Categories
Uncategorised

Friedman’s Last Gasp

Thomas Friedman’s recent column in the New York Times reflecting on Israel’s 11-day destruction of Gaza is a showcase for the delusions of liberal Zionism: a constellation of thought that has never looked so threadbare. It seems that every liberal newspaper needs a Thomas Friedman – the UK’s Guardian has Jonathan Freedland – whose role is to keep readers from considering realistic strategies for Israel-Palestine, however often and catastrophically the established ones have failed. In this case, Friedman’s plea for Joe Biden to preserve the ‘potential of a two-state solution’ barely conceals his real goal: resuscitating the discourse of an illusory ‘peace process’ from which everyone except liberal Zionists has moved on. His fear is that the debate is quietly shifting outside this framework – towards the recognition that Israel is a belligerent apartheid regime, and the conclusion that one democratic state for Palestinians and Jews is now the only viable solution.

For more than five decades, the two-state solution – of a large, ultra-militarized state for Israel, and a much smaller, demilitarized one for Palestinians – has been the sole paradigm of the Western political and media class. During these years, a Palestinian state failed to materialize despite (or more likely because of) various US-backed ‘peace processes’. While Americans and Europeans have consoled themselves with such fantasies, Israel has only paid them lip-service, enforcing a de facto one-state solution premised on Jewish supremacy over Palestinians, and consolidating its control over the entire territory.

But in recent years, Israel’s naked settler-colonial actions have imperiled that Western paradigm. It has become increasingly evident that Israel is incapable of making peace with the Palestinians because its state ideology – Zionism – is based on their removal or eradication. What history has taught us is that the only just and lasting way to end a ‘conflict’ between a native population and a settler-colonial movement is decolonization, plus the establishment of a single, shared, democratic state. Otherwise, the settlers continue to pursue their replacement strategies – which invariably include ethnic cleansing, communal segregation and genocide. These were precisely the tactics adopted by European colonists in the Americas, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Friedman’s function in the Western media – conscious or not – is to obfuscate these historical lessons, tapping into a long legacy of unthinking colonial racism.

One of the central pillars of that legacy is an abiding fear of the native and his supposedly natural savagery. This has always been the unspoken assumption behind the interminable two-state ‘peace process’. A civilized and civilizing West tries to broker a ‘peace deal’ to protect Israel from the Palestinian hordes next door. But the Palestinians continuously ‘reject’ these peace overtures because of their savage nature – which is in turn presented as the reason why Israel must ethnically cleanse them and herd them into reservations, or Bantustans, away from Jewish settlers. Occasionally, Israel is forced to ‘retaliate’ – or defend itself from this savagery – in what becomes an endless ‘cycle of violence’. The West supports Israel with military aid and preferential trade, while watching with exasperation as the Palestinian leadership fails to discipline its people.

Friedman is an expert at exploiting this colonial mentality. He often avoids taking direct responsibility for his racist assumptions, attributing them to ‘centrist Democrats’ or other right-minded observers. Coded language is his stock in trade, serving to heighten the unease felt by western audiences as the natives try to regain a measure of control over their future. In some cases the prejudicial framing is overt, as with his concern about the threat of an ascendant Hamas to women’s and LGBTQ rights, couched in an identity politics he knows will resonate with NYT readers. But more often his framing is insidious, with terms like ‘decimate’ and ‘blow up’ deployed to cast Palestinians’ desire for self-determination as violent and menacing.  

Friedman’s promotion of the two-state model offers a three-layered deception. First, he writes that the two-state solution would bring ‘peace’, without acknowledging that the condition for that peace is the Palestinians’ permanent ghettoization and subjugation. Second, he blames the Palestinians for rejecting just such ‘peace plans’, even though they have never been seriously offered by Israel. And finally, he has the chutzpah to imply that it was the Palestinians’ failure to negotiate a two-state solution that ‘decimated’ the Israeli ‘peace camp’.

Such arguments are not only based on Friedman’s dehumanizing view of Arabs. They are also tied to his domestic political concerns. He fears that if Joe Biden were to acknowledge the reality that Israel has sabotaged the two-state solution, then the President might disengage once and for all from the ‘peace process’. Of course, most Palestinians would welcome such an end to US interference: the billions of dollars funnelled annually to the Israeli military, the US diplomatic cover for Israel, and the arm-twisting of other states to silently accept its atrocities. But, Friedman argues, this withdrawal would carry a heavy price at home, setting off a civil war within Biden’s own party and within Jewish organizations across the US. God forbid, it might ‘even lead to bans on arms sales’ to Israel.

Friedman reminds us of Israeli businessman Gidi Grinstein’s warning that in the absence of a ‘potential’ two-state solution, US support for Israel could morph ‘from a bipartisan issue to a wedge issue’. The columnist writes that preserving the two-state ‘peace process’, however endless and hopeless, is ‘about our national security interests in the Middle East’. How does Friedman define these interests? They are reducible, he says, to ‘the political future of the centrist faction of the Democratic Party.’ A ‘peace process’ once designed to salve the consciences of Americans while enabling the dispossession of Palestinians has now been redefined as a vital US national security issue – because, for Friedman, its survival is necessary to preserve the dominance of foreign policy hawks in the Democratic machine. The argument echoes Biden’s extraordinarily frank admission made back in 1986 that ‘were there not an Israel the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region’.

Friedman then concludes his article with a set of proposals that unwittingly expose the true consequences of a two-state settlement. He insists that Biden build on his predecessor’s much ridiculed ‘peace plan’, which gave US blessing to Israel’s illegal settlements on vast swaths of the occupied West Bank, penning Palestinians into their Bantustans indefinitely. Trump’s plan also sought to entrench Israel’s control over occupied East Jerusalem, remake Gaza as a permanent battlefield on which rivalries between Fatah and Hamas would intensify, and turn the wealth of the theocratic Gulf states into a weapon, fully integrating Israel into the region’s economy while making the Palestinians even more dependent on foreign aid. Polite NYT opinionators now want Biden to sell these measures as a re-engagement with the ‘peace process’.

The US, writes Friedman, should follow Trump in stripping the Palestinians of a capital in East Jerusalem – the economic, religious and historic heart of Palestine. Arab states should reinforce this dispossession by moving their embassies from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. Neighbouring countries are encouraged to pressure the Palestinian Authority, via aid payments, to accede even more cravenly to Israel’s demands. (Of course, Friedman does not think it worth mentioning that Palestine is aid-dependent because Israel has either stolen or seized control of all its major resources.)

Once this subordinate position is guaranteed, divisions within the Palestinian national movement can be inflamed by making Hamas – plus the two million Palestinians in Gaza – dependent on the PA’s patronage. Friedman wants the Fatah-led PA to decide whether to send aid to the Gaza Strip or join Israel in besieging the enclave to weaken Hamas. For good measure, he also urges the Gulf states to cut off support to the United Nations aid agencies, like UNRWA, which have kept millions of Palestinian refugees fed and cared for since 1948. The international community’s already feeble commitment to the rights of Palestinian refugees will thus be broken, and the diaspora will be forcibly absorbed into their host countries.

Such proposals are the last gasp of a discredited liberal Zionism. Friedman visibly flounders as he tries to put the emperor’s clothes back on a two-state solution which stands before us in all its ugliness. The Western model of ‘peace-making’ was always about preserving Jewish supremacy. Now, at least, the illusions are gone.

Read on: Kareem Rabie, ‘Remaking Ramallah’, NLR 111.

Categories
Uncategorised

Get It and Waste It

The landlocked, resource-rich Central African Republic has been in a state of almost perpetual turmoil since independence from France in 1960. The latest bout of unrest started with the 2013 overthrow of President François Bozizé, the former army chief of staff. Within a year, the UN had accused Bozizé of ‘engaging in or providing support for acts that undermine the peace, stability or security of CAR’, having tried and failed to take Bangui, the capital. Three-quarters of the country – which is almost the size of France – came to be controlled by 14 separate militias. A peace accord in 2019 brought a brief respite, but this ended in the run-up to the 27 December 2020 presidential election when the Constitutional Court declared Bozizé ineligible to stand because he failed to fulfil the ‘good morality’ requirement. According to the court, he was still subject to a government-issued arrest warrant for his alleged role in murders, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and torture. Everyone knew that the matter was personal. The incumbent, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, previously an obscure academic, was picked by Bozizé to be Prime Minister in 2008, only to be dismissed by Bozizé less than a year later. When the election took place Touadéra swept to victory – although only one third of the electorate was able to vote after militia warfare displaced of hundreds of thousands. Various militias have since come together as the Coalition of Patriots for Change, with Bozizé accepting the ‘call’ to be its ‘general coordinator’.

This is the familiar story of an African country with plentiful resources that never reach the general population. Although not in the top league, CAR has significant deposits of high quality – or gem – diamonds, along with gold and uranium. Yet its five million inhabitants are amongst the poorest in the world, exceeded in sub-Saharan African only by Niger, which is equally landlocked but mostly desert. According to UN figures, two-thirds of the population are dependent on food aid, itself jeopardised by the fighting. In March alone, there were 34 incidents of looting, nine vehicles were carjacked and two humanitarian workers were injured (one by a bullet). None of this is new. It was perhaps even worse in the colonial period when, between 1890 and 1940, the population was reckoned to have declined by half due to disease, famine and exploitation. Nowadays, CAR is of little strategic interest to the former colonial powers, which is why the ongoing tragedy is barely reported. This is in contrast to, say, neighbouring Chad, where the recent death of the long-serving Idriss Déby captured the world’s attention because of the country’s position in an ‘unusually dangerous neighbourhood’ – Boko Haram in the east, Isis in the north – against which it acts as a bulwark.

Indeed, the only time CAR made any showing on the world stage was in 1977 when the then president, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, declared the country an empire and crowned himself ‘Emperor of Central Africa’ in a two-day ceremony during which he wore a replica of Napoleon’s ermine-lined scarlet cape made by the same Paris firm which embroidered his hero’s uniforms. An embarrassed President Valery Giscard d’Estaing underwrote the spectacle to the tune of $22 million – gold-plated eagle throne, gold crown, 60,000 bottles of champagne and burgundy. As Emperor Bokassa I himself put it: ‘We ask the French for money, get it and waste it.’ And yet he had a point of sorts when he said that he did what he did ‘in order to give dignity to my country in the eyes of the world’ – a country which, as The Washington Post noted at the time, was otherwise ‘best known for supplying platter-lipped women to circus sideshows’.

Then, two years into his reign, even the French were forced to turn on Bokassa after the killing of over one hundred children who protested because they couldn’t afford the school uniform available exclusively in his wife’s shops. The leader and his family were forced into exile and the country returned to being an invisible republic. (In a final twist, Bokassa scuppered d’Estaing’s second-term bid by revealing that he had secretly accepted diamonds worth a quarter of a million dollars, rendering them both political outcasts.) 

As I write, there is no good reason to believe that normalcy will return to CAR anytime soon. Although a 12,000-strong UN mission (along with several hundred Rwandan troops) nominally keeps the peace in the territory still under government control, the government is heavily reliant on the services of Russian mercenaries, following Touadéra’s visit to Putin in 2018 to discuss the exchange of mining contracts in return for weapons. Bangui subsequently granted gold- and diamond-mining permits to Russian companies with suspected links to business mogul, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is a close associate of Putin. Officially, the Kremlin admits to having 535 military experts ‘in line with the international community’s general efforts to strengthen [CAR’s] security structures’. Three freelance Russian journalists who travelled to the country to document the activities of a private security company connected to the Kremlin were attacked and killed (‘in an ambush’). Nonetheless, it is known that one such Russian firm, Wagner Group, employs over 1,000 personnel. Another, Sewa Security Services, guards the airports and ministries and is part of the president’s own detail. The UN has accused both of ‘serious human rights violations’, including mass shootings, arbitrary arrests, torture and attacks on civilian facilities; but it’s unlikely that either they or the president – or Putin, for that matter – will be particularly bothered. If the words of the Russian ambassador, Vladimir Titorenko, are anything to go by, the Kremlin has no plan to wind down its intervention. Titorenko recently warned Bozizé to ‘renounce the armed struggle’ or risk being ‘neutralised’.

What is the rest of the continent doing about this running sore? Precious little. Here in Nigeria, not a line in any newspaper or over the airwaves – and this in a country with more newspapers and radio stations than the entire West African region put together. The government itself has not issued a statement, nor has it been debated in the Senate or the House, despite the claim that Africa is the ‘centre-piece’ of our foreign policy. The African Union, which declared itself satisfied with the conduct of the December elections after observing the process in just four of the country’s 20 prefectures, has since called for ‘dialogue’. Their approach, they explained, was ‘as the weaver when he puts the veil on the wheel. It is not to break it but improve it. We must always try to talk to each other, to cooperate.’ This doesn’t seem to have impressed either side.

The 11-member Economic Community of Central African States has been even less forthcoming – although this has not stopped President Touadéra from continuing to solicit help from neighbouring states. In a visit to Abuja on 24 May, he called on the Nigerian government to assist CAR in rebuilding its army, and on Nigerian citizens to invest in the country. Neither of these are likely prospects. Nigeria’s military has been beleaguered by trying to cope with Boko Haram, to say nothing of the increasing spate of kidnappings, and its business community is reluctant to invest abroad given the lack of support from the country’s foreign missions.

In the meantime, the Central African Armed Forces are effectively pushing back against Bozizé following the attack on Bangui by the Coalition of Patriots for Change. Government troops have reportedly been helped by Russian and Rwandan forces, who not only assisted on the battlefield but also improved the army’s administrative and organizational capacity. According to a statement by Cardinal Nzapalainga, Archbishop of Bangui, ‘A change is underway in the Central African Republic. The armed rebels who had entered the cities have left them and are in the forests’, yet ‘it remains to be seen whether this is real or just temporary peace.’ Judging from the country’s recent history, it is clear which of these options is more likely.

Giovanni Arrighi, ‘The African Crisis’, NLR 15.

Categories
Uncategorised

Chile Confounds

It happened again. Chilean elites have twice been confounded in the past year. First, by the resounding vote on 25 October to draft a new constitution, driven by the popular anger that had built up over three decades inside the country’s neoliberal pressure cooker. Second, by the surge of independent candidates in the elections for the Constitutional Convention on 15 May. For several reasons, there had been a virtual consensus among pundits that the Convention would be monopolized by party politics: the electoral rules which favoured candidates who run in lists (benefiting traditional parties and coalitions); the lack of funding and airtime allotted to independents; the numerous opinion polls predicting less than 1% of the vote would go to non-party candidates; the negative effects of the pandemic on turnout. The Convention, they predicted, would end up looking very similar to the current Congress, only with more women and indigenous peoples due to gender parity rules and reserved seats. Because a two-thirds supermajority was needed to approve all articles of the new constitution – a rule imposed in a backdoor agreement between the party leaderships – there was a palpable sense of relief. The electoral process, they thought, had managed to tame the constituent power that erupted during the popular uprisings of late 2019.  

The two-day election in mid-May saw 1,373 candidates competing for 155 seats. Despite President Piñera’s single-digit approval rating, the most conservative projections had given at least 51 seats to Vamos por Chile, the electoral bloc of the right-wing governing coalition plus the far-right pro-Pinochet Partido Republicano. The opposition coalition, which ruled the country for most of the past three decades as the Concertación, was also forecast to win just over a third of the vote. This would have given the two dominant coalitions (which have ruled Chile since the return to democracy) the ability not only to block new constitutional articles, but also to pass provisions that would entrench the structures of the dictatorship era. Projections put Apruebo Dignidad, the electoral pact composed of Frente Amplio (the ‘new left’ coalition born out of the 2011 student movements), the Communist Party, and other small regional left parties, at around 16%. Independents were expected to get between zero and seven seats, barely reaching 5%.

In the end, independent candidates won 35% of the seats. It was the worst electoral result for right-wing parties since the municipal elections of 1971. Although Vamos por Chile is still the largest coalition, it won only 40 seats, or 26% of the vote. That’s just four points higher than the votes cast in the October plebiscite for the option – ‘rechazo’ – that rejected changing the Constitution, and 11 seats short of unilateral veto power. The greatest losers, however, were the parties of the former Concertación, which came in fourth place, winning only 25 seats, or 16% of the vote. The electoral alliance of the new left and the Communists performed slightly better than expected, securing 18% of the seats.

The biggest surprise was the strong results of the Lista del Pueblo (‘People’s List’), which comprised 163 independents. Of these, 27 were elected, making them the third strongest bloc in the Convention with 17.4% of seats. Many of their candidates were prominent figures in the 2019 protests that forced the constitutional plebiscite – such as Tía Pikachú, a nursery teacher who dressed in a bright yellow Pokémon costume to face down water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets in Plaza Dignidad, and Pelao Vade, a leukaemia patient who led marches against exorbitant medical bills. While the Lista del Pueblo candidates all have a broadly anti-patriarchal, anti-neoliberal and pro-democracy orientation, they did not have a unified platform nor internal democratic decision-making procedures in place before the elections. It is yet to be seen whether these 27 independents will be able to rally around a common project and vote as a bloc. Another non-partisan list that performed better than expected was Independientes No Neutrales (‘Non-Neutral Independents’), composed mainly of intellectuals and professionals from the world of NGOs and foundations, which secured 11 seats. The strong showing of grassroots activists and progressive intellectuals contrasts with the weak performance of trade unionists and representatives of more established social movements. Luis Mesina, former vice president of the CUT (Central Workers Union), ran in the Social Movements List with the support of more than 200 organizations, but nevertheless got only 2% of the vote in his district. Candidates from the LGBT community also won only eight seats (5%), despite the heightened visibility of their movement since the 2019 rebellion.  

Behind these auspicious electoral results, which deprived the establishment of veto power, a deep legitimacy crisis is still lurking. About 50% of eligible voters cast their ballot in the plebiscite that initiated the constituent process, while only 43% went to the polls this time to select representatives. More than 1 million people decided to stay home, despite the great variety of candidates and platforms. This decrease cannot be explained away as a ‘pandemic effect’, as infections and hospitalizations were high on both occasions. Rather, it reflected the nature of the vote: while the referendum was a unique exercise of constituent power, the subsequent elections were viewed as part of a more routine political process which is widely perceived as rigged.

In order to make it onto the ballot, unaffiliated candidates had to get hundreds of people to support them – or up to several thousand in the most populous districts. Political parties, by contrast, were assigned slots in relation to their previous electoral results. So, while the former were busy going door to door, the latter were designing their slates and contacting popular independent candidates to co-opt them into the official party lists. The unequal playing field was even more obvious in the media, where candidates running as independents were given 30 seconds of national airtime a day, while parties and lists ran high-definition campaign broadcasts that lasted for several minutes.

On top of this, the fraudulent activities of the traditional parties contributed to the population’s apathy. In 2017, following several high-profile political corruption cases during the second term of Socialist President Michelle Bachelet, a special commission recommended all political parties revalidate their membership rolls to prove the true extent of their social base. A law was passed giving each party a one-year period to re-register its members. Almost all of them, including the Communists, struggled to gather the requisite number of signatures, and therefore were on-track to be formally disbanded. They would cease to exist as political entities and be unable to run candidates for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Yet, after successfully lobbying the electoral commission to relax the requirements and allow the registration of members through non-secure methods, the parties were able to double and even triple their rolls within a month. Given that the majority of the Chilean political establishment participated in this fraud, investigations were swiftly buried. Then, in late 2020, a number of candidates attempted to run as independents and found out they had been registered as members of a political party without their consent. A month before the election, videos started to circulate on social media denouncing the chicanery of the mainstream parties. Alberto Herrera, spokesman for the Lista del Pueblo, raised the issue on a national talk show shortly before the polls opened. If this emboldened some to vote for independents, it also exacerbated popular disenchantment with electoral politics. Ultimately, the combination of low turnout, proportional representation, and multiple candidates and lists per district meant that 80% of those who will write the new constitution were elected with less than 10% support among those who voted (or 4% of eligible voters overall).

Therefore, even if the recent elections were ‘free and fair’ on paper, the process has a precarious legitimacy. Recognizing the need to increase popular participation in the constitutional process, independent representatives are almost unanimous in their support for designing new democratic mechanisms for the Convention. So far, the national media has suggested a number of performative gestures to regain the trust of voters: an itinerant Convention that meets in a different region each month, or a mandate that forces representatives to return to their constituencies and ‘gather voices’. Yet more substantive measures to formalize the relationship between the Convention and the general public are also gaining traction. These will be debated in its first meeting on 5 July, which will determine the internal rules and procedures of the institution. There are at least three binding mechanisms under consideration: plebiscites, citizen initiatives, and constituent cabildos. These are aimed at overriding possible conservative vetoes in the Convention and allowing ordinary people to participate in its decision-making. Some are proposing that articles that have majority support but cannot reach the two-thirds threshold should be automatically put to a national plebiscite. Yet, considering that less than half the population turns out to vote, there is a danger that referenda could be used strategically for anti-democratic purposes. Plebiscites are typically organized from the top down: those that participate often do so out of loyalty to established parties and leaders, and the choice of question can dramatically skew the results. As illustrated by Proposition 8 in California or the face-covering ban in Switzerland, ‘bottom-up’ democratic initiatives can also be exploited by well-funded conservative groups to pass reactionary proposals.

In contrast to the plebiscitarian model – which sees citizens only as individual voters, incapable of collective deliberation – the grassroots constituent process that began with the spontaneous organization of neighbourhood assemblies and cabildos in late 2019 has already been enacting alternative forms of direct democracy. Such groups managed to elect a few delegates (as opposed to representatives) to the Convention, along with a handful of mayors and city councillors. In District 6, which comprises the water-deprived territories in the coastal region of Valparaiso, two local activists have been sent to the Convention: Lisette Vergara, a history teacher associated with the Lista del Pueblo, and Carolina Vilches, a feminist campaigner who ran in the Apruebo Dignidadlist. Both are working with elected officials in municipal government to protect the popular constituent process, and are developing proposals that would make decisions reached in cabildos binding at the local level, radically devolving democratic power. These community organizers are not alone. Similar experiments in deliberative democracy are being refined by a sprawling network of Chilean activists. The extent of their imbrication with the Convention will determine the extent of its success.

To reach the two-thirds threshold of 104 votes and approve participatory mechanisms in the Convention’s regulations, a grand alliance of independents, indigenous peoples, the new left, Communists, socialists, and progressive liberals will be needed. While such a coalition is certainly within reach, it could prove difficult to assemble since parts of the traditional left see plebiscites as the optimum vehicle for advancing a radical programme. They remain reluctant to give binding power to the cabildos. This split may yet allow the mainstream parties to undermine the radical potential of a new constitution. Yet, if the left can unite around the idea that the people themselves must determine their future, then the Convention would make history by recognizing popular autonomous institutions and allowing them to legally exercise constituent power. This would mark an unprecedented breakthrough for the plebeian classes, whose overhaul of the political system designed by Pinochet could definitively alter the place of the Chilean people within the country’s representative institutions.

Read on: Manuel Riesco, ‘Chile: A Quarter of a Century on’, NLR 1/238.

Categories
Uncategorised

1979 in Reverse

In 1979, when Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker chair of the Federal Reserve, the mandate was clear. Tackle inflation, whatever the cost. And so he did. In late 1980, interest rates reached a record high of 20%, and inflation fell from a peak of 11.6% to 3.7% in 1983. For the capitalist class, this came with an economic and political bonanza. The rate hikes triggered a severe recession, precipitating a wave of restructuring and lay-offs that helped to crush the trade unions, demoralize the left and discipline the global south. The result was a ‘revenge of the rentiers’, and a well-documented surge in inequalities.

Volcker’s ‘1979 coup’, as Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy called it in Capital Resurgent (2004), came in a period when declining systemic dynamism in the advanced-capitalist world – brought on by intensifying competition, with successful Japanese and German catch-ups – was met by rising labour militancy and mass social movements, producing a general crisis of governability. Meanwhile radical forces in the former colonial countries called for a New International Economic Order, based on economic sovereignty and the regulation of multinationals. The 1979 coup was arguably the most consequential factor in turning the tide against these insurgent forces. The hegemony of the dollar was strengthened. Countries in the global south were brought to their knees by the rising cost of debt servicing and forced to adopt structural-adjustment programmes, drawn up by the IMF and World Bank in coordination with the US Treasury. In the global north, pro-US governments liberalized capital flows, subordinating industrial relations and welfare systems to the growing power of finance.

Stabilize prices, crush labour, discipline the south. This was the basic logic of the 1979 coup. For four decades, financial returns were systematically prioritized over labour standards, employment, ecological conditions and development prospects. Now, in 2021, there are signs that this era is finally coming to an end. Yet to what extent, and by what means? The logical unfolding of the swing movement that occurred over forty years ago may help to illuminate the present moment. Are the Biden Plans merely a new inflexion of neoliberal norms, or do they amount to a clear break with the post-79 regime?  

The most exaggerated expression of ‘left optimism’ to date comes from the Wall Street Journal. America’s leading conservative newspaper tells us that ‘Joe Biden may be the most anti-business President since FDR’. His Administration is implementing ‘a Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren agenda that would vastly expand government control over business and the economy.’ The WSJ is not particularly perturbed by Biden’s spending spree; but it is incensed about the planned rise in corporate and wealth taxes, as well as the attempt to bolster union organizing with the Pro Act, ‘the most far-reaching labour legislation since the 1930s.’

The Pro Act could indeed be highly consequential, both economically and politically, if the growing associational power of labour opened space for expanded organization, improved social conditions and rejuvenated working-class politics. Its effect will be undermined, however, as long as there is a large reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers, putting downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Employment in the US remains severely depressed, and Biden famously dropped the $15 minimum wage from the Covid relief package. Nevertheless, reducing unemployment and underemployment appears to be an aim.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus combined with Trump’s packages has injected a total of $5 trillion – almost 25% of GDP – into the US economy, the largest-ever fiscal expansion in peacetime. More than enough to reflate the economy from its Covid-19 trough, this economic voluntarism is an unambiguous departure from the fiscal moderation of the Obama Administration and the dogmatic austerity of the EU. Its ideological significance should not be underestimated.

First, as Serge Halimi noted in the April number of Le Monde diplomatique, one of the most promising features of the American Rescue Plan was its universality. By the end of April, over 160 million Americans had received a Treasury check of $1,400. This was a break with the punitive ideology of neoliberal social subsidies, typically distributed under strict and humiliating conditions. It paves the way for broader measures, with an eye to the 2022 mid-term elections.

Second, the scale of the Administration’s public spending is deliberately designed to generate a high-pressure economy, which necessarily involves an element of inflationary risk. It is on this point that 2021 can be considered a 1979 coup in reverse. As Adam Tooze stressed – hailing the dawn of a new economic era – for decades ‘the bias of technocratic judgement’ has been in favour of price stability and against labour. This is changing – explicitly so. Since 2019, at least, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been referring to arguments developed by Arthur Okun at Brookings in the 1970s, about the social advantages of a high-pressure economy.

Okun, briefly the chair of LBJ’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued in 1973 that accepting slack – the under-utilization of resources, especially labour – as an insurance policy against inflation implied ‘the sacrifice of upward mobility’, while ‘a higher-pressure labour market’ would launch a process of ladder-climbing, in which ‘men formerly in poor jobs move into better ones, making way for women and young people in the less well-paid pursuits’. Wage differentials would narrow, as ‘the same forces that make for more jobs also make for better jobs and more output per worker.’

This seems to be Biden’s strategy: increasing employment, reducing inequality and fostering productivity growth, via high-pressure economic policy. As his speechwriters put it, ‘trickle-down economics has never worked’; the objective should be ‘to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out’. Let’s take a moment to enjoy these words – a plain U-turn from the kind of policies that Democrats like Biden have been implementing for decades. For the left, this represents the result of years of ideological and political mobilization with the Sanders campaigns, and AOC’s rise as the tip of an iceberg of activist endeavour.

Yet it also responds to a situation in which financial markets, supposedly the central nervous system of the economy, have spent the past decade on life-support systems and have lost contact with underlying earnings. In other words, we need to ask: if the 1979 coup showed that the rise of finance entailed the fall of labour, could the 2021 pro-labour turn succeed in dethroning finance?

Brian Deese, head of Biden’s National Economic Council, formerly at investment giant BlackRock, doesn’t represent a break from the usual model of Wall Street-Washington technocrats. Yet in an interview with the NYT last month, he explained the rationale for the Administration’s statist turn. The challenges were (1) climate change, (2) inequality and (3) China. None of these could be tackled adequately by the market, so the state had to step in. It’s worth looking at all three.

Droughts, fires and hurricanes have made climate change a concrete reality in the US, and failure to mitigate it is no longer an option. According to Deese, all economic policy must be climate policy, and to be politically sustainable it must be employment policy too. The Administration has duly deployed its ecological policies under the banner of a ‘Jobs Plan’, to defuse any clash between environmentalism and employment.

In contrast to the stimulus, the main problem with the American Jobs Plan – and the companion American Families Plan, for childcare and education – is that their scale is drastically undersized. Their combined $4.05 trillion makes for big numbers. But this is to be spread out over a decade, so that all-in-all it accounts for just 1.7% of GDP per year – risibly small for the claim to ‘rebuild a new economy’ and a fraction of the $16.3 trillion (or 7.6% of GDP per year) proposed by Sanders’s Green New Deal.

On infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $2.59 trillion of additional investment is required simply to maintain the existing infrastructure for 2020-29 in a state of good repair. Biden’s plan will help to maintain the existing railway sector, but will not expand it to substitute for cars or planes. Biden’s so-called ‘green transition’ aims to ‘clean’ existing processes, not to transform life and consumption patterns. An ill-founded optimism about technological advance complements the imperative to preserve capitalist social relations.

Interestingly, the plan in its current form does not rely on private funding. Financial investors are begging for long-term assets, particularly public-private partnership infrastructure projects. They are worried, explains Larry Fink, Deese’s former CEO at BlackRock, because ‘there are huge pools of private capital standing by’, with a lack of safe projects to invest in. The Biden team is resisting these sirens for now, although it is still promoting that kind of privatization scheme in the global south. One obvious reason is because, as observed by the Financial Times, federal government debt always comes out cheaper than the commercial returns necessary to private-sector infrastructure operators, ‘a cost that ultimately lands on the users of essential services.’ But it was precisely this kind of obviousness that neoliberal thinking stubbornly tried to obfuscate.

Instead, the Biden Administration plans a modest rise in corporate tax, from 21% to 28% – shy of the 35% rate before Trump – and calls for a minimum global rate of 15%. The top rate of income tax will inch up from 37% to 39.6%, and ordinary income-tax rates could be applied to capital gains and dividends for Americans earning over $1m a year. In some states, the combined state and federal capital-gains tax could be above 50% – if the legislation makes it through Congress. Ideologically, its very articulation is a rebuttal of the neo-Schumpeterian claim that incentives for capital owners are the main drivers of innovation and employment. It is all the more compelling in a period when overabundant capital is extremely cheap, private investment is depressed and there is a widely recognized need for public and social infrastructure.

The third element is China’s rise. It would be hard to overstate the strength of American national-imperial thinking here, or the challenges it raises for the internationalist left. Yet an unintended consequence is to further sideline financial markets as an apparatus of macro-economic coordination. Deese puts it bluntly: ‘There’s not a market-based solution to address some of the big weaknesses that we’re seeing open up in our economy, when we’re dealing with competitors like China that are not operating on market-based terms’. This is not a minor concession.

As Isabella Weber documents for the 1980s in How China Escaped Shock Therapy (2021), the balancing act of the CCP road to capitalism was grounded in a debate about the strategy of market reforms. On several occasions, the option of full-blown liberalization was considered, but ultimately set aside. Instead, the PRC engaged in capitalist globalization while keeping what Lenin called the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ under state control. Once Washington recognized that China was not only catching up with, but in some areas surpassing the US, American officials began to consider what Deese described as ‘targeted efforts to try to build domestic industrial strength’ – the measures once mocked as ‘industrial policy’.

With China, as with inequality and climate policy, the Biden Administration is ostentatiously relying on the re-legitimation of state intervention. As the WSJ lamented, the White House seemed to be shifting away from bipartisan assumptions that ‘the public sector is inherently less efficient than the private, and bureaucrats should generally defer to markets’. Combined with tax rises on capital gains, the core interest of the financial class, this can only suggest a reversal of fortune for the hegemony of finance. If the size of the intervention is limited, its logic is distinct from any kind of neoliberal policy.

Since 2008, the financial sector has been dependent upon state support to shore up its returns, which have lost their inherent dynamism. For more than a decade now, financial assets have been persistently inflated by pro-corporate fiscal and monetary policies. Under this regime of escalating plunder, finance has become disconnected from market-based processes. It is sustained by hidden subsidies and central-bank interventions to prop up the structure of liabilities generated by financial leverage and speculation. Financial stability has become a matter of political decision-making, not of market dynamics.

As this situation persists, there is a logical reversal. While states used to be terrified that market liquidity would dry up – a typical feature of crises from the 1990s on – the configuration is now reversed: the financial community is on a permanent public lifeline to ensure liquidity, smooth market clearing and provision of assets.

This socialization of fictitious capital as the new normal is beginning to alter the balance of power between state and markets, and within the capitalist class at the expense of financial rentiers. ‘Bidenomics’ is an early symptom of this reconfiguration. Moves to strengthen the relative position of labour, to overturn rentier-class tax privileges and to reject the neoliberal wisdom that market coordination is always preferable to state intervention: these signals amount to more than just a rhetorical shift. They point to a structural break in the regulation of capitalism, the shockwaves of which will reverberate in the global political economy for years to come.

Is this shift sufficient to tackle the century’s social and ecological crises? Not nearly. Does it alter essential class relations? On the contrary: it strives to re-legitimize the social order. Is it unambiguous? No: while private finance has been kept out of new domestic infrastructure projects, the US is still driving privatization and deregulation in the global south and intensifying its new Cold War on China. Will it propel a new phase of economic expansion? I doubt it, due to the sheer scale of global overaccumulation and the fade-out of the industrialization bonanza. Even so, 2021 will be remembered as the moment when global capitalism was reorganized beyond neoliberalism, a tectonic shift that will irrevocably alter the terrain of political struggle.  

That we have arrived at this moment should not be a surprise. There have been many signs that the neoliberal tool-kit was proving less and less effective for the day-to-day management of capital accumulation. The Eurozone crisis, global waves of ‘populist’ protest, the new assertiveness of digital monopolies, were indications of growing systemic instability. On top of that the pandemic accelerated the pressure for change. At this stage, one of the few things that can be said with confidence is that the possibility of tasting once again the flavour of popular victories is a just little greater than it was five months ago. That’s not much. But for people like me, born in the 1970s or after, it is a first. 

Read on: Cédric Durand, ‘In the Crisis Cockpit’, NLR 116/117.

Categories
Uncategorised

Not Over Yet

If your country is part of an international empire, the domestic politics of the country that rules yours are your domestic politics too. Whoever speaks of the Europe of the EU must therefore also speak of Germany. Currently it is widely believed that after the German federal elections of 24 September this year, Europe will enter a post-Merkel era. The truth is not so simple.

In October 2018, following two devastating defeats in state elections in Hesse and Bavaria, Angela Merkel resigned as president of her party, the CDU, and announced that she would not seek re-election as Chancellor in 2021. She would, however, serve out her fourth term, to which she had been officially appointed only seven months earlier. Putting together a coalition government had taken no less than six months following the September 2017 federal election, in which the CDU and its Bavarian sidekick, the CSU, had scored the worst result in their history, at 32.9 percent (2013: 41.5 percent). (Merkel’s record as party leader is nothing short of dismal, having lost votes each time she ran. How she could nevertheless remain Chancellor for 16 years will have to be explained elsewhere.) In the subsequent contest for the CDU presidency, the party’s general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, appointed by Merkel only in February 2018, narrowly prevailed over two competitors. After little more than a year, however, when Merkel publicly dressed her down for a lack of leadership, Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned and declared that she would not run for Chancellor in 2021 either. A few months later, when von der Leyen went to Brussels, Kramp-Karrenbauer got Merkel to appoint her minister of defense. The next contest for the party presidency, the second in Merkel’s fourth term, had to take place under Corona restrictions; it took a long time and was won in January 2021 by Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of the largest federal state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). To prevent the comeback of an old foe of hers, Friedrich Merz, Merkel allegedly supported Laschet behind the scenes.

While Laschet – a less-than-charismatic Christian-Democratic middle-of-the-roader and lifelong Merkel loyalist – considered the party presidency to be a ticket to the CDU/CSU candidacy for Chancellor, it took three months for this to be settled. As CDU/CSU politics go, the joint candidate is picked by the two party presidents when they feel the time has come, under four eyes; no formal procedure provided. Thus Laschet needed the agreement of Markus Söder, Prime Minister of Bavaria, who didn’t keep it a secret that he believed himself the far better choice. In the background, again, there was Merkel, in the unprecedented position of a sitting Chancellor watching the presidents of her two parties pick her would-be successor in something like a semi-public cock-fight. After some dramatic toing-and-froing, Laschet prevailed, once more supported by Merkel, apparently in exchange for his state’s backing for the federal government imposing a ‘hard’ Covid-19 lockdown on the entire country.

As CDU/CSU candidate, Laschet is already having a hard time. In early June he will face a state election in Sachsen-Anhalt. Currently the state is governed by a CDU Prime Minister, who heads a coalition of his party (which won 30 percent of the vote in 2016) with the SPD (11 percent) and the Greens (5 percent), formed to keep the AfD (24) and Die Linke (16) out. If the state is lost, Laschet’s enemies, certainly Söder, will find ways to publicly blame him for it. As for Germany as a whole, by early May electoral support for the CDU/CSU had fallen to 23 percent (below where it was before the pandemic; the party’s worst ever result) while the Greens had risen to an unprecedented 26 percent, making them the strongest party for the first time. The SPD, Merkel’s long-time coalition partner, remained stable at 14 percent, followed by the AfD with 12 and Die Linke with 6 percent. Asked who they would want to be Chancellor, Laschet, like the SPD candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, was favored by 21 percent. 28 percent picked the Spitzenkandidatin of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old newcomer who has never held government office and who, like Merkel, has always stayed aloof of her party’s factional divisions; 30 percent were undecided.

If the election result is roughly along these lines, forming a government may prove difficult. Whoever ends up as Chancellor, his or her party will be smaller than ever before relative to their largest coalition partner. CDU and CSU might be able to govern with the Greens, but they would do so only if they were the stronger party, with Laschet as Chancellor and perhaps the FDP as a third partner; call this Laschet/Baerbock. This assumes that the SPD would refuse to continue to serve as junior partner of the Christian Democrats, precluding Laschet/Scholz. The Greens might form a government with the SPD, either Baerbock/Scholz or, unlikely, Scholz/Baerbock, which would however require getting either Die Linke or, more preferable for the Greens, the FDP on board, none of which would be easy.

Under the German constitution a Chancellor remains in office until the Bundestag elects a successor. As long as coalition talks go on, Merkel will therefore wield the full constitutional powers of a Bundeskanzler. While in 2017/18 it was in her interest to bring the coalition negotiations to a fast conclusion, this time agreement will end rather than renew her term. Not being directly involved in the talks, Merkel can influence them from the outside, either obstructing or helping them along, depending on the direction she favors. Moreover, as acting Chancellor she may be able to nail down commitments in European and international politics that would be difficult to abandon for the government after her; alternatively, she can point to the coalition talks to put off unpleasant decisions. In 2017/18, expecting that once re-elected, she would join his project of ‘refounding Europe’, and apparently misinformed on the German political system, Macron scheduled a public speech at the Sorbonne for the day after the German election, to present to the world and to Merkel his plans for a new European Union. Over the next six months, Merkel and the German public kept repeating that Macron’s ideas ‘deserved an answer’, while expressing regret that without a new government it could not be given – until Merkel’s fourth cabinet was sworn in and other issues took precedence.

Forming the next German government may take even longer than last time. A superficial selection of critical events and issues likely to come up during the transition include: the French presidential election in 2022, when Germany must keep Macron in office against the odds; French demands for a French-German fighter jet system, called FCAS, complete with supporting swarms of drones and satellites, ground stations, artificial intelligence and flying tankers, estimated to cost 300 billion euros between now and 2040 (which would realistically end up at twice as much at least); the role of the EU, if any, in the next Corona wave; the Biden administration’s ‘Buy American’ policy with respect to its infrastructure renewal project; French demands that Germany join its postcolonial wars, about to be lost, in the Sahel zone; American pressures for Ukraine to be admitted to NATO and the EU, challenging Russia; and American and French demands for Germany to abandon the North Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia through the Baltic Sea, as Germany’s ‘energy turn’ (Energiewende) is approaching a simultaneous exit from nuclear energy and soft coal.

What will it mean for Europe when Merkel is no longer in office? What will most obviously be missing is her impressive ability to fudge issues and conflicts by pretending that they do not exist, allowing her, and Germany, to be on both sides of an argument at the same time, or on no side at all — take the finalité of the EU, migration, the US vs. Russia and China, France vs. the United States on the status of Europe, etc. etc. Crucial for this was Merkel’s skillful use of empty and ambiguous public speech, her sphinxlike stereotypical non-answers in the rare situations when she allowed herself to be questioned by journalists from outside her coterie (if you don’t understand her, it’s not bad translation – it’s intended). This fit nicely with the German situation in Europe and beyond, exposed to cross-pressures so hard to address that they are better not addressed at all, to be left to a future that, hopefully, will never come. None of those lined up to succeed Merkel will ever match her skill in this, which makes it likely that European conflicts and German contradictions will increasingly break into the open. After Merkel, the many incompatible promises she made to buy time will, like the proverbial chickens, come home to roost, only to discover that the chicken coop is too small to house them all.

A brief look at how the new government, once in office, will likely deal with some of the current issues in European politics. On the so-called ‘fiscal capacity’ of the EMU, both Laschet/Baerbock and Baerbock/Scholz will be ready to make more concessions of the NGEU kind, financed by more debt to be taken up by the Union. Inside either government, however, there will be warnings against excessive borrowing, given that Germany will have to repay its own Corona debt in the coming decade. Laschet, especially, will have to cope with fears among his supporters of rising interest rates and of German taxpayers having to bail out member states. On the other hand, defending the euro is at the heart of the German national interest; while Laschet will try to lower the price Germany has to pay for it, Baerbock may want to top it up for Green emotional enthusiasm and international public relations, with Scholz warning in the background not to overdo it. On foreign policy and national security, Baerbock/Scholz will be strictly Atlanticist and pro-NATO – pro Biden-the-good-president – whereas Laschet will lean more towards France and Macron’s idea of ‘European sovereignty’. As Chancellor, he will, however, have to accommodate Baerbock and the Atlanticists in the CDU, while Baerbock, as Chancellor or Foreign Minister, will like Merkel need the French-German tandem as a cover for German European hegemony.

There will also be differences on the Eastern flank of the EU, where Baerbock, following the United States, will support Ukrainian accession to NATO and the EU, and finance EU extension in the West Balkans. That she will also cancel North Stream 2 will be a point of contention in a Baerbock/Scholz government. Laschet will be more inclined towards France and seek some accommodation with Russia, on trade as well as security; he will also hesitate to be too strongly identified with the US on Eastern Europe and Ukraine. But then, he will be reminded by his Foreign Minister, Baerbock, as well as his own party that Germany’s national security depends on the American nuclear umbrella, which the French cannot and in any case will not replace. On immigration, Baerbock will steer a more nationalist course, in the sense of more generous admission of refugees to Germany, while her coalition partner, certainly with Laschet as Chancellor and Scholz as Vice Chancellor, will prefer a ‘European solution’, meaning that Turkey and Libya should keep migrants from crossing the Mediterranean.

What all this means is that one must not underestimate the pressures for continuity in German politics, with or without Merkel. Some national interests endure regardless of who’s in government, for example those arising from the fact that Germany is located between four nuclear powers but is itself allowed only conventional weapons. Also, rhetorical Euro-enthusiasm notwithstanding, Germany cannot agree to unlimited Eurobonds being drawn from the EU if Germany would be at risk of becoming liable for them. Germany also needs a reasonably safe energy supply, as well as open markets and favourable exchange rates for its export industries. Domestic pressures making for continuity include the state elections, which unlike the midterm elections in the United States are dispersed over the entire federal electoral term. Already in 2022, the largest state, NRW, will elect a new Prime Minister to succeed Laschet, and both the SPD under Baerbock/Scholz and the CDU under Laschet/Baerbock would get very nervous if their participation in a Berlin coalition failed to help them restore some of their previous electoral support. Centrism über alles?

Read on: Joachim Jachnow, ‘What’s Become of the German Greens?’, NLR 81.

Categories
Uncategorised

Throttling Gaza

Violence against Palestinians over the last few weeks has been so horrific that it has come to the attention of those who were previously blind to it. Over two hundred dead in Gaza alone, fifty-nine of them children. Media offices bombed, thousands injured and tens of thousands displaced. Palestinians in Israel have been killed by lynch mobs while the police stand by. As a result, the usual taboos are being broken. Six US Congress members condemned the attacks on Gaza from the House floor, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged Israel as an ‘apartheid state’. Yet the US is far from rescinding its support for Netanyahu. On three occasions during the latest bombardment it has blocked the UN Security Council’s call for a ceasefire, greenlighting the merciless campaign against the Gaza strip. If Trump was the most brazen supporter of Israeli aggression, his successor is not much different.

None of this is new. Gaza has been under attack at regular intervals since 2008, and with each Israeli incursion we have seen a similar pattern play out: ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, huge provocations accompanied by repression on the ground, and F16s raining bombs on Gazans. Human rights organizations – international as well as Israeli – have repeatedly condemned the illegal blockade of Gaza and the forward march of Israeli settler colonialism. Yet their appeals fall on deaf ears.

This is because, sadly, the majority of the Jewish Israeli population supports its government in this endeavour. The position of the far-right – which saw its best ever result in the Knesset elections last March – is almost identical to that of the liberal parties in their zeal for anti-Palestinian crackdowns. The neighborhood offensives in Jerusalem – particularly Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and Wadi Joz, where lifelong residents are to be expelled to make way for Jewish settlers – represent the government’s attempt to show its commitment to Arab-free cities.

What has led us to this point? Ever since the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, the Israelis, backed by the US and the EU, with the collaboration of the Palestinian Authority and the acquiescence or capitulation of the Arab States, established structures that institutionalized Israeli control and occupation of the Palestinian territories. The geographic fragmentation of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, and its separation from both the eastern part of Jerusalem and Gaza, is part of this realignment. In addition, unending American intervention has done its best to demobilize Palestinians so that they cannot effectively resist their oppressors. The leadership of Fatah (synonymous with the Palestinian Authority) act as sub-contractors for the Israeli occupation on every level, forcibly putting down resistance or protest movements whenever they begin to stir. Yet, despite all this, the post-Oslo generations will not give up on the goal of self-determination that the ‘international community’ has denied them. For over a decade, their anticolonial struggle has confronted three separate forms of intervention from foreign powers: diplomatic pressure, foreign aid, and security involvement. It is worth taking a moment to examine these in turn.

The 2006 Palestinian legislative elections are a useful case in point of how diplomatic pressure is used to subjugate and divide Palestinians. We now know, via the Palestine papers published by Wikileaks, that the UK and the US had been enjoining the Palestinian Authority to forcibly repress the Islamist party, Hamas, prior to the vote. When Hamas ended up winning the elections by a wide margin, the PA came under international pressure to prevent them from taking power. The US and its allies imposed sanctions on the Palestinians that decimated the economy. Humanitarian aid which was supposed to keep the population afloat bypassed the new Hamas government, with some of it flowing instead to the personal accounts of PA officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas. The outgoing political party, Fatah, was empowered by Washington to retain its grip on the government, and initiated a crackdown on Hamas which prompted a spate of intra-Palestinian violence. The resulting split in governance between Gaza and the West Bank persists to this day, despite calls for unity from the citizens of the two territories.

Foreign aid is also weaponized to guarantee the permanent subservience of the PA to the IDF. After the 2006 elections, Fatah consolidated its hold over the West Bank and the new Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, pursued what he called a strategy of ‘liberation through reform’. The slow improvement in living conditions, he said, would lay the ground for state-building. Yet in reality, all it did was inflate the foreign bank balances of the Palestinian bureaucracy’s top layer and push regular Palestinians into more debt. Real sovereignty was never given to the PA, which was essentially relegated to overseeing the implementation of small-scale development projects designed by international donors in coordination with Israel. The foreign aid used for these projects is monitored and managed by two agencies: the Joint Liaison Committee and the Task Force on Project Implementation. Israel has a seat on both, while the Palestinian Authority has a seat on neither.

Even when foreign aid has increased in recent years, it has gone to areas which do not alleviate poor economic conditions in the territories. In the period following the 2006 elections, only 1% was allocated to agriculture, despite that being the historic backbone of the Palestinian economy. Importantly, none of the aid or development plans addressed Israel’s obstructionist role. Thus, rather than achieving the stated objectives of the PA – advancing the economy in order to eventually gain the state promised to them by the Israelis – the funding simply entrenched the status quo.

When I interviewed a number of officials in PA ministries, they confirmed to me that American directives set the course for their development projects and political positions. Although they are bankrolled by a number of foreign donors – the EU, the Gulf, Japan – US interests invariably take precedence. One of the most direct means by which the American hegemon interferes in the PA’s internal decision-making processes is through its training programmes. Career advancement for many Palestinian bureaucrats is contingent upon the trainings they attended and certifications they attain. So, when the Americans fund training courses they make sure to hand-pick the participants, excluding anyone known to be a supporter of Palestinian emancipation, and forcing the more critical bureaucrats into early retirement. The training programmes themselves act as a tool for indoctrination, with syllabi amended by American officials to censor the material on Israeli occupation and popular mobilization.

What of security involvement? From 2006 onward, the PA was encouraged to undertake security sector reform to assure Israeli counterparts that the PA and its forces were reliable partners. They took steps to ensure not only that oppositional parties and the Islamists within the West Bank were curtailed, but that any mass uprising – such as that seen during the second intifada – would not be allowed to happen again. The PA has since spent a full third of its budget on its security apparatus, leading to a dramatic increase in police powers and greater coordination with Israel in organizing political repression. As a result, the PA has become increasingly divided from its own citizens, using its authoritarian mechanisms to target journalists, students and dissidents who refuse to accept the current settlement. The infamous murder of writer and activist Bassel al-Araj in 2017 – shot by the IDF after being tortured and imprisoned by the PA for nonviolent protest in his village of Walaja – was emblematic.

These dynamics explain the conditions that we see today, in which the PA has become irrelevant to the mass mobilizations in Jerusalem, the integration of Palestinians within the Green Line into those mobilizations, and the protests against ethnic cleansing within Israeli cities. The PA leaders were absent from the resistance efforts in Sheikh Jarrah and the Old City, while Hamas, too, played little role in the uprisings until the airstrikes began. The protest movement of early May was led by grassroots activists, not political parties.

Since the unrest began the PA has moved in to stop protests in solidarity with Jerusalem and Gaza. Last week Biden called Abbas to reiterate his ‘commitment to strengthening the US-Palestinian partnership’ and stress the need for Hamas to give up its resistance. The PA, in turn, has played its usual role of appeasing and reassuring the US-Israeli axis. When Palestinians gathered in Hebron and outside Ramallah to express their opposition to the airstrikes and expulsions, they were blocked by PA security forces.

The real impact on Israel has been, and will continue to be, from Palestinians on the ground. The Palestinians across historic Palestine, within the Green Line and in the occupied territories, are leading a general strike today (18 May) in conjunction with ongoing protests in the West Bank, Israel and Jerusalem. Whether Palestinians can ratchet up this pressure will be the determining factor in forcing Israeli concessions, even as it emboldens Netanyahu’s far-right cabinet to break the will of the open-air prisoners in Gaza. Although this latest round of resistance may not amount to a third intifada in the sense of a sustained uprising, such acts of defiance will still have a cumulative impact. It is likely that, just as previous protests in Jerusalem mobilized larger swathes of Palestinian society – in 2014, following the kidnap and murder of the 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir by settlers; and in 2017, after restrictions were placed on Al Aqsa mosque – this current wave of discontent will have long-lasting ramifications. Activists within the Green Line in particular are establishing new organizing channels which could change the shape of future mobilizations, whether intifada or not. Sometimes people ask: Won’t the US-EU bloc be forced to impose sanctions on Israel, cut off arms supplies and end subsidies given the scale of Israeli atrocities? But they are living in a dreamworld. The Palestinian people, by contrast, are wide awake.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The House of Zion’, NLR 96.

Categories
Uncategorised

Erdoğan’s Zigzags

Turkey’s economy is yet again in turmoil. The Turkish lira lost more than 10 per cent of its value against the US dollar in March, after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fired the central bank governor, Naci Ağbal, who had only been in post since the previous November. The lira’s plunge further increased inflation, which had already risen to 16 per cent after last year’s sluggish 1.8 per cent growth rate. Yet this was merely the latest episode in the ongoing breakdown of Turkey’s capital accumulation regime. The currency crisis of March 2021 followed the rapid depreciation of the lira in 2020 after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was itself a sequel to the currency crisis of August 2018 (precipitated by the country’s changeover from a parliamentary to a presidential system and the diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the US). While different events have triggered these recent upheavals, each one has followed a similar pattern: the government takes steps to lower interest rates and stimulate economic growth, thereby creating higher inflation and currency devaluations, which Erdoğan tries to resolve through a turn to austerity. This cycle has created a degree of political instability whose effects can only be contained through a crackdown on dissent. Yet to fully understand the reason for Erdoğan’s economic zigzags, we need to anatomize Turkey’s model of dependent financialization, along with the conditions that produced it.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Erdoğan, flourished between 2002 and 2013 due to relatively high economic growth stimulated by abundant capital inflows. The two main characteristics of Erdoğan’s neoliberal populist power strategy during these years were financial inclusion through providing cheap loans to lower income groups, and co-option of the poor through a new welfare regime. Back then, international media outlets presented Turkey as a ‘model country’ in which the Islamist government – which defined itself as ‘conservative democrat’ – was modernizing its economy and pursuing democratization as part of its application for European Union membership. The AKP, in turn, used the EU membership process as leverage against Turkey’s Kemalist establishment, concentrated in the Turkish military and the higher courts. This period was characterized by market reforms under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund: privatizations, labour market deregulation and the establishment of a depoliticized governance structure, including central bank independence. The combination of these policies was a key component of the country’s so-called dependent financialization regime, in which domestic demand was stimulated through credit expansion cycles fuelled by foreign investment.

During the first half of the 2000s, the AKP managed to eliminate the most militant part of Turkey’s organized working class via top-down privatizations. By this route, Erdoğan was able to escape from the impasse that the Turkish political establishment had faced during the ‘structural adjustment dilemma’ of the 1990s. While implementing the IMF-brand structural adjustment programmes provided fresh capital inflows which enabled the centre-right parties to stay in power, it also elicited a powerful backlash from working class organizations, which were able to stop some of the significant privatisations drives. Upon his election in 2002, Erdoğan therefore made the elimination of organized labour a top priority, with dramatic results: trade union density in Turkey decreased from 29 per cent in 2001 to 6.3 per cent in 2015, allowing the AKP’s market reforms to proceed unchecked. Simultaneously, household indebtedness – which rose tenfold between 2002 and 2013 – gave rise to a new disciplinary mechanism, making resistance more costly both in the workplace and on the streets, while reconstituting many lower income groups as supporters of Erdoğan’s low interest policies. Such were the pillars of AKP hegemony in the new millennium. Yet the drawbacks of dependent financialization came to be acutely felt during the early 2010s: Turkey’s reliance on capital inflows increased, its industrial structure eroded, and the foreign exchange-denominated debt of nonfinancial corporations increased to historic levels.

In this context, 2013 marked a turning point. International capital inflows slowed down following the US Fed’s announcement that it would taper its quantitative easing programmes – causing volatile growth rates for Turkey and others in the Global South. This period was characterized by financial turbulence, higher unemployment rates and rising inflation. Domestically, the AKP responded by using increasingly authoritarian measures to maintain its supremacy. Its rule was challenged from different angles, by grassroot opposition movements such as the Gezi Park uprising, and by intensified struggles within the power bloc, with the bourgeois factions represented by the AKP confronted by the ‘Güllenists’ (members of the political Islamist group led by former cleric Fethullah Gülen) embedded in the state bureaucracy. This combination of state crisis and capital accumulation crisis – which culminated in the failed coup attempt of 2016 – roiled the Turkish regime for most of the following decade. It has also underpinned the instability of recent months.

The events of March 2021 show how Erdoğan’s government has been paralysed by this conjuncture. Its economic agenda is now dominated by several conflicting accumulation strategies. On the one hand, Turkey’s large bourgeoisie, which has significant access to global financial networks, demands an orthodox monetary policy, the implementation of austerity measures and a pro-Western, pro-EU stance on foreign affairs. Their interests are complemented by the dependent financialization model, which requires higher interest rates to attract investment and drive domestic growth. But on the other hand, much of Erdoğan’s electoral base – small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the construction sector, so-called Islamic capital groups that depend on government contracts and the domestic credit markets – will be hurt by higher interest rates. These groups are therefore demanding the continuation of cheap loans and a strong lira. Hence, central banking policy has become a crucial site of political contestation. Erdoğan continues to mediate between these rival interests, excoriating high interest rates as ‘the mother of all evil’ and postponing austerity measures for as long as possible to prevent another slide in the polls, while quietly submitting to the demands of the bankers whenever push comes to shove.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown these tensions into relief. In June 2020, Turkish policymakers once again tried to lower interest rates to stimulate the economy – but this predictably caused capital outflows and rapid lira devaluation. By autumn of that year, the country was facing a fully-fledged balance of payments crisis which prompted Erdoğan to reverse course and abandon the SMEs, implementing an austerity programme of wage restraint and public spending cuts, supported by interest rate hikes. Initially this strategy succeeded, with 15 billion US dollars of fresh capital inflows to Turkey since November 2020. Yet the turn towards fiscal rectitude alienated the AKP constituency at a time when its support was already waning, causing consternation among the president’s inner circle.

Then on 19 March 2021, Ağbal opted to raise interest rates to 19 percent – a move that threatened to further increase unemployment levels, which had grown to almost a third of the working population. In addition, the rate hikes forced SMEs that do not have access to international loan markets to take loans denominated in lira at unsustainably high rates. The combination of these two factors rendered the political cost of the central bank’s new interest policy untenable. Erdoğan dramatically sacked the governor, as if the rate increases were the latter’s personal initiative. Yet Ağbal’s replacement – supposedly one of the representatives of the ‘low interest rate coalition’ – has now promised to keep interest rates high for as long as it takes to control inflation. Irrespective of their political orientation, it seems, each governor will put the markets first; and Erdoğan won’t stand in their way.   

Turkey’s story is not unique. It is rather an instance of the long stagnation – and consequent rise in political authoritarianism – which has afflicted the global economy since 2008. Nonetheless, there are important national particularities. Turkey faces elections in 2023, so the opposition is currently trying to formulate a popular democratization programme which will loosen Erdoğan’s grip on power by reinstituting a parliamentary system. Despite this, the main opposition parties have presented no solution to the perils of dependent financialization. In essence, their pledge is to revive Turkey’s 2001 IMF programme while securing civil liberties, democratic processes and the rule of law. They thus pit neoliberal centrism against AKP authoritarianism without recognizing that the former is precisely what gave rise to the latter. Beyond these two failed projects lies the struggle against both repression and marketization, but, as yet, this platform has not been articulated by an electoral force capable of challenging AKP hegemony.  

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

Categories
Uncategorised

Eros After Covid

1

Jacques Lacan was fond of saying that the tense of the psychoanalytic situation is neither the definite nor indefinite past but the future anterior. The session is a place to articulate desires of what you will have been. Many will not survive this plague year. But for those who do, the future involves a simple predicate: I will have lived through Covid and will make up my life in its aftermath.

The OED tells us that the ‘math’ in ‘aftermath’ is not calculation, like doing your taxes after a year of income; rather, it is the portion of an agricultural field after it’s been harvested and mown. There is sowing, there is reaping, there is manicuring, and then, after surveying the effect of the labour with scythe in hand, there is the aftermath, where the next layer of earth is laid like carpet onto the landscape. For Freud, each of us is always lying, as upon a couch, in the aftermath of some harvest. ‘Aftermath’ in this sense evokes his notoriously untranslatable Nachträglichkeit, used to describe how the psyche makes sense belatedly. A couple of translations – ‘deferred action’, ‘retroaction’ – capture how the past reactivates in the present, but the term is also rendered as ‘afterwardness’, which suggests one can dwell in a grammatical tense like a house, sojourning in a temporality that makes the past not merely past. Psychoanalysis is a field of recollection from which to gather the woolly past and knit it into speech for an analyst. It is a time for surveying dreamscapes, when new associations are retrospectively laid like gossamer onto extant desires. A matter of time: life after Covid will have been.

2

We cannot say exactly what the psychic fallout of the past year will be, although the WHO is now calling Covid-19 a mass trauma on the scale of World War II. Arriving in a political economy which already asserted that society does not exist, coronavirus saw this assumption realized by restricting most association to close family members. People were variously abandoned to mind-numbing isolation and hazardous work conditions. What can psychoanalysis offer in such a situation, both now and whenever we mean when we say ‘afterwards’? There is the question of how our individual psychic lives will be marked by passing through the travails of life and death during Covid. But, perhaps more pressingly, the pandemic confronts society at large with the recurrent question – as much political as psychical – of how to address oneself to a mass death event.

One might rightly wonder whether an adequate response to loss at that scale is even thinkable: the felt obligation to convey empathy toward general suffering is itself a way to suffer against the limits of empathy. In recent decades, psychoanalysis has increasingly emphasized the social genesis of psychic suffering. Freud, for his part, provided an elegant metaphor for how unconscious thoughts are entwined with organic conditions, ‘much as a festoon of flowers are twined around a wire’; and so too with the social and the psychic: the latter blossoms or wilts depending on its social architecture. Though society has persisted in compromised ways during the pandemic, there are distinct malformations of the psyche that attend these compromises. Psychoanalysis can offer a way of talking about those compromise formations – many of which existed before Covid-19, and will remain in its aftermath.

3

In 1974, an interviewer charged Lacan with having a pessimistic view of human progress, to which he replied:

Personally, I would find the idea of an all-encompassing plague, produced by man, rather marvellous. It would be the proof that he had managed to do something with his own hands and head, without divine or natural intervention. All these bacteria overfed for amusement’s sake, spreading out across the world like the locusts in the Bible, would mark the triumph of mankind. But this isn’t going to happen. Science happily saunters through its crisis of responsibility: everything will return to its natural place, as they say. And as I said, the real will win out, as always. And we’ll be as fucked as we ever were.

Well, Jack, it happened. Mankind has triumphed. Yet naturally enough we are still as fucked as we ever were. In such times of crisis, psychoanalysis calls on us to articulate ‘the real’, which Lacan defines in the same interview as ‘everything that isn’t right, does not work, and is opposed to man’s life and his engagement with his personality’. The real is what upends our life and distorts our sense of time. This dysfunction ‘always returns’, and does so on its own schedule, refusing to conform to the regular cycles of the calendar or stars. In our isolation, perhaps what has plagued us more intimately than the plague itself has been the distorted passage of time under lockdown. Over the past year, the semblance of normality has wavered and perhaps the real has come briefly and obliquely into view, but we cannot set our watches by its return.

4

Time is a primordial riddle. Augustine famously confessed that he could only explain what time is if you didn’t ask him. Freud, likewise, never offered a comprehensive theory of psychoanalytic time. In a letter to the matron of French psychoanalysis Marie Bonaparte, written the year before his death, he divulged that ‘as time is concerned, I hadn’t fully informed you of my ideas. Nor anyone else’. Fittingly enough, a psychoanalytic concept of time requires some reconstruction of discontinuous evidence. An admittedly preposterous fundamental is that the unconscious is timeless: ‘In mental life, nothing that has once taken shape can be lost’, and in principle, ‘everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances’. Moreover, the timeless id – that instinctual reservoir of libidinal energy – is a ‘cauldron of seething excitations’ that has neither beginning nor end. Psychic conflict is, in part, a symptom of this asymmetry between the boundless instinctual energy of the timeless unconscious, on the one hand, and a mortal body with its partial memory, on the other. By creating fantasy solutions to the ordeal of mortality, the id primarily ensures that ‘every one of us is convinced of his own immortality’.

If ‘everyone owes nature a death’, as Freud (misquoting Shakespeare) wrote, how does death enter into the psychic picture? In 1913, Freud went on a walk with Rainer Marie Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé. Rilke was distraught over the transience of all worldly beauty. (‘Before us great Death stands / Our fate held close within his quiet hands’, he would later write, in what appears to be a presentiment of the coming wars and epidemics.) Freud, failing to convince his company that the transience of beloved objects was what made them precious, concluded that ‘what spoilt their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning… since the mind instinctively recoils from anything that is painful’. Better to ‘lift Life’s red wine’ with Rilke than to acknowledge the onrush of mortal time.  

5

After his summer walk with his sensitive companions, Freud set out on a path to determine just how death functions before we die. It was a timely preoccupation, as the effects of war neurosis blossomed in returning soldiers and the Spanish flu killed millions over the following decade. Psychoanalysis had to be scaled up, beyond the ends of the chaise longue, to account for these historical traumas. The concept of afterwardness found practical expression in such suffering – working through the recent and deep-seated past. But there was a problem. Freud had maintained since 1896 that the psychoanalytic process was a matter of rearranging memory traces. Yet the traumas of war refused assimilation and re-transcription. We repeat what we can’t remember, and the traumatized were beset by compulsive repetitions because they could not mend their past into new memories and associations. The experience of mass death had become an unassimilable kernel.

This affliction became personal for Freud when he lost his daughter Sophie to complications of the flu in 1920. Freud’s biographers have shown how he concealed the fact that the boy who played the repetitive fort-da game in Beyond the Pleasure Principle was Sophie’s son. She had died in January and Freud finished the text in May, so it is reasonable to speculate, with Jacqueline Rose, that the text retrospectively works through the afterlife of her death. The child’s game, in which he threw away a cotton ball (‘Fort! Gone!’) and reeled it back (‘Da! Here!’), simulated the disappearance and reappearance of his mother. By concocting this simple narrative, the child adjusts to the rhythm of mortal time – the discontinuous perception of what is there and then gone. Moreover, Freud contends, the child transforms the passive pain of the mother’s absence into an active game that symbolizes and overcomes the loss. The fort-da game is an object-lesson in learning to live with loss. Freud offered this heuristic to depict ‘normal development’, as opposed to the psychic configuration of those suffering from war neuroses. Yet it was also an ambiguous gesture of a grandpa wishing his young grandson well in the wake of their shared loss.

Philosophers have long maintained that mortality gives our existence its temporal structure by bringing each of us to a full stop. Psychoanalysis does not deny this so much as deepen it by adding a qualification: we cannot imagine our own death (Lacan called it an article of faith), and in its place we develop fantasies that keep the pain of mortality – or the pain of time itself – at arm’s length. For this reason, death always appears accidental. The fantasy of immortality contends with time through the intimations of death produced by the absence, and ultimately the death, of others. It is not our own death, but the passing of others – and thus the experience of living through an unassimilable loss – that is the origin of trauma. As Cathy Caruth writes, trauma is ‘the story of an impossible responsibility of consciousness in its own originating relation to others, and specifically to the death of others’. We are often powerless to respond to this experience. If in its wake we cannot reorganize our relation to the world, then the ‘death drive’ takes over, manifesting in the symptoms of repetition compulsion. The death drive works, Freud says, ‘in silence’. Yet the prompt of psychoanalysis is to ask that we try to speak anyway, however impossible the address, so that we might learn to live with each other through the vicissitudes of time.

6

What can this teach us about weathering the losses of the long 2020, a year which has itself somehow been lost to time? When a beloved object is lost, Freud writes, ‘reality passes its verdict – that the object no longer exists – upon each one of the memories and hopes through which the libido was attached to the lost object’. Detachment from the mother is merely the archetype of separation and distance that later accidents of time inevitably imitate. Freud’s schema for mourning such an experience is counterintuitive, if not outright scandalous, because it depends on what we might consider a social vice: narcissism. Forced to decide whether we will share in the fate of the lost object, we are tempted to identify with the image of what we’ve lost in a kind of melancholic stagnation. But, writes Freud, against this impulse we must yield to the ‘narcissistic satisfactions in being alive to sever [our] attachment to the non-existent object’. Through this narcissistic enjoyment we regain a perhaps strained capacity to love again, an ability to bind new associations.

The repetition of living beyond loss is crucially different from the death-driven repetition compulsion induced by trauma, which fixes you in place. The first form of repetition was figured, in Freud’s mind, by his grandson. The child’s game, he wrote, expressed an ‘immense cultural achievement in successfully abnegating his drives (that is, abnegating the gratification thereof) by allowing his mother to go away without his making a great fuss’. The child, whose irreparably lost object was one he never possessed, had reinvented the beguiling game of desire. His game is one we all play by re-finding ways to love that can recreate and sustain life through the crises of mortality. It is a response to pain and loss which does not leave us mired in the timeless inertia which Freud equated with death itself. As social life recommences on wider and wider scales, we will have to contend with what Lacan called ‘the neurosis of destiny or the neurosis of failure’: the capacity for the real to disastrously return unbidden. Living with one another becomes problematic because we all have complexes, inhibitions, traumas and resistances when it comes to what Freud called Eros – that troublemaker that sends us into the world to bind new associations. Only an ethics of care, to which we are always inadequate, that would require heeding and respecting the real of other people’s pain, offers a way out.

7

In a public discussion with Albert Einstein about the origins of warfare in 1932, just years before Nazi violence would exile Freud from his home in Vienna, Freud argued that the will toward war was merely an effect of the destructive instinct. That instinct, he maintained to the end, is ineradicable. The countervailing means against war are ‘to bring Eros, its antagonist, into play against it’: the growth of affective ties between people can combat the destructive instinct. This call for a ‘community of feeling’ is a remarkably sentimental one for Freud, who even invokes the timeless imperative to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ as a precept for the collective work of Eros. The psychoanalytic challenge to this statement would, of course, be that we hardly know ourselves, and that to reduce another person to the poorly taken measure of your own self is likely to miss the other person entirely. Better to say that one should love one’s neighbor not as oneself – or, to put it in the language of the Sanders campaign, ‘fight for someone you don’t know’, which includes yourself.

For leftists, the condition of class war often appears interminable, replete with countless losses, failures, false starts and false ends. For this reason, the left repeatedly finds itself in a state of mourning, grieving over the defeat of its most recent projects (Sanders and Corbyn among them). In this context, psychoanalysis can not only provide a vocabulary for the predations of capitalism; it can also teach us how to overcome those losses so that we might ‘fail better’ – a repetition renewed with every generation under conditions not of their making. If serial failures threaten to sunder the community ties that sustain emancipatory work, then perhaps the antidote is psychic ‘care’ as defined by Lisa Baraitser: ‘the arduous temporal practice of maintaining ongoing relations with others and the world’. To live with, and struggle for, others – their infinite demands and desires – is a vexed part of sustaining the horizon of leftism. Experiences of estrangement, loss, pain, grief, and trauma are potentially the most availing shared predicate of the afflicted; but they are also a formidable barrier to social community given the isolating effects of privation. What psychoanalysis would call the ethical relation to another’s pain – its prompt to address the impossible – tallies with the leftist programme of building solidarity in the face of almost immovable limits. This impossible work of Eros is what makes the transformations of revolutionary time possible. A matter of repetition: the struggle for communism will have been.

Read on: Phillip Derbyshire, ‘Vicissitudes of Psychoanalysis’, NLR 110.

Categories
Uncategorised

A Kuban Stanitsa

I learned about my mother’s death once the airplane landed in Moscow and my phone could be switched back on. She died while I was en route from Chicago. Immediately switching planes, I flew down south, to Krasnodar, my birthplace.

The funeral, as happens at such family rituals, reconnected me with a whole host of Kuban Cossack relatives from my mother’s side. The majority of them still live in her native village, or stanitsa, which literally means ‘winter camp’ as the Cossack military settlements were traditionally called to differentiate them from ordinary peasant villages. I haven’t seen many of my relatives in years, in fact I had never met a few nieces who were born in the eighties and who now have their own children who called me dedushka – during the years of my absence I became a grandpa, or rather a grand-uncle.

The stanitsa astonished me. It looked very prosperous, clean, modern and efficient. The majority of homes were recently renovated and expanded. My cousins now have heated granite floors in the kitchens and bathrooms, or good oak parquet elsewhere. Only my aunt Marusya, almost ninety years old now, lives in a more traditional house that still has plain plaster walls and painted wooden floors. But she also has a satellite dish on the roof – like everyone else in the village – and uses Skype (her daughter knows how to log in) to connect with her grandson and his family who live in the far north of Russia.

Aunt Marusya is also perhaps the last of my older relatives who speaks solely the local Cossack dialect, which derives from a version of eighteenth-century Ukrainian. (This means that I can easily understand basic Ukrainian but not the literary form that evolved later in the nineteenth century under a significant Polish influence, to counter the Russian influence, and which is still evolving now.) The next generation, my various cousins and their spouses, already speak mostly in Russian, using the local dialect only occasionally to make some colorful comment or joke. Their children speak only Russian and perhaps cannot speak the dialect at all. They were puzzled and amused by my rather rusty ability to switch into the ‘stanitsa talk’. Their parents rejoiced at it – after all these years abroad, I remained a good relative and true to my Cossack roots.

The Armenian name Derluguian, inherited from my father, didn’t seem to deter the familial feelings. The Cossacks were always frontiersmen open to non-Russians, evidently including my late Armenian father. He met my Cossack mother shortly after the victory in 1945. Both were very young and fatherless – there were few adult men alive at the time – so a hard-working and merry Armenian was very welcome in the family. My Russian name Georgi was inherited from my uncle killed in Poland in 1945. An American health insurance form once asked me to list the causes of deaths in my family during the twentieth century. This forced on me the realization that no male, on either side, died from natural causes during the 1914-45 period. I was raised by women, mostly widows.

When in my adolescent years I doubted in front of my mother that I should be considered a Cossack, she exclaimed (of course, in dialect): ‘But your eyebrows! Each worth a hundred rubles. Of course, you are a Cossack. Your grandfather Kondrat had two St. Georgi crosses for the Turkish campaigns, so half of the stanitsa lived in envy!’ And then she got darkly serious and added through clenched teeth: ‘I don’t know what you are going to do with the farmland but you must get it back from that dam kolkhoz. It is our farmland, and we are land-tilling Cossacks.’

In 1978 when I was admitted to Moscow State University and provided with a dorm room as an ‘inogorodniy’ (literally, a landless outsider), grandma Elya (Elena Mironovna) shook her head and muttered: ‘Are they out of their minds? How could you be landless? Tell them, you are a Kuban Cossack of Staro-Velichkovsky kuren (regimental settlement) of the Kuban Cossack Host.’

Despite the dark memories of Soviet collectivization, today everybody, to various degrees but evidently without exception, feels nostalgic for the Soviet collective farm. Even those who are among the most prosperous (the owners of a local motel, gas stations, truck business, or fishery) who are now driving Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs, are vocally nostalgic for the kolkhoz. This nostalgia, however, is not exactly for socialism but rather seems to be a deeply conservative form of local rural patriotism. The kolkhoz used to be very dynamic in the sixties and seventies, when it supported its own amusement park, dance hall, cinema, and several splendidly equipped schools. I remember, from my student years in the late seventies, how a couple of my relatives came to Moscow to spend close to a million rubles of kolkhoz money (an astronomic sum) on gym equipment – an industrial-size investment back in those times. Moreover, the kolkhoz owned and operated its own factories that produced sausages, cheeses, preserves and sunflower oil.

The factories are still there, as I discovered. In fact, they have been expanded and renovated lately. But they are now owned and operated by the dreaded generic ‘Muscovites’ – sleek young managers and elite technicians who are parachuted into the village from yonder, spending a few months (or at most a couple years) locally and then moving on to another project. They are the newly made MBAs who earn a lot, know or care nothing about agriculture or the local area. The ‘Muscovites’ are in fact the financial enforcers of some gigantic, impersonal entities whose command channels go so high they are out of local sight. These entities and their renovated factories and industrial farms are rapidly becoming the main employers in the village. There still exist a few independent farmers and small entrepreneurs (electricians, garage and gas-station owners) whose assets go back directly to their jobs in the last years of the Soviet Union (which is why these folks are mostly in their fifties and early sixties today). But I couldn’t determine how many they are nor whether they make up any coherent local force. The local state officials and their families, meanwhile, seem a more numerous elite although they are also threatened by political and bureaucratic intrigues way above the levels they can hope to control.

The local story of privatization seems to have run like this: First, at the end of Gorbachev’s perestroika (which everybody ritually curses) the managers of collective farms and local agro-industrial units discovered that they could now charge ‘market prices’ while the control from local Party and even government structures disappeared virtually overnight. The last generation of Soviet ‘red directors’ simply had to maintain basic production, feed their workers, and share some funds with the localities along old paternalistic patterns. The rest could be pocketed. The sums gained in just a few years must have been considerable judging by stories of vacation homes in Spain and grandchildren now studying at Oxford. Because our southern province is blessed with exceptionally fertile soils, good climate, and has several ports on the Black Sea, there was no problem disposing of wheat, corn, meat or sunflower oil across Russia or exporting to foreign markets – the hard ‘durum’ wheat went mostly to Italy, cooking oil to the Third World. In short, the situation in the North Caucasus was quite unlike the big factory towns in central Russia and Siberia.

But the last generation of Soviet managers held to their new ownership positions for just a few years. All of them, even the youngest and most able, were evicted in the mid- to late nineties by gangsters or ‘raiders’. Their method was the same in almost all instances: an ‘alien’ with a distinctly criminal demeanor would arrive with a large private security detail or even with state anti-riot police and in a surprise move occupy the entrances and offices at a local factory. The pretext was usually a bankruptcy procedure mandated by some obscure court from a distant town somewhere in the middle of Russia.

The new legal owners were completely faceless, an anonymous bank or unknown group of investors registered in some tax haven like Cyprus or Aruba, and they would claim to take the property under a ‘crisis restructuring.’  The old management were sometimes bought out, sometimes sent to jail for various tax violations. At other times they simply disappeared and would later be found dead, or never found at all. The luckiest, those who survived, are still living reasonably well and away from trouble somewhere in Cyprus or Dubai.

But the raider capitalists did not last very long either. In the 2000s a new and mighty force arrived – the ‘Muscovites’ armed with their MBAs and evidently with capital and political connections of an altogether different scale. They also brought new production technologies and equipment imported from Europe. This is probably why the fields look so well-kept, the warehouses and agro-industrial factories so brand-new.

There remains a lot I did not see or understand in just one week. Like in any initial phase of fieldwork, you get surprised almost every hour. Only as one of my distant nieces and her boyfriend were driving me back to Krasnodar did I realize that they were probably more ‘Muscovites’ than locals. She has no father and had to work her way up in the big town, eventually becoming a lawyer. The boyfriend in the meantime turned out to own an advertisement firm where he is apparently the sole permanent employee. Her main interest in life used to be Krishnaism, and she spent a few weeks visiting the ashrams in India. More twists in the ongoing story of our native village. But now, much to her mother’s relief, she seems more interested in starting a new family with her boyfriend.

Years ago, Pierre Bourdieu suggested that I should use my native access to do local fieldwork. I did, of course, in the war zones of the Caucasus. Krasnodar is in fact just a few hundred kilometers away from Chechnya or Abkhazia. But it is so hugely different economically and socially…indeed, I should probably return to spend a longer time in stanitsa.

Read on: Georgi Derluguian, ‘A Small World War’, NLR 128

Categories
Uncategorised

The Comedy of American Communism

‘What use is ruin?’ asks Emily Wilkes, protagonist of I’m Dying Laughing, the posthumous novel by the Australian Marxist author Christina Stead. ‘Communists should not be ruined: they should stay on top.’ Unfortunately for Emily, ruin is the abiding theme of Stead’s impressive and neglected oeuvre. Her last novel, left unfinished and assembled from drafts by her literary trustee after her death in 1983, occupied her for at least the final thirty years of her life. Its incompleteness is a testament to the difficulty of capturing the full ruinous extent of the lives of its characters: mid-century members of the American Communist Party.

Born in 1902, Stead was an Antipodean émigré whose best-known novel, The Man Who Loved Children (1940), thinly fictionalised her own Sydney childhood by transplanting it to Washington DC. In later years she moved between France, Spain, Belgium, England and America, supporting herself as a writer through an equally various list of occupations: banker, Hollywood screenwriter, journalist, tutor in the art of the novel at NYU. Despite the recent resurgence of interest in modernist women writers of the American left – Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser – Stead still lingers in relative obscurity. Her decades-long neglect can be partially explained by the fact that no one has ever quite known where to place her. Though she insisted on her native national identity throughout her life, in 1967 she was given the Britannica Australia Award for literature and then subsequently denied it due to her long absence from the country. Her work is just as resistant to categorisation. Unlike Rukeyser, a totemic figure of lyric communism, Paley, whose work pointed to the potential for a coalition between writers and activists, or Rich, who reflected on the conditions of literary production under patriarchy, Stead’s dozen novels and numerous short stories stubbornly refuse to coalesce into a single political message. This, of course, is one of many reasons to read them.

Prima facie, I’m Dying Laughing is the story of Emily, a young, naïve journalist from rural Pennsylvania, fresh off the bus in Manhattan, who finds fame and unhappy fortune as a comic writer specialising in homespun tales of the ‘Mrs Blueberry Pie’, ‘Arkansas peasant’ and ‘Freckles’ variety. Unlike Letty Fox and Her Luck (1946), another of the quintet of Stead’s American works, the political mêlée of the Lower East Side in the 1930s and 40s is but one location among many in the book. Emily and her disinherited millionaire husband Stephen Howard ricochet first across the continent, then over the Atlantic to exile in post-war Paris. In each new domicile, they stage a carnival of ever-more-conspicuous consumption, funded by cheques from Emily’s writing career, first for the workers’ dailies, then Broadway, then Hollywood, then magazine syndication and the bids of the highest paying publisher.

Between fixtures, fittings, curtains, cocktails, lobsters (thermidored and souffléd), bread rolls, gateaux and expanding garters, the Howards discuss politics, the plight of the worker, the disappointment of the New Deal, the parasitism of the intellectual, the laziness of their servants, the fortunes of their children and their own mounting debts. When will Stephen gain the respect of his peers as a Marxist historian and theoretician, or Emily acquire the focus needed to become the next Theodore Dreiser? After the next bestseller, the next soirée, the next relocation, they declare. On and on they chatter and fret until they are consumed by madness, ultimately reneging and naming Party names. The final act of their bourgeois marriage is the pathetic renunciation of their friends to the CIA in the service of renewing Emily’s American passport.

Emily suffers from acute logorrhoea: in Stephen’s words, ‘this chronic verbal excitement which arises apropos almost of the feeblest immediate cause.’ Her loquaciousness is characteristic of Stead’s approach to dialogue, a tool which replaces plot as much as driving it forward in many of her later books. As the novel progresses, Emily’s reliance on luxury increases in proportion to her inability to produce the work which funds her lifestyle. Emily wants to be everything at once: her adopted son’s mother and his lover, a Hollywood success, a writer of literary Marxist works, a slim gourmand; she wants to speak French fluently but can’t stop speaking American English for long enough to learn. She sees herself as a New Yorker, a hick, a ruined millionairess, a made worker.

Money, the need of it, the failure to keep hold of it, runs like a seam through the Howards’ marriage, as Emily’s talent is wrung for every cent it’s worth and then mortgaged out for more. In her figure we see the comic potential of an idea of socialism based on the fulfilment of personal needs: demand everything at once, then have no idea what to do with it once it’s yours. Reconciliation with meaningful work, a political position, a sense of agency and purpose requires decision-making powers – and these are powers Emily does not possess. What’s more, she lives in an age of impossible decisions. The CPUSA, whose orderly arrangement of human history and direction of its necessary future has structured her and Stephen’s entire adult life, has turned against them after their criticism of the wartime policy of a united front. For a while, the couple tries to maintain their faith outside the institution, but what use is a member without a party? These contradictions catch up with the Howards. Their rejection by the European communists and the growing irreconcilability of their political views with their addiction to finery create a fatal gap between their public personae and their private desires, which Emily tries frantically to fill with more of everything: writing, eating, loving. ‘Well of course,’ as Stead said of the couple, ‘it came to a bad end.’

Observing her topsy-turvy bacchanal of unsatiated impulses, it’s tempting to compare Emily to a Shakespearean fool – more Falstaff than Hal, as protagonists go – but her knack is for the comedy of incongruity. When she bemoans to Stephen the fact that ‘the masterpieces of the world are gloomy – tragedies no less’, he assures her that she’s ‘a funny Hamlet’. But it’s another incongruous fool of Shakespeare’s that makes the best parallel for Emily Wilkes. In Act III Scene I of Titus Andronicus,  after being tricked into cutting off his hand in ransom for his dead son, the titular lead speaks the singular line, ‘Ha, ha, ha!’ Titus’s laughter is neither genuine nor spontaneous; it is a deliberate response to a world he no longer understands. He is laughing no more than Emily is when she declares,

‘I’m dying laughing. That means something to me, not just a joke Stephen. You don’t know what I mean.’

‘Well, what do you mean?’

‘I lay awake enough nights to know what I mean. I lie awake and try to find out what I’m going crazy for: what the struggle is for.’

When Stephen pushes her to clarify the purpose of it all, Emily laughs.

Underlying the wandering plot of I’m Dying Laughing is the Howards’ run from political defeat and inability to comprehend the scale of their loss. After their deviation from the party line, and a summary interrogation disguised as a screenwriters’ dinner party, they flee the USA before their expulsion from the CP is enacted (or is it? I’m Dying Laughing is hazy on such detail, showcasing what Angela Carter called ‘the arbitrary flux of event that characterises Stead’s later novels’). Ostracism from the party, however, offers no protection against the approaching McCarthyite danger – and, caught in a pincer movement between former colleagues and the FBI, Emily begins to regret their decision not to sit this one out. ‘Those about to die salute you,’ Emily tells a steadfast comrade as she contemplates her isolation and entrapment, ‘I never cared for that.’

That Emily and Stephen were based on Stead’s friends (the author Ruth McKenney and her husband Richard Bransten), and that episodes in the book draw clearly on the author’s own time at MGM and her lives in New York and Paris, are notes of minor biographical interest here. Stead’s habit of moving her characters abruptly between metropolis and backwater, in and out of the tightknit social circles so characteristic of any account of mid-century left political life, can be attributed as much to the fragmentary manner of composition as to her peripatetic partnership with the American economist William Blake. Authorial backstory explains some of Stead’s choice of material in I’m Dying Laughing, just as her time in a Paris bank prompted her to write her earlier novel House of All Nations (1938), but it can’t explain Stead’s use of this material. I’m Dying Laughing is the final work of an author who has lost interest in resolution. For all the political talk in the book, its political lessons are thorny and demotivating where they can be said to exist at all. Emily, like many of Stead’s women characters, is neither a hero nor a victim, nor does she feel herself to be either constrained or liberated by her gender and historical position, declaring to a male peer,

‘I can beat any man alive, I bet, in my writing, and children and house and all. I think it makes a woman an artist, it doesn’t hinder her. If she’s hindered it’s her own fault; she or her husband don’t want her to win … I think it’s possible for a woman to be a wife and mother and woman and artist and success and social worker and anything else you please in 1945.’

Stead’s commitment to writing women characters who vocalise their ideas on everything except their own gendered oppression is remarkable. Especially so when one considers that her only sustained period of public attention came about because of her inclusion in the Virago Modern Classics series in the late 1970s. Indeed, Emily’s arch observations regarding the light burden of her womanly plight could be read as a sly dig at some of the authors who would become Stead’s list-mates: ‘I grant it’s terrible to be a success in literature and the movie trade along with being a wife and mother, but it’s not so terrible I can’t stand it.’

Today, however, on the Wikipedia list of ‘notable’ Virago authors, Stead doesn’t warrant a mention, nor is she referenced on the Virago page paying tribute to its Modern Classics series. The point here is not that Stead has been nefariously erased from the grand history of the most successful feminist publishing project of the last century, but rather that she didn’t belong in it to begin with. This paperback packaging of her as a maligned woman novelist was an ill fit for someone who saw herself, instead, as a maligned communist writer.

Despite this division in views between author and press, Stead has been the subject of serious critical treatment by two of her Virago peers. Angela Carter profiled her in the London Review of Books in 1986, observing that ‘to read Stead, now, is to be reminded of how little, recently, we have come to expect from fiction … She is a kind of witness and a kind of judge, merciless, cruel and magnificently unforgiving.’ A decade later, Vivian Gornick would write of the depiction of party meetings in I’m Dying Laughing that ‘there is no more accurate imitation in American literature of the sound and feel (and length!) of that kind of talk.’

Gornick, whose octogenarian revival has transformed her from cult writer to literary star, is a generation younger than Stead, but a figure straight out of the world she captures, as The Romance of American Communism makes clear. In her introduction to the new edition of Romance, Gornick is caustic about her earlier choice of genre, identifying the root of the book’s ‘problem’ as her own over-attachment to the memories of her youth. ‘To conceive of the experience of having been a Communist as a romance was, I thought and still think, legitimate; to write about it romantically was not.’ Romance-as-form, in Gornick’s retrospective analysis, flattens the detail of historical character necessary for a complete psychological account of the phenomenon of the CPUSA. ‘As a writer, I knew full well that the reader’s sympathy could be engaged only by laying out as honestly as possible all the contradictions of character or behaviour that a situation exposed, but I routinely forgot what I knew.’

Despite this and many other notes of caution from the author, the book was widely acclaimed among a core readership of millennial leftists last summer. Its republication in April 2020 could not have been timelier, coinciding as it did with Bernie Sanders’s withdrawal from the nomination race and the election of Keir Starmer to the position of Labour leader. Despair and disillusionment spanned the hyphenated gap between the youthful Anglo-American socialist movements. Among those whose lives had, for some months if not longer, revolved around voluntaristic party activism, a desperate search was underway for confirmation that faith in theory could survive defeat in practice. Gornick’s Romance offered an account which not only showed the new(er) left how to lose but reassured it that losing was in itself a form of moral victory, an inheritance from our historic forebears, the birth right of an honest cause.

Emily, of course, would disagree. Romantic ruin is not the goal, and communists should stay on top. Gornick’s youthfully naïve experience of communist organisation ended with the epoch shift of 1956 and the demise of the Party, events quickly canonised in left-American history as tragic but necessary disillusionments which laid the groundwork for the next generation’s activism. But for Stead, three decades Gornick’s senior and a CPUSA veteran at the time of its fall, the absurdities of its many missteps were integral to the shape of the struggle. Whether the demise of American communism was a romantic denouement or a preposterous farce ultimately depended on how many times you’d lived through it before.

After Emily declares her aversion to ruin, the Howards’ friend, a staunch Party member, chides her,

 ‘Yes, it’s hard. No one accepts that willingly. We should win, not lose. We should fight to win. But we have not fought very much yet in the United States.’

‘We will fight and we will lose,’ said Stephen.

Ha Ha Ha.

Read on: Raphael Samuel, ‘The Lost World of British Communism’, NLR 1/154.