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War Zones

With Biden in the White House, do you foresee any major US policy changes towards West Asia?

Let us look at what we are changing from before we look at what we are changing to. This is difficult to do because Trump’s policies, assuming them to be coherent strategies, were chaotic in both conception and implementation. Trump did not start any new wars in West Asia, though he did green-light the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in 2019. He withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, but relied on economic sanctions, not military action, to exert pressure on Iran. In the three countries where America was already engaged in military action – Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – surprisingly little has changed. Keep in mind that his foreign policy was heavily diluted by the more interventionist policies of the Pentagon and the US foreign-policy establishment in Washington. They successfully blocked or slowed down Trump’s attempted withdrawals from what he termed the ‘endless wars’ in West Asia. It is not clear, however, that they have a realistic alternative approach.

Biden will be subject to the same institutional pressures as Trump was and is unlikely to resist them. He may be less sympathetic to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and Netanyahu in Israel, but I doubt if the relationship between the US and either country will change very much. The next Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, approved the Iraq invasion of 2003, the regime change in Libya in 2011, and wanted a more aggressive policy in Syria under Obama. It does not sound as if he has learned much from the failure of past US actions in West Asia. This is not just a matter of personalities: the US establishment is genuinely divided about the merits and demerits of foreign intervention. It is also constrained by the fact that there is no public appetite in America for more foreign wars. For all his rhetorical bombast, Trump was careful not to get Americans killed in West Asia, and it would be damaging for Biden and the Democrats if they fail to do the same.

Will the Biden administration want to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran?

Biden says he wants to resume negotiations, but there will be difficulties. One, security establishments in the West are against it. Two, Saudi Arabia and its allies are against it, and so, more significantly, is Israel. Three, the Iranians did not get the relief from sanctions they expected from the nuclear deal of 2015, so they have less incentive to re-engage.

A misunderstanding – perhaps an intentional one – on the side of Western states, Israelis and Saudis/Emiratis about the nature of the deal may prevent its resurrection. They claim that Iran used it as cover for political interference elsewhere in the region. But Iranian action, and its ability to project its influence abroad, is high in countries where there are powerful Shia communities such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan – and low elsewhere. Iran is never going to stop its intervention in these countries in which, in any case, the Iranians are on the winning side.

Gulf countries such as the UAE and Bahrain have recently established diplomatic relations with Israel. What effect will this have on Israel-Palestine relations?

This weakens the Palestinians, though they were very weak already. The UAE and Bahrain (the latter is significant only as a proxy of Saudi Arabia) did not do much for the Palestinians in any case. Yet, however weak the Palestinians become, they are not going to evaporate so, as before, Israel holds all the high cards but cannot win the game.

You’ve said that ‘great powers fight out their differences in West Asia’. Why is that?

West Asia has been unstable since the end of the Ottoman Empire. It has been an arena for international confrontation ever since. Reasons for this include, one, oil; two, Israel; three, states in West Asia look weak but societies are strong and very difficult to conquer – witness Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the even more self-destructive US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Invaders and occupiers in West Asia have great difficulty turning military superiority into political dominance.

What role did colonial rule play in the ethno-political conflicts of West Asia?

Foreign intervention usually exploits and exacerbates sectarian and ethnic divisions, though it seldom entirely creates them. Britain relied on the urban Sunnis to rule Iraq; the French looked to minorities such as Christians in Lebanon to rule there. More recently, foreign powers gave money, arms and political support to factions in Iraq to enhance their own influence but fuelling civil war. Opponents of Saddam Hussein genuinely believed that he had created religious divisions and these would disappear when he was overthrown. But, on the contrary, they got much deeper and more lethal. The same is true of Syria: the battle lines generally ran along sectarian and ethnic boundaries. Intervention in West Asia has traditionally ended badly for British and American leaders: three British Prime Ministers (David Lloyd George, Anthony Eden and Tony Blair) lost power or were badly damaged by the West Asian interventions they launched, as were three American presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush).

You’ve said that the Iran–Iraq war was ‘the opening chapter’ of a series of conflicts in the region that have shaped the politics of the modern world. Why?

The Iran Revolution was a turning point, out of which came the Iran-Iraq war that in turn exacerbated Shia-Sunni hostility throughout the region. Saddam Hussein won a technical victory in the war but then overplayed his hand by invading Kuwait. Aside from Iraq, the sides confronting one another in West Asia are much the same now as they were 40 years ago. One big change is the recent emergence of Turkey as an important player, intervening militarily in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

What role do proxy groups play in West Asia?

One has to be careful to distinguish between different ‘proxy groups’. The phrase is often used as a form of abuse to denigrate movements with strong indigenous support as mere pawns – and sometimes this is true. The Houthis in Yemen, for instance, have been fighting for years and receive little material help from Iran, but are almost always described in the Western media as ‘Iranian-backed Houthis’, implying that they are simply Iranian proxies, which they are not. In Iraq, some of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Shia paramilitaries) are under orders from Iran, but others are independent. The Kurds in Syria rely on the US militarily and politically because they fear Turkey, but they are certainly not American puppets.

What has been the outcome of ‘the War on Terror’?

It was America’s post-9/11 wars, supposedly against ‘terrorists’, that created or increased chaos in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. These wars turned out to be endless, so populations had no choice but to flee. In Europe, the refugee exodus from Syria peaked in 2015–16 and was probably a decisive factor in the vote for Brexit in the UK referendum. All the anti-immigrant parties in Europe were boosted. The intervention by Britain and France in Libya (backed by the US) in 2011 destroyed the Libyan state and opened the door to a flood of refugees from further south seeking to cross the Mediterranean. The Europeans in particular remain in a state of denial about the role of their own foreign policy in sparking these population movements.

You were one of the first to warn about the emergence of ISIS. What led to its rise?

ISIS was born out of the chaos in the region. Before 9/11, Al Qaeda was a small organisation. Al Qaeda in Iraq, created by the US invasion, was far more powerful. Defeated by 2009, it was able to resurrect itself as ISIS after the start of the civil war in Syria. I am surprised now that more people did not understand how strong ISIS had become by 2014, the year they captured Mosul in northern Iraq. They had already taken Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad earlier in the year, and the Iraqi Army had failed to get them out. This should have been a sign that ISIS was stronger and the Iraqi government weaker than had been imagined.  ISIS was a monstrous organisation, but militarily it was very effective in using a mixture of snipers, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and booby traps. Its weakness militarily was that it had no answer to air power.

Do you expect to see ISIS’s resurgence?

There is a resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, not on the scale of 2012–14, but still significant. I am not convinced that clones of ISIS in other countries are as significant as is sometimes made out to be. ISIS lost its last territory with the fall of the Baghouz pocket in eastern Syria in March 2019. ISIS leader and caliph, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, killed himself during a raid by American Special Forces on a house in northwest Syria in October the same year. Since then events have favoured ISIS: the US-led coalition against it has fragmented and the defeat of ISIS no longer has the priority it once had; Sunni Arabs, the community from which ISIS springs in Iraq and Syria, remain impoverished and disaffected; ISIS has plenty of experience in guerilla war, to which it has reverted, because holding fixed positions led to it suffering heavy losses from artillery and airstrikes. The Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as the Kurds, all have weaknesses like corruption that ISIS can exploit.

That said ISIS no longer has the advantage of surprise, the momentum that comes from victories, or the tolerance – and probably the covert support – of foreign countries (notably Turkey) that it had in 2014–16. The Sunni Arabs suffered hideously because of the last ISIS offensive with the part destruction of Mosul and Raqqa, their two biggest cities. Many will not want to repeat the experience. Local security forces are more effective than they were five years ago.

Was ISIS an anti-imperial force? Not primarily, since their main enemies were Shia and other non-Sunni minorities. Objectively, ISIS energised and legitimised foreign intervention wherever it had strength.

You’ve recently argued that ‘oil states are declining’. If so, what are the implications for the region and international politics at large?

Biden or no Biden, the nature of power in West Asia is changing. Oil states are no longer what they were because the price of oil is down and is likely to stay that way. This is profoundly destabilising: between 2012 and 2020, the oil revenue of Arab oil producers fell by two-thirds, from $1 trillion to $300 billion, in a single year. In other words, the ability of the rulers of a state like Saudi Arabia to project power abroad and retain power at home has significantly diminished. A country like Iraq has just half the income it needs from oil – and it has no other exports – to pay state employees and to prevent the bankruptcy of the Iraqi state. People forget what a peculiar situation we have had in West Asia over the last half century, with countries that would have had marginal or limited importance in the world – like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Libya and Iran – becoming international political players thanks to their oil wealth. They could afford to buy off domestic dissent by creating vast patronage machines that provided well-paid jobs. But there is no longer the money to do this. The end of the oil-state era is not yet entirely with us, but it is approaching fast.

Is the US now trying to extricate itself from the region?

Obama and Trump both said they wanted to reduce on-the-ground commitments in West Asia, but somehow the US is still there. In reality, the Americans would like to enjoy the advantages of imperial control or influence but without the perils it involves. They would prefer to operate by employing other means such as economic sanctions or local proxies. The Obama foreign policy was meant to see ‘a switch to Asia’ but this never really happened, and it was the West Asian crises that continued to dominate the agenda in the White House. In other words, the US would like to withdraw from West Asia, but only on its own terms.

Across West Asia, left movements have increasingly been replaced by Islamist forces. How would you explain this change?

I am not sure that this is quite as true as it used to be because Islamist rule in its different varieties has turned out to be as corrupt and violent as secular rule. Both have been discredited by their years in power. Secularism was always strongest among the elite in countries like Iraq, Turkey, Egypt. It never offered much to the poor. To a substantial degree the same thing that happened to the Left is now happening to Islamist forces. Elites with a supposedly socialist ideology were as kleptocratic as everybody else. The same was often true of nationalism because religious identity often remained stronger than national identity.

How would you analyse the changing inter-state dynamics in West Asia?

States have gone up and down. The crucial change in the relative strength of states was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, so regional powers that it had protected became vulnerable to regime change. Russia’s military intervention in Syria since 2015 has somewhat reversed this – but not entirely. Iran became much more of a regional power thanks to the elimination of its two hostile neighbours – the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq – by the US post-9/11. It is under strong pressure from US sanctions, but these were never likely to bring about its effective surrender. Iraq and Syria are too divided for state power to be rebuilt. Saudi Arabia’s more aggressive foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman produced few successes, aside from cultivating Trump and his entourage. Does the embrace of Israel by some of the Gulf rulers enhance their power or that of Israel? Probably less than they hope. Likewise, the Palestinians are weakened, but the ‘Palestinian Question’ has not gone away, will not do so, and will always return.

What of the ongoing civil wars and ethnic conflicts in Syria and Iraq?

The main sectarian and ethnic communities – Sunni, Shia, Kurd – will still be there in both countries, though there are winners and losers. The Sunni Arabs lost power in Iraq in 2003 and the Shia Arabs and Kurds have been dominant ever since. The Sunnis have failed to reverse this despite two rebellions, roughly 2003–07 and 2013–17 during which they suffered severe losses. The Kurds expanded their power (taking Kirkuk), but could not cling on to their gains. Nevertheless, they remain a powerful player.

In Syria, the Alawites (a variant of Shi’ism) hold power now as they did in 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring. The majority Sunni Arabs, under jihadi leadership, have suffered a catastrophic defeat with more than five million of them refugees. The Kurds expanded their power thanks to their military alliance with the US, but they are under serious threat from Turkey that has invaded two Kurdish enclaves and expelled the inhabitants.

The Kurds’ problem is that they are a powerful minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but all these states oppose them becoming an independent nation state. They did achieve quasi-independence in Iraq and Syria thanks to central governments in Damascus and Baghdad being weakened by ISIS and thanks to American backing. Without these two factors the Kurdish communities will be squeezed. They will remain a power in Iraq, but in Syria their position is more fragile.

How do you look back at your four decades of reporting from the region?

I am still amazed by the regularity with which Western powers, notably the US, launch military and political ventures in West Asia without knowing the real risks. They do not seem to learn from their grim experience. Reporting this was always dangerous and is getting more so.

A longer version of this interview appears in the Indian fortnightly Frontline on 15 January 2021. The questions – some of which have been shortened – were asked by Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M.  

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Republican Futures

No one writes about the American berserk with the perception and ethnographic fluency of Mike Davis. In his account of the rampage on Capitol Hill, a tonic rebuttal of the present hysteria, he sees an already long-exposed faultline of the Republican Party becoming irrevocable. To one side, post-Trump Republicans for whom the mines of Trumpism have been exhausted: they’ve already extracted their justices, their tax cuts, and their anti-immigration credentials. On top of all this, Trump has now offered them the perfect excuse to spit him out as quickly as they popped him like a pill four years ago. It’s been ‘a helluva journey’, as Lindsey Graham said from the Senate floor, like a man back on dry land. Meanwhile, erstwhile Trump loyalists like Kelly Loeffler appeared like truants mouthing remorse in the principal’s office. To the other side of the divide, Davis points to the ‘True Trumpists’, led by the two Ivy League slicksters, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who hung on to the rocket too long, and now find themselves in Republican outer space – captains of a de facto third party that is mostly concentrated in the House of Representatives and state legislatures.

For all of its obvious power, one nevertheless wonders if Davis’s read on the events is perhaps too categorical. If anything, it may underestimate the sheer cynicism of many of the Trumpist representatives and, more importantly, the traditional, tactical amnesia of the Republican Party, although Davis is hardly unaware of this. If Tucker Carlson’s open-air therapeutic ward is anything to go by, the content of Republican grievances has already shifted away from election fraud – a one-time travesty anchored in delusion – and onward to the dark plots and complicity of Silicon Valley – an on-going travesty anchored in reality. Hawley and Cruz and their shock troops in the House have spent the past four years trying to assemble a permanent front against Big Brother Tech. To this end, they will reframe their own intransigence as just a more piquant version of Republicans blocking Merrick Garland from occupying his Supreme Court seat, and they will recast the rampage of the Capitol as the Alamo of free-speech.

There is much ground to be won by whichever Party can position itself as the long-term opposition to Silicon Valley. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brandishing a copy of Logic magazine will be no match for a party that dedicates itself to that mission. Structurally, the Republicans have the advantage. As Dylan Riley made clear in NLR 126, both Democrats and Republicans have no interest in attacking the components in each other’s coalitions that they share – finance, insurance, real estate – but each has something to gain in attacking the other side’s exclusive components: Silicon Valley, in the case of the Democrats, and extractive industries in the case of the Republicans. As the battle lines clarify, the Republicans have only been aided by the social media monopolies themselves, who appear to be working out deals with the incoming Biden administration and Democratic Party charismatics. Even if Biden’s call to repeal Section 230, as Trump desperately tried to do last month, is the opening salvo of a gruelling offensive on the Valley, as seems very unlikely, it does not necessarily bode well for public speech to have to answer to the pleasure of an implacably centrist regime.

Surely Davis is correct that the Trumpist faction of the party will never rally around another Romney type, but Romney was already a Jurassic figure in his own time. And I will eat my laptop if Chuck Grassley ever becomes president. The extreme stab-in-the-backers may make up a sizable fringe – around 20 percent of the party – and Mike Pence may look over his shoulder for the rest of his days. But it seems that the unstable Republican coalition has a chance not only to hold, but to bind itself anew if it can use Valley-hatred to suture its wounds. Will Trumpist electoral terror against traditional Republicans be any fiercer than the kind mounted by its Tea Party incarnation? However sharply or dubiously the two camps of the American Right define themselves – True Trumpists and Back-to-Businessers – the future leadership of the Party may belong to the most enterprising half-breed.

Read on: Mike Davis’s account of Republican realignments after the Capitol Hill riot.

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Riot on the Hill

Yesterday’s ‘sacrileges’ in our temple of democracy – oh, poor defiled city on the hill, etc. – constituted an ‘insurrection’ only in the sense of dark comedy. What was essentially a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war-surplus barbarians – including the guy with a painted face posing as horned bison in a fur coat – stormed the ultimate country club, squatted on Pence’s throne, chased Senators into the sewers, casually picked their noses and rifled files and, above all, shot endless selfies to send to the dudes back home. Otherwise they didn’t have a clue. (The aesthetic was pure Buñuel and Dali: ‘Our only rule was very simple: no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.’)

But something unexpectedly profound happened: a deus ex machina that lifted the curse of Trump from the careers of conservative war hawks and right-wing young lions, whose ambitions until yesterday had been fettered by the presidential cult. Today was the signal for a long-awaited prison break. The word ‘surreal’ has been thrown around a lot, but it accurately characterizes last night’s bipartisan orgy, with half of the Senate election-denialists channeling Biden’s call for a ‘return to decency’ and vomiting up vast amounts of noxious piety.

Let me be clear: the Republican Party has just undergone an irreparable split. By the White House’s Fuhrerprinzip standards, Pence, Tom Cotton, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, Ben Sasse, Jim Lankford even Kelly Loeffler are now traitors beyond the pale. This ironically enables them to become viable presidential contenders in a still far-right but post-Trump party. Since the election and behind the scenes, big business and many mega-Republican donors have been burning their bridges to the White House, most sensationally in the case of that uber-Republican institution, the National Association of Manufacturers, which yesterday called for Pence to use the 25th Amendment to depose Trump. Of course, they were happy enough in the first three years of the regime with the colossal tax cuts, comprehensive rollbacks of environmental and labor regulation, and a meth-fed stock-market. But the last year has brought the unavoidable recognition that the White House was incapable of managing major national crises or ensuring basic economic and political stability.

The goal is a realignment of power within the Party with more traditional capitalist interest groups like NAM and the Business Roundtable as well as with the Koch family, long uncomfortable with Trump. There should be no illusion that ‘moderate Republicans’ have suddenly been raised from the grave; the emerging project will preserve the core alliance between Christian evangelicals and economic conservatives and presumably defend most of the Trump-era legislation. Institutionally, Senate Republicans, with a strong roster of young talents, will rule the post-Trump camp and, via vicious darwinian competition – above all, the battle to replace McConnell – bring about a generational succession, probably before the Democrats’ octogenarian oligarchy has left the scene. (The major internal battle on the post-Trump side in the next few years will probably center on foreign policy and the new cold war with China.)

That’s one side of the split. The other is more dramatic: the True Trumpists have become a de facto third party, bunkered down heavily in the House of Representatives. As Trump embalms himself in bitter revenge fantasies, reconciliation between the two camps will probably become impossible, although individual defections may occur. Mar-a-Lago will become base camp for the Trump death cult which will continue to mobilize his hardcore followers to terrorize Republican primaries and ensure the preservation of a large die-hard contingent in the House as well as in red-state legislatures. (Republicans in the Senate, accessing huge corporation donations, are far less vulnerable to such challenges.)

Tomorrow liberal pundits may reassure us that the Republicans have committed suicide, that the age of Trump is over, and that Democrats are on the verge of reclaiming hegemony. Similar declarations, of course, were made during vicious Republican primaries in 2015. They seemed very convincing at the time. But an open civil war amongst Republicans may only provide short-term advantages to Democrats, whose own divisions have been rubbed raw by Biden’s refusal to share power with progressives. Freed from Trump’s electronic fatwas, moreover, some of the younger Republican senators may prove to be much more formidable competitors for the white college-educated suburban vote than centrist Democrats realize. In any event, the only future that we can reliably foresee – a continuation of extreme socio-economic turbulence – renders political crystal balls useless.

Read on: Mike Davis’s New Year’s blast to the American left. 

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The Trial of Julian Assange

The trial is over. Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that Julian Assange will not be extradited to the United States. If anyone who has been observing the trial says that they aren’t surprised, they’re fibbing.

Nobody who sat through the proceedings (as I did at an earlier stage) could have failed to detect the bias and, on occasion, outright hostility that Baraitser displayed towards the defence lawyers. The bulk of her judgement is in that vein. The defence put forward numerous arguments for why Assange should not be extradited to the US – above all, that the US was bringing political, not criminal, charges against Assange, prohibited by the UK–US extradition treaty – and she ruled against nearly all of them.

She ruled there were no grounds for thinking that Assange’s constitutional rights wouldn’t be upheld in the US or that he would not be subject to arbitrary punishment after extradition. She denied at length, in the final paragraphs of her verdict, that this was a politically motivated prosecution aimed at silencing a journalist – essentially providing a face-saver for the UK government.

Instead, she ruled against extradition on the grounds that it would be ‘oppressive by reason of mental harm’ – that under US pre-trial conditions, held in isolation in a maximum-security prison, Assange would not be prevented from committing suicide.

It seems that the spectre of ‘supermax’ – the brutal reality of the American carceral system – was placed in the dock and found guilty. Pure hypocrisy. Is London’s notorious Belmarsh Prison, where Assange was held in isolation after being forcibly arrested in the Ecuadorian Embassy in April 2019, a humanitarian zone by comparison? In late 2019, doctors who inspected Assange wrote an open letter to the British government, stating that he ‘could die in prison without urgent medical attention’ due to the conditions in which he was kept. Nils Melzer, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, noted that ‘Assange showed all the signs typical for victims of psychological torture’, having been ‘in solitary confinement for all intents and purposes for more than a year now’. But Baraitser gave short shrift to this testimony.

Her ruling is only the first step. We do not know whether Assange will be granted bail pending the US appeal, or whether the judge will be vindictive. At his bail hearing tomorrow, the court will be more concerned about the risk of flight than the risk of assassination. And though Baraitser expressed her grave concern for his psychological wellbeing, she is unlikely to safeguard it by issuing an order of protection.

Questions also remain about the real reasons for this clemency. Did the incoming Biden administration let it be known they would rather avoid a US prosecution, in which the New York Times would be bound to defend Assange’s rights under the First Amendment, since it had also published Wikileaks materials? Did the British government want to link this to its own stalled extradition case against Anne Sacoolas, the US diplomat’s wife who fatally ran over a British teenager in August 2019? More details may yet emerge. But as they say in sport, a win is a win. The refusal to extradite should be celebrated, whatever its motives.  

As most people know, the case against Assange – an initiative of Eric Holder, the US Attorney General under Obama – is little more than an attempt to suppress freedom of expression. In a world where visual propaganda is central to war making, counter-images present a problem for the warmongers. When Al Jazeera broadcast footage of American troops targeting civilians during the War on Terror, a US army general – accompanied by a jeep full of armed soldiers – entered the news channel’s compound in Qatar to demand an explanation. The director of the station, a soft-spoken Palestinian, explained that they were simply reporting the news. A year later he was dismissed from his post.

Wikileaks likewise obtained footage of a 2007 US helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. The pilots were heard cheering, ‘Light ’em all up!’ and cracking jokes after firing on two young children: ‘Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.’ The ghoulish cynicism shocked many after the tape went viral. The crime it depicted wasn’t novel, nor was it comparable in scale to previous American atrocities (massacre of POWs in Korea, chemical warfare in Vietnam, carpet bombing in Cambodia and so on). Yet the Pentagon fulminated that the Wikileaks video would encourage terrorist reprisals. The problem was evidently not with committing war crimes, but with capturing them on film. Thus, Chelsea Manning, who leaked the material, and Assange, who published it, must be made to feel the consequences. 

Wikileaks cast light on the real reasons for the military interventions of the 2000s, which had nothing to do with freedom, democracy or human rights – except as codewords for capital accumulation. Using the internet to bypass legacy media, Assange published more than two million diplomatic cables and State Department records that exposed the machinery of American Empire. The reaction of the US state has often tipped into absurdity; a dog snapping mindlessly at everything ends up biting his own tail. Assange pointed out that ‘by March 2012, the Pentagon had gone so far as to create an automatic filter to block any emails, including inbound emails to the Pentagon, containing the word Wikileaks.’ As a result, Pentagon prosecutors preparing the case against Chelsea Manning found they were not receiving important emails from either the judge or the defence.

Revenge was the lesser motive. The primary aim was to deter other whistleblowers. Yet this was shortsighted and foolish. Those who expose war crimes, corruption or corporate malfeasance are usually courageous but ‘ordinary’ people, often quite conservative, working in establishment institutions: think of onetime CIA employee Edward Snowden or former marine Daniel Ellsberg. Would such a person – whose entire worldview has been shaken by some horror in their conscience – succumb so easily to a deterrent? The attempt to make an example out of Manning and Assange is at odds with the mentality of the whistleblower, whose sense of injustice drives them to accept the life-changing consequences of leaking.

Ellsberg, the State Department official who handed over secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, eventually became a liberal sweetheart, especially amongst Democrats, as he had exposed Nixon’s lies and misdemeanors during the war in Vietnam. I doubt whether Julian Assange will ever reach that exalted status on either side of the Atlantic. He has been slandered by media outlets across the political spectrum. Liberal newspapers have lined up to claim that he is ‘not a journalist’ but an ‘activist’ – or, as the Boston Herald had it, a ‘spy’. His trial never got the coverage it deserved in the NYT, Washington Post or the Guardian. The latter, despite publishing the Wikileaks material back in 2011, now appears to have given up on serious investigative journalism altogether. By contrast, El País and the Suddeutsche Zeitung were more objective.

Given what Assange has suffered, a few weeks of freedom in lockdown Britain will be a gift from heaven. No more cramped space and lack of sunlight; a chance to hug his partner and children, to use a computer, or pick up a random book. ‘I am unbroken, albeit literally surrounded by murderers’, he wrote to a friend from Belmarsh. ‘But the days when I could read and speak and organize to defend myself, my ideals and the people are over…’

Perhaps not.

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The German Söderweg

Like the biologist’s dye that stains bodily tissue and illuminates its cellular structure, the laboratory-grade opportunism of Markus Söder is a useful resource for understanding German politics. As the Minister President of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, Söder currently polls as the leading contender to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor next year, despite not having declared his candidacy. The calculus is not strained: the CDU’s own three pretenders – Norbert Röttgen, Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz – could all cancel each other out. For all of northern Germany’s imputed reluctance to being ruled by a Bavarian, the closest election in postwar German history was between Söder’s political mentor, the Deutschmark fetishist CSU leader Edmund Stoiber, and Gerhard Schröder, who only narrowly won after he cannily channeled popular discontent about the US plan to invade Iraq. Most decisively, Söder is a Nürnberger from the relatively industrialized region of Franconia, not some primitive mountain yodeler of Berlin caricature.

From his earliest days, the German press identified Söder as a formidable political animal. After a minor deviation in childhood, when the five-year-old Söder brought home a ‘Vote for Willy’ sticker and his father enjoined him to pray for his sins, Söder slickly ascended the ranks of the Christian Social Union: president of the youth wing of the CSU at 28; CSU association leader for Nürnberg-West at 30; CSU media commissioner at 33; CSU general secretary at 36; CSU chairman for Nürnberg-Fürth-Schwabach at 41; Minister President of Bavaria at 52; and, as of last year, party chairman of the CSU at 53, with a standard CSU-majority of 87.4 percent of the party vote behind him. In what is essentially a Catholic political aristocracy – the CSU now has a room of its own in the Bavarian Historical Museum in Regensburg that follows the suites devoted to the reigns of Ludwig I and Ludwig II – Söder is perhaps only unusual in being a Protestant. Long known as the CSU’s attack dog – a reputation only aided by his beefy figure and faintly menacing, and quite possibly self-administered, haircut – Söder has been known to pick gratuitous fights with opponents. His ability to switch positions nimbly with plausible conviction, and his sheer enjoyment of political battle, has consistently earned him comparisons to Schröder. In their biography of the ‘Shadow Chancellor’, Roman Deininger and Uwe Ritzer note that Söder, who had a poster of Franz Josef Strauß, the Barry Goldwater of German politics, above his teenage bed, was also impressed by the pageantry of George W. Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’, which he witnessed at close range as a CSU emissary to the 2004 Republican Convention in New York (Curiously, Armin Laschet introduced this fairly critical biography of Söder at an online event in Berlin the other day, partly, it seems, as a gambit to narrow the race for the Chancellorship down to the two of them.)

How did this immaculate CSU stalwart become, over the past year and a half, an ardent progressive, posing as Merkelite Landesvater? It is one of the puzzles of contemporary German politics. The answer has roots deeper than simply the fact that Söder, with his eye on Merkel’s job, now has some appreciation for how she does it. To begin with, it’s worth recalling how drastically both he and the current Interior Minister (and preceding Minister President and CSU chair) Horst Seehofer misread the consequences of Merkel’s 2015 decision to keep the German border open to asylum-seekers. In their interpretation of events, the political crisis over refugees was the uncorking of a bottle that would release all of the conservative spirits that Merkel had suppressed. As Merkel seemed to reveal her true colors – that of a delusional humanitarian – Söder and Seehofer finally thought they had her cornered. 2015–18 was the period in which they tried to finish her off by riding the wind of the right-wing backlash toward her and her policies (Needless to say, there was no principle in any of this: in his days as the Health Minister under Kohl, it was Seehofer who was regularly criticized within his own party for being ‘communist’ when it came to the destitute). Seeing no threat from the AfD, Seehofer and Söder decided to relax the CSU’s Strauß doctrine (‘Never allow a democratically legitimized party right of the CSU’) and appeared to think that the fledgling party’s promotion of more forthright Euroscepticism could be helpful. Then comes the CSU’s Austrian romance. Let us revisit those happy days:

  • Mid-December 2017: The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz of the ÖVP, and his coalition partner, Heinz-Christian Strache of the hard-right FPÖ, presented their coalition agenda withdrawing protections for refugees at the Kahlenberg, site of a decisive 1683 battle against the Turks.
  • Early January 2018: Alexander Dobrindt, head of the CSU’s parliamentary group, published his call for a ‘Middle Class Conservative Turn’ in Die Welt (Springer’s ‘prestige’ paper). Portions of it read like a less erudite version of Anders Breivik’s manifesto.
  • Early January 2018: Viktor Orbán was the guest of honor at the CSU-Klausur, and gave an interview to Bild-Zeitung (that had been leading a pro-Kurz campaign for weeks by then): ‘We are not talking of immigrants or refugees, we are talking about an invasion’.

And so the CSU with Söder in the driver’s seat appeared prepared to go down the Austrian road: EU-critical, Putin-curious, agrarian-traditional, culture-war-trigger-happy, maximally Islamophobic neoliberal.

Then came the stunning upset. The CSU was humiliated in the 2018 October regional election. Söder lost 10 percent of the vote, much of which seemed to have been recouped by the Greens, who offer an ever more urban and online electorate the sought-after credentials of anti-racism and cosmopolitanism. With 16 seats lost in the parliament, Söder’s majority vanished. He had to build a humiliating, if not unprecedented coalition with the Free Voters of Bavaria, a hodge-podge ‘non-ideological’ party of the centre. It was now clear that the turn to the right had been a mistake. How did Söder respond? By conducting one of the most dramatic U-Turns in recent German history. Overnight he became a lover of bees and trees – calling for new regulations for their protection. He declared combustion engines would be banned by 2030. His progressivism even overshot what his party was prepared to stomach. At the CSU conference last year, Söder’s proposal for a quota of 40 percent women at all levels of the CSU was rejected by the party delegates. The CSU still has the best discipline of any party in the land, but there are audible grumblings from lower quarters. The CSU Landtag chair Thomas Kreuzer has been lately appending pointed reminders about ‘the farmers’ to Söder loyalty oaths.

What all of this reveals is not simply that Söder is now, belatedly, reforming the CSU in the same way that Merkel did the CDU. It shows that, with his eye on the Chancellorship, Söder knows that he has no choice but to forge a working alliance between main sections of export-oriented industry and the progressive middle classes. He grasps the objective pressure Merkel is under to balance the hegemonic alliance of big multinational corporations (as opposed to smaller, more conservative family businesses), moderate conservatives and urban liberals. Urbanization and export-orientation are two of the dominant forces shaping German social life: and they are moving the country in a progressive and liberalizing direction. (The AfD, caught in factional infighting, and experiencing diminishing returns on its novelty, has meanwhile become a party of last resort for disenchanted members of the state security apparatus and the Bundeswehr). Söder knows that he must divert some of the Green vote or at least make the prospect of ruling with them more plausible. The Austrian example was always an unworkable fantasy in Germany, even in Bavaria, where there are fewer traditional Catholics, the population is urbanizing, and there is a strong ‘progressive’ neoliberal ideology that emanates from BMW (Munich), Siemens (Munich), Adidas (Herzogenaurach), Audi (Ingolstadt), etc. Companies like this do not exist on the same scale in Austria; the country is 20 percent less urban than Germany; and Austrians never underwent any comparable ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, as they still prefer to think they were not responsible for crimes committed by Nazi-Germany. Despite Kurz’s relative popularity among the professional classes of Vienna, and his wing of ÖVP’s closer position to the Federation of Austrian Industries (Industriellenvereinigung), which represents big capital groups, Austrian conservatives can still cobble together a majority without the sort of urban progressives on whom Merkel has increasingly come to rely.

What are Söder’s chances for Chancellorship? It is still too early to say. He has acquired enemies all over the country, but also ardent supporters in unlikely places. As he approaches the seat of power in Berlin, he will come under much more scrutiny. It is practically a German political rite of passage at this point to plagiarize your doctoral dissertation, but if anything it’s a sign of Söder’s intelligence that he did not resort to the copy-paste method of his peers, but rather appears to have commissioned the thing wholesale, unless one is persuaded by the image of one of the busiest political operatives in the land pouring over hundreds of documents written in Kurrentschrift in a state archive to produce the 263-page thesis, ‘From old German legal traditions to a modern community edict: The development of municipal legislation in the Kingdom of Bavaria between 1802 and 1818’. That said, Söder has had a very good pandemic, which suited both his and the CSU’s authoritarian instincts. He locked Bavaria down faster, harder, and more coherently than any other state minister, and his resolute media performances played well in the liberal press. As he considers the dimensions of Merkel’s shoes, Söder is seeing like the German state: no longer the optics of the Mittelstand businessman or the farmer in the beer tent, but something more total and omniscient: Der ideelle Gesamtkapitalist.

Read on: Joachim Jachnow on the degeneration of the German Greens; Christine Buchholz’s wide-ranging survey of the political landscape under Merkel.

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Burying Pinochet

The Chilean media were quick to label the October 2019 popular uprising an ‘estallido social’, a social explosion. As the cry of ‘Chile despertó!’­– Chile woke up! – rang out in the streets, the refrain in television studios was that ‘no one saw this coming’. This is hardly the first time that elites have been disconcerted by popular uprisings, or blind to widespread discontent. For those who had studied the Chilean model and the extreme inequality it engendered however, the uprising and ongoing protests were no surprise. A rebellion of the plebeian classes had been looming ever since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. After suffering defeat in a referendum on his continued rule, the general and his jurists crafted a system of counter-majoritarian constitutional provisions to protect the neoliberal order that had been imposed at gunpoint by the military after the brutal overthrow of Allende in 1973. Implemented as part of an exit-pact with the majority of opposition leaders, its intention was to straitjacket any future regime, effectively neutralizing democratic politics.

To incapacity was added ideological capture. Successive governments of the Concertación – a coalition of centre-left parties plus the Christian Democrats that has governed Chile for much of the last thirty years – were not only unable to change the system of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ orchestrated by the Chicago Boys, but in fact continued to deregulate, privatize and outsource. A model in which basic services are private and subsidized by the state to make them attractive to investment was further entrenched. Access to credit was used as social policy (leaving Chileans with the highest household debt in Latin America) and low wages kept many below the poverty line (70% of workers earn less than US$7,400 a year, while the national per capita income is of US$25,000). The convergence of the political class around this agenda was in large part a consequence of the oligarchization of power enabled by the constitution, in which accountability to citizens is virtually non-existent. Hyper presidentialism and centralism make local government powerless to respond to social demands, while insulating representatives from popular pressures – resulting in political corruption, corporate collusion, and impunity.

During the ‘long transition’ of the last three decades, free elections and changes of government failed to respond to growing dissent, which increasingly came to disturb the image of Chile as ‘the tiger of Latin America’. The narrative of an ‘economic miracle’ focused on aggregate growth went hand in hand with a closure of constitutional debate. In 2005, President Ricardo Lagos – a founding member of the Concertación and the first Socialist Party president since Allende – signed into law an amended constitution, insisting that the last ‘authoritarian enclaves’ had been removed and proclaiming the beginning of full democracy. Neither the ‘economic miracle’ nor the purported changes to the political-legal paradigm made a dent in the material conditions of the popular classes. Low wages and soaring debt, lack of access to quality healthcare and education, poverty pensions and price manipulation of food, medicine and basic supplies endured. So too did the high returns on investments for Chilean billionaires, who ascended into the Forbes rich list.

The origins of the October uprising against this order can be traced to the ‘penguin revolution’ of 2006: a protest of high school students against the inequality of the education system, itself a product of the constitution. This marked the beginning of a new cycle of political contention that would reach its peak 13 years later: union mobilizations in 2008; marches against the construction of hydroelectric plants in Patagonia in 2011; the ‘marca tu voto’ campaign in favour of a constituent assembly in 2013; protests against the pension and healthcare systems; marches demanding justice for the assassinated Mapuche leader Camilo Catrillanca; and feminist revolts against sexual harassment and the patriarchal state.

The direct spark was further civil disobedience by students beginning on 14th October: the coordinated jumping of subway turnstiles in Santiago to protest the impact of fare increases on working-class families. Waves of ‘penguins’ – so-called because of their uniforms – flooded subway stations chanting ‘Evade. Don’t pay. Another way to fight’. After a week of massive evasions, authorities responded by deploying the police, closing stations and finally dragging students by force from subway carts. Videos of civil disobedience and police brutality went viral. To avoid further evasions the authorities then closed two subway lines, disrupting the commute of workers, who ended up joining the long marches. From there it evolved into a much wider rebellion against the political class, with people flooding onto the streets in multiple neighbourhoods.

In response to the growing disorder – several metro stations had been set ablaze – President Piñera, head of the centre-right governing coalition, declared a state of emergency, sending the army onto the streets, something not seen since the dictatorship. Pushing back against the government’s handling of the uprising, people came out on 25 October in enormous numbers, with an estimated 1 million joining a peaceful protest in Santiago. Piñera, a billionaire who made his fortune introducing credit cards to the country, began his second non-consecutive presidential term in 2017, running against the slow growth and unfulfilled promises of his predecessor, the Socialist Party’s Michelle Bachelet. He intended to double down on pro-market policies, but in the wake of the crisis he backtracked, offering a package of piecemeal reforms to placate the protests, including a rise in the minimum wage. Piñera requested the resignation of his cabinet, and ultimately agreed to a plebiscite where the citizens could vote to replace the Pinochet-Lagos Constitution – but only after securing measures to preserve the neoliberal order.   

The forces that protect the economic status quo in Chile – a country where the richest 1% appropriates around 30% of the wealth while the lower 50% only 2% – are doing everything they can to control the process and prevent social change. In an echo of what occurred thirty years earlier, the government, finding itself cornered by a movement that it could not stop, has tried to co-opt it instead. A month after the uprising, it signed an agreement with a majority of opposition leaders that imposed procedural limitations on the constitutional process. After years of ‘protected democracy’ based on closed-door agreements and back-door payments, the major political parties on the left – if one can still call them that given their unapologetic embrace of neoliberalism – have joined with the conservative bloc, attempting to obstruct the systemic change that the plebiscite seemed to offer. The few who refused to sign the agreement – members of Frente Amplio (the new left coalition that emerged from the 2011 student mobilizations) and the Communist Party – labelled the negotiations as ‘the kitchen’ in which the future of the constituent process was illegitimately concocted.

As in the negotiations with Pinochet, the main opposition parties conceded to restrictions on popular sovereignty. The resulting ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’ mandated a two-thirds supermajority for the acceptance of each article of a new constitution, which in practice gives veto power to a minority seeking to preserve the current balance of power. It recognized a ‘national convention’ – a select group that would negotiate, write and approve the constitutional rules – as the sole constituent institution, excluding the collective participation of the people who had been organizing since the first days of the uprising. The agreement also insisted that the convention abide by international treaties. Trade agreements are a point of particular contention. Some would need to be revised if, for example, the new constitution enshrined the right to water ­– currently an economic good traded on the market – or if natural resources were to be declared public (71% of revenues from copper mining exploitation currently go to private corporations). Anticipating this, the government has recently signed an agreement with the OECD to provide ‘technical support’ to the Convention on the proper limits of popular sovereignty from the perspective of trade, and is pushing Congress to rush through an approval of TPP-11.

Presented with these elitist, counter-majoritarian measures, protesters continued to mobilize, often in the face of brutal state repression. Rubber bullets and metal pellets fired by the Carabineros – still widely associated with torture and disappearances during Pinochet’s rule – have claimed more than 400 eyes from demonstrators. The eye became a symbol of the protests, brandished on placards and pasted on walls. Plaza Italia, a square that divides the privileged from the plebeian Santiago in the social imaginary, became a focal point for collective action. Re-named Plaza Dignidad by the protestors, the square’s weekly occupation routinized the resistance, with regular pitched battles between protests and police. The movement was also energized by its feminist vanguard: the collective Las Tesis performed ‘A Rapist in Your Path’ in front of the Court House in Santiago alongside 2,000 other blindfolded women wearing pro-choice green and purple scarves (the song has since been translated into 15 languages and performed in more than 40 countries). This anti-patriarchal anthem accused the state of allowing femicides and sexual violence to go unpunished. From this point on, the rebellion could not be but feminist.

While the political class sought to limit constituent power and restrict the process to a narrow institutional form, the people in the streets continued to act. In parallel to these mobilizations, which articulated a range of demands under the broader push for a new constitution, local councils – or cabildos ­– and assemblies emerged throughout the country. In their meetings, experiences of injustice and ideas for the new social pact were shared – a first step in reconstructing a socio-political fabric torn apart by years of dictatorship. Though the pandemic temporarily suspended this political effervescence, redirecting communal energy towards mutual aid to deal with the crisis of food supply, the popular constituent process did not take long to adapt to the new context. The form of communication imposed by quarantine, which only allowed for virtual meetings, facilitated links between councils from different regions, while hundreds of free talks were convened by universities, think tanks, territorial assemblies, student circles and popular radio stations to discuss the constitution, maintaining an active discussion about the process.

When the plebiscite was held in October 2020, 78% voted in support of the writing of a new constitution. Such an overwhelming majority demonstrated the strength of the popular mobilization and its wider support. In April, elections will be held to appoint 155 convention members – the first such body in the world to have gender parity. They will draft a text which Chileans will then approve or reject in a second mandatory referendum. What began with the evasion of subway fares and the occupation of spaces has therefore succeeded in superimposing a legal process. But it is one subject to mechanisms crafted by those who already exercise power. The stench of illegitimacy has lingered. The process for selecting representatives disproportionately benefits established political parties, both in registering to run and in the voting system. In none of the electoral projections so far is the opposition able to secure the two-thirds needed to pass constitutional articles without the support of the right.

Given the ways in which the political class are attempting to control the process, and the degree of systemic corruption in the current order, a parallel extra-parliamentary process ‘from below’ appears wholly necessary for achieving a more inclusive and legitimate process, and for holding those elected to account. With no mechanism to force convention members to follow through on their campaign promises, both popular power and authority will be required. Although popular constituent power emerged from the October rebellion, and is periodically reasserted by direct action in the streets, constituent authority requires institutions where it can inhabit and sustain itself over time. The authority of people, organized against oligarchic power and the neoliberal order, needs to be constituted within their own inclusive and egalitarian political organs, to channel local popular wisdom towards decision-making. How far this can be achieved remains to be seen.

With the beginning of electoral campaigns for the convention, national media is fixated on the races of independent candidates struggling to gain enough signatures to run and the strategic alliances between political parties. But the popular sectors and the progressive middle classes continue to organize and debate the way forward. Many networks of cabildos and territorial assemblies are operating in parallel, with as yet few formalized connections between them. In places where social struggle has been a permanent feature, popular organizations of this kind have already been operating for decades: local self-governing assemblies, cultural centres and social organizations present a territorial and grassroots-based municipal alternative to exclusively representative structures. In Santiago, the epicentre of the uprising, there are several networks of assemblies that emerged from the popular movement, which are using various strategies to agitate and articulate demands. In the past month at least eight cabildos – from working class neighbourhoods such as La Pintana, San Bernardo and Padre Hurtado, to lower-middle class areas such as downtown Santiago, Maipú and Estación Central – have been established, using existing rules that give them access to meeting space and funding. Likewise, five hundred kilometres south in Tomé, a small locality of 52,400 inhabitants, residents have been meeting to discuss the constituent process, with around 800 people gathering in the local square to deliberate on proposals for the new constitution.

While it is hard to tell if this incipient council system will be able to turn itself into a national force that could drive popular initiatives into the new constitution, these communal organizations are certainly flourishing. This development comes in the context of mass disaffection with political parties. With approval ratings for existing institutions and political parties below 20%, Chile finds itself in a unique conjuncture which has enabled critical thinking – on a mass scale – about how political and economic power is institutionalized and allocated. The popular awakening that began in October 2019 has transformed many passive consumers of politics into self-conscious agents, attempting to challenge Chile’s lopsided power relations. Collectively, in an organic and decentralized manner, Chileans are opening new avenues for popular empowerment, and establishing the foundations for a more just social compact.

Read on: Manuel Riesco’s retrospective on Chile after Allende; Mario Sergio Conti’s survey of Latin America in the age of Covid-19.

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A New Voice

The publication of this first novel by 26-year-old Fatima Daas has generated much media excitement in France, for reasons that have little to do with the quality of the work itself. Daas has attracted attention for breaking taboos. She grew up in the Paris suburb Clichy-sous-Bois, best-known as the site of major rioting in 2005 which provoked Sarkozy’s comment about cleaning the place up with a Kärcher, or high-pressure water hose. The riots had been sparked by the death of two boys who were electrocuted at a Clichy substation when they were hiding from police. Daas is French – she was born in another Paris suburb – but her parents are Algerian and all her family, apart from her two sisters and her parents, live in le pays, as Algeria is commonly referred to. Daas is a practicing Muslim. She does not wear the veil and prefers chunky jewellery and red lipstick. She is openly gay though acknowledges the problems this poses her in her religion.

So it is worth noting two things: the novel itself is impressive and does not sit easily in any box, and the author has been wary about her warm welcome from the literary establishment:

What affected me (after the two boys died) was the aftermath. I had the impression we couldn’t change this image of the banlieue. At college I put all my energy into wanting to change the negative image people had of Clichy-sous-Bois, I often said it was up to us to show we were not people who torched cars. I realized it wasn’t just up to me to do everything to change the way people see the banlieue; just like I don’t have to say, because I am a Muslim, I break with the terrorists. It is not up to us to change the images and perceptions others have of us, it is up to people to change how they see things. I don’t owe anyone anything. Not Clichy, not anyone.

Les Inrockuptibles, 19 August 2020

I called myself a writer very early on and I was supported by my classmates in Clichy. That gave me a lot of strength, to be encouraged like that. Then over time I undid certain things. I do not want to incarnate success, I do not want to be a symbol, ‘the chick from the banlieue who made it’, because that would mean writing is exceptional when you come from Clichy-sous-Bois. I am tired of having to be either those who do nothing, who are violent, or ‘those who make it’.

Elle, 28 August 2020

Evidence that the novel deals with difficult issues, acknowledges contradictions exist, and offers no easy solutions can be sought in the controversy that has followed its publication. In September Daas appeared on France Inter, and in response to the question: Do you believe it is a sin to be a Muslim and gay, she said: ‘Yes, yes I do’. For anyone who has read her novel there is nothing surprising in this statement. The conflict between Islam and homosexuality is one of the subjects explored with care and subtlety. But to hear it spoken on the radio at 7am, ‘while people are brushing their teeth, it can be a surprise’, as Mediapart put it. On Mediapart’s A l’air libre, Daas looked genuinely troubled by the whole furore, and in particular to being catapulted into the role of a public figure making pronouncements about Islam. She insisted that life was full of internal conflicts and certain things could not be resolved but that did not stop her from being a Muslim and gay. This controversy has not settled, nor will it given the atmosphere in France right now. Daas has avoided further media interventions. To her credit she seems more interested in writing and has no intention or desire to be a spokesperson for any cause or debate the media wants to pull her into. She is outspoken on many issues, but on her own terms.

La petite dernière – ‘the little last one’ or ‘the youngest’, though neither are satisfactory for the term is used for the youngest child, specifically a girl, and is one of endearment – appears autobiographical because the protagonist is also called Fatima Daas, grew up in Clichy and when we meet her she is 30. It is important to note here that Fatima Daas is a pseudonym. The author has called it a work of ‘autofiction’, a familiar genre in France, but how much is auto and how much fiction in any given novel depends very much on the writer.

For much of the novel we are with the protagonist aged 30, though we cut back and forth to events in her past, from childhood to recent history. Each chapter runs to no more than a few pages. The novel is written in the first person, with every chapter beginning with the line ‘My name is Fatima Daas’. Often the next lines repeat themselves too, though always with a significant if subtle variation. We return to the same themes and get to know the salient facts of her life that influence her sense of who she is: Islam, her relationship with the religion, the meaning of names and words, the significance of certain events and people. Statements recur, in various forms: I am Algerian. I am French. I am from Clichy. I am the youngest child. I am asthmatic.

The cumulative impact of the familiar refrain of each chapter opening is to create the impression of the protagonist seeking to make sense of herself. It also gives momentum to the prose, not unlike the chorus of a song. This quality of the writing has been described as ‘rapping’ by some critics, but it reads more like verse, though not with a fluent or balanced cadence – it is clipped, and captures the protagonist’s own speech patterns. Her asthma is serious and she recounts episodes from her childhood when she visited doctors and took classes that taught her how to breathe and deal with attacks. In adulthood she continues to have a complicated relationship with speech: the physical act requires effort, brings some discomfort so she must force words out, and sentences have to be short. On the occasions when we do have blocks of paragraph or dialogue it is usually someone else speaking, or the words of her prayers, which feature throughout and provide a total contrast in rhythm and language.

Though the story does not reduce to simple summary, one is never in doubt about what is happening. Daas pares down her descriptions to the bare minimum. A great deal happens, but all is recounted episodically and we jump around in time within a few lines. Daas is the last child of three girls and not the son her parents had hoped for. She grows up a tomboy and finds school easy. The relationship with her parents is full of silent conflict. More dramatic scenes involve friends, and her first girlfriends, and clashes with teachers. There are some passing references to moments that impact her development as a writer, though only elliptically. She also describes her solitary moments praying, quoting at length various Muslim prayers. Nothing is resolved exactly, by the end of the novel, but it does conclude with the promise that Daas is writing a novel and may, finally, manage to communicate with her mother, whose portrait is more tender than that of her father, whom Daas cut out of her life in her twenties.

Religion, and Daas’s evolving relationship with it, is one central conflict. Early on she states:

My mother told me we are born Muslim.
But I think I have converted.
I think I continue to convert to Islam.

I try to be as close as possible to my religion, to get closer, to make it a way of life.

I like finding myself on my prayer mat, feeling my forehead on the ground, seeing myself prostrated, submissive to God, to implore Him, to feel myself tiny before His greatness, before His love, before His omnipresence

La petite dernière is also a love story. ‘Nina Gonzales is the heroine of this story’, we are told midway through. But Nina only appears fleetingly, and we do not know what happens to her. All we can be sure of is the strength of Daas’s feelings for her, and how these have upturned her world. Here one of the few scenes of the two together, towards the end of the novel:

Nina lets me in, apologising.
I say I’ve seen worse.

At Nina’s, there’s a little hallway of two metres that leads to her bedroom. In there the bed is unmade, under the bed there are cigarette butts, on her desk there’s a TV surrounded by books.

There’s a guitar and next to it clothes that she has left lying around.
I feel funny in Nina’s place and at the same time I feel good.

There is something reassuring about this mess, as though I was finding my place, as though it was a bit my own place.

I have the pretention to think I will put order into Nina’s life, when there’s not any order in my own life, when I can’t even be arsed to tidy up my room, to make my bed, that at my age my mum still makes it for me.

With Nina by my side, I feel less weird. Less crazy. Less blocked.

The most impressive quality of La petite dernière is its restraint. So little is said about most things, but single phrases tell us or suggest to us a great deal. This is achieved through the quality of the writing. Every statement counts, and every statement is rich with meaning.

Given the subjects Daas engages with, and the very personal register she uses, I had expected a more conventional tell-all story. The novel is the opposite of this, and I was left instead with an impression of integrity. Daas is clearly wrestling with the difficult balance between fiction and reality, and how much she will allow herself to say. This integrity is inevitably reminiscent of Annie Ernaux’s work. Daas quotes a passage from Ernaux’s novel Passion simple when she asks Nina if she could write about her, to which Nina offers no clear reply:

            All this time I had the impression I was living my passion in a novelistic form, but now I don’t know in what form I am writing, if it is the form of a witness, like the accounts written in women’s’ magazines, or the form of a public witness statement, or even that of a text commentary.

I do not want to explain my passion – that would be like treating it as an error or an anomaly that has to be justified – I just want to set it out.

The French literary establishment has poured praise on the book, uncritically and unanimously celebrating the author as a ‘revelation’ with ‘intrepid prose’, as if to sidestep the main point Daas makes in La petite dernière that she became a writer not because of this literary establishment, certainly not with its help, but despite it. This is made clear in passages such as this, recounting an incident in college:

My name is Fatima Daas.
Before allowing myself to write, I satisfied the expectations of others.
After college I went to hypokhâgne, to prepare for a literary degree.
That’s what the good students do.
They go into medicine, or in prépa, or to Sciences Po.

For several months, I imitate my classmates.

I must:
Work several hours after each day of classes.
Learn dates and definitions by heart.
Take oral exams, read and comment on texts written exclusively by straight white cisgender men.

I arrive at my first class of the day, on a Wednesday. It’s eight thirty.
My Spanish teacher hands us back our homework. He keeps a hold of my copy. He looks at me with his big glasses.

– Mademoiselle Daas, would you please step outside with me a moment?

I get up and push my chair under my desk.
I can feel his impatience.
I don’t have the time to take my jacket.
I follow him, like an idiot.
He’s already outside, the door is closed.
Two, three students watch me as I leave.
I am wearing a T-shirt and I feel the wind on my arms, my hairs stand on end and it tickles me.

– So… Mademoiselle Daas (he says this with a good strong voice, looking at me straight in the eyes), I won’t do anything, you can relax, I just want to know the truth (he lets time pass to create a pathetic suspense). Who did your work?
I don’t really understand, so I say with a smile, my homework?
He says yes, your homework. Who did it in your place?
Sometimes, when people doubt me, I doubt myself, it’s funny, I invent situations to prove them right, but this time I didn’t want to because the work was easy and I didn’t enjoy doing it.
I said nothing.
I hoped he would tell me it was an April Fool’s joke in February, something, but he wasn’t the type of guy to crack jokes. I carried on believing he would eventually catch himself, that he would sense, from my silence, that it was all one big fucking joke.
He carried on with his mad story:
– OK, fine, who helped you?

I was getting tired, but I did reply:
– I love Spanish. I had 8/10 on average last year and I got 16 in the bac.

Then I realized that proving, demonstrating, making myself legitimate, showing what I was worth was not what other students had to do, the students who were all inside, in the warm. Nobody had to argue for ten minutes, in a T-shirt, in the cold, to prove they had deserved 17/20.

A month later I stopped preparatory classes.
I didn’t go into medicine.
I didn’t enter Sciences Po.
I wrote.

Daas did not chose Sciences Po, and it certainly did not choose her. She has since chosen not to play the designated role of ‘the chick from the banlieue who made it’. All of this makes her path harder, as does her unwillingness to iron out the conflict she sees between her religion and her sexuality. This has made for a fine first novel.

Read on: Natasha Pinnington’s engagement with the experimental life-writing of Annie Ernaux.

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Left Tide in Ireland

Parish-pump politics has underpinned elections in the Republic of Ireland for many years. In sending politicians to parliament, voters often think hyper-locally, foregrounding parochial issues and punishing representatives who neglect their home constituencies. The result is a frustrating lack of creative policy ideas and long-term planning at the national level, along with a cronyist and clientelist political culture that permeates the entire polity.

Yet the February 2020 general election demonstrated a series of shifts – social, political, ideological – that threaten to disrupt this decades-old pattern. For the first time, more voted for Sinn Féin, running on a social-democratic platform, than any other party. It secured 535,595 votes, next to Fianna Fáil’s 484,320 and Fine Gael’s 455,584. But because of Ireland’s proportional representation system, and Sinn Féin’s strategic error in not fielding enough candidates to fully capitalize on its vote-share, the division of seats was almost evenly split: 38 for the populist centre-right Fianna Fáil, 37 for Sinn Féin, 35 for the Thatcherite Fine Gael.

Sinn Féin has evolved from what is broadly described as the political wing of the IRA, and now occupies an odd space in Irish politics: a left-populist party whose policies are pitched at a newly politicized generation, but whose identity is tied to nationalist ideals that chime with an older demographic, many of whom imbibed the free-market orthodoxies of the Celtic Tiger. Its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, does not come from Sinn Féin’s traditional pool of Northern republicans with erstwhile paramilitary affiliations. A charismatic 51-year-old from Dublin, she is popular with female voters and has expanded the party’s growing base in working-class urban areas since becoming leader in 2018. Meanwhile, the party’s Northern arm has returned to Stormont after a three-year hiatus under the leadership of Michelle O’Neil. Sinn Féin’s aim of eroding partition by accumulating power in all 32 counties is back on course.

Analysis of the astonishing 2020 election results was soon eclipsed by the pandemic and the protracted process of government formation. With the Fine Gael-led caretaker administration mounting a relatively effective Covid-19 response, and Fianna Fáil desperate to install their leader, Micheál Martin, as Taoiseach, the country’s longstanding political establishment gained a new lease of life last May. The coalition government, formed after months of negotiation, comprised Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. It settled on a ‘rotating Taoiseach’ arrangement: giving the job to Martin initially, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar agreeing to serve as deputy before assuming the post again in two years’ time. This outcome – a damp squib belying the profound political shift evinced by the election – gave rise to a chaotic, old-new power-bloc which has since lurched from crisis to scandal to mishap.

Yet within this maelstrom, the most significant change of 2020 may not be the rise of Sinn Féin, nor even the electorate’s clearly articulated disenchantment with the Fianna Fáil–Fine Gael duopoly (one of these parties has served in every government since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922). No, it was rather that the electorate appeared to turn away from their localities and zoom out, voting on national issues in a national election. Added to that, the haze that has traditionally obscured Ireland’s left–right divisions (a symptom of the near-identical centre-right colouration of the ruling parties) seemed to lift, and people began discussing politics in those agonistic terms.

If, as the veteran Irish current-affairs journalist Vincent Browne once remarked, the problem with politics in Ireland is the lack of politics – if the electorate is typically asked to measure the subtle distinctions between two outfits cut from the same conservative cloth – 2020 ruptured this setup. The election was no longer a hair-splitting contest but an ideological struggle, forcing each party to set out its vision – or lack thereof – for the post-recessionary period. Fine Gael, having been in power since 2011 (first in coalition with the Labour Party, then in a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with Fianna Fáil), clearly resented this development. After a self-satisfied campaign in which they avoided discussing Ireland’s overlapping social crises (particularly in housing and healthcare), they came away astounded by the electorate’s failure to reward them for ten years of austerity, plus a warped ‘recovery’ in which rents skyrocketed, homelessness soared, and tens of thousands emigrated.

Baffled by this transformation, Ireland’s national media came increasingly to sound like international observers, assessing the events from afar and distilling them for a foreign audience. People ‘voted for change’, they said, without specifying which people or what kind. Voters, especially in young and previously disengaged demographics, had clearly gravitated towards Sinn Féin – long the black sheep of Irish party politics. Yet beneath that movement was a grassroots campaign whose simple instruction was expressed by its hashtag: #VoteLeftTransferLeft. This sentiment cut through, catapulting inexperienced candidates to parliament on the back of the Sinn Féin brand, and enabling most far-left contenders (from the Trotskyist parliamentary bloc Solidarity–People Before Profit) to retain their seats.

In one sense, Ireland’s 2011 election was just as seismic: voters instigated the third highest turnover of parliamentarians in any Western democracy since World War II. Yet this was occasioned by a singular event – the economic calamity overseen by Fianna Fáil, and the consequent imperative to expel them from power – rather than a secular trend. The social fragmentation wrought by the recession of the 2010s saw another bizarre pattern play out in the forgotten 2014 local elections, which returned a staggering 193 independent politicians, while increasing Sinn Féin’s tally of local councilors from 54 to 159 (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael won 267 and 235 seats respectively). This erratic showing testified to a growing political vacuum, and a disorientated electorate with little enthusiasm for any party. Much of that floating vote now appears to have settled (albeit temporarily, perhaps) on Sinn Féin, whose identification with the left – and emphasis on social issues alongside Irish unity – has increased under McDonald’s leadership.

Amid Sinn Féin’s rejuvenation, there has been a burgeoning sense that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil represent an outmoded twentieth-century political orthodoxy. Ireland’s social revolution – whose landmarks were the referenda on marriage equality in 2015 and abortion in 2018 – began long before those votes, as the 2008 economic collapse coincided with the ongoing decline of the Catholic Church, compounded by revelations of historic sexual abuse and brutality in the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. The consequent ructions to the national psyche created an opening for Sinn Féin to alter the ideological consensus, whose standard-bearing parties, having reinforced the power of the Church for much of the last century, are now desperate to diminish that association – hence their token adoption of socially liberal policies over the past decade. The Repeal and marriage equality campaigns created a primarily millennial political bloc led by women and queer people, whose formation is a far cry from Sinn Féin’s often highly macho republican tradition, but whose insurgent energy – and single-issue focus – has nonetheless harmonized with the party’s progressive platform.

The 2020 election rearticulated the nebulous sense of discontent we saw in 2014, yet this time its object – the ‘quality of life’ issues affected by Fine Gael’s austerity programme – was more clearly focalized: poor planning, urban gentrification, grinding commutes, lengthy hospital waiting lists, a multifaceted housing crisis that had rendered over 10,000 people homeless, crippling rent, inflated property prices, expensive childcare and unmanageable living costs. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s abstract metrics of success – reduced unemployment and GDP – felt meaningless to many voters. Our economy was apparently ‘booming’, but for whom? We were said to have ‘turned a corner’, but to where? With EU backing, Fine Gael may have struck an authoritative note when it came to negotiating Brexit (though that was hardly difficult compared to the chaotic and cartoonish Tories), but whether they could protect the Irish people from its impact, given their dogmatic aversion to stimulus spending, was another matter entirely.

Though Fine Gael tried to cash-in on the ‘recovery’, voters recognized that this return to growth was not a monolithic process. By and large, they approved of new independent businesses but rejected hyper-gentrification. They accepted the need for urban development, but not the kind that began to pockmark Dublin’s city centre at an alarming pace: luxury student accommodation, five-star hotels and socially corrosive ‘co-living’ developments. Tourism was welcome, but AirBnB’s unchecked accumulation of housing stock was not (leading activists to occupy the company’s Dublin headquarters in 2018). Unemployment had dramatically decreased from its peak of 17.3% during the recession, but it was hard to ignore the minimal tax intake from the Big Tech companies – including the government’s determined refusal to claim back €13bn worth of public revenue from Apple despite the orders of the European Commission.

While many analysts have come to terms with the fact that Sinn Féin are currently the main benefactors of this diffuse appetite for change, it remains to be seen whether they will retain this position – or whether the intergenerational coalition they’ve assembled will eventually come apart. Indeed, if the underlying dynamic is an electorate shocked out of localism by a decade of national upheaval, there are others who stand to gain from this trend. Fine Gael, having reached across the aisle to its historic rival, and steered the country through a major public health crisis, has been polling evenly with Sinn Féin – and may redouble this ‘one nation’ messaging once the post-pandemic downturn hits. Could it work? Only if the official opposition squanders its momentum, and fails to preserve the continuity between its social policies and the broader cultural transformation that has taken shape during the recessionary era.

Read on: Daniel Finn’s study of the power blocs of post-crash Ireland and opposition from the streets.

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Hopes for 2021?

Someone wrote me asking ‘what were my hopes for 2021?’ I replied that before talking about hopes and opportunities we first need to acknowledge our collective shame in failing last year to build an effective national protest movement against the policies that led to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people and the economic ruin of tens of millions more. The impacts, of course, have been grotesquely amplified in communities of colour and amongst the low-wage workforce. (Here in California two-thirds of the dead bear Spanish surnames.) Minority senior citizens are reckoned to comprise a majority of the 110,000 nursing home deaths highlighted in the New York Times yesterday: a massacre equal in number to a common estimate of those killed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  

From late March onwards the momentum for such a movement was generated by hundreds of rank-and-file protests and job actions by healthcare, food industry and service workers, with Nurses United as a national voice. In some areas, DSA chapters and BLM groups organized support activities while immigrant and prison rights activists attempted to draw attention to the pandemic explosion inside prisons, jails and detention facilities. But there was no real attempt at national coordination or the creation of an inclusive emergency coalition. Nor can I recall a single progressive publication editorializing in favour of national protests and movement building.  

One might have expected the leadership to have come from Sanders and Our Revolution, but while Bernie applauded workers and offered progressive proposals for congressional action, his camp was almost entirely absorbed in getting out the vote in November. In effect he abdicated what had been a major premise of his campaign: the integral role of protest in galvanizing voters. The national union response was equally electoral and on the part of many unions, chillingly low-key. While BLM repeatedly demonstrated that masked and distanced protest could safely return to the streets, liberals and too many progressives stayed bunkered down and harmless.

As a result, Trump’s neo-fascist mobs – criminally active vectors of infection – ended up owning the pandemic or, perhaps more accurately, the economic sacrifices that Republican policies imposed. For its part, the slow-brained and mechanical Biden campaign allowed health and jobs to be counterposed as priorities, giving away millions of votes to Trump. Nor did the Democrats press the most obvious populist button available: the immense upward transfer of wealth to Bezos and the zillionaire class.  

A national protest movement would have opened a second front for BLM and changed the election dynamics. It would have highlighted the specific union and community organizing campaigns that should be priorities for support in 2021. It would have kept Medicare for All on the top of the agenda and prevented the current marginalization of progressive voices inside the Biden administration.  

The left needs to face the fact that despite the huge popularity of its ideas and the dynamic example of BLM we remain clueless and disorganized as a national force. We need to stop looking for electoral silver-linings and get ourselves together. Renew our commitment to BLM and work like hell to build a multi-issue national coalition for life and justice.

Read on: Mike Davis’s granular analysis of the US election results.

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Winners All

After two days and one night, not to mention several weeks of mutual recrimination and blackmail, 27 national governments, the European Commission and the European Parliament declared themselves to be winners – all of them. A miracle? The first thing to learn about Brussels is that nothing there is what it seems and everything can be presented in an unending variety of ways. Moreover, the number of players and playing fields is huge and confusing, and they are working under an institutional framework called ‘the Treaties’ so complicated that no outsider understands it. Skilled operators find in it innumerable opportunities for obfuscation, procedural tricks, evasive ambiguity, pretence and excuses – differing interpretations and alternative facts cordially invited. And, importantly, there is on top of it all a deeply rooted tacit understanding among the members of that most exclusive and secretive body, the European Council of Heads of State and Government, that it is everybody’s duty to ensure that none of them has to return home looking like a loser, so all of them will remain willing to continue playing the game.

Take the Corona Recovery Fund. The first thing one must know is that it has nothing to do with Corona and everything to do with saving the Italian government from Signor Salvini. The second thing is that it has nothing to do with European solidarity either: every country gets something and nobody pays anything, as the fund consists of debt and debt alone: a supranational extension of the debt state. Moreover, nobody knows how that debt will be serviced and repaid, and nobody cares since this will start only seven years hence. Most likely repayment will be by new debt anyway or, through some arcane channel, by the European Central Bank. This, of course, would be illegal under the Treaties, but so may be taking up the debt in the first place. It also seems that all 27 national parliaments must agree to the fund, but nobody worries about this since they all get a share of the booty.

This doesn’t mean it’s all peace and friendship. Empires depend on a successful management of peripheral by central elites. In the EU, peripheral elites must be staunchly ‘pro-European’, meaning in favour of the ‘ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’ as governed by Germany with France through the Brussels bureaucracy. Germany and the European Commission have long suspected the present governments of Hungary and Poland of not being sufficiently ‘pro-European’. Similar suspicions exist in the so-called European Parliament, which does not covet members who are not in favour of ‘more Europe’. (‘More Europe’ is the raison d’être of this strange Parliament that has neither an opposition nor a right to legislate.) EP-members from Hungary’s and Poland’s liberal opposition parties therefore find ample support for withholding European money from their home countries’ non-liberal governments, to make voters there believe that they get more cash from ‘Europe’ if they vote for ‘pro-European’ parties. So why not make payments from the Corona Recovery Fund conditional on a country upholding the ‘rule of law’, defining ‘rule of law’ so that the policies of non-liberal elected governments do not conform to it?

Sounds good? Well, there are the Treaties. Under the Treaties, member countries, all of them, including Hungary and Poland, remain sovereign, and their domestic institutions and policies, for example family and immigration policies, are for their electorates to decide, not for Brussels or Berlin. When it comes to a country’s legal institutions, the only legitimate concern of the EU is whether EU funds are properly spent and accounted for. Here, however, Poland has an immaculate record, and Hungary seems still on or above the level of ‘pro-European’ Bulgaria and Romania, not to mention Malta. So what to do?

In Brussels there is always a way. The Commission has for some time tried to punish Poland and Hungary under a different provision in the Treaties that forbids member countries interfering with the independence of their judiciary. But this is such a big bazooka that member states hesitate to let the Commission activate it. (It also raises uncomfortable questions on the political independence of, say, the French Conseil d’Etat.) Now, however, comes the Corona Fund, and with it the idea of a so-called ‘Rule-of-Law Mechanism’ (ROLM) attached to it, on the premise that if you don’t have an independent judiciary, including a liberal constitutional court, and perhaps also if you don’t admit refugees as a matter of human rights and in obedience to EU distribution quotas, there is no assurance that your accounting for your use of European money will be accurate.

Can this work? Anything is possible in Brussels. The reasoning is similar to that with which the European Central Bank prevailed in the European Court of Justice against the German Constitutional Court (the PSPP ruling). The Treaties limit the ECB to monetary policy, reserving fiscal policy for the member states. But the ECB argued that monetary policy can today no longer be separated from fiscal policy, from which it follows that fiscal policy now falls in the domain of the central bank. In response, the German court, now cited by the governments of Poland and Hungary, insisted that European competences are strictly limited to what members have explicitly conceded in the Treaties, and if more European competences are needed the Treaties must be changed accordingly, which requires unanimity. This was the situation when the wrestling began in earnest.

Move I (the EU): We invite you to agree to the Corona Fund, including the ROLM and the possibility of you not getting anything unless you mend your illiberal ways.

Countermove (Poland and Hungary): We will never vote for this mechanism, so forget about your fund. Veto!

Move II: If you vote against the mechanism and thereby against the Fund, we’ll set up a fund for the other 25, and we’ll find a Treaty base for it, the Treaties are big and complex enough, paper is patient as the Germans say, and you won’t get a damn cent.

Countermove: That won’t be nice, it won’t be European (little they know!), and it would be illegal.

The chorus, impersonated by the German press, singing and dancing: See, money works; they do as they are told because they want our cash. It’s so good to be rich.

Enter the presidents, in the hour of truth, led by Merkel, dea ex machina, Mistress of the Closed Session, representing the country that happens to formally preside over the other countries in the second half of 2020, and informally anyway. Germany needs Eastern Europe for business. It also feels it cannot allow the Americans to have a monopoly on anti-Russian geopolitics. This precludes falling out with Poland over Polish sovereignty. After much back and forth, in the darkroom of intergovernmental diplomacy, Poland and Hungary agree to the Recovery Fund, complemented by a ROL document. According to it the Commission will issue a ‘Budget Protection Directive’ tying Corona and indeed any other EU subsidies to a national legal system independent enough to secure a correct accounting for EU moneys received. The Directive will not, however, take force until it is reviewed by the European Court. In the meantime – likely to last until early 2023 – the Commission will take no action under it, and money will flow to all 27. Once, and if, the mechanism has passed muster by the Court, the Commission may start proceedings against Poland, Hungary or both, to claim back money already disbursed, on the ground that the Polish and Hungarian legal systems are so rotten that they cannot generally be expected to render judgments in line with, well, the ‘rule of law’. Clearly this will take more time, and nobody knows what the world will be like then and what member states will by then be concerned about.

In Europe, grace periods work wonders. For the time being there is universal happiness: among the various Presidents, the Parliament (which got its amendment passed), the Commission (which gets a new toy with which to harass member states and feel important), the Court (its jurisdiction growing by the day), and the national governments including Hungary and Poland (who won’t talk about the informal assurances they received under the counter). The politics of deferment, Merkel’s favourite discipline, knows only winners – as long as it lasts.

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International Letters

A strong dose of idealism is needed to keep any magazine going. For Lettre Internationale, it’s no less than to counteract the ‘provincialism of the great cultures’ and induce them to ‘see themselves through the eyes of others’. How? By scouring the world for the best texts in any language and offering them in exquisite translation.  

That was the ambition of Antonín Liehm, a Czech editor who spent his life between France and the US after the crushing of the Prague Spring. On December 4, he passed away in that city, at the age of 96. Three-quarters of a century before, he had started his first magazine, Kulturní politika, along with E. F. Burian, one of the country’s most innovative theater directors. As the rubble from World War II was still being cleared, the 21 year-old Liehm churned out the culture-meets-politics platform at the mad pace of a weekly. The magazine was pro-communist, but not an appendage of the Party, and ran for three years before Liehm rubbed the government the wrong way by publishing a poem deemed an anti-state conspiracy.

In 1960, he took over the Litérarní noviny and transformed what had been a Stalinist mouthpiece of the Writers’ Association into the most popular intellectual journal of the country. The LN wove a critical politics out of reportage on culture, philosophy, film, theatre and literature – Sartre, Aragon, the New Wave. For a readership of over 130,000, it supplied uncompromising and provocative articles that shimmied past the censors via sympathetic connections. Within a few hours of its appearance every Thursday, the magazine was sold out.

In 1960s Czechoslovakia, Liehm later reflected, its place was akin to that of the Encyclopédie in eighteenth-century France: a venue for the taboo in pamphlet form. And it carried similarly profound political repercussions. Promoting the reform of communism, Liehm’s concoction was a crucial catalyst for the Prague Spring, and several of its writers were leaders in the uprising. A year after the Soviet tanks rolled in, the magazine’s editor, on the list of people to be ‘shot down’, found refuge in Paris.

In exile, Liehm cobbled together his finances by teaching film and literature at universities in France and the US while searching for another publishing venture.  Gunter Grass and Heinrich Böll showed interest in assembling an East-West magazine, but for Liehm, this was too parochial. Only something truly international would suffice, something that would take down not only the wall separating Eastern and Western Europe, but the pedestal on which the latter stood as well. For Grass, this was not German enough, and the two parted ways.

It was at sixty that Liehm founded the outlet for this vision: Lettre Internationale. Funding he scrambled together from the French Ministry of Culture and Polish and Hungarian émigrés, who were willing to support an intellectual journal of the type they knew from home.  It wasn’t a fortune, but it was enough to birth the magazine in a one-room office shared with another dissident leftist, Paul Noirot. What money there was all went to pay the translators, whose work had to be of the highest quality: the texts were to read as fluently in French as they did in the original. Without funds to commission writers, the magazine was assembled as a collage, anchored by central text, juxtaposed against others, and refracted through images and poetry interspersed throughout. 

But it was to be much more.  The foundational idea was an international network of publications, but one quite unlike the standard sort that offers simply the same fare in different languages. Moving past the intellectual divisions in Europe and beyond – not merely East-West, but also North-South – meant not standardization but localization: half of the texts in each issue were to overlap, while the rest could be determined on the ground. Perhaps only Le Monde Diplomatique’s global federation of partner editions provides a contemporary comparison. 

In the late 1980s, Leihm’s vision spread quickly, with the rapid appearance of sister magazines in Italian (Lettera Internazionale, 1985), Spanish (Letra Internacional, 1986), and German (Lettre International, 1987). When the East opened in the 1990s, the pan-European ebullience, buoyed by foundation funding, spawned even more – Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian versions, while smaller western countries, Denmark and the Netherlands, caught up.

But noble intentions alone don’t pay the presses and the idealistic aim struggled against the technology available at the time: the texts circulated, slowly, by post. Within a decade, the French version collapsed, and no edition ever appeared outside Europe, which remained the central geographic focus. Now merely six languages remain: the Russian edition has found refuge online, and the rest struggle to hang on.

Only in Germany has the project continued in full form, without qualification, under founder-editor Frank Berberich. With a circulation of over 20,000, the Berlin-based Lettre International is the widest-read literary magazine in the country. This is no small feat for a chunky periodical of 150 pages printed on broad A3 paper. As such, it’s very much a stay-at-home quarterly: even rolled up, it won’t fit into a handbag. In public, it can be seen mostly in the window of cafes or wine shops, like a Zagat sticker signaling taste.

But the uncooperative format is perhaps a needed concession to the magazine’s interdisciplinarity. In the tradition of Breton’s Minotaure, it showcases artworks between the articles, and the uncompromised size gives them their rightful due. Covers are typically head-turners (for example, a watercolor of an S&M orgy), while the pictorial contributions inside, from the likes of Ai Weiwei, Annie Lebowitz, or Georg Baselitz, offer a moment for breath between the texts.

Three-quarters of these are translations that range across essays, reportage, interviews, poetry, fiction, commentaries and analysis. European languages predominate, but authors outside the West are not in short supply. The point is discovery – German readers have Lettre to thank for the introduction of Slavoj Zizek and Liao Yiwu to their shelves – and disruption. The magazine darts between political perspectives and hovers around the contentious.  It was in an interview with Lettre that then Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin first expounded his views on Muslim immigrants’ ‘unwillingness to integrate’, sparking a media frenzy and his eventual departure from public life. Recent issues have covered deglobalization and epidemics, the ganglands of Kosovo, the transformation of writing, apocalypse past and present, mutations of racism in America, the fraught Americanization of Europe, as well as the philosophy of touch – all from original texts in more than a half-dozen languages – and in its massive, obstinate format.

How should we conceptualize these internationalist endeavours? In The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova mapped the global literary order onto an uneven political-economic terrain. If universalist vernaculars once facilitated literary communication across vast swathes of territory, the Herderian revolution of nineteenth-century nationalism swept them aside as authors embraced writing in one’s native tongue as both right and necessity. The outcome was a more localized literary space, bounded by nationalized languages. Yet if languages were increasingly homogenized within state borders, literary worlds remained vastly unequal beyond them, country power a determining feature of their global rank. The effect is a hierarchy, much as in the field of international relations.

Within it, what passes now as world literature is determined in the hubs of power – London, Paris, New York. These dominant centres host the publishing, reviewing, translating and prize-giving mechanisms that function as gatekeepers of taste and arbiters of the new. The result is not a Republic of Letters, but an Empire of the same. Outsiders, whether from social margins or peripheral countries, gain admittance only if they conform to the establishment’s criteria of taste. The parochialism is perhaps strongest within the current global hegemon: in the US, works in translation account for only 3 percent of all books sold. 

Liehm’s vision for Lettre – like his politics since the 1940s – subverted this order from the inside. He took a project, born on the periphery of Europe, and transposed it to Paris where he attempted to raze the inequalities on which the continent’s literary capital rose, for translation was supposed to go both ways. There are as likely to be Arabic texts that readers of Swedish should access as vice versa, he would comment. The success of the magazine’s offspring in Germany would not have surprised Casanova. The country’s linguistic power lags far behind its economic might; as such, interest in translation from its hinterlands is an understandable response.

Or maybe it is that Germany remains the last bastion within Europe of the once wide-spread feuilleton culture, still materialized as an extended section in weekend newspapers. These, as a rule, carry long-form essays on politics and arts that assume a far more literate public than even the London Review might expect of its readers. Perhaps only this, and the feuilleton’s ritual venue – the Sunday breakfast that stretches on until sunset, round a table covered in jam and breadcrumbs – can explain how a magazine as thick and uncompromising as Lettre can survive in an age of blogs.