Pride and Fall

‘Number one: stay close to the Americans’, said Boris Johnson in his last Commons address as prime minister, echoing Churchill’s verdict on the wreckage of UK statecraft in the Suez Crisis. Anatol Lieven at the Quincy Institute thought Johnson’s advice to his successor superfluous, given the strength of the Atlanticist consensus at Westminster. The Washington Examiner, on the other hand, detected a dig at leadership contender Rishi Sunak for being ‘soft’ on China.

Stay close to the Americans: but at the same time, know your place. ‘Truss learns the hard way that Britain isn’t America’, reads a Financial Times headline after the market turmoil prompted by Kwasi Kwarteng’s unofficial budget last Friday. ‘Britain is in trouble because its elite is so engrossed with the US as to confuse it for their own nation’, argues FT associate editor Janan Ganesh, who goes on to point out the positional differences: sterling isn’t a major reserve currency anymore; UK producers don’t have simple access to a continental market since Brexit; gilts aren’t Treasuries. In these circumstances, Kwarteng’s back-of-an-envelope, rolling programme of debt-financed tax cuts – ‘Reaganism without the dollar’, Ganesh calls it – presumes too much.

The week’s events bring to mind the historian Correlli Barnett’s trenchant commentaries on British decline and lingering great-power reflexes. Tory Britain in the 1950s was an American satellite ‘posturing as an equal’, he argued in The Verdict of Peace (2001). It was a characteristically sharp turn of phrase from Barnett, who died recently at the age of 95. Few public intellectuals in Britain have questioned national shibboleths so trenchantly and doggedly as he did, from a conservative perspective, over a long career of book-publishing and commentary. His obituary in the Guardian described him as controversial – nothing worse than that – while The Times was puzzled by the ferocity of his attacks on the Establishment, since ‘it was not as if life had dealt him a poor hand.’

He was born near Croydon, on the south-eastern approach to London, in 1927. His father, who worked for an American bank, named him after the Baroque composer. Croydon was an early Luftwaffe target in 1940 on account of its aerodrome and Barnett recalled as a schoolboy listening to the drone of enemy bombers, the barrage of anti-aircraft fire, ‘the whistle and crash of nearby bombs that rocked the house’. He took a second in modern history at Oxford, his special subject the theory of war. National Service was spent with the Intelligence Corps in British-mandate Palestine as it conducted sweeps for underground Zionist paramilitaries. There he witnessed the bloody aftermath of the bombing of the British Officers’ Club in Jerusalem (‘the corpses lying on slabs in the morgue, spittle still bubbling out of their mouths’) by the Irgun group of future Likud prime minister Menachem Begin.

Civilian life in the fifties proved anti-climactic: a graduate traineeship at the North Thames Gas Board, then a job in public relations. He recalled ‘stretching a little effort over a long day’, pouring his energies into a novel instead, The Hump Organisation (1957), which charted the progress of an Oxford graduate at a sleepy industrial conglomerate in the Cheshire countryside, in the manner of a Boulting brothers farce. But his true métier became apparent with The Desert Generals (1960), a history of the North African theatre in the Second World War – ‘war in its purest form’, across the arid plains. Barnett took aim at outsize British veneration of Montgomery, hero of Alamein. Strong sales enabled him to quit his desk job for freelance writing, topped up with consultancy work for the BBC.

A second war book, The Swordbearers (1963), sympathetically narrated the experience of four First World War commanders-in-chief – von Moltke, Jellicoe, Pétain and Ludendorff – as they grappled with high command in an era of mass mobilisation. ‘War is the great auditor of institutions’, Barnett observed, a theme to which he would return. In Britain and Her Army (1970) meanwhile, he mounted a ‘hazardously long march’ from Tudor abolition of private armies of retainers to the Wilson government’s 1967 white paper liquidating British deployments east of Suez. ‘A history of the institution that the British have always been reluctant to accept that they needed’, Britain and Her Army regarded colonial retrenchment as imperative but complained that Whitehall appeared to regard troops stationed in western Europe as just ‘a plate-glass window’ to trigger the nuclear alarm, should the Russians attempt to break in. Greater strategic flexibility was called for.

Then came The Collapse of British Power (1972), the opening instalment of his Pride and Fall quartet, a sweeping historical polemic of twentieth-century British decline. Barnett reached back to the post-Napoleonic era to trace Britain’s long descent into a ‘bankrupt American pensioner’ under Lend-Lease in 1941–42. Imperial overstretch and a liberal national culture had blocked the concerted programme of industrial renewal needed to counter Germany’s rise after 1871. Conventional balance-of-power considerations reasserted themselves in 1914 but a laissez-faire governing elite afterwards allowed economic modernisation to lapse, as moralising internationalism reached new heights in the ‘pseudo-religion’ of the League of Nations. England at last recovered the flinty resolve of its best mercantilist days when the Second World War was upon it, but Churchill failed to plan beyond victory, mortgaging the future to a rising American superpower that didn’t reciprocate his misty-eyed infatuation. US loans papered over the dilapidated state of the country’s heavy-industrial base, flattering to deceive about its wartime record, argued volume two, The Audit of War (1986). The UK was ‘not so much a victor in her own right’ in 1945 ‘as simply on the winning side’.

The Lost Victory (1995) homed in on the record of the post-war Attlee government, by and large classical-liberal in outlook, which failed to retool the economy before European and Japanese competitors recovered from wartime devastation. Britain’s large helping of Marshall Aid instead leaked overseas into the Sterling Area and troop deployments as far afield as Burma, Malaya and Hong Kong, while ‘New Jerusalem’ liberals like Beveridge prioritised welfare and housing over the productive economy (a policy of ‘parlours before plant’). The Verdict of Peace (2001), the concluding volume, surveyed the years of resumed Conservative rule between the Korean War and Suez Crisis which cemented a ‘fateful pattern of national overambition coupled with industrial underperformance’. In only four decades since the First World War, the country had blown its position as the most powerful industrial machine in Europe through the hangover of Victorian liberalism, a failure to implement technical educational training, and the pretensions of a world role.

In each volume, the damning judgements flow uninterruptedly for a hundred pages or more without so much as a section break. They rest on realist assumptions about an anarchic state system: ‘small “l” liberalism might be desirable in friend but serves ill as a guide to a nation’s total strategy in a ruthless world of struggle.’ Paul Addison described Barnett in the LRB as ‘probably the only modern British historian whose creed is Bismarckian nationalism’. Barnett certainly benchmarked British inertia against Wilhelmine Germany’s rapid industrialisation, and his anti-liberalism and emphasis on total strategy may have had a Prussian air. All the same, the epithet doesn’t capture the oppositional quality of Barnett’s elite-patriotic politics, for which Gaullist might be a closer fit. He envied France its home-made nuclear deterrent and the greater freedom-of-action this afforded, arguing in The Times in March 1982 against the Thatcher government’s purchase of Trident nuclear missiles from the Pentagon.

The eighties were Barnett’s years of highest public prominence. Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson, secretaries of state under Thatcher, both cited his various diatribes against welfarism, industrial mismanagement and liberal-arts bias in the state-education system. But the author retained his dissenting cast of mind, deflating Falklands triumphalism with a call to drastically curtail the Royal Navy’s high-seas role and to ‘shed such unprofitable bits of [imperial] pink in good time’. Within the academy, David Edgerton opposed Barnett’s account of industrial archaism within the state-military complex and Jose Harris deflated his claims about the novelty and profligacy of the Beveridge-Attlee welfare state, while the economist-mandarin Sir Alec Cairncross shrugged that bolder government action was unlikely to arrest the spiral of relative economic decline.

A critic of nineties ‘humanitarian interventionism’, Barnett likened Blair to a Victorian proconsul and contrasted his unctuous liberal rhetoric to the worldly self-interest of prime ministers past: Walpole’s policy of non-engagement in the War of the Polish Succession (‘50,000 men slain this year in Europe, and not one Englishman’) and Castlereagh’s scepticism about Holy Alliance plans for carte-blanche counter-revolutionary action. NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia and semi-permanent occupation of Kosovo was ‘money better spent on our own health service, education and training, and sink housing estates’. The War on Terror which followed exaggerated the threat from ‘a scattering of bedsit plotters with homemade bombs’. Bush and Blair’s grounds for attacking Iraq were obviously spurious and illegal, and their invasion spread death and mutilation far beyond Baathist prisons and execution sites. The US assaults on Fallujah (‘mini-Stalingrads’) were more destructive than Saddam’s 1988 gas attack on Halabja. Like the Afghan occupation, the Iraqi campaign had merely opened up a long Western flank to guerrilla attack. The only thing to be done was withdraw, and avoid further such entanglements with US foreign policy.

Irate at Cameron’s support for Blair’s wars, Barnett demanded in the Tory Spectator magazine in 2006: ‘The Conservatives believe in personal independence, why not national independence in foreign policy?’ The American link had lost its strategic value with the demise of the Soviet Union, he argued, and become ‘potentially dangerous to British interests so long as American policy is run by narrow technocrats with juvenile political understanding like Rumsfeld, and religious zealots like Cheney and Bush who see world affairs as a Manichean conflict between good and evil’. Barnett regarded Russia’s 2008 rout of the Georgian incursion into South Ossetia as a reversion to nineteenth-century Realpolitik rather than a new Cold War, and considered Bush a greater threat to world peace than Putin. What might have been his take on the latter’s invasion of Ukraine – European, but outside NATO? Johnson rushed headlong to sanction Europe’s largest gas exporter without first reopening the UK’s only gas-storage facility, closed in 2017 in blithe assurance of a ready supply on the open market: a penny for your thoughts on that piece of statecraft, Correlli.

British pomp and British realities: the Johnson government announced an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ on American lines in the 2021 integrated defence review and despatched the nation’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to rattle sabres in the South China Sea, causing consternation in some quarters of Washington. Its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, is struggling with technical problems at the moment and can’t travel further from port than the Isle of Wight. At what point, asked Barnett apropos the 1953 coronation, is the line crossed from moral reassurance to flattery of prideful illusions?

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘The Family Firm’, NLR 75.


Concerning Godard

After decades in which inscrutable titles signed Godard popped up as regularly as clockwork in the film festivals, while the image of their maker deteriorated from rebel into dirty old man, if not technologically obsessed sage, it is stunning, leafing through the filmographies, to remember how much these films counted as events for us as we waited for each new and unexpected one in the 1960s, how intensely we scrutinized the political engagements of the Dziga Vertov group, with what genuinely engaged curiosity we asked ourselves what the end of the political period would bring, and later on what we were to do with the final works of the ‘humanist’ period, where they came from, and whether they meant a falling off or a genuine renewal.

Throughout all this we were entertained or provoked by the increasingly ignoble ‘thoughts’ or paradoxes which either demanded meditation or inspired a mild contempt, tempered by the constant reminder that visuality, if it thinks, does so in a way not necessarily accessible to the rest of us; while his films went on ‘thinking’ in chiasmatic images: Belmondo imitating Bogart, Piccoli inviting Bardot to use his bathwater (‘I’m not dirty’), the world conquerors exhibiting their picture postcards, Mao’s Cultural Revolution taking the form of the most infectious music, the world ending in a traffic jam, a character scarfing up yoghurt with a finger in the bathroom, two African garbage collectors reciting Lenin, our favourite film stars baffled by their new roles, an interpolated series of interview-interrogations in which ten-year-olds are asked about class struggle, and fun-loving models, about the latest decisions of the CGT, ‘la musique, c’est mon Antigone!’ – narrative deteriorating steadily all the while only to end up in 3-D or in images as thick as butterflies in front of the face.

All this then building inexorably towards the final impertinence, in an unmistakable voice now indissociable from his idea of pedagogy: namely, that History is (nothing more than, nothing less than) the history of cinema. Well, why not? If everything is narrative, always mediated by this or that picture on the poster, as in the battle cuttings of the hell sequence of Notre Musique (2004), the images themselves have to fight it out, like people chasing each other, shouting and jumping into cars – along with their distinctive historical styles – silent or sound, black and white or technicolour; maybe this is all he knows of History anyway, what he calls cinema.

And alongside the history of cinema, there is the history of a film, where does it come? From the images themselves, as he extracts them from the most sublime of his later films, Passion (1982), unfolding itself into the even more sublime lineage of Scenario du film “Passion” (1982), which, out of the Mallarmean blank page (or plage, or grève) a young woman appears who tries to start a strike (grève). In that case, there must follow the factory she strikes against, along with its owner, and then his wife, and then the hotel she runs. And finally a mystery guest from some place beyond the film, himself trying to make a film with a narrative, himself plagued by images, the world’s great paintings, tableaux vivants of the world’s great paintings, reconstructions in miniature of their architecture – Jerusalem through which the crusaders ride, driven forward by Dvorak’s inexorable piano concerto, just as the potential film’s producer is harassed by unwilling bankers and money-lenders. The would-be foreign director is as disabled as the other characters (stutter, cough), he cannot return the love of any of the women, he cannot turn these images into narrative scenarios, he finally gives up and goes home to History itself (Poland and Solidarność). So now the film becomes an allegory of the new Europe and its ‘peu de realité’: great actors stand for France, Germany, Hungary, Poland (the great traditions) with a presumably Swiss director; fundamental themes like love and labour can never be represented; great paintings are as mute as The Voices of Silence Belmondo reads in the bathtub; but Godard has his scenario, he can now begin to film his fiction film.

Scenario now rewinds the tape, runs the whole thing backwards, breaking the fiction back up into its component parts, lingering over the images, superimposing them, returning to origins, identifying the origins of itself. So now: two films about the same thing, two films sharing the same body = Cinema. Cinema, film’s mirror stage.

Cinema equals visuality, sounds, words (with glimpses of money), it is life itself or living as such, everything is cinema. Maybe the late films try to climb back down the other side, begin with the narrative, the scenario, and then tear it apart, with raucous glee give us the pieces in joyous collision, punctuated by raw gunshots, silent films with sound, history going backwards.

He lived, ate, breathed, slept movies. Was he the greatest movie-maker of all time? A party game question. What he was, if anything, was Cinema itself, cinema rediscovered at its moment of disappearing. If cinema really is dying, then he died with it; or better still, it died with him.

Read on: Michael Witt, ‘Shapeshifter’, NLR 29.


False Compromise

Since becoming leader of the British Labour Party in April 2020, Keir Starmer has comprehensively marginalized the left-wing tendency associated with his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. At every turn, Starmer has depicted his moves against the Labour left as an exercise in moral hygiene to cleanse the party of antisemitism. This was the argument he used to justify the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, his main rival in the 2020 leadership election, from the Labour shadow cabinet. It remains the rationale for depriving Corbyn of the Labour whip in the House of Commons.

On the eve of the 2021 party conference, Starmer categorically denied that he was engaged in a factional campaign against the Labour left: ‘The battles we’ve had in the Labour Party in the last 18 months have pretty well all been about antisemitism . . . you can’t have a united Labour Party if you’ve got antisemitism there.’ In January 2022, his Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves told the Financial Times that she was delighted to know that at least 150,000 people had torn up their Labour membership cards since Starmer became leader. According to Reeves, this was a price well worth paying to efface the ‘stain’ of antisemitism.

In making these claims, Starmer, Reeves and their allies rely upon a lurid media narrative about the Corbyn years that cannot withstand a moment’s scrutiny. The key points of that narrative were as follows: after Corbyn became leader, there was a sudden and horrifying escalation in levels of antisemitism among the party membership, to the point that such prejudice became ubiquitous. Instead of trying to combat this alarming trend, Corbyn and his allies deliberately encouraged it, presumably motivated by their own anti-Jewish bigotry.

It became commonplace to describe Corbyn as a dangerous antisemitic rabble-rouser without any analogue in Europe since 1945. During the 2019 election campaign, opponents of his party claimed that a Labour government would precipitate the departure of British Jews from the country en masse. Looking back on the election a year later, Guardian columnist Rafael Behr suggested that anyone who campaigned for Labour in 2019 would probably have turned their Jewish neighbours over to the Gestapo under the Third Reich. Such rhetoric has been bog-standard in Britain’s liberal commentariat as its members seek to rationalize their hostility to Corbyn’s project.

In reality, there was no evidence that antisemitic attitudes were more widespread under Corbyn than under previous Labour leaders. Nor, for that matter, was there any evidence that such attitudes were more widespread in Labour than in the other main parties. What changed after 2015 was the degree of scrutiny, with marginal, unrepresentative cases held up in the national media as if they were typical of the Labour membership. As we shall see, the narrative also relied upon the elision of sympathy for Palestinians with hostility to Jews, in a way that US politicians such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib would find wearingly familiar.

In July of this year, the barrister Martin Forde finally delivered a report on Labour’s organizational culture that Starmer had commissioned two years earlier. It demolished one of the central planks of the case against Corbyn. Forde addressed the claims made most prominently in a 2019 BBC documentary presented by John Ware, ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’, which accused the Corbyn leadership of systematically thwarting efforts by the party’s disciplinary unit to expel members with antisemitic views. His report confirmed that this version of events was ‘wholly misleading’ and indeed the opposite of the truth.

Staff in the leader’s office only intervened in a small number of cases after an ‘enthusiastic invitation’ from officials in the disciplinary unit who ‘refused to proceed’ without their advice. According to Forde, the villains of John Ware’s documentary ‘responded to the requests, for the most part, reasonably and in good faith.’ Corbyn’s critics presented ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’ as a modern-day version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal. To judge by the contents of Forde’s report, we should picture instead the Washington Post publishing an unexpurgated version of Richard Nixon’s enemies list on its front page as if it were the work of a courageous whistle-blower at the highest levels of government.

Yet the British commentariat has buried the findings of the report, just as it buried every previous rebuttal of a propaganda campaign that set new standards for mendacity in British public life. This is primarily a function of the power imbalance shaping this discursive field: the Conservative Party, the Labour right, and their respective media allies are determined to uphold these fictions about what happened under Corbyn’s leadership, and the megaphone they collectively possess can drown out dissenting voices. However, there is a subjective factor that we must also take into account. At leadership level, a significant part of the Labour left made a conscious decision not to challenge the false narrative that was gradually constructed from 2015 onwards.

Instead of enabling them to defuse the controversy and move on to other subjects, as they hoped it would, this approach merely encouraged their opponents to launch wave after wave of attacks. The best starting point for a retrospective evaluation is the summer of 2018, when Corbyn and his allies came under intense fire for their reluctance to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism with its full, unamended list of examples.

Two of the insider accounts to have appeared after the 2019 election defeat – This Land by Owen Jones and Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire – channel the perspective of those who believe that this controversy could easily have been avoided. In their opinion, the party leadership should have adopted the full IHRA text from the very start; failing that, it should have caved in as soon as the controversy erupted instead of trying to hold the line around an alternative definition of antisemitism. The books attribute this view to figures such as Andrew Fisher, chief author of the 2017 Labour manifesto, and above all Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, while Jones himself is very much in agreement with their thinking.

The problem with this line of argument is easy to identify. Instead of examining the IHRA controversy in its own right to determine what might have been an effective response, it starts from the assumption that there must have been a compromise available, so long as the will to compromise was there. Needless to say, the political field is littered with the corpses of those who were only too anxious to retreat under fire. Genuine pragmatism demands that you recognize when your opponents have no interest in compromise and will not halt their offensive no matter how much ground you concede.

The Corbyn leadership did not have the option of defusing the antisemitism controversy by making a concession to its critics at any point between 2015 and 2019, because it was never simply an empirical debate about the prevalence of antisemitism in the Labour Party, or the steps that should be taken by its leaders in response. That kind of discussion requires a shared understanding of what constitutes antisemitism, which is precisely what was lacking.

Corbyn’s most strident and influential critics, from Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD), to Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, all relied upon the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, according to which the dominant contemporary form of antisemitism expresses itself through attitudes to Israel. The IHRA definition has become a totem for those who want to impose this understanding as a rigid orthodoxy. Several of the examples attached to it link certain forms of speech about Israel with antisemitism, and the wording of those examples is sufficiently vague that they can be used – and have been used – to stigmatize any kind of meaningful solidarity with the Palestinian people.

If the Labour left had accepted the IHRA definition in toto from the start, its leaders would simply have delayed the cycle of controversy rather than avoiding it. With the definition in hand, their opponents would have begun excavating statements about Israel by prominent left-wing activists, from Corbyn down, and presenting them as violations of the party’s new code. Instead of denouncing the party leadership for their refusal to adopt the definition, they would have denounced them for not putting it into practice.

By the time Labour’s national executive agreed to pass the full definition in September 2018, it was no longer necessary to comb through past utterances for supposedly incriminating material, because figures like the Labour MP Margaret Hodge had already normalized the most extravagant and defamatory claims about Corbyn and his movement. It was Hodge who opened the floodgates with a carefully planned and pre-rehearsed tirade against her party leader in the House of Commons, explicitly branding him as an antisemite. Stephen Pollard and his associates followed this up with a statement denouncing Corbyn’s party as an ‘existential threat to Jewish life in Britain’, while Marie van der Zyl claimed that the Labour leadership had ‘declared war on the Jews’.

In Left Out, Pogrund and Maguire inadvertently drive home the absurdity of these claims when they attempt to translate them into the language of political rationality:

Some thought the rhetoric overheated. To many Jewish leaders, allowing Israel to be characterised as a racist project did pose existential questions. If a Labour government adopted the same position, could Jewish bodies with links to Israel lose their charitable status? Would the government continue to fund Jewish security charities which had links to the Israeli embassy? Could Britain become a cold home to its Jews, the vast majority of whom did support Israel’s existence?

This passage combines inaccuracy with illogicality. First of all, Labour was not proposing to adopt, as its collective view, the proposition that the Zionist state-building project was a ‘racist endeavour’ (a phrase which appears in one of the IHRA examples). It was being urged to adopt a definition of antisemitism that would prohibit any Labour members from articulating that view, on pain of expulsion from the party. One is left with the implication that if a single Palestinian member of the Labour Party was allowed to recall what happened to their family during the Nakba, it would set off a chain of events that might culminate in the demise of Britain’s Jewish communities – a preposterous idea, of course, but a convenient one for those who would rather not hear about the Nakba at all.

Secondly, even if Labour did adopt the critical and historically accurate understanding of Zionism spelled out, for example, by Rashid Khalidi in his book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, it would not oblige a Labour government to sever all ties with the present-day Israeli state, let alone with Jewish organizations in Britain. Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledged to block the sale of weapons ‘used in violation of the human rights of Palestinian civilians’, not to expel Israeli diplomats from the UK. In itself, a freeze on arms sales from a previously staunch ally of Israel would have represented a significant breach in the wall of complicity.

It is vertiginously implausible to suggest that a government which carried out such a policy, in the teeth of fierce opposition, would then want to provoke an entirely avoidable row by stripping the Community Security Trust (CST) of its status as a recognized charity. In any case, talk of Labour posing an ‘existential threat’ to British Jews conjured up – and was intended to conjure up – a far more alarming picture. Margaret Hodge sketched it out explicitly when she compared the token reprimand that she received from Labour’s disciplinary process for her tirade against Corbyn to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Pogrund and Maguire have to perform such intellectual contortions to avoid stating the obvious: the claims that were made by Hodge, Pollard, van der Zyl and others during the summer of 2018 had no basis in reality, and it doesn’t really matter what precise combination of delusion and dishonesty was at work in their respective minds. There was no practical step that the Labour leadership could have taken to address concerns that lacked any empirical foundation. The only pragmatic course of action available to them was to stand their ground and state the facts at every opportunity. Above all, they needed to challenge the relentless conflation of support for Palestinian rights with hostility to Jews that underpinned the media campaign against them.

Instead, there were two months of public paralysis as some of Corbyn’s allies pressed for an immediate climbdown. John McDonnell even went on Sky News in the week following Hodge’s outburst to affirm his belief in her sincerity:

I’ve worked with Margaret over the years. She’s got a good heart. Sometimes you can express anger – I’m one of those people who has in the past – and basically you have to accept that people can be quite heated in their expressions.

Hodge made it perfectly clear that she would not rest until the project of the Labour left was reduced to a heap of political rubble. Yet McDonnell was willing to put his own personal relationship with Corbyn under intense strain – according to Jones as well as Pogrund and Maguire, the two men were barely speaking at the time – in a forlorn bid to appease her. Hodge gladly pocketed the concession and carried on as before. By the time the summer of 2018 was over, Corbyn’s opponents had established a template that could be used over and over again, most damagingly in the run-up to the 2019 election.

When Corbyn stepped down, those who had wanted him to capitulate immediately over the IHRA definition believed it was their chance to start again with a clean slate. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the candidate supported by Momentum and the Socialist Campaign Group in the 2020 leadership election, immediately signed up to a list of ten pledges which the Board of Deputies had drafted. Those pledges really amounted to a single demand that the BOD would have the exclusive right to determine what constitutes antisemitism as well as what constitutes effective action against it.

In an article for Jewish News announcing this move in January 2020, Long-Bailey addressed the following message to her own would-be supporters:

My advice to Labour Party members is that it is never OK to respond to allegations of racism by being defensive. No-one is immune from racism as long as it exists in society, whatever their past credentials in opposing racism. The only acceptable response to any accusation of racist prejudice is self-scrutiny, self-criticism and self-improvement.

This would have been an extraordinarily naïve statement for anyone to make at the very beginning of Corbyn’s leadership. Coming just weeks after an election campaign of stupefying mendacity, during which British partisans of Narendra Modi added the charge of ‘Hinduphobia’ to the indictment of the Labour Party because its members would not support Modi’s violent clampdown in Kashmir, it beggared belief.

Long-Bailey followed up on this gesture by appearing at a hustings organized by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel. The JLM had actively sought to depress the Labour vote in the recent election, having previously solicited an inquiry into the Labour Party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) with a dossier that was littered with inaccuracies concerning matters of public record. The moderator for the hustings, broadcaster Robert Peston, invited the candidates to agree that it was antisemitic to describe the circumstances around Israel’s foundation as ‘racist’. Long-Bailey did so.

This deferential stance towards political actors that openly favoured a Conservative victory in 2019 did Long-Bailey no good in her contest with Keir Starmer, which had almost certainly been lost before the leadership campaign officially began. It also did her no good when Starmer decided to force her out of the shadow cabinet because she was too closely aligned with the teachers’ union in her role as Shadow Education Secretary. Starmer grasped hold of a pretext when Long-Bailey shared an interview with the actress and left-wing activist Maxine Peake.

Peake had recently paid a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories, and she drew a connection between what she had witnessed there and the ongoing protests in the US after the murder of George Floyd. She referred to a statement by an Israeli peace activist, Neta Golan, who suggested that the Israeli security forces had passed on a specific restraint technique used by the officer who killed Floyd in the course of their training sessions with US police departments. Golan had seen the same technique used time and time again in the West Bank. She subsequently explained that this was an ‘unverified assumption’ on her part rather than an established fact: she had since discovered that US police officers were already kneeling on the necks of detainees before those training sessions began.

It was beyond question that Israeli security officials were systematically imparting the lessons they had learnt from ruling over an oppressed, stateless people for more than half a century to US police forces. Golan’s minor inaccuracy did not detract from this more substantial point about the elective affinity between two forms of state racism. Yet Starmer and his allies immediately began telling journalists that Peake was propagating an ‘antisemitic conspiracy theory’ and used this claim to justify Long-Bailey’s sacking.

Two things should have been clear after this episode. First of all, Starmer was determined to use spurious allegations of antisemitism against his inner-party opponents, in the context of a stampede away from Corbynism and his own platform for the 2020 leadership election. Secondly, no one on the Labour left would be immune to such allegations, because the concept of antisemitism deployed in the British public sphere no longer had even the most tenuous connection to prejudice against Jewish people. If all else failed, they could be accused of ‘antisemitism denial’ if they questioned the most lurid fabrications about the period between 2015 and 2019.

That was precisely what happened when Corbyn issued the following statement after the EHRC report was published in October 2020:

Anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left. Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should. One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.

The most striking feature of Corbyn’s statement was its restraint. His observation that ‘the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated’ was the very least that could be said by anyone who wanted to have a rational discussion. In particular, it was essential for the Labour left to be able to make such arguments if it wished to have a future in the party.

The Corbyn years were the first time since 1945 that the party’s left-wing tendency had won control of its leadership; neither Aneurin Bevan in the 1950s nor Tony Benn in the 1980s could manage that. If Corbyn and his supporters allowed the standard media narrative to go unchallenged, they would have to accept that Labour suddenly became infested with antisemitism after 2015 from top to bottom, with the eager complicity of its most senior figures, and that the actions of a Corbyn-led government might well have prompted British Jews to flee the country in large numbers.

In the event of a future leadership contest, any left-wing candidate would certainly have this fictitious concoction thrown in their faces. After all, if the claims made with such vehemence during and after the 2019 general election were well grounded in fact, the Labour left could hardly be trusted to administer a parish council, let alone the British state.

We can be sure that all the Labour MPs and Guardian columnists who responded to Corbyn’s statement with splenetic rage wholeheartedly believed that the media narrative was ‘dramatically overstated.’ If they genuinely thought that that Labour Party under Corbyn posed an ‘existential threat’ to British Jews, they would be implacably opposed to Starmer, who campaigned to elect Corbyn as the country’s Prime Minister in full knowledge of the dire warnings that his opponents had been issuing.

Starmer’s move to suspend Corbyn from the Labour Party was entirely of a piece with his established modus operandi. It should have been more surprising that some of Corbyn’s erstwhile supporters, including the Momentum founder Jon Lansman and the journalists Owen Jones and Rachel Shabi, explicitly criticized his statement, while John McDonnell might as well have done so when he made the following remarks in an interview:

Numerically, the number of cases of antisemitism within the Labour Party might be small, but that’s not the issue. It’s the pain . . . you don’t calculate the numbers, you calculate the pain that’s inflicted.

These increasingly tortuous efforts to avoid calling a spade a spade were inscribed in the logic of a strategy that had already proved to be a comprehensive failure. It is hard to think of another political movement whose leading voices were so anxious to take responsibility for the false perceptions that their opponents had created.

In the meantime, efforts were afoot behind closed doors to negotiate Corbyn’s return to the party. Allies of Starmer tacitly confirmed that Len McCluskey’s account of these efforts was accurate when they issued a blustering non-denial denial. The former Unite general secretary described his own reaction to the news of Corbyn’s suspension:

I genuinely thought Starmer had lost his temper and made a mistake; I didn’t want to think such a damaging move had been premeditated . . . that evening, in a Zoom call between leading figures on the left, it was agreed that before mobilising the membership against the suspension – and potentially splitting the party – we should see if a negotiated solution could be reached.

The agreement thrashed out with Starmer’s approval was that Corbyn would not have to apologise for his statement; instead, he would issue a clarification with an agreed wording, after which his suspension would end. When it came, the second statement actually muddled the clarity of what Corbyn had previously said, and bore the unmistakable stamp of having been drawn up by committee:

To be clear, concerns about antisemitism are neither ‘exaggerated’ nor ‘overstated’. The point I wished to make was that the vast majority of Labour Party members were and remain committed anti-racists deeply opposed to antisemitism.

A Labour disciplinary panel restored Corbyn to full membership. However, when organizations like the BOD and JLM denounced this move, Starmer immediately reneged on the deal and blocked the return of his predecessor to Labour’s parliamentary caucus. Margaret Hodge’s threat to resign as a Labour MP may have been the decisive factor behind Starmer’s change of heart.

The attempt to reach a ‘negotiated solution’ thus proved to be a failure on its own terms. It could only have been otherwise if Starmer was a trustworthy individual who was willing to stand up to his party’s right-wing tendency for the sake of better relations with its left. Nothing about his track record up to that point should have encouraged such beliefs about his character and political orientation.

This failed experiment in reaching out to Starmer came with a substantial opportunity cost. Not only did the leading figures on the Labour left refrain from ‘mobilising the membership’ against Corbyn’s suspension, as McCluskey explained. They also held back from enlisting their own voices in the battle by expanding upon the incontrovertible point that Corbyn had made. This would have generated a headache for Starmer and – more importantly – placed some of the basic facts on the public record.

In the period immediately following Corbyn’s suspension, the EHRC was scattering evidence of its crude political bias like confetti. One former commissioner, Ian Acheson, even boasted in the Spectator that its investigation of Labour was the result of a sustained effort to align the EHRC with the agenda of the Conservative Party through carefully targeted appointments. Those appointments also helped explain why the Commission had categorically refused to investigate Tory racism, despite the wealth of evidence submitted to it by those seeking an inquiry.

The EHRC’s threadbare report could only determine that Labour had engaged in ‘unlawful harassment’ by inventing a law that determined the boundaries of legitimate speech about Israel and applying it retrospectively. The British media studiously ignored the holes in the report’s logic, just as it ignored the lack of a single reference to the supposedly canonical BBC documentary about Labour’s internal culture. Yet there was no public challenge to the Commission’s authority from the Labour left.

In contrast, the LGBT charity Stonewall came out swinging in February 2022 when it found itself in the EHRC’s firing line:

The government is involved in appointing EHRC commissioners, ministers hold annual reviews with the chair, the government controls EHRC funding, and it has no independent relationship with parliament. The risk this creates – that the EHRC will not act to promote and protect the rights of all its citizens, but instead will be swayed by personal whims and the politics of the day – has now become a reality.

We cannot know whether an alternative strategy based on confrontation rather than compromise would have secured Corbyn’s readmission. Starmer’s leadership descended into a trough after his move against Corbyn. Labour trailed behind the Tories in opinion polls for much of 2021 and lost one high-profile by-election in Hartlepool. Another parliamentary contest in Batley and Spen would almost certainly have been fatal for Starmer’s leadership if a few hundred Labour voters had decided to stay at home. He might not have been able to cope with another conflagration during the same period.

At any rate, the outcome could not possibly have been worse for the Labour left than it was. Starmer paid no price for going back on his word, since there was no turn to a more confrontational approach by the Socialist Campaign Group after he did so. He had no reason to change direction when faced with this good cop/good cop routine.

The self-inflicted Tory meltdown of 2021–22 then supplied a new lease of life to his leadership, even though it remains as unimaginative and uninspiring as ever. Smelling blood in the water, Starmer and his allies have set out to obliterate what remains of the Labour left, targeting left-wing MPs for de-selection. In the case of the east London MP Apsana Begum, this has involved using domestic abuse as a weapon against their factional opponents.

While seeking to exclude socialist MPs from the party, Starmer has welcomed Conservative defectors like Christian Wakeford. Wakeford was an enthusiastic supporter of the xenophobic legislation that Boris Johnson and his Home Secretary Priti Patel enacted in 2021. Having been elected in 2019 with a razor-thin majority in a previously Labour-held seat, Wakeford was perilously exposed in the event of a swing towards Labour, so he decided to jump ship before he had to walk the plank.

This did not stop the JLM chairman Mike Katz from presenting Wakeford’s defection as a ‘positive choice’ inspired by ‘Starmer’s integrity and leadership – not least on the issue of tackling antisemitism’. Katz highlighted the fact that Wakeford had been ‘active in Conservative Friends of Israel’ as a reassuring sign. With men like Wakeford on board, Katz informed us, Labour had taken the first steps on ‘a journey back to political respectability, where Jews will ask if Starmer has the right policies, not whether he is a racist.’

There could hardly be a better example of the way in which Labour’s dominant right-wing faction has cynically deployed the issue of antisemitism as a cloak for its own political agenda. Katz is no doubt well aware that members of other ethnic minorities have repeatedly asked whether Starmer and his associates see them as equals. Martin Forde’s report identified a pervasive culture of racism and Islamophobia within the Labour Party, and black Labour MPs were infuriated when Starmer brushed that finding contemptuously aside. For Katz and his co-thinkers, this is irrelevant, and certainly has no bearing on the question of ‘political respectability’.

The main purpose of this propaganda campaign has not been to discourage prejudice against Jews, or even to protect Israel from scrutiny. It has been to create a Labour Party that is a hostile environment for socialists like Jeremy Corbyn and Apsana Begum, and a welcoming home for right-wingers like Christian Wakeford. The Labour left would be in a stronger position today if its leaders had recognized that a long time ago. Whether or not it can recover from its current position of defeat and disorientation, there are important lessons to be learnt from the sequence of events that led to this point.  

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Crosscurrents’, NLR 118.


Sweden’s Pariahs

The runup to Sweden’s parliamentary election, held on 11 September, read like a Houellebecq novel. A party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement is surging. In Muslim neighbourhoods, a far-right Danish politician accused of soliciting sadomasochist sex from teenage boys is livestreaming himself burning the Quran. Riots break out across the country. Indolent centre-left politicians issue limp pleas for tolerance. The Social Democrats, having been willingly cannibalized by NATO and financial markets, fail to rally support. Meanwhile an insurgent Islamist party is making inroads in immigrant neighbourhoods once considered strongholds of the left. Mainstream conservatives, who for years positioned themselves as a bulwark against the far-right, realize that the clearest path to power involves joining forces with it. All this with unrest already on the rise, a war in Europe and a winter energy crisis looming.

But this wasn’t fiction. A few days after the election, Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson resigned and the right-wing coalition declared a narrow victory. In the final count, the left-wing bloc of the Social Democrats, Left Party and the Greens netted 173 seats in the Riksdag. Its rival grouping, made up of the far-right Sweden Democrats, conservative Moderates and the Liberal Party, secured a total of 176. But the biggest victory belonged to the Sweden Democrats. Political pariahs until recently, they are now the second most popular party in Sweden, with 20.5% of the vote. Only the outgoing Social Democrats, who campaigned primarily on not being the Sweden Democrats (while also parroting some of their rhetoric), received a larger vote share, 30.3%. But in the end, it was not enough.

Now, Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson has been tasked with assembling a new government. In a historic overture to the far-right, Kristersson has included the Sweden Democrats in these talks. Jimmie Akesson, the party’s studiously bland leader, says that a coalition including his party would faithfully reflect the country. He may not get his wish, but whatever happens he will wield considerable power. It appears likely that Kristersson’s Moderates will form a minority government with the Liberal Party and Christian Democrats, with the Sweden Democrats providing external support via a confidence-and-supply agreement.

The election concludes eight years of Social Democrat-led governance. For much of the twentieth century, the party enjoyed near unrivalled power in Sweden. But in recent years it has been challenged by the liberal centre and mainstream conservatives – who have now given legitimation to the far-right. Back in 2018, Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson met with Swedish Holocaust survivor Hedi Fried and solemnly pledged before the media that he would never collaborate with the Sweden Democrats. After Kristersson changed his mind, the Moderates sought to deflect criticism by purchasing Google ads with the keyword ‘Hedi Fried’, which led to a page explaining that it was all a misunderstanding: the Moderates, they said, had merely promised that their previous coalition ‘Alliance for Sweden’ would not work with the Sweden Democrats for the 2018 election. Now, four years later, this promise no longer applied.

Founded in 1988, the Sweden Democrats capitalized on the upsurge in far-right extremism generated by the financial crisis of the early nineties. In 1991, the Moderate-led government of Carl Bildt began to administer a series of predictably disastrous neoliberal reforms – following on from the Social Democrats’ dismantling of the Keynesian infrastructure that undergirded the Swedish welfare model during the previous decade. Amid the deregulation of credit and capital markets, unemployment more than quadrupled, from 2% in 1990 to 10% in 1993. GDP fell by 4%, and it cost another 4% of GDP to bail out the banks. This economic downturn coincided with a wave of neo-Nazi street violence, including bombings and targeted attacks on political opponents: trade unionists, journalists, left-wing activists, the Stockholm gay pride parade.

Back then, the links between the white nationalist movement and the Sweden Democrats were explicit. Founding members came from the fascist Bevara Sverige Svenskt (‘Keep Sweden Swedish’) organisation. The Sweden Democrats’ first chairperson had been an activist in the Nordic Realm Party, and their first treasurer had served as a translator and propagandist in the Waffen-SS. But when Akesson became party leader in 2005, he embarked on a thorough rebranding aimed at making the party more palatable to mainstream voters. They redesigned their logo, ditching a flaming torch in the colors of the Swedish flag for a hippie-ish anemone. They dropped the slogan ‘Keep Sweden Swedish’ and swapped pseudoscientific racism for national chauvinism.

Few were convinced. Major media outlets remained wary, and the postal service reportedly refused to deliver their leaflets. This outsider status would turn out to be something of a mixed blessing. With fewer traditional channels of communication open, the Sweden Democrats turned to then-nascent social media platforms. A few years after Akesson became leader, the Sweden Democrats had a Facebook presence more than eight times the size of the Social Democrats. Ahead of this month’s election, a massive online troll army, reportedly funded by the party’s communications office, helped shape the online discourse on immigration and crime.

Two additional macroeconomic shocks aided the Sweden Democrats’s ascent. In 2006, the Alliance for Sweden – also led by Bildt’s Moderates – implemented a package of austerity and tax cuts designed to ‘make work pay’. This sparked a significant rise in inequality: the largest in any OECD country. One study found that during this period, ‘incomes continued to grow among labour-market “insiders” with stable employment, while cuts in benefits implied a stagnation of disposable incomes for labour-market “outsiders” with unstable or no jobs.’ By 2008, however, even the ‘insiders’ had been precaritized by the effects of the financial crash. A new layer of workers began to emerge who remained in stable employment, yet were hit by stagnant wages and the threat of automation. These two marginal groups – labour-market outsiders and vulnerable insiders – are overrepresented among the Sweden Democrats’ politicians. The party also gained the most votes in areas where the incomes of ‘outsiders’ had dropped the most relative to ‘insiders’, and among the long-term unemployed. Their strongest base was in the country’s provincial south, as one might guess from Akesson’s distinctive drawl, redolent of a humble farmer from Scania.

The Sweden Democrats also enjoy striking levels of support among those that depend on social insurance. And not without reason. During the leadup to the 2014 election, the Social Democrats criticized the Alliance’s restrictions on sickness and disability benefits, vowing to rebuild the welfare state. Yet, once in power, the exact opposite happened. The Ministry of Social Security vowed to reduce the number of people reliant on sickness benefits. Over the next four years, we saw a five-fold increase in rejections for long-term sickness benefits. For those with disabilities requesting personal assistance, the rejection rate rose to 90%. Facebook groups sprung up in which people posted about friends and relatives who had taken their own lives as a result of these restrictions. The Sweden Democrats’ representative on the Riksdag’s Committee on Social Insurance began to leave posts and comments, becoming a regular presence on these platforms.  

The Sweden Democrats claimed the government had cut sickness benefits to free up resources for immigrants. At the centre of their ideology is nostalgia for Folkhemmet, or ‘people’s home’, a concept coined by the Social Democrats’ Per Albin Hansson in 1928. For the Sweden Democrats, the welfare state is a zero-sum social good that is threatened by globalization, the EU and immigration. They have pilloried the Social Democrats for betraying their own legacy by serving globalist elites instead of ordinary Swedes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the Sweden Democrats have managed to poach voters from their centre-left opponents. Support for the party has even grown within the Social Democrats’ own union, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, or LO. A recent survey indicates that among LO members, the Sweden Democrats and Social Democrats now enjoy similar levels of support – with the former beating the latter among male members. (This mirrors trends in broader society: if only men voted in 2022, then right-wing and nationalist parties would have gotten nearly 60% and the Sweden Democrats would be the largest party).

This can be partly attributed to the Sweden Democrats’ success at foregrounding immigration in public discourse. For decades, Sweden was a European anomaly, experiencing waves of inward migration with minimal pushback. In 2011, the year after the Sweden Democrats entered parliament for the first time with 5.7% of the vote, only 8% of Swedes believed that migration was the most important issue facing the country. But as the effects of austerity began to bite, and as the Social Democrats lay supine – providing no effective opposition to the Alliance government – support for the Sweden Democrats rose steadily. Then came the 2015 migrant crisis, when more than 162,000 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden, at which point support for the Sweden Democrats jumped to 20%. The following year, the number of Swedes who cited immigration as the most important issue rose to 44%.

But the pivotal moment came a few years later, when the Moderates decided to make immigration the central issue of the 2018 election, setting the tone for all other bourgeois parties. When riots flared up in several Swedish cities after Rasmus Paludan’s public burning of the Quran, even Prime Minister Andersson attributed the unrest to the ‘failure to integrate’ immigrants and ‘the creation of parallel societies’. These riots offered the Sweden Democrats a critical boost ahead of the election. At the party’s election night celebration, one prominent Sweden Democrat posted a photo with the editor of a right-wing publication on Instagram with the caption ‘the Quran riots did their job’, plus a winking emoji. This prompted the more conspiratorially-minded to wonder whether the party may have orchestrated the Danish provocateur’s activities.

A small Islamist party – Nyans (meaning ‘nuance’) – emerged in response to the mainstreaming of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Though it didn’t cross the threshold necessary to enter parliament, it made a strong initial showing in some distressed immigrant areas. Its leader had been expelled from the Centre Party in 2018 for failing to disclose his personal ties to Turkey’s ultranationalist Grey Wolves. Turkish media have published a series of glowing profiles of Nyans, and some have even speculated that Erdogan plans to use it to exert his influence in Sweden. Predictably, right-wing media seized on this story to feed the general hysteria.

In recent years, the media has effectively incited moral panic about immigration and crime. (While certain crimes, such as shootings by organized criminal groups, have increased in recent years, the overall crime rate is actually down; but this is rarely acknowledged.) The media’s rightward turn was already underway during the 2010s. In that decade, free-market thinktanks proliferated; Sweden now has more than any other country in Europe besides Germany and the United Kingdom. Among the most prominent is the neoliberal advocacy group Timbro, modelled on the Cato Institute, which runs an academy for training young politicians and journalists. Timbro is funded by the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which has reportedly courted the Sweden Democrats in recent years. The confederation has lobbied the party to drop its opposition to for-profit welfare systems. In exchange, the Sweden Democrats have gained mainstream respectability and access to elite corridors that were previously closed to them. Speaking at the confederation’s SME committee meeting in February, Akesson adopted Timbro’s red-baiting register: ‘When the government says they’re going to “take back democratic control of welfare”, I get Soviet vibes.’

Thus, while the Sweden Democrats have retained much of their chauvinist welfare rhetoric, they have also steadily embraced a Thatcherite policy platform. Few may have noticed, but in the lead-up to the election, Akesson even U-turned on one of the party’s supposedly core values: Swedish jobs for Swedish workers. Until 2008, a test was used to restrict labour migration to those jobs facing domestic labour shortages. Under this system, employers, unions and the government would assess whether a given job could be filled by Swedish workers before opening it up to foreign applicants. But in an interview last month, Akesson said that he ‘doesn’t want unions to control work permits’ and voiced his opposition labour market tests – aligning himself with the bourgeois parties.

The Sweden Democrats have also started to echo mainstream parties’ support for membership in ‘globalist’ institutions like NATO. In 2016, when the Rikstag voted on whether to allow NATO forces to be stationed on Swedish territory, the Sweden Democrats were expected to join the Left Party in their bid to delay signing of the agreement pending a further review. But at the last hour, they decided to back closer military cooperation with the alliance, allowing the vote to pass with a broad majority. Then, in April, the party went so far as to complain that the Social Democrats’ timetable for joining NATO was ‘far too slow’. Now, former Prime Minister and uber-Atlanticist Carl Bildt has been floated as a potential foreign minister in the new government. How the Sweden Democrats will retain their anti-establishment, anti-globalist bonafides while working with a man who once rhapsodized about the ‘New World Order’ before his sponsors in Washington, is anyone’s guess.

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


Sound Money?

On 6 September Liz Truss was appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, after a Conservative leadership contest notable for its near-total lack of reference to the social calamity known as the cost-of-living crisis. While the ruling party spent the summer decrying ‘woke culture’ and praising the trickle-down theory, Keir Starmer’s Labour found a new spring in its step, calling for a windfall tax on energy firms and opening up a poll lead that could point towards the steps of Downing Street. Meanwhile, a wave of strikes and protests – centred on consumer prices and real wages – has given a shot in the arm to a radical left still emerging from the post-Corbyn doldrums. Don’t Pay UK, canvassing support for the mass non-payment of energy bills in the wake of a 56% April increase and an 80% hike scheduled for October, has amassed a pledge list of almost 200,000 refuseniks.

During this period, the cap on maximum domestic energy changes by Ofgem – toothless regulator of the privatized energy system – became the object of increasing discontent. This was not the intention of Theresa May’s government when it introduced the energy cap in 2018, in an attempt to allay pressure from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour (the proposal for a cap itself dating as far back as Ed Miliband’s leadership). Yet as wholesale natural gas prices spiked across Eurasia over 2021, then skyrocketed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ofgem continued to raise its price ceiling to unprecedented heights, bound by legislation to guarantee a 1.9% profit to retailers. This brought with it the prospect of nationwide strikes plus mass civil disobedience. So, on the second day of Truss’s tenure, the government pledged a not-quite freeze on bills (the typical bill will go up £600 rather than £1,600) for the politically significant period of two years, up until the last possible date of the next general election. This was the largest single economic intervention in Britain’s peacetime history, dwarfing the eventual cost of the Covid furlough scheme.

There is an obvious precedent for Truss’s handout. When Thatcher became PM in May 1979 she immediately accepted the recommendation of the Clegg Commission, established by Callaghan after the Winter of Discontent, for an average public-sector pay rise of 25% – approximately double the rate of inflation. This elicited a backlash from the new breed of hardline monetarists, but Thatcher recognized that securing industrial peace was more important than appeasing them. As The Economist reported at the time, she entered office with a clear intention to buy off stronger sections of organized labour while confronting and defeating weaker ones. The 1977 Ridley Plan described this as the ‘salami’ approach – ‘one thin slice at a time but by the end the lot is gone.’ In the short term, wrote Ridley, the government would have no choice but to ‘pay up’ to those unions ‘that have the nation by the jugular vein.’

It seems that today’s Tories – even (or perhaps especially) their most committed ideologues – are once again prepared to ‘pay up’ if it allows them to win a class fight. And let’s not delude ourselves: Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget, announced this morning, shows that a class fight is underway. His so-called ‘fiscal event’ was the most dramatically regressive announcement by any government for some time – giving a £4,500 tax cut to the richest 500,000 people in the country while further tightening Britain’s miserly benefits system. This smash-and-grab raid on behalf of the very wealthiest must be set in the context of recent global upsets: the shifting international balance of power, trade wars, Covid-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and worsening ecological crises. With growth rendered uncertain by such turbulence, but profits still demanded, working-class and middle-class living standards are on the line. We are entering an era of zero-sum capitalism, even more cut-throat than that of the early eighties.  

In this conjuncture, the old rules of Ukanian state management – according to which the Treasury’s books should be balanced and the free market should come first – appear to have been rewritten. The Tories of the Cameron-Osborne era are gone; in their place, we have austerity-sceptic Johnson followed by deficit-sceptic Truss. The former Chancellor Rishi Sunak has seen his drab bean-counting rejected by the Tory membership, while Truss is set to embark on a £150bn-plus borrowing bonanza. Reversing the NICs rise, cutting green levies on domestic energy bills and reversing Sunak’s planned Corporation Tax hike were the priorities she enumerated during the leadership campaign, the total cost of which could easily reach £30bn. These aren’t the Tories of old: neither Thatcher’s homilies on household budgets nor their repetition by Cameron and Osborne get a look in.

With that in mind, it is worth considering the Spectator’s fascinating survey of ‘Trussonomics’, based on interviews with her three leading economist supporters, for hints as to where the Tory right are headed. In it, Truss’s backers – who prefer to be known as ‘Trusketeers’, alas – outline a programme that deviates significantly from the traditional Conservative prospectus. Julian Jessop, former chief economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs, now asserts that the austerity of the 2010s was a mistake: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind…Ten years ago, I would have been much more conventional in my thinking that you need to get the budget deficit down as quickly as possible. But it’s clear that isn’t working.’ Patrick Minford, an early supporter of Thatcher, is currently reprising that role but flipped 180 degrees as he lays into the Treasury’s obsession with book-balancing: ‘We have policies in place which are raising taxation, that damaged growth in order to satisfy short-run borrowing constraints put forward by the Treasury.’

As for the monetarism Minford once expounded, with its insistence on a strict separation between the monetary authorities and the government as well as mechanical targets for monetary growth, Gerard Lyons, tipped as a member of Truss’s as-yet-unveiled Council of Economic Advisors, says he wants to ‘re-examine’ the Bank of England’s remit ‘to make sure it is fit for purpose’. Elsewhere, Kwarteng pays lip-service to the idea of central bank independence whilst simultaneously pledging that ‘fiscal and monetary policy must be coordinated’ – the passive voice happily disguising who, exactly, should be making the coordination happen. Put all this together, and the family resemblance is not so much to Thatcherism, with its rhetorical commitments to ‘sound money’ and balanced books, but to Reagonomics, with the US deficit under President Reagan ballooning to unprecedented levels thanks to tax cuts for the rich and vast increases in military spending. (Truss has promised to increase UK military spending to 3% of GDP by 2030, at an estimated cost of £157bn.)

Of course, these solutions are presented as short-term ones: a necessary yet temporary detour from the true path of deregulation and ‘sound money’. Minford has suggested that a 7% interest rate might ultimately be more appropriate for the British economy, while Jessop has suggested relaxing restrictions on financial services, ‘gene editing’ and data protection. But all this is for somewhere down the line. For now, the Trusketeers anticipate significant state intervention and large deficits, in part to provide a political cover for their long-term plans.

Will any of this work? Most economists would say no. The FT’s Martin Wolf claims it is a ‘fantasy’ to believe corporate tax cuts and deregulation will deliver improved growth, while Jonathan Portes asserts that deficit spending will stoke inflation. But here we might pause. With inflation largely driven by external factors – Putin’s invasion, environmental collapse, supply issues linked to the pandemic – conventional economic models of why prices rise, focusing on excessive demand, are falling short. Those still using them to talk up the inflationary risks of increased government deficits are likely to be proved quite wrong. It is therefore worth attempting a level-headed assessment of Truss’s economic prospectus – identifying its strengths and weaknesses, in the terms it has set itself – beyond the standard neoclassical framework.

The most pressing challenge for the British economy is currently the soaring price of essentials goods, causing households to spend less on desirable things like pubs, restaurants and local shops and more on undesirable things like fossil fuel companies – which means that government support, of the kind promised by Truss, will be necessary to sustain demand. Contra her detractors, this is unlikely to have much meaningful inflationary effect. If the government borrows money to cut domestic energy bills, the Institute of Public Policy Research estimates that 3.9% would be taken off the ONS’s calculation for the headline rate of inflation – a win-win, making life easier for households and reducing pressure on the Bank of England to further increase interest rates.

Other things being equal – the economist’s get-out clause – Truss’s plan to massively increase government borrowing will also have some impact on growth, if only because it’s hard to borrow and spend over £150bn without making something happen. Whether this is useful in the long-term is a different question: handing £30bn more to corporations, already squatting on a £950bn hoard in their bank accounts and showing no great inclination to invest, is hardly an effective use of the tax system. Then again, if corporations don’t actually spend their unexpected windfall in Britain, it is less likely to feed into inflationary pressures here.

So, when it comes to propping up demand, limiting inflation and stimulating immediate growth, Trussonomics won’t be as abortive as orthodox economists predict. And she needs only two years, at most, to prove something like competence before facing a general election. Yet there may be other fronts on which her domestic plan could falter. For one thing, the international situation today is more uncertain than in the 1970s, and Britain’s global position is far weaker. The UK retains immense privileges as a developed economy with deep, liquid capital markets and venerable institutions. But it is also undergoing a radical shift, via Brexit, in its relations with the rest of the world at a time of acute social stress. This will inevitably unsettle the Conservative’s traditional support base in big capital and finance, while the decrease in the value of the pound, presently hitting an almost forty-year nadir against the dollar, indicates the possibility of funding problems ahead.

This is compounded by Britain’s reliance on imported energy and food supplies. In the last true currency crisis face by a Conservative government – Black Wednesday in 1992 – Britain ran a small deficit on its energy consumption, soon to disappear as gas production peaked in 2000, and was 70% self-sufficient in food. Today, it imports roughly half its natural gas, and 45% of its food. The Black Wednesday crisis erupted because the government was unable to defend the value of the pound against the deutschmark inside the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a precursor to the euro. Today, Britain is out of the EU and the pound floats freely, but the currency crisis could be even more fundamental, if we are forced to pay higher sums for basic goods in a declining currency. Even if Truss – borrowing from the playbook of Anthony Barber, Chancellor under Heath in 1970 – manages to engineer a short-lived growth spurt at the beginning of her tenure, this will prove difficult to sustain. Indeed, it may have already evaporated by the time she is forced to face Starmer at the polls.

Truss also harbours unrealistic hopes of unlocking growth through a post-EU shake-up of employment laws, threatening the removal of rights on working time and, in a familiar trope, invoking the spectre of trade union militancy. But while the recent uptick in union membership and activity is to be welcomed, strikes in Britain remain rare, with the number of annual walkouts still close to the all-time lows of the last decade. Further restrictions on union organizing will not miraculously translate into improved productivity. Nor are there many remaining costs in Britain’s perilously neoliberal labour markets that could be removed without pushing further and deeper into living standards. If Truss wants to press ahead with such reforms, she will likely have to sweeten the pill or buy off discontent with further temporary handouts – which may draw opposition from the backbenches.  

But where Trussonomics is perhaps most likely to fall apart due to domestic factors is in failing to overcome the resistance of the Treasury. Rumours that the new energy plan would involve forcing ten-year loans onto households indicate the lingering presence of Treasury Brain (harking back to the equally daft forced loan scheme which Sunak cooked up for domestic energy bills last spring). That this misstep was avoided suggests someone, somewhere in government is prepared to put political strategy over Sunak-style bean-counting. Yet the fact that this supposed ‘price freeze’ doesn’t entirely freeze prices, seemingly in deference to vestigial accountancy concerns, also evinces the zombie-like persistence of the latter.

As a result, the policy’s political efficacy has been blunted, opening up a gap which Labour could easily exploit. And this is to say nothing of the evident hypocrisy of making £40bn of liquidity support available to energy companies whilst promising only six months of support to every other business, large or small. Kwarteng’s peremptory sacking of Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, having been Second Permanent Treasury as austerity was implemented in the early 2010s, was greeted with howls of outrage from the liberal end of the media. But it reveals the new administration’s determination to press ahead with its programme against concerted opposition. The new Chancellor knows that realizing major deficits and mighty tax cuts means overriding Treasury recalcitrance.

It was always a mistake to think of austerity as a programme that swivel-eyed true-believers were determined to force upon the rest of us. This may have applied to a small number of Thatcherite diehards baying for shrunken states and flat taxes. But, by and large, austerity was promoted, designed and delivered by a cadre of ideologically adaptable Sensible People like Scholar, poring over spreadsheets at the Treasury and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. They were the ones who inflicted a miserable lost decade on the country. Now, the current crop of Tories may have few compunctions about cutting spending when the time comes; but they know better than to insist on it as a strategic priority. The class battles ahead demand a more considered approach. And should Truss’s plan fall short, as prices spiral upwards, growth disintegrates and the capital markets turn sour, there are many forces waiting to move: from the Don’t Payers to the striking workers, to those in her own party sharpening their knives for the next leadership contest.

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


The Pundit

Fame has been kind to Ian McEwan, but not to his writing. Few under the age of fifty remember him as the author of the short story collection First Love, Last Rites (1975), the novella The Cement Garden (1978), or the Cold War spy thriller The Innocent (1990) whose taut, gothic explorations of sexual taboo and violence earned him a reputation as a provocateur and the moniker ‘Ian Macabre’. Starting with the critical success of his Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam (1998) and the commercial success of Atonement (2001), which was adapted into an Oscar- and BAFTA-winning film starring James MacAvoy and Kiera Knightley, McEwan’s plots have slackened into melodrama, and, starting with Saturday (2005), the cool reserve of his narration has succumbed to the temptations of intrusive and unenlightening commentary. With the exception of On Chesil Beach (2007) and Sweet Tooth (2012) – set in the early 60s and the mid-70s respectively – McEwan’s post-Atonement subject matter has been ripped from the headlines. As befits a regular of the international festival circuit with the occasional byline in the Guardian opinion page, his treatment of issues such as the Iraq War, climate change, euthanasia, artificial intelligence and Brexit could be described as narrativized punditry. For this, McEwan has been rewarded with increasing extra-literary prominence. In 2000, he was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the late Elizabeth Windsor; in 2016, the Daily Telegraph named him ‘the 19th most powerful person in British culture’, an honour at once dubiously conferred and comically specific.

His latest novel, Lessons, finds the author, now an autumnal 74, in the mood to encapsulate his life and career. McEwan lends a number of biographical details to his protagonist, the ‘less-than-brilliant’ cad and dilettante Roland Baines. Among them: the 1948 birth in Aldershot, the working-class Scottish father who works his way up the ranks of British army and class system, the childhood in Tripoli and Singapore, the boarding school education at Woolverstone Hall School (which appears in the novel as Berners Hall, ‘the poor man’s Eton’), the late-in-life reunion with an older brother given up for adoption, the hobbyist passion for scientific inquiry and the news cycle, as well as several of his own published opinions. Everything, it might seem, except literary fame, which McEwan gives instead to Alissa Eberhardt, Roland’s first wife and the mother of his son, Lawrence. Regular readers of McEwan will also find incidents and thematic preoccupations from his earlier novels alluded to or repurposed in omnibus-fashion for this one.

At 481 pages, Lessons is the largest canvas McEwan has worked on; its jacket copy calls it an ‘epic’. Like many contemporary novels so hailed, it is far too short. From its first mentioned incident – which takes place in 1940 – to its last – which takes place in 2021 – McEwan dispatches twice as many years as In Search of Lost Time in a little over one-tenth of the page count. The ‘lost decade’ following Roland’s comprehensive failure at his O-Levels in 1964, during which he pursues odd jobs, tours with a country rock outfit called the Peter Mount Posse, travels as far as Big Sur and the Khyber Pass, and satisfies what he sometimes calls his ‘pathological’ sex addiction, is lost not only to Roland, but to the reader as well. Because the third person narrator does not stray from Roland’s point of view, the lives and motives of the book’s vastly-more intriguing villains – Peter, Alissa, and his Berners Hall piano teacher Miriam Cornell – are left in various stages of underdevelopment.

Everything in Lessons, whose story concludes within a year and a half of its publication date, gives the impression of having been written in extreme haste. Its prose, for example, is pocked with first-order clichés (‘trying to escape his own demons’), second-order clichés (‘a demon he hoped to slay’), dull metaphors (‘Time, which had been an unbounded sphere in which he moved freely in all directions, became overnight a narrow one-way track down which he travelled’), mixed metaphors (‘ten on the pain spectrum’), limp similes (‘Some love affairs comfortably and sweetly rot. Slowly, like fruit in a fridge’), oxymorons (‘a settled, expansive mood’), pleonasms (‘the photograph which would posthumously survive her’), catachresis (‘domestic violence – generally code for men hitting women and children’), jejune diction (‘the creepy shifting shadows’, ‘the magical or silly element’, ‘shivery’, ‘mushy’), trivializing double entendres (‘Lucky too that so far no child was left behind’), pomposities (‘They rose in his thoughts as a black hammerhead cloud of international disorder’), flagrant abuse of self-reflexive questions (‘Would Roland have had her courage?’, ‘What held him back?…Courage. An old-fashioned concept. Did he have it?’, ‘In the face of it would he, Roland, have risen to Sophie and Hans’s courage?’) and barely-concealed cribbings from more talented stylists like Nabokov (‘parenting, its double helix of love and labour’, ‘seven paces up her short garden path, his signature taps at the door – crotchet, triplet, crochet, crochet’). Within the first fifty or so pages, Roland experiences no fewer than three portentous epiphanies, none of which turn out to have any bearing on the subsequent four hundred, as though they were narrative coupons McEwan cut out but forgot to cash in.

McEwan’s novel is not so much an epic as it is three novellas in a trench coat. Novella 1: eleven-year-old Roland is molested by Miriam during a piano lesson and is groomed by her between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, which precipitates the aforementioned ‘lost decade’ and scares him off from intimacy and discipline for the better part of his life. Lessons: our interpretations of events often do more harm than the events themselves; ‘most’ of the ‘problems’ we blame on others are in fact ‘self-inflicted’; forgiveness is essential to freeing oneself from the effects of trauma. Novella 2: thirty-seven-year-old Roland and his seven-month-old son are abandoned by Alissa, who, having witnessed her own mother’s sacrifice of her career as a journalist to marriage and family, decides that being a parent is incompatible with her vocation as a writer, and retreats to a remote village in her native Germany, where she becomes ‘Europe’s greatest novelist’ and a contender for the Nobel Prize. Lessons: just as a ‘cruel act’ which makes a work of art possible ‘made no difference’ to our assessment of them, the ‘quality of the outcome’ did not excuse the cruel act; Roland wouldn’t ‘swap his family for her yard of books’. Novella 3: twenty-something Roland meets Peter and his wife Daphne; the former goes from prima donna lead-guitarist to abusive Thatcherite businessman to philandering Brexiteer and ‘ennobled junior minister in the Johnson government’, whereas the latter becomes his best friend, confidante, co-parent, and – following her Stage 4 cancer diagnosis – second wife. Lessons: reason and fair play are no match for cunning and the will-to-power; making a commitment to someone other than oneself is ‘the best thing’ one ever does.

If this all sounds pat, it has less to do with the necessary evil that is plot summary in book reviewing, than to the didacticism with which McEwan imparts these and other praecepta in the novel itself. Yet perhaps worse than the way the book comes pre-interpreted for the reader is the way it comes pre-criticized. McEwan does not fail to anticipate the objection that what makes Roland’s case notable is that, statistically, male teachers are more likely to sexually abuse their students than female teachers, and that, historically, male artists are more likely to disregard family obligations in the pursuit of their creative ambitions than female artists. Nor, in the novel’s climactic scene, a fight in the Lake District between Roland and Peter over the urn that contains Daphne’s ashes, does McEwan fail to have Roland acknowledge that what the two septuagenarians are doing is ‘absurd’. Indeed it is – all the more so for being a bathetic allegory for Brexit (a Remainer and a Leaver duke it out for the right to bury the ashes of the United Kingdom) as well as a reprise of the fight scene of Amsterdam.

In an op-ed, anticipating objections strengthens one’s case; in fiction, however, it draws unwanted attention to the hand of the author, without whom the particular element that is being apologized for would not exist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is hardly exonerating that Roland self-effacingly describes an article he writes as ‘plodding, earnest, lifeless’, and the journals he keeps as ‘hasty’ and ‘without interest’ compared to the writing of his wife and mother-in-law. We do not get to see Alissa’s prose, which is frequently compared to that of Nabokov, who, judging from the synopses Roland provides of her novels, would have dismissed them and – by extension – Lessons as ‘topical trash’.

The trench coat is History. Draped loosely from the backs of these three narratives are hundreds of named political and cultural events, persons, and phenomena, starting with Dunkirk and ending with the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, which range from the genuinely consequential to the merely newsworthy to the unmentionably trivial. The ones that are important to the plot are the White Rose movement (through which Alissa’s parents meet), the Suez Crisis (which precipitates Roland’s return to England from Tripoli and his matriculation at Berners Hall), the Cuban Missile Crisis (which inspires him to pay a call on Miriam so he can lose his virginity before the world ends), divided Cold War Berlin (it is thanks to the Mauerfall that he learns the reason for Alissa’s disappearance and that she will be soon publishing her first novel) and Brexit (which precipitates his final conflict with Peter).

At first it seems as though the effect of ‘public events on private lives’ is going to be the major theme of Lessons. ‘Roland occasionally reflected on the events and accidents, personal and global, miniscule and momentous that had formed and determined his existence’, he writes. ‘His case was not special – all fates are similarly constituted’. McEwan wisely abandons this Forrest Gump-like conceit midway through the book in favour of a much more plausible, if still unsatisfying, depiction of the way citizens of wealthy countries like the UK typically encounter history: as a spectacular entertainment mediated by newspapers, television, and/or the Internet. The historical events appear to serve two narrative functions: as substitutes for the kinds of concrete details other novelists use to convey the quiddity of a character’s experience of the world and as markers for the passage of time. Because of their sheer quantity, however, and because the vast majority of them are simply referred to rather than assimilated into Roland’s consciousness, time feels curiously static in Lessons, which has the unfortunate effect of making the dramatic ‘reckonings’ McEwan stages between Roland and Alissa, Miriam, and Peter seem, well, staged. At a certain point, historical events become little more than narrative boxes for McEwan to check off. He tells us, for example, that Roland ‘made a list of the people he knew who died of AIDS’, but since we don’t see the list, and we hear nothing more of persons who might have been on it, this kind of detail trivializes what it refers to more than if it had simply not been mentioned at all. As with his raiding of female narratives to gin up sympathy for his otherwise undistinguished male protagonist, McEwan’s use of historical events in Lessons is guilty of borrowed gravitas.

Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to draw lessons from history than it is to manufacture them in fiction. In his final days, Roland rereads the ‘forty journals’ he has been writing ‘since 1986’, the year the novel opens, and which function as its ur-text. ‘Reading back…did not bring him any fresh understanding of his life’, he reflects, and from the single excerpt we have been shown 150 pages previously – which mentions, inter alia, Islamofacism, the NHS, Scottish Independence, Princess Diana, a certain satirical columnist at the Telegraph, and the Booker Prize – it is easy to see why: the journal entries are a mishmash of noted events and reported speech.  ‘There were no obvious themes, no undercurrents he had not noticed at the time, nothing learned’, he goes on to lament, as he operatically consigns the journal ‘one volume at a time’ to a fire bowl in his back yard. A self-described ‘centrist’ and ‘liberal’, Roland’s blind spot remains, to the end of his life, his politics. For those who are inclined to examine them a little more attentively than Roland seems capable, at least one ‘obvious theme’ emerges.

Time has done its inevitable work on a number of Roland’s cherished illusions, particularly to his whiggish conviction that economic liberalization produces political liberalization – refuted, in his view, by China – and that history is a slow, but inexorable march towards an ever-more-open society – refuted by democratic backsliding in Putin’s Russia, Trump’s United States, and post-Brexit Britain. Surveying the present, Roland is rightfully anxious about the world he will leave his granddaughter. His ‘bad dream’ for the future is two-fold and incompatible: that the planet will not support life long enough for her to see the end of the 21st century and of ‘freedom of expression, a shrinking privilege, vanishing for a thousand years’, as it had done in Europe during the Middle Ages. A pretty pass, to be sure. Especially for a man who has just torched his complete works.

Assessing his personal responsibility for this turn of events, Roland says: ‘Enough! Those angry or disappointed gods in modern form, Hitler, Nasser, Khrushchev, Kennedy and Gorbachev, may have shaped his life but that gave Roland no insight into international affairs. Who cared what an obscure Mr. Baines of Lloyd Square thought about the future of the open society or the planet’s fate? He was powerless.’ Let us state the obvious: Hitler, Nasser, et al are not gods, but people, as are, a fortiori, Johnson, Cameron, Blair, Major, and, yes, even Thatcher. As he so often admits, Roland is a member of the most affluent and freest generations history has ever known; if he finds himself powerless to secure these privileges for future generations, it is not exclusively due to impersonal forces beyond his control, let alone the whims of a handful of world-historical individuals. Nor is this simply a matter of moral judgment: even if you were inclined to cut Roland some slack on the grounds that no one person ought to shoulder responsibility for the state of the world, a reader, who has at this point been subjected to nearly 500 pages of the views of the ‘obscure Mr. Baines’ has every right to care, not least because McEwan is implicated in them.

Roland spends the seventies as a member of the Labour Party, living in a cheap Brixton flat and leafleting for Wilson and Callaghan. Through his then-girlfriend Mireille, a French journalist with a diplomatic passport, he travels to East Berlin, where he strikes up a friendship with an agronomist named Florian Heise and his family. He returns often to smuggle banned records – Dylan and the Velvet Underground – and books – the classics of liberal anticommunism: Koestler, Nabokov, Milosz, and, of course, Orwell – across Checkpoint Charlie. His friendship with the Heises and his unwillingness to qualify or contextualize his critiques of the political conditions in the GDR puts him increasingly at odds with his fellow Labour Party members back home, who regard actually existing socialism as the ‘lesser of two evils’ compared to US Imperialism. Disgusted by what he perceives as their apologetics and moral equivalence – after all in the West, you are free to listen to ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and read Animal Farm – he drifts ‘rightward’, in the words of one of them, towards the party’s ‘middle class intellectuals’ who support the ‘democratic opposition’ in Eastern Europe. After Florian is arrested at work, has his house turned over by the Stasi, and is threatened with the breakup of his family – as a result, Roland wrongly imagines, of the illegal reading material – Roland hands in his party card.

When his one-man influence campaign on behalf of the Heises inevitably fails – the family is not broken up but is relocated to the dismal village of Schwedt – Roland pays a tribute to Florian the only way he knows how: with the purchase of tickets to a Dylan concert at Earl’s Court, in ‘a symbolic act of solidarity’. It is June 1981 and for the past three months Roland’s largely African-Caribbean neighbourhood, Brixton, has been undergoing sustained rioting following the Metropolitan police’s Operation Swamp 81, an aggressive, blatantly racist response to protests against high unemployment and dangerous housing conditions in the area. Having spent fifteen pages describing Roland’s time in East Berlin and the plight of the Heises, a tossed-off allusion in a single line of dialogue is all McEwan devotes to the unnamed Brixton Uprising.

Here we have an unwitting parable about the perils of making ‘freedom of expression’ the core of your politics. In the abstract, Roland’s criticisms of the GDR’s censorship policies are not wrong, but as a British citizen, he has no power to change them, and aside from having to listen to disagreement from other British citizens, he will not suffer for his views. Roland’s views are far from fringe – in fact, they are aligned with the ruling party’s foreign policy platform – so his principled stand on the matter is acquired on the cheap. While he engages in consumerist acts of symbolic solidarity with people living in other countries, he does not lift a finger to help his neighbours, who are not only living in worse economic conditions than people in the GDR, but are also suffering, like them, ideologically-motivated repression by the security forces of a state apparatus. It is a state apparatus that Roland is theoretically in a position to do something about, or would be, if he hadn’t just abjured meaningful political activity in a fit of pique.

This is by design. The function of ‘debates’ over ‘free speech’ in neoliberal societies like Britain is not to ensure that citizens retain a potent tool to criticize state policy, it is to defang criticism of its material effects, in part, by deflecting attention, energy, and personnel that might be directed towards raising the tax rate, reducing economic inequality, rolling-back privatization, or preventing a mass extinction event, back on to abstract debates about virtues of free speech, whose opponents are always, conveniently enough, located to the left or beyond the border. In fact, free speech debates are not debates at all – free speech is the condition of the existence of debate in the first place – but are rather a form of political blackmail not unlike the one Squealer levels at the supporters of Snowball in the book Roland smuggles through Checkpoint Charlie for the edification of the thought-policed citizens of the GDR: ‘you wouldn’t want Mr. Jones back would you?’

A self-appointed scourge of secular and religious ‘totalitarianisms’ and the other forms of ‘unreason’ subscribed to by the ‘delirious masses’, Roland fancies himself a man of the enlightenment, but does not seem to remember that on the flipside of the coin that reads Sapere aude is written: Argue as much as you like, and about whatever you like, but obey. He does not see that if he is ‘powerless’ and ‘obscure’ to the extent that no one ‘cares’ about his ‘opinions’, it is because whatever power he might have had he gave away long ago thanks to his rather myopic obsession with ‘the shrinking privilege’ of ‘free expression’. Roland wonders whether he should not perhaps have stayed in the Labour Party after all to ‘argue for its centrist and liberal traditions’, but concludes that he would have been ‘driven miserable and mad after four consecutive defeats’. This is not only a bizarre thing to say of a party which has recently ousted Jeremy Corbyn in favour of Keir Starmer, it is also a rather unfortunate testament to the flimsiness of his convictions. It never crosses Roland’s mind that one of the reasons Labour has suffered four consecutive electoral defeats is because of supporters like him.  

Whether free speech really is ‘shrinking’ is – you guessed it – a matter of debate. On the one hand, more speech is being produced by more people than ever before. Yet just as Roland does not regard all repression by state-apparatuses as equally deserving of his attention, he does not regard all speech as equally laudatory. When, despite being a legendary ‘hermit’, Alissa is ‘cancelled’ for making a transphobic joke on an ‘American TV chat show’ – the incident is an allusion to the reaction to a 2016 comment made by McEwan – Roland attributes it to her mix of ‘acerbic rationalism’ and ‘seventies feminism’ rather than to her penchant for verbal cruelty and blithe disregard of others, which he, his son and his mother-in-law have all experienced. Following outcry, an Ivy League university withdraws Alissa’s honorary degree, her speaking tour falls apart, Stonewall and anonymous commentators on the Internet criticize her, and her US and UK sales drop. We are supposed to think that the ‘Young Puritans’ Alissa has offended are overreacting, but it is worth noting these are all instances rather than violations of free expression: private institutions and persons withholding what they had previously chosen to grant – praise, honours, money – according to their best lights at the time. Liberalism giveth and liberalism taketh away.

On the other hand, we need look no farther than the recent assassination attempt on McEwan’s friend Salman Rushdie – the 1989 fatwa against The Satanic Verses is among the events catalogued in Lessons – to concede that freedom of expression is not as secure as we would like it to be. And we may grant that, as a novelist, McEwan has a legitimate interest in its preservation. But it is precisely qua-novelist that he has a special responsibility to freedom of expression that goes above and beyond that of the pundits who argue in its defence in op-eds or even that of advocacy groups like PEN that raise money and awareness on behalf of writers around the globe who have seen their work banned or who have been imprisoned, attacked, harassed or murdered for publishing it. It is this: to create a work of literature whose aesthetic power justifies the privilege in the first place. Without such power, all we have is yet another commodity – far too disposable a peg on which to hang the values of an entire civilisation. Just as people living behind the Iron Curtain had no shortage of reading material as mediocre as Lessons, the market is currently condemning far better books than it to smaller print runs than a samizdat. A bestselling, Booker Prize-winning Commander of the British Empire, McEwan is not obscure, nor is he powerless, according to the Daily Telegraph. Lessons was written in perfect freedom. What did he need it for?

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Forever Orwell’, NLR 87.


Imagining the Seventies

‘What do you see if you try to imagine the 1970s?’ A number of European artists working with the moving image have recently offered answers to this question. Éric Baudelaire, Filipa Cesar, and Jean-Gabriel Périot are just a few of the most prominent to return to the period and its legacy of vanguard film practices. A 2015 exhibition at London’s Raven Row comprising some fifty hours of moving image work, ‘The Inoperative Community’, was devoted to what its curator Dan Kidner described as ‘the long 1970s (1968–84)’; a key motif was ‘the limits of political activism and the fate of left political subcultures’. Today, these years of interchange between the avant-garde and progressive movements of various stripes seem to exert a determined pull on a younger generation. Is this a classic case of left melancholy, a nostalgic turning-back that is also a turning-away from the impasses of the present? The fetish for radical chic is unrelenting, and it is easy to counterpose the complicities of the present with the convictions of the past. Yet there is no denying that it is easier to see after the dust has settled, and the long 1970s offers a range of aesthetic and political histories that are enduringly relevant, some perhaps newly – or differently – visible in the light of the present.

‘What do you see if you try to imagine the 1970s?’ is also a question that Peter Wollen asks his ten-year-old daughter Audrey in Kerry Tribe’s Here & Elsewhere (2002). The split-screen video was positioned near the entrance of ‘Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen – Intersections in Theory, Film, and Art’, held this summer at Camera Austria in Graz. The exhibition’s curators, Oliver Fuke and Nicolas Helm-Grovas, framed their inquiry as a ‘belated’ encounter, foregrounding the distance that separates them from their subjects. The effect was to partake in the retrospective impulse animating much recent artistic and curatorial practice while also interrogating its stakes. Thanks to meticulous research, the two offered a very different response to Wollen’s question than his young daughter. While she answers, ‘I don’t see anything’, Fuke and Helm-Grovas see plenty. The exhibition succeeded in staging a dense network of relations between theory and practice, between Mulvey and Wollen’s work and the social context that informed it, and between the heady moment of the mid-1970s and its enduring afterlives.

The core of the exhibition consisted of films made by Mulvey and Wollen, together and separately. Their best-known features, Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), played in alternation as a single projection. An array of other works were displayed around the room on monitors with headphones, including their diptych portrait Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1984) and Mulvey and Mark Lewis’s Disgraced Monuments (1994) which examines the fate of Soviet statuary after the fall of the USSR. Initially working as critics and theorists, Mulvey and Wollen ventured into filmmaking in the early 1970s to put into practice their conception of ‘counter-cinema’, one which would embrace radicalism of both form and content. In a 1976 conversation in Afterimage, they described Penthesilea as an attempt to bridge what Wollen had identified a year earlier as the ‘two avant-gardes’ – on the one hand, ‘experimental or avant-garde film’, and on the other, ‘political film, in the agitational or militant sense’. (In another testament to the contemporary fascination with the long 1970s, selections from this little magazine, including Mulvey and Wollen’s ‘Written Discussion’, have just been reissued as The Afterimage Reader.)

Forging a counter-cinema meant breaking not only with Hollywood, but also the medium-specific purism of the film co-operatives and realist practices that located their politics exclusively at the level of content. Riddles of the Sphinx tells the story of Louise – a mother who is politicised through her daily experiences and a close female friendship – in thirteen single-shot chapters. Yet all familiar articulations of filmic space and, as a corollary, conventional forms of identification are refused; in their stead is a series of 360-degree pans that rotate with indifference to the action. These are interrupted by title cards and bookended by other material, including a to-camera lecture by Mulvey on the topic of the titular myth. Braiding together semiotics, psychoanalysis, feminism, and the post-Godardian revival of Brechtian aesthetics, the film dispenses with the pleasures upon which cinema habitually depends, installing in their place the pleasures – powerful, too – of critique.

In Graz, a vitrine displayed the small mercury maze that appears in the final shot of Riddles, a children’s toy repurposed as enigmatic (non-)ending. Surrounding it were archival documents, scribbled notes and diagrams, salutary reminders that behind these seminal films and polemics lie the false starts, speculations and revisions that form part of the process for us all. On the opposite wall were two sets of index cards that appear in Penthesilea: the first, typewritten prompts used by a thirtysomething Wollen, then a visiting professor at Northwestern University, as he delivers a lecture in a house in Evanston, Illinois, parsing the construction of the film (‘…our film is un-natural. It is a film which avoids conventional cuts, but not discontinuities or breaks. It is a montage film…’; the second, handwritten in block capitals, are seen scattered around the same space and intermittently captured in close-up by the roaming camera. These artefacts had a multivalence, at once seeming to consign Mulvey and Wollen’s work to history, yet also rendering it palpably present in the here and now, by supplementing the immaterial film image with the materiality of things. These were things that have survived from the world of the films, the world of the 1970s, to meet us in our own beleaguered time. And if things can survive, so can ideas. The wager of the curators seemed to be that Mulvey and Wollen’s theory and practice should and could return to challenge the present with the force of anachronism.

Around the corner was Victor Burgin’s Gradiva (1982), a series of seven captioned photographs that reimagine Wilhelm Jensen’s 1902 novella of the same name, famously analysed by Sigmund Freud. The work primarily featured in the exhibition as an emblem of the longstanding dialogue between Burgin, Mulvey and Wollen; likewise the presentation of Mary Kelly’s Primapara: Bathing Series (1974), twelve photographs depicting the body of the artist’s infant son in fragmenting proximity, closely linked to her landmark work, Post-Partum Document (1973–79). In the context of the assorted film props and documents, though, Burgin’s photographs took on an added resonance. Gradiva is, after all, a story of archive fever, of the impossible dream of defeating time by rematerializing the past. In Jensen’s novella, an archaeologist becomes obsessed with a woman he sees represented in a Roman bas-relief sculpture and goes to Pompeii in search of her. There, he believes he finds her, alive. It falls to this woman to explain that he has misrecognized her, that she is not from the ancient past but is familiar from a time much nearer yet nonetheless gone, his childhood. For Derrida, the story spoke of the ‘painful desire for a return to the authentic and singular origin’ – in short, of the longing for an impossibility, one perhaps familiar to anyone who has engaged in historical research. 

Something of this desire could be felt in the exhibition, insofar as it was directed by the urge to recover a time when British cinema was marked by commitment, experimentation, intellectual seriousness and independence – qualities that have undoubtedly atrophied in the intervening decades. Yet as much it was warmed by the flush of archive fever, the presentation deftly avoided succumbing to its delirium. True to their stated embrace of belatedness, the curators chose not to present a time capsule of the 1970s, but rather opened their inquiry outwards by presenting Mulvey and Wollen’s later work, as well as instances of artists engaging with their legacy in the twenty-first century. Holly Antrum’s contribution self-consciously pointed to the danger of over-identification with the archive. The artist presented a vitrine of barely legible pages written in pencil, facsimile copies of documents in the Peter Wollen collection at the British Film Institute National Archive, credited to the fictional researcher Markéta Hašková. The implication being that in trying to remain as close to Wollen’s notes as possible, Hašková sacrifices not only her own perspective, but also loses sight of the material’s substance.

In Em Hedditch’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (2006), Mulvey sits at a desk reading, much as she did in Riddles over thirty years before. She recites passages from her much cited (and much misunderstood) titular essay, now and then explaining why she chose to do certain things, such as her controversial choice to describe cinema as having a universalized masculine form of address. Occasionally, clips from films such as Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) appear onscreen, illustrating the article’s claims. It would be wrong though to consider the work as simply an adaptation of Mulvey’s essay, in the form of ‘videographic criticism’ that prevails today; the sparing use of clips alone should be a clue that something different is at stake. Hedditch’s gesture is better understood as an act of intergenerational memory, and symbol of the overarching conceptualization of the exhibition.

Similar concerns inform Tribe’s Here & Elsewhere, which borrows its title from Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Ici et ailleurs (1976) as well as something of its approach from their France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1977). Wollen remains out of frame, asking his daughter philosophical questions concerning time, existence and the image. The setting is domestic, their rapport intimate. Theory becomes the stuff of bedtime stories; the theorist becomes father, caretaker, teacher. Periodically, panning shots of the Los Angeles cityscape appear, presenting a geography distant from the Englishness apparent in Wollen’s voice, articulating an additional notion of the ‘here’ and the ‘elsewhere’. As in Hedditch’s collaboration with Mulvey, the act of unfaithful remaking serves to pile temporal layer upon temporal layer, allowing a return to privileged moments in the film historical past while nevertheless remaining firmly anchored in the present.

‘What do you see if you try to imagine the 1970s?’ ‘Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen – Intersections in Theory, Film, and Art’ reminds us that the wording of Wollen’s question is crucial. One cannot see the past the way one sees a film or a memorable prop exhibited in a gallery space. The 1970s, or any other vanished decade, can only come into view through acts of imagination and creativity. This was something Mulvey and Wollen themselves knew well: as the latter puts it as he roams around the Evanston house in Penthesilea, reading from his index cards, ‘It is only through the detours of fantasy and dream that we can return to history and act there’.

Read on: Peter Wollen, ‘Brecht in LA’, NLR 136.


Privatized Universe

There is no limit to human megalomania. One recent example – which went largely unnoticed during this torrid and neurotic summer – was a bizarre exchange between NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and the Chinese authorities. ‘We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon and saying: “It’s ours now and you stay out”’, Nelson cautioned in an interview with Die Bild. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately hit back: ‘This is not the first time for the chief of NASA to lie through his teeth and smear China’.

Nelson’s accusation was strange, given that this December will mark fifty years since anyone has set foot on our natural satellite. Since then, moon exploration has been delegated to small, tracked vehicles which scuttle over its rocky outcrops. China has only deployed one such robot, which travelled to the moon’s ‘dark side’ in 2019. So the idea that it could establish sole dominion over an area the size of Asia, suspended in a vacuum at temperatures ranging from 120 degrees Celsius during the day to minus 130 degrees at night, exposed to cosmic radiation and more than 384,000 km from the closest supply base, was somewhat of a stretch.

The accusation was all the more outlandish given that it was the US, not China, that planned to launch a gargantuan rocket into space on 29 August, completing a few lunar orbits before returning to earth, all for the modest sum of $29bn. This would be the first leg of the Artemis mission – so-called after the Greek goddess of the moon and sister of the Sun-god Apollo – which eventually aims to establish a base worth $93bn on the moon by 2025. In theory, this lunar settlement will one day serve as a launch pad for a human expedition to Mars.

The question is: why are we interested in further trips to the moon? On their successful voyage in 1969, American astronauts collected a few curious stones but nothing else – so it is hard to find a scientific rationale for future missions. There may be a military objective: it was not for nothing that in late 2019 the US established the sixth branch of its armed forces, the Space Force, to manage all space-related military activities. But why the moon? Perhaps to install a military base from which to threaten an enemy on earth? Surely it would be sufficient to use the satellites already in orbit, which are much closer, cheaper and more precise.

Cynical onlookers such as the Financial Times and Economist insinuate that these missions are merely a ploy to bankroll the defence industry and distribute funds to strategic electoral constituencies. The latter publication reported that the Space Launch System (SLS) used in the Artemis project was nicknamed the ‘Senate Launch System’, and its technology, derived from the now defunct Shuttle programme, was intended to safeguard jobs in Alabama, where the bulk of the Shuttle’s components were manufactured.

Another hypothesis is that US wants to replay the game that eventually caused the USSR to collapse. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ programme, was a cosmic defence system whose pursuit brought the Russians to their knees, despite the fact that it was never realized. To keep pace with the American conquest of the moon, China would similarly have to divert a quantity of resources that would plunge its economy into crisis. Hence the US calling upon its vassals – Canada, Japan, the UK and EU – to participate in the Artemis mission.

Lest this New Cold War expenditure should strike the public as somewhat pointless, the government can always pull a rabbit out of its hat. In recent years we have seen countless economic gurus extolling the potential of resource mining, not only from the moon but also from asteroids. Names of great prestige from the world of finance have begun to sponsor this nascent industry. In 2009, Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt joined with the director James Cameron and the aerospace entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, among others, to found Planetary Resources, a company whose ultimate mission is to mine high-value minerals from asteroids and refine them into metal foams. Meanwhile, iSpace, a similar venture launched in Japan in 2010, claimed that

by taking advantage of lunar water resources, we can develop the space infrastructure needed to enrich our daily life on earth, as well as expand our living sphere into space. Also, by making the earth and Moon one system, a new economy with space infrastructure at its core will support human life, making sustainability a reality.

Fantastical enterprises of this ilk have since proliferated. In 2013, Deep Space Industries Inc. drew up an ambitious blueprint for identifying asteroids suitable for mining by 2015, returning samples to earth the following year, and commencing full-scale operations in 2023. Shortly after, a Californian company called OffWorld announced a grand plan to ‘develop a new generation of universal industrial robots to do the heavy lifting on the Moon, asteroids and Mars.’ It envisioned ‘millions of smart robots working under human supervision on and offworld, turning the inner solar system into a better, gentler, greener place for life and civilization’.

In a 98-page report to its clients in 2017, Goldman Sachs asserted that the prospect of mining platinum in space with ‘asteroid-grabbing spacecraft’ was becoming increasingly affordable, and forecast ever-increasing profits in the sector. Morgan Stanley followed suit. When such banks are encouraging their clients to invest in space mining industries, it is worth remembering that it was Goldman Sachs who managed Greece’s national debt, practically doubling it in the process. That is to say, large financial institutions are endlessly capable of squeezing their clients like lemons. In the end, despite the banks’ predictions, Deep Space was sold to Bradford Space, a comparatively modest trader of orbital flight systems and aircraft components, while Planetary Resources was liquidated and its assets auctioned off. Illusions, however, die hard: January 2022 saw the founding of AstroForge, another Californian firm which claims to have developed new lab-tested technology for processing asteroid material.

Bloomberg has warned us in no uncertain terms about these sci-fi-esque enterprises:

Where would science fiction be without space mining? From Ellen Ripley in Alien and Dave Lister in Red Dwarf, to Sam Bell in Moon and The Expanse’s Naomi Nagata, the grittier end of interstellar drama would be bereft if it weren’t for overalled engineers and their mineral-processing operations…It’s wonderful that people are shooting for the stars – but those who declined to fund the expansive plans of the nascent space mining industry were right about the fundamentals. Space mining won’t get off the ground in any foreseeable future – and you only have to look at the history of civilization to see why. One factor rules out most space mining at the outset: gravity. On one hand, it guarantees that most of the solar system’s best mineral resources are to be found under our feet. earth is the largest rocky planet orbiting the sun. As a result, the cornucopia of minerals the globe attracted as it coalesced is as rich as will be found this side of Alpha Centauri. Gravity poses a more technical problem, too. Escaping earth’s gravitational field makes transporting the volumes of material needed in a mining operation hugely expensive.

Indeed, if we exchange illusion for reality for a moment, we realize there are good reasons why very few people over the last fifty years have poked their heads out of the immediate vicinity of our planet. The International Space Station orbits the earth at only 400km from the earth’s surface – if one were to represent the earth as a sphere a meter in diameter, it would hover just 3cm above it. The moon, on the other hand, is almost a thousand times further, and the shortest distance between the earth and Mars is 55 million kilometres. This doesn’t mean that humans will never exit the solar system, but doing so would require a scientific paradigm shift beyond Einsteinian physics, plus staggering technological advances which would revolutionize transportation in a manner as unthinkable as the reaction engine would have been in the age of the horse-drawn carriage.

The mirage of space exploration obeys the same iron law which Horkheimer and Adorno identified in the culture industry. Namely, it works by indefinitely postponing satisfaction: ‘The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged.’ We are constantly told that in two, five, ten years’ time, a new mission will land on the moon – or better still, build a base there. Likewise, we will always be twenty, thirty or forty years away from establishing colonies on Mars. Deadlines for space flights are infinitely delayed, as demonstrated by Artemis, whose launch was first scheduled for 2020, then for the end of 2021, then 29 August 2022, then 3 September and now, ‘probably’, for later this month, or maybe next…

There’s a stark difference, though, between the ‘normal’ culture industry and the space mirage; the former is produced for the masses, the latter for the capitalist class. It is the Larry Pages, the Elon Musks and the Jeff Bezoses that tell themselves such fairytales – believing, with frenzied hubris, that they can turn fiction into science. From this point of view, the exploration (or exploitation) of space takes a form that is closer to religious postulate than plebeian superstition. For the concrete fact which continues to vex capitalists is that the earth is round (and therefore limited, finite). Capitalism is an intrinsically expansionist system; without unrestricted growth, the profit mechanism jams. We’ve frequently witness this phenomenon as capitalists are forced to open new frontiers of industrialization and accumulation; after Britain and the US it was France, then Germany, then Japan and Italy; now it is China and Vietnam, and one day it will be Africa. Yet the earth remains stubbornly spherical – and this poses an insurmountable problem unless the market can expand beyond its frontiers; or maybe even further, beyond those of the solar system. The capitalists’ dream is of an infinite, universal market, where you can buy shares of the Andromeda Galaxy and futures on the commodities produced on the three planets which orbit the pulsar PSR B1257+1 in the Virgo constellation, 980 lightyears away from our solar system. Imagine: an entire cosmos to exploit! 

Yet capitalism is not simply an expansionist economy; it also involves a proprietary relation to the external world. It is enough to recall the paeans which accompanied last year’s flea-jumps out of the earth’s atmosphere by three billionaires (Branson, Bezos, Musk), heralding the private conquest of space (obviously far more efficient than any public equivalent). Here we must reckon with the notion of the privatized universe: entire star systems recast as private property. Our billionaires have no trouble thinking on this scale. Nor, for that matter, are they reluctant to embrace the ridiculous.

The history of space conquest stretches back to the middle of the last century. The moment humankind peeped out of the earth’s atmosphere (Laika the dog in 1957; Yuri Gagarin in 1961), governments immediately began using international fora to stake their claims on the cosmos. To prevent future galactic incursions and imperialisms, they solemnly signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, which recommended that the ‘exploration and use of outer space should be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind’. But this peacemaking was merely a facade. In 1979, when the Moon Treaty declared the moon and its natural resources ‘CHM’ (Common Heritage of Mankind) and called for ‘an equitable sharing by all countries in the benefits derived from these resources’, many states including the US refused to ratify it. Nine years later, the US government’s Department of Commerce established the Office of Space Commerce, whose mission was ‘to foster the conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the US commercial space industry’.

Now, over the last decade, Washington has intensified its efforts to create a legal framework that would enable the exploitation of resources in space:

The Obama administration signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, allowing US citizens to ‘engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resoources’. In April 2020, the Trump administration issued an executive order supporting US mining on the Moon and asteroids. In May 2020 NASA unveiled the Artemis Accords, which included the development of safety zones around lunar mining sites.

At this rate, it won’t be long until law firms begin to handle space-related controversies, hiring lawyers who specialize in the intricacies of interplanetary commerce. And all this before anyone has even returned to the moon itself! The problem is that, while we pursue such extravagant schemes, we are simultaneously condemning this small, singular, fabulous planet of ours to destruction. 

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Eva Díaz, ‘Art and the New Space Age’, NLR 112.


Pipe Dreams

When a famously hard-headed statesman starts believing fairy tales, it may be a sign that all is not right with the world. In late July, former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble gave an interview to Welt am Sonntag, a centre-right Sunday paper. In it, Schäuble publicly renounced his life-long vision of a French-German Kerneuropa, or core Europe. Apparently, with the war in Ukraine, the possibility of even imagining a sovereign Europe with an independent foreign policy now required more than that. The vision he produced was, however, so unworldly as to suggest – coming from a figure known for his ruthless political realism – the opposite: a subversive admission that, with the war, all dreams – left or right – of a Europe with what Macron calls ‘strategic sovereignty’ are nothing but pipe dreams now.

So, in Schäuble’s view, what geo-strategic moves might convert Europe into a sovereign power, after the Zeitenwende? The French-German tandem has clearly failed to prevent the war, or even to have a say in it. Therefore, he proposes, Poland should be invited in – ‘as an equal and equally important member of the leadership for European unification’ – to make it a triumvirate, a directorate of three. The three would operate outside the European Union, since provisions for defence under the Lisbon Treaty ‘do not measure up to current challenges’. Berlin, Paris and Warsaw would invite other European states to join their ‘coalition of the willing’, as Schäuble agrees with the interviewer it will be. The same principle would also apply to issues like immigration and asylum policy. The attentive reader notes that this would result in a ‘Europe à la carte’, replacing the EU’s supra-national institutions with what in Brussels is called, with an obligatory shudder of disgust, inter-governmentalism. In the longer run, it might sideline the Brussels establishment as a whole in favour of a multinational strategic alliance, led by the three sovereign states. So far so good.

But this is only the beginning. The main task for the triumvirate would be to build up a European nuclear arsenal. If France has the bombs, Germany has the money. And since ‘Putin’s aides (!) threaten us every day with a nuclear strike’, Schäuble argues, it is clear that, ‘in return for a joint nuclear deterrence, we Germans must make a financial contribution to French military power’ and ‘engage in enhanced strategic planning with Paris’. Repeatedly, Schäuble insists that none of this must contradict the three states’ commitment to NATO – in other words, to American military leadership. ‘What France must deliver’, in return for the German co-financing of its nuclear force, ‘is that everything must fit in NATO.’ In fact, one reason why Schäuble wants Poland coopted into his directorate is that Warsaw would guarantee that ‘European defence would not be an alternative but complementary to NATO’. The general rule, per Schäuble, must always be: ‘everything with NATO, nothing against it.’

Schäuble’s proposal for a reorganization of Europe can only be understood as a product of despair: a last attempt to keep alive something like a minimally credible prospect of European strategic independence. For this, however, he must make gravity-defying leaps of faith. To accommodate the rise of the eastern states as a new European power centre, following the Russian attack on Ukraine, Schäuble invites Poland to join Germany and France as a European co-hegemon, apparently hoping that this will pull Warsaw out of its symbiotic relationship with Washington. (Remember that Poland’s Law and Justice government has just presented Germany with a trillion-euro bill for World War Two reparations, confident that this will help it win next year’s election.) Schäuble also expects that France will not only accept a third country as co-governor of Europe but concede to Germany and Poland together what it has consistently since the 1960s refused to Germany alone – namely, a voice on the use of its nuclear arsenal.

One of the pillars of US power in Europe is the German signature to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, making Germany dependent for its defence during the Cold War on the American nuclear umbrella. Today such dependence takes the form of the presence of an unknown number of American nuclear bombs on German soil, together with a licence for the German Luftwaffe to carry American nuclear warheads at American command to American-picked targets, using fighter planes purchased from the United States, which is officially called ‘nuclear participation’. There is no reason to believe that the United States could be convinced, NATO or not, that Germany would need to get its hands on French nuclear warheads, too, even if only indirectly by paying for them. There is also no prospect whatever that France will allow Germany and Poland a say on when to put Paris at risk for the sake of Berlin or Warsaw; in the past, French attempts to get Germany to share in the costs of the force de frappe were repeatedly abandoned when in return Germany wanted to have a look, just a look, at the French nuclear target catalogue.

One also wonders how someone who has been around as long as Schäuble could seriously expect that a European security policy co-directed by Poland could be anything but an extension of the security policy of the United States. The two main objectives of Polish foreign policy are, after all, independence from Germany and a strong US presence in Europe to keep Russia in check, instead of the country’s unreliable European neighbours – who, unlike the US, might, when push came to shove, fear for their own security. Unfazed, Schäuble hopes for his triple nuclear alliance to seek a partnership with ‘a Russia that respects the basic rules of cooperation among partners’. Surely, he told Welt am Sonntag readers, the Poles too would agree that partnership with a Russia that is ‘committed to renunciation of the use of force, the inviolability of borders and the fundamental rules of international law’ would be politically desirable: ‘With such a Russia we can and want to cooperate in good faith.’ Of course, with Putin ‘this will be difficult’ – though not, according to Schäuble, impossible.

Upon closer inspection, Schäuble’s Franco-German-Polish triumvirate looks like the fata morgana of a thirsty traveller in the desert. Someone like Schäuble cannot be in doubt that for Poland and its protector, the United States, a negotiated European security architecture that includes Russia has been ruled out since the 1990s. Their preferred outcome for the war in Ukraine is a defeated Russia, ‘weakened’ (Antony Blinken) and kept in check by superior military force. Europe, in this scenario, is led not by Germany or France but by the United States, and not just on the Eurasian continent but globally, particularly in relation to China (which Schäuble mentions only once in passing). In addition to situating his ‘sovereign’ triple alliance in NATO, Schäuble suggests that the UK, the self-nominated subcomandante of the US worldwide, should also have a role in it. That someone like him should be reduced to pious hopes that the United States will look the other way while European states conduct their own independent foreign policy may be taken to indicate how effectively the war in Ukraine has shifted Europe’s centre of gravity both to the East and, with it, to the West, toward the United States.

Where Schäuble is, for a change, in line with the European Zeitgeist is that the EU as a really existing international organization plays no role at all in his project; actually, it is explicitly excluded from it. What he has in mind, without saying it, is what Macron in his more exuberant moments calls a refondation of Europe. In recent years von der Leyen’s outfit and the supra-national ‘Community method’ it administers has lost reputation, rather dramatically, among European national leaders. Brussels’ handling of the pandemic was widely considered a disaster, even though it was Merkel who had burdened it with the procurement of vaccines. The EU was also blamed for not having stored masks and protective clothing, for being generally unprepared for a medical emergency like Covid and for trying, in vain, to make Schengen member states keep their borders open in times of rising infection rates.

A little later came a gradual realization that the EU’s celebrated NGEU Corona Recovery Fund was far too small and too bureaucratically managed to do anything for the country for which it was primarily meant, Italy. This was evidenced by the downfall, after barely eighteen months in office, of the EU’s financial white knight, Mario Draghi, as Prime Minister of his home country. Add to this the haggling with Poland and Hungary over ‘rule of law’ at a time when Eastern Europe was becoming geopolitically the Union’s rising region, not to mention the EU’s total absence when the Minsk Accords fell apart and the United States emerged openly as the chief power managing the conflict with Russia on Ukraine. As Realpolitik raised its ugly head, the EU turned into an auxiliary organization of NATO, charged among other things with devising sanctions against Russia which mostly backfired, and with putting together a common European energy policy, a mission impossible from the beginning.

The extent to which the leadership of Europe has migrated to the US – and the degree to which the EU has lost control over itself – is demonstrated by the politics of the accession of new EU member states, an increasingly messy battleground for the conflict over who runs Europe and for what purpose. In the 1990s, the US let it be known that as part of its New Order, the EU had to take in the former Warsaw Pact members, Poland, Hungary, Czechia, to beef them up economically and reorganize them institutionally, so as to anchor them firmly in ‘the West’; later the Baltic states, former republics of the Soviet Union, followed suit, as did Bulgaria and Romania. At the time the EU was also expected to admit Turkey, its main merit being that it was a long-standing NATO member, which would have given ‘Europe’ joint borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, plus an intra-EU military occupation in northern Cyprus and a potential war with an EU member state, Greece. This was prevented by France together with Germany under Merkel, world champion in the art of passive resistance, although officially of course Turkey remains a candidate for accession.

Integrating new members places heavy demands on the EU bureaucracy, which must teach them the intricacies of the so-called acquis communautaire, the endless set of rules that states must implement as a precondition of entry. Moreover, to firm up their allegiance to capitalism, new members must be afforded economic support; the poorer they are, and the more there are of them, the bigger must become the Union’s structural funds, funded out of national budgets. As so often elsewhere, moreover, money may fail to buy love and new member states in the East may have their own ideas on whether they should follow orders from Brussels or not. As a result, waiting periods have become longer in recent years, as negotiations are dragged out under pressure from member states. The last country to join was Croatia, admitted in 2013 after ten years of negotiations and with its institutional reforms concluded to the satisfaction of the EU, if not of its anti-corruption authorities. Still on the waiting list are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, the so-called West Balkan states, without however much prospect of admission in the foreseeable future, given the opposition of France.

Enter Ukraine – which, through its omnipresent president, demands full membership immediately, tutto e subito; hardly without encouragement from its American allies, who need someone to pay for the reconstruction once the war ends. Dressed as so often these days in blue and yellow, and never afraid of sounding kitschy, von der Leyen announced on Twitter on 18 June that ‘Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us the European dream’. But what seemed to become a fast-track trip to Brussels was soon stopped dead. While clearly the West Balkans must have protested, existing member states seem to have realized that the accession of Ukraine would finally blow up the EU’s budget; not to mention that Ukraine’s oligarchic political system would have made Poland and Hungary, the ‘illiberal’ arch-enemies of the EU-Parliament’s majority, look like Scandinavian democracies.

In this situation, it was Olaf Scholz who, once more in true Merkelian spirit, pulled the stop by demanding that the EU, before letting in any new members, should itself undergo ‘structural reforms’ of a sort of which it is predictably incapable. One of his proposals concerned the composition of the Commission. Today, there is one commissioner for every member state, which adds up to a college of 27; already too big, as a Brussels adage has it, to meet in full without members using binoculars to look each other in the eyes. This, of course, is no reason for the smaller member states not to insist on one commission seat per country, given that the EU pays its commissioners significantly more than the smaller and poorer countries pay their prime ministers. 

Reducing the number of commissioners will require an amendment of the Treaties to which each member state must agree. In a speech in late August at Charles University in Prague, a companion piece to Macron’s Sorbonne address of 2017, Scholz demanded, on top of this, stronger rule-of-law provisions in the Treaties and more effective powers for the EU to sanction member states for infractions, knowing that this would be unacceptable to Poland and Hungary, and presumably to others as well. (Circumventing both the EU and NATO, Scholz also suggested a joint air-defence system for Europe, set up by Germany together with neighbouring member states. One will see what comes out of this.) Scholz furthermore insisted on majority voting of the Council on EU foreign policy, presumably with votes weighted by country size, to prevent the new Ostblock outvoting Germany and France on behalf of the US. Of course, in the EU ending unanimity requires unanimity, a roadblock that even Merkel had been unable to get around.

Meanwhile in Germany, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders, is letting the German public know that the war in Ukraine may last many more years and that Zelensky will continue to need economic and military support, including ‘heavy weapons’. With the exception of the Honourable Member from Rheinmetall, one of the world’s leading arms producers, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, MP for the FDP and chair of the Bundestag defence committee, today’s Greens are easily the most belligerent of German politicians, representing a generation that was spared from military service, unlike the despised peaceniks of yesteryear. This adds a peculiar flavour to their unending expressions of gratitude and admiration for the brave Ukrainians who ‘defend our values’ by risking their lives, under a strict compulsory draft.

It also explains their unqualified identification with the war aims of the now governing wing of Ukrainian nationalism. (Baerbock: ‘Crimea belongs to Ukraine… Ukraine defends our freedom as well, our order of peace. And we support it financially and militarily, as long as needed. Full stop.’) Sending arms, and seeing them in use from the safety of their living rooms – Twitter offers any number of jubilant German armchair accounts of Ukrainian artillery hitting Russian targets, much like video gamers reporting their exploits – comes with almost daily assurances, echoing Biden and his crew, that Germany will never send troops to the Ukrainian battlefields where Ukrainians ‘fight and die for all of us’. Clearly this helps the new bellicists to root for the war being fought to the very Endsieg, without risk to themselves or their children, insisting that there can be no negotiations on ending the war before it will have ended with an unconditional Russian withdrawal.

So far, the Greening of what the Germans used to call Friedenspolitik has been remarkably successful. The space for legitimate public debate on peace and war has narrowed dramatically. The chief of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Orwellian-named Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, publicly assured the government that he would keep a watchful eye on everyone claiming that the Russian attack on Ukraine might have been related to a previous American military build-up around Russia – in other words, on all Putinversteher. The press, quality or not, recites as the ultimate wisdom of international relations the ancient Roman imperialist adage, forgotten by sentimental peacemongers like Willy Brandt: si vis pacem para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war. This is to proscribe the more recent insight, which goes back in part to none other than Friedrich Engels, that with modern weaponry, preparing for war may unleash an arms race that precisely gets you the opposite of peace.

The unprecedented American military build-up over the past thirty years – including the arming of Ukraine after 2014, among the most impressive preparations for war in recent history – and the unilateral cancellation of all arms-control treaties from the Cold War era, must never be mentioned in this context. In fact, anything that refers to the prehistory of the invasion of Ukraine is anathema, especially the Minsk negotiations and the winter months of 2021, except for that mythical moment when ‘Putin’ discovered his genocidal hatred of everything Ukrainian. Another article of faith, which makes for an ideal credo quia absurdum loyalty test, is that Russia, which was unable to conquer Kyiv, less than a hundred miles from the Russian border, will, if allowed to survive the war in Ukraine, invade and conquer Finland, the Baltic states and Poland, to be followed by Germany and, why not, the rest of Western Europe, for no other reason than a general disdain for the West European way of life.

Seen this way, the fact that the special €100 billion defence budget announced by the German government three days into the war will have its first effects on the ground only in five years’ time does not mean that it is wasted; it only means that it has nothing to do with the Ukrainian war as such. What Germany is preparing for, following a request from its American friends that it could not refuse, is a world that is one big battlefield impatiently waiting for out-of-area NATO interventions for the propagation of democracy and as an opportunity for overfed post-heroic citizens to stand up for ‘Western values’.

Thus in mid-August, in yet another demonstration of its unshaking loyalty, the German government sent six Eurofighter jets on a trip half around the globe to Australia, on their way passing by mainland China and Taiwan, for joint maneuvers with South Korea and New Zealand and to demonstrate German readiness for more. The German press sheepishly let it be known as background that ‘the new strategic concept of NATO mentions China as a challenge’. One of the six war planes turned out to be defective and had to be brought back home, but the remaining five arrived safely, as far as one knows, at their far-away destination, refuelled in mid-air by an A330 flying tanker, which made the FAZ proud of the state of German martial prowess. The trip followed the outgoing Merkel government’s sending a frigate, the Bayern, on a tour to the Indo-Pacific, formerly known as the South China Sea, to display both trans-Atlantic loyalty and East-Pacific resolve. So much for European strategic autonomy.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘An Avoidable War?’, NLR 133/134.


Looking East

‘The fantasy of an instinctively peaceful world may be comforting, but it is again coming to an end’, Alex Karp, CEO of Peter Thiel’s CIA-funded Palantir, wrote in an ominous open letter to European leaders a few weeks after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A co-founder of the company – and Thiel’s Stanford roommate in the early nineties – Karp warned the continent of the high cost of complacency in the face of the ‘aspirations of autocratic rule’, and reminded them that for the past two decades Europe ‘has stood on the sidelines of the digital revolution, whose principal participants are still essentially all based in the United States’.

The message was straightforward: innovate or die. Adopt Palantir technologies as the US military has done, or risk domination. Elsewhere, Karp has been no less pointed. ‘Military AI will determine our lives, the lives of your kids’, he said in an interview at Davos in 2020. ‘This is a zero-sum thing. The country with the most important AI, the most powerful AI, will determine the rules. That country should either be us or a western country.’ At the beginning of June, Karp travelled to Ukraine to make a similar pitch about the role of technology in modern warfare to President Zelensky. The meeting marked the first visit of a CEO to Ukraine since the war began (Karp would later gush that Zelensky was one of the very few heads of state he’d ever met who he could imagine serving as a successful CEO).

A few weeks later, a sprawling transatlantic ‘innovation’ architecture was announced that will facilitate precisely what Karp and Palantir have been advocating. At NATO’s summit in Madrid, the alliance declared the creation of ‘the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund’ to invest in start-ups and other entities working on technologies ‘with great military potential’ – including artificial intelligence, autonomy, big-data processing, biotechnology and human enhancement. As Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg explained, ‘the NATO Innovation Fund will help bring to life those nascent technologies that have the power to transform our security in the decades to come, strengthening the alliance’s innovation ecosystem and bolstering the security of our one billion citizens’.

The fund is described as a complement to NATO’s new Defense Innovation Accelerator of the North Atlantic, known by its unsettling anthropoid acronym, DIANA. Modelled on the US Defense Research Projects Agency, DARPA, whose best-known achievement is the creation of the internet, DIANA will encompass sixty innovation sites in twenty NATO member states. With its European headquarters at Imperial College London, the endeavour is said to be a ‘joint effort between private sector entities, non-governmental entities, and academia’ to ensure the alliance ‘can harness the best of new technology for transatlantic security’. A further ten accelerator sites will provide financing and mentorship to technology start-ups with potential application in warfare, and there will be more than fifty ‘dedicated test centres’ spread across the alliance.

The news was met with enthusiasm by those in the habit of issuing grave pronouncements about the West ‘falling behind’. An editorial in the National Interest even declared that ‘innovation could save NATO’. These cyclical efforts to ‘save NATO’ by finding a new raison d’être for it every decade or so brings to mind the quip about the alliance ‘attempting to justify its own existence in ever more imaginative ways’.

This push for ‘innovation’ is the product of grander developments. Madrid saw the unveiling of NATO’s new strategic concept, its first since 2010. The 16-page document describes a very different world than the last, one in which ‘the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace’, and – echoing the Biden administration’s rhetoric – ‘authoritarian’ actors are threatening our democracies. The Russian Federation represents ‘the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area’. But in a historic move, China is explicitly described as a ‘systemic challenge’ for the first time. ‘The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values’, the concept states (relatedly, NATO invited the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand to the summit – another historic first). While the document says that allies ‘remain open to constructive engagement with China’, the intention is to reconfigure NATO as anti-China military alliance, on belligerent US-UK lines.

That NATO identified China as a systemic challenge at the same time it announced a vast program to accelerate technological innovation is no coincidence. While NATO and companies like Palantir have seized on the invasion of Ukraine to push this agenda, Russia is not the West’s main competitor in the field of new technology. ‘NATO is primarily concerned with Chinese (rather than Russian) innovation in the field of emerging and disruptive technologies’, Simona Soares, a fellow of the International Institute for Strategic Studies wrote in a German Marshall Fund report last year. ‘China is the main geopolitical driver behind allied innovation plans.’

The reorientation is especially significant for the EU. ‘For the first time since the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century, European powers now view an Asian power as a direct threat’, Jo Inge Bekkevold, a former Norwegian intelligence official and fellow at its Institute for Defence Studies, proclaimed in a recent article for Foreign Policy. Bekkevold envisions an emerging division of labour for the alliance, with the US focused on China, the EU on Russia.

Until recently, there had been optimism about the trajectory of EU-China relations. The draft of an ambitious comprehensive investment agreement was drawn up, after protracted negotiations. In 2018, EU military forces conducted a combined naval exercise with the People’s Liberation Army at a Chinese military base in Djibouti. In 2020, China surpassed the United States to become the EU’s largest trading partner. And while Beijing has repeatedly blamed ‘US-led NATO’ for the war in Ukraine, it has largely refrained from directly criticizing the EU. Editorials in Chinese media assert that ‘a weaker Europe serves US interests’ and describe the heavy price, in soaring food and energy prices, that Europeans are being made to pay for US imperial ambitions. ‘China and the EU should act as two major forces upholding world peace, and offset uncertainties in the international landscape’, Xi Jingping told EU leaders at a summit in April, exhorting them to reject the ‘rival-bloc mentality’ promoted by the US.

Relations however have been deteriorating in recent months, with many European countries abandoning their ‘tightrope diplomacy’ with China and lining up decisively behind the United States and NATO. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Beijing’s reticence to criticize Russia for it, has hastened this process. In April, EU chief diplomat Joseph Borrell published a blog post titled ‘On China’s Choices and Responsibilities’ excoriating Beijing for its ‘pro-Russian neutrality’. All three Baltic States have pulled out of the 17+1 China-CEE initiative – established by Beijing a decade ago to strengthen relations with Central and Eastern Europe. Last week, the German ambassador in Beijing used her first public speech in the country last week to raise concerns about China’s zero-Covid policy and tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

It is little wonder then that developments in Madrid have met with a frosty reception in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian condemned the new strategic concept, lambasting NATO for promoting conflict, confrontation and ‘a Cold War mentality’. When Germany subsequently announced that it would send warplanes to take part in US-led exercises in the Indo-Pacific, the Chinese foreign ministry’s response was mockery, saying that this ‘will probably lead to some bad memories and associations in many countries in the world’.

NATO member states may be more united behind the US than ever before, but there are likely to be disagreements over some of the technologies in development. Of greatest concern are lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) or ‘slaughterbots’, which can search for targets and kill entirely independently. Several NATO members, including Belgium and Germany, have been much more reticent about these than the US and UK. The rise of this kind of technology has conjured fears of a new arms race with China. Karp is unapologetic about this: he says that Palantir is working on ‘a new Manhattan Project’. The company is certainly prepared to go further than most. In 2019, it took over the Pentagon’s Project Maven after Google abandoned it over ‘ethical concerns’. The controversial project, which prompted walkouts from Google employees, aims to construct AI-powered surveillance systems for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Dissenting voices have expressed serious concerns, though have been given predictably little space in the media. ‘DIANA and the NATO innovation fund will divert researchers and research funding in key civilian areas – e.g AI, big data – thus reducing the potential benefits for health and environment, at a time of increasing poverty, inequality, pandemics, and ecological disasters’, Stuart Parkinson, director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, wrote in an email this week. ‘Innovation programs like DIANA are most likely to increase and entrench militarism for decades to come, undermining security for all’.

But all of this is welcome news for some. Europe is decisively lining up behind the United States and NATO; talk of ‘decoupling from China’ abounds. There is little ambiguity about what is happening. With the vast majority of the Global South loathe to impose sanctions on Russia, the current global competition is one of ‘the West’ against the rest. This serves the interests of the US and Silicon Valley quite well. ‘The core mission of our company’, Karp said at Davos in 2020, ‘always was to make the West, especially America, the strongest in the world, the strongest it’s ever been.’

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘America vs China’, NLR 115.