No Winners

In Ethiopia, the last few months have seen a dramatic reshuffling of cards. With signs that the federal government are preparing to enter peace talks, the tripartite alliance waging war on the northernmost Ethiopian regional state of Tigray has broken down. The belligerents had been united by overlapping interests – Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sought to consolidate his rule and remove the region’s oppositional ruling party; Eritrea to avenge its defeat in the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian war at the hands of a Tigray-dominated army; militias from the neighbouring Amhara state to ‘reclaim’ land from Tigray. Today however, cordial relations between Abiy and Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, which earned the former a Nobel Peace Prize and set the stage for war, have been replaced by mutual suspicion; Eritrea has tellingly recalled its ambassador, replacing him with a chargé d’affaires. Meanwhile, Abiy’s government is now pursuing a campaign of pacification against its erstwhile Amhara nationalist allies.

The offensive launched on Tigray in November 2020 was initially a success. Abiy declared victory after a matter of weeks, when the regional capital of Mekele was overtaken. Yet setbacks soon followed. The alliance was dislodged from the main cities by a Tigrayan offensive in mid-2021, and by December Tigrayan forces had advanced southwards through Amhara to within 200 km of the federal capital of Addis Ababa (triggering the government to call a state of emergency and engage in mass detainment of Tigrayans civilians). These forces were subsequently pushed back to the Tigrayan border, after drones from Abiy’s foreign benefactors began to inflict heavy costs. But the Tigrayan leadership insisted that the reasons were also political. The fact that both sides halted at the border indicated that some form of agreement, probably through American intermediaries, had been reached. Since then, the warrying parties have largely avoided open confrontation, and in March this year, Abiy’s government declared a ceasefire which was accepted by Tigray.

Eritrea remains insistent on eradicating Tigray’s ruling party, blaming Abiy’s lack of resolve for not having managed to do so; so too, the Amhara nationalists, who believe that Abiy’s forces provided insufficient protection to Amhara areas that fell under Tigrayan control. Yet while it is too soon to ascertain whether Abiy’s government now intends to engage in good-faith negotiations – and with the blockade on Tigray continuing to starve its population and economy – the deterioration of the alliance suggests that the regime has realized the war is unwinnable. That such conditions for peace have developed to the extent they have has little to do with the ‘concern’ of the ‘international community’ of powerful western states, which was never matched by any willingness to damage relations with a compliant regime. Neither has the African Union shown any inclination to embarrass Addis Ababa. The lesson that the conflict holds for similar regions, nationalities and communities is that both defence and liberation remain dependent on one’s own forces.

For Abiy, peace negotiations would be a de facto acceptance of defeat. Though there are no Ethiopian winners of this war, whereas the Tigrayan regional government can at least claim to have successfully defended its state’s self-administration, Abiy’s government has achieved none of its aims. It has not captured the ‘fugitive’ leaders of Tigray’s ruling party in what it labelled a mere ‘law enforcement operation’, and it has not been able to assert federal government rule in the region. It has, however, created a humanitarian catastrophe, with up to half a million Tigrayans said to have died from war and famine, wrecked the economy, compromised the sovereignty and imperilled the integrity of the country. With his ambitions thwarted, Abiy is now essentially a lame-duck akin to Omar al-Bashir in the aftermath of the 2005 peace deal between the Sudanese government and South Sudan (though the future status of Tigray remains an open question, and the Tigrayan leadership will likely look for a settlement short of secession in the medium term).

Abiy’s Prosperity Party, much like al-Bashir’s National Congress Party, will emerge from a war that devastated the country but achieved none of its aims and will now be forced to share power with an organization that represents those it has brutalized. It has serious explaining to do, even to those who parties and populations that supported the war. While no immediate organized threat has presented itself (partly because Abiy’s security forces and courts are busy preventing any credible opposition from emerging in areas it controls), a retreat is evident. Whereas former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi once boasted that his party’s writ ran in every village, Abiy appears to have little control over even the regional branches of his own party. He is more often portrayed touring new parks in the capital than in exercising power over the republic, and the most notable project launched by his government in the last year is the construction of a new palace for himself, at the shocking cost of a billion US dollars.

Meanwhile, Abiy’s government must deliver on the deceptively named ‘home-grown economic reform agenda’ he has promised its foreign financiers, which includes the privatization of key public assets in sectors recently opened to foreign ownership, devaluation and liberalisation of foreign currency and exchange rate controls, establishment of stock and secondary bond exchange markets open to foreign capital, liberalisation of finance sector policies, deregulation of large-scale mining projects, the removal of trade tariffs and barriers, and expedition of WTO accession. The US-European agenda is to pry the Ethiopian economy open and to have its public assets brought under private ownership. This aligns with the ambition of the elite of the Prosperity Party (which has jokingly been called the Property Party) to profit from such a process. Other powers, such as Turkey and the UAE, now have militarized interests in the country, and Abiy is indebted to them too. In one way or another, they will look to collect on their debt.

The realization that the war in Tigray is unwinnable has unfortunately not prompted the same realization in Oromia, where the federal government is doubling down on militarizing the conflict against the Oromo Liberation Army. The insurgency was no more than a minor nuisance when Abiy came to power in 2018. Yet his government’s attempts to suppress opposition to his rule – in a similar manner to in Tigray – has transformed it into a major problem. In Oromia there have also been several recent cases in which the rebels have been allegedly implicated in mass atrocities. In the past month alone, at least two massacres of mostly non-Oromo civilians – each numbering in the hundreds – have occurred there. The rebels have denied culpability and pointed to the government side. Neither belligerent have a convincing historical record in this regard, however, as both have repeatedly targeted national minorities in the past. The population in Oromia find themselves increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place.

At the same time, the Western Zone of Tigray – also called Welkait – remains under federal military and Amhara administrative control. This zone saw some of the worst crimes of the war, as the Amhara authorities sought to cleanse it of its Tigrayan population, and Amhara authorities have vowed not to relinquish control under any circumstances. Its border with Sudan has also been the site of massive Eritrean military deployment, intended to prevent Tigrayan forces from breaking the blockade. Over the last few months, Amhara militias in the zone have been reined in by federal forces. But should it be returned to Tigrayan administration, this will likely produce a major revolt against Abiy’s government in the Amhara region. Yet any negotiated solution that does not return the western zone to its constitutional pre-war status opens the door for the annexation of other embattled areas. Since all regional states of the Ethiopian federation have border disputes with neighbouring ones, and all are in command of armed forces that occasionally clash or carry out atrocities on each other’s civilian populations, this could trigger the full-scale implosion of the Ethiopian federal state.

Abiy’s regime has driven a wedge between Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia which is unlikely to be removed anytime soon. The scapegoating and ostracization of Tigrayans across Ethiopia even before the war indicates that this constituted an intentional sacrifice at the altar of Abiy’s desire to become the uncontested ruler of a re-centralized empire-state. But Abiy and his lieutenants have also, for short sighted reasons, created bitter animosities between Ethiopia’s other nations and nationalities. How does one reconcile the fact that while Abiy’s Prosperity Party commands every regional state except Tigray, these states find themselves in conflict with each other? The reason is the corruption and clientelism of the Prosperity Party leadership, its lack of a coherent political programme, and its resultant lack of legitimacy. Without any ability to generate widespread support, its only method of retaining power is to rile up new inter-ethnic conflicts.

The role of Eritrea in the conflict will also have long-lasting implications. Removing it from Ethiopian affairs has predictably not been as straightforward as inviting it to join the war on Tigray. Despite Abiy’s newfound desire to rein in its role, it remains in control over areas across its borders, and is training and creating direct alliances with Amhara and Afar militias, bypassing the federal government. The divisions that Abiy has exacerbated is liable to be exploited by external interests. The unprecedented penetration of Al-Shabaab forces from Somalia in July is further evidence of this. Ethiopian sovereignty remains deeply compromised, but it is the internal crisis that generates these opportunities.

Ethiopia therefore comes out of this war in a terribly worsened condition. The polity is now broken, state power having shrunk into something more akin to mayorship over Addis Ababa. Social cohesion and cross-national solidarity have nearly vanished, replaced by extreme polarization. The economy is in tatters, with hyperinflation across the country. Peace in Tigray will only be a first step towards the reconstruction of the country and the rebuilding of cross-national solidarities. It also requires the demilitarization of the conflict in Oromia; the combination of real national self-determination with the protection of the rights of national minorities; the demobilization of irredentist militias; the bringing of the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes to justice; and the reestablishment of Ethiopian sovereignty over its affairs. But above all, it requires the formulation of a coherent social programme that addresses the poverty, inequality and exploitation that is fertile ground for demagogues like Abiy and his corrupt cabal.

Read on: Zenon Merida, ‘Ethiopia’, NLR I/30.


A New Sorpasso?

Over the last decade, many left-wing activists have been heartened by events in Spain. While progressive projects ran aground elsewhere in Europe, Podemos rapidly rose to prominence before entering government as a junior coalition partner in early 2020. Yet, since then, its experience of state power has served as a cautionary tale. Podemos’s initial radicalism has been stifled by the strictures of government and the compromises of coalition politics. It has failed to pass significant political reforms or fix the structural problems in the Spanish economy. As a result, its base is atomized and its popularity is trending downwards. If the left is to remain relevant, it must learn how to revive its insurgent energy without forfeiting its influence.  

How did Podemos enter an electoral sphere dominated by two longstanding centrist parties, the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE)? Thanks to the so-called ‘economic miracle’ that started in the 1980s, Spain became one of the best-performing countries in the European Union, experiencing sustained growth rates and an unprecedented real estate boom. House prices rose by 8% per year from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, while neoliberal labour and welfare reforms were applauded by the ‘modernizers’ in Brussels. Yet, when the 2008 financial crisis hit, it became clear that the Iberian Tiger had feet of clay. Its economic model – which was heavily reliant on tourism, construction and cheap, casualised labour – proved unsustainable once the large financial institutions that fuelled the construction bubble found themselves on the brink of collapse. The government bailed them out at a hefty price, and the Spanish people were forced to foot the bill.

The PP and PSOE were held equally responsible for this disaster. In 2011, the Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero rolled out a series of brutal austerity programmes that slashed public spending and caused the unemployment rate to rise above 25%. In doing so, he ignited a popular uprising. More than three million people staged demonstrations and occupied public squares across the country, in what became known as the Indignados Movement. Protests camps were set up – foreshadowing Occupy Wall Street – and activists held sit-ins at major banks. Polls showed that 70% of the public supported their demands for more democratic participation, employment, housing, public services and an end to the corruption of the political class.

Podemos was founded in 2014 to give this nascent struggle institutional form. It claimed to represent a new left, capable of channelling the anti-austerity movement while avoiding the minoritarian politics of older radical parties like Izquierda Unida. Its Laclauian approach involved speaking to broad social sectors – in the style of the Latin American Pink Tide – rather than the usual band of true believers. Podemos’s leader, Pablo Iglesias – a young political science professor from Complutense University who had already demonstrated his charisma as a regular guest on TV talk shows – came to embody this strategy. Instead of opposing ‘the right’, he focussed his attacks on la casta: a term borrowed from the Italian Five Star Movement, which presented the PP and PSOE as part of the same elite set.

From the outset, Podemos expressed the democratizing spirit of the Indignados Movement. Its first manifesto sought to frame diverse policy issues – economic, environmental, social, international – in terms of democratic rights. Proposals included the establishment of regular referendums, popular law initiatives and recall votes, as well as radical measures to combat corruption and increase transparency. Its economic platform, designed with the help of Thomas Piketty, had a strong eco-socialist current, setting out a series of green transition initiatives that have since gained mainstream acceptance. The party pledged to restore public investment and outlined a ‘new model of production’, which would combine green reindustrialization with investment in technology and the ‘knowledge economy’.  

Unlike Italy’s Five Star Movement and La France Insoumise, Podemos never entertained the prospect of exiting the euro, let alone the European Union. But it promised to break with Troika fiscal policy and restructure the country’s public debt, calling for a rescate ciudadano (citizens’ bailout) to repair the social devastation wrought by elites. It also advocated a guaranteed income, between €600 and €1,300 per month for poorer households, to be funded by new taxes on high incomes and financial entities. When the media attacked Podemos as communist or ‘Bolivarian’, Iglesias pointed out that, just a few decades ago, its manifesto would have been seen as a traditional social-democratic programme.  

Iglesias’s pitch was seductive. Just a few months after Podemos was established, it won 8% in the European elections, before picking up 20% in the national ballot the next year. Its ambition was to enact a sorpasso in which it would leapfrog the PSOE and become the official opposition, while the centre-left Pasokified itself and faded into obscurity. As part of this strategy, Iglesias decided to ally with other left parties including Izquierda Unida and rebrand as Unidas Podemos before the snap elections of 2016. This move was intended to consolidate the left’s gains by establishing a unified electoral bloc. Yet its effect was to sow division among the leadership. The mastermind of Podemos’s populist strategy, Iñigo Errejón, saw it as a betrayal of the party’s original purpose: to transcend the radical left tradition and court disenfranchised voters on the basis of their shared interests. By joining with Izquierda Unida, he claimed, Podemos would lose the political novelty on which its entire appeal was based. From this point on, Podemos was increasingly beset by internecine conflict. Having made no headway in the 2016 election – which returned a PP minority government under Mariano Rajoy – it entered a period of secular decline.

Although Podemos continued to act as a vocal opposition to the PP, it now occupied a different place in the Spanish public sphere. Having initially captured the sense of solidarity generated by the Indignados, it had since succumbed to a familiar sectarianism. Several bruising local election defeats indicated its waning organizational capacity and the weakness of its cadres. In the Madrilenian regional elections of 2019, Errejón dropped the Podemos brand and ran as part of an alliance with other small parties and civil society groups, mimicking the mayoral campaigns of Ada Colau in Barcelona and Manuela Carmena in Madrid. This precipitated a final rupture with Iglesias, in which Errejón jumped ship to found his own political party, Más País. Other leading figures such as Carolina Bescansa and Luis Alegre departed soon thereafter, citing a lack of internal pluralism.

By this time, however, the PP had been forced out of office amid multiple corruption scandals, and the PSOE, led by Pedro Sánchez, was struggling to keep its minority administration afloat. When the April 2019 snap elections returned an inconclusive result, Sánchez was forced to enter coalition talks with Unidas Podemos. These initially went nowhere, as the Socialists refused to make meaningful policy concessions. But in a follow-up election that November, both Unidas Podemos and the PSOE were punished by voters: the former reached a nadir of 12.8%, while the latter declined to 28%. Rattled by this poor showing, plus the strong performance of the Francoist Vox party, Sánchez changed tack and struck a deal with Iglesias, granting Unidas Podemos the powerful Ministry of Labour as well as greater policy influence. Since then, the left has continued to see its electoral support ebb away; yet it has also had a rare opportunity to put some of its ideas into practice.

Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz, a representative for the Spanish Communist Party who ran as part of the Unidas Podemos coalition, has achieved a series of impressive policy victories during her two-year tenure. In the first weeks of the pandemic, she introduced the Expediente de Regulación Temporal de Empleo (ERTE) – the functional equivalent of the UK’s furlough scheme – which covered 3.6 million workers and was praised for its faultless rollout. She subsequently introduced a historic labour reform to limit the use of temporary contracts, which Iglesias described ‘the most important law in the legislature’. The bill, which has so far tripled the number of permanent contracts in the Spanish job market, passed with a majority of just one, after a Popular Party MP accidentally voted in favour by pressing the wrong button. Diaz has also increased the minimum wage by 33.5% and issued a €200 cheque to poor households to help with the cost-of-living crisis. Podemos’s guaranteed minimum income programme has now been officially adopted, with poorer households eligible for an ‘Ingreso Minimo Vital’ ranging from €560 to €1,400 per month.

But these successes have been offset by many disappointments. Podemos has seen its policies consistently watered-down or obstructed by a Socialist Party whose economic agenda remains unabashedly pro-market. The roll-out of the Ingreso Minimo Vital, overseen by the Socialist Minister for Inclusion and Social Security, has been incompetent at best. A combination of underfunding, bureaucratic complexity and a lack of personnel to process the applications means that the benefit reaches only half the households it is supposed to cover. Meanwhile, the PSOE Economy Minister Nadia Calviño – a deficit hawk with close ties to the financial sector – has stonewalled Podemos’s fiscal policies and refused to countenance new wealth taxes. The Socialists have fought tooth-and-nail against the introduction of rent controls and dragged their feet over a windfall tax on energy companies. Such recalcitrance speaks to their broader refusal to reform Spain’s broken economic model, which remains over-reliant on construction and an unproductive service sector. There has been little progress in addressing high unemployment rates – close to 14% – or expanding the undersized manufacturing industry, since fixing such problems would require a level of interventionism which the PSOE is unwilling to contemplate.  

Podemos has therefore been forced to confront both the obstinate realities of institutional politics and the inertial tendencies of Spain’s rentier capitalist economy. This hasn’t helped its poll ratings, which hover at around 10%. Many erstwhile supporters are frustrated with the party’s ineffectual performance and feel that it has been duped by its coalition partners. Meanwhile, its failure to establish workable democratic structures continues to damage its credibility. The fact that Podemos cannot properly manage factional conflict means that internal struggles frequently break out into the open, damaging the organization as a whole. In the run up to the recent Andalusian elections, the Anticapitalistas – a Trotskyist outfit which played an important role in Podemos’s formation – decided to break away, claiming that the party had strayed too far from its original principles. When the vote was held, the left suffered heavy losses.

A further blow for Podemos came with its defeat in the Madrid regional elections of May 2021. Iglesias had stepped down as Deputy Prime Minister in order to lead the campaign, which was meant to rally grassroots support and secure a local foothold for the party. But his decision to focus his attacks on Vox, and present Podemos as a bulwark against the far right, failed to cut through. After winning a paltry 7% of the vote, he abandoned institutional politics altogether and returned to media punditry. In Iglesias’s absence, Yolanda Diaz may become the most important player in the party’s regeneration. She is currently trying to forge a new electoral platform called Sumar (meaning ‘to sum up’ or ‘unite’). As the name suggests, its mission is to overcome both the ideological and geographical divisions that have constrained the Spanish left. It has already secured the support of Izquierda Unida, Más Pais and Podemos, as well as regional formations such as the Valencian Compromis and the Catalunyan Comuns. Bringing these forces into a single political entity will be crucial to winning back the million or so voters that Podemos has lost since 2016, while also gaining the support of subaltern classes who typically shun the ballot box. If this ambitious strategy succeeds, it could open the door to a sorpasso of the kind that Podemos unsuccessfully attempted several years ago – relegating the PSOE to the status of junior partner in a left-led government.

Diaz’s profile may help her to carry out this momentous task. According to opinion polls, her record as Labour Minister has made her the most popular politician in Spain. Although her policies are radical, she has an instinct for pragmatic dealmaking and a softer rhetorical style than Iglesias. To her supporters, this makes her the perfect figure to reconcile Podemos’s institutionalization with its foundational idealism. But her approach also has its detractors in the party leadership, who believe they will continue to haemorrhage support if they retain their agreement with the PSOE after the next election. Further cracks have emerged over the Ukraine conflict, with Diaz proving more reluctant to criticize NATO than many of her comrades. Such cleavages reflect the basic fact that winning over disenchanted voters and unifying the left are two very different aims. Diaz wants to do both; but by moderating her position to appeal to wavering parts of the electorate she may end up alienating vital sections of her progressive bloc. It remains to be seen how she will attempt to solve this electoral puzzle. Recapturing the spirit of the Indignados will be no small feat when confronted with a recalcitrant PSOE, a demoralized electorate and a rising far right. Yet the Spanish left has already demonstrated a unique ability to defy the odds – and Diaz may do so again.  

Read on: Pablo Iglesias, ‘Understanding Podemos’, NLR 93.


Tory Fractures

On 20 July, when the field of UK prime ministerial contenders was whittled down to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, an unnamed Conservative MP briefed that party members would now be forced to decide between a ‘backstabber’ and a ‘moron’. This was a fair assessment. Whoever wins the leadership election will be no more fit for office than their toppled predecessor. But its outcome will nevertheless have major implications for Britain’s macroeconomic direction. If the candidates’ pledges are to be believed, fiscal policy will either stay on its current course, as set by the backstabber during his time at the Treasury, or it will diverge sharply, as the moron rips up the status quo. The new premier will not only decide the fate of the ambiguous political formation known as Johnsonism; they may also get to define the contemporary meaning of another, equally contested legacy: Thatcherism.

Sunak and Truss are each posing as the legitimate heir to these traditions, yet they have adopted markedly different perspectives on them. The former Chancellor describes his outlook as a ‘common-sense Thatcherism’ that prioritises whipping inflation over cutting taxes. His doxa is based on fiscal responsibility and reluctance to increase the public debt. He condemns borrowing as ‘immoral’ short-termism and insists that the tax burden can only be lightened when such reductions are within our means. The costly measures he implemented during the pandemic – such as the furlough scheme and Universal Credit uplift – were, he says, necessary to boost demand and avoid economic collapse: pragmatic adjustments to save the neoliberal model, not a repudiation of it. As the Independent’s Sean O’Grady writes, ‘Thatcher was a balanced-budget, sound money right-winger, as Rishi Sunak is now.’

A traditional Thatcherite programme might seem to conflict with the populist-interventionist tendencies of the Johnson government. But in fact, Sunak’s balanced budgets involve retaining the flagship reforms of the last three years: raising National Insurance contributions, increasing corporation tax, and keeping public service spending on its upward trajectory (though without restoring any departmental budget to its pre-2010 level). Sunak has even paid lip-service to the ‘levelling up’ plan for regional realignment, framing himself as the saviour of England’s ‘northern powerhouses’. He claims that in these turbulent times, common-sense Thatcherism means continuity Johnsonism. Sensible economic management – of the kind supposedly required to confront the cost-of-living crisis – relies on a tactical expansion of the state.  

For Truss, however, Thatcherism means something more fundamental: an insurgent libertarian creed willing to drastically depart from economic orthodoxy. She plans to make annual tax cuts worth more than £30 billion, ‘putting money back into people’s pockets’ rather than swelling the state coffers. Under her administration, green levies would be scrapped while defence spending would skyrocket. Such a spree would need to be funded by higher borrowing, which Truss may enable by changing fiscal rules. Although she has officially rejected a return to austerity, she has also promised a raft of ‘public service reforms’ and an overarching Spending Review – both of which will likely lead to cutbacks. Extant regulations would meanwhile be repealed as part of a ‘red tape bonfire’.

Truss justifies these potentially inflationary policies by appealing to the essence of Thatcherism – viewed as a disruptive individualist philosophy rather than a conservative approach to budgeting. Whereas Sunak is seen as a joyless ‘bean-counter’, Truss has cast herself as a ‘new Iron Lady’ capable of revitalising the party and reversing its downward polling trend. Yet, far from marking a break with Boris, her campaign purports to be more Johnsonist than Johnson himself. Of all the Tory candidates, Truss has been the least willing to criticise the PM, declaring that he should have stayed on in the job and refusing to question his personal integrity. Johnson’s loyalists have lined up to endorse her, and his final remarks at the dispatch box – ‘cut taxes and deregulate wherever you can’ – seemed to resonate with her agenda. Although the candidate pledges to upend the economic consensus, she is clear that this consensus came from Number 11, not from Number 10. Truss’s wing of the party views the big-state policies of the Johnson era as the Chancellor’s impositions, which the PM grudgingly accepted to mitigate the Covid meltdown. They believe that Prime Minister Truss will realise the free-market reforms which Johnson always wanted. By returning to authentic Thatcherism, she will rescue the rebellious spirit of Johnsonism from the prison-house of the Treasury.  

What we have, then, are competing attempts to define – and reconcile – the legacies of the Tory Party’s two most successful leaders in living memory. The stakes of the struggle are high, as one can glean from the gloves-off atmosphere of the campaign. Sunak labels Truss a ‘socialist’ for her uncosted ‘something-for-nothing’ policies. Jacob Rees-Mogg, in turn, excoriates Sunak as the ‘much-lamented socialist Chancellor’ for his soaring taxes and pandemic hand-outs. These recriminations are more than just the typical mudslinging of Tory husting events. They are a symptom of the present economic conjuncture, in which it is impossible to act as both a competent bean-counter and a radical free-marketeer. Amid the spiralling costs of the pandemic, the care crisis and the knock-on effects of the Ukraine conflict, a ‘sound money’ approach requires constant intervention, while shrinking the state entails piling up debt and flouting restrictions on expenditure. In the post-Covid landscape, these two features of Conservative ideology – fiscal discipline and laissez-faire – can no longer be synthesized. The different factions of the party must decide which is more important and denounce the other as a leftist deviation.

This rupture within the Tories also helps to explain the peculiar tone of Sunak’s leadership bid. During the last decade, opposition to spending cuts was dismissed as infantile and unrealistic. Theresa May famously told voters there was ‘no magic money tree’ that could be used to maintain public sector wages. Now, Sunak has mobilised the same themes – railing against ‘comforting fairy-tales’ and ‘fantasy economics’ – to attack a programme which, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is more austerian than his own. The discourse of capitalist realism, of making the ‘tough choices’ that the market dictates, has been harnessed to a post-austerity politics based on rising investment and selective tax hikes. Against this new norm, Truss has managed to imbue her low-tax policies with a utopian energy. Whereas Sunak claims there is no alternative to measures like the National Insurance rise, Truss offers a forward-looking vision that may, in practice, involve recalibrating the lean Conservatism of the 2010s.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the upheavals of recent British history – Brexit, Corbyn, Johnson – it is that realism has lost its grip on the popular imagination. In each instance, an optimistic force triumphed over ‘project fear’ and widened the sphere of political possibility. If this pattern holds, Sunak’s pitch to the membership will fail to cut through. His attempt to paint Trussonomics as a boosterish illusion may ultimately heighten its appeal. But, if Truss wins, the upshot of this anti-realist sentiment could be austerity 2.0, dressed up as a dynamic form of right-wing populism and accompanied by culture-war crackdowns on migrants and trans people. Should she decide to fund her policies by slashing spending, Britain may soon regress to its recent past, disguised as its non-existent future.

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘Transformatrix’, NLR 131.


The Forgotten Fortuyn

Twenty years ago, the lifeless body of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn was found lying on the tarmac outside a radio studio in the Netherlands. He had been fatally shot by an animal rights activist while on the campaign trail for the 2002 elections. Nine days after his death, his eponymous party, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), won 26 seats and the second largest share of the vote – a historic breakthrough known as ‘the Fortuyn Revolt’. Over the following years, the LPF succumbed to internal strife, but new right-wing populist leaders such as Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet would follow in Fortuyn’s footsteps.

This year, on the anniversary of Fortuyn’s death in May, Dutch newspapers were filled with retrospectives, looking back on how the populist revolt had changed Dutch politics. A mini-series on his rise to prominence aired on public television, while publishers printed special editions of his bestselling books. Commentators from across the ideological spectrum remarked on his enduring legacy. ‘Fortuyn’s message is in many respects more urgent than before’, proclaimed the centre-left daily de Volkskrant. Yet many of them seemed curiously unaware of what that message was.

A common refrain was that the Fortuyn Revolt was a nationalist backlash against globalization, a defence of the little man against the aloof technocratic elites. Already back in 2002, pundits were describing Fortuyn’s rise as a fulfilment of John Gray’s prediction in False Dawn (1998) that the neoliberal utopia of a globally integrated market would soon spark nationalist (and fundamentalist) opposition. In 2017, the British journalist David Goodhart wrote of the revolt of the somewheres, the locally rooted ordinary people, against the anywheres, the cosmopolitan urban middle classes. His cited Brexit and ‘the unexpected populist surge in the Netherlands in the early 2000s’ as his primary examples. For Goodhart, it was not the opposition between left and right, but between ‘closed’ and ‘open’, that defined contemporary politics. This has now become a dominant frame for understanding the rise of right-wing populism, in the Netherlands as elsewhere.

The Dutch sociologist Gabriël van den Brink offered a similar analysis in his 2020 book Rough Awakening From a Neoliberal Dream. He argued that the rise of neoliberalism had initiated a process of liberalization and individualization which in turn triggered a communitarian revolt. This ‘rough awakening’ started with Pim Fortuyn, who rallied against the ‘neoliberal enthusiasm of the technocratic elite’. Van de Brink’s book formed part of a larger popular mythology surrounding Fortuyn, casting him as a zealous defender of the losers of globalization. Exactly twenty years after his death, the official biographer of Fortuyn appeared on Dutch television and proclaimed that his subject had always remained a leftist at heart, who ‘relied heavily on social democratic thought’. 

Yet ‘Professor Pim’, as his supporters affectionately called him, was never mealy-mouthed about what he stood for. When asked whether he was a ‘populist’ in the radio interview just before his assassination, Fortuyn replied that he didn’t like to ‘suck up to people’. At the beginning of his election campaign, he claimed that ‘not only our politics, but also many of our citizens are useless. They look too much at what the government can and must do, and far too little at what they themselves can do’. Far from rallying against the neoliberal elite, Fortuyn believed that Dutch elites were not nearly neoliberal enough. His hard-right politics were born out of the neoliberal tide that swept the country in the 1980s and 1990s; yet, in the Dutch collective memory, his strident opposition to immigration and Islam would eventually become so all-defining that it would eclipse his economic agenda.

During Fortuyn’s campaign, though, that economic agenda was front and centre. In his bestselling election manifesto, The Disasters of Eight Years Purple (2002), Fortuyn asserted that the Dutch welfare system ‘had given birth to a monster’. The unemployed were ‘a dead weight in society’ with ‘a big mouth’ which the state could not be expected to feed. Unemployment was a dispositional and psychological problem, which could only be solved by slashing welfare, abolishing rent subsidies and cutting disability benefits. Fortuyn proposed doing away with open-ended contracts and introducing a more flexible labour market inspired by the American model, turning the Dutch worker into an ‘entrepreneur of the self’ and making the Netherlands more competitive on the world market.

‘Why my plea to remove the wonderfully warm blanket of consensus from our little Dutch bed?’ wrote Fortuyn on the opening page of his earlier pamphlet Without Civil Servants (1991). ‘Globalization of culture and economy require a different management of the economy and society, which is enforced by the free movement of people, money and goods.’ Only on the cultural terrain did Fortuyn make a pronounced shift in the mid-nineties, becoming a prominent critic of Islam, multiculturalism and political correctness, who proposed closing the borders for Muslim immigrants. A renewed nationalism, he wrote, was necessary to defend western values and offer an anchor to Dutch citizens alienated by globalization. Fortuyn’s politics were defined by economic openness and cultural closure.

In this Fortuyn was far from exceptional. During the same period, political scientists such as Herbert Kitschelt and Hans-Georg Betz observed that a series of right-wing populist parties with broadly similar positions had emerged across Europe: Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Jörg Haider’s FPÖ, the Swiss People’s Party, the Norwegian Progress Party and the Danish Fremskrittspartiet. Many of them started out as ‘neoliberal-populist’ parties before shifting focus and developing into anti-immigration policies. In The Radical Right in Western Europe (1997), Kitschelt described the combination of free-market and anti-immigration policies as a ‘winning formula’ which had become increasingly capable of mobilizing large electoral constituencies. Right-wing populism, he argued, first emerged as an offshoot of neoliberalism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Fortuyn’s work.

Fortuyn began his storied career as a leftist sociology professor at the University of Groningen. He wrote his PhD on postwar socio-economic policy and developed a close relationship with the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). But at the end of the 1980s he was swept up in the enthusiasm for neoliberal reform. The government had begun privatizing public assets and liberalizing the economy with the help of a small but growing army of private consultants. Fortuyn wanted to get in on the action. His university seconded him to Rotterdam, where he led a committee that authored a report on the market-led renewal of the troubled port city, which had been hit by mass unemployment.

Fortuyn spent this period at the Rotterdam Hilton, with his bill picked up by city hall. In his autobiography, he recalled consorting with his fellow committee members from the private sector, who taught him how to ‘drink the better wines and appreciate the pleasures of salmon and caviar’. After a self-described ‘eureka moment’ in April 1987, he joined a select group of technocrats overseeing the government’s ongoing privatization drive. In the following years, ‘professor Pim’ quickly became a sought-after public speaker in Dutch business circles. He exchanged his jeans and denim jacket for tailored suits and brightly coloured silken ties.

In the early 1980s, the Dutch neoliberal turn was overseen by the Christian Democrats (CDA). The centre-right government led by Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers replaced the Keynesian full-employment policies of yesteryear with austerity and supply-side economics. Lubbers’s cabinet ministers, many of them drawn from the private sector, presented themselves as corporate managers. They promised to run the country like a company, referring to parliament as its ‘board of directors’. The state would be trimmed down to its core activities, with peripheral functions outsourced and sold-off. Deregulation and flexibilization were pushed through along with enforced wage moderation, while the trade unions watched from the sidelines.

By the time of Fortuyn’s conversion, however, the campaign for market-led reform had suffered a serious setback. Tired of austerity and concerned about eroding support, the Christian Democrats tacked left in 1989 and formed a government with the social democrats. Many on the right feared that the momentum for market reform was dissipating. In a much-discussed campaign speech, the Labour Party leader Wim Kok proclaimed that after ten years of neoliberal reform, ‘the pendulum had swung too far’. He criticized the ‘authoritarian governing style’ of the previous decade and promised a restoration of corporatist, consensus politics, with trade unions brought back to the table.

Lubbers was denounced by the right for his betrayal. ‘If only we had a Margaret Thatcher in Dutch politics’, lamented the economist Eduard Bomhoff. Thatcher had fought and defeated the trade unions, while Lubbers mistook consensus for a policy goal. ‘Thatcher’s lessons had been ignored in the Netherlands,’ the journalist Marc Chavannes explained, ‘because we conveniently imagine that she is a mal-coiffed lady in a country full of strange figures who seem to have walked out of a television series.’ ‘How do we get rid of late-corporatist structures’, he went on to ask, ‘which are expressions of a fattened harmony model that threatens the prosperity and well-being of the Dutch people?’

Fortuyn joined the chorus of disappointed free marketeers. In the first half of the 1990s, he published a series of bestselling pamphlets in which he proposed a frontal assault on Dutch consensus politics. Fortuyn complained that Lubbers had squandered a golden opportunity: although he had defied the public sector unions, he had failed to deal them a fatal blow. ‘Needless to say, things would be far better now if Lubbers had opted for the method of amputation rather than the administration of a temporary medicine.’ Fortuyn’s wanted a Dutch ‘Iron Lady’ to deal with the trade unions, suggested firing half of all Dutch civil servants and proposed banning permanent contracts. This neoliberal critique of the corporatist consensus as an obstacle to market reform would soon become a central component of Fortuyn’s populism.

Fortuyn became the first public figure in the Netherlands to provide neoliberalism with a populist appeal, becoming a prominent exponent of what Thomas Frank called ‘market populism’: the idea that ‘markets expressed the popular will more articulately and more mean­ingfully than did mere elections, that ‘markets conferred democratic legiti­macy’; that ‘markets were a friend of the little guy’. In One Market under God (2000), Frank showed how ‘market populism’ spread like wildfire during the New Economy and internet bubble of the 1990s. These same arguments formed the core of Fortuyn’s The Disasters of Eight Years Purple: a heavy-handed critique of the so-called ‘purple’ coalitions of social democrats (PvdA, ‘red’) and right-wing liberals (VVD, ‘blue’) which had governed the country in the second half of the 1990s, and which constituted the Dutch equivalent of the Third Way.

Fortuyn began the manifesto with a comparison between the market and the state. In a market environment, he pointed out, a company is punished if it delivers bad products. The consumer decides. The New Economy would therefore strengthen the influence of the consumer. Thanks to the blessings of information technology, mass products could henceforth be tailored to personal preferences. Mass customization would entail the ‘democratization and individualization of economic life’, while in the workplace traditional hierarchies would give way to horizontal networks.

While the business world had adapted to this new spirit of the age, the public sector was still stuck in the industrial age, with its anonymous, large-scale production processes. ‘The consumer-citizen is only paid lip service to’, Fortuyn complained. ‘There is no democracy, unless one sees democracy as marking a box red once every four years.’ This system was propped up by a tiny elite who were invested in the tripartite polder model: ‘a kind of musyawarah system in which people talk to each other until they more or less agree’. Whereas in his leftist days, Fortuyn’s worldview was based on an opposition between the productive working class and exploitative capital, by now he had developed a new, neoliberal class theory. On one side stood the entrepreneurs large and small, Fortuyn’s productive class; on the other, a parasitic group of politicians, bureaucrats and welfare recipients. Fortuyn advocated the radical dismantling of bureaucracy in favour of the citizen-consumer, who should no longer be patronized but rather allowed to make his or her own choices.

This economic agenda was interwoven with a nostalgic longing for what Fortuyn called ‘the human scale’: smaller schools, regional hospitals, workplaces close to home. As he saw it, this scaling down would go hand-in-hand with modernization. Local hospitals would be overseen by specialists from a central location through the use of digital technology. Working close to home was possible thanks to newly established neighbourhood internet pavilions. Fortuyn’s utopian horizon was a curious amalgam of fifties nostalgia and Zoom prophecies. But this striving for ‘the human scale’ was also a thinly veiled plea for more inequality. Fortuyn complained in The Disasters of Eight Years Purple that, under the present system, he received the same care as his cleaning lady while paying much more taxes. This was equivalent to ‘the insurance company that replaces your crashed and expensively insured Jaguar with a Fiat Uno and says: here you are’. On one occasion, when Fortuyn was admitted to hospital, he used this reasoning to demand his own private room, only to be laughed at by the hospital director.

For Fortuyn, individual customization meant paying true market prices, bringing an end to the ‘artificial’ equality which the government maintained through social subsidies, the minimum wage and sectoral collective bargaining. He saw collective labour agreements as an archaic mechanism by which the government imposed centralized salary scales and conditions of employment. In their place, individual companies and employees should be left to negotiate the value of work – with flexible contracts supplanting the permanent job. This would lower wages and strengthen the competitiveness of the country as a whole. In this, Fortuyn wrote, he followed a time-honoured logic: ‘if a man will not work, he shall not eat.’

Fortuyn saw all this as an inevitability enforced by globalization, yet he was also aware that the removal of economic certainties could lead to unrest. ‘In addition to a great degree of freedom and a very considerable enlargement of choice,’ he asserted in Against the Islamization of our Culture (1997), globalization ‘also caused anxieties among those who can only very partially reap the benefits of this internationalization of the world.’ His nationalist agenda offered them an important form of compensation. The unrest that unfettered capitalism produced in the socio-economic sphere would be addressed in the cultural sphere. Thomas Frank described a similar process in the United States as ‘The Great Backlash’: politicians mobilized the electorate with ‘controversial cultural themes’ which were intertwined with ‘right-wing economic policies’. For Frank, the resultant culture wars had ‘made possible the international consensus on the free market, with all its privatization, deregulation, and anti-union policies’. Fortuyn’s legacy is to have introduced backlash politics to the Netherlands.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘They, The People’, NLR 103.


Degrees of Separation

In 2015, the American writer Jhumpa Lahiri published an essay in The New Yorker titled ‘Teach Yourself Italian’. Proceeding in a present tense of terse sentences, it detailed Lahiri’s relationship with the Italian language – an ‘infatuation’, which at various stages of her life she had pursued for ostensibly practical reasons: a doctorate on Italian architecture in English Renaissance drama; a holiday; a book tour. Finally compelled to relocate to Rome, Lahiri describes how she soon began writing in Italian, renouncing the language in which she had enjoyed a successful career as a writer ever since her Pulitzer-winning debut Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The essay’s conceit comes in the penultimate paragraph, where Lahiri notes in passing that she is ‘writing this sentence in Italian’. An editorial note confirms the article had indeed been translated. Lahiri’s journey into Italian was thus certified; for her English readers, she was now on the other side of a gauze.

Lahiri subsequently returned to the United States to take up a professorship at Princeton, but her work has remained – both linguistically and intellectually – on foreign shores. She writes her literary work in Italian, sometimes translating herself, while any writing in English takes the form of criticism and translations of Italian and Latin writing. This striking and unusual new course has however remained hard to make clean sense of, or, perhaps, to narrativise. A memoir, In Other Words (2015), written in Italian and published in a bilingual edition, gives a vivid sense of Lahiri’s experience of living in Italy and Italian, as well as what writing in another language has offered her – namely a freedom which is paradoxical, both permissive and restricting. Yet what drove her decision, and what sustains it, is left tantalisingly unarticulated.

Lahiri’s latest book, Translating Myself and Others, follows In Other Words in presenting a kind of composite picture of her writing life since she began working in Italian. It collects recent essays that have dealt with translation both as discipline and a theme. Three essays on novels that Lahiri has translated by Domenico Starnone, first published as companions to them and slightly unbalancing the collection, are nonetheless among the best, demonstrating the well-rehearsed idea that translation is the most intimate form of reading. This is in keeping with all the essays: these are records of intense relationships rather than holistic critical appraisals. Lahiri uncovers resonances with translation throughout Starnone’s novels which, given the terms of her encounter, feel inevitable. Lahiri’s responses to other writers ­– Calvino, Gramsci, Ovid – are similarly focused, a priori, on translation. The essay on Gramsci’s Prison Letters comprises a set of fragmentary observations that circle around doubles, imitations, and responses. Lahiri’s attention to Gramsci’s ‘readings’ of others – including Dante, Dostoevsky, and G. K. Chesterton – develops into a reading, perhaps even a translation, of Gramsci himself.

The essays also contain personal anecdotes and reflections, which are typically forthright, even defiant, in their contentions – ‘I didn’t think that my growing dedication to the Italian language was anything unusual before coming to Italy. I’d never paused to consider what it meant.’ Lahiri is consistently present in her particular critical sensitivities and recurring attention to subjects such as exile, etymologies and ghosts. Yet her presence is nevertheless oblique. In The Clothing of Books (2015), a lecture given in Italian and translated by her husband, Lahiri recalls collaborating with the photographer Marco Delogu on the portrait that would appear on the cover of In Other Words, ‘the first time…I was able to participate in the creation of a book jacket’. In the portrait, Lahiri sits in the reading room of a library in Rome with a large anonymous volume in front of her, her head resting on one hand and her gaze facing, inscrutably, away. The portrait, and her pleasure in directing it, is indicative of a certain distance that Lahiri maintains. Her self-presentation is clear yet ambiguous, an evocation of reticence and indirection as much as an assertion of character. Translating Myself is similarly calculated and precise, and however open it may appear, it is never straightforwardly confessional.

Central to Lahiri’s self-presentation is the notion that translation has always been a part of her life. Lahiri was born in 1967 in London to Bengali parents and moved to Rhode Island, where she grew up. ‘I was raised speaking and living, simultaneously, in English and Bengali, and this meant translating between them, constantly, for myself and for others.’ She went on to study at Columbia and Boston University, pursuing a master’s based around translations of Ashapuna Devi from Bengali, and then the doctorate that prompted her to study Italian. ‘I was a translator before I was a writer’, she has stated. Translation is indeed there in the title of her first short story collection. The story that gives Interpreter of Maladies its title is a kind of fable of translation, turning on the relationship between a tourist visiting Calcutta and her guide, who normally works as a translator at a doctor’s surgery.

Moving between Bengal and the north-eastern United States, the collection is also preoccupied with translation in a wider sense – of people, traditions, and cultures. Lahiri portrays this adroitly from multiple generational standpoints; the social milieu – the middle-class families of university employees – is the more or less unbroken constant. The novel that followed, The Namesake (2003), begins with a quintessential example: a Bengali woman, Ashima, is trying to recreate Calcutta street-food from Rice Krispies and peanuts in her kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within a couple of pages, we are back at the intersection of wellbeing and language, in a hospital where Ashima struggles with her limited English as she goes into labour: ‘What does it mean, dilated?’

Here and in Lahiri’s next short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), an attraction to other languages – that is, languages to which the characters have no familial or circumstantial relation – develops into a recurrent motif. The Namesake follows the fortunes of Ashima’s son, Gogol Ganguli (named after his father’s favourite author), as he moves through relationships, jobs, living situations, and, emblematically, names. Experimenting with degrees of distance from his upbringing, he is drawn to Italy, in particular its architecture. The figure who more directly seems to pre-empt Lahiri’s future though is his friend Moushoumi, who moves to Paris: ‘Immersing herself in a third language, a third culture, had been her refuge – she approached French, unlike things American or Indian, without guilt, or misgiving, or expectation of any kind.’

By the last story in Unaccustomed Earth, events have moved to Rome. The city is presented as a place where two estranged childhood friends from intertwined families are able to forget their origins – at once a non-place, a world away for the characters, and a real place, rendered with the equanimous detail with which Lahiri portrayed Rhode Island or Massachusetts via Calcutta. The Lowland (2013) reads as a transitional work. It follows the lives of two brothers who are drawn between the familiar pulls of tradition and reinvention, as well as, on this occasion, political and ideological forces, including the Naxalite movement of the 1960s. The novel’s pared back style, like these departures, feels more searching than resolved, palpably on the hunt for a new groove. The book’s Italian epigraph, by Giorgio Bassani, points to where Lahiri would eventually find it.

Lahiri published her first Italian novel, Dove mi trovo, in 2018, later translating it herself as Whereabouts (2021). Its spareness has something in common with The Lowland, but two features distinguish its style: in place of the specificity of geographic and cultural coordinates, there is an absence of proper nouns; and Lahiri’s usual close, but discreetly removed, third-person narration is exchanged for first person, previously only employed in a handful of short stories. All of Lahiri’s Italian writing published to date has been in the first person; one of the freedoms Italian grants her seems to be to write as an ‘I’, fictional and her own.

Whereabouts is narrated by an unnamed woman living alone in an unnamed city. It moves episodically through encounters with friends, family and strangers. Each chapter has a prepositional title – ‘In the Piazza’, ‘On the Balcony’ – which combined with the chapters’ briefness gives them the feel of verbal exercises (especially considering the struggles with Italian prepositions recorded in In Other Words). Other facets of its style indicate Whereabouts’s unusual lineage. Chains of near-synonyms suggest an author entranced by her vocabulary book – ‘Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed, turned around. I spring from these terms.’ And the odd phrase that jars – ‘a sizable clump of glue’ – suggests a source text in which it probably did not. But what is unusual about these falterings is that they act as markers of authenticity. Lahiri recalls in Translating Myself her insistence on having ‘translated by author’ alongside a story when it was published in The New Yorker, against the reservations of the editors. In her essay on Ovid, she notes: ‘The moment a translation “feels” or “sounds” like a translation, the reader jumps back and accuses it, rejects it.’ In Whereabouts, these moments – the clump of glue – act like the editorial note, stamping it as the genuine article, but also throwing the whole style into relief.

The scholar Rebecca Walkowitz has identified a strand of contemporary literature that aims to resemble translation, which she calls ‘born translated’, in reference to ‘born digital’ images, and which she relates to the dynamics of globalised literary publishing. Her examples include J. M. Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy, which pretends to unfold in Spanish, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, which pose as unoriginal copies, Junot Diaz’s New Jersey-via-Santo Domingo idiolectic narration, and Haruki Murakami’s Japanese processed through his work as a translator of English. Whereabouts fits into this company in its themes and voice, as well as being ‘born translated’ in a more literal sense. As Walkowitz writes of Coetzee, in Whereabouts, Lahiri ‘creates a text in which…English readers are blocked from imagining a direct, simultaneous encounter with a language that is their own.’

Perhaps this is not such a departure from Lahiri’s English fiction. Her earlier books, preoccupied in their quieter ways with translation, also withhold a ‘direct, simultaneous encounter with language’. Reviewers experienced this as a kind of disjunct between text and effect: a Guardian review of The Namesake celebrated the book’s ‘guileless vocabulary and an appealing lack of stylisation’, which ‘somehow conjures a bleak, arm’s-length mood’. It went on to express a kind of mystification, which has become a trope of Lahiri’s reception: ‘Peer closely at any single sentence, and nothing about it stands out. But step back and look at the whole and you’re knocked out.’ The response may have something to do with the showier, rambunctious novels of the time which dealt with similar concerns – Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), for example, out of which a character named Gogol Ganguli might easily have stepped. In contrast, Lahiri’s narrator is strikingly reserved; as Lahiri would observe and admire in Starnone much later, she never shows her full hand.

These traits have now found fuller realisation in her Italian work. Whereabouts is written ina straightforward syntax extended by paratactic clauses, adjoined with commas, which develop or revise the preceding statement, often sounding like nothing other than translations: ‘She’s in her forties like me but she’s always rushing through life, she’s always harried’. Phrases and adjectives that smack of the thesaurus – ‘is he the hale and hearty son of the pallid young girl?’ – have a similar effect. In a 2018 afterword written for a new edition of The Namesake, Lahiri admits that ‘the prose, from my current perspective, is a bit unruly, refusing to “lie flat”’. Her Italian prose can be seen to achieve this flatness, and yet it is a flatness that estranges rather than producing transparency.

The translator and critic Lawrence Venuti coined the phrase ‘the translator’s invisibility’ for the way in which the translator is routinely ignored or forgotten. Lahiri joins the chorus of voices rejecting this invisibility: highlighting the chastisement translators can expect when they make themselves known, she recounts how one critic resented her introductions to the Starnone novels and advised that next time she ‘let Starnone do all the talking’. At the same time, there is also plainly something that appeals to Lahiri about this status. In the original New Yorker essay, she writes, ‘All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible.’

We could speculate that this place corresponds to the between-worlds, suspended-in-translation state of Lahiri’s childhood, yet it seems to offer something more actively nourishing than just a symbolic return. With its intimate considerations of translation, articulated with metaphor upon metaphor, Translating Myself appears to be addressing the question of what a translated voice, with its particular invisibility, affords Lahiri. The answer remains elusive. A second, connected question constantly in contention is ‘why Italian?’ This is in fact the title of the book’s first essay, in which Lahiri describes being repeatedly asked: ‘Why Italian instead of an Indian language, a closer language, more like you?’ Sometimes Lahiri appears directly to answer the question, but in fact offers a closed loop – ‘I began writing in Italian to obviate the need to have an Italian translator … something was driving me, in Italian, to speak for myself’.

There are fragments of a more specific answer to be found elsewhere, as in Lahiri’s introduction to her edition of The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories (2019). Though she begins by explaining how she was propelled toward Italian by ‘an inexplicable urge to distance myself, to immerse myself’, the condensed history of the language and its literature that follows suggests more explicable points of affinity. She describes the imposition of Italian – ‘an invention in and of itself’ – on a population that spoke diverse dialects during unification; the way in which Italian Fascism was ‘declined linguistically’ – how the regime defined the language by creating all-Italian neologisms to replace words imported from foreign languages. It was also under Fascism, Lahiri suggests, that confinare – to confine – came into use as a transitive verb, indicating a punitive act. Within this context of imposition and confinement, she is drawn to the work of writers who worked within and in tension with the language’s strictures. She also celebrates Italian’s history of translation, through figures like Cesare Pavese who were translators as much as writers. If her relationship with Italian begun as an inexplicable infatuation, it has developed and been emboldened by its particular histories.

Lahiri is notably sensitive in her fiction to architectural spaces – a house, an apartment, or a room is often the dominant impression a story or chapter by her leaves. She also describes language in spatial terms – ‘Every language is a walled entity’ – as an environment to be negotiated, obeyed, pressed against, through which a situated kind of expression becomes possible. She shares with Beckett, whose influence on Whereabouts, not to say the whole of her move into Italian, is conspicuous, this spatial conception of language – the one Stanley Cavell perceived when he wrote that while begrudging language Beckett understood ‘there is nowhere else to go’. Analogising Italian to a succession of doors, she writes: ‘An unconditional opening, without complications or obstacles, doesn’t stimulate me. Such a landscape, without closed spaces, without secrets, without the presences of the unknown, would have no significance or enchantment for me.’

Is it simply a matter of making things difficult, then: creating obstacles, setting exercises, tangling with etymologies and prepositions? After ten chapters evincing an interest in translation in these terms, the afterword to Translating Myself suggests a more personal set of stakes, of a kind that Lahiri has rarely clarified before. In a manner that not incidentally recalls her earliest English fiction, Lahiri narrates her mother’s declining health and eventual death during the years in which the preceding essays were written. Four days before her passing, Lahiri brings two potted plants to her mother’s bedside. Her mother remarks that she would like to dwell inside them, and these words, Lahiri states, in closing, ‘enable me to translate her unalterable absence into everything that is green and rooted under the sun’. As an endeavour, translation is an acknowledgement of what can’t be changed or even reached, examples of which might include ourselves, our parents, the places we came from, the lives we build, absences, and ghosts. An attempt to carry across something like this into any language can never quite succeed, but achieves its own kind of understanding, its own expressive failure. At her mother’s bedside, back among the relation of language and illness, the delicate presence of interpretation across Lahiri’s writing looks less like arm’s-length detachment and more like a kind of ministration.

Read on: Pascale Casanova, ‘Literature as a World’, NLR 31.


Sinking Germany

Whoever the victor may be, it’s become increasingly unclear what winning the war in Ukraine would mean. The greater the destruction, the more intractable the conflict appears. With a rising death toll and escalating sanctions, the objectives of the belligerents seem ever more inscrutable. What would Russia gain from annexing an obliterated corner of Ukraine, compared to everything it would lose? Why would Ukraine run itself into the ground to retain a region which does not want to be detached from Russia? And to what ends would NATO erect a new Iron Curtain, thereby consolidating a Russian-Chinese bloc endowed with both raw materials and advanced technology?

Granted, for some time now the United States and its allies have fought wars in which victory is impossible to envision. What would winning have looked like in Iraq? If it involved turning the country into a Muslim replica of Israel, this was never a realistic outcome. In the end, it was practically handed over to the Iranian sphere of influence, while Afghanistan was abandoned to Pakistan and China. (All this without even mentioning the Syrian civil war.) Yet, if it is difficult to identify a potential victor in Ukraine, it is easier to pinpoint the potential losers. As we shall see, one of these will likely be what the Australian economist Joseph Halevi has termed the ‘German bloc’: a set of economically interconnected nations stretching from Switzerland to Hungary.

Of course, more or less all of us are losing out in the present conjuncture. When the invasion began, everyone was primarily concerned with the supply of gas and petrol. It was only later brought to public attention that Russia and Ukraine account for 14% of the world’s grain production and up to 29% of global grain exports. It was subsequently revealed that they provide 17% of corn exports and 14% of barley. As the treasure hunt continued, analysts realized that 76% of the world’s sunflower products come from the two states. Russia also dominates the fertiliser market, with a global share of more than 50%, which explains why the blockade has caused agricultural problems as far afield as Brazil.

More surprises were in store. The war hit not just the oil and gas sectors, but nickel too. Russia – home to Nornickel, a giant in the sector – produced 195,000 tonnes of nickel in 2021, or 7.2% of global production. The invasion, combined with increased demand for nickel used in power lines and electric vehicles, caused prices to skyrocket. Meanwhile the global superconductor industry, which produces calculators and computer chips, was heavily affected. The Russian steel industry sends neon gas to Ukraine, where it is purified for use in lithographic processes such as the inscription of microcircuits on silicon plates. The most important centres of production are Odessa and Mariupol (hence the relentless struggle over these areas). Ukraine provides 70% of the world’s neon gas, as well as 40% of its krypton and 30% of its xenon; its major clients include South Korea, China, the US and Germany. The supply of several other ‘critical’ metals is also endangered, as the Columbia Center for Global Energy Policy reported in April:

Other metals of interest in the Russia crisis include titanium, scandium, and palladium. Titanium is strategic for aerospace and defense applications and Russia is the world’s third-largest producer of titanium sponge, the specific application that is critical for titanium metal. Used extensively in aerospace and defense sectors, Scandium is another key metal for which Russia is one of the three largest global producers. Palladium is one of the most notable critical minerals affected by the Ukraine crisis because it is a critical input to the automotive and semiconductor industries and Russia supplies nearly 37 percent of global production. Russian palladium illustrates one of the key geopolitical features of critical minerals: alternative supplies are often located in equally challenging markets. The second largest palladium producer is South Africa, where the mining sector has been wracked by strikes for the past decade.

Each day, then, we discover new difficulties in decoupling Russia from the global economy. This is partly because sanctions have proven less effective than predicted, despite the tenacious efforts of the US and Europe. To date, there have been at least six sets of successive sanctions, each more drastic than the last: the removal of Russia from the international financial system operated by SWIFT; the freezing of the Russian Central Bank’s foreign reserves, which amounted to around $630 billion; the freezing of $600 million deposited by Russia in American banks, and the refusal to accept these funds as payment for Russia’s foreign debt; the exclusion of Russia’s most important banks from the City of London; and the restriction of Russian deposits in British banks.

Western airports (and airspace) are now closed to Russian planes, and the Russian merchant navy is forbidden from docking in Western ports (Japan and Australia included). Technological exports to Russia are banned, as are many imports. The European Union has sanctions in place against 98 entities and 1,158 individuals, including President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov; oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin like Roman Abramovich; 351 representatives to the Duma; members of Russia’s National Security Council; high-ranking officers of the armed forces; entrepreneurs and financiers; propagandists and actors. All Western banks and a majority of Western companies have closed shop in Russia and sold their branches. Russia has responded by banning the export of more than 200 products, demanding ruble payments for oil and gas exports, and blocking provisions to Poland, Bulgaria and Finland when they refused to accept this stipulation.

Paradoxically, though, certain sanctions have played into Moscow’s hands. The embargo on oil and gas has increased Russian revenues due to the price rises it has caused, while foreign observers note that Russian supermarket shelves still seem to be well-stocked. In the first four months of the year, Russia’s balance of trade ran its highest surplus since 1994, at $96 billion. Yet, after its initial collapse during the first days of the war, the ruble gradually recovered, such that it is now worth more than it was last year. In 2021, 70 rubles were needed to buy a dollar. On 7 March – its worst day – that figure had nearly doubled; but as of 18 July it dropped back down to 57.

The relative inefficacy of sanctions was predictable. If decades of economic warfare had proved incapable of bringing down effectively defenceless regimes such as Castro’s Cuba (by now targeted for over 70 years), Bolivarian Venezuela (30 years) or Khomeinist Iran (42 years of American sanctions, plus around ten years of international measures), it’s difficult to imagine them triggering regime change in a country like Russia, which has been preparing for this eventuality by revamping its industrial capacities. Yet the more ineffective the sanctions the more the war drags on, lurching from one escalation to the next, and deepening divisions that seem ever more irremediable. By now we can assume that relations with Russia will be interrupted for at least some decades (a regrettable situation for any Westerner who hasn’t had the good fortune to visit Moscow and St Petersburg). The new Iron Curtain has been raised, and won’t be crossed for years to come.

This will frustrate the strategic designs pursued over the last thirty years by the German bloc. Halevi’s thesis is that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR, Germany has sought to construct a series of mutually interdependent economies which now essentially amount to a single economic system. This grouping has a Western flank (Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands) and an Eastern one (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia), with different roles and sectors divided between them. The Netherlands acts as a global platform and transport hub; the Czech Republic and Slovakia as seats of the automobile industry; Austria and Switzerland as producers advanced technology, and so on. If Germany is the hegemonic centre of this bloc, we must revise our view of its geopolitical role and global significance. As a whole, the bloc has 196 million inhabitants compared to Germany’s 83 million, and a GDP of $7.7 trillion versus Germany’s $3.8 trillion. This makes it the world’s third economic power – smaller than US and China, but larger than Japan.

This web of relations is especially visible when we look at trade. German exports to Austria and Switzerland – which have a combined population of 17 million – amount to €132 billion, compared with €122 billion to the US and €102 billion to France. When it comes to total trade with Germany, France (with its population of 67 million) is behind the Netherlands (with only 17 million): €164 billion to €206 billion. Italy, meanwhile, receives less than Poland, despite having a bigger population (60 million to 38 million) and a per capita income almost twice as large. This marks a spectacular reversal, given that in 2005, the year after its accession to the EU, Germany’s trade with Poland was only half of that with Italy.

What has occurred, then, is the reorientation of Germany’s industrial apparatus away from other European partners towards its own economic bloc, on the one hand, and trade with China on the other. Beijing has now become Germany’s prime commercial partner, with a relationship worth €246 billion. The other members of the German bloc have also seen a marked rise in trade with China. ‘If we take 2005 as a reference’, Halevi writes,

that is to say, the year immediately after the entry of Eastern European countries into the EU, the value in dollars of Germany’s global exports in goods increased, up until 2021, by 67%, whilst its trade with China increased more than fourfold. In the same period — and though they nearly tripled — French and Italian exports to China showed a rate of growth far inferior to that of German trade. For the states in the German bloc, integration with Germany has generated a veritable explosion of exports to China, with Germany not only paving the way for these states, but also establishing ties between sectors and individual companies that in turn stimulate their local exports. To Germany’s west, the Netherlands’ direct exports to China grew by at least five since 2005, whilst Switzerland’s increased twelvefold, making it China’s second largest European exporter. These tendencies have been a lot more contained in Belgium and Austria. In the east, Poland’s exports to China multiplied by 5.5, by 6 for Hungary, by around 10 for Czech Republic, and by nearly 21 for Slovakia. The natural consequence of this process is the formation of a Eurasian economic zone, a real necessity for China both because of its need for Russian raw materials, and because of growing nodes of railway infrastructure that cross Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. In the last decade, the first convoys of freight trains departed China for Dortmund and the Netherlands, news which was even reported by the Financial Times. The Germans had, at least in industrial circles, the intention of creating synergies between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and thereby Europe and Germany. In other words, the aim was to integrate states bringing together logistical, productive and energy exporting zones (Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan) and imports of industrial goods both from China and Germany.

Here we can glimpse the Teutonic equivalent of the new Silk Road – or Belt and Road Initiative – launched by Xi Jinping in 2013. Indeed, the ultimate objective of the German bloc as parsed by Halevi is the creation of a Eurasian continental front with Germany and China as its two extremities, and Russia as an indispensable connector. This explains the persistence with which the Germans have pushed, against the interests of Washington and NATO, for the gas pipeline Nordstream 2. The first tangible geopolitical effect of the Ukraine war was the burial of this project.

The war has effectively put an end to the dream of a common Eurasian space because it forces Germany to weaken its ties with China and closes the Russian channel of communication between them. It also bars Germany’s use of Russia as a resource-rich backwater and Lebensraum – or more accurately Großraum, in Carl Schmitt’s sense of the term. Now, instead of a Great Space, Russia has become an insurmountable geopolitical obstacle. This will compel the strategists of the German bloc to revise their entire plan, to rethink the relationship between their own sub-imperial power and the US empire, while also redefining their relations with other European states. At the same time, the German bloc has been strained by the conflicting interests of its individual members. A small yet significant fact indicates how much the rules of the game have changed: in May this year, Germany’s monthly balance of trade tipped into the red for the first time since 1991. It wasn’t much (only around $1 billion), but it was a trade deficit nonetheless. A situation is thus emerging out of the Ukraine conflict which is not without historical precedent: the defeat of German strategy. In the Third World War, the losers still seem to be the Germans.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Joshua Rahtz, ‘Germany’s Faltering Motor?’, NLR 93.


Pacific Fictions

France conducted its first nuclear test on 13 February 1960, in doing so becoming the world’s fourth nuclear power. The initial detonation was already four times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. They named the project Gerboise Bleue, after the small rodents who hop around the desert where the tests took place near the Reggane Oasis in Algeria – Gerboise Blanche and Gerboise Rouge would soon complete the tricolore. The French army maintained that they were carried out as safely as possible, though it used human participants in lieu of lab rats: soldiers were made to lie in the sand and then walk towards the explosion’s epicentre less than an hour after detonation (a poll found that 35% developed cancer and 20% became infertile). Anticipating that Algeria may soon gain independence – in the event, tests continued there in secret thanks to the Évian Accords – in 1963 France expanded its nuclear testing to French Polynesia, where de Gaulle established the Centre d’expérimentation du Pacifique. By 1996, when operations came to an end, it had conducted a total of 45 atmospheric and 134 underground detonations, many at a small atoll named Moruroa – a Tahitian word meaning ‘big lies’.

The maverick Catalan director Albert Serra has chosen a portmanteau title with similar connotations for his latest film. According to a recent interview, Pacifiction is intended to simply mean ‘a fiction of the Pacific’, something ‘exotic, artificial and unbelievable’, which might be one way to describe the colonial project in French Polynesia. The islands remain an ‘overseas country’ – France can assume direct control at any time – which is governed by a tripartite of rulers: the French President, a French Polynesian President and a High Commissioner who functions as an emissary of the French state. In Pacifiction, the High Commissioner is a man named De Roller (Benoît Magimel). He dresses in a double-breasted linen suit and blue-tinted shades; he often pouts and flaps his hands in a Trump-like way. Serra has described the character as ‘affable’, a ‘populist’ and a ‘psychopath’.

The big lies at work in Serra’s film also concern nuclear testing. Marines have begun appearing on the island of Tahiti, as have suspicious foreigners with diplomatic passports. We meet two Americans who are likely CIA, and a Portuguese spy with British underlings. De Roller can’t make head or tail of their presence. Rumours abound that nuclear testing is set to resume, but he hasn’t heard anything official. He spends the film telling people not to worry, all the while becoming increasingly worried himself. Every character in Pacifiction appears to be against nuclear testing except for a French Admiral (Marc Susini), also recently arrived on the island, who may well be insane. He tends to look straight through his interlocutors as if drunk or deranged; asked how sailors don’t go mad being at sea for so long, he replies ‘I often wonder that myself’. Speaking to Matahi (Matahi Pambrun), a local representative covered in tattoos both traditional and contemporary, the Admiral justifies nuclear testing as follows: ‘When they see what we’re willing to do to our own people – yes, our own – will they still be able to doubt how our enemies are treated?’ (‘My friend,’ Matahi replies, ‘do you have enemies?’)

The invocation of those to be sacrificed as ‘our own’ has historical precedent. French Polynesians have opposed nuclear testing in their homeland for decades – most forcefully in 1995, when Chirac ended Mitterand’s moratorium on the practice. Tens of thousands took to the street in protest, manning a blockade in the capital Papeete that lasted several days. Journalists from around the world descended on Tahiti to cover the event, as did Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear ship, the Rainbow Warrior II. (French agents had blown up the first Rainbow Warrior in 1985, killing one crew member in the process. Growing up in New Zealand, where it was sunk, I would often visit its memorial at Matauri Bay.) Despite the rallying together of these anti-nuclear powers, France was undeterred. In interviews after testing had resumed, the centre’s director Admiral Jean Lichère explained plainly that they had been given orders and followed them, that there would be no significant impact on the environment, and that the test had occurred so far below water that it didn’t even make a sound. When asked why it wasn’t carried out on French soil, he replied: ‘But this is France!’

It is about midway through Pacifiction that Matahi attempts to strongarm De Roller, telling the High Commissioner that ‘we’re not going back to ’95’. In this sequence, as on other occasions in the film, it is not easy to discern who holds power over whom and in whose interests they are acting. Matahi may be operating as a puppet of the Americans, who may be coordinating the local protests to curb France’s military power. De Roller meanwhile represents the French, but he is more immediately concerned with his own well-being – which, ironically, depends upon the approval of the locals. Rather than an instrument of colonial power, Matahi insists that De Roller should be acting as a shield: ‘We’re asking you to act how we want. Prophylactically.’

Colonialism has often been conceived as a kind of rape and here the symbolism is plain: the nuclear bomb as phallic, masculine, violent, while French Polynesians have historically regarded their islands as feminine, nourishing, womb-like. Tahiti’s colonial history is one of being cast as a fertile fantasyland, beginning with its ‘discovery’ in 1768, when French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville named it after the birthplace of Aphrodite (the story of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty didn’t help matters, nor did Marlon Brando’s starring role in 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty). When Captain Cook arrived in Tahiti a year later, he brought with him several artists who inaugurated the exoticized depiction of the island’s women, which persisted through the work of Gauguin to contemporary advertisements for tourists. Serra takes up this figure only to subvert it. Male and female servers saunter scantily around the film’s nightclub – called Paradise Night – but any lustre is gone. One scene shows a topless woman dancing as she DJs a never-ending house track. The aural dullness mirrors the bathetic lack of visual spectacle: nudity ad tedium.

Dennis Lim has written for Film Comment that Serra’s films ‘bring the mythic past to life through a rejection of spectacle, by distilling events to the sparest of anecdotes and imbuing figures with the mundane weight of existence’. Serra’s Don Quixote stumbles about in the fog (Honour of the Knights, 2006); his Louis XIV simply rots away in bed (The Death of Louis XIV, 2016). Even when he relies on spectacle, as in the orgies of his previous film, Liberté (2019) – 132 minutes of flesh, piss and wank – a certain dullness sets in. In the case of Pacificition, however, bringing that mythic past to life becomes a more complex endeavour for the fact that the history of Tahiti is riven in two: before and after foreign invasion. But Serra seems less concerned with what Tahiti once was, focusing instead on what it has become, forgoing the island’s local mythology in favour of the perverted Western spectacle imposed upon it. The very first shot of Pacifiction makes this clear: a beautiful pink sky and purple mountain range in the background (in local myth, the terrestrial body of the Tahitian gods), and then in the foreground, shipping containers. It’s one of many images that Serra allows to speak for itself, yet which lays bare the pacific fictions of the colonial imagination. Much of the film is shot through with a similar beauty, yet the use of bilateral blur makes the colours fray at the edges of the frame, undermining the authenticity of such sublime visions. Occasionally, Serra also employs a circular, lens-like effect – the result is a little like watching through the periscope of a nuclear submarine.

Are these images warped by the idealizations of the island fantasy, or merely nuclear fallout? It remains illegal to visit Morurua, which continues to be guarded by the French military and remains absent from some maps. What big lies wait in slumber? While the French government maintains that the tests had no impact, local stories tell otherwise – secret bans on fishing and harvesting, swift deaths from the consumption of fish and coconuts. As the anthropologist Miriam Kahn recounts, in spite of efforts to suppress the health statistics, it was revealed that within a decade of the tests starting, typically radiation-induced diseases such as leukaemia, thyroid cancers and brain tumours began to appear at alarming rates. Early in the film, De Roller recounts that ‘the most terrible thing’ he ever heard was the view that even if nuclear testing was causing illnesses, cancers, birth defects, and other malformations, ‘the nuclear program also afforded us the money to treat them’.

Just as Pacifiction begins with a potent image of empire – the land and the ships that sullied it – it also ends with one. The Admiral leads a group of young soldiers out to sea one morning, instructing them to leave all earthly possessions behind. Perhaps sensing their disquiet, he launches into an impassioned speech – one invoking sacrifice, heroism and the greater good. ‘One day, perhaps, others will recognize your deeds. And that day, the world will have changed!’ It’s an irony beautifully compounded by Serra’s camerawork. In the frame, from left to right, we see one soldier in blue, the next in white, and then lastly, projected from the ship’s hull, a red light splattered on the ocean. After lingering for a moment, Serra pivots rightward, leaving only red – an intimation of the horrors that lie beneath the sea.

Read on: Ian Birchall, ‘Capital of Pariahs’, NLR 98.


Fortress Greece

On 7 June, the Greek Minister of Migration, Notis Mitarakis, proudly declared that the right-wing New Democracy government had fulfilled one of its flagship pledges from the 2019 election campaign: reducing refugee arrivals by 90%. He declined to say how this target was reached, yet to any informed observer the answer was obvious. Over the past two years, reports have been circulating that Greece is engaging in systematic pushbacks: a practice – prohibited by international law – of forcing refugees back across the border before they can claim asylum. Although this activity has caused dozens of refugees to drown in the Aegean, it has elicited little domestic protest, and appears to be on the rise. This reflects broader changes in Greece’s ideological climate, which has become increasingly receptive to far-right attitudes since New Democracy came to power. One of the chief priorities of the current government, led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is to consolidate such changes and build a security state which will act as the EU’s frontline barrier against refugee crossings. This, in turn, requires whipping up a perpetual moral panic about those entering the country ‘illegally’, while stamping out a previously vibrant culture of migrant solidarity.

New Democracy’s hardline approach was intended to mark a contrast with Alexis Tsipras’s administration, which initially took a more welcoming stance towards those fleeing war, persecution or destitution. At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015-16, Syriza organized accommodation and medical care for new arrivals while responding to the sharp increase in asylum applications. It also made attempts, albeit sporadic and unsystematic ones, to provide education for refugee children. Yet Syriza’s focus on the reception of refugees neglected their integration. Tsipras permitted the establishment of refugee camps such as the infamous Moria on the island of Lesbos – where thousands were kept in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions – and imposed so-called ‘geographical restrictions’ which constrained migrants’ ability to move from the islands to the mainland. This was partly a result of the EU–Turkey deal signed in March 2016, which sought to curb irregular migration to Europe. The agreement stipulated that Turkey would take all necessary measures to prevent people travelling irregularly from Turkey to the Greek islands; that those who managed to make the journey could be forcibly sent back; and that Erdoğan would receive €6 billion toward accommodating refugees in Turkey. Ultimately, Syriza’s decision to act as the EU’s border police by implementing this agreement marked the end of its migrant-friendly approach. With that, Greece entered the era of permanent camps and crackdowns on new arrivals.

Once New Democracy was elected, migration policy took an even more sinister turn. One of the first measures it adopted was Law 4735/2020, which introduced changes to the system for awarding Greek citizenship, including a strict financial threshold. Under Mitsotakis, the camps were turned into de facto prisons, heavily policed, with barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners, magnetic doors and punitive detention facilities. Border patrols were strengthened and migrants were denied legal routes to claim asylum. Perhaps the starkest shift was the covert yet persistent practice of pushbacks – both in the Aegean and on the Greece–Turkey land border. In summer 2020, the New York Times brought this story global attention, in exposing how migrants were regularly forced onto unsafe life rafts and abandoned in the middle of the sea. Though the claims were backed by first-hand interviews with survivors, three independent watchdogs, two academic researchers and the Turkish Coast Guard, the Greek government denied the allegations, and the EU was reluctant to investigate. Shortly after, Human Rights Watch found that Greek police were routinely stripping asylum seekers of their clothes and possessions before handing them over to masked men who would leave them floating in small boats in the Evros river. It also revealed a pattern of violent and deadly attacks on refugee boats by the Greek Coast Guard.

In response to these findings, the EU Commissioner for Human Rights announced that ‘the scale and normalization of pushbacks at Europe’s borders requires urgent and concerted action by governments and parliamentarians’. Yet this was little more than an attempt by the EU to cover its tracks. In fact, the European authorities had spent years working hand-in-glove with Greece to keep out migrants. Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, has seen an almost twenty-fold increase in its budget since its creation in 2006, and is projected to employ over 10,000 guards by 2027. Its executive director, Fabrice Leggeri, was forced to resign earlier this year after being investigated for alleged complicity in pushbacks. Though his departure is a welcome development, it will not lead to any meaningful policy change. The EU will not lift a finger to stop Greece, or any other country, from using brutal deterrent tactics for they are an essential part of its plan to make European borders uncrossable – thereby preserving ‘freedom of movement’ as an ideal that applies only to the predominantly white population of the trading bloc.

This dynamic was evident during the Evros incident in March 2020, when Erdoğan declared that he would no longer stop migrants from leaving Turkey. New Democracy responded by illegally suspending the reception of asylum applications, in a move that was widely praised by European leaders and backed by the Syriza opposition. Ursula von der Leyen thanked Greece for acting as ‘our European shield’ and promised €700 million in aid to help its border authorities. That autumn, the EU awarded Greece a further €121 million for the construction of reception centres on the islands of Samos, Kos and Leros, and the following March yet more funding was allocated for centres on Lesvos and Chios. Migrants can now be kept for an indefinite period in these remote locations, away from the European mainland. Having deterred over 140,000 people from entering the country between April and November 2021, Greece is now seeking more EU funding to triple the length of its steel border fence in the Evros region. At the same time, the government has instrumentalized the Ukraine crisis to whitewash its human rights record – creating a two-tier system in which Ukrainian refugees are given preferential access to registration, accommodation and education.  

The New Democracy government continues to dismiss evidence of pushbacks as ‘fake news’ or ‘Turkish propaganda’, and has developed effective methods to close down discussion of the issue. The vilification of pro-migrant NGOs – a staple of far-right discourse during the Syriza years – is now a talking-point of cabinet ministers. Under new laws, such organizations are required to sign up to an official register and receive permission from the state to continue their work, which must conform to highly restrictive criteria. New Democracy has also ensured that the camps remain off-limits to the press, and so the public is prevented from seeing the horrors therein. Meanwhile, journalists who try to cover migration issues can expect a hostile backlash. When the Dutch-born reporter Ingeborg Beugel accused the Prime Minister of lying about the activities of Greek border forces, for instance, she became the target of a state-backed smear campaign. After a barrage of death threats, Beugel was forced to temporarily leave Greece on the advice of the Dutch embassy. She is now facing criminal charges for allowing an Afghan asylum seeker to lodge in her house, which could lead to a year in prison and a fine of €5,000. A similar fate befell Iason Apostolopoulos, field coordinator of the humanitarian organization Mediterranea Saving Humans, who was labelled a traitor and a Turkish agent for conducting search and rescue operations. He was targeted by a pro-government news outlet which published his personal information online. Because of this climate of fear, Greece has fallen 38 places in the Press Freedom Index over the past year: now ranking 108th, just below Burundi. Earlier this month, when the European Court of Human Rights found that the Greek Coast Guard had sunk a migrant boat in 2014, causing eleven asylum seekers to lose their lives, major news outlets simply ignored the ruling.

This media blackout has contributed to hardening attitudes towards refugees and migrants among the Greek population. Previously, a coalition of forces – NGOs, progressive political parties, the anarchist movement and small unaffiliated groups – constituted an impressive migrant solidarity network. They assisted with the first reception of refugees, hosted them in their houses, helped them file asylum claims, organized food deliveries and clothing donations, and even occupied empty buildings in the centre of Athens, where migrants could live less controlled and more dignified lives than in the camps. Yet this atmosphere began to change in 2016, when the European borders closed following the EU–Turkey deal. Henceforth, Greece was no longer seen as a ‘transit country’ but a permanent home for its migrant population. Many islanders realized that the camps were there to stay and feared that they would be a detriment to the local tourist industry. Accordingly, the perception of refugees as victims of war and societal collapse was supplanted by representations of them as scroungers or civilizational enemies. This shift, in which the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party played a major role, was fomented by the widespread sense of despair following the 2015 bailout referendum, where the resounding vote to reject the Troika’s demand for more austerity was flatly ignored by Tsipras. In these conditions of scarcity, with the promise of a left alternative betrayed, far-right propaganda succeeded in turning many ordinary Greeks against migrants, framed as competitors for limited jobs and benefits.

This about-turn was also aided by the Orthodox Church, which continues to enjoy extraordinary influence in Greek society given the lack of an official separation between Church and State. With the rise of multiculturalism during the 2000s, a significant section of the ecclesiastical body gravitated towards the far right, often parroting conspiracy theories about the existential threat of ‘Islamicization’. The Archbishop of Athens led the charge, stating that ‘Islam is not a religion but a political party…and its believers are people of war’. Although Golden Dawn lost their parliamentary seats at the last election, racist views have been all but normalized in public discourse. A survey conducted earlier this year found that 55% of the Greek public think that refugees will contribute to the spread of terrorism, 72% believe that they have a negative impact on the economy, and 73.5% want those who enter the country ‘illegally’ to be deported back to their country of origin.

With the exception of MeRA25 – a marginal left-wing party founded in 2018 as part of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) – the parliamentary opposition has done nothing to push back against such views. Syriza has wholly adopted New Democracy’s migrant-baiting rhetoric, claiming that Greece is ‘facing a geopolitical threat from Turkey’ in the form of refugees. A few international organizations (UNHCR, The Danish Refugee Council and the International Organization for Migration) as well as long-standing local solidarity structures, anarchist and far-left groups, still work closely with migrants, offering legal advice, educational services, practical and psychological support, accommodation and advocacy. But their position in a society increasingly seduced by far-right rhetoric is precarious. Without concerted organizing efforts, it may vanish completely under Mitsotakis’s repression.

Read on: Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘Borderland’, NLR 110.


Adieu Boris, Adieu

In 1985, all Britain’s living ex-prime ministers were invited to 10 Downing Street to mark the 250th anniversary of the building. Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and then incumbent Thatcher were all there. To break the ice, Callaghan supposedly asked the others what they thought they had in common. ‘A lack of principle’ Macmillan immediately replied. The rot at the top has deepened measurably since then. Thatcher helped her son to millions in kickbacks for smoothing Saudi arms sales. Major’s government was embroiled in unending cash-for-questions and kiss-and-tell scandals, the PM himself conducting torrid affairs in Number Ten, while his Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken, was eventually jailed for perjury in denying Riyadh had settled his Ritz Hotel bills in Paris.

Blair and Brown, both accused of lying about legal exemptions for Formula One racing after a million-pound donation from Bernie Ecclestone, turned to tarring each other over the cash-for-peerages scandal, which saw Scotland Yard knocking on numerous ministerial front doors; not to mention the still unexplained death of whistleblower David Kelly and misleading Parliament over the invasion of Iraq. Cameron was deeply embroiled in the celebrity phone-hacking scandal involving the Murdoch press and his close chum Rebekah Brooks. Theresa May, always coy about her tax returns, was revealed to be linked via her husband to Panama Papers tax-avoidance schemes.

And Johnson? Office parties during lockdown, or sparing the rod to spoil your Pincher, fade in comparison. Claiming not to know about the notorious Mr Pincher (his Deputy Chief Whip) fondling young men’s posteriors at his club was a stupid decision, but a sacking offence? The hallowed domain of the Carlton has surely witnessed worse. The frothing indignation of the British liberal pundits – ‘toxic’, ‘poison’, tarnishing ‘good people’ according to the Economist’s Bagehot column – makes one wonder what these people know of their own history.

Comparisons between Johnson and Trump were always far-fetched. Trump is a disruptive novelty who has succeeded in creating something like a political movement on the right of US politics: numerically quite small, perhaps, but capable of exploiting the radicalizing dynamic that the predominance of gerrymandered one-party constituencies has built into America’s two-party system. Johnson – a social liberal by inclination, who presided over the most diverse cabinet in British history (a litany of opportunists and useful idiots, many of whom are now vying for the top job) – is very different. More of a louche old-school politician with a popular touch, the closest US equivalent would be an upper-class Chris Christie. Johnson has no extra-parliamentary movement. He rode the Brexit wave; he didn’t create it.

It’s miscategorizing Johnson to see him as some right-wing populist excrescence on the fair face of liberal democracy. While the Daily Mail has risen in Johnson’s defence – ‘What the hell have they done?’ – ‘Day Tories Lost Their Marbles’ – ‘Red Wall Backlash Against Tory Traitors’, the Daily Telegraph has been attacking him from the right for turning the Conservative into a ‘semi-socialist party’ with big-state hand-outs and tax rises. Whatever else his ouster is, it’s definitely not a revolt from below. If Johnson had seized the initiative at the start of last week and called a snap election, the voters would likely have returned him with a much-diminished majority. It is rumoured that the Queen baulked at agreeing to dissolve Parliament and call a fresh election. Then BJ baulked at going head-to-head with his monarch. This is England, after all. Amid soaring inflation and rising interest rates there is plenty of discontent in the country, as the widespread support for the striking railway workers and their plain-speaking leader Mick Lynch has shown. But Starmer is desperate to avoid any association with it, banning Labour MPs from joining RMT picket lines, adopting all the Tory policies he can. Johnson, of course, has presided over a hawkish foreign policy and sadism towards refugees, but this is continuity politics in Britain.

What we are witnessing is an internal Tory Party revolt, set in motion by some of Johnson’s long-term personal enemies: ex-Foreign Office mandarin Simon McDonald, the energetic Cummings. The real puzzle is why Tory MPs have lost their heads in this fashion and defenestrated one of their very few leaders capable of galvanizing popular support. True, Conservatives have always been ruthless in dumping Prime Ministers viewed as an electoral liability (in polar contrast, Labour is only ruthless in removing any leader who poses a threat to the values of the extreme centre: before Corbyn there was George Lansbury, considered too radical and replaced by Attlee). But the Tories were not doing so badly in the polls and have done worse since Johnson’s overthrow. Their deep divisions over tax-cutting Thatcherism or ‘One-Englandist’ pork will still prevent them from presenting a coherent programme to the electorate.

Why then are the Tories behaving so irrationally? It appears to be a galloping case of the post-imperial entropy diagnosed by Tom Nairn many decades ago, through which ‘the English conservative Establishment has begun to destroy itself.’ Enoch Powell was an early sign of this – as Nairn put it: ‘symptomatic of the growing paralysis and deterioration of the consensus itself.’ Posing as the answer to British malaise, Thatcher succeeded in rebooting returns on capital and crushed the organized working class for two generations as a political force. But the radicalism she injected into Conservative politics – combined with the decimation of the Tories’ provincial base of local gentry, bank managers and businessmen through the waves of trans-Atlantic acquisitions and privatizations she unleashed – has left the Tory Party permanently damaged. Cameron’s attempts to remodel it on New Labour opened up a vacuum to its right, instantly filled by UKIP and the tyros of the European Research Group.

Thatcherite globalization, along with the abdication of international sovereignty formalized by Blair and Brown, has produced a series of disconnects between governing-class factions, business interests, cosmopolitan intellectuals and provincialized voters, which manifested themselves in the Brexit bid and now in this febrile desertion of the leader, without having a better candidate in place. A Night of the Short Knives has begun, as Tory contenders stab each other in the front. An election looms, probably within the next year. The Tories will be punished for this electorally, which is well deserved; but otherwise Johnson’s departure offers nothing much for the left to celebrate, since Starmer stands for virtually the same policies, not least being as gung-ho for war on Russia, China or anywhere else. A Lib-Lab coalition with SNP support, hoping to glue the UK more firmly together with a new Scotland deal and rapprochement with the EU over the Customs Union, but thereby losing more support in the North, would take the entropy one stage further.

Read on: Tom Nairn, ‘Enoch Powell: The New Right’, NLR I/61.


Hard Feelings

‘Our main product’ insists the website of the Medieval Torture Museum, the largest of its kind in the United States, ‘is emotion’. With sites in Chicago, St Augustine (Florida) and a third branch opening this summer on Hollywood Boulevard, the private collection of sadistic historic instruments and replicas aims to surpass its Czech inspiration by abolishing glass cases for garottes, thumb screws and Spanish boots, immersing the visitor in an interactive experience of Old-World suffering, allowing her to inhabit roles of both victim and executioner. In Europe, dusty displays of artefacts might suffice, but in America, it’s important to feel something.

When the LA branch opens its doors, Ottessa Moshfegh will, traffic depending, find herself only twenty or so minutes away. With her husband, the writer Luke Goebel, she lives in Pasadena, in a house reassembled from the ruins of an earthquake. Designed and built by the artist Herman Koller over a fifteen-year period from 1928, Casa de Pájaros is old for California. The stones of the house were salvaged from the San Juan Capistrano Mission, the bell that hangs there from the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, both late-eighteenth century Spanish colonial structures levelled by the tremor that hit Long Beach in 1933, killing 120 people. The couple moved in just before lockdown, and Moshfegh has described how the age of the materials along with the retreat from modern life enforced by pandemic isolation brought the deep time of the European Middle Ages to mind. When news broke last year that Moshfegh, pigeon-holed as the laureate of millennial ‘sad girls’, had turned to historical fiction it was greeted with some apprehension. Such reports turn out, however, to have been a misunderstanding – Lapvona, despite its putative late-fourteenth-century setting and list of Balkan-ish place and character names, does not stray from the themes of her work to date. Reacting, perhaps, to the curse of pseudo-relevance which made her satire of contemporary feminine abjection and narcissism, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), into a lockdown parable, Moshfegh, like the Medieval Torture Museum, has simply diversified her portfolio of locations. The novel is the latest result of a decade-long obsession with, in the words of one Lapvonian, ‘hard feelings’.

Born in Boston, the middle child of an Iranian father and Croatian mother, both of whom were professional classical musicians, Moshfegh, 41, was initially set to follow in the family trade. In her adolescence, an oversubscribed music summer school and an empty spot on a creative writing course altered her path without affecting her artistic methodology. If Moshfegh stands out from many of her contemporaries in the nebulous marketing category of ‘women’s literary fiction’ it is not for her perversity, or unashamed interest in lapses of bodily etiquette, but because of her commitment to the craft of narrative. Every sentence appears the product of rehearsal, every plot paced as if by metronome. In a now-infamous Guardian interview, she described having written her breakout success Eileen (2016) following the prompts laid out in Alan Watt’s guide The 90-day Novel. Moshfegh’s comments, along with her declared ambitions for fame and fortune, were taken to reflect a hustling fraudulence, a lack of respect for the muses and the divinity of literary inspiration. In fact, Moshfegh’s approach – which has produced a series of delicately hinged psychological thrillers and mysteries – relies on treating inspiration as work; in interviews she describes a hermetic tendency that, when combined with a stoic daily writing practice, yields novels that accelerate almost imperceptibly, pushing their protagonists across the state lines of ordinary misery and into the lawless borderlands of pathological chaos. In the introduction to Week One of his course Watt writes, ‘if we allow our subconscious some time to play, our characters tend to surprise us.’

The risk of such an approach is that the result becomes formulaic. While the plots and settings of most of her fiction cluster around a set of easily identifiable themes (wipe-clean institutional buildings, temporary and unproductive employment, embittered social isolation – for her characters the challenge is not to change the world, but to flee it), Moshfegh has developed a line in idiosyncratic narrative voice that elevates her stories beyond the conventions of their genres. In Death In Her Hands (2020) the protagonist and narrator Vesta, discovering her own capabilities for the first time in the aftermath of a controlling and miserable marriage, anxiously probes the interior of her ‘mindspace’, the kind of jarring word choice that sets Moshfegh’s anti-heroes just west of centre within the frames they inhabit (on the New Yorker fiction podcast in 2018, she described a similar move by Sheila Heti who writes, in her story ‘My Life Is a Joke’, that someone conceived ‘using fertility’. ‘Why did she do that?’, Moshfegh puzzles admiringly).

The Melvillian novella McGlue (2014), her debut, recounts an elongated dark night of the soul of a nineteenth-century Massachusetts sailor who may have killed his best friend and lover during an alcoholic blackout in Zanzibar. Ostensibly historical fiction, McGlue shows her revelling not in the details of 1800s Salem maritime life but rather in the disorganising vessel of a fraying mind; when the ship’s captain asks McGlue for his thoughts a litany of exotic luxuries ensues – goods to be smuggled in the gash in his head – that runs over a page and a half: ‘What I have been thinking, captain, is what is exempt from import tax in one country is what I’d like to stick through the crack in my skull to fill it: hay, oranges, lemons, pineapples, cocoa nuts, grapes, green fruit and vegetables of every variety and linseed oil cake.’ Repeatedly in her fiction, everyday objects become tests for the limits of the body, which must be stuffed, ruptured and purged as a proof of existence.

Thanks to the commercial success of My Year of Rest and Relaxation – whose narrator, a young, rich, beautiful Manhattanite, decides to take a pharmacologically-fuelled sabbatical from life on the eve of 9/11 – Moshfegh is often touted as a writer of young womanhood. In fact, over the course of her writing she has regularly adopted the subject position of the elderly and middle aged: the narrator of Eileen is in her mid-70s, Vesta a similar age, the most memorable protagonists of her short fiction (‘Disgust’, ‘No Place for Good People’, ‘The Beach Boy’) range from their late forties to sixties. Old age, more evidently than youth, allows her characters to physically unclench – the younger ones rely heavily on laxatives – and to release themselves of the weighty expectations of success, beauty, even happiness. These characters, the women especially, have quit the rat race of social recognition, weaponize their invisibility and delight in muddling the rationality of the contemporary mundane. When Vesta visits the public library, hunting a missing body, she Asks Jeeves how to solve a murder; the search engine directs her to instructions on how to write a murder mystery and for the rest of the book dying and writing are synchronous acts, best performed by those who’ve seen it all.

The two regions of America in which Moshfegh has lived also comprise the locations of her fiction: the northeast shoulder of the USA (Eileen, McGlue, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Death In Her Hands) and its southwest hip (the bulk of the short story collection Homesick for Another World). Lapvona, her sixth book and fifth novel, belongs to the latter, offering a Hollywood view of feudal Europe. Closer to Duloc than Montaillou, the medieval world of the novel is a costume not a thesis for Moshfegh, distanced enough from the obfuscatory familiarity of the contemporary to allow her to focus on what she really cares about: pain. It is also the first of her novels written in the third person. No longer propelled by the missteps of her trademark unreliable narrator, in the absence of a protagonist’s voice one imagines instead an omniscient creator. The effect is to redirect attention to the author, who one now sees as crouched with a magnifying glass over the sandbox world she has constructed, alternately illuminating and scorching the dramatis personae. The novel switches episodically between characters – a technique unknown in her earlier fiction in which plot equals protagonist, and a development surely not unrelated to her recent work as a screenwriter – the narrative unfurling in linear time across five consecutive seasons.

Lapvona charts the unlikely rise of Marek, a shepherd boy afflicted with scoliosis (from which Moshfegh herself has suffered since childhood), ‘from lowly lamb herder’s son to the lord of Lapvona’. After manslaughtering the Lord’s preening heir (who, in a characteristically Moshfeghian detail is brought down by vanity: his sleek crimson and blue leather boots causing him to slip on craggy rocks after Marek has lured him high to hunt for gulls), Marek is adopted by the fey and febrile Villiam, who substitutes him for his dead son in the soiled games of the court. While coprophagia reigns in the castle, in the village below the peasants turn to cannibalism in the wake of a drought exacerbated by the maintenance of Villiam’s ornamental lakes. Life is hardly worth hanging on to in the village of Lapvona, characters lie down beside dried out riverbeds and hope for death or slip away from a residue of poisoned claret dried on their lips, ‘so fragile was she, so willing to leave this stupid life behind.’ Those who survive seem to know that they shouldn’t have, that the good are always the second to go, hot on the heels of the innocent.

Marek’s ascension to nobility leads him back to the mother who abandoned him after failing to abort him, and the novel concludes with an act which could be motivated by revenge but feels more like the inevitable fulfilment of the book’s ceaselessly cruel logic. Elderly characters are, once more, an exception to the rule of brute stupidity that governs Moshfegh’s fiction; Ina, a wild woman, wet nurse and witch, survives plagues, raids and floods to act as a spiritual conscience for the village, advocating a love for Christ in nature not the Church. ‘You can’t believe the difference in my sleep, now that I know what time is to me, and not what it meant to the church’, Grigor, another aged survivor (and EP Thompson avant la lettre) tells her, before she opens his heart to the real God, to be found ‘in the harmonious song of spring’.  

The scaffolding of Lapvona is characteristically robust: resolutions are achieved, arcs conclude with the ironic flourishes that are the trademarks of Moshfegh’s character development, but the ultimate effect is overburdensome, the pillars and poles of the neatly paced plot begin to bow under the weight of all the misery they must support. The final effect is akin to that of having feasted on a fridge full of rotten food, where even the ice water reeks of canned fish. For the digestor of this fiction as well as its creator the same maxim holds: just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. Thematically, Lapvona hardly exceeds the carnivals of bad taste in Moshfegh’s other works – why, then, does it feel so oversaturated with suffering? Here Moshfegh’s shift to the third person explains more than her deployment of a studio feudalism. Lapvona is the first of Moshfegh’s works to take a location as its subject, not a character. Where, in her other fiction, Moshfegh offers up similar grotesqueries, the experiences are channelled through a single perspective, forming the basis of a psychological profile. Even when, plausibly, that single character is a synecdoche for the baseness of humans en masse, the fact remains that our worst moments are ours alone, our perversions symptomatic but ultimately unique. In the populous world of Lapvona there is no limit to the numbers upon which anguish can be visited, and, without the confines of a first person perspective, no obsessional introspection to justify the foulness. At her best, Moshfegh is able to make an unhinged flight from reality seem the only logical move, but in Lapvona the narrative, determined by place not character, has nowhere to go.

Read on: Christopher Middleton, ‘The Sexual Division of Labour in Feudal England’, NLR I/113-134.