The Nightwatchman’s Bludgeon

On 29 October 1922, Benito Mussolini was propelled to power by the March on Rome, inaugurating L’Era fascista. The date was subsequently declared the first day of Year One of the Fascist calendar. Like any founding event, the March was also the staging of a spectacle and the forging of a myth. An early and opportunistic reader of Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908), Mussolini was persuaded that politics was inseparable from mythmaking, that it was a kind of mythopoiesis. In his Naples speech a few days before the March, he announced that  

We have created our myth. Myth is a faith, a passion. It is not necessary that it be a reality. It is a reality to the extent that it is a goad, a hope, faith, courage. Our myth is the Nation, our myth is the greatness of the Nation. And to this myth, to this greatness – which we want to translate into a fulfilled reality – we subordinate everything else. For the Nation is above all Spirit and not just territory.

The myth of the Nation, of its lost and future greatness, continues to animate the resurgent far right across the globe. As in the speech delivered this week by the new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, this myth is now often accompanied by paeans to ‘freedom’ which are meant to serve as antidotes to lingering suspicions of authoritarianism. This is not freedom as emancipation or liberation, but market freedom – yoked to what Meloni, quoting Pope John Paul II, described as ‘the right to do what one must’. Without rushing to shaky historical analogies, it may help to revisit fascism’s origins, one hundred years since its emergence, in order to understand its particular relationship with the market, and complicate the widespread perception of it as liberalism’s antithesis.

The March as myth – as the daring, virile show of strength that spawned the fascist state – was not just hammered home in Fascist hagiography or in the retroactive mise-en-scène of the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution, first held in 1932. It also served as a model – a consequential myth – for Mussolini’s allies, above all for the Nazis. Hitler’s 1941 ‘table-talk’ records the following assertion about the ‘heroic epic’ of National Socialism’s ‘sister revolution’:

The brown shirt would probably not have existed without the black shirt. The march on Rome, in 1922, was one of the turning points of history. The mere fact that anything of the sort could be attempted, and could succeed, gave us an impetus…If Mussolini had been outdistanced by Marxism, I don’t know whether we could have succeeded in holding out. At that period National Socialism was a very fragile growth.

So fragile, in fact, that when Hitler attempted his own putsch in 1923, it could be dismissed in the Italian press as a ‘ridiculous caricature’ of its Fascist paradigm.

In contrast to this mythology, historical accounts of the March tend to minimize its momentousness. Robert Paxton, in his lucid and synthetic The Anatomy of Fascism (2004), attributes its success to the debilities and ineptitudes of the Italian political classes. It ‘was not Fascism’s force that decided the issue’, he writes, ‘but the conservatives’ unwillingness to risk their force’ against that of Il Duce. ‘The “March on Rome” was a gigantic bluff that worked, and still works in the general public’s perception of Mussolini’s “seizure of power”’. Salvatore Lupo, in his study of Italian Fascism’s political history, likewise notes that, with the March, ‘the provincial Italy of squadrismo wished to force the hand of that vast swathe of the liberal-conservative [liberal-moderato], monarchist, military and capitalist [confindustriale] establishment which looked upon the Black Shirts with sympathy but which needed to feel some menacing pressure in order to abandon the option of a centre-right government.’ Seen in this light, the March on Rome was not such a heroic epic, but the achievement of ‘a maximum result with minimal risk’, in Emilio Gentile’s formulation.

But while it is useful to undermine fascism’s self-regarding myths, we should be wary of magnifying its parasitism on the weakness of its enemies and the complicity of its beneficiaries. In so doing, we risk presenting it as an insubstantial, almost inexplicable phenomenon. Bending the stick somewhat in the other direction, it is instructive to turn to the treatment of the March by that brilliant and ambiguous chronicler of his age, Curzio Malaparte. In his 1931 Technique of the Coup d’État, which Mussolini banned so as not to displease Hitler (who was ridiculed in unflattering comparisons to Il Duce), Malaparte, an early participant in squadrismo and ‘left’ Fascist, irreverently comments that Mussolini could only have commanded the ‘Fascist insurrectional machine’ as he did because of his ‘Marxism’. By this Malaparte perversely meant Mussolini’s recognition of the strategic importance of defeating the working class – a victory that he claimed would also sap any other force of resistance within the state.

What Malaparte ends up describing is something like a tactics of the void. As he observes:

It was a matter not just of preventing the general strike, but also the united front of Government, Parliament and the proletariat. Fascism faced the necessity of making a void around itself, of making a tabula rasa of every organized force, whether political or syndical, proletarian or bourgeois, trade-unions, cooperatives, workers’ circles, Labour Exchanges (Camere del lavoro), newspapers, political parties.

The Fascist insurrectional machine was a formidable apparatus for the organization of disorganization, the hyperpolitical imposition of a deadening depoliticization – something that it carried out on the parallel tracks of direct violence and corridor conspiracies. Malaparte signals the logistical intelligence that went into the tactics of what The Guardian described at the time as a ‘bloodless revolution’. It was not so much the streets or the most visible centres of power, but various material and institutional nodes – key points in Italy’s network of political energy – which were the focus of the squadristi in the preparatory stages of the March. As Malaparte recounts:

The black shirts had occupied by surprise all the strategic points of city and country, namely the organs of technical organization, gasworks, electricity plants, central post offices, telephone and telegraph exchanges, bridges, railway stations. The political and military authorities were caught unprepared by this sudden attack.

Hence the melancholy insight in the avowal of Giovanni Giolitti, the long-serving Prime Minister of Italy during the first two decades of the twentieth century: ‘I am indebted to Mussolini for having learned that it is not against the programme of a revolution that a state must defend itself, but against its tactics.’

But what programme accompanied these tactics? The Gramsci scholar Fabio Frosini has recently compiled an excellent critical anthology of Mussolini’s speeches and writings from 1921 to 1932 under the title The Construction of the New State. The pronouncements leading up to the March largely resonate with Malaparte’s conception. Squadrismo’s violent methods were underpinned by a pseudo-Nietzschean aristocratism that contrasted the transformative power of warrior elites with the pacifist tendencies of the proletariat. In his inaugural speech at the Chamber of Deputies, Mussolini declaimed that

it is obvious [pacifico], by now, that on the terrain of violence the working masses will be defeated … the working masses are naturally, I would dare say blessedly [santamente], peace-mongering [pacifondaie], because they always represent the static reserves of human societies, while risk, danger, the taste for adventure have always been the task and privilege of small aristocracies.

This ‘anthropological’ dismissal of the masses’ capacity for struggle was accompanied by a repudiation of Marxism, understood as an amalgam of ‘state socialism’ and the theory of class struggle qua historical motor: ‘We deny that there exist two classes because there exist many more, we deny that the whole of human history can be explained by economic determinism.’ In Fascism’s ‘synthesis of the antitheses’ – class and nation – internationalism was to be vigorously repelled. For Mussolini, in a formula that finds myriad echoes in the contemporary rhetoric of reaction, internationalism was a ‘luxury commodity, which can only be practiced by the upper classes, while the people is desperately tied to its native land.’

But fascism’s modus operandi before the March on Rome was not just a class war against class war. Jettisoning its prior republicanism for opportunistic encomia to Army and King, it crystallized into a project of public violence for private capital. While the construction of the fascist state entailed significant movement towards administrative centralization and involvement in the economic sphere, the Mussolini of 1921–22 was emphatic about the fundamentally liberal economic philosophy of Fascism. In his inaugural parliamentary speech, Mussolini told his left-wing opponents that revisionist socialist literature had imbued him with the conviction that ‘only now is the true history of capitalism beginning, because capitalism is not only a system of oppression, but also a selection of values, a coordination of hierarchies, a more amply developed sense of individual responsibility.’

A belief in capitalism’s vitality supported the programmatic retraction of the state demanded by Mussolini. Saving the state, he argued, called for a ‘surgical operation’. If the state had a hundred arms, 95 required amputation, given ‘the need to reduce the state to its purely juridical and political expression’. Reading passages like the following, it is hardly mysterious why the likes of Ludwig von Mises greeted fascism’s triumph as liberalism’s salvation:

Let the State give us a police force, to save gentlemen from scoundrels, an army ready for any eventuality, a foreign policy attuned to national necessities. Everything else, and I am not even excluding secondary education, belongs to the private activity of the individual. If you wish to save the State, you have to abolish the collectivist State…and return to the Manchester state.

At the Third National Fascist Congress on 8 November 1921, Mussolini would reiterate that when it came to economic matters, fascists were ‘declaredly antisocialist’, which is to say ‘liberal’.

The ‘ethical State’ was understood as the enemy of the monopolist and bureaucratic State, as a State which reduced its functions to the bare necessities. Mussolini even stressed the need to ‘restore the railways and telegraphs to private businesses; because the current apparatus is monstrous and vulnerable in all of its parts.’ In Udine, a month before the March, he declared:

All the trappings of the State collapse like an old operetta stage set when the intimate conviction is lacking that one is carrying out a duty, or better a mission. That is why we want to strip the State of all its economic attributes. Enough with the railwayman State, the postman State, the insurer State. Enough with the State operating at the expenses of all Italian taxpayers and aggravating Italy’s exhausted finances.

The justification for this shrinking of the State to its repressive and ideological apparatuses was not just pragmatic but idealist: ‘Let it not be said that thus emptied out the State remains small. No! It remains a very great thing, because it retains the entire dominion of souls [spiriti], while it abdicated the entire dominion of matter.’

Today, as we struggle with fascism’s afterlives and repetitions, it helps to remember that it emerged one hundred years ago not as a form of ‘totalitarianism’ fusing the political and the economic, but as a particularly virulent variant of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore has termed the anti-state state. And it was welcomed as such by many liberals, from Luigi Einaudi to Benedetto Croce. What Mussolini presented as the moral, liberating, problem-solving character of Fascism’s ‘surgical’ violence, was explicitly articulated, in 1921–22, as an anti-democratic violence for the redemption of a Nation and State grounded in private accumulation. As he stated at the National Fascist Congress: ‘We will absorb liberals and liberalism, because with the method of violence we have buried all preceding methods.’

This promise of liberalism by illiberal means was why Fascism came to power (in 1922 as in 1933) not as an insurrection, but as an invitation to form a government issued by sovereign constitutional authorities (King Vittorio Emanuele III, President Paul von Hindenburg). As Daniel Guérin observed in Fascism and Big Business (1936), here lay the ‘vital difference’ between socialism and fascism when it came to the seizure of power: the former is the class enemy of the bourgeois state, whereas ‘fascism is in the service of the class represented by the state’ – or at the very least it is initially welcomed and financially supported as such. Contemplating the ravages of neoliberalism-as-civil-war in the early twenty-first century, we should not forget that fascism first came to power in a civil war for economic liberalism.

Read on: Antonio Gramsci, ‘Soviets in Italy’, NLR I/51.


Worstward Ho?

Whatever else, the last 45 days in British politics have been hugely diverting. The Daily Star, a newspaper I had thought was long dead, has spent the last week publishing pictures of Liz Truss alongside those of a cabbage, encouraging readers to bet on which would go off first. And was I dreaming when I read the Survation poll which put Truss’s support at minus 70, making her almost as unpopular with the British public as Vladimir Putin? Last Monday, Penny Mordaunt, standing in for Truss at the dispatch box, felt the need to reassure MPs that the leader was not ‘hiding under a desk’. Backbenchers seated behind her tried hard not to giggle. Meanwhile a German newscaster took great delight in quoting a Tory MP who remarked, ‘I’m fucking furious and I don’t fucking care anymore.’ The French are mocking Truss by suggesting she will only be remembered for seeing off the Queen.

Having got rid of Johnson because they thought he would lose them the next election, the Tories accepted his choice of successor to avoid rewarding Sunak for wielding the knife. Had he no idea that she was incompetent, incapable of making basic decisions and frankly not very bright? Regardless, it didn’t take the country long to realize. Remember Heseltine bringing down Thatcher and Major reaping the reward?

The free-market ghouls Truss appointed as Chancellor and Home Secretary sat and watched as the pound collapsed and the market they worship booted them out, backed by a nervous claque of businessman, an assortment of Tory MPs and a panicky FT. The situation predicted by the media were Corbyn elected Prime Minister came to pass under a very different kind of administration. Evidently, the market would have preferred a chunk of the 2019 programme to the gibberish of the mini-budget and a Tory Party entirely out of touch with reality.

Rung yesterday by a Jamaican national broadcaster to comment on the shenanigans in Westminster, I was prepared:

On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on. Say for be said. Missaid. From now say for be missaid. Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still. All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

There was a silence: ‘Mr. Ali is that you? I’ll try again in case I got the wrong number.’

The words were obviously not mine. They were drawn from one of Beckett’s final texts, Worstward Ho. What for him was an expression of existential suffering has for us become the best description of a socio-political pathology which won’t go away with Truss or her successor. The outgoing PM is herself a symptom of this social crisis, shaped by Britain’s exhausted financialized economy, bankrupt post-imperial foreign policy, exclusionary parliamentary system and creaking multinational state. What the British ruling class needs is a real conservative government – with or without the capital C – to protect and stabilize this political order. In this sense Starmer would be more sellable than Sunak, since he can be framed as something new rather than something borrowed and something blue. Yet mimicking Thatcher has so far proven useless, and imitating Blair will be no better.

What can we look forward to over the next six months or so? Why the coronation, of course, for which Starmer has pledged to clear the decks and delay May Day. Surely the time has come for republican democracy. Let’s launch it with a huge street party in Whitehall and food banks galore outside the Banqueting Hall. And let’s look to the French, who are holding large assemblies in all the major cities to protest living conditions and threatening a general strike. How long until Britons follow their lead?

Read on: Arthur Scargill, ‘Proportional Representation: A Socialist Concept’, NLR I/158.


Ottoman Revival?

During a war in which most countries have either taken sides or remained silent, Turkey has positioned itself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine – seeking to negotiate with both Putin and Zelensky, and playing an important role in the semi-restitution of grain trade last summer. It has opposed Western sanctions on Russia, yet it has also limited Russian warships in the Black Sea. Such geopolitical manoeuvring – treading a fine line between Great Powers – is not confined to the current crisis, nor to Turkey’s bilateral relations with the two warring states. Rather, it is a reflection of Erdoğan’s broader foreign policy direction.  

Ever since the Arab Spring, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been reimagining the country as an independent actor: not simply a ‘bridge’ between the West and the rest, but a force that both the declining American empire and its emergent competitors must reckon with. This, however, is more an expression of fantasy than fact. As we shall see, the material basis for an autonomous Turkish foreign policy is weak, and domestic class dynamics are unfavourable. No matter how much Islamist media outlets try to promote their thin and mostly antisemitic version of ‘anti-imperialism’, it does not amount to a coherent overseas strategy. In the absence of such material and social anchors, the AKP’s search for independence ultimately amounts to a haphazard series of short-termist adventures.

This is in marked contrast to the country’s experience during the mid- to late-twentieth century. The Republic of Turkey’s first two decades were an early harbinger of Third Worldism, with all its merits and demerits. The Republican People’s Party (CHP, which ruled from 1923 to 1950) was dominated by Mustafa Kemal and his allies in the political centre, but it also had a left wing that sympathized with the Soviet Union and a right wing that drew on the European traditions of corporatism and fascism. Kemal revered most aspects of Western civilization, but he believed that the best way to catch up with the developed world was for Turkey to retain its independence. He also viewed individualism and class struggle as undesirable aspects of Western capitalist culture, which he sought to banish from the Turkish body politic. This campaign for substantive autonomy largely succeeded, but at the cost of a stagnant illiberalism which left Turkey devoid of both entrepreneurialism and civic anti-capitalism.

A principled alliance with the Soviet Union of the 1920s could have put Turkey on a steadier anti-imperialist path. Yet there was no proper class basis for such an alliance, since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire had decimated the bourgeoisie along with nascent labour movements, rendering the civic and military bureaucracy the most dynamic sector in this fledgling nation. As such, the onset of the Cold War quickly marginalized Turkey’s fragile anti-imperialist forces, while fear of Stalin drove the Kemalists into the arms of the West. This shift was not as abrupt as it appeared, though, since Kemal had himself always been hostile to Bolshevism – nipping left-wing organizing in the bud and restricting the space for trade union militancy.

The fruits of the CHP’s alliance with the West were NATO membership in 1952 and a prolonged (and ultimately unrealized) process of European integration. But it had other manifestations as well, such as Turkey’s vote against Algerian independence at the United Nations in 1955. With the rise of the Democrat Party – a liberal-conservative coalition opposed to the Kemalists’ top-down modernization programme, which governed between 1950 and 1960 – a militant Atlanticism replaced the CHP’s more cautious embrace of Western interests. Meanwhile, the 1940s and 50s witnessed the emergence of civic organizations of anti-communist militants, whose influence peaked over the following two decades. By then, Third Worldism had become an oppositional force, which the Turkish right lumped in with the ‘communist threat’.

Long before their fateful splits, the Islamists and proto-fascist Grey Wolves banded together in violent anti-communist gangs, which fought with leftists and anti-imperialists on the streets of the major cities. In 1969, when thousands of students turned out to protest against the American navy’s 6th Fleet, these gangs assisted the police in suppressing the demonstration, killing two and injuring many more. Until the Turkish and Kurdish Islamists themselves took a quasi-Third Worldist turn towards the end of the 1970s, such armed groups served as the main ‘popular’ bulwark against challenges to this alliance with the West.

Turkey’s default centre-right rulers of the last 75 years – the Democrat Party in the 1950s, Justice Party in the 60s and 70s, the Motherland Party in the 80s – mainstreamed this popular-reactionary anxiety concerning any kind of independence from the US empire. The most resonant political slogan of those decades, Ortanın Sol’u, Moskova’nın Yolu (which roughly translates as ‘left of center, the path to Moscow’), captured the mood – implying that even a vote for the CHP would inevitably lead to Turkey’s accession to the Eastern Bloc. The political establishment thus gave a blank check to Grey Wolf militants in their campaign to violently eradicate the anti-imperialist left. They attacked coffee houses, bus stations and homes, assassinating union leaders and socialist organizers throughout the 1970s. Towards the end of the decade, this terror campaign expanded to the provinces and countryside, culminating in ethnic and religious pogroms including the massacre of more than 100 Alevis in two days in the provincial town of Maraş. Left-wing militants began to defend themselves, and their small armed units rapidly turned into undisciplined mass organizations.

The 1980 coup, led by Kenan Evren, the commander of a US-backed anti-communist guerrilla force, sealed Turkey’s marriage to the West. Its explicit aim was to end ‘left–right clashes’ (the official euphemism for the Grey Wolves’ killing spree and the left’s retaliation); but its real purpose was the implementation of a Chilean-style neoliberal policy package. To consolidate their power, the generals hanged and tortured several right-wing militants and leaders, but the left bore the brunt of their repression. Evren’s coup was largely modelled on Pinochet’s. Yet, thanks to the strong civic traditions of the Turkish right, the military ultimately agreed to govern alongside civilians from 1983, except in Turkish Kurdistan. At this point, military officers trained and funded by the US allied with burgeoning warlords and gained de facto control over the east and southeast of the country, deploying some of the most brutal counter-insurgency techniques of the Cold War against leftists and Kurdish insurgents. By the mid-1990s, this campaign had evolved into a full scale civil war. The civilian government changed hands several times, but the elected administrations were either unable or unwilling to de-escalate the conflict. 

After the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the military’s counter-insurgency campaign was rendered largely redundant in most of the country, as there was no longer an organized socialist movement to suppress. But the growing popularity of the Kurdish guerilla forces extended its shelf life in the east. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) became the most powerful player in the Kurdish resistance, once all its competitors – armed or peaceful – were eradicated; and it remains locked in an ongoing conflict with the central government. All in all, the violence has left around 40,000 dead and created an ethnic rift between Turks and Kurds which remains unhealed today. It also served to marginalize the country’s democratic forces. A brief upsurge of student, feminist, environmentalist and labour movements, roughly spanning 1987-95, proved unable to sustain itself amid these harsh conditions, and failed to offer a unifying vision for the country.

The civil war thus unravelled any political bloc capable of questioning Turkey’s submission to the West. Like Black or Hispanic kids in white American schools, Turkey came to play the role of ‘token minority’ in Fortress Europe and NATO. Its proximity to these institutions was held up as proof that liberal imperialism was more tolerant of religious, ethnic and racial differences than it appeared. Turkey provided troops for the occupation of Afghanistan and played an auxiliary role in the conquest of Iraq – making it more difficult for critics to frame these wars as anti-Muslim crusades.

As the country’s pro-Western consensus calcified in the new millenium, it became almost impossible to mount a progressive opposition to EU membership, viewed by both liberals and sections of the left as the most realistic hope for democratizing the Turkish political system. Criticism of the EU was mostly relegated to far right nationalists and ultra-Kemalists, while NATO membership was considered non-negotiable. Thousands turned out to protest against the wars in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, but most shied away from demanding Turkish withdrawal from Western-led military and security organizations.

At this juncture, Turkish Islamists began to outflank the pro-Westernism of the secular political class. From the 70s to the 90s, quasi-Third Worldist Islamists had organized under the banner of the National Salvation Party (MSP) and Welfare Party (RP), whereas pro-NATO Islamic communities had predominantly voted for the mainstream parties. Yet the integration of the small merchant base of the MSP-RP into world markets initiated a process of political and cultural liberalization, paving the way for the unabashedly pro-Western policies of the AKP.

Founded in 2001, the AKP managed to unite these two factions of the Muslim vote, bringing them together in a Western-oriented bloc. Whereas the previous Islamic establishment had given elaborate theological justifications for supporting NATO, the increasingly bourgeois AKP had less need for scriptural exegesis. Its ideology – more neo-Ottoman than Islamist – was a blend of pragmatic, conservative and imperial discourses. Ahmet Davutoğlu became the main ideologue of this new Islamism. A former professor of political science and international relations, he served as an advisor to Erdoğan in the 2000s, then as foreign minister between 2009 and 2014, and finally as prime minister until 2016.

However, two developments would alter the AKP’s geopolitical calculus in the early 2010s. The first was the global financial crisis. After 2008, the government could no longer count on the flow of hot cash from abroad, and increasingly resorted to state capitalist tools, which almost always went hand-in-hand with the expansion of the military apparatus. This state-capitalist turn began to undermine Davutoğlu’s liberal imperialism, if imperceptibly at first. Political-military control of industry eroded the formal independence of the pious bourgeoisie, on which Davutoğlu’s pro-Western policy depended. Gradually, Turkey’s overseas outlook began to shift with these domestic realignments.

The second decisive factor was the Arab Spring. In 2011, there initially appeared to be an opening for Davutoğlu’s soft power approach, which aimed to peacefully export the Turkish model, first to Arab nations and then to the rest of the Muslim world. The AKP hoped that the uprisings would entrench its favorite binary opposition, between Islamic liberals and secular dictators. With this in mind, Erdoğan visited Egypt with an army of Turkish businessmen, hoping to gain greater access to Middle Eastern markets. Yet the sectarianization of the uprisings precluded this outcome. In Syria and Yemen, as elsewhere, civil unrest degenerated into wars between Sunni and Shia populations. This, in turn, prompted the AKP to abandon its dream of pan-Islamic influence and fall back on its default anti-Shiite position, arming murderous Sunni groups throughout the region. At the same time, the AKP responded to the growing movement for Kurdish regional autonomy by integrating the Grey Wolves – as well as some of the ultra-Kemalist soldiers it had purged in the late 2000s – into its governing coalition. These militarist forces proceeded to launch countless incursions into Iraqi and Syrian territory. In this new world, Davutoğlu’s liberal-democratic project was rendered obsolete. His relations with Erdoğan deteriorated, and he was forced to resign in 2016.

In contrast to the Davutoğlu era, the latest iteration of the AKP lacks a sound ideological basis for its foreign policy. Erdoğanists have been forced to adopt the quasi-Third Worldist themes of yesteryear’s Islamism, while attempting to reconcile them with the imperialist outlook of the Turkish right, which typically manifests in fantasies of reviving the Ottoman Empire, uniting Turkic nations of Asia with Turkey, or building pan-Islamist unity across the globe. In recent years, the AKP has drawn on these themes in an ad hoc and unsystematic manner. Turkey’s Islamist newspapers are full of analyses of Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Latin American alternatives to US hegemony, which haphazardly draw on World Systems Theory and other anti-imperialist schools of thought. None of these nations is glorified (indeed, Iran is viewed as Turkey’s Shiite arch-enemy), but they are nevertheless seen as important experiments that Turkey could learn from and build on. One concrete policy that has emerged from this disjointed ideological landscape is the so-called ‘Blue Homeland’ project, which seeks to redefine the Eastern Mediterranean (including the Black Sea and Azov Sea, and stretching all the way to Tunisia) as a Sunni-Turkic possession. The AKP’s current ambition is to bring the natural resources and trade routes of this region under its control.

It is through this hodgepodge of references that Turkey can view Russia as a legitimate partner, yet retain a strong suspicion of its foreign policy decisions. The AKP claims that it does not have to choose between Russia and the US; it can strike deals with Putin while simultaneously presenting itself as Ukraine’s saviour. Yet such bombast flies in the face of Turkey’s real geopolitical position. It remains militarily and economically dependent on the West – and, to a lesser extent, on the Russian energy sector and Arab oil wealth. The regime’s state-capitalist turn may have freed up some resources for independent manoeuvring; but the Turkish economy is still highly restricted by its existing trade routes and partnerships. It therefore lacks a reliable basis for imperial adventures. Without a sturdy state capitalism and a sound intellectual vision, the aspiring imperialists of the AKP cannot assert their control over the Eastern Mediterranean, nor over parts of the Middle East and Caucuses, into which they have made some brief and ineffective forays. When push comes to shove, Turkey’s most consequential policies are decided elsewhere. For instance, in late September 2022, Erdoğan was forced to tow Washington’s line and withdraw from a Russian-led payment system – despite the deleterious effects of this decision on the domestic economy.

However, the AKP’s disingenuous assertion of strategic independence still has obvious payoffs. Erdoğan’s pledge that Turkey will become an imperial power – bolstered by its operations in Syria and Iraq – helps to galvanize his right-wing base and disarm the opposition. The Kemalists (still represented primarily by the CHP), the secular offshoots of the Grey Wolves (İyi Parti), and the liberal Islamists (Babacan’s DEVA and Davutoğlu’s Gelecek Partisi), all line up behind the AKP whenever ‘national security’ is at stake. By failing to articulate an alternative foreign policy, these doggedly pro-NATO forces offer little more than a revival of the AKP’s early years, where liberal democracy, free markets and Atlanticism were articles of faith. Given how much the world has changed since 2002, it is doubtful whether this could constitute a governing vision fit for the 2020s.

Internationally, too, the major benefit of the AKP’s foreign policy is buying time while the US empire declines and its rivals advance at an unpredictable pace. Erdoğanists hope that the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative will provide new resources for Turkey and more freedom from the West. Some in Erdoğan’s coterie even think that Turkey could one day replicate the Chinese path to development. Yet the party has so far refrained from adopting any Chinese-style oversight of major industry. Here, too, postponing any reckoning with Turkey’s place in the shifting sands of world capitalism is the greatest strength of the AKP’s strategy. Where this will ultimately lead is still uncertain. But it’s clear that neither a principled anti-imperialism, nor an ability to intervene in inter-imperialist rivalry, will flow from Erdoğan’s confused worldview.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘Turkey at the Crossroads?’, NLR 127.


Scientific Capitalism

Of the six scientists awarded the Nobel Prize this year, three for Physics and Chemistry respectively, four had already founded their own companies. Here, in all its splendour, we observe the contemporary figure of the ‘scientist-entrepreneur’, where the stress falls on ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘scientist’ has a merely descriptive function. This figure – not new per se, but recent in its codification – has long been promoted by the world’s universities. It is a synthesis of the two paradigms of our time, neoliberalism, in which human beings are defined as entrepreneurs, of themselves if nothing else; and the neo-feudalism of a cognitive aristocracy, whereby alleged superiority of knowledge or competence entitles a select few to rule over the ignorant masses. Science departments today tirelessly exhort their faculty to become versed in the arcane business of funding procurement, and to pursue areas of inquiry that may be attractive to venture capital. More than a scientist-entrepreneur, the researcher today is becoming a scientific entrepreneur, in the same way one might be a real estate or a textile entrepreneur.

Now it seems that this ideal is favoured by the jurors of the Swedish Academy. This year’s Prize in Physics rewarded the research into an obscure, esoteric quantum property that puzzled even Einstein (who famously called it ‘spooky action at a distance’). Obscure, yes, but with potentially revolutionary applications in the field of quantum computing and therefore highly appealing to investors. It is no surprise, then, that two of the three laureates were entrepreneurs: John Clauser, founder of J. F. Clauser & Associates, and Alain Aspect, co-founder of PASQAL. The three Chemistry laureates were meanwhile recognized for their ‘development of a new method for assembling new molecules’. The technique, called ‘click chemistry’, makes the joining of molecules together simple and efficient. Here again, two were entrepreneurs. Morten Meldal co-founded Betamab Therapeutics in 2019, and perhaps the most emblematic case is Carolyn Bertozzi, who, having served for some time on the scientific committees of pharmaceutical giants such as GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly, founded a host of startups that, for indicative purposes, are worth listing in full: Thios Pharmaceuticals (2001); Redwood Bioscience (2008), which was subsequently bought by Catalent Pharma Solutions (2014) though Bertozzi remains on its scientific committee; Enable Biosciences (2014); Palleon Pharma (2015); InterVenn Biosciences (2017) and finally OilLux Biosciences and Lycia Therapeutics (2019).

It is no coincidence that Bertozzi is the most entrepreneurial of this year’s prize-winners: her contribution was precisely to have found a way to apply ‘click chemistry’ to biological molecules. Over the last forty years, biology is the scientific field that has most fully embraced entrepreneurship precisely because it is directly connected with genetic engineering (note the industrial-technological term ‘engineering’). In his book Editing Humanity (2020), the founding editor of Nature Genetics Kevin Davies describes the discovery, patenting and subsequent exploitation of a new technique to cut and sew – to edit, essentially – the DNA of living organisms. The technique is known as CRISPR gene editing, an unwieldy acronym for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’. Its pioneers, microbiologist Emanuelle Charpentier and biochemist Jennifer Doudna, developed the technique in 2012 (and were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020). Shortly after, other scientists improved the procedure, unleashing a vast and ferocious legal battle over patents which still rages on a decade later.

In 2013, Charpentier founded her first biotechnology firm, and in 2014 her second, ERS Genomics. Doudna was even more enterprising: before even making the new technique public she founded Caribou Biosciences (2011); afterwards she jumped ship to found Editas Medicine (2013), the first publicly traded CRISPR company, which is funded by Bill Gates among others. She left when rivals managed to appropriate a substantial part of the patent, founding Intellia Technologies (2014) in response, then Mammoth Biosciences (2017). In his book, Kevin Davies outlines no less than forty startups connected in one way or another to the CRISPR procedure.

Evidently, the Nobel Prize acts as a seal of quality for venture capital, which then encourages the laureate to commercialize their innovation. For example, Eric Betzig won the prize for Chemistry in 2014 for his pioneering work on super-resolved microscopy and recently co-founded Eikon Therapeutics (2021), which seeks to apply the results of his research. But as we’ve seen from Doudna and the rest of this year’s medallists, not all researchers wait for the Nobel before launching their own startup. Take the German physicist Theodor Hänsch, who received the prize in 2005 for his work on the optical frequency comb technique in spectroscopy. Some three years prior Hansch co-founded the firm Menlo Systems, which used this method to manufacture products for the market. That is, if one estimates the future profitability of a discovery, it is simply financial foresight to launch one’s company while you wait for the Nobel stamp of approval.

A leader in a given field throwing themselves into commercial ventures and stock exchange listings then has knock-on effects, encouraging their disciples, assistants and students to do likewise. A cycle develops that favours academics who know how to attract funding and who therefore, even before becoming full-blown entrepreneurs, are already effective company managers, fostering those protégés and projects that tend towards commercialization. Already in 2006, a study by the Max Planck Society found that that one in four scientists who patent their results also establish their own business. The neoliberal character of this dynamic is hardly accidental: the explosion of biotech firms (which, along with IT companies, constitute the overwhelming majority of ‘scientific’ startups) coincided with the triumph of Reaganism.

In his classic study of the invention of PCR (polymerase chain reaction, a procedure used for rapidly copying extracts of DNA) the anthropologist Paul Rabinow wrote that the year Reagan came to power:

the Supreme Court of the United States ruled by a vote of 5 to 4 that new life forms fell under the jurisdiction of federal patent law. Until the 1980s, patents had generally been granted only in applied domains… the Patent and Trademark Office had tended to restrict patents to operable inventions, not ideas… Finally, it was generally held that living organisms and cells were ‘products of nature’ and consequently not patentable. The requirement that patent protection be extended to the invention of ‘new forms’ did not seem to apply to organisms (plants excepted).

That same year, Congress passed the Patent and Trademark Amendment Act ‘to prompt efforts to develop a uniform policy that would encourage cooperative relationship between universities and industries, and ultimately take government-sponsored inventions off the shelf into the marketplace’. The result? From 1980 to 1984, during Reagan’s first term, ‘patent applications from universities in relevant human biological domains rose 300 per cent’. The patentability of genetic modification was clarified nine years ago:

On June 13th, 2013, in the case of the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that human genes cannot be patented in the US because DNA is a ‘product of nature’. The Court decided that because nothing new is created when discovering a gene, there is no intellectual property to protect, so patents cannot be granted. Prior to this ruling, more than 4,300 human genes were patented. The Supreme Court’s decision invalidated those gene patents, making the genes accessible for research and for commercial genetic testing. The Supreme Court’s ruling did allow that DNA manipulated in a lab is eligible to be patented because DNA sequences altered by humans are not found in nature. The Court specifically mentioned the ability to patent a type of DNA known as complementary DNA (cDNA). This synthetic DNA is produced from the molecule that serves as the instructions for making proteins (called messenger RNA).

Now is not the time for a wider discussion of intellectual property (what would happen if mathematical theorems were patentable? To begin with, mathematicians would be pushed into concealing the proofs of a given theorem…but Occam’s razor forbids us to proceed in this direction). Nor of the concept of nature, which has been deformed by these legal rulings and the technical-industrial practice they have spawned. Instead, let us focus on the relationship between science and profit that we’ve so far been delineating.

One may assume that in the past, scientists were entirely disinterested, before being transformed into venal accumulators by the neoliberal revolution. Not quite. It is true that many have been motivated by a simple ‘love of science’ (I am thinking here for example of the physicist Paul Dirac or the mathematician Niels Henrik Abel), and that to act ‘in a scientific field is to be placed in conditions in which one has an interest in disinterest, in particular because lack of interest is rewarded’ (Bourdieu). But there were scientists in the past who gained a great deal from ‘pure science’. Without reaching for extreme cases such as the chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-73), immortalized for inventing the stock cube, or the physicist William Thompson (known as Lord Kelvin, 1824-1907), who amassed a great fortune thanks to his discoveries, the French biologist Louis Pasteur offers a good example.

Pasteur was always attentive to the agriculture and industrial dimensions of his research. He was the first to patent (among other things) the pasteurization of milk, then of wine and beer, and accumulated a fortune of one million francs by the time he died. In spite of this, however, Pasteur was celebrated as the purest of scientists, the disinterested scientist par excellence. What explains this? It should be noted that the notion of ‘pure science’ really takes hold in the second half of the nineteenth century. ‘Pure science’ is invoked by jurists, agronomists, philosophers of art, naturalists, chemists (the chemist Berthelot, speaking of the colours extracted from carbon, commented that ‘their discovery is the triumph of pure science’). As historian of science Guillaume Carnino writes,

If ‘pure science’ shows itself to be so transdisciplinary, it’s because it’s none other than the rhetorical expression of an aspiration that belongs to the academic world as a whole: the autonomy of research. But for the majority of scientists, the purity they ascribe to science does not contradict its very real entanglement in the market. Far from being devoid of any lucrative or moral intentions, the pure science of the 1860-80s allowed for the possibility of its application in industry… it’s not a question of counterposing disinterested science to applied science, but rather to demonstrate that the two proceed from the same logic, and that we must leave the field open to the most incongruous, academic and seemingly less ‘applicable’ of research projects in order to reap any economic benefits it might bring. The purer the science, the more profitable its outcome. The argument is astounding because it justifies the autonomy of the academy in the name of profit and material gain, and yet it’s effective and appears regularly in the writings of faculty members… Now, given that the condition for the existence of pure science is none other than disinterested research — the remuneration of scientists, that is, who dedicate themselves entirely to research they are passionate about — it’s suddenly convenient to preserve and foster, at any cost, that revered substance that seems to constitute the very spirit of the university. Put otherwise, the purity of science guarantees the interest that industrialists, governments and nations will find in it.

The problem of the neoliberal revolution is not, therefore, that scientists have become venal when once they were angelic. It is that while money was previously a side-effect of scientific inquiry, now it is its main purpose (grammatically speaking, scientist used to be the noun, entrepreneur the adjective; now it’s the opposite). And, typically, the moment scientists start profiting, they stop doing science.

The wildest example is that of the world-famous mathematician Jim Simons: his research into Riemannian topological varieties has found application in quantum physics, earning him numerous awards. In 1982, Simons used his mathematical research to develop an investment algorithm that exploited the inefficiencies of financial markets, and founded a hedge fund called Renaissance Technologies (its flagship fund is called Medallion, in sardonic reference to Simons’ various prizes). Simons has been referred to as ‘the world’s greatest investor’ and ‘the most successful fund manager of all time’. His personal fortune is estimated at around $25 billion. When he retired in 2010, his place was taken by Robert Mercer, an inveterate partisan of the far right, founder of Cambridge Analytica (renowned for its role in the Brexit campaign and Trump’s election) and a major funder of Breitbart News. In spite of some recent tax trouble with the IRS, Simons is still widely respected as a great philanthropist. If Marx coined the term ‘scientific socialism’, Simons can boast of having implemented scientific capitalism.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Michael Sprinker, ‘The Royal Road’, NLR I/191.


Us and Them

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s strong result in the first round of this year’s French presidential elections showed that left populism is not a short ‘parenthesis’ to be followed by a return to a more traditional form of class politics. Of course, the ‘hot’ populist moment we witnessed in the last decade in Western Europe has now passed, and several of its standard-bearers – Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn’s Labour – have suffered setbacks. But that does not mean left populism has become obsolete. It would be wrong to dismiss a political strategy solely because some of its adherents did not achieve their objectives on the first attempt. Politics, as Max Weber reminds us, is a ‘strong and slow boring of hard boards’.

To be sure, Mélenchon was defeated in the presidential elections of 10 April, but he improved on his 2017 result, winning 21.95% against Marine Le Pen’s 23.15%, and missed qualifying for the final round by only 420,000 votes. If the Parti communiste français had not insisted in running its own candidate, Mélenchon may well have closed this narrow gap. It could of course be argued that Mélenchon achieved this vote share because he relinquished his previous populist strategy in favour of the classical one of left unity. From this perspective, the creation of the Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (NUPES), the electoral alliance which brought together Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI), the Socialists (PS), the Greens (EELV) and the Communists (PCF), could be seen as proof that he is no longer pursuing a populist rupture.

To assess the validity of this claim, it is necessary to clarify the meaning of ‘left populism’. We could start with the formal approach developed by Ernesto Laclau in On Populist Reason (2005). Populism, he writes, is a strategy of constructing a political frontier that divides society into two camps, ‘us’ and ‘them’, and calling for the mobilization of the ‘underdog’ against the ‘powerful’. The ideological and institutional content of this struggle is highly contingent. It depends on how the frontier is established, as well as the socio-economic structures and historical-geographical contexts in which it is inscribed. There is no simple opposition between a righteous ‘people’ and a corrupt layer of ‘elites’, conceived as pre-existing empirical entities. Rather, this binary can be constructed in a variety of ways – which is what generates the myriad distinctions between left- and right-wing populism.

A left-populist strategy recognizes that society is inherently divided and insists on the partisan nature of politics. In this sense it accords with the Marxian approach, but it differs in the way the frontier is constructed. According to orthodox Marxism, this frontier is based on the relations of production, and pits the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. For left populism, however, the social agent is seen as the locus of multiple ‘subject positions’ that correspond to the different social relations in which he or she is inserted, and there is no reason to attribute a priori a privilege to the class position. This is why, although it has a class dimension, the populist frontier is not constructed on a class basis.

The constitution of the underdog, the ‘people’, relies on establishing a ‘chain of equivalence’ which articulates a variety of struggles against domination, exploitation and discrimination. This articulation is secured by a ‘hegemonic signifier’ – for instance, a charismatic leader or collective movement around whom common affects can crystallize. Because social agents have multiple subject positions, an ‘us’ or ‘collective will’ can only arise through such a chain of equivalence, which allows unity to emerge from difference. It is not a question of homogenizing diverse political demands, but of making them ‘equivalent’ thanks to their opposition to a common adversary and joint inscription in a collective project. Moreover, a left populist strategy does not call for a radical break with the political institutions of pluralist liberal democracy and the foundation of a totally new political order. It engages with the existing political institutions to profoundly transform them through democratic procedures. It is a strategy of ‘radical reformism’ that differs both from the strategies of the revolutionary left and the sterile reformism of social liberals.

Given this general framework, can LFI’s strategy in the last election be defined as ‘left populist’? Did it involve the construction of a chain of equivalence? Let’s consider the different aspects of the 2022 campaign. As far as the crucial move is concerned, the drawing of a political frontier dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’, there was no ambiguity. The radically divisive character of the LFI project was openly affirmed, and its main adversary clearly designated: the neoliberal system and the bloc of Macronist forces associated with it. As for the construction of the ‘us’, LFI, by presenting itself under the banner of Union Populaire, indicated that its objective was to create a ‘people’ beyond traditional left political forces. The aim of the Parlement, presided over by Aurélie Trouvé, was to connect the party with social movements existing in various spheres of society. To this end, Mélenchon’s programme L’avenir en commun addressed not only socio-economic relations of exploitation but also antagonisms in the fields of gender, race, and other forms of discrimination. It was particularly strong with respect to ecological issues, advocating a radical decarbonization programme as well as an ambitious state-led green transition. While demanding the democratization of the French political institutions and the inauguration of a Sixth Republic, LFI’s programme did not jettison the republican institutional framework. On this level, mainstream depictions of LFI as ‘extreme left’ were entirely disingenuous.

If we add to those considerations the fact that Mélenchon’s campaigns have always been characterised by a strong emphasis on the role of affects and the importance of mobilizing them to create a collective will, we can confidently assert that the strategy that LFI deployed in the French elections was an iteration of left populism. Further, the supposition that NUPES is simply a social democratic coalition, in which each participant retains its own specific programme, can be easily rebutted. In fact, NUPES presented an electoral platform organized under the hegemony of LFI, which was able to secure agreement on the main pillars of its agenda: the minimum wage, the retirement age, environmental planning and a wealth tax. The PS and EELV were even forced to accept the possibility of disobeying European treatises which may have hindered the realization of such measures. An alliance established in this manner does not signal a fundamental change of objective. It rather indicates an attempt to bolster the chances of obtaining an electoral majority by ensuring that the progressive vote was not split.

Alas, it did not work out. But it was nonetheless thanks to the existence of the NUPES and the energy of its activists that Macron was denied an absolute majority in the National Assembly. NUPES became the second-largest grouping, with 151 seats to Ensemble’s 245. LFI picked up votes from disenchanted Macron supporters in urban areas, as well as immigrant communities and overseas territories, increasing its representation from 17 to 75 deputies; an excellent result, even though it was eclipsed by an unexpected breakthrough for Le Pen, whose Rassemblement National won 89 seats, making inroads into former Communist strongholds. The election outcome sparked a debate within LFI about ‘those who are missing’ from the left bloc. As Mélenchon’s campaign manager Manuel Bompard acknowledged, the results could have conveyed the false impression that LFI had adopted the strategy of Terra Nova: a think-tank close to the Socialist Party, which in 2011 recommended focussing the left’s energies on winning over the educated, the young and ethnic minorities while abandoning the white working classes to the Front National. Surveying the results, LFI deputy Francois Ruffin voiced his concern that, while the party had made gains among the young, the middle classes and the working-class sectors of the suburbs, they had failed to make any headway in la France périphérique: small towns, rural municipalities and declining former industrial belts, the ‘France of the Gilets Jaunes’.

This is where Le Pen consistently received her best scores, precisely because she offered a discourse that resonated with the demands for security and protection found in parts of France that have most suffered from the consequences of market-led globalization. Having accepted the mantra of There Is No Alternative, the forces of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ have been signally unable to speak to these demands, instead viewing them as obstacles to modernization. This laid the terrain for the Front National to frame them in nationalist-xenophobic terms, and present itself as the ‘voice of the people’. To recover these popular sectors – who feel that Le Pen’s party is the only one that cares for them – the left must realize that many of the demands that are currently expressed in a nationalist discourse have a democratic nucleus that could be retrieved. Such demands do not imply adopting a view of sovereignty based on exclusionary nationalism. By drawing the frontier of us/them in a manner that does not oppose ‘true nationals’ to migrants, these demands might be addressed in an egalitarian manner that aims to protect people from the destructive reign of capital.

Lamentably, there is a tendency among some on the left to adopt a posture of superiority towards those who vote for Le Pen. Instead of trying to apprehend the complex reasons for their attachment to her party, their attitude is one of outright rejection and moral condemnation. They accuse RN voters of being inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, and as representing the ‘return of fascism’. However, it would be entirely counterproductive to react to the election results by calling for the creation of anti-fascist front. This would have the disastrous consequence of establishing the political frontier in a way that puts LFI in the same camp as Macron and the neoliberal bloc, arrayed against Le Pen’s so-called forces of fascism. Such a strategy would foreclose any possibility of recovering those decisive sectors of the working class. The challenge for LFI is rather to build a ‘people’ that is the expression of a genuine popular bloc, capable of forming a social majority. This requires consolidating and expanding the support that it has already established, as well as reaching those who have lost faith in political action and taken refuge in abstention. It is also imperative not to neglect the popular sectors ‘who are missing’ or dismiss them as ‘unreachable’.

In the present conjuncture of climate emergency, it is also crucial for left-populist strategy to address the question of the survival and habitability of the planet. The ecological bifurcation advocated by LFI could act as the hegemonic principle necessary for articulating social struggles alongside environmental ones. However, to play that role, the ecological project cannot be conceived as simply a set of policies. For ideas or policies to have force, they must mobilize affects that connect with the dominant social imaginary. Policies alone do not have the capacity to generate the collective will necessary for the implementation of a green transition. Which is why, in my forthcoming book, I propose giving the ecological bifurcation affective force by envisaging it in terms of a ‘Green Democratic Revolution’: that is, as a new front in the radicalization of democracy. By activating the democratic imaginary, a green programme could carry affects that are more powerful than competing liberal discourses. It would play the role of a ‘myth’ in Sorel’s sense: an idea whose power to anticipate the future confers new meaning on the present.

A Green Democratic Revolution would defend society and its conditions of existence in a way that empowers people, instead of encouraging them to retreat into defensive nationalism or passive acceptance of algorithmic forms of governmentality. With neoliberals trying to exploit socio-economic and climatic crises to impose authoritarian technological solutions, such a vision could resonate with a wide range of democratic demands and enhance the attraction of LFI’s programme.

Marco D’Eramo, ‘Populism and the New Oligarchy’, NLR 82.


Recourse to History

The French writer Éric Vuillard’s latest book, Une sortie honorable, opens with a brief lesson in colonial vocabulary. In a travel guide to French Indochina published in 1923, after an advertisement for a Hanoi-based gunsmith, vacationers find a list of phrases to help them communicate with the locals: ‘go find a rickshaw, speed up, slow down, turn right, turn left, turn around, put up the hood, take down the hood, wait for me here for a moment, drive me to the bank, to the jewellers, to the café, to the police station, to the plantation.’ The list of commands is not only testament to the brazen arrogance of colonial tourists. As Vuillard put it in a recent interview, it displays a ‘grammar of servitude’. The vocabulary ultimately ‘traces a geography of conquest: the bank, the police station, the plantation’, key sites in the colonial topography Vuillard’s book outlines, which also includes political assembly halls, military camps and television studios. Together, they make up what Vuillard – drawing on Marcel Mauss – refers to as the ‘total social fact’ of colonialism.

Une sortie honorable draws on many such sources in its account of the final years of the French occupation. Its narrative is broadly oriented around two pivotal defeats: the Battle of Cao Bằng in 1950, which marked the beginning of the end, and the fall of Diên Biên Phu in 1954. The exception is the opening and concluding chapters. The former recounts a disturbing visit by colonial labour inspectors to a Michelin rubber plantation outside of Saigon in 1928; the latter Saigon’s fall in April 1975. The book’s tragic-ironic title is taken from a directive given by the President of the French Council of Ministers, René Mayer, to General Henri Lavare upon the latter’s nomination to take over military action in 1953: ‘The situation in Indochina is quite simply disastrous,’ Mayer confides. ‘The war is as good as lost. The best we can hope for is an honourable exit.’

Mayer and Lavare are among the many figures that people what Vuillard intends as a ‘little comédie humaine, with planters, politicians, generals, bankers, all sorts of characters.’ Vuillard’s portraiture is highly caricatural, leading critics to reach for Rabelais and Daumier in comparison. Une sortie honorable goes to some lengths for instance to mock Édouard Herriot, who presided over a National Assembly meeting in the days following Cao Bằng and is depicted as a lumbering turkey, while, in the final moments of the siege on Diên Biên Phu, General de Castries is shown hiding in his barracks and shitting in his helmet (‘Don’t shoot me!’ he is said to have cried when he was discovered). The personal pasts of politicians, officers, and industrialists are plundered for family ties, nepotism, and remnants of a dynastic order which binds them together as a class or, as Vuillard puts it, a ravenous body:

We see clearly that we’re always walking in the same paths, that we’re always tying the same threads around the same puppets, and these are not the iron wires binding famished wrists, they are golden threads connecting and reconnecting the same names, the same interests, and we retrace endlessly the same nerves, the same muscles, in order that in the end all blood abounds in the same heart.

Heroes are rather few, besides the implicit, yet only indirectly rendered collective protagonist of the Việt Minh. There is Pierre Mendès France, whose ineffectual assembly floor speech against the war Vuillard portrays favourably (he would, in fact, go on to negotiate withdrawal as Prime Minister after Dien Bien Phu), and the communist deputy Abderrahmane-Chréif Djemad, who rails against France’s sacrificial treatment of Algerian, Moroccan and other colonial soldiers in the war, only to be ignored. But heroes are not the point of Une sortie honorable: the characters who interest Vuillard most are those pulling the strings from the banks, boardrooms and political assemblies.

The action of Une sortie honorable is largely split between discussions in the halls of power in Paris and their disastrous effects in Vietnam. By juxtaposing the rich and powerful in the metropole with the oppressed in Indochina, Vuillard hopes to evoke what he calls ‘the very heart of the colonial enterprise’. In order ‘to paint a more complete, more terrible portrait’ of life in Vietnam, he has explained, he had ‘to try to hold together two worlds’, ‘these two sides of social life’: ‘one of forced labour, violent treatment, tortured coolies, and another of government assembly meetings and hushed board of directors gatherings… to put Assommoir with L’Argent, Coupeau in front of Saccard, the manual labourer next to the banker.’

For Vuillard, literature has the power to connect these seemingly disparate worlds into an intelligible whole, and this has been the ambition of his own writing of the past decade. In both its historical subject matter and formal experimentation this has represented something of a departure from his early work. Born in Lyon in 1968, Vuillard has written eleven books (as well as directed three films). The style of his first works – Le Chasseur (1999), Bois Vert (2002), Tohu (2005) – is poetic and allusive, but Vuillard eventually abandoned this mode with his first properly historical literary work, Conquistadors (2009), an account of Pizarro’s conquest of Peru. Seven short works – ‘récits’ as they are labelled– have since appeared in quick succession. ‘Récit’ has no direct translation in English, but often denotes formally self-referential literary works, in which the act of writing is foregrounded, and the reader is not allowed to forget the constructed nature of the text. This describes Vuillard’s style quite precisely. Its effect is rather like being led by the hand from one historical scene to the next, with Vuillard a whispering guide pointing out keyholes and back entrances. Vuillard describes his technique as ‘a manner of indicating that throughout literary history, it’s not fiction which dominates, but reality’. Or put otherwise, in the ‘historical récit’, literary form provides a means to bring history to the fore.

The works that Vuillard has produced since this historical turn have been remarkably wide-ranging. La Bataille d’occident (2012) and Congo (2012) concerned, respectively, the vested interests behind World War I and the 1884 Berlin Conference and its aftermath in the Congo. These were followed by La Tristesse de la terre (2014), which explored the protracted dispossession and near-extermination of American Indians, refracted through the life of the buffalo poacher-turned-showman Buffalo Bill. Next Vuillard immersed himself in the origins of the French Revolution in 14 Juillet (2016), retelling the siege of Bastille from below. After that came the L’Ordre du jour (2017), which dramatizes the role of bankers and industrialists in Hitler’s rise, and then in Germany’s occupation of Austria in 1938, and which was awarded the Prix Goncourt. Vuillard’s last book, La Guerre des pauvres (2019), which was shortlisted for the International Booker prize – bringing him increased visibility in the anglosphere – is devoted to the peasant revolt led by Thomas Müntzer in 16th century Southern Germany. Each of these books aims to illuminate structural relationships of social inequality and oppression in what Vuillard terms the ‘history of domination’. (This concern also animates his public engagements, as in recent articles and interviews in support of NUPES (in Libération), striking workers at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (in L’Humanité), and against the extradition of the Italian militant Vincenzo Vecchi (in the Nouvel Observateur.)

As a critic from the French journal Ballast observed, Vuillard’s oeuvre contains two general tendencies: accounts of ‘revolts led by an anonymous or unknown peoples (14 Juilliet, La Guerre des pauvres)’ and stories about ‘the criminal detachment with which rulers and industrialists make decisions that lead to the worst violence and conflicts (Conquistadors, Congo, L’Ordre du jour).’ To this we might add a third tendency: a commitment to both staging and dismantling a presentation of history as spectacle. In La Tristesse de la terre, for instance, the line between reality and performance becomes blurred as Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull and others play themselves in the revisionist ‘Wild West Show’ which travelled through the US and Europe staging (and rewriting) old west battles. And in Une sortie honorable – arguably the finest synthesis of the three tendencies – a central chapter is dedicated to a farcical restaging of General Jean De Lattre De Tassigny’s appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press in 1951 during his American tour in search of military aid. Vuillard is also drawn to theatre as a metaphor when discussing what happens ‘behind the scenes’ of history in boardrooms and backchannels. ‘Imagine actors who never return to being themselves,’ he writes of a meeting of the directors of the Bank of Indochina. ‘They would eternally play their roles.’

How does Vuillard select his subject matter? He insists that he does not make an a priori decision to take up a particular historical episode. Rather, his works grow out of chance encounters with stories that disturb him: ‘I read, I watch films, I watch documentaries, photos, and it happens that I encounter something which unsettles me and gives me the incentive to write.’ The stimulus for Une sortie honorable was a 43-second film by the Frères Lumière titled ‘Annamite Children Gathering Sapèques in front of the Ladies’ Pagoda’ (1899–1900). In the film two women in white dresses laugh as they toss sapèques (French colonial currency) to a group of Vietnamese children in rags, who scramble to catch the coins, until one child stops short and turns to gaze sternly into the camera. As Vuillard put it, ‘he gazes across time’. The child’s disquieting gaze ‘signals something very profound’ and ‘permits us to grasp the colonial unconscious.’

‘One always writes what one doesn’t know’, says Vuillard, ‘one plunges into obscurity.’ Some of the materials that informed and inspired Une sortie honorable find their way explicitly into the final work. Such curation is inherently political. Vuillard has been repeatedly criticized for the tendentiousness and less than impartial tone of his historical récits. In a review of L’Ordre du jour for the New York Review of Books, the historian Robert Paxton criticized the book for its explanatory shortcomings as a historical narrative. Vuillard, he observed, has chosen ‘his details not for their explicative value’ but for literary effect. ‘He likes to heighten the impression of absurdity’ and his ‘delight in irony seems to have outweighed exactitude’. Paxton concludes by suggesting that Vuillard may eventually fall into the obscurity of earlier Prix Goncourt winners, ‘a procession of largely forgotten names’.

Vuillard’s response to Paxton’s review (and its ‘brutal conclusion’) is worth reading: he accuses Paxton of falsely supposing ‘the existence of a distant, neutral way of writing’, the alleged reserve of history; meanwhile literature ‘ought to behave itself and keep to the art of the novel’. But it is elsewhere, in an interview published in the journal Le vent se lève, that he elaborates his position most clearly:

At its core, recourse to History is necessary in a world where hegemonic discourse is in appearance so depoliticized, so neutral, so objective, and where all literature which claims to be nonpartisan is in reality an official, servile production. In such a harsh context, writing can only be political in order to be truly literary.

And, then, more to the point: ‘Writing cannot be neutral.’

Read on: Pierre Vilar, ‘History in the Making’, NLR 136.


Vectors of Inflation

Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell’s recent speech at the Jackson Hole conference, delivered to an audience of central bankers from around the world, was a highly anticipated event. He arrived there a chastened man, having previously claimed that US inflation was a transitory phenomenon while implementing the lax monetary policies that many blamed for its recent surge. Could he now pull off a ‘soft landing’, bringing inflation back down from its forty-year high of 9.1% to the desired 2%, without causing a recession?  

Central banks have various tools at their disposal for managing inflation: higher rates, quantitative tightening (i.e. selling assets to reduce liquidity in the system) and managing expectations about future monetary policy through ‘forward guidance’. Powell began raising the policy rate in March, taking it from the pandemic-era low of 0.25% to 3.25% by the time he arrived at Jackson Hole in late August, through a series of incremental rises. Yet these increases still left the headline rate well below inflation, making real rates negative. Meanwhile, the debate over monetary policy heated up. Inflation hawk Larry Summers accused Powell of underestimating the problem and doing too little too late. Another hawk, Henry Kaufman, advised him to shock the markets – to ‘hit them in the face’ as Paul Volcker had done in 1980, by hiking interest rates to 20%.

By inducing a deep and prolonged recession, Volcker’s move had elicited a backlash from progressive economists, with Robert Solow likenening it to ‘burning down the house to roast the pig’. Today, the prospect of a similar hike has prompted renewed criticism of the monetarist perspective which views inflation as the result of an increase in the money supply relative to output. For inflation doves, such as former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the current period of inflation was not caused by the fiscal and monetary stimuli of the pandemic, unprecedented though they were. Nor is it the result of a wage-price spiral – since the uptick in union activity remains relatively modest in historical terms. Doves claim that inflation is rather the outcome of factors beyond the Federal Reserve’s ken: food and fuel price rises sparked by the war in Ukraine, plus ongoing price-gouging by large corporations. Hence, it cannot be solved by raising interest rates; it requires solutions such as those set out in Jamaal Bowman’s Emergency Price Stabilization Act: monitoring and regulating consumer prices, alongside measures to safeguard the supply of essential goods and services.

The hawks are certainly wrong to see inflation as a purely monetary issue. Indeed, very little of the pandemic-related stimulus, fiscal or monetary, made it into the pockets of ordinary people. When it did, it largely went towards debt repayments and had a limited impact on demand. Yet the doves are also wrong to identify war-induced food and fuel prices as a major contributor. In the US, the August 2022 inflation rate of 8.3% may have been boosted by these factors; but the core inflation figure of 6.3% – far higher than the European average – reflected a structural malady. The real culprit here is the diminution of US productive capacity, caused by four decades of neoliberal policies – disinvestment, deregulation, outsourcing – which have rendered the economy extremely vulnerable to supply chain disruption, and prevented supply-side measures to bring prices down.

That diminution is the flip-side of the ceaseless growth in financial activity since the early 1980s. This process is usually termed ‘financialization’, although the plural ‘financializations’ would be more accurate, since each historic expansion of the financial sector has involved different structures, practices, regulatory regimes and assets. In recent decades, financialization has come to rest on asset bubbles sustained by lax monetary policy. This has created the conditions for today’s rising prices, while inhibiting the only sort of anti-inflationary policy of which the current system is capable. Yet this crucial dynamic is overlooked by economists across the political spectrum.    

Prima facie, hawks and doves pull at opposite ends of the ‘dual mandate’ that the Federal Reserve acquired in 1977, when the Humphrey-Hawkins Act added high employment levels to its original price stability mandate. Some progressive economists now point to Alan Greenspan’s tenure in the 1990s as ‘an instructive model of what a full employment economy can look like’, implying that the Federal Reserve’s current leadership can and should revert to this paradigm. Yet the full employment mandate – a last gasp of Keynesianism in an increasingly hostile political environment – was never taken seriously. Indeed, Volcker proceeded to violate it almost immediately with his historic rate hikes. Since then, the Federal Reserve has consistently curbed both employment and wages, although this has often been obscured by the statistical inflation of employment figures (for example, counting the partially employed while ignoring declining labour force participation).

Greenspan made the dramatic decision to increase interest rates despite inflation running at a modest level. To justify this step, he cited Milton Friedman’s complaint that the Federal Reserve always raised interest rates too late, and insisted instead on getting ‘ahead of the game’, pre-empting inflation rather than responding to it. Greenspan thus extinguished the nascent manufacturing revival which, as Robert Brenner writes, held out the possibility of a ‘break beyond stagnation’. When Greenspan eventually decided to loosen monetary policy, it was not to support the expansion of production and employment, but to inflate asset bubbles, starting with the so-called ‘Greenspan put’: an injection of liquidity into the financial system in response to the stock market crash of 1987. This policy (which was continued by Greenspan’s successors, such that it became known as the ‘Federal Reserve put’) generated speculative bonanzas for the rapidly deregulating financial sector and provided generous liquidity after each inevitable crash. It was rightly criticised for creating systemic moral hazard by inducing financial institutions to increase their risk exposure.  

In the 2000s, asset bubbles grew by new orders of magnitude and loose monetary policy became a permanent strategy rather than an episodic fix. Yet, because not much of this money flowed into productive investment or translated into rising demand, its inflationary effect was negligible. Moreover, other secular trends kept inflation low: workers were too insecure to fight for wage increases, even amid relatively high employment; manufacturing supply chains extended to producers in lower-wage locations; immigration cheapened services; and income deflation in the Third World suppressed global demand and commodity prices. Dollar overvaluation was also deeply intertwined with the Federal Reserve’s bubbles. By diverting investible funds from productive to financial investment, these bubbles – the market stocks of the 1990s, housing and credit of the 2000s, the ‘everything bubble’ of the 2010s – attracted enough foreign funds to dollar denominated assets to counter the downward pressure of US current account deficits on the dollar. This, too, helped to subdue inflation.

Since Greenspan lowered interest rates to deal with the 2000 dot-com crash, they have never returned to their 1990s peak. Meanwhile, quantitative easing – effectively Federal Reserve asset purchases – has become a systemic imperative to keep both asset markets and the dollar high. With fiscal policy largely missing in action (aside from tax cuts for the rich), this monetary policy created a highly peculiar political economy. Thanks to declining industry, low investment and fiscal austerity, the consumption of a narrowing well-to-do layer, facilitated by the ‘wealth effects’ of asset bubbles, came to act as the country’s primary economic motor. As a result, anaemic growth and extreme inequality is all that contemporary US capitalism can manage.

In this context, Powell’s priority is to avoid Volckeresque rate rises on the wing of slight rate increases and the prayer of forward guidance. Why? Because hawkish rate hikes – the only effective weapon against inflation from a monetary policy perspective – would burst the asset bubbles on which the American financial sector and ultra-rich depend. Back in the late 1970s, Volcker did not have to worry about this risk; but in the early 2020s, Powell very much does. Policy interest rates of 5% triggered the collapse of the housing and credit bubbles in 2007; the current 3.25% rate has hit real estate and venture capital, while stocks have suffered the worst streak of quarterly losses since 2008. Given the fragile makeup of the US economy, rate hikes constitute a real risk, which means that the Federal Reserve has become largely impotent. No wonder it is described in the pages of the FT as ‘the least credible Fed in the markets’ estimation since the 1970s’.

The markets’ lack of confidence reflects a structural dilemma. If Powell increases rates to required levels, the US can expect a recession that will make that of the 1980s seem like a boom. But if, as I believe is more likely, he refuses to do so, the US can expect chronic inflation whose origins lie in the productive debility of the US economy, recently exacerbated by supply chain disruption, trade and technology wars with China, and self-destructive sanctions on Russia. The Federal Reserve faces a fork in the road: one where both paths will damage working-class incomes and wellbeing.

In this sense, both hawks and doves miss the elephant in the room: financializations backed by easy money. The dynamics of financialization contribute to inflation by raising the value of housing and commodities while allowing the rich to maintain their spending at inflated prices. While doves rightly emphasize the need to expand production to ease inflation, they fail to appreciate the scale of state intervention this would entail. For four long decades, neoliberal policies have entrenched the Long Downturn, reversing Janos Kornai’s old adage that socialism is a supply-constrained system while capitalism is a demand-constrained one. Making contemporary US capitalism productive again would involve not only reversing the logic of financialization; it would require a state-led programme to lift supply constraints, which is almost unthinkable within the parameters of the present system.

Read on: Wolfgang Streeck, ‘The Crises of Democratic Capitalism’, NLR 71.


Damiba’s Ousting

On one level, the ousting of Paul-Henri Damiba just eight months after he led the ousting of President Roch-Marc Christian Kaboré on 31 January of this year, is a simple story. Damiba staked his legitimacy on ending Burkina Faso’s Jihadist tragedy. At the beginning of April, he announced there would be a stocktaking of his ‘reconquest mission’ in five months’ time, billed as an ‘appointment with the nation’. The underlying pledge was that by that point, Burkina would be liberated from ‘the forces of evil’ – the Islamic-State and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jihadists plaguing the so-called ‘three-border area’ of the Sahel (the other countries concerned are Mali and Niger). But when the appointment finally came in early September, it took the form of an uninspiring, somewhat deflated speech, parts of which now sound prophetic. Our ‘grave problem’, Damiba explained, was the result of multiple failures, ‘first of all from us, defence and security forces in charge of defending our territory and protecting our populations. Internal divisions have weakened us.’ His account of the progress achieved so far was essentially that this was only the beginning of the beginning – not even, à la Churchill, ‘the end of the beginning’.

The studied humility was sensible: 24 hours after Damiba’s address to the nation, Jihadists remotely detonated a bomb on the road to Djibo, the largest town in the country’s northern Sahel Region and a symbol of the Burkinabe state’s resistance against the forces of evil. It became a symbol of Damiba’s failure. The bomb destroyed a heavily guarded convoy bringing food and other supplies to the besieged town, killing 35 and wounding 37, all civilians. Dijbo was once the largest cattle market in the three-border area, with traders travelling from as far as Senegal to attend its weekly fairs. It is also the birthplace of Burkina’s first Jihadist armed group, Ansarul Islam, now merged into the Al-Qaeda franchise Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). In recent years, JNIM has occupied all the rural districts around Djibo and established a sadistic version of Sharia that sent many fleeing to the town, now the last state sanctuary in what has become Al-Qaeda country. Djibo thus became a refuge of over 200,000 people – nearly four times its official population – living under a JNIM blockade that has stoked the joint scourges of famine and hyperinflation.

The coup against Damiba was set in motion in Gaskindé, a small town just south of Djibo, where another supply convoy fell to a Jihadist attack on 26 September. This time, at least 11 soldiers were killed along with dozens of civilians, while the convoy trucks were capsized and burned. Details suggested that the sloppy military strategy associated with Kaboré’s tenure remained unreformed, and anger among the troops reached the same perilous levels as before the January coup. Two days after the attack, Damiba flew to Djibo and told the soldiers stationed there that he ‘felt for them’. But to no avail. One widely-circulated WhatsApp message I received in the days before the coup correctly read the temperature: ‘Be careful with your comings and goings, it would seem things aren’t smelling right with the troops, possible temper [grogne] with uncertain outcomes. Letting you know just in case. You never know. Thanks.’

The troops at Djibo did not believe that Damiba ‘felt for them.’ When he spoke of ‘internal divisions’ in his stocktaking speech, he may have been thinking of the effective military caste system found in many armies in the region. This is the division between ‘special forces’, trained to protect the powers that be, and the common soldier. The two other coup-makers in the region, Assimi Goïta of Mali and Mamady Doumbouya of Guinea – who came to power in May and October 2021 respectively – were both commanders of their countries’ special forces, and Damiba was a member of Burkina’s, the Forces Spéciales, established by Kaboré in June 2021. These élite corps enjoy superior treatment and status. In mid-September, Burkina’s regular troops heard that Damiba was granting the special forces a bonus – each was allegedly promised six million francs (about 9,000 USD) and a villa – in spite of the fact they were not fighting on the frontline.

A further aggravating factor was that most officers of the special forces – including Damiba – were once members of the infamous Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP in the French acronym), former despot Blaise Compaoré’s own special forces. Compaoré, the man who toppled charismatic revolutionary Thomas Sankara in 1987, was chased out of the country by insurrectionists in October 2014. The RSP survived his fall and predictably staged a coup to restore him a year later. The attempt, labelled ‘the stupidest coup in history’, failed after a week and the RSP was disbanded. It became clear to the public that Damiba was still an RSP man to the core when he tried to engineer the return of the exiled Compaoré to the political stage in July, under the pretence of ‘national reconciliation’, just four months after a court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment for ordering Sankara’s murder. Compaoré flew to Ouagadougou and stayed a few days in a state villa, arousing such anger that air traffic controllers at the capital’s airport reportedly considered preventing his plane from departing so that he could be arrested.

Damiba’s actions rekindled the major conflict in Burkinabe politics, between revolution and rectification. The latter is the name that Compoaré gave to his policy agenda some years after he took power in 1987, and is viewed by partisans of the revolution as irredeemably reactionary. Damiba appeared as a rectification man in a country where the more acceptable attitude among opinion leaders is revolution. The name he gave to his governing outfit, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration, soon became suspicious; ‘what exactly did he wish to restore?’ ‘Restoration’, according to a democracy activist I interviewed in August in Ouagadougou, ‘sounds like the opposite of revolution’. (Shades of Charles II and Louis XVIII, the latter better known in Burkina). Damiba meant to ‘restore’ the integrity of the national territory, but it was a poor choice of words, especially since he also refused to use the rousing Sankarist call, ‘the fatherland or death, we will vanquish!’, replacing it with a watered-down ‘for the fatherland, we will vanquish’, which imprudently reminded people of the real thing.

In January, the Burkinabe broadly approved of Damiba’s coup – some of them boisterously, others cautiously – because they were tired of Kaboré’s incompetence in the fight against Jihadists who had embraced mass murder as a war tactic. This meant that Damiba could stay in power only if he succeeded where Kaboré had failed. But since he had so clearly failed by the deadline he set, and there was no democratic means to remove him, a coup was preordained. In May, facing off with protesters at Bobo Dioulasso, the country’s second largest city, he told them, ‘If you are so strong, then make your own coup d’état and rule the country as you see fit.’ Speaking to angry but unarmed civilians, the jibe sounded like easy derision, but others were listening.

Those others, the military rank-and-file, were already feeling betrayed – but apparently they did not want to act violently at first. In late September, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the new coup leader, was sent by the disgruntled soldiers to meet and talk with Damiba. He spent a week in Ouagadougou, but his requests for an audience were ignored. Frustration played a visceral role in the coup, which at first sight looks like the revenge of the lower-caste on the battlefield against the upper-caste who are not. Even members of the auxiliary civilian-staffed force VDP (French acronym for Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland) took part. But there may be more to it than this. In the initial phase of the coup, Traoré, faced with the resistance of Damiba – who controlled much of the capital and the security services in it – went on national television and announced that his adversary had found refuge at the French military base of Kamboinsin, on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. ‘He could plan a counter-offensive’, he warned, against ‘our firm commitment to reach out to other partners willing to help us in our fight against terrorism’ – in this context, an ostensible allusion to Russia.

This was an intervention in a debate of sorts (I say ‘of sorts’ because only one side is actually heard) on the ‘diversification of partners’, a euphemistic phrase for ditching the French and finding another patron, preferably Russia. But it was also a ploy: Traoré knew that, although Damiba was not actually in Kamboinsin, this rumour would detonate a public-opinion bomb given Burkina’s rampant Francophobia, and thereby force the incumbent to negotiate. It was a risky move – the French Institute and the French embassy, both located in the city centre, were attacked by angry mobs and had to be defended by the coup-makers. But it worked. Damiba negotiated his resignation, while Traoré insisted that France had not interfered, explaining that his phrase ‘other partners’ did not necessarily mean Russia (the US was thrown in). His first interview was given to Radio France Internationale – an outlet reviled by the militant Francophobes of Ouagadougou – not to Sputnik or Russia Today, whose audience in the Francophone world is highest in Burkina.

At the time of writing, many issues remain unresolved. The coup aims to be a form of rectification, to use a word perhaps unpalatable in Ouagadougou. Damiba had deviated from his mandate, and now the army intends to return to it. ‘We must do in three months what needed to be done in twelve months,’ Captain Traoré asserted, a statement that indicated the continuity of objective, only now with significantly less time to fulfil it. But it is not yet clear who would lead this process. Traoré, a thirty-something low-ranking officer who claims to be uninterested in power, may not be the most suitable candidate. But who might be? Abdoulaye Diallo, a political activist keen on revolutionary figures – he is working on a documentary about the life of Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings – told me in August that only a Promethean figure of the calibre of Sankara could pull Burkina out of its quagmire, not uncharismatic soldiers like Damiba (or Traoré?). This is a bit like hoping for a Shakespeare or two in every generation. But one may wonder how such an intensely national and ideological leader as Sankara would have fared in a regional conflict and in the current geopolitical fog of war.

Damiba made the point that he was trying everything: the stick and the carrot. He beefed up military control of the territory (maillage territorial) as well as engaging in talks with the Jihadists. What he did not do was to increase support from foreign powers or regional cooperation, in particular with Niger and Mali, two measures without which it is impossible for Burkina – and indeed Niger and Mali – to win the war. Damiba preferred French help, which was provided only in emergencies on the ground and without fanfare, for fear of antagonizing the more active sections of public opinion. But Niger, France’s ally in the region, and Mali, which is in the Russian camp, are opposites. Damiba sent feelers to Bamako and visited Niamey, in an awkward dance that did not get him very far. A new leader, whoever he is, must have the skills for carrying on with Damiba’s stick-and-carrot approach, navigating the treacherous shoals of Burkina’s volatile public opinion – where Yevgeny Prigozhin, the now in-the-open master of the Wagner mercenary enterprise, has started his manipulations – and working with neighbouring states. A tall order, but an imperative.    

Read on: Rahmane Idrissa, ‘Mapping the Sahel’, NLR 132.