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New Reality?

Six months into the conflict, a Russian army incapable of taking Kyiv is presented as a threat to the entire continent. Ukraine has become, according to President Zelensky, ‘a springboard for an attack on other nations of Europe’. For the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Russia represents nothing less than ‘a challenge to free people everywhere’. Given in the American airbase of Ramstein, Germany, his speech sounded like a script for a historical reenactment of the Cold War.

The war in Ukraine is widely regarded a war against Russian expansionism and thus a war for Europe. The Cold War fantasy of seeing Cossacks watering their horses in the fountains of Saint Peter of Rome has gained a second life. The Cossacks are now motorized, and nothing short of a coalition of the so-called free world will prevent Kilo-class submarines from mooring in Gdansk or columns of T-14s from racing down the Autobahn. If we don’t want to stock up on flour and sugar, we need to enlarge NATO by bringing in Sweden and Finland. And while we are at it, why not fight and defeat Russia on the battlefield, with NATO on the front lines?

Realism is in short supply these days and we are teetering on the edge of a global war. It wouldn’t hurt to remind ourselves more often that since 1945 nuclear arsenals have set absolute limits to worldwide conflicts and to the possibility of substantially modifying the global order. Between nuclear powers, there is a tacit agreement that this order cannot be radically altered. We should not try to find out where the breaking point is.

Despite recurrent announcements that we live in a ‘new reality’, neither the end of the Cold War nor globalization have fundamentally altered this situation. A world interconnected by global markets and productive and communication systems is less flexible than we imagine. With its abundant reserves of raw materials and highly developed sectors in military and space technologies, it is already clear that Russia will continue to be part of the global system despite Western sanctions. At most, these limits have become less visible and more fragile. Nothing would be more dangerous than to mistake a proxy war between nuclear powers for an asymmetric conflict against a ‘terrorist state’ fought in the name of lofty ideals such as ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’.

If realism struggles to be heard, it is also because in wartime everything is grist for the propaganda mill. Democracy, antifascist resistance, and the fight against imperialism are noble goals but they are also easily pliable (not so long ago, they motivated the special military operation to ‘denazify’ Iraq). Since they are now the main narrative for the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, realism has become de facto assimilated to Kremlin propaganda or worse. Whether it’s John Mearsheimer or Jürgen Habermas, woe betide those who dare to balance idealism against the realities of international politics!

And yet, we need a sober assessment of the objectives pursued by the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine. Is it to kick the Russians out of the country and to take back its eastern provinces? Despite the stunning performance of the Ukrainian military and even without considering Crimea, it is unlikely this can be achieved. Is it to put an end to the atrocious war crimes that Russian troops seem to commit on a daily basis? Only a perverse logic can seek justice in the continuation of a war that enables such crimes in the first place. Or is to deal Russia a decisive defeat on the battlefield, which would leave the country ‘weakened’ if not ‘humiliated’? This goes beyond Kyiv’s most intransigent demands and runs the risk of escalating the conflict and increasing the chances that non-conventional weapons are used. In any case, any talk of ‘victory’ is meaningless.

In this dangerous situation, what should Europe do? There is no doubt that the war in Ukraine represents a turning-point in which the future of Europe is at stake – but not for the reasons usually invoked. There is a distinct possibility that the war might generate a fracture between eastern and western Europe and spell the end of Europe as a political project. It is in the interest of the Europeans – and of the Ukrainians, who will eventually join the Union – to make sure that this project does not become a collateral victim of the conflict. To prevent this, a return to realism is necessary.

First, Europe must recognize that, increasingly, its interests do not coincide with those of Washington. It bears repeating that European unity was achieved outside the strategies that furthered US national interests: for the US, NATO has always been a greater priority than European unity. Yet, no matter how painstaking and tentative it may be, this unity has recently reached important milestones (with the mutualization of debt to face the pandemic, for instance). It should not be sacrificed to the goal of weakening Russia.

The United States can afford to bet on a protracted conflict and to raise the stakes because the consequences of these decisions are born mostly by Europe: the resettlement of millions of refugees, the cost of sanctions that are devastating for European economies, and the need to scramble for new sources of energy. The increase of European defense budgets will further impact welfare systems already weakened by decades of neoliberal policies and the 2008 crisis, which are nevertheless central to the regulation of the social equilibria upon which the political stability of the Union is premised. Finally, should the conflict escalate, Europe would become its primary theatre.

The war in Ukraine offers Washington an opportunity to shore up its declining hegemony by shifting onto European countries some of its costs while also drafting them in its global confrontation with China. In this respect, the continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations is striking. This would have a major impact on Europe’s constitutional order that will diminish the capacity of its historical members to define the political orientation of the Union, in favour of more docile governments.

The political weakening of Europe has become an explicit goal of NATO enlargement, especially among neoconservatives reinvigorated by the prospects of a war with Russia sold as a fight for democracy. To counteract the risk of an alliance made unwieldy by its swelling membership and a tumescent mission that now includes the containment of China, some suggest using NATO enlargement to adjust the balance of power within the Union. Their goal is to promote a coalition that would include ‘the Eastern European and Baltic states, with Poland in the lead…the Scandinavian states, in particular Finland and Norway’ but also ‘the English-speaking external powers, including the United Kingdom and Canada’. The same strategy is behind the recent British proposition of creating a ‘European Commonwealth’, which would amount to establishing a shadow Union more aligned with transatlantic agendas. This approach finds support in the new NATO strategic concept, which promotes the ‘fullest involvement’ of non-EU members in European defense efforts.

Against this backdrop, Sweden and Finland’s bid to join NATO stands out for its political implications rather than its strategic significance. As Adam Tooze has pointed out, their decision to apply was made possible by the weakness of the Russian military, not by the threat it represented. It’s too early to say how the emergence of a Nordic and rather hawkish NATO constituency will shape the conflict but it makes visible new fault lines in Europe.

Can we save Ukraine, and yet save Europe as well? As the physicist Carlo Rovelli recently wrote, ‘the problem of wars is not to win them: it is to put an end to them’. Europe is not a club of winners. It was built upon the rejection of war, the limitation of state sovereignty, and the adoption of federalism as a founding principle. Its main goal was always to organize peace on the continent and it must remain the same today if Europe is to survive.

The support of European governments to Ukraine cannot be the vehicle for strategies that prevent Europe’s further political integration. This does not mean abandoning Kyiv to its own devices or refusing to send military assistance. It means that this assistance must be accompanied by explicit diplomatic conditionalities, and that it must be carefully calibrated so as not to prevent future negotiations or future relations with Russia. Sooner or later, there will be a negotiated solution which will probably approximate the contours of the Minsk agreements.

Europe must also keep a safe distance from a US grand strategy that has not yet found the political formula for accommodating the global decline of American power and its loss of prestige. Going back to the Cold War will not restore American supremacy but it will hurt Europe. It will not restore prestige either: leading a global fight for ‘democracy’ is less convincing when the leading country is one whose Senate is holding hearings about a coup attempt, where women’s rights are trampled by the jurisdictions supposed to protect them, and where the possibility of civil war is a recurrent conversation topic. Unsurprisingly, most of the world does not go along.

It would be a mistake for Europe to throw its lot in with this strategy. Rather, it should bet on the rising cadre of ‘restrainers’ in Washington who advocate a different and less bellicose foreign policy, far from the unctuous homilies about the liberal international order and its military underpinnings. Caught between the crisis of American hegemony and the sly maneuvering of the Kremlin, which seeks to bolster the most anti-European and reactionary political forces, Europe must become a political subject and develop strategic autonomy at the global level. The war in Ukraine has made this an urgent task that can no longer be postponed.

Read on: Tony Wood, ‘Matrix of War’, NLR 133/4.

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Mish-Mash Ecologism

Things seemed to be looking up in late 2020. After yet another catastrophic season of fires, floods and heat, the US elected a president with the most ambitious climate plan of any candidate in history, directly shaped by the Sunrise Movement and the campaign for a Green New Deal. Yet here we are in 2022, and it’s all gone awry. The fossil fuel industry is earning windfall profits, and asset manager titans have reversed their efforts to shift the financial sector away from such enticing returns. Joe Biden’s breakthrough climate legislation, the misleadingly named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), includes major concessions to the fossil fuel industry and has been met with their approval.

The IRA greenlights offshore oil and gas leases in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico for the next ten years and backs the bitterly contested Mountain Valley pipeline. At its core, it aims to ‘derisk’ private capital investment in the green transition, in line with what Daniela Gabor calls the ‘Wall Street Consensus’. Its major policy tool is its tax-credit programme, available for mostly middle-class homeowners looking to buy EVs or new appliances and private companies that develop and manufacture electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels and batteries. (A direct pay provision might open the door for expanding publicly owned clean energy, but it will have to compete in a largely private market).  

Such measures have been hailed as the largest climate investment in US history – but that is not saying much. It is estimated that decarbonizing the US power grid alone will cost $4.5 trillion. Biden’s Act offers a mere $369 billion to be spent over a decade. Most of it will be handed to the private sector, including the fossil-fuel industry itself. The tax credit programme does contain prevailing wage and domestic content standards that aim to reinvigorate domestic industrial policy toward solar, wind and EV manufacturing, but it’s not clear if such standards can be met or how they will be enforced. Optimistic models suggest the IRA will lead to 40% reductions in carbon emissions by 2030, but they also admit that doing nothing at all would lead to reductions of between 24% and 35%. The wager for the planet thus appears to be that state-supported green capital can beat fossil fuels on the free market.

Meanwhile, fossil capital continues to win. In June, it was reported that of the top ten best performing stocks of 2022, three were coal producers and five were linked to the oil and gas industry. If it wasn’t clear already, it should be now: those who profit from the production of fossil fuels will continue to do so unless forced to stop. Market-based solutions such as the IRA neglect basic questions of political and economic power. As such, it is worth pausing to consider what answers eco-socialism can offer in the present conjuncture. Two new books – The Future is Degrowth by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan and Andrea Vetter and Half Earth Socialism by Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass – both embrace utopianism as an Archimedean vantage point from which to imagine a reconfiguration of the world, beyond the narrow confines of mainstream climate policy.

Co-authored by an economic historian (Schmelzer), a political ecologist (Vansintjan) and a journalist (Vetter), The Future of Degrowth argues that the global economy must be scaled down to align with its natural limits. The book offers a broad overview of the degrowth movement and its critique of the postwar Keynesian paradigm – along with the colonialist, capitalist and patriarchal ideologies that underpinned it. Though the authors acknowledge ‘overlaps and similarities’ between their framework and the Green New Deal, they argue that the latter is fundamentally flawed. Not only is it hitched to a fantasy of ‘progressive productivism’, it would also require a neo-colonial mining regime for its build-out of renewable-energy infrastructure. Against this trend in climate policymaking, The Future is Degrowth articulates a form of utopianism rooted in the here and now, based on what Engels once called ‘model experiments’. Engaging with the work of Erik Olin Wright, the authors describe a series of ‘nowtopias’ – community-supported agriculture, communing, cooperative economies – which they see as an antidote to climate ‘megaprojects’ (on which they propose a blanket ‘moratoria’).

While defining degrowth in bland terms – ‘a fair reduction of production and consumption that encompasses both human well-being and ecological sustainability’ – Schmelzer et al. also lay out a concrete agenda: the ‘Global North’ must lower consumption while switching to renewable energy and more localized production. How will this ‘fundamental political and economic reorganization of society’ be brought about? The authors admit it may require ‘confrontations with private ownership structures’. Historically, they write, such transformations ‘have always been marked by fierce controversies, public disputes and, up to now, (violent) conflict.’ Yet their main strategy for enacting this green transition is borrowed from the well-worn post-1968 playbook of turning the Leninist Antonio Gramsci into an ecumenical pluralist. They predict that degrowth alternatives will add up, one by one, into a powerful ‘counter-hegemony’ able to simultaneously offer alternative lifestyles, pass ‘non-reformist reforms’ via the state machinery, and build revolutionary ‘dual power’ ready for ruptural crises.

Half Earth Socialism shares some features with the degrowthers: it too focuses on natural limits and calls for lower consumption, renewable energy and deindustrialized agriculture in the Global North. But the books differ in their focus and ambition. While The Future of Degrowth envisions a ‘pluriverse’ of diverse and localized alternatives, letting a thousand degrowth flowers bloom, Half Earth Socialism is much bolder, imagining nothing less than planetary-scale ecological planning. Co-authored by an environmental historian (Vettese) and an environmental engineer (Pendergrass), the book rejects the standard solutions to climate change – bioenergy, carbon capture, geoengineering and nuclear power. Instead, it combines the socio-biologist E.O. Wilson’s proposal to leave half the planet’s habitable surface to wild nature with Pendergrass’s computer models of a world defined by 100% renewable energy.

Whereas The Future of Degrowth avoids ‘indulging in the euphoria of expert-led planning’ and attempts to ‘give space for many different visions for the future’, Half Earth Socialism wants to resuscitate the socialist planning tradition. It draws on the work of Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath and Soviet mathematician Leonid Kantorovich to mount a trenchant critique of Hayekian planning-scepticism. Yet Vettese and Pendergrass explicitly reject Marxism as part of a Hegelian-Promethean thought-system marked by the ‘humanization of nature’ – ‘the process by which humanity overcomes its alienation from nature by instilling the latter with human consciousness through the process of labour.’

By contrast, the authors’ vision is almost as austere as Pol Pot’s. Their core claim is that nature should largely be left to itself, free from human manipulation. Citing Morris’s News from Nowhere, they imagine a world 25 years in the future, run on the principles of cooperation, democracy and ecological restoration. With Pendergrass’s algorithms to guide them, the ecological planners of the 2040s develop a variety of land-use models and let people democratically choose which scenario they prefer – some with more/less energy per capita, some with more/less land left to wilderness. The energy quotas range from 2,000 Watts per person to as low as 750.

One of Half Earth Socialism’s merits is that its authors take the land-use needs of different energy-production systems seriously. But their penchant is for the most land-hungry options – solar and wind power – even as they accept that the intermittency of these energy sources is likely to lead to regular blackouts. Their models also include land-intensive biofuels which, in one scenario, are estimated to cover 26% of land surface. And their plan to rewild half the Earth’s habitable surface would require perhaps the most preposterous proposal of all: the imposition of universal mandatory veganism (otherwise the numbers would never add up). They also reject the energy source that could free up space for biodiversity by using less land than all the others: nuclear power.

Vettese and Pendergrass invite us to imagine that ‘the Half-Earth socialist revolution happens tomorrow’, but they do not explain how this might occur. Though they gesture towards a pro-Half Earth political coalition, its members are vaguely delineated: ‘there should be animal-rights activists and organic farmers there, as well as socialists, feminists and scientists’ – constituencies that make up miniscule fractions of the eight billion-strong population they hope to corral. As for broader layers such as social classes, Half Earth Socialism is largely silent. Like The Future is Degrowth and much of the left for the last half-century, the authors assume that a ‘movements of movements’ – uniting various disparate and subaltern groups – will eventually gain enough power to confront capital.

Is there a Marxist alternative to this 21st-century utopianism? In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels saw the emergence of 19th-century utopian socialism, signalled by the work of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, as a reaction to the defeated aspirations of the French Revolution. By the early 1800s it was already clear that it had failed to deliver the kingdom of reason and justice promised by the Enlightenment; instead, the triumph of the big bourgeoisie had brought corruption, war and the poverty produced by super-abundance. Industrial production was barely developed, and the proletariat, wrote Engels, appeared to these radicals as ‘incapable of independent political action’ – ‘an oppressed, suffering order’ which required help from outside. In these conditions, the utopian socialists attempted in idealist fashion to evolve the solution to social problems ‘out of the human brain’:

Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.

Two hundred years on – and in the wake of the defeated aspirations of the 20th-century revolutions – utopian eco-socialists appear to be repeating the same pattern. A new ecological order will be conjured up out of their brains, trialed in micro-experiments – as in The Future of Degrowth – or, as in Half Earth Socialism, ‘imposed from without by propaganda’. What is missing here is any analysis of the concrete class relationships that both inhibit such transformations or might bring them about. For Engels, winning real socialism hinges on class struggle: ‘Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.’

As idealists, 19th-century socialists saw their mental adumbrations as the expression of an absolute truth – although, as Engels pointed out, the absolute truth differed for the founder of each school; each was mutually exclusive and hence the sects were in permanent conflict with each other. As a result, nothing could come of the early-socialist movement but ‘a kind of eclectic, average socialism’ – ‘a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion’:

A mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook.

Hard not to think of Engels when one reads The Future of Degrowth’s evocation of the ‘pluriverse’ or ‘mosaic of alternatives’ which will supposedly overwhelm the tightly defended capitalist interests of the ‘Global North’. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific he insisted, on the contrary, that socialism could only emerge from the historical economic conditions of the age. This did not involve any condemnation of utopianism as such. Rather than crow over the failure of Owenite experiments, Engels wrote, ‘we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering.’

In present conditions, as Mike Davis has put it, ‘utopian thinking can clarify the minimal conditions for the preservation of human solidarity in face of convergent planetary crises.’ But the initial problem remains: those who benefit from their massive fixed investments in fossil fuels seem hell-bent on sustaining them. Does this utopianism yield a strategy to confront the political and economic power of the planet’s opponents – in the first instance, key sectors of the American ruling class?

As Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote nearly four decades ago, the working class has done more to challenge power than any other social force. Where does it stand today? Engels argued that ‘scientific’ – that is, self-critical, rigorously conceptualized and empirically tested – socialism must be rooted in an investigation of historical development: ‘the process of evolution of humanity.’ He himself lived through the epochal ruptures of mass proletarianization and the industrial revolution. The 20th century saw those processes accelerate, in what Farshad Araghi calls ‘global depeasantization’ – a process continuing in China today, in what is probably the largest rural-urban migration in human history. According to David Harvey, global capitalism has added something like two billion people to the global proletariat over the past twenty years. While Marx and Engels thought this mass proletarianization would swell industrial factories, the result has more been the rise of a vast ‘informal proletariat’ deemed superfluous to the needs of capital; a surplus humanity, housed in a Planet of Slums.

Planetary proletarianization should be a central issue for eco-socialism: capitalism produces an urbanized majority with no direct relation to the ecological conditions of existence. The most pressing question of our times is how we can solve ecological problems while restructuring production to provision a society largely torn from the land. If that provisioning requires large-scale democratic planning – as Vettese and Pendergrass rightly assert it does – the ‘demos’ must include the global proletariat. But the eco-socialist penchant for a retreat to small-scale agriculture – Half Earth Socialism’s fictionalized utopia concedes agriculture will require ‘a lot more labor, for sure’ – implies hunger, if not starvation, for the world’s mega-slums (and, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, urban gardens are no substitute for industrial scale grain production).  

The question of the actually existing productive forces poses a further set of problems. Eric Hobsbawm called the Industrial Revolution ‘probably the most important event in world history’. Machines and fossil fuels replaced a good deal of human and animal muscle-power – as he put it, ‘the shackles were taken off the productive power of human societies.’ In the 21st century it is easy to take this transformation for granted, while blaming it for our present ecological predicament. The Future is Degrowth offers a wholesale critique of ‘industrialism’ and proclaims, ‘the goal of degrowth society must be to overcome industrialism and towards a post-industrial society.’  Yet it was only with the development of modern productive forces that it became possible to envisage a standard of life that could allow the free development of all. Solving climate change undoubtedly requires massive new industrial infrastructure in energy, public transit and housing. We do need to develop the productive forces – but ecologically. 

A socialist eco-modernism should make the transformation of production and the productive forces the fulcrum of any new relation to the planet. One of the few thinkers to have explored this problem is Jonathan Hughes, who speculated about ‘ecologically benign forms of technological development.’ Clearly, the productive forces must develop beyond their historically entrenched reliance upon fossil fuel. Yet, the private ownership of energy prevents this from taking place – a contradiction realized through the wider crisis of planetary climate change, from rising seas in Bangladesh to drought in the horn of Africa. All known technological pathways to halting environmental breakdown are ‘fettered’ by the social relations of production: renewable energy might be getting cheaper, but that does not necessarily translate to profits. Other solutions like nuclear fission, green hydrogen, scaled geothermal and carbon removal all present the same key obstacle: they cost too much, and fossil fuels are more profitable. In sum, solving climate change requires new social relations of production that would develop the productive forces toward clean production.

While the utopian eco-socialists would likely scoff at these as ‘techno-fixes’ – technological solutions which don’t challenge capitalist social relations – an eco-modern socialist perspective would insist these technologies will not be developed unless we challenge capitalist social relations. Beyond climate, most other aspects of the ecological crisis hinge on developing new forms of production: greening nitrogen production and consumption and finding less land-intensive production to preserve biodiversity (e.g. lab meat). All of these ecological forms of production struggle to compete with dirtier and more profitable alternatives under capitalism.

In this context, the climate left does not lack for utopian imaginaries, which can make for productive (and enjoyable) exercises. But such utopianism can too easily avoid the material realities of the world as it exists. We need a climate politics that aims outward, beyond the already converted – towards the exploited and atomized working class.

Read on: Kenta Tsuda, ‘Naïve Questions on Degrowth’, NLR 128.

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Odourless Utopia

In Europe, the war bulletins come not just from Ukraine, but also from the climate front. The French government has cracked down on water use, banning watering lawns and washing cars in 62 of 101 departments, as more than 100 municipalities no longer have potable water. Nuclear power plants on the Rhône and Garonne have had to reduce production due to insufficient water in the rivers. In Italy, the government has declared a state of emergency in 5 of 20 regions, while Second World War bombs are discovered on the beds of its largest river, the dried-up Po. In Germany, the Rhine is so low that the barges plying its 1,000 kilometres from Austria to Holland have had to reduce their cargo from 3,000 to 900 tons so as not to run aground, and the river is expected to soon become impassable to freight traffic. In England, for the first time on record, the source of the Thames has dried up and the river is beginning to flow more than 5 miles further downstream. In Spain, restrictions on water consumption have been imposed in Catalonia, Galicia and Andalusia.

These are all warning signs. In a few centuries, the idea of water as an abundant resource and universal right may be unimaginable. It is easy to forget that even in the so-called advanced world, domestic running water – for toilets, cooking, personal hygiene, washing clothes and dishes – is a very recent and ephemeral phenomenon, dating back less than a century. In 1940, 45% of households in the US lacked complete plumbing; in 1950, only 44% of homes in Italy had either indoor or outdoor plumbing. In 1954, only 58% of houses in France had running water and only 26% had a toilet. In 1967, 25% of homes in England and Wales still lacked a bath or shower, an indoor toilet, a sink and hot- and cold-water taps. In Romania, 36% of the population lacked a flushing toilet solely for their household in 2012 (down to 22% in 2021).

The availability of domestic running water varies depending on one’s individual wealth and on the affluence of one’s nation. While in Western Europe and the US, the number of households with toilets equipped with running water currently exceeds 99%, in a number of African countries the percentage is between 1 and 4: Ethiopia 1.76%; Burkina Faso 1.87%; Burundi 2.32%; Uganda 2.37%; Chad 2.50%; Niger 2.76%; Madagascar 2.83%; Mozambique 2.87%; Mali 3.71%; Rwanda 3.99%; Congo 4.17%. In these countries the toilet is a marker of class status; in Ethiopia less than one in 56 households has one. The data also contains some surprises: there are more toilets in Bangladesh (35%) than in Moldova (29%), India is in roughly the same situation as South Africa (44% versus 45%) and just ahead of Azerbaijan (40%). While in Baghdad the number of houses with flushing toilets is 94.8%, in central Kabul it is 26%, and in Afghanistan as a whole it is 13.7%.

It is possible to trace the social and geopolitical history of running water. Its widespread accessibility was the the result of two primary factors: 1) the industrial revolution that provided the pipelines and purification plants needed for this colossal planetary enterprise; and 2) urbanization, for it is fairly obvious that bringing running water to a series of isolated cottages is far more expensive and complex than to centres of high population density. Urbanization was stimulated by the industrial revolution, and then in turn by the availability of running water for newly-arrived citizens. This may well be one of the most significant, and most peculiar, features of contemporary civilization. For what it created was the utopia of an odourless society. This would not have been possible without the spread of running water, but it was accelerated by the growing desire to deodorize the human habitat. In the twenty-first-century, we no longer perceive smells as our ancestors did.

In The Foul and the Fragrant (1988), Alain Corbin asks, ‘What is the meaning of this more refined alertness to smell? What produced the mysterious and alarming strategy of deodorization of everything that offends our muted olfactory environment? By what stages has this far-reaching anthropological transformation taken place?’ An incisive answer is offered by Ivan Illich in his brilliant little book, H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness (1986), which reminds us that it was not until the last years of Louis XIV’s reign that a decree was passed for the weekly removal of faeces from the corridors of Versailles. It was in this era that the project to deodorize began. ‘The sense of smell’, Illich writes,

was the only means for identifying the city’s exhalations. The osmologists (students of odors) collected ‘airs’ and smelly materials in tightly corked bottles and compared notes by opening them at a later time as though they were dealing with vintage wines. A dozen treatises focusing on the odours of Paris were published during the second part of the eighteenth century…By the end of the century, this avant-garde of deodorant ideologues is causing social attitudes toward body wastes to change…Toward the middle of the century shitting, for the first time in history, became a sex specific activity…At the end of the century, Marie Antoinette has a door installed to make her defecation private. The act turns into an intimate function…Not only excrement but the body itself, it was discovered, emanates bad odours. Underwear that up to this time had served to keep one warm or attractive began to be connected with the elimination of sweat. The upper classes began to use and wash it more frequently, and in France the bidet came into fashion. Bed sheets and their regular laundering acquired a new importance, and to sleep in one’s own bed between sheets was charged with moral and medical significance…On November 15, 1793, the revolutionary convention solemnly declared each man’s right to his own bed as part of the rights of man.

Being odourless thus became a symbol of status:

smelling now began to become class-specific. Medical students observed that the poor are those who smell with particular intensity and, in addition, do not notice their own smell. Colonial officers and missionaries brought home reports that savages smelled differently from Europeans. Samojeds, Negroes and Hottentots could each be recognized by their racial smell, which changes neither with diet nor with more careful washing.

Naturally this myth was self-fulfilling, to the extent that colonized peoples were denied running water, soap and flushing toilets. Subaltern classes also began to smell and arouse revulsion. ‘Slowly’, Illich continues,

education has shaped the new sense for cleanly individualism. The new individual feels compelled to live in a space without qualities and expects everyone else to stay within the bounds of his or her own skin. He learns to be ashamed when his aura is noticed. He is embarrassed at the thought that his origin could be smelled out, and he is sickened by others if they smell. Shame at being smelled, embarrassment at coming from a smelly environment, and a new proneness to be offended by smell – all taken together place the citizen in a new kind of space.

Realizing this ideal of olfactory neutrality required increasing amounts of water. Before the Second World War, bathing once a week was considered hygienist paranoia. Only with the mass production of household washing machines did cleaning clothes become more frequent. I remember the London of the 1970s: on the Underground, the City clerks could be recognized by their detachable cuffs and collars; the former were changed regularly but the latter were grayish from having been worn for a week straight. The families that hosted us would ask us to insert coins into a special hot water meter: breakfast was included in the price, showering was not.

Now, though, the utopia of an odourless humanity has conquered much of the planet. Yet, as with many aspects of modernity, the moment we acquired the means to achieve a goal, its enabling condition (namely the abundant, unlimited availability of water) was lost. An ever more populous and rapidly warming planet will likely return to a state in which water is scarce and contested. This future may however be marked by a significant cultural difference. Whereas in the past, water was scarce for a humanity able to live happily with odours, now it will be scarce for one that considers their own odours insufferable, not to mention those of others.

I remember being struck by the extraordinary success of the Canadian TV drama H2O (2004), whose trailer announced:

A dead Prime Minister. A country in turmoil. A battle for Canada’s most precious resource – water. On the eve of testy discussions with the US Secretary of State, Prime Minister Matthew McLaughlin is killed in an accident. His son, Tom McLaughlin, returns to Canada to attend his fathers’ funeral where he delivers a eulogy that stirs the public propelling him into politics and ultimately the Prime Minister’s office. The investigation into his father’s death, however, reveals that it was no accident, raising the possibility of assassination. The trail of evidence triggers a series of events that uncovers a shocking plot to sell one of Canada’s most valuable resources – water.

As James Salzman noted in his book Drinking Water (2012), this omitted ‘the most exciting part, where American troops invade Canada to plunder their water supply’. A US–Canadian war over water! Until now, such conflicts seemed to be the preserve of semi-desert areas in the Middle East (think of Eyal Weizman’s writing on the Israelis’ use of water to surveil and punish Palestinians), or torrid Africa (as in the latent conflict between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam built on the Blue Nile). But with the possible desertification of the central European plain, war for water will become a real prospect, even in regions once famous for high rainfall and water infrastructure. We citizens of ‘rich countries’, ‘industrialized nations’, ‘more developed powers’, will fight to smell less.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read more: Nancy Fraser, ‘Climates of Capital’, NLR 127.

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Anti-Liberal

A well-known member of the British left once discovered to his surprise that several of his socialist friends, including myself, had all attended the same school. We weren’t, however, public schoolboys in flight from our privileged backgrounds; nor was the school the kind of place where you call the teachers Nick and Maggie and are encouraged to have sex on the floor of the assembly hall. It was a Roman Catholic grammar school in Manchester, run by an obscure order of clerics, and like most Catholic schools in Britain its pupils were almost all descendants of Irish working-class immigrants.

There have been a number of prominent Catholics on the British left, most of them what the church would call ‘lapsed’. To be lapsed is less a matter of ceasing to be a Catholic than a particular way of being one – a fairly honorific way, in fact, which includes such luminaries as Graham Greene and Seamus Heaney. The result is that nobody can ever leave the Catholic church; instead, they are simply shuttled from one category to another, rather as a retired Brigadier is still a Brigadier. The political philosopher Raymond Geuss confesses in his latest book, Not Thinking like a Liberal, that his religious upbringing failed to make him even a bad Catholic; yet bad Catholics are what the lapsed really are, often productively so. They can be heretics in the truth, to use John Milton’s phrase. Geuss may not go along with the church on such minor matters as the existence of God, but he insists that none of his fundamental attitudes have changed since his schooldays, which the clerics who taught him would no doubt be delighted to hear. As a staunch anti-liberal, he remains a bad Catholic to the end.

Catholics who become leftists don’t tend to do so simply by way of reaction to a right-wing, deeply authoritarian set up. Nor is it that they are predisposed by their upbringing to left-wing sects which like the church believe themselves to be the sole proprietors of truth, and which have their own secular version of schisms, heresies and even popes. It is rather that you can move from Catholicism to Marxism without having to pass through liberalism. To be raised a Catholic is to have no feel for liberal individualism. Catholics are not impressed by the sovereign autonomous subject. In fact, like Geuss, they are far too little impressed by it. They think instead in corporate terms, and are instinctively ill at ease with Protestant inwardness and solitude. The more positive side of ritual observances is that what matters is what you do, not some inner angst or ecstasy. Catholics also hold that human existence is an institutional affair, and is thus inherently social. Nor are they rattled by the idea of doctrine, or even of dogma, which they understand in its original sense as meaning whatever is taught. Reason has its limits; but it is not an inherently corrupt facility, as radical Protestantism claims, and within its constraints one must argue and analyse as precisely as possible. Endless open-mindedness is to be admonished rather than admired. The truth will set you free. The late left-wing theologian Herbert McCabe once told an Anglican bishop that the difference between the two of them on a certain issue was not a matter of emphasis, but that he, McCabe, was right and the bishop was wrong. Or, he added, if he is right, then I am wrong. It is an authentically Catholic note.

To be a Catholic in Britain is to grow up aware that you are a semi-outsider, and thus to be slightly wary of social orthodoxy. An Irish heritage is likely to intensify this sense of exclusion. The Catholic church in this country still has a lively sense of a history of persecution, though more as the object of such bigotry than the subject of it. Some Catholics refer to themselves jocularly as Papists, in the same way that gay men and women may call themselves Queer. All this, too, can shift some of its members leftwards, not least because they will have absorbed at school something of the church’s social teaching. This is hardly revolutionary stuff, but it is scarcely pro-capitalist either. On the contrary, a series of papal encyclicals have denounced the unbridled pursuit of profit and the injustices of class-society. It is probably no accident that Bono and Bob Geldof are both Irish ex-Catholics. They would have heard a good deal about overseas missions to the poor in their most impressionable years. Like socialists, Catholics are internationally-minded. There is a sense in which a Catholic from Canada speaks the same language as one from Korea.

Raymond Geuss’s family were not Irish emigrants; his mother was from Pennsylvania and his father from Indiana. Yet he, too, imbibed a suspicion of liberalism from his private Catholic boarding school near Philadelphia (which notably was staffed in large part by Hungarian priests, among them post-1956 refugees), a gut feeling which was later to be philosophically elaborated at Columbia University. Not Thinking like a Liberal interweaves an account of his upbringing as the son of a steelworker and a secretary with pen portraits of three university teachers whose critiques of liberalism helped him theorise his schoolboy intuitions in secular terms. His school, he argues, managed to steer a path between liberalism and authoritarianism. Rather than being obsessed with sex and scholasticism in the usual Catholic manner, it was a civilised milieu in which the names of Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche and Freud were not unknown. My own alma mater was rather less urbane. When I asked for studies of Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant in the form of Speech Day prizes, I was refused them on the grounds that all four philosophers were on the Vatican’s Index of forbidden books, and was handed instead a work of excruciating tedium by an elderly Irish Jesuit.

It is refreshing to find a portrait of a Catholic school which diverges from the brutal Joycean stereotype; but if the anti-liberalism of the place is typical of such establishments, one doubts that the same is true of its anti-authoritarianism. My own clerical headmaster, a borderline psychopath whose only distinction was to have grown up in the same small Irish town as Henry James’s grandfather, not only thrashed us mercilessly but gave the distinct impression that he would have done the same to the teaching staff if he could have got away with it. During the last hours of his life, his fellow clerics refused to gather around his deathbed to recite the customary prayers for the dying. One suspects that Geuss had it easy.

What he learnt from his religion teacher was that no individual is truly independent and free-standing; that we have no spontaneous access to our inner selves; and that the good is neither available through mere introspection nor reducible to what individuals happen to want. His mentor, in short, was a moral realist, a position perhaps more popular then than it is now. There are, he maintained, moral and religious questions which could not be reduced to matters of taste, choice or opinion, and not all values and opinions were to be tolerated. It was a mistake to think of Christianity as a theory formulated as a book. It was rather a constellation of historical practices, events and institutions in which certain beliefs were embedded, and from which they could not be abstracted. The Protestant fetishism of the word (sola scriptura) overlooked its entrenchment in what Wittgenstein around the same time was calling forms of life. It assumed a false transparency of the sign, in contrast with a more Catholic insistence on semantic obscurity and the inherent pluralism of the interpretative process. Whatever other intellectual crimes may be laid at Catholicism’s door, fundamentalism, which is essentially a mistaken theory of language, isn’t one of them. Even so, Geuss might have noted the irony that the founder of the art of hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, was a Protestant theologian.

As a student of political philosophy at Columbia in the 1960s, Geuss encountered three left-wing critics of the liberalism of which his school had taught him to be sceptical. Robert Paul Wolff, author of In Defense of Anarchism, rejected the liberal idea of a single impartial political framework that could be agree upon by divergent interests and values. Having had access to some of the materials from which John Rawls fashioned A Theory of Justice, he published The Poverty of Liberalism, a critique of Rawls’s work avant la lettre, which notes among other things that in Rawls’s view the most egregious inequalities can be defended on the grounds that the poor would be even worse off without them. Sidney Morgenbesser was a teacher whose casual conversation was so brilliant that one would have ‘paid for admission’; but apart from some suggestive aperçus about the relation between reason and commitment, it is hard to extract an extensive account of his thought from Geuss’s biographical jottings. The same is true of his discussion of the now largely unknown Robert Denoon Cumming.

If Geuss were less suspicious of what he calls ‘world views’, he might acknowledge that one at least of them offers a more dialectical assessment of liberalism than he is willing to countenance. Marx’s attitude to the creed is a supreme example of the virtue of granting your antagonist all you can, which in his case means recognising that autonomy, self-realisation, a hostility to autocracy and the like are part of the substance of socialism rather than an alternative to it. Had Geuss approached his subject historically as well as philosophically, grasping the revolutionary élan of liberalism in the Europe of the ancien regimes, he might have come to see that there is more to it than the prejudices of Rawls. He did, after all, go on from Columbia to study Adorno and Heidegger in Germany; and while reading the former confirmed his distaste for the liberal mind, we hear nothing of how reflecting on the latter might have bred a certain respect for it.

What has remained constant in his thought for fifty years, Geuss informs us in a somewhat foolhardy flourish, is a conviction that ‘the tradition which runs from Locke, through J.S. Mill, to Rawls was not the place to look for insight into anything’. To which one might retort with Millian equipoise that the liberal heritage may be politically ineffective but it is by no means intellectually barren. The book doesn’t really argue a case against the doctrines it dismisses in so cavalier a fashion, but this isn’t the point. It is less an intellectual intervention than a loving tribute to a set of thinkers without who the author wouldn’t be who he is. It is more anecdotal than argumentative; but it is also just the kind of book one should write in one’s retirement, when the cut and thrust of argument has faded, the dust gradually clears and you see in a long retrospect who and what really matters to you.

Read on: John Baptiste-Oduor, ‘A Pragmatist Maverick’, NLR 125.

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Useful Spectres

In the EU-NATO protectorate of Kosovo, a small bureaucratic matter just provoked a spasm of violence. It was practically a routine occurrence, but trigger-happy Cold Warriors were quick to announce the beginning of a new Balkan war. The threat of a new conflict in the Balkans – to be instigated by Russia in concert with its Orthodox brothers in Serbia – has proven to be a useful spectre for the West, used to justify NATO expansion, distended budgets and the continued presence of the so-called international community. But it has also proven useful for Russia, allowing Moscow to claim that it still has a best friend in Europe, even as Belgrade moves quietly towards the West.

At issue this time were identification papers and license plates. Last month, the government in Pristina announced plans to introduce new measures that would require the Serbian minority to obtain provisional, Kosovo-issued documents and plates for their vehicles. Kosovo today has a population of a little under two million, of which about ninety percent are Albanian; Serbs are the second biggest ethnic group, comprising between four and seven percent. Pristina considers these reciprocal measures, as citizens of Kosovo need Serbian documents and plates in Serbia. The bureaucratic confusion is an outgrowth of Kosovo’s contested status. Although Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Serbia still claims it as its southern province and holy Serbian land.

On 31 July, in Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo’s north, locals expressed their discontent with the new rules by blocking roads near two border crossings with Serbia, now something of an annual ritual. Police were also reportedly shot at by unknown gunmen. Kosovo’s imperial viceroy, the US ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier, brought the situation under control by directing Prime Minister Albin Kurti to delay implementation of the new measures by 30 days. The status quo – an uneasy but relatively durable peace – was restored. Observers in Kosovo remarked that the moment reflected Kurti’s so-called ‘political maturation’. Tacit capitulation to the authority of the US embassy was an admission that all major government efforts require coordination with Kosovo’s colonial administrators.

It has been a dramatic turn for ‘Kosovo’s Che Guevara’, who once led street protests against privatization and set off tear gas in parliament. Kurti’s political philosophy was modelled on anti-colonialist struggle in the so-called global south; his party, Lëvizja Vetëvendosje, means ‘the movement for self-determination’. A decade ago, the US ambassador accused the party of sending threats to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, a champion of US intervention in Kosovo whose Albright Capital Management was controversially in the running to purchase the state telecommunications company. But those were different times. Last month, Kurti was in Washington for the third time since April to sign the $202 million Kosovo Compact with the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, represented by Chief Executive Officer Alice Albright, Madeline’s daughter.

The international community’s decades-long tenure in Kosovo has long been the subject of considerable criticism, both from human rights organizations and within Kosovo. NATO’s bombing of what remained of Yugoslavia in 1999 was purportedly to halt atrocities committed by Serbs, and initially met with much gratitude from the Albanian population. (Former Obama State Department official and current USAID head Samantha Power would later say that the bombing was also ‘partly about NATO credibility’). A number of international agencies, unaccountable to the population, were subsequently established to administer peace and democracy. The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) have been criticized for their failure to protect minorities from ethnic violence. The Council of Europe would also accuse NATO of ‘obstructionism’ in its investigation of alleged torture in KFOR-detention camps, and its human rights envoy described Camp Bondsteel, the US military base in Kosovo, as ‘smaller version of Guantanamo’. The European Union’s Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) meanwhile was dogged by serious accusations of corruption and bribery – exactly the kind of thing it was intended to combat. In 2020, the year its tenure was supposed to come to an end, Kosovo was ranked 104 out of 180 countries by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a testament to EULEX’s failures.

This recent controversy over papers and plates is compounded by wider tensions. Serbs in Kosovo say that the government in Pristina has not kept its promises, failing to implement a critical part of the 2013 Brussels Agreement with Belgrade: the creation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities, a political body that would govern the ten municipalities in Kosovo where Serbs comprise a majority. Much of the disagreement is rooted in the ‘constructive ambiguity’ of the negotiations. For Serbia, the association is a third layer of government that should protect the rights of Serbs; for Kosovo, it is only a civic association, without any executive power. Kosovo’s Albanians on the other hand feel they have waited far too long for full sovereignty. Although Kosovo declared independence 14 years ago, it remains only partially recognized as a sovereign state (Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that it is currently recognized by 117 countries. Five of the EU 27’s states do not recognize it). Many also feel that the Serbs in the north have been treated well enough, pointing out that they have not paid for their own electricity in 23 years – in recent times it has been paid for by the government of Kosovo, at a cost of 40 million euros last year. Pristina is keen on resolving the issue, and local Serbs know that electricity bills are coming soon.

As the unrest in the north appeared to be stabilizing, a couple of well-known cold warmongers took to social media to report that Serbia, with backing from Russia, had just attacked Kosovo. A litany of unsubstantiated rumours spread: a new front in the confrontation between Russia and the West had opened; Serbia was invading; men wearing uniforms of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group had been spotted. Francis Fukuyama joined the chorus, tweeting a recent photo of Kurti and himself with the comment that he ‘deserves our support in his present confrontation with Serbia’. It was a fitting epitaph to the end of history, given the centrality of the Kosovo precedent in resurrecting it. 

It is important to pause here and say that in Kosovo, reckless rumourmongering of this kind has gotten many people killed. In March of 2004, the drowning of three Albanian children – a day after a young Serbian man was shot – was erroneously blamed on local Serbs. Sensationalist media accounts followed. Over the next two days, Kosovo saw the worst ethnic violence since the war ended in 1999. When it was all over, 19 people were dead and more than 900 injured. Some 29 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were severely damaged or destroyed. More than 800 homes belonging to Serbs, Roma, and Ashkali were attacked and destroyed. Over 4,000 people were displaced. As an OSCE report detailing the media’s role in fanning the flames of the violence states: ‘Without the reckless and sensationalist reporting on 16 and 17 March, events could have taken a different turn. They might not have reached the intensity and level of brutality that was witnessed or even might not have taken place at all’. Elsewhere the report issued a more general warning: ‘in a post-ethnic conflict society such as Kosovo, biased reporting alone can lead to violence’. Presumably, at least some keyboard Cold Warriors are aware of this, and yet they do it anyway.

Kurti has also been eager to invoke the spectre of conflict. In recent months, he has realised that he can garner greater support in Western capitals by drawing parallels with Ukraine. He recently told Italian media that the risk of war was ‘very high’, and emphasized that Kosovo, like Ukraine, was ‘a democracy bordering an autocracy’. Critics of these ominous pronouncements argue that he is prioritizing pleasing the West and the diaspora over people living in Kosovo. Inflation is at 14.1 percent, while the unemployment rate is 25.9 percent (youth unemployment is particularly grim, at nearly 50 percent). Nemanja Starović, the State Secretary of Serbia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued last week that Pristina was trying to portray Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić as a ‘mini Putin’ and Kurti as ‘petit Zelensky’, in hopes that any escalation ‘would by default trigger US and NATO support for Kosovo’ regardless of who started the violence.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ukraine is among the states that do not recognize Kosovo. But there have been new efforts to change that. Serbia has drawn Western criticism of late for its refusal to impose sanctions on Russia. There have been calls to revoke its EU candidate status. Images of football hooligans in Putin t-shirts marching in support of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in central Belgrade have added to the outrage. Serbian public opinion is decidedly more sympathetic to Russia than that of any other country in Europe: according to recent polls, only 26 percent of Serbs view Russia as responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. Serbian government media reproduces many Russian talking points about the war. Kurti has seized on these external markers of Russian-Serbian brotherhood to garner foreign support for his efforts to assert control over the North and advance Kosovo’s independence. On 6 August, an MP in the Ukrainian parliament registered a bill to recognize Kosovo as an independent country.

Upon closer inspection, however, the image of Serbia as a faithful servant of Moscow starts to fall apart. At the United Nations, Serbia has consistently voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Serbia has been a member of NATO’s bilateral Partnership for Peace program since 2006. In recent years, Serbia has participated in more military exercises with NATO than it has with Russia. While Western media has fixated on the presence of Putin coffee mugs at tourist stands in Belgrade, Serbia has quietly held high-level meetings at NATO headquarters. Last year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thanked President Vučić for his ‘personal commitment’ to the partnership between Serbia and NATO. The Serbian armed forces have also worked closely with KFOR, the NATO security force in Kosovo, for many years. Serbia might be pro-Russia before the domestic public; but behind closed doors, it is closer to the West.

You wouldn’t know any of this judging by media accounts from any side. The myth of eternal Serbian-Russian brotherhood is simply too useful to everyone: Russia, NATO, Kosovo and Serbia. But it is also possible that if Cold Warriors continue with the reckless dissemination of rumours of war, they will get the violence they want.

Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Kosovo: The War of NATO Expansion’, NLR I/235.

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Forest of Images

At the very end of 1939, a young soldier in the 31st dragoons of the French Army was granted leave to be married. His regiment had been stalled in Northern France, in the endless pattern of military manoeuvres typical of the so-called Phoney War. A few days later, on 2 January 1940, he sat in a stiff chair at the Mairie of the southern city of Perpignan wearing a suit he had bought second-hand and rummaging through his pockets for his mother’s ring. He had not laid eyes on his fiancée, Renée, who sat beside him, and who would commit suicide four years later, for fourteen months, when she had seen him off at the train station and had handed him a sandwich wrapped in tissue paper, which he did not manage to eat.

Almost as soon as he was married, Claude Simon was sent off again, back to the northern front, where his comrades had to remind themselves that the German enemy might strike at any moment. It was there in the Ardennes town of Les Deux-Villes, as the ground froze and thawed and froze again, that Simon heard for the first time a phrase that would stay with him for the next twenty years of his life: les chiens ont mangé la boue – or, as Richard Howard has it in his authoritative translation of The Flanders Road (1960): ‘the dogs ate up the mud’.

This odd expression was one of many memories from the most disastrous war in French history to haunt Simon. The shocking, brutal, and swift collapse of France in 1940 became for Simon –as for all his compatriots – a bleeding enigma, a macro-event bursting with incommensurable details that called at once to be repressed and to be accounted for. The earth along the frontlines which seemed to have been torn up by rabid beasts; the dead horses which appeared, in their process of decay, to be returning to the mineral and fungal substrate that created them; the hurried holiday matrimonials; the military so anachronistically and poorly equipped for the coming onslaught that it was almost laughable (almost); the image of a man so desperate to die in battle that he appears, under the cover of courage, to commit suicide: these were some of the black holes from which Simon sought over and again to retrieve the light of clarity.

*

That last image, of a mounted army colonel frozen like ‘an equestrian statue’ before a barrage of sniper fire, is the centrepiece of Simon’s most remarkable work devoted to the war: The Flanders Road, republished in English this year. In it, the novel’s narrator, Georges, relives much the same experience as the author himself. Simon’s division was one of 18 stationed in the Ardennes, the weakest segment of the Allied lines, where the Second and Ninth Armies were operating under the assumption that a German assault through the forest would be so slow and difficult as to give France plenty of time to prepare a defence. On 10 May, 59 Wehrmacht divisions, ten of which were armoured, blindsided the French and their English allies and began the blitzkrieg which would push both armies to the sea. When Rommel’s 7th Panzer division crossed the Meuse in the early hours of 13 May, it proceeded along the very road between Solre and Avesne where Simon’s regiment was stationed – the Flanders Road of the novel.

What Simon lived through in the war would never leave him: the collapse of the French Armies at the Meuse, being taken prisoner by the Germans (a period of petrifying limbo examined in the novel); his early morning escape from a POW camp to the zone libre; his three years spent in the chaotic fringe of displaced artists gathered in southern France; his recruitment into the Resistance, for which he acted as a sort of intelligence agent; his return to painting (the artist’s first love), fueled by an infatuation with the works of Cézanne and Picasso, whose innovations would bleed into his prose; his plunge into novel-writing, with the completion of Le Tricheur (1945); his return to Paris before liberation, where he would lend his apartment on the rue Montparnasse to the Resistance, the same apartment where Renée, his wife, committed suicide (for reasons we will never know), mere weeks after the war’s end. It was the material of and for a lifetime.

The basis of the central event in The Flanders Road involved one colonel Rey, commander of the 31st dragoons. In the novel, he is Georges’s commander, Captain de Reixach, the altered name looking like a crossroads at which a word sounding like ‘king’ and another sounding like a pained grunt meet. Decimated after six days of retreat and repositioning, the regiment hides along the road littered with ‘wreckage and refugees’. The lines of command are scrambled. An order comes in to proceed on foot. Another to mount horses. In the novel, Captain de Reixach, riding senselessly into the middle of the road with his sabre, knowing that German soldiers are hiding nearby for an ambush, proceeds with

his arm raised brandishing that useless ridiculous weapon in the hereditary gesture of an equestrian statue which had probably been handed down to him by generations of swordsmen…the sun glinting for a second on the naked blade then everything – man horse and sabre – collapsing together sideways like a lead soldier beginning to melt from the feet up and leaning slowly to one side…

Like Rey, de Reixach is slain by sniper fire, right before the young soldier’s eyes. Had he simply been stupid? Gone crazy? Or did he ride intentionally toward his death in an act of suicide disguised as valour? The question is simple enough, and the ambiguity of its answer mysterious enough, to drive a plot. But for Georges, the significance of de Reixach’s death has much more to do with the remarkable pose he strikes, like an heirloom from his nation’s past, that ‘dim figure against the light so that it looked as if he and his horse had been cast together out of one and the same material’.

*

The problem of understanding the war, for Simon, was equivalent to the problem of historiography. To impose a line or an arc upon time is, as Hayden White put it, to emplot the past – to make it tragic, romantic, epic, and so forth. Simon’s primary characteristic as a novelist – indeed that which made him an exemplary Nouveau Romancier and a rare jewel among Nobel Laureates when he received his prize in 1985 – was his desire to find and create other narrative shapes, ones which frustrated the closures of life and death, comedy and tragedy. Ones which allowed him to linger among the difficulties and the traps of storytelling as such.

In articles written and interviews given throughout his life, he was quick to explain that he constructed the narrative of The Flanders Road according to the shape of a three-leafed clover, or trefoil. That is, the narrative proceeds in three loops or lobes, each one beginning and ending at the same point, a motion which repeats itself in the manner of the uncanny: difference through repetition. We see this repetition most memorably in the image of a decomposing horse, which Georges and his infantry-mates encounter three times in the course of their travails within the blasted landscapes of the Ardennes. The horse, ‘no longer anything now but a vague heap of limbs, of dead meat, of skin and sticky hair, three-quarters covered in mud’, is both there and not there, both at the end of its life and at the beginning of its recomposition into earth, both ‘horse’ and ‘what had been a horse’, lying dead with its legs in a foetal position, as if about to be born.

The idea that the soldiers do not reach the end of their route, but rather constantly return to the intersection of the end of one loop and the beginning of another, is one that ramifies through Georges’s (and, by extension, Simon’s) interrogation of history’s emplotment. If history is conceived as a kind of eternal recurrence, as repetition with a difference, what do such repetitions offer us? The novel does not quite provide an answer. What they don’t offer us, to be certain, is progress. This is embodied by the figure of de Reixach himself. He is in fact related to Georges through the latter’s mother, Sabine, whose letter explaining the relation de Reixach holds in his hand at the start of the novel. Georges grew up contemplating a portrait that once hung in his home depicting de Reixach’s (and, thus, his own) ancestor, a man who lived during the French Revolution, admired Rousseau, and voted to execute King Louis XVI. As a revolutionary, de Reixach’s ancestor dropped his noble particle, becoming, simply, Reixach. He, too, died by apparent suicide: after commanding a Napoleonic regiment as a cavalry officer in the disastrous failure of the Peninsular War (1808-1814), Reixach returned home and was soon after found dead from a bullet wound to the head. Two French military disasters, two suicides, separated by more than a century, and, seemingly, no lessons precipitated by history.

With each repetition, in fact, Georges grows more uncertain. As he seeks out and seduces de Reixach’s wife, Corinne, in order to find answers about what really happened to the captain, he comes to believe that perhaps de Reixach killed himself because of Corinne’s past infidelities. He wonders, in turn, whether the same might have been true for his ancestor, or whether the latter case was not a suicide at all, but a homicide committed by his wife’s lover. Was it the war, then, love of country and the pain of national defeat, that brought both men to their deaths? Or was it something much more personal? The possible emplotments begin to multiply as George narrates them, and as Simon writes them, coagulating without cohering.

*

In an essay for a conference volume exploring the works of the Nouveau Roman, Simon writes that The Flanders Road follows ‘the horsemen in their wandering (or the narrator wandering in a forest of images)’. As with many of Simon’s parentheticals, this one is more significant than the main text alongside which it appears. The looping motion of the horsemen reverberates across narratological layers, passing from performed action to Georges’s attempt at historiography. This is mirrored in the novel’s unexplained shifts between the first- and third-person perspectives: we begin with an ‘I’, telling of the letter in de Reixach’s hand, and then, at first sight of the decomposing horse, the ‘I’ becomes ‘Georges’, indicating that the narrating subject has become estranged from himself, and therefore from the events being narrated, i.e., the past. (In an essay on the novel, Merleau-Ponty credits Simon with inventing an ‘intermediate person’, a narrator both there and nowhere.)

The French experience of the Second World War offers two possible narratives of recurrence, as the critic Lynn A. Higgins has put it: ‘reversal disguised repetition’ or ‘repetition within reversal’. In the first instance, the Flanders disaster’s apparent repetition of Napoleon’s 1813 defeat in Spain is a reversal of circumstances: in 1813, France was the invading force; in 1940, it was being invaded. In the second case, 1940 is a shocking reversal of French victory in the Great War which betrays, at its core, the thoughtless – and catastrophic – repetition of the forms and gestures of that earlier conflict. In his book Strange Defeat (1946), the French historian Marc Bloch, who lived through both wars, describes in sober terms exactly what was so shocking to Georges about de Reixach’s pose as the latter was gunned down: France’s greatest mistake in 1940 was to believe that the new war could be fought with the same tactics and the same equipment as had won them the previous one (‘our leaders, blind to the many contradictions inherent in their attitude, were mainly concerned to renew in 1940 the conditions of the war they had waged in 1914-18. The Germans, on the contrary, had been thinking in terms of 1940’). The image of de Reixach brandishing his glinting sabre contains, in nuce, both the paradox of the French war effort in 1940 and the dialectic of history that both Georges and Simon are trying to grasp.

All of this repetition, all of this looping, creates a pooling effect whereby the concrete particulars of the past become vaguer and more dissolute as the waters of confusion rise, and which Simon captures with his trademark, digressive style. I am not exaggerating when I say that the meat of his work is to be found in his many parentheticals. As the critic Daniel Deneau has argued, there are about 550 sets of them across the novel, ‘enclosing approximately 25% of the total text’. In at least 40 passages, Simon nests parentheticals within parentheticals, further provoking the state of suspension into which this common typographical sign is designed to throw readers. As Deneau writes, ‘an opening parenthesis is like an order to inhale air and then to pause – with the expectation that there will be a signal to exhale’. Simon closes all but five of his parentheses (probably left open by accident), though many of them are pages long. The movement of his prose, which some have justifiably called Faulknerian (Simon adored Faulkner), is commensurate with the movement of the narrative. It is indeed like a series of looping breaths: the long inhale deepening and expanding, and then the exhale which can happen quickly or slowly, bringing one back round again, the end of one breath signalling the beginning of the next.

*

We may wonder why Simon returned again and again to his experiences of 1939-1940, which continued to drive his major works, including Les Georgiques (1981), and L’Acacia (1989). We can gain a clue from the context in which Simon wrote The Flanders Road, nearly 20 years after the events it describes. France, after two decades of deliberately repressing the cataclysmic, self-indicting nature of its collapse in 1940 – two decades, that is, of operating a black-and-white regime of morality, of collabos versus résistants, in a bid both to apportion and to psychologically export responsibility and guilt – now found itself embroiled in another conflict spelling failure for the nation: the Algerian War. In Napoleonic fashion, Charles de Gaulle, hero of the previous war, returned to the helm of the republic to restore order. Simon, looking up from his novel manuscript to glimpse the tall, awkward figure of de Gaulle on his TV screen, might have seen another reversal disguised as repetition, or else a repetition within a supposed reversal.

To decide, he would have to remember. And to remember, he would have to work, to wander like his horsemen, and indeed like his narrator, in a brief flash of Quixote, throughout the forest of signs. This is the opposite of Proust’s famous ‘involuntary memory’, whole worlds of association opening out to Marcel with the slightest pinprick of specific sensation. Simon must retrace the event to return to it under a different aspect, ever so slightly different. As he writes in the preface to Orion aveugle (1971), there are no paths of creation other than ‘those opened step by step, that is to say, word after word, by the forward progression of writing’. In a way, he must become, like the old Reixach, a devotee of revolution, whose definition he included as the epigraph to Le Palace (1962), the novel that succeeded The Flanders Road: ‘Revolution: a body’s motion around a closed curve, retracing the same points in succession.’  History was taking another breath; he would try to trace its contours.

Read on: Alain Robbe Grillet: ‘Condition of the Novel’, NLR I/29.

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Iran Realigned?

It remains too early to foresee how the war in Ukraine will reorientate the world order, but that has not stopped commentators from speculating. Are we seeing a Russian ‘pivot’ to Asia; a sequel to the Cold War; a new bipolarity with China? Perhaps the world order is reverting to the Great Game of the 19th century, or even an older premodern norm, the ‘Asianisation of Asia’? What is certain is that a war ostensibly being fought between Moscow and Kiev is not only driving a geostrategic consolidation of the US with NATO and other non-NATO European countries, but also a looser group of Asian countries, increasingly open in their dissent from the unipolar US-led system.

China, India, Pakistan and Iraq were amongst those that formally refused to condemn the Russian invasion at the UN Assembly. Saudi Arabia backed the vote, but its relations with the US are at their worst since the Yom Kippur War; not only has it signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia but there is talk of de-dollerising part of its oil trade. Joe Biden’s plea for an increase in oil production – made during his recent visit – that would insulate the West against price hikes triggered by its sanctions against Russia, was met with only a courtesy increase for July and August. China, wary of growing US militarism on its border, has promised ‘everlasting friendship’ with Russia, and a commitment to ‘advance global multipolarity and the democratization of international relations’.

How does Iran, an old thorn in the US’s side, figure in these realignments? The essential prehistory here is the tenure of Biden’s predecessor and the changes they wrought. Donald Trump’s unilateral exit in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – which had dangled the removal of devastating sanctions on Iran in exchange for nuclear transparency – provoked a dramatic escalation of tensions. Sanctions were intensified, and the US indicated that any new deal would involve further concessions by Iran. The deterioration in relations that followed would see Iran hit US-protected oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and UAE to demonstrate the vulnerability of Persian Gulf oil exports. Fighting erupted between Iraqi militiamen loyal to Iran and US military assets in southern and Kurdish Iraq. Iran sought to send a further, indirect message by loosening the rules of engagement of its Iraqi militias. Two US private security contractors were killed, and the US embassy received fire, though Tehran’s role remains uncertain – Iraqi protestors attacked both Iranian and US targets.

Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign was intended to compel Iran into a better deal for the US with his name on it. But while Trump was trying to bounce Iran into negotiations, his advisors appeared to be trying to bounce him into war. The president appeared unaware of the strict rules of carefully calibrated escalation that had long contained Iran-American military conflict, and had outsourced policy to pro-regime change figures keen to upset this balance. Around 4,500 US troops were redeployed to the region and newly appointed hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo claimed that Iran was preparing to strike US targets (intelligence committees revealed Iran was in fact preparing for US attacks). Israeli military planners, also committed to regime change, were invited to the White House to strategize about ‘escalation scenarios’. ‘These people want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting’, Trump was reported as saying by the Wall Street Journal. The denouement came on 7 January 2020, when he ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s widely respected senior general and a ‘living martyr’ according to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This caused a major shock. Until Trump, Soleimani had been off limits despite being in the crosshairs of the US and Israel several times. The Islamic Republic responded with missile strikes against two US bases in Iraq, its first major direct attack on the US military in its history. To avoid the escalation spiralling out of control, Tehran issued advanced notice through the Iraqi government. Trump underplayed the impact of the attacks, and war was averted, though press reports later revealed that over a hundred US personnel who had taken cover underground sustained concussive brain injuries.

Domestically, this led to a shift in political alignments. Following Trump’s exit from the JCPOA, Iran abided by the deal for a year, before slowly resuming enrichment of uranium, while its foreign office worked in vain to try to split Europe from the US in hope of establishing a sanctions-proof trading corridor for Iranian oil. The saga fatally wounded Hassan Rouhani’s already staggering reformist-backed government, and emboldened conservatives, who had always believed that the US – in Chaney’s infamous idiom – was playing rope-a-dope with them and would never take ‘yes’ for an answer. In the 2021 presidential election Khamenei worked the system to all but appoint the far-right cleric Ebrahim Raisi, a stalwart ally, as president. Khomeinism – anti-democratic, populist and rooted in Shi’i mysticism and jurisprudence – has always existed in an uneasy and shifting balance with a ‘reformist’ element among the clerics that has its roots in the 1905-1911 Constitutional Revolution, and which has seen relations with western Europe as key to Iran’s future. The election of Raisi – a key figure in the execution of political prisoners for religious crimes – was the death knell for this second element. Power, for the first time, now lies solely within the non-elected parts of the state, the Office of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The events appear also to have frozen relations with the US in enmity. Today, Iran’s leaders operate under the assumption that Iran will never be allowed back into the US-controlled global economy and see their future in the east. Days after Soleimani’s assassination, Khamenei announced change of a strategy towards the US in Arab lands: ‘The presence of the US in the region, which leads to corruption, will come to an end’, he said. ‘They bring discord, sedition and destruction’. He expanded budgets for the extraterritorial Quds Force which Soleimani had led, and ordered a review of Iran’s deterrence strategy to counter any US attacks with greater force. Iran now seeks to mirror the US ‘maximum pressure’ doctrine. The state has effectively resigned itself to permanent exclusion from the US-led economic order, and eyes the advance of a multipolar order with palpable relief.

Russia’s rupture with the West therefore presented a diplomatic opening. Imperial Russia has been seen as a threat ever since the Russo-Persian Wars, fought between 1651 and 1828 over territory in the Caucasus. The Soviet Union supported Saddam Hussein against Iran, and Putin has been content to support the sanctions regime, which has had the benefit of excluding a major oil and gas exporter from the international market. The Iranian regime, for its part, decimated the Moscow-supported Tudeh party in the aftermath of the revolution, and backed Islamists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. But with the war in Ukraine, a tentative new partnership is taking shape. Iran’s leaders have endorsed the war, painting the Russian attack as a pre-emptive strike against US meddling, and have signed a $40 billion memorandum of understanding for the Russian energy giant Gazprom to develop ailing Iranian oil infrastructure. Immediately after Biden’s Middle East tour last month, the Russian and Turkish presidents met in Tehran to discuss multilateral relations, including Ankara’s war with the Syrian Army, backed by Tehran and Moscow. A deal to provide Turkey with subsidised oil and gas to sell on to Europe was agreed, which it is hoped could keep open European markets to Iran and Russia. Tehran made hay with the summit. Khamenei’s office, which customarily releases photographs of the Supreme Leader with world leaders at a distance, showed him posing for an amicable close-up with Putin alongside his new president.

As for the negotiations brokered by the EU to resurrect the JCPOA – which have begun today in Vienna – Iran’s diplomatic strategy remains unclear. The new administration has signalled that it requires US ‘assurances’ that the deal will hold this time, probably in the form of a Congressional sign off, which is almost certainly impossible. It is also irritated that Biden has ruled out reversing Trump’s decision to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization, which has the effect of placing much of Iran’s economy at risk of sanctions that would require approval from a perennially hawkish Congress to remove. Will some accommodation, however temporary be reached? Iran could perhaps still sign a deal, even one it knows to be vulnerable to the vicissitudes of US domestic politics and Israeli lobbying, but it may be tempted to leave it on the table.

Iran’s ascendent conservatives, meanwhile, can look around and see that their battle for survival is over for the time being. The country’s proximate enemies – Ba’athist Iraq, Salafi militants; and in Daesh, a noxious mixture of the two – have been significantly degraded by the US-led air campaigns, the very superpower that had armed and funded them in the first place. In the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, Iran had reason to fear it might suffer the same fate. But two decades on it has knitted its paramilitaries into the security services of the de facto or de jure rulers of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, while developing a formidable missile and armed-drone deterrence programme, capable of penetrating air defence in Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to Michael Knights of the Washington Institute, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah could ‘absolutely wreck the infrastructure, lifestyle and economic functioning of their close enemies’. ‘The Americans are impatient’, an Iranian official with military experience in Lebanon and Syria confided on condition of anonymity. ‘We have had to be patient because we live here, and the great arrogance [the US] now knows that we can hit them harder than they are willing to be hit’. ‘Iran does not need to do much’, in Elijah J. Magnier’s view, a reporter with rare access to the IRGC. ‘It simply waits to collect from the mistakes of the Americans’. Magnier cited the US refusal in 2014 to immediately rearm the Iraqi army after Daesh invaded, the bombing campaign in Yemen and the US sanctioning of Russia as unforced errors, which have strengthened Iran’s strategic position.

Geopolitics however is not everything. The Islamic Republic may be less regionally constrained that at any point in its history, but it faces grave dangers at home, exacerbated by its international isolation, among them chronic stagflation, high unemployment and runaway inequality. The Supreme Leader may be more powerful than ever, but in engineering a blatant factotum’s ascent to the presidency, he crossed a symbolic line – the fig leaf of Iranian democracy has fallen. Khomeinism is returning Iran to its revolutionary origins, but without a social base to sustain it beyond the state’s patronage networks, and with little money to expand them. It is difficult to determine the mood of the Iranian leadership. In 1975, three years before he was toppled, the Shah also dispensed with a still thinner fig leaf of democracy in the context of economic dislocation and an increasingly hubristic foreign policy, turning Iran into a one-party state. This signalled to his enemies that they had nothing to gain by operating within the system and they accelerated attempts to topple him; Khomeini responded from exile in Iraq by prophesising the imminent collapse of the monarchy. While the Islamic Republic has inured itself against external threats and vanquished its major internal enemies, there may still be uneasiness at the top. What Ervand Abrahamian has termed the ‘paranoid style’ of Iranian politics is unlikely to be allayed so easily. Since Raisi’s election, Iran has opened a new cultural front, with laws passed cracking down on ‘bad hijab’. Cultural war on dress is conservative bread and butter, but it is also intended to intimidate – a sign of weakness, not strength.

While the US is reducing its military footprint in the Middle East and Central Asia, it remains the most powerful country in history with a peerless cultural reach across the world, including in Iran. Its Middle East policy is now focused on bringing Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies together to act as its regional policemen. The 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE, which had already been cooperating on training and intelligence programmes for years, were a sign of the direction of travel. Saudi Arabia will be next. It has recently welcomed the Israeli Prime Minister – unthinkable a generation ago – and a security alliance seems inevitable. Iran is under no illusion about the strength of the US military and the bloody-mindedness of its leaders. And though Tehran and Moscow’s interests may be aligning, Russia has never been a natural ally. In early February, the Russian ambassador to Tehran laid a wreath before the statue of Alexander Griboyedov in the embassy gardens; an image of the ceremony went viral on social media. The famous playwright-diplomat had been murdered along with all but one embassy staff in 1829 by a mob in Tehran soon after being appointed as Ambassador Plenipotentiary. The mob deemed it a humiliation that the man behind the Torkmanchay Treaty – which ended the Russo-Persian wars by ceding Iranian land to Russia – should be so rewarded. The honouring of his statue was a signal to Tehran that in the emerging new order, Iran should know its place.

Read on: Asef Bayat, ‘Tehran: Paradox City’ NLR 66.

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Incomparable Friend

Who was Harriet Taylor-Mill?1 Since her death in 1858 her reputation has been overshadowed by that of her world-famous second husband, John Stuart Mill. But her standing was controversial during her lifetime, too. Mill himself did his best to bring her contributions out from the penumbra into which Victorian society had cast them, crediting his ‘incomparable friend’ with a central role in his work, both muse and equal co-author. ‘All my published writings were as much her work as mine’, he wrote in the Autobiography. Key sections of the Principles of Political Economy were ‘entirely due to her’ or ‘wholly an exposition of her thoughts, often in words taken from her own lips’, while On Liberty was ‘directly and literally our joint production’. For old friends like Thomas Carlyle, on the other hand, the young Harriet was an ante diem Yoko Ono, ensnaring the innocent Mill with her radical ideas and breaking up the happy circle of Queen’s Place Benthamites, of which he had been a central figure, to drag him off to isolated Blackheath and Provence.

Mill’s description of their joint work has rarely been taken seriously. To some extent this might be because it is hard to think of great works being ‘authored’ by more than one person, and Mill is such a canonical figure. But there also seems to be at least a whiff of misogyny about it: how could Harriet – how could any woman – really have been Mill’s intellectual equal and collaborator? Central to these evaluations has been the question of her socialist and feminist influence. In his 1951 study, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship and Subsequent Marriage, Friedrich Hayek set out to rescue the author of On Liberty from her taint, while attributing to her baleful but fortunately short-lived influence all that is ‘socialist’ in Mill’s work.

More recent – and more feminist – scholarship has aimed to recover her as a canonical figure in the history of political and philosophical thought, exploring her contributions as a thinker in her own right, while also trying to understand the nature of her contribution to ‘Mill’s’ work. In 1998, Indiana University Press brought out a Complete Works of Harriet Taylor-Mill, edited by a professor of philosophy at Millikin University, Jo Ellen Jacobs, which claimed for her a much larger share of ‘Mill’s’ work, as well as early writings which include an 1833 Life of William Caxton.

There are many difficulties in assessing Harriet’s actual contribution to political thought. One problem is that we have very little in her hand from the time before she met Mill: a unique style, completely separate to his, is therefore hard to discern (as noted by scholars addressing the question through stylometric techniques.) There are also very few working manuscripts of any of ‘Mill’s’ works, meaning it is hard to discern two ‘hands’ in the writing (if, indeed, that would be an accurate reflection of their modes of collaboration). During her lifetime, Harriet’s only sole-authored publication was the 23-page essay, ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ (1851). Even here, though, the final copy sent to the printers is in Mill’s hand. We do know her handwriting, however, and can discern something of an individual ‘voice’ in what manuscripts do survive, mostly preserved in the London School of Economics’ Women’s Library. At least some of them pre-date her life with Mill, even though these are mainly letters, poetry and literary reviews, rather than overtly political or philosophical works. It’s worth pausing to look at their context.

Born in London in 1807, Harriet Hardy was married at eighteen to a well-off pharmaceuticals merchant, John Taylor, some twenty years her senior. Both were members of the Unitarian congregation of William Johnson Fox, a radical orator and editor of the reform-minded Monthly Repository, to which Harriet would contribute. She had borne Taylor two sons and was newly pregnant with their daughter, Helen, when she first met Mill at a dinner in 1831. At 24, Mill had already made a name for himself with articles in the Westminster Review and the Examiner. They shared interests in radical politics, particularly in women’s rights. In early exchanges they discussed the nature of marriage and of reforms to it; around this time Harriet was writing fragmentary (though often relatively long) manuscripts dealing with questions around women’s education, character-formation, political obligation, tolerance and the need for freedom and independence in the face of stultifying public opinion. Her writings reveal a deep-rooted utilitarianist commitment, which was also reflected in the radical choices of her personal life.

Though they may not have instantly fallen in love (or at least admitted that fact to each other, or to themselves), within a year Mill was referring to her as ‘she to whom I have dedicated my life’. Matters with Harriet’s husband came to a head in November 1835, when she left him and went to Paris. Mill joined her, but despite their personal happiness, she ultimately decided that she should return to her husband, though determining not to have sex with him (or Mill), and retaining the liberty of seeing Mill, a situation which continued until her husband’s death in 1849. She married Mill in 1851 – ‘adding to the partnership of thought, feeling and writing, which had long existed, a partnership of our entire existence’, as he put it in the Autobiography – but they enjoyed only seven years together. Harriet had suffered from tuberculosis for some years (as had Mill) and in 1858 suffered a final, fatal haemorrhage in Avignon. Mill bought a house near her grave and was eventually buried with her.

After his death in 1873 their manuscripts, and the copyright of many of their published works, were bequeathed to Helen Taylor, Harriet’s youngest child. Through her, they eventually came to form part of the Women’s Library. Helen herself had become a key part of Mill’s life – he refers to her as the second of the prizes he won in the ‘lottery of life’ – and he must have been a significant figure in hers. She helped Mill with his correspondence, shared his keen interest in botany – there are dried flowers still pressed within the pages of her commonplace books held at LSE – and edited several of Mill’s posthumous publications, notably the Three Essays on Religion and Chapters on Socialism, including translating long extracts from French socialist writings which Mill had quoted in the original language.

Helen was herself a campaigner for women’s rights, education and suffrage, successfully standing as a candidate to the London School Board in 1876. In 1885, she sought the nomination as Liberal candidate for Camberwell North (with another woman, Ethel Leach, acting as her election agent): the first woman to seek election to Parliament. Henry George supported her candidature, and the atheist freethinker George Jacob Holyoake was an active worker on her behalf. As it was not legal for a woman to stand for Parliament, her nomination papers were rejected by the returning officer. She died in 1907, after spending her last decades in the house in Avignon. Her dogged navigation of the publishing world – including lengthy bargaining over her share of any profits – was crucial in helping to curate her mother and stepfather’s literary legacies; her own and her father’s, too.

In the LSE’s Women’s Library, then, under the title ‘Mill-Taylor Collection’ there are papers by John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor-Mill, Helen Taylor and John Taylor. The same goes for the Mill Library at Somerville, which also holds books that once belonged to Mill’s father, James, which likewise descended to Helen. At LSE, Box 3 in particular has manuscripts by Harriet Taylor-Mill. They cover a wide range of topics, from political theory (freedom, tolerance, rights, obligation) to feminist thought (women’s education, women’s oppression by social structures, the social construction of gender, the nature of marriage), ethics, the arts and religion. There is also correspondence with both her husbands, her children and some of her friends and relations (not all of it friendly), as well as passports, birth and marriage certificates. The manuscripts show Harriet re-writing pieces several times over until she was happy with them (often at the same time as managing a household with three small children). Many of them remained officially unpublished – indeed, often (as far as we can see) unfinished.

Most of the manuscripts in Box 3 were transcribed and published by Jacobs in the Complete Works. In addition, Jacobs included the chapter from Principles of Political Economy, ‘On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes’, as solely authored by Harriet. This, however, is not in line with Mill’s careful account of its composition. Like other pieces – for instance, the series of articles on violence and oppression co-authored in the 1840s and 1850s – it is more plausible to see this chapter as a collaborative endeavour.

Also bulking up Jacob’s edition of the Complete Works is the lengthy Life of William Caxton, dated by her to 1833. As a result, Harriet is often nowadays said to have written a history of printing by the age of 24, on top of her maternal duties. This work was in fact published in 1828 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a group dedicated to producing cheap and accessible reading material for working people. The listed author was William Stevenson. Jacobs notes that the much shorter ‘Caxton’ manuscript (113) in Box 3 bears little resemblance to the finished text, but she claims this is proof that Harriet worked on it a great deal before Caxton’s publication. She makes no mention of Stevenson.

Manuscript 113 itself consists of just four sides of paper, roughly equivalent to A4, water-marked 1826. Three sides are covered in John Taylor’s handwriting. One side is about a quarter covered in his hand, and a quarter in Harriet’s (upside down to his), with the remaining half, between the two, being blank. Even a cursory glance at manuscript 113 shows it to be notes for a book review. It opens with general praise for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, ‘one of whose Publications is now under our review’. The Life of William Caxton is described as a work ‘which will be found equally useful & instructive to those whose means have given them better opportunities of acquiring scientific knowledge’ than the average working man (or woman). Caxton is of interest as ‘the first to introduce printing into England’, an innovation intimately connected with ‘advancement … in knowledge … and happiness’.

The review then goes on to quote at length from Caxton, as well as noting longer extracts with reference to page numbers, which align with extant copies of the 1828 Life. For instance, ‘he had it seems etc. down to Westminster Abbey, page 28’: on p. 28 of Life we find:

He [Caxton] seems to have had a veneration for the memory of this poet [Chaucer], and to have formed, with sound judgement and good taste, a most correct and precise estimate of the peculiar merits of his poetry. As a proof of the former, we may mention, that Caxton at his own expense, procured a long epitaph to be written in honour of Chaucer. This was inscribed on a table, hung on a pillar near the poet’s grave in the south aisle of Westminster Abbey.

There can be no doubt that these are notes for a review of an already-published work, not jottings for future publication. Still more to the point, only a few of them are in Harriet’s hand, and many more in her husband’s. Jacobs suggests that this shows co-authorship, with the lion’s share being Harriet’s. It seems at least as plausible that this was a review being written by Taylor, with some involvement by his young wife. Taylor was a founder-member of the Reform Club, and his ‘liberal opinions’ were noted by Mill in his Autobiography. He may well have wanted to bring Stevenson’s biography – and with it, the wider work of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge – to the attention of people rich enough to help further the Society’s aims.  

This is not to undermine the claims for Harriet Taylor-Mill’s writing, her contributions to ‘Mill’s’ works or to political theory, philosophy or economics more broadly. This bare half-page of jotted notes, mainly quotes from the book, tells us nothing about the depth, breadth or originality of her thought, nor about the ways in which she may have contributed to ‘Mill’s’ works in later life. Instead, it is to set the historical record straight, and perhaps add some nuance to our understanding of her first marriage. (Jacobs not only likens Taylor to George Eliot’s Casaubon, but suggests he infected Harriet with syphilis – a charge which is entirely unfounded, the purported evidence for it failing utterly to support the claim.)

It also adds a mote to our understanding of the radical milieus of the 1820s and 30s in which Mill and Harriet moved. Their ideas were forged, nuanced and changed in and by these circles, and it is through them that they met, and formed what was arguably one of the most productive collaborations in the history of political philosophy, culminating in joint work on On Liberty, one of the canonical texts of modern political thought. Harriet’s contribution to that, and to many other of ‘Mill’s’ texts, has been ignored, denigrated or denied pretty much ever since her death. Her manuscripts suggest we should not only recognise her part in them but also – and this includes manuscript 113 – take cognisance of the co-authored nature of many texts in what is traditionally considered a male-dominated canon, buttressed by – and buttressing – the cult of the lone genius in philosophy.

Read on: Alexander Zevin, ‘Gradualism’s Prophet’, NLR 135.


1 To avoid the confusion of so many overlapping Taylors, Mills and Taylor-Mills, in addition to the two Johns (Stuart Mill and Taylor), I take the liberty here of using Harriet Taylor-Mill’s and Helen Taylor’s first names, rather than following formal academic practice. For the same reason, I don’t call the two men ‘John’.