly Democratic districts and could not realistically charge insurgent challengers with undermining Democrats’ electability against Republicans. This means that the left has significant opportunities to improve its position in Congress. As its electoral organizing skills continue to mature with experience and its independent fundraising operations continue to expand, there is no reason to think the Squad couldn’t grow its ranks by at least a couple seats each cycle. 

At the same time, it is not entirely clear how increasing the left’s Congressional representation – from, say, six to twelve members – would enable it to advance a bold redistributive agenda. In principle, such an increase could have critical strategic implications, as it might allow a larger Squad to hold Democrats’ accountable by blocking the passage of key legislation until they secure meaningful concessions. Yet as I discussed above, it is difficult to imagine leftists risking a game of chicken with Joe Manchin over important social legislation. Doing so could mean failing to deliver limited but critical assistance to working Americans while strengthening Republicans’ electoral hand.

Socialist legislators would only break with the Democrat coalition if they believed that aiding Republicans was less costly than empowering the Democratic establishment. And this would only be the case were Republicans to moderate their political agenda – a highly unlikely prospect. While it is theoretically possible that intra-Democratic tensions could lead to a split, yielding a more combative socialist party, other countries’ experiences with the collapse of two-party systems suggests that a credible left-wing challenger could only arise if both major parties suffered a catastrophic decline in popular support. If, as is likely, Republicans continue to enjoy the consistent support of 40-45% of the electorate, relatively few Democratic-leaning voters will be willing to risk supporting a third-party for fear of handing power to Republicans.


The other path to expanding the left’s influence in Congress is perhaps equally implausible but has the benefit of never having been tried on a large scale. What if socialists could compete effectively in places where conventional wisdom would suggest that only centrist – if any – Democrats have a chance? What if, in addition to moving the Democratic caucus ideologically to the left by primarying centrists in strong Democratic districts, progressives could also undermine opposition to their legislative agenda by replacing centrists like Sinema, or even – let me dare to dream – Manchin?

Can this be done? We really don’t know yet. Defeating Manchin – who represents a state where former President Trump won nearly 70% of the vote in 2020, and where white voters without a college degree comprise 86% of the electorate – may indeed be impossible. But there is reason to be hopeful in less extreme cases. Look no further than Jamie Mcleod-Skinner, who prevailed in an overwhelmingly white, non-college-educated Oregon district, labeled a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. She took out an important centrist Democrats in the House, whom progressives hold responsible for helping to derail the Build Back Better Bill. Of course, it’s still not clear if Mcleod-Skinner can pull off a victory in this highly competitive district during an election cycle where the winds are strongly at Republicans’ backs. But regardless, she will be one of the few Congressional candidates supported by the progressive left who have even come close to holding her own in such a competitive context.

How did Mcleod-Skinner beat the odds against a wealthy and powerful establishment opponent? She ran a populist campaign hitting Schrader hard on his corporate ties and opposition to bills that would have benefited working-class Oregonians; she focused on bread-and-butter issues, from affordable housing and healthcare to living-wage jobs and expanded access to trade-schools; and she built trust with rural and working-class voters – both by stressing her own background, and by speaking in relatable terms rather than leading with strong progressive messaging that may have been unfamiliar or alienating.

Mcleod-Skinner’s playbook is reminiscent of similar success stories in challenging districts, like senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio and congressman Matthew Cartwright in Pennsylvania. Likewise, Jess King’s insurgent 2018 Congressional campaign employed was able to reach moderate and even conservative voters in Pennsylvania’s heavily Republican 11th District. Though King ultimately lost in the face of overwhelming odds, a volunteer from her campaign, Allison Troy, went on to win a seat on the city council of a deeply conservative town the following year. Like Mcleod-Skinner, Troy was able to reach people outside the traditional Democratic base by focusing on political corruption and local issues, allowing her to make connections with voters who might otherwise have slammed the door in her face.

Another impressive effort to reach non-traditional Democratic voters is that of Working America, a 3.5-million-member worker-advocacy group affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Working America conducts door-to-door canvasses and digital organizing campaigns in key battleground states across the country, with a narrow focus on helping working people to resolve the concrete problems they face. After first connecting with voters on immediate economic issues, Working America tries to translate this relationship into votes for progressives. As the group’s director, Matt Morrison, explained to me:

We’re super effective at convincing people who we just helped pay their rent, navigate a byzantine marketplace in the healthcare arena, etc. Those people listen to us when we say, ‘Oh, by the way, this candidate is on your side, and this candidate is not…’ We win votes by serving the economic interest of workers or helping them build agency.


Despite such possibilities, obstacles to the left’s success remain daunting. On the one hand, even if the left increases its influence within the Congressional Democratic Caucus over the coming years, Democrats are unlikely to regain unified control of the national government for some time, effectively stopping any ambitious legislative goals in their tracks. Even if Democrats are somehow able to hold onto both houses of Congress in 2022, the left would remain strategically limited by the presence of a unified Republican Party, which will decrease progressive lawmakers’ incentives to risk undermining the Democratic leadership’s agenda.

Meanwhile, Democrats of all stripes – not just progressives – have struggled to increase their support among working-class voters of all races, who represent the left’s only hope of making serious inroads in many swing districts, particularly those with a high number of rural and small-town voters. It has proven hard enough for socialists to defeat incumbents in safe Democratic districts, and to date there are vanishingly few examples of their capacity to best Republicans. The examples I highlighted above, together with promising survey data, suggest it is worth investing in this approach to test its viability. Indeed, this will be essential if the left is to have a fighting chance of converting its recent victories into a durable strategy for building working-class power. Nevertheless, the intensity of US political polarization, combined with Republicans’ frightening capacity to connect with downwardly mobile white voters around racial resentment and xenophobia, suggest that, at best, we face an uphill battle, and, at worst, we’re merely tilting at working-class windmills.

Read on: Caitlín Doherty, ‘Two Atlantic Lefts’, NLR 133/134.


Iron Musk

It is difficult to hide a certain satisfaction upon witnessing the collapse of bitcoin. Since I last dealt with the topic for Sidecar seven months ago, the total capitalization of cryptocurrencies has decreased from $2.6 trillion – equivalent to the total GDP of France – to only $901 billion (as of 15 June). One feels sorry, but only a little, for those gullible people who invested their modest savings in crypto currencies hoping for easy profits and got fleeced by another pyramid scheme – an updated version of the seventeenth-century tulip fever in the Netherlands, history’s first senseless financial bubble.

This schadenfreude is all the greater since the cryptocurrency crash particularly affects Elon Musk – in theory the world’s richest man, with assets valued at $268 billion. In the media, Musk is depicted as contemporary capitalism’s very own Tony Stark, alter ego of the Marvel superhero Iron Man: a business magnate, playboy, philanthropist, inventor and scientist. In 2019, Musk decided to accept cryptocurrencies as payment for the electric vehicles produced by his company Tesla. The following year, he invested $1.5 billion in the cryptocurrency Dogecoin. Musk has relied on the fact that the cryptocurrency market is controlled by a small number of people who are able to manipulate its ebbs and flows (save any sudden waves of panic). For several years these capitalists propped up the value of their investments in bitcoin by continuing to accumulate cryptocurrencies, just as public companies do when they inflate their own shares through ‘buybacks’.

In the space of a year, however, Dogecoin has lost over 80% of its value, dropping from $40 billion to $6.9 billion. Undeterred, Musk has continued to assert his faith in the venture, relaunching it in May as a means to pay for the merchandising of his space corporation, SpaceX. Every announcement made by Musk is followed by a rise in the price of Dogecoin: a fact that illuminates the mechanism through which this new form of capitalism increases the fortunes of its standard-bearers. The capitalist announces on social media that they will buy a given share. Their followers (or, perhaps more aptly, believers) rush to buy the same shares, which experience a vertiginous surge, after which the capitalist cashes in by selling a part of the bloated stock, easily covering the cost of the initial purchase.

What’s producing revenue here is influence. In Musk’s case, influence is accrued through his own comic-book persona: he will continue to amass wealth so long as he is seen as a Stark-like figure. This is how his image as the Iron Capitalist remains credible. For this reason, Twitter is the most efficient financial tool at his disposal: his 91 million followers scattered around the world are his real capital. Hence why on 4 April the value of Twitter’s shares increased by 27% after Musk announced he had bought 9% of the company’s stock (Dogecoin also went up 20% as a result). It stands to reason that Iron Man would want to control the source of his revenue by investing in it.

Musk’s adherence to this superhero persona is therefore not only – or not even primarily – a vain ostentation, but quite literally a question of economic interest. Throughout his career as an entrepreneur he has carefully fashioned his image as an inventor or scientist (even if he dropped out of his graduate studies in material sciences at Stanford after only two days). As Forbes emphatically proclaims, ‘Elon Musk is working to revolutionize transportation both on Earth, through electric car maker Tesla – and in space, via rocket producer SpaceX’. Musk must constantly renew these superheroic credentials, investing in fanciful, futuristic projects reminiscent of science-fiction: electric cars, space exploration, artificial intelligence and neurotechnology. The key is to launch a new project before the previous one has been completed; new investments make earlier ones look profitable, thereby raising the value of their stock.

Exemplary in this regard is the story of Tesla, the electric vehicle company which, without having established a foothold in the industry (how many Teslas do you see driving around?), launched itself into the field of self-driving cars, with predictably disastrous results. As of 20 February, Tesla cars had caused 11 accidents, 17 casualties and one fatality. But, for Musk, the mere promise of automated cars served to obfuscate the broader failure of the electric vehicle. Tesla went public in 2010, after receiving $500 million worth of financing from the US government. From 2010 to 2019 its value increased, but at a fairly typical pace for an innovative tech company in a period of quantitative easing. (At this time, investment funds were able to take out billions in interest free-loans, and, without quite knowing where to channel it all, invested in companies that were seen as promising; it’s this that underpinned the enormous boom in stocks, despite the near-stagnant real economy). Over the following two years, the company truly went into orbit, peaking at $1.2 trillion in November 2021, before sinking to $662 billion as of 15 June.

This valuation does not correspond in any way to Tesla’s ‘real’ size, which remains modest both in terms of vehicles produced (305,000 the whole of last year) and sales ($54 billion). In comparison, the Volkswagen group had a revenue of $250 billion and produced 5.8 million cars, but its capitalization only amounted to $167 billion. The ascent of Tesla was also fuelled by the growth of bitcoin, the promise of space exploration and, in 2021, the long-publicised touristic rocket ‘excursion’, which helped SpaceX surpass the $100 billion valuation threshold. In this way, the SpaceX and bitcoin boom retroactively triggered the rise of Tesla.

As we’ve seen, the valuation of Musk’s enterprises, as well as the aleatory estimates of his wealth, have always been based on the promise of future expansion: achievements that are just out of reach, just over the next hill. His trust in bitcoin therefore indicates more than just a speculative opportunism; it embodies the business model that operates across his various industries. It also demonstrates that the influence exercised by Musk through Twitter doesn’t only affect small investors (those that Italian stock traders call parco buoi, ‘the flock’), but also ‘professionals’: stockbrokers, financial advisors, fund managers and so on.

Every epoch has an entrepreneur who symbolizes its particular style of capitalism. At the end of the nineteenth century, during the robber baron era, it was the evangelist of modern billionaire philanthropism, Andrew Carnegie and his Gospel of Wealth (1889). Then it was Henry Ford, the fascist-sympathizing industrialist behind the Model T, who shocked the world by paying his workers five dollars per day and was deemed ‘the one great orthodox Marxist of the twentieth century’ by Alexandre Kojève. The post-World War II period, with its social democratic compromise, lacked Promethean entrepreneurs of the kind envisaged by figures such as Werner Sombart and Joseph Schumpeter. Yet in the 1980s the mythos of the entrepreneur was revived with the rise of Reaganism. Richard Branson emerged as the fitting stepson of Thatcher, whose privatizations and deregulations paved the way for Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Healthcare. In 1986 the then Prime Minister appointed him ‘litter tsar’, tasked with ‘keeping Britain tidy’. Later, the Blair government entrusted him with managing part of the newly privatized British rail infrastructure.

Branson inaugurated the era of the performer-entrepreneur, a man of showbiz more than business, foreshadowing the new generation of moguls who operate on social media. Mark Zuckerberg, who deftly exploited Facebook to build his own personal brand, was the first. Then, in truly cinematic fashion, entered Iron Man Elon. Yet these symbolic figures aren’t necessarily the most significant ones. John Rockefeller or John Pierpont Morgan were far more important than Carnegie, even if they never embodied an epochal style. Bill Gates was just as important as Steve Jobs (himself a mythical character, though he died before the new wave of social media). In the same way, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos shapes our lives far more than Elon Musk, even though his presence on social media is close to nil, and he is markedly less representative of what might be called ‘comic book capitalism’.

The truth is that Musk’s significance is more political than economic. I know from personal experience that public figures – however cynical their stated positions may appear – end up identifying with the role they play and believing in the principles they thought they were exploiting. Tony Stark inevitably begins to see himself as Ulysses, ‘that man skilled in all ways’, whose ingenuity allows his people to fulfil their historic mission. Yet, unlike his former Paypal associate and fellow cryptocurrency enthusiast Peter Thiel, Musk has little use for political proclamations. His actions speak for themselves. They reveal an individual convinced of his right to shape the fate of the world – not primarily through his wealth, but through his membership of a ‘cognitive aristocracy’, an elect few more intelligent, more knowledgeable and more perceptive than the rest.

Here we enter the phantasmagorical world of the comic-book capitalists, who often use their vast wealth to realise their teenage fantasies. Relevant to this dreamland is the disproportionate influence, especially in the eighties, of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957), in which the Russian exilée describes ‘a dystopian United States in which private businesses suffer under increasingly burdensome laws and regulations’, plus the resistance of some heroic capitalists who eventually migrate and establish a free society elsewhere (a notable super-fan of this extremely dull book was Alan Greenspan).

The 2008 crisis dealt a blow to the partisans of Rand’s rational egoism (Greenspan himself ultimately abjured it). But it was soon to be replaced by a new cult work entitled The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State (1997), co-written by James Dale Davidson, a financial consultant whose expertise lay in how to profit from catastrophes, and William Rees-Mogg (1928-2012), long-standing editor of The Times. A 2018 Guardian article summarized the book’s four main theses:

1) The democratic nation-state basically operates like a criminal cartel, forcing honest citizens to surrender large portions of their wealth to pay for stuff like roads and hospitals and schools.

2) The rise of the internet, and the advent of cryptocurrencies, will make it impossible for governments to intervene in private transactions and to tax incomes, thereby liberating individuals from the political protection racket of democracy.

3) The state will consequently become obsolete as a political entity.

4) Out of this wreckage will emerge a new global dispensation, in which a ‘cognitive elite’ will rise to power and influence, as a class of sovereign individuals ‘commanding vastly greater resources’ who will no longer be subject to the power of nation-states and will redesign governments to suit their ends.

Though written in 1997, the book is perfectly synchronized with the world of cryptocurrencies, created a decade later in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash. The Sovereign Individual found an early adherent in Thiel, a member of the so-called Paypal Mafia, the group of young entrepreneurs – including Musk – that launched Paypal in 1998 and subsequently spawned a whole host of companies; Reid Hoffman founded LinkedIn, Russel Simmons and Jeremy Stoppelman founded Yelp; Keith Rabois was an early investor in YouTube; Max Levchin became the CEO of Slide, Roelof Botha a partner at Sequoia Capital. With the exception of Musk, they all appear together in a famous photo published by Fortune in 2007, sitting in a bar, dressed as Italian-American gangsters.  

Not all of this clique would become disciples of The Sovereign Individual: some continue to fund liberal causes and Democratic electoral candidates. Yet the real division within the group is between the paladins of crypto and the others. Remember, bitcoin presented itself as a tool that could render the state superfluous as a guarantor of currency – undermining one of its two remaining monopolies (the other being the monopoly on legitimate violence). bitcoin was a way of realizing Robert Nozick’s ultra-minimalist state in the economic and financial realm, well beyond even the most audacious Friedmannian vision, where the supply of money is entrusted to the market.

Even more radical in his political convictions is Thiel, who, as we learn in a recent article in the London Review of Books,

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

Thiel recently hired as Global Strategist for his investment fund the former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a conservative politician increasingly gravitating towards the extreme libertarian right. Thiel has also become a fervid exponent of the ‘Dark Enlightenment’, the new philosophy embraced by the alt-right and by some Trumpians (Thiel was one of Trump’s earliest financers), which proposes the creation of a neo-feudal system governed by a small set of cognitively superior elites.  

These patricians cloak themselves in the noblest of robes: those of meritocracy. After all, who would be against the idea that whoever deserves more should obtain more? The problem is that this reasoning is always performed backwards, moving from consequences to causes; so-called meritocracy, far from arguing that rewards should be commensurate to merit, actually maintains the opposite. Possessing wealth is already incontrovertible proof of the fact that it’s deserved. The rich are rich because they deserve to be, and everyone else is the undeserving poor. Musk is the living apologue of this principle, its celebrity incarnation. Yet, precisely for this reason, he doesn’t need to express radical positions like his ex-partner Thiel. The concept of cognitive feudalism is irrelevant for him, since he can simply exercise such tyranny over his employees. Rather than flaunting his radicalism, he puts it into practice. He doesn’t gloat about cryptocurrencies’ ideological virtues; he merely uses them to inflate the valuation of his companies. As Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote in his stinging critique of négritude: ‘a tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces’.

Yet the limits of this approach are plain to see. Tesla’s market performance mirrors that of cryptocurrencies with an astonishing similarity (Tesla’s collapse from $1 trillion to $662 billion since last November coincides with the recent crypto crash). The end of quantitative easing and the monetary tightening that central banks will implement to check inflation will precipitate the collapse of overvalued firms and Ponzi schemes of all types. At this point, capitalism will have to find itself some other heroes (or some other comics).

P.S. If the collapse of bitcoin was one good story this spring, there was also another. Last May, it was as if the Davos Economic Forum didn’t even take place; nobody paid it the slightest attention, and it hardly appeared in any news report. Before the pandemic, Davos seemed like the yearly reunion of the masters of the universe. Its sumptuous choreography suggested that movie stars and heads of state were visiting the Alpine ski resort, rather than capital’s bureaucrats and paper pushers. By contrast, this new sobriety is a breath of fresh air. Meagre consolation in the face of the war, perhaps, but still a small glimmer of hope.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: George Cataphores, ‘The Imperious Austrian’, NLR I/205.


Nightmare’s End?

I am not in Sri Lanka, and I feel torn about what is happening there. Acute anxiety about how millions will survive the shortages of food, fuel and medicine jostles against a glimmer of hope that this crisis could be the beginning of the end of a decades-long nightmare. Since the country gained its Independence in 1948, various sections of the population have been targeted by its ruling bloc: threatened with losing their homes, livelihoods and often their lives. They have fought back, but each section has been isolated and crushed by an increasingly centralized and ruthless state. Now, for the first time, the vast majority of the population has risen in revolt. Criticism of the dictatorship is widespread, and divisions between working people may finally be healing.  

It is not easy to disentangle the different strands of Sri Lanka’s long-standing political crisis, but let me try. Equality before the law – a key component of any democratic republic – was never supported by the ruling class that took power in independent Ceylon. The two main parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), both endorsed ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ supremacism. This meant persistent discrimination against ethno-religious minorities, which began right after Independence, when the UNP passed legislation disenfranchising around a million Tamils of recent Indian origin and stripping them of their citizenship. Most of those affected were plantation workers in the central hill country, who were already isolated from other sections of the working class by their confinement to the plantations.

The next major assault on equality occurred when the SLFP, led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, came to power in 1956 and passed the Official Language Act, or ‘Sinhala Only Bill’. The Act discriminated against all Tamil-speakers, especially in public sector employment. It sparked major protests followed by the anti-Tamil riots of 1958, in which far-right Buddhist monks played a major part, assassinating Bandaranaike the following year for not going far enough in persecuting Tamils. The leadership of the SLFP was taken over by his widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Tamil was downgraded and English ceased to act as a link language, in a deliberate attempt to obstruct dialogue between communities.

Such measures were opposed by the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Ceylon (later the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, CPSL). Yet, once they failed to prevent the ratification of the anti-Tamil laws, the left parties did not continue the struggle against discrimination by building solidarity among working people from different linguistic and religious groups. Instead, they formed an alliance with the SLFP in 1964, and the parties jointly established the United Front (UF), which swept to power in 1970. At that point, principled members of the left parties split off, and Tamil socialists were left demoralized by the capitulation of their leaders. The only force that could have carried through the democratic revolution had splintered.

Once in power, the UF’s Land Reform Laws of 1972 and 1975 nationalized the plantations. Yet rather than distributing the land to Tamil workers – who were driven out and left to starve – it was handed to Sinhalese government supporters. In response, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) called for the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam. Militant groups, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), were established to fight for this goal. The LTTE initially attracted some Tamil socialists who believed it was waging a justified struggle for self-determination; but, in reality, the group was always committed to creating a Tamil-supremacist state by ethnically cleansing and killing Sinhalese. It even targeted Tamil-speaking Muslims in the Northern and Eastern Provinces which it claimed as its territory.

Despite all the privileges given to the Sinhalese majority by the UF, dissatisfaction with the regime remained widespread. Significant gains in healthcare and education were cancelled out in the public mind by inflation and food shortages. In 1971, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP or People’s Liberation Front), led by Rohana Wijeweera, launched an armed uprising to overthrow the government – backed overwhelmingly by Sinhalese young men for whom the problems of unemployment and poverty had not been solved by Sinhala Only.

Notwithstanding his self-description as a ‘modern Bolshevik’, Wijeweera’s revolutionary horizons were narrowed by a Sinhala-supremacist outlook which characterized Tamil plantation workers as mere tools of Indian expansionism. His uprising was powerless to reach across ethnic lines, and ultimately crushed by the UF government after a state of emergency was declared. Nonetheless, antipathy towards the ruling party lingered. When parliamentary elections were held in 1977, the UNP led by J.R. Jayawardene returned to power with 140 seats out of 168. He used this super-majority to enact a new constitution and anoint himself Executive President – with almost unlimited powers.

Sinhala dominance was entrenched under Jayawardene, with anti-Tamil pogroms sweeping the country just a month after his election. The 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act precipitated the torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killing of thousands of Tamils. In 1981, an orgy of state-sponsored arson, rape and looting in Jaffna included the burning of the public library, with around 95,000 books and ancient manuscripts inside. The violence then shifted to the east, south and hill-country, with thousands of Tamils evicted from their homes and robbed of their possessions. The even more gruesome massacres of 1983 initiated a civil war between the LTTE and government, which lasted some 26 years.

All this perpetuated the trend set by Jayawardene’s predecessors. But what distinguished his regime was its disastrous neoliberalization programme and unabashed authoritarianism. Production of consumer goods, both agricultural and industrial, was hit by cheaper imports in the 1980s, while the import of luxuries previously unavailable in Sri Lanka added to the drain on foreign exchange. Remittances from migrant workers, tea exports, tourism and new foreign investments failed to fill the gap, due to generous tax holidays and tariff-free imports of inputs. This led to increasing reliance on foreign debt, laying the basis for the current economic crisis.

Meanwhile, Jayawardene attempted to crush all dissent and extinguish democracy. His newly established Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) was deployed in anti-Tamil pogroms, as well as killing opposition supporters, judges, trade unionists and striking workers, all with the collusion of the police. The second JVP insurrection, starting in mid-1987 and ending in late 1989, when Wijeweera was captured and executed, left an estimated 40,000-60,000 Sinhalese slaughtered in that period alone. Death squads targeted opponents of Jayawardene and his successor Ranasinghe Premadasa, frequently abducting and torturing them to death. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the current Sri Lankan Prime Minister, was a government minister throughout this period. The current president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was an army commander. Both were implicated in the mass murder of Tamils and Sinhalese alike.

Since that period, the Executive Presidency has been subjected to an ongoing tug-of-war. Abolishing it has so far proved elusive, because the courts have ruled that this would require a two-thirds majority in parliament plus an absolute majority in a referendum. Yet more modest reforms have occasionally been passed to restrict the presidency’s power. Under the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, from 1994 to 2005, attacks on democracy declined and the 17th Amendment was instituted, removing the president’s ability to unilaterally appoint people to institutions like the Election Commission and Supreme Court. This tentative progress was then reversed under Mahinda Rajapaksa, as state-backed death squads were revived to target dissidents. In 2009, the LTTE was finally defeated in the civil war’s horrific climax, in which an estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed. In tandem, an 18th constitutional amendment reversed Kumaratunga’s reforms and abolished the presidency’s two-term limit.  

Rajapaksa rejected the UN’s demand for an independent investigation into reports of war crimes, framing this as an ‘anti-imperialist’ position. But though his rhetoric played well with some of the electorate, he lost credibility by contributing to the country’s mountain of foreign debt – with new creditors including the Chinese government and private buyers of sovereign bonds. With their popularity in decline, the president and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who, as Defence Secretary, controlled the intelligence agencies – tried to salvage their careers by scapegoating the Muslim population. They funded far-right groups of Buddhist monks, using them to violently attack Muslims while mounting an Islamophobic propaganda campaign through state-controlled media. Under the radar, the Rajapaksas also funded Islamist militants to fight against the LTTE – who remained on the government payroll as informants despite credible intelligence that they had been radicalized.   

Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015, having alienated a large section of the Sinhalese population with the scandalous nepotism and corruption of his regime. In his place, ethnic minorities voted for a fragile Good Governance (Yahapalanaya) coalition between SLFP rebel Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe. The new coalition once again curtailed the powers of the president and reinstated the two-term limit with the 19th Amendment. But it, too, fell apart. The final blow to its credibility was the Easter Sunday terrorist attack in 2019, which killed 269 people in locations across the country. As it turned out, the bombings were perpetrated by the very same Islamists that the Rajapaksas had been bankrolling. Subsequent investigations revealed that during the Yahapalanaya regime, members of the terror group, including mastermind Zahran Hashim, continued to be paid and protected from prosecution by officials who remained loyal to Gotabaya. This was despite Hashim’s proclamation of allegiance to ISIS and ample evidence that his followers were accumulating arms and explosives.  

Yet, counterintuitively, it was the Rajapaksas who benefited from the Easter Sunday massacre. In the resulting panic, the government was weakened and Gotabaya was able to mount an effective presidential campaign, running as the ‘national security’ candidate. Later that year, he topped the poll with 52% of the vote. An alliance led by the Rajapaksas’ new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, also won the parliamentary elections with a large enough majority to pass the 20th Amendment, reversing the 19th. Gotabaya proceeded to pack the cabinet with family members including Mahinda, who was appointed prime minister.  

By this time the economy was already sinking under $51 billion of foreign debt, much of it incurred by the family’s vanity projects and endless siphoning of money out of the country. The Gotabaya regime’s tax cuts made the debt unsustainable, and an overnight ban on imports of chemical fertiliser – implemented in the face of farmer protests – led to a colossal decline in crop yields. As foreign reserves ran out, domestic production of food and exports plummeted, leading to escalating unemployment, sky-rocketing inflation, power cuts and long queues to buy basic goods.

All but the very rich have been affected by this meltdown. Workers have lost jobs, farmers are in crisis and fishermen have no fuel to power their boats. Galloping inflation has eroded wages, and parents have gone hungry in order to feed their children. So, in early March 2022, people of all ages, from all ethnic communities, came out spontaneously with home-made placards bearing slogans such as ‘Go Home Rajapaksas’. They called for democratic reform, the immediate resignation of the president and his government, and an end to economic mismanagement.  

The government ignored these initial protests, but at the end of March a more militant demonstration near Gotabaya Rajapksa’s residence in Colombo was met with water cannons, tear gas and dozens of arrests. There followed a state of emergency, plus a nationwide curfew and social media ban. This heavy-handed response was expected to stamp out the unrest, but it only enabled it to spread. The president subsequently changed tack, trying to appease the demonstrators by reversing his authoritarian measures and forcing the entire cabinet (apart from Mahinda) to resign. But the protests kept up their momentum, and on 9 April activists occupied Galle Face Green: a park in Colombo facing the Presidential Secretariat. This now iconic site has been renamed ‘GotaGoGama’. The crowds were joined by a delegation from 1,000 different trade unions, who staged a general strike – the first in four decades – calling for the government to step down. 

A month later, pro-government thugs began to carry out violent attacks on the protests. Yet their resistance was so powerful that Mahinda was ultimately compelled to step down. He was evacuated from his home by security forces while the military was deployed with shoot-on-sight orders. With international criticism of the government growing, Gotabaya installed Ranil Wickremesinghe – the leader of the United National Party – as Prime Minister on 12 May. But although Wickremesinghe may be popular with the IMF, he is deeply disliked by the masses. His proposed 21st Amendment has been widely seen as a betrayal of the protesters’ demands, and his invitation to youth groups to sit on parliamentary committees has been met with the silence it deserves.

The numbers in favour of abolishing the Executive Presidency are currently smaller than those calling for Gotabaya’s resignation, but the demand is gaining traction. This creates an opening for activists, who can now push for a broader process of political restructuring which would devolve power to provincial and local governments. It also provides a space for progressive solutions to the country’s economic crisis. Socialist economists have long advocated a public audit that would repudiate Sri Lanka’s illegitimate debt, in defiance of the IMF. They have argued for importing only essential items like food and medicine and putting in place a public distribution system, while encouraging cooperative producers and defending public ownership of utilities, healthcare and education.

At GotaGoGama, Sinhalese and Tamils have reportedly celebrated New Year together, and various religious groups have shared in the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Meanwhile, in the south, people have turned out for the very first time to mourn the Tamils killed in the civil war. Such developments suggest an easing of ethnic and religious tensions, despite the Rajapaksas attempts to stoke them. When I was conducting interviews for my 1993 book, Journey Without a Destination, the vast majority of Tamil and Muslim refugees and displaced people were admirably free of ethnic hatred, despite all they had suffered. I heard numerous stories of Sinhalese friends, neighbours, colleagues and even total strangers saving the lives of Tamils. I also encountered prejudice, especially among the Sinhalese, yet this flowed from the profound ignorance engendered by the Sinhala Only policy, as well as the suppression of dissident voices and relentless disinformation in the media. When experience contradicted propaganda, though, people were often willing to think anew. And this is precisely what is happening at present. Perhaps, if Sri Lanka’s fractured left can harness this sense of solidarity, the economic catastrophe may create the conditions for a democratic breakthrough.

Read on: A. Sivanandan, ‘An Island Tragedy’, NLR 60.


Crowd Pleaser

Ruben Östlund was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s top honour this year, winning the Palme d’Or for Triangle of Sadness. He joins a rarefied group of directors – one that includes fellow Swede Alf Sjöberg, Francis Ford Coppolla, Emir Kusturica, Shohei Imamura, the Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach – to have won the award more than once; he now has as many as all female directors combined. Following Michael Haneke and Billie August, he is the third director to receive the award for back-to-back films, having also won in 2017 for his fifth film The Square. The two projects are not so differently shaped: while The Square looks at the art world and the wealthy idiots who inhabit it; Triangle of Sadness begins with the fashion world before moving on to wealthy idiots more generally.

It makes a funny kind of sense that these two films have been so well received at Cannes. The festival is one of hyper-opulence, with its red-carpet, black-tie premieres held in the Grand Théâtre Lumière, a two-thousand-seat palace wedged neatly between superyachts and luxury hotels. By awarding Östlund the Palme, the jury can position themselves as in on the joke: we know you’re mocking us, but we’re laughing, too. Wouldn’t he rather they boo? Östlund does not appear overly concerned with social change; his films are less satire than farce. He treads the careful line of the court jester – wanting to make the king wince while he giggles, just not enough to risk his own head. ‘I believe that rich people are nice,’ Östlund explained in one interview about Triangle of Sadness. ‘There’s an ongoing myth that successful and rich people are horrible, but it’s reductive. I wanted the sweet old English couple to be the most sympathetic characters in the film. They are nice and respectful to everyone – they just happen to have made their money on landmines and hand grenades.’ The film has rather too much sympathy for its wealthy subjects. Its underlying premise seems to be that whether rich or poor, we’re all the same – all driven by the same interest in self-preservation – which perhaps explains why Östlund never draws blood.

Told in three parts, Triangle of Sadness begins with a largely superfluous send-up of the fashion industry. Taking its cues from Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno (2009), it doesn’t stray much further. An obnoxious television personality invades a casting call and has the male models smile or frown depending on what brand they represent. Expensive clothes require sorrow; cheap ones, joy. Among the models is Carl (Harris Dickenson), who, aged 25 in real life, may be aging out of the industry. The frown lines above his brow become the title of the film, after one casting director asks if they can do something about his ‘triangle of sadness’. Carl is dating Yaya (Charlbi Dean), an Instagram influencer who makes far more money than he does – modelling being the rare industry where women earn more than men. This is cause for conflict in their relationship, with Carl advocating a quasi-feminist equality to escape from paying the bill. Östlund’s intervention here is meant to be on the terrain of gender politics – wouldn’t it be crazy if men relied on their looks? – but this opening section has little payoff. Mostly, it begs the question of what constitutes a prostitute, with Carl and Yaya selling their bodies in different ways.

Following an excruciating argument about whether money-talk is ‘sexy’, we next encounter the pair on a luxury cruise, made possible by Yaya’s follower-count. On board are billionaires of differing detestability. The least offensive seems to be modelled on Markus Persson, also known as Notch, the Swedish game developer who sold Minecraft for $2.5B in 2014. He has plenty of money but lacks social skills, at one point offering to buy Yaya a Rolex for the meagre kindness of appearing in a photograph. Other billionaires include the aforementioned English couple, who thankfully meet a fitting end, and a charismatic Russian who, having made his fortune from a manure monopoly in Eastern Europe, calls himself the ‘king of shit’. Then there are the underlings, a crew with its own hierarchy: the non-white janitors, technicians, and cooks; the front-facing white women who pour champagne; an obsequious crew captain who tells her team to ‘think of the money’ when things get tough; and the ship’s captain (Woody Harrelson), who enjoys reading Marx and getting drunk.

The second act culminates with the Captain’s Dinner, where spoiled guests are served spoiled food during a spell of bad weather. They naturally end up quite sick. The sequence was the most uproarious I encountered at Cannes, prompting several minutes of laughter, as well as sending a few queasy press members running for the exit. But though a night of vomiting and diarrhoea, complete with exploding toilets and fecal floods, might seem appropriate punishment for arms dealers and other malefactors, Östlund does not intend for the sequence to be merely a moral comeuppance: ‘the audience should feel that they have suffered enough and want them to be saved’, he explains. More sympathy for the devil? Pirates then invade the floating microcosm and send it belly up. A select few from the ship survive and make it to a nearby island – Carl and Yaya, the crew captain, the tech nerd, the Russian oligarch, a janitor named Abigail, and a few others. Here, society is dramatically reordered. When it becomes clear that Abigail is the only one with any practical skills – a joke at the decoupling of wealth from genuine value – she eagerly takes on the role of a despot, offering each islander an extra portion of octopus if they agree to bend the knee. The Russian recites some wisdom from his school days in response: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’

Marx is rarely more than a punchline in Triangle of Sadness. This is in spite of Östlund being raised in a left-wing family and seeming to know the texts quite well. A retired schoolteacher in Sweden, Östlund’s mother remains an active member of her nation’s Communist party and sometimes strays into party-independent activism as well – such as when she asked her son to film an anti-NATO video in 2016. Östlund agreed, describing her commitment to this cause as ‘admirable and important’. He has not always felt so at ease with his mother’s politics: ‘Mum had books by both Marx and Lenin, and when friends came around, I’d turn the Lenin books around so that the spines were hidden. I understood that they were controversial in the eyes of others.’ That fear of offending the wrong people seems to have persisted. If his mother’s views had an uneven impact on Ruben, they made even less impact on his brother, who became a member of Sweden’s conservative-right. Östlund speaks of his time at the dinner table as one of being between two political extremes: ‘I am used to strong discussions about these two Western-Eastern ideologies’. A scene in Triangle of Sadness reverses this staging, pitting a Russian capitalist against an American communist: the king of shit against the ship’s captain. Drunk and locked in the captain’s quarters, the two take turns reading choice quotes from their phones – Thatcher versus Edward Abbey, Reagan versus Mao. It’s not a bad way of portraying most political debates today, but the effect is to position Östlund as the enlightened centrist, smarter than either side.

The Square provoked criticism from some left-wing critics, which Östlund felt was unfounded. ‘They want a sentimental portrait of poor people’, he claimed. ‘That’s bullshit! Poor people are living in tragedy. And their awful circumstances can create bad behaviours. I worry sometimes that some left-wing people misunderstand Marx.’ Östlund considers his approach a sociological one, which depicts individuals operating within a collective whose structures shape their behaviour. ‘If I look at what I learned from home, the one really useful thing was the analysis of Marx and his theories. That society comes from our position in an economical hierarchy. And that how we behave is determined by where we are according to the concept of production.’ For Östlund, ‘how we behave’ seems specifically linked to his preferred form for examining ‘society’, the comedy of manners, where in his most recent films, conflict arises from the incongruity of a class structure that forces upper and lower to mingle in the middle. His wealthy are well-mannered, his poor are often not, and this is meant as some ironic subversion of the cruelty inherent in the system.

Triangle of Sadness’s shipwreck might well undo all this, but instead what it presents is the persistence of ruthless social hierarchy – we may question whether here Östlund himself misunderstands Marx. In its progression from superyacht to survivor-island, the film suggests that we’re all foremost driven by greed and that capitalism, therefore, is merely an outgrowth, and natural conclusion to this uniquely human impulse. This is the West’s founding myth: that rationally self-interested individuals have been engaging in acts of truck, barter and exchange since the dawn of history, and that this process is inherently capitalistic. Despite appearances, therefore, Östlund films are ultimately less concerned with institutions or structures than the apparent verities of human nature. Barbarism is figured as a kind of blastema; manners, as dressing for the wound.

The Square and Triangle of Sadness both stage their best sequences during ritzy dinner parties. In the former, an artist enters the room acting as a gorilla, terrorizing the wealthy diners to the extent that they eventually pin him to the ground and beat him. Another descent into savagery. Is the artist here meant to represent Östlund? It’s hard to imagine his films provoking such animosity. They go too far to flatter their subjects; exploitation is figured as merely something awkward for all those involved. It may be incorrect to call the director a court jester – Lear’s fool, after all, spoke truth to power, acted as the king’s conscious, was the smartest in the room. Östlund, I fear, is more like a clown for hire, harmlessly squirting water in people’s faces, crafting intricate but hollow animals from balloons, smiling widely as he toots his horn. He’s just happy to be at the party.

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


Persistent Presence

On 16 May, just months after the United States precipitously withdrew from Afghanistan, President Biden announced that US ground troops would return to Somalia and establish a ‘persistent presence’ – reversing the Trump-era withdrawal. His top general for Africa, Stephen Townsend, attested that since the US departure in January 2021, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country had grown ‘bigger, stronger, and bolder’. After a decade and a half of US and African Union training, the Somali national army was still unable to defend its territory. In response, Biden’s team have defaulted to the classic US policy of endless war. Some 500 US troops will return to train and assist Somali forces in counterterrorism operations, with the aim of killing a dozen extremist leaders deemed a direct threat to the United States, its interests and its allies.  

US military intervention in Africa has consistently bolstered repressive regimes, enflamed local conflicts and undermined prospects for regional peace. Somalia is a prime example. During the Cold War, the United States helped to build the Somali army, despite the government’s brutal treatment of dissenters. President Siad Barre was seen as a useful ally against the Marxist government of Ethiopia, which Somalia challenged for regional dominance. By the early 1990s, however, the despot was no longer needed as a local policeman. Washington suspended military and economic aid, permitting warlords and their militias to overthrow his regime. Siad Barre fled to Nigeria and Somalia’s central government collapsed. State institutions and public services crumbled, the formal economy ceased to function, and southern Somalia fractured into fiefdoms ruled by rival warlords who clashed with a resurgent Islamist movement. War-induced famine, compounded by drought, threatened much of the population.

Concerned about regional instability on the strategic Gulf of Aden – through which Middle Eastern oil and natural gas reached the West – the US, backed by the United Nations, launched an intervention in 1992, with the Security Council authorizing the establishment of a multinational military task force under US leadership to ensure the delivery of humanitarian relief. The following year, another UN mission permitted US-led forces to disarm and arrest Somali warlords and militia members. The US began to take sides in what had become a bloody civil war – favouring some warlords over others. Civilians were predictably caught in the crossfire. Many were killed in US airstrikes, eliciting a furious backlash from the population. When two Black Hawk helicopters – deployed as part of a US Special Operations Forces mission – were shot down by Somali militias in October 1993, angry crowds attacked the surviving soldiers and their rescuers. Eighteen US troops and hundreds of Somali men, women and children were killed in the ensuing violence.

Having stirred up a hornets’ nest, the United States hastily withdrew from Somalia. Yet the emergence of al-Qaeda elsewhere in East Africa sparked new US concerns. The bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, followed by the 9/11 attacks in 2001, led to increased US collaboration with Ethiopia, Somalia’s regional nemesis. At the same time, Somali Islamist groups gained widespread support by providing essential social services, including schools, medical care and courts that brought some semblance of order to the war zone. Ignoring the reasons for Islamism’s popular appeal, Washington embarked on a violent and counterproductive campaign to stamp it out. The US banded together with Somali warlords and the Ethiopian government, helping to impose a corrupt government on the country in 2004. In 2006, Washington backed a subsequent warlord coalition to counter the Islamist threat, and supported an Ethiopian invasion and occupation that lasted until 2009. This precipitated a domestic insurgency led by al-Shabaab, originally a youth militia organized to defend the Islamic courts, which quickly transformed into a violent jihadist organization that gained the support of al-Qaeda.

By 2007, al-Shabaab had taken control of large swathes of central and southern Somalia – prompting the UN, African Union and neighbouring countries to intervene. The US worked in the shadows, launching a low-intensity war against al-Shabaab operatives, deploying both private contractors and Special Operations Forces to train and accompany Somali and African Union troops in combat operations. US drones and airstrikes killed key al-Shabaab leaders (to no avail, as they were rapidly replaced by others). As a result, al-Shabaab increasingly focused its attention on the West – targeting aid workers, journalists and Somalis who worked with them.

A decade and a half later, al-Shabaab maintains its powerful foothold in the absence of any functioning state apparatus. Although a new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was elected in May 2022 after a protracted political crisis, the central government still cannot provide basic services in the territories it holds. There is no coherent national army, and the security forces, like the civilian government, are riven by clan-based factions who have used their US training to fight each other instead of al-Shabaab. The government caters to corrupt elites, ignoring the grievances that ignited the insurgency, while the US continues to wage its shadow war. The Obama administration dramatically escalated the use of drones and airstrikes to kill al-Shabaab insurgents, killing hundreds of innocent civilians in the process. In 2013, restrictions were introduced to diminish civilian casualties; yet their impact was minimized by a get-out clause for cases of ‘self-defense’. Upon taking office, the Trump administration reinstated more lenient policies on civilian deaths, intensifying its attacks before withdrawing most US forces in order to deploy them elsewhere. Now, Biden’s recent reversal has brought the policy full circle.

Various lessons can be learned from the US’s ill-fated military adventure in Somalia. One is that it internationalized what had been a local conflict, strengthening violent extremist factions and precipitating al-Qaeda involvement. Far from containing the bloodshed, external intervention increased it – expanding the war such that, by 2016, it included new players associated with the Islamic State. Likewise, peace initiatives brokered by outside actors have repeatedly foundered. Large segments of Somali civil society were not invited to the bargaining table, grassroots peace-building and nation-building efforts were ignored, and the interests of foreign governments and Somali elites prevailed over those of ordinary citizens. Consequently, no negotiated settlement has been able to garner popular support.

Advisors in consecutive Trump and Biden administrations have disagreed on how to manage the Somali debacle. The former concluded that US troops should leave, the latter that they must stay. Yet both Democrats and Republicans have consistently posed the wrong question. The issue is not how many troops, planes or drones the US should supply; rather, it is how to resolve the underlying political and economic grievances that generate instability. Accepting this fact would require a major shift in global outlook. Rather than understanding ‘national security’ as the imperative to protect US hegemony against perceived threats, it would demand that policymakers embrace a more exacting concept of ‘global human security’ – one that focuses on people rather than territory, and includes access to food, water, healthcare, education, employment and physical security, as well as respect for civil liberties and the environment. This multidimensional approach would recognize that the security of a state is premised on the protection of such needs, both inside and outside its borders. The Somali government’s failure to meet them allows movements like al-Shabaab to flourish. Without addressing these shortfalls, no amount of targeted killing or aerial bombardment will weaken the influence of these groups.

A more effective foreign policy would also acknowledge that grassroots organizations – agricultural cooperatives, trade unions, women’s and youth groups – are best placed to understand Somalia’s material problems and their solutions. If outside powers have any role in ending the conflict, it is to support local peace initiatives that include all affected parties: bringing such civil society groups into dialogue with other key actors, including Islamist and jihadist organizations. Yet this remains a distant prospect. Instead, Biden’s recent announcement has simply reaffirmed the standard playbook: propping up a repressive government, launching endless military strikes that kill civilians and engaging on an ad-hoc basis with enterprising warlords. The inevitable failure of this strategy will once again demonstrate that there are no easy fixes or short-term solutions to Somalia’s secular crises. Only a long-term process of structural reform can bring them to an end.

Read on: Alex de Waal, ‘US War Crimes in Somalia’, NLR I/230.