Sounds of History

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) begins with a title card: ‘Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me’. Boonmee lives on a farm in Isaan, Thailand’s rural northeast, the same region where Apichatpong was raised. He grows tamarinds and keeps bees. Surrounded by dense jungle, the edges of Boonmee’s farm demarcate a threshold between civilization and wilderness, man and animal – as well as speaking to something else, something mythological.

What are those ‘other beings’ the title card refers to? Midway through the film, a late-night dinner is interrupted by two spirits: Huay, Boonmee’s dead wife, who appears as a faded apparition; and Boonsong, Boonmee’s long-lost son, who has become a ‘monkey ghost’ – Apichatpong’s own creation, resembling a mid-budget Bigfoot with glowing red eyes. There are several more monkey ghosts in the film, and one senses the presence of other phantoms throughout. There is also a talking catfish, perhaps a water god, who copulates with a princess at the mouth of a waterfall.

These are not the only mythic creatures to inhabit Apichatpong’s films. Tropical Malady (2004) features seua saming, or were-tigers, which come in two types, male and female. The latter is always a malevolent spirit, while the former can bend its shape at will, maintaining the mind and soul of a human even in tiger form. The film culminates in an encounter between Keng, a young soldier, and Tong, a seua saming, deep in the jungle one night, where Keng confesses his love: ‘Monster, I give you my spirit, my flesh, and my memories. Every drop of my blood sings our song. A song of happiness. There… do you hear it?’ The scene may be one of the most beautiful in world cinema – marked, like all Apichatpong’s films, by slowness, stillness and strangeness. Though Apichatpong is today something of a festival darling, this protracted sensibility still sometimes leaves audiences at a distance. Even the Cannes intelligentsia struggled with Tropical Malady when it debuted. Some reportedly left the film early; others stayed and booed.

If you find yourself sedated rather than sutured by Apichatpong’s languid pace and oblique images, he would much rather you simply fall asleep. In fact, he encourages it. He compares the experience of cinema to that of dreaming (not the first director to do so): losing oneself in the dark, the body subsumed by light. Dreams are merely another layer of reality, Apichatpong argues, ever present, much like spirits. This perhaps explains the ease with which his films marry realist aesthetics with the presence of ‘other beings’ – why the ghost of a dead ox can rise from its own corpse and lumber so naturally into the night. As in a dream, ontological borders are dissolved. Living and dead have no difference, nor reality and imagination, truth and myth.

The mythological, however, is missing from Memoria, Apichatpong’s tenth film and his first shot outside of Thailand. The action takes place in Colombia, where Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, an awkward orchidologist suffering from auditory hallucinations – the recurrence of a sudden booming sound, inspired by the director’s own experience of Exploding Head Syndrome. Though in many respects Memoria represents a departure for Apichatpong – his first film not in Thai, his first to use professional actors – it nevertheless follows a familiar arc: Jessica travels from city to jungle where, like Keng or Boonmee, she experiences a strange and overwhelming encounter with the other. Only this time, removed from Apichatpong’s native Thai mythology, what she encounters is not a monkey ghost, were-tiger, or concupiscent catfish. To give the game away: it is an alien.

His name is Hernán, a man who can recall all past lives – even those of stones and trees. He resembles Borges’s Funes the Memorious, isolated and evading interaction so as to remove himself from the vast flurry of narratives that would otherwise overwhelm him.

This is one of two Hernáns in the film; the other is young and handsome, with no special powers except as a musician. Jessica asks for his aid in electronically recreating the booming sound in her head, and this, in a sense, is the entire plot of the film: she seeks the source of her sound and meets the young Hernán; she seeks it a second time, following its direction out into the jungle, and meets the old Hernán. Though not quite sexual, nor love-struck, nor horrific, as with the encounters in Tropical Malady or Uncle Boonmee, what occurs between Jessica and each Hernán is nevertheless a profound experience.

How to articulate a sound only you can hear? Jessica tries at one point – ‘Bang!’ – and it is hard to imagine this helps the young Hernán much. She has come to meet him at his studio in Bogotá, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, and he attempts to recreate the ‘bang’ digitally using pre-existing soundbites. Thankfully, Jessica’s second attempt at a description is more illustrative: ‘A big ball of concrete falls into a metal well surrounded by seawater’. It conjures a Magrittian image – simple shapes and textures, knowable objects made strange.

For Magritte, the ocean is a threshold much like Apichatpong’s jungle, the place at which we slithered ashore and became human. (Think of The Collective Invention or The Wonders of Nature, both featuring Magritte’s inverted mermaid – a ‘missing link’. The latter work also implies a colonial arrival, a discovery or first contact, with its hazy galleon looming in the distance, a useful image for thinking about Memoria and its alien.) The surreal seawater sound prompts a kind of evolution within Jessica. She begins to transcend the human world, to lose track of time and place and people. At a dinner party, she mistakenly believes that someone is dead; later, she searches for the young Hernán, only to discover that he may never have existed at all.

When she first meets the old Hernán, at his cabin on the outskirts of the Amazon, he is scaling little red fish. He is somewhat animalian himself – mermaid-like – capable of translating the nearby cries of howler monkeys. For Hernán, all sounds are ‘vibrations’ that hold in them the history of the world. He views the terrestrial as Jessica does orchids: as subjects to be studied. Earlier in the film, Jessica visits a local hospital to see her sister, Karen, who is also unwell. (Another mystery – the curse of a dog, Karen speculates.) Jessica sits in a hallway, blocking a door, until the diener arrives and asks her to move. Noticing what lies within, she asks, ‘Is that a morgue?’ and is promptly invited inside. As she enters, Apichatpong cuts to a library, where Jessica is looking through pictures of infected orchids, their fleshy leaves and petals all painted with disease.

If Memoria is a work of anthropology, in which the alien is an objective and all-seeing observer, then the film is hamstrung by Apichatpong’s fear of descending into ethnography – his discomfort at being elsewhere than his native Thailand, and not wanting to impose. When I spoke to the director some years ago, when Memoria was still in its germinal stages, he communicated this hesitancy, stating that he could not ‘represent a genuine memory there [in Colombia]’ because he was an ‘outsider’. ‘You just feel like you cannot and will not understand certain things. You’re really on the outside’.

This explains Jessica’s role as a fish out of water – a character who relies heavily on Swinton’s distinctive appearance (Swinton herself describes Jessica not as a character but a ‘predicament’). A widow without direction, Jessica is pale and gaunt, eyes over-tired, a ghost drifting through frozen time, haunted and haunting. She hardly blinks when Hernán discloses that he is an alien (‘I remember we were floating through space and then I was born’), nor when he tries to sleep and momentarily dies (‘I just stopped’). Perhaps she senses in him a kindred spirit, or something as strange as herself.

When Hernán finishes scaling his fish he shares some tequila with Jessica, a homebrew apparently useful for invoking dreams. They move inside, and soon we are treated to an incredibly long scene, in single-take, where the two hold hands and Hernán channels his memories (the world’s memories) through Jessica – ‘I am like a hard disk and you are an antenna’, he says. Jessica begins to remember experiences that are not her own. It seems agonizing; tears fall from her eyes. Petrified, she becomes like Benjamin’s angel of history, privy to all the misery of the world, staring back at the great storm blowing from Paradise. There is, in Benjamin’s description, a certain historical impotence that resonates here. ‘The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed’; but this vision of an all-at-once history has ‘got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them’.

No reference however is made in Memoria to Colombia’s unique horrors, its slumbering dead. In the style of distorted radio, we hear voices, the vague stories of a man mugged and a girl hiding beneath a bed. Perhaps this is that awful banging noise now attuned to human frequency, revealed not as a roar but a scream. And yet, one senses that we are not meant to feel for these disembodied voices so much as for Jessica, our awestruck angel, who suddenly believes that she has lived these experiences, that she was once hiding in this room, though from what we do not know. As a masterful display of cinema’s capacity to communicate through sound, this sequence represents Memoria’s great encounter – reminiscent of Keng and Tong in the jungle. But though it is certainly affecting, it also feels politically deadened in a way that Apichatpong’s films never have before.

Part of the reason for Apichatpong filming in Colombia is an ongoing battle with censorship in his homeland. ‘The government thinks the media needs to be propaganda’, he said in 2016 of the then-junta government – the product of Thailand’s 18th coup since it ceased to be an absolutely monarchy in 1932. ‘I have no colour but I’m not neutral’. This is true: Apichatpong’s films are never explicitly political, and the scenes that have been censored are often some of his most innocuous. Those removed ­– on apparently moral grounds – from Cemetery of Splendour (2015) include a monk playing guitar and two doctors kissing, for example. Nevertheless, Apichatpong protested their removal by leaving those scenes black, and later pulling the film from circulation in Bangkok.

Apichatpong’s politics are often conveyed through absence and the immaterial. He lets ghosts do his bidding. There are spectres haunting Thailand, and it is no accident that the monkey ghosts of Uncle Boonmee reside in the jungles of Isaan, a land which, during the Cold War, became a stronghold for communist insurgents. It was there that the ‘people’s war’ was launched in 1965 by the Thai Patriotic Front, beginning with targeted political assassinations before escalating into outright warfare. The guerrillas were 12,000 strong at their peak, commanding enormous influence over the region – spurred initially by Chinese Maoists but evolving over time into a distinctly ruralist, native movement. Jungles and caves were their base of operations; in Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong excavates these spaces and their secrets.

Boonmee laments that both his kidney disease and his being haunted by ghosts are the result of bad karma. ‘I killed too many communists’ he confesses. As he succumbs to his illness, in a cave not unlike a communist hideout, Boonmee dreams of a future in which an ‘authority capable of making anybody disappear’ rules the city. Apichatpong sets this monologue against photographs of young soldiers – like Boonmee in his communist-killing days – as they pose with captured monkey ghosts. In doing so, he suggests that photography and ghosts have something in common: they are both prostheses for trauma. Note how Cathy Caruth defines the term: ‘the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event’.

Memoria employs its own prosthesis. Jessica is possessed by a sound, a ‘rumble from the core of the earth’. She insists on these elemental descriptions – earth, metal, water – because they lend some materiality to her phantom pain. Unable to represent a ‘genuine memory’ in Colombia (which we might take to mean a historical or political one), Apichatpong has instead constructed a film around the incomprehensibility of trauma, where, like fungal infections on the skin of an orchid, the symptoms are visible but not the disease itself.

‘Trauma is the name for an impossible history,’ Caruth writes in Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Which is to say, it is not history at all. What it reproduces is not actuality or reality but rather the very ‘unrepresentability’ of those things: an infinitely productive paradox that in Memoria begs the question, what exactly are we watching? In this way, Apichatpong’s film – which we might subtitle ‘Explorations in Trauma’ – is more bruise than blunt force. It is frustrating to see the director succumb so fully to the pitfalls of ‘trauma’ when he has otherwise elided them with such grace, with his historical ghosts and mythic monsters, his magic and his realism.

Most telling is the fact that the young Hernán is still capable of recreating Jessica’s sound, using a filmmaker’s library of sound effects, no less – an archive of historical artifacts. That the process of recreating trauma is displaced through a metaphor for that very process is perhaps another way of illustrating trauma’s unrepresentability, but what exactly does this offer the viewer? We are ultimately left watching a man flip switches on a soundboard. Trauma does nothing to resolve the tensions, gaps and transgressions of history. It is another name for a stalemate: two kings stuck in a box step. Perhaps this is what makes the encounter between Jessica and the old Hernán – between trauma and history – so unfulfilling. To even graze the tip of Hernán’s finger would be electrifying, enlightening. But sadly, he takes Jessica’s hand, not ours.

Read on: Pierre Brocheux, ‘Reflections on Vietnam’, NLR 73.


Living Fictions

The French writer Christine Angot has built a career out of provocation. In spite of a purported desire to be ‘read, and not seen’, she is a familiar presence in the French media, regularly dispatching unpalatable opinions and clashing with her interlocutors. Notable recent appearances on the late-night television show On N’est Pas Couché have seen her draw unpopular comparisons between the Holocaust and the American slave trade, as well as excoriate the French Green Party spokesperson Sandrine Rousseau to the extent that the latter burst into telegenic tears. Promoting her latest novel, Le voyage dans lest (2021), on the L’heure bleu radio show in the autumn, she was asked of its contents by the host Laure Adler, ‘More incest?’

Ever since L’inceste (1999), Angot’s work has chewed over the same intractable subject: the sexual abuse of her autofictional persona, Christine Angot, by her estranged father Pierre. That book, which also scavenges the fallout of the narrator’s first sexual relationship with a woman, begins ‘I was a lesbian for three months’ – in deliberate, arch parallel with the counterfactual opening sentence of Hervé Guibert’s era-defining À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (1990), ‘I had AIDS for three months.’ To equate lesbianism with an AIDS diagnosis requires, as Paul Preciado has noted, above-average levels of chutzpah. Yet audacity is a shrugged-off given for Angot. The astringency of her prose and public persona reflects an eagerness to antagonise a literary establishment which for many years consigned her to the status of media kindling or a therapeutic ‘diarist’. Only last year did she receive a nomination for the Prix Goncourt, having proved herself, with Le voyage dans l’est, to be a ‘real writer’ at last.   

Born Christine Schwartz in 1959 and brought up in Chateauroux by her Jewish mother – the antisemitism of French society is another contentious preoccupation – she attended university in Reims but left after a year to pursue writing. Throughout her childhood she was deprived of even the acknowledgement of her father, who left her mother for another woman in the early 1960s, but re-emerged in her early adolescence and began to abuse her. Surprisingly, Angot chose to adopt his surname when her work began to be published in 1990. Her debut, Vu du ciel, which appeared when she was 31, centred on the posthumous perspective of a little girl following her grisly rape and murder; her second novel, Not to Be (1992), was a Beckettian exercise which portrayed a dying man’s thoughts in his hospital bed. Angot lived in Bruges, Nice and then Montpellier, where she moved with her partner Claude and daughter Léonore (the subject of her 1993 novel Léonore, Toujours), both of whom recur as fictionalized avatars in her oeuvre, before finally settling in Paris. Much commentary has orbited the unanswerable and uninteresting question of who the ‘real’ Christine Angot is, something which the author has both condescendingly rejected and playfully indulged, publishing a book titled Subjet Angot as well a collection of staged ‘interviews’ baiting the media’s appetite for gossip.

Un amour impossible (2015), recently published in English as An Impossible Love, marks a moment in which Angot sought to shift the spotlight. The ‘impossible love’ of the title refers not to the abusive relationship with her father, but to the more universal, knotty nature of the maternal bond, which, Angot intimates, requires ‘a whole book’ to circumscribe. Angot is often perceived as untranslatable in English – partly because her prose is sometimes cloaked in heavy psychoanalytic garb – but Armine Kotin Mortimer has produced an impressive rendering of the novel which preserves its subtleties, such as Angot’s sensitive depiction of the gap between mother and daughter, which widens once Pierre dies. Christine becomes increasingly resentful of her mother’s failure to incriminate him and testify to the unutterable crime: ‘In the years that followed, I began to attribute my failures to her. I accused her of not having examined her conscience, of having stayed in analysis only three years, of having found an easy guilty party in my father, of not having reflected on her own responsibility for what had happened to me.’ 

Angot has explained how she could not ‘leave a hole in the place of my mother in my books’. But as with L’inceste, whose sentences disintegrate and splinter the more the narrator probes its eponymous subject, the effect is of getting closer to an object without ever truly touching it. Like looking at the sun a beat too long, Angot’s childhood memories dazzle her otherwise precise, insistent prose. ‘Trying to write’, Angot observes, ‘for me is trying to remember what it was like inside. Inside of things, in the middle of living. Not having a thesis or a discourse “on” or “about” something.’ To make a book about her mother would be to reduce her consuming and ambivalent role within Angot’s life.

The title also signals the book’s representational ambitions, its presumptuous narration of the moment Angot’s parents met, and her subsequent conception. This affected omniscience – for how could Angot really knowthe intricacies of her parents’ doomed encounter in such granular detail? – rescues the novel from any narrow debates about veracity. While in L’inceste, where reflexive, metafictional elements perforate the narrative, reminding us that we are reading a constructed literary artefact, An Impossible Love immerses the reader in both the solipsism of the two lovers and the wider world of French society in the 1950s, which is so cinematically evoked that the director Catherine Corsini adapted it into a lush melodrama in 2018. In place of the earlier novel’s meditation on incest as both a corporeal transgression and a seismic violation of the codes of representation, An Impossible Love marshals the tropes of detective fiction, seducing the reader with what Angot has called the ‘libidinal energy’ that pulses beneath trauma narratives.

In further contrast, Angot declines to render the abuse – or indeed the affair between her parents – in salacious detail. In Mortimer’s translation, Angot describes the relationship between her parents as ‘inevitable’ but also ‘unpredictable, incongruous’. It ‘escapes from the social order’ because the pair descend from polarized milieux: he from a multilingual bourgeois family in Paris; she from a small-town where the sole cultural ventilation came from the local cinema. The iron barrier of class, rather than mothers or daughters or the conditions of incest, is perhaps the substrate of An Impossible Love: the divergent sensibilities which mean that Pierre, while declaring his love for Rachel over long, intertwined afternoons and evenings, could never marry her, nor recognize their daughter as his own. ‘He had warned you from the beginning’, Christine reproaches her mother at one point. ‘Contact with his social person – by which I mean his milieu, his identity – was out of the question.’

In interviews, Angot has scorned ‘testimonial literature’ as the sole genre afforded to survivors of abuse. The latter, she argues, have been permitted to ‘speak as much as they want’, yet their writing is rarely considered capital-L Literature. Still, there is something reportorial about the forensic prose of An Impossible Love. In preparation, Angot studied other writers’ texts about their mothers, including Georges Bataille’s Ma mère and Annie Ernaux’s Une femme (whose mode of sociological excavation bears some similarity to An Impossible Love, though Angot never goes quite as far as Ernaux’s bracing self-effacements). But Angot wanted her own effort, she says, ‘to be as if the little girl herself was writing.’ The result is that the text oscillates between the cadences of lullaby and an almost clinical register. The second mode is perhaps marginally more successful, in its counterposing of legibility to the hazy relativity that makes incest possible in the first place: the refusal to acknowledge the lines of filiation that make a father a father, a child a child.  

Angot’s account of maternal indebtedness and entanglement recognizes that the autofictional self, though often viewed as narcissistic, is always embedded in a wider terrain of relationships and references. She is often criticized for repeating herself, for grimly circling the same narrow subject, much like her forebear Marguerite Duras – another survivor of abuse whose work folded and re-folded the worn fibres of her childhood. Yet Angot is interrogating the difficulties of persisting, of continuing, of somehow living in the present – and through her writing – despite a devastating past. An Impossible Love ends with an extended dialogue between mother and daughter in which Rachel, while making notes on Christine’s latest manuscript, interrupts the process to recall a memory of picking cherries in the garden of their former home in Chateauroux. The passage is vivid and resonant, yet it is not straightforwardly nostalgic. In typically rebarbative media appearances, Angot has suggested that there is no distinction between real and fake, nor true and false in literary writing. There is only ‘alive prose’ and ‘dead prose’. There are words that remain on the page, and those that somehow manage to transcend themselves. Angot’s writing lives. 

Pascale Casanova, ‘Literature as a World’, NLR 31.


Errant History

Hamid Ismailov is widely regarded as one of Central Asia’s greatest living writers. His work has been translated into all the major European languages, including Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and Spanish. Yet in Ismailov’s home country of Uzbekistan his books are outlawed, and since being forced into exile in 1992 for what he has described as his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’, he has only been able to return there on rare occasions. Tragic ironies of history recur throughout Ismailov’s oeuvre, not least in his three most recent novels to appear in English, The Devil’s Dance (2018), Of Strangers and Bees (2019) and Manaschi (2021), which form an extraordinary informal trilogy that interweaves the region’s past and present.

Born in 1954, a year after the death of Stalin, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Ismailov had a peripatetic childhood spread across the various republics of Soviet Central Asia. Following his mother’s death when he was twelve, Ismailov was raised by his grandmother in the city of Tashkent. It was his grandmother, who had been born into a noble Uzbek family, that kindled Ismailov’s interest in literature, making him read aloud to her from books of Uzbek poetry and One Thousand and One Nights. His adolescence coincided with the cultural thaw of the Khrushchev era, following the harsh years of the purges and Second World War. Censored Uzbek writers like Abdurauf Fitrat, Cho’lpon and Abdulla Qadiriy – all killed at the height of Stalinist repression – were rehabilitated and their literature returned to circulation. The young Ismailov was free to encounter their work, along with translations from English and other European languages that began to proliferate during this period.

After an eclectic education at the military college and local university, Ismailov moved to Moscow where he lived throughout the years of Perestroika. While working for the Uzbek Writers’ Union he translated Uzbek classics into Russian and Russian classics into Uzbek, and eventually became involved in agitating for democratic reform. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Ismailov had published three poetry collections and had finished his first Russian novel, Collection of the Refined (published in Moscow in 1995), as well as parts of another in Uzbek under the title Arosat, a work that would later become the Russian language novel The Railway (1997). When Ismailov showed his early literary efforts in Uzbek to an older writer who had lived through Stalin’s purges, he was told in no uncertain terms that ‘This will never be published. You’ll be arrested. You need to drop this and write in Russian.’

As reaction set in across the region during the 1990s, the independent nations of Central Asia converted into what Dmitri Furman labelled ‘imitation democracies’, pairing authoritarian rule with neoliberal shock therapy. In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who had ascended the ranks of the Uzbek Communist Party during the Gorbachev years, remained in post after the Union’s dissolution, launching a brutal crackdown. Political opposition was outlawed in spite of the ongoing election cycle (Karimov’s re-election in 2000 saw him face off against a little-known Marxist historian who admitted that even he voted for the incumbent). Uzbekistan’s culture industry, which had begun to develop during the final decade of Soviet rule, suffered heavily. Critical newspapers were suppressed or banned, television was heavily controlled, and writers such as Mamadali Mahmudov, Yusuf Jumaev and Muhammad Salih were forced into exile or spent years in prison. Yet the country’s geopolitical role as a strategic ally in the War on Terror, alongside Karimov’s crusade against domestic Islamism, kept international condemnation at bay.

Ismailov returned to Uzbekistan shortly after independence, working as a journalist for a Russian newspaper, but the threat of arrest soon forced him to flee. After brief spells in Moscow and Paris, he eventually settled in London, where he worked for the BBC World Service – ascending to the top of its Central Asia department – until his retirement in 2019. His early novels were largely written in Russian and were typified by bitterly comedic reflections on Central Asia as a crossroads of empires. In The Railway, translated into English in 2006, the ancient Silk Road is replaced by the modern Iron Road of the Soviet railways that, like its forbear, brings a carnivalesque atmosphere to the steppe and the small Uzbek town at the novel’s centre. The Underground (2009), published in English in 2015, employs the peripheral outlook of a mixed-race Russian orphan in Moscow – born to a Russian mother and an African father – to metonymize the final decade of Soviet rule. We follow Mbobo, ‘Moscow’s underground son’ – or ‘little Pushkin’, as his stepfather nicknames him in reference to the great poet’s Abyssinian ancestry – as he tours the palaces of Moscow’s Metro system, posing searching questions about what Russian literature is, or could be.

Ismailov’s three most recently translated novels, however, were composed in Uzbek: a change signalling a more concerted engagement with the cultural traditions of Central Asia, and one which brought with it significant changes in form and tone. Whereas the Russian novels are indebted to the biting satire of Gogol and Platonov, the Uzbek trilogy is written with a prosaic economy and the cadences of myth and parable. They have a hallucinatory quality, more reminiscent of One Thousand and One Nights than Dead Souls. Taken together, the books offer something like a fable of Uzbek history from the age of Ibn Sina – known in the West as Avicenna – to the tumultuous struggles of 19th-century imperial conquest, through to the resurgent nationalisms and the rise of Islamism in the present. (It must be said, however, that Ismailov disputes his publisher’s claim that the novels constitute a distinct series, asserting that this was never his intention).

The latest to be published, Manaschi, was translated by Donald Rayfield, a scholar of Russian and Georgian who learnt Uzbek solely to work on Ismailov’s writings. It centres on Bekesh, a radio presenter in contemporary Kyrgyzstan, who awakens from a dream believing he is destined to become a manaschi, the venerated figure in Kyrgyz culture who recites the Epic of Manas, a giant oral folk epic widely considered the foundational text of Kyrgyz nationalism. The Epic tells the story of an 8th- or 9th-century warrior, Manas, who united the forty Kyrgyz tribes and clans in a rebellion against the Kitai. Ismailov’s narrative is punctuated with extracts from the Epic of Manas itself, a continually evolving text that, depending on the teller, can comprise anywhere between 250,000 and 900,000 verses. Returning to his village to fulfil his destiny, Bekesh is confronted by the tide of modernity sweeping across the region. As the village is transformed by Chinese building projects and contractors – the product of China’s Belt and Road initiative – the long-simmering border disputes between the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks threaten to erupt into violence.

The previous book, Of Strangers and Bees, is set during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We follow Sheikhov, an Uzbek writer-in-exile in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as he makes his way across Europe and America, scraping together a living through stints as a painter, decorator and translator, as well as assisting in the production of a documentary about the real-life Uzbek cyclist Jamaliddin Abdoujaparov, known as the ‘Tashkent Terror’ for his frenzied riding style. Sheikhov’s journey is interwoven with two further narrative strands: one that follows 10th-century polymath Avicenna, the father of early modern medicine, as he reappears throughout history during periods of religious and political strife; the other, the story of a honeybee called Sina that finds itself ostracized from its hive. The book is a deeply felt, richly textured, and multi-layered fabulation that wonderfully evokes the agonies of exile.

But it is The Devil’s Dance, the first of the trilogy, that best encapsulates Ismailov’s literary talents. At its outset we encounter a man crouched over a book in a damp prison cell somewhere in Central Asia on New Year’s Day 1938. Taken from his home just as celebrations were about to begin, the prisoner – a fictionalized version of Adulla Qadiriy – is being held in solitary confinement. During his interrogation, he noticed some writing on a slip of a paper which claimed that he had broken Articles 58 and 67 of the Uzbek Criminal Code. As luck would have it, there happens to be a battered copy of the code by the door to his cell. Qadiriy rifles through it, discovering the reason for his confinement: he is guilty, it says, of counterrevolutionary activity. Nothing Qadiriy has done, he thinks to himself, could possibly fit this definition. While his novels may contain nationalist themes, he’s never taken part in organizing against the state. After several days, Qadiriy is taken during the night and bundled into a new cell that is overflowing with prisoners. Before his arrest, all he’d wished for was a winter of uninterrupted work on his latest novel, a historical work about Oxyon, the second wife of Emir Umar of Bukhara, and the courtly intrigues of early 19th-century Central Asia. But now he longs for the interruptions of family and friends.

Qadiriy was one of the region’s most revered writers during the 1920s and 1930s. Forged at the intersection of empires and cultures, the nomadic and the sedentary, the traditional and the modern, Qadiriy’s work stands alongside that of other great founders of late-arriving national literatures such as Natsume Soseki in Japan and José Rizal in the Philippines. He is perhaps best known for Oʻtgan kunlar (1926), generally considered the first novel in the Uzbek language. This story of a Muslim reformer set in late 19th-century Tashkent high society was so popular that it was supposedly read aloud in tea shops (an English translation, Bygone Days, belatedly appeared in 2018). Qadiriy’s work initially found favour with a Soviet regime under which the distinction between ethnic and national groups in the federalist union was promoted as, in the words of one Party official, ‘a communal apartment’ in which each republic was a ‘separate room.’ Yet this soon changed, and Stalin’s purges targeted thousands of alleged bourgeois nationalists – Qadiriy among them. In Devil’s Dance, the captive Qadiriy descends into the dreamworld of his stories, and his own fate begins to merge with that of Oyxon. Just as Oyxon is subjected to brutal beatings and rape at the hands of the cruel Emirs, Qadiriy, too, is assaulted and brutalized by his guards.

If, as Perry Anderson has written, the classic form of the historical novel developed under the spell of romantic nationalism, as ‘a nation-building exercise in the backwash of romantic reaction to the French Revolution and Napoleonic expansion’, Devil’s Dance is a more postmodern historical narrative, shaped by contrasting historical circumstances. The work is inflected by the local oral traditions of Uzbek storytelling. In prison, Qadiriy initiates a form of collective narrative, eliciting tales and anecdotes from his cellmates. One prisoner, the Party lector Laziz, holds forth about the ‘ideologically impoverished and artistically shallow’ poetry of Umar, set against the ‘progressive-democratic’ verse of his first wife Nodira (his lecture, Qadiriy tells us, is stuffed with ‘nonsensical jargon’ that pours from his mouth ‘like a kettle’). Another, a Russian professor, when asked about the fate of the imperial-era British spy Colonel Stoddart, turns to his fellow inmate, an elderly scholar who proceeds to reel off a list of books on the Khanate of Kokand (‘to put it bluntly’, he tells Qadiriy, ‘there are a lot of books, and life is short’). It seems that everyone in the prison is an intellectual or an artist; their patchwork of reflections is gathered together in Qadiriy’s tale.

Awaiting his execution, Qadiriy begins to weep. ‘He wept as he recalled his mother’, Ismailov writes, ‘he grieved for the wife and children he had failed to make happy; for his friends lying here in neighbouring prison cells; his tears were bathing the defunct and forgotten, his wretched people and their errant history, of whom the beautiful, betrayed Oyxon seemed such a potent symbol, her memory in danger of being lost along with her poetry, another chapter of Uzbek literature brutally excised.’ Qadiriy’s suppression at the hands of the Soviet regime is another brutal chapter in this story, as is Ismailov’s forced expulsion from his homeland. As Qadiriy thinks to himself in his damp prison cell: ‘Every generation says, “we have come anew to the world, we shall create the world anew!’’’, yet ultimately, it is ‘the same old wooden tub built over the freezing cold.’ Despite its modern maladies, Central Asia appears mired in an endless cycle of imperial intrigue and domestic repression. Few bodies of work register this historical burden more trenchantly, or more beautifully, than Ismailov’s.

Read on: Dmitri Furman, ‘Imitation Democracies’, NLR 54.


Tianxia versus Plato

Tianxia is the newest fashionable word. If you don’t know it, you’re out of the loop. If you do, you’re evidently up to date with the latest trends in international political science, even more so if you use the original Chinese ideogram 天下, which literally means ‘all under heaven’. Yet as Ban Wang, editor of an important volume on the subject, admits: ‘despite its popular revival, tianxia has rarely been defined with rigour’. First deployed under the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC), ‘all under heaven’ initially denoted the entire world, which in theory was subject to the sovereign, or ‘son of heaven’ (天, tian, being the ideogram for heaven). In practice, it was used to indicate the part of the world over which the Chinese sovereign – and subsequently Emperor – exercised supremacy.

One of tianxia’s most authoritative modern advocates, Zhao Tingyang, defines it as follows:

1. It is a monarchical system, including certain aristocratic elements. 2. It is an open network, consisting of a general world government and sub-states. The number of sub-states depends on the diversity of cultures, nations or geographical conditions. The sub-states pertain to a general political system, in the same way that subsets pertain to a greater set. Designed for the whole world, the all-under-heaven system is open to all nations. Any nation can participate, or be associated, if it is at peace with the nations included in the system. 3. The world government is in charge of universal institutions, laws and world order; it is responsible for the common wellbeing of the world, upholding world justice and peace; it arbitrates international conflicts among sub-states […] 4. The sub-states are independent in their domestic economy, culture, social norms and values; that is, independent in almost all forms of life except their political legitimacy and obligations. The sub-states are legitimated when politically recognized by the world government, and obliged to make certain contributions…

In recent decades, Chinese political commentators have used the concept to explain how China avoided the fragmentation into various national states that occurred in Europe after antiquity and escaped the fratricidal wars that marked the first age of intra-European competition (which subsequently embroiled the entire Western world). After all, at the time of the Han and Antonine dynasties (c. 150 AD), the Roman and Chinese Empires were of comparable size in terms of territory and population, and both were unitary entities. The explanation hinges on the distinction between tianxia and the Latin imperium (root of the modern term ‘empire’).

As Salvatore Babones explains, ‘Whereas the Roman imperium connoted an expressly delegated political authority to command obedience, the Chinese tianxia encompassed a moral authority that entitled the state to the obedience of its subjects and suzerains alike. Those suzerains included three classes of external sovereigns’. The first class was formed by states that had adopted Confucianism and the Chinese script (or its variants): Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Ryukyu Islands. These incorporated polities that were an active element of tianxia. The second comprised those parts of Southeast Asia that recognized – at least formally – Chinese authority and appealed to the Emperor to resolve conflicts: Sulu (modern-day Philippines), the Khmer Empire, Siam (Thailand), Java, and, during the Ming era, the maritime Islamic Sultanates. The third and final class involved the nomadic populations to the north and west: Jurchen, Mongolian, Turkic and Tibetan groups that China sought to neutralize by educating in the customs of Chinese civilization.

The concept of tianxia is therefore invoked to affirm the moral superiority of a Confucian view of geopolitics over the so-called ‘Westphalian’ tradition, which upholds the sovereignty of national states, considered equal juridical entities. According to this perspective, the Chinese were forced to temporarily renounce tianxia to manage incursion by the West and its nation states, but with the failure of the Westphalian dis-order the time has come to revive it. Tingyang repeatedly refers to the West in terms of ‘failed states’ in his Redefining a Philosophy for World Governance (2019).

What’s curious about this Chinese account is that, at least in the texts available to Western audiences, it completely elides the other great pillar of Chinese imperial politics: the principle of ru biao fa li: varyingly translated as ‘decoratively Confucian, substantively Legalist’ or ‘Confucian outside, Legalist inside’, or more freely still: ‘iron fist in velvet glove’. ‘In fact’, as Po-Keung Ip notes, ‘Confucianism as state ideology has been officially endorsed and followed, while Legalism covertly dominated much of the actual practice, thus forming the two-tiered politics characteristic of dynastic China’. Legalists had appeared as early as the Zhou dynasty, with Guan Zhong (720-645 BC) and Hanfeizi (281-233 BC), the latter systematizing the formulations which ‘directly opposed the Confucian ideals, and suggested using the law to impose order, subdue populations to strict discipline, and if necessary, use manipulation to stay in power’. In other words, there appears to be a Machiavellian streak in classical Chinese political theory overlooked by the partisans of tianxia.

And that’s not all: the paradox is that, by claiming the superiority of China over the rest of the world, the recovery of tianxia promotes a nationalist program through critiquing the Western idea of the nation state. Yet these two incongruences – the omission of ru biao fa li and the use of an antinationalist nationalism – have not prevented tianxia from gaining currency in the West, so much so that thinkers such as Bam Wang have begun to introduce the concept of an ‘American tianxia’. Beyond their respective exceptionalisms, a common feature of China and the United States is that territorial conquest does not necessarily form part of their exercise of supremacy.

The concept of American tianxia has been further elaborated by Babones, who believes we live in a post-Westphalian world, where

degrees of sovereignty can be gauged by proximity to American power. Only the United States can be said to exercise full state sovereignty, since only the United States is, practically speaking, immune to all external ‘controlling’ or ‘overriding’ voices originating in other states. Outside this American centre, three broad, hierarchical circles of more or less limited sovereignty exist in the post-Westphalian state system. These might reasonably be called shared sovereignty, partial sovereignty, and compromised sovereignty.

The first circle is constituted by the remaining members of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance; the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of which not only share surveillance, but more generally a common language and culture (it’s no coincidence that these are the only white states of the old Commonwealth). ‘The citizens, companies, non-governmental organizations, and governments of America’s four Anglo-Saxon allies’, Babones continues,

participate directly in American global governance through their participation in a common cultural space of opinion formation, their close integration into the American economy (especially Canada and the UK), and their deep cooperation with the American security services. While these four countries are clearly ‘outside’ the United States itself they are to some extent ‘inside’ the institutions of American global governance.

The second circle includes the states of continental Europe, from NATO members to the developed countries of East Asia. These ‘allies’ of the United States

enjoy varying degrees of partial sovereignty in domestic affairs (subject to currency, investment, and trade openness) while ceding nearly all decision-making over foreign affairs […] They have voluntarily ceded to the United States the authority to make many of the decisions usually associated with sovereign authority – and could in principle seize it back. The fact that the states that govern every single developed country in the world today have chosen to align themselves, formally or (in a few cases) informally, with the American military alliance structure and the broader mechanisms of American global governance suggests that there may not be much sovereign freedom of choice in this decision after all.

‘The remaining states of the world’, on the other hand,

are subjected to compromised sovereignty: they (often loudly) proclaim the right of full legal sovereignty but are often unable to make this right effective. Those states that accept compromised sovereignty suffer peripheralization and economic colonialism. Those that do not accept compromised sovereignty face strong external push-back and internal pressure for regime change.

As we can see, Babones traces a homology between the three concentric circles of classical tianxia and American global hegemony, in a curious ode to the American empire which he even forecasts to last a millennium. Whilst he is at it, Babones might also do well to study the American variation of ru bia fa li, which it seems to pursue with far greater precision.

In all these discussions, however, lies an anomaly that is seldom grasped: Lindsay Cunningham-Cross and William Callaghan observe that, when writing one of the other key volumes to revive the concept of tianxiaAncient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (2011) – the aim of author Yan Xuetong

was to learn from the experience of ancient China and its political philosophers in order to enrich and improve current understandings of international politics. Yan believes that texts originating from the period prior to China’s unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BC) are particularly useful to scholars today, because interstate relations during that era share many similarities with contemporary international politics. In addition, this period is often viewed as the apex of Chinese philosophy; pre-Qin texts are thus significant because of the sustained influence they have had on politics in the Chinese empire over the past two millennia.

No Westerner would ever think to exhume a concept from the epoch of Homer, or even Heraclitus, and apply it to the governance of the globalized world. When we call the Athens of Pericles a democracy, we do so firmly in the knowledge that this word didn’t carry the same meaning as it does today, twenty-five centuries later. For Chinese political philosophers, however, the contemporary rehabilitation of tianxia (and the quiet omission of ru biao fa li) seems quite straightforward.

This discrepancy leads us to a reflection on the different relationships of China and the West to their respective pasts. The West is currently subjecting its antiquity to a radical critique, a sort of damnatio memoriae due to the slavery, racism and misogyny of our ancestors: classical texts are metaphorically burned, and departments of classical studies are quite literally closing in many American universities (Europe usually follows suit after a couple of decades). The paradox is that this dismantling of our cultural past is made possible precisely thanks to the conceptual tools bequeathed by antiquity to the Renaissance and early modernity, tools which led to the Enlightenment (French and Scottish), and to modern political thought, out of which anti-slavery, antiracism and feminism emerge.

For the Chinese, this voluntary self-destruction of one’s cultural heritage is totally incomprehensible: in fact, it only reinforces the idea of something amiss in Western cultural development. A civilization which lacks respect for its ancestors must be somewhat off course. A curious phenomenon thus arises: the classics of Western thought are today studied more extensively in China than in the West, for it is in these very texts – Plato, Aristotle – that China looks for ways of interpreting Western politics. That is to say, they apply the tianxia recipe to the West (and by ‘the West’, China primarily means the United States).

In this hall of mirrors – what the French call an abîme, an abyss in which we lose ourselves – the great classicist Shadi Bartsch, after studying Mandarin for nearly a decade, has examined how the Chinese view the classics of Western antiquity. In 2019 she published an essay, ‘Plato’s Republic in the People’s Republic of China’, and will release a book next spring entitled Plato Goes to China.

This study of the Western classics is related to the revival of tianxia, for both converge in their demonstration of the inferiority of the Western political tradition. Chinese scholars, Bartch argues in a recent interview,

focus on Thucydides’s writings about classical Athens because Thucydides said what happened to Athens was, at first it was a great democracy. Then demagogues started getting into power, and the demagogues told the people what they wanted to hear as opposed to what they needed to hear. After Pericles’s death, they just catered to the Athenian democracy, with the result that bad decisions were made because they were selfish decisions, and eventually, the Athenian democracy collapsed.

The same will occur to the US, considered (wrongful) heirs to Athenian democracy:

The United States’ democracy is, in fact, very, very young. In fact, it really only dates back to the Voting Act of 1964 if you want to be inclusive. The full democracy is 50 years old, and the Chinese Dynasty has been around for 2,000 years.

It won’t take much for American democracy to go over a cliff. Chinese theorists though aren’t free from contradictions; just as they pass negative judgements on Athens,

they think of themselves as Athens, and they see the US as Sparta. Sparta is getting anxious because Athens is getting stronger. What does Sparta want to do? Sparta wants to squash Athens. They think that the West is very much invested in making sure that China does not become a global power on a par with the West, which I think is inevitable.

But perhaps this reciprocal suspicion, or incomprehension, is never as clear – as in the final example given by Bartsch:

There is a Chinese scholar whose name is He Xin, who argues that there was no Greco-Roman antiquity, that in the Renaissance, the Westerners were so embarrassed about the fact that China had this glorious dynastic past. It was the Middle Kingdom. It had all sorts of innovations in technology and civilization that the West didn’t have at that time, so the West decided to invent classical antiquity so they’d have something to boast about to China. All those texts by Plato and Virgil and Ovid that we’ve been talking about somebody wrote them in the Middle Ages and then stuck a date on them – 12BC, 400AD – which is a very interesting way of dealing with the Western tradition.

The idea of antiquity never existing – that it is merely a late medieval invention – seems to be the most ingenious solution the problems that continue to torment our past and present.

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


Honduran Dreams

First, let’s celebrate. Xiomara Castro’s resounding success in the November 28 elections was an astonishing victory for the Honduran people. Before the balloting, most assumed that the ruling National Party would once again intimidate voters, cook the books and steal the presidency, despite polling data which made clear that Castro, the centre-left candidate of a united opposition, was on track to win. When the first, partial results were released that Sunday night, though, she led the ruling party candidate, Nasry Asfura, by 19 points with a 62% voter turnout. It appeared she was unstoppable, unless the military rose up – and it hasn’t, yet.

By Wednesday, with over 50% of the vote counted, Asfura had conceded, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had congratulated Castro, and the current dictator, Juan Orlando Hernández, had acknowledged her victory on national TV. Could the long Honduran night have ended, and so quickly?  

Castro will be the first female president in Honduran history, with the highest vote total ever. Her landslide success was the product of twelve years of hard organizing against the regime installed by a 2009 coup. But in the face of victory, the Honduran people remain devastated after twelve years of repression and suffering, and the challenges Castro now faces are beyond daunting. Looming behind them is the empire of the United States – facing the potential loss of what has been one of its most captive nations.

Castro’s husband, Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya, was elected in 2006 from the Liberal Party, one of the two traditional ruling parties. He was by no means a leftist; but once elected he raised the minimum wage, blocked the Honduran elite’s privatization plans, and allied himself with the rising centre-left and left democracies elected across Latin America in the ‘Pink Tide’ of the 1990s and 2000s. In response, the military, Supreme Court, and majority in Congress combined to oust him in June 2009. The US initially protested the coup, then did everything it could behind the scenes to stabilize it, as a lesson to the region’s other progressive governments. It bided its time until a November election – boycotted by almost all international observers – and swiftly recognized Porfirio Lobo, the declared winner from the National Party, as president. Thereafter, the post-coup regime immediately plunged the country into a maelstrom of violence, poverty and the destruction of basic state functions and the rule of law. Gangs and drug traffickers, working hand in hand with the military and police, consolidated their control over all levels of government.

But an enormous grassroots opposition rose up to protest the coup, coordinated through the National Front of Popular Resistance, which united the women’s, labour, campesino, LGBT, Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous movements along with a broad swath of other Hondurans. They built a powerful culture of resistance, demonstrating in the streets by the tens of thousands for over two years and building strategic international pressure on the regime. Castro’s party, LIBRE (Libertad y Refundación), emerged out of that Resistance in 2011.

Castro first ran for president in 2013, and probably won. But the National Party, which controlled the election machinery, handed the presidency to a rising thug, Juan Orlando Hernández, whose victory was quickly rubber-stamped by the United States. Hernández, from a military background, had supported the coup as a congressmember and, as president of congress, led the ‘technical coup’ of 2012 that overthrew four out of five members of the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court in the middle of the night and replaced them with his loyalists. As president, he militarized the police, oversaw near-complete repression of protests and quickly asserted dictatorial control over the military, police, congress, judiciary and most of the media. With the support of the US-controlled multilateral development banks, he used neoliberal privatization as a front to eviscerate state employment and services, while he and his cronies siphoned off billions. In 2013 Hernández and his party stole as much $300 million from the national health service to pay for their electoral campaigns, bankrupting it. As the economy collapsed and terror metastasized, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans began to flee.

In 2017, aided by the Supreme Court, Hernández ran again, in violation of the constitution. His opponent was Salvador Nasralla, a centre-right anticorruption sportscaster, who ran as part of a coalition with Castro. On election night, the theft was naked: Nasralla led by five points in the early results, but after a few hours the government shut down the counting and a week later declared Hernández president. Once again, the US recognized the ‘victory’, despite an outcry from the Organization of American States. When Hondurans poured into the streets to protest, the military and police fired live bullets, killing at least 22 peaceful protesters and bystanders. In the years after that, security forces broke up almost all demonstrations with tear gas; protesters increasingly stayed home in fear. Banners from a 2020 campaign against state thievery of Covid funding, asking ‘Where’s the Money?’ were torn down by security forces.

Castro identifies publicly as a democratic socialist. Her domestic program promises to address poverty, transform the police by establishing community-based policing, and end violence against women and the LGBT community. Much of her agenda is mainstream, though. She wants to roll back the excesses of neoliberalism and promises to deliver a functioning state that provides basic services such as health care, electricity and education. With Honduras facing astronomical levels of debt after successive governments used international lending institutions as private ATMs, she has already signalled her desire to renegotiate the repayment terms. She will apparently welcome foreign investment, and has already hosted meetings with the Chamber of Commerce. To her left, though, she will be held accountable by the grassroots movements that enabled her victory, who have a more profound transformation of Honduran society as their goal. So far, she has joined their longstanding demand for a constituyente – or constitutional convention – which could be used to refound the nation from below. On the foreign policy front, she’s made clear she will establish a wide range of global alliances of her own choosing, including recognition of Venezuela, Cuba and China.

Whatever her goals, Castro will have to try to govern without a majority in Congress. Even in coalition with Vice-President-elect Salvador Nasralla and his allies, Castro will have a hard time repealing multiple laws that have passed since the coup, which guarantee state secrecy, expand surveillance, repress dissent and grant impunity to drug traffickers and government officials. Other key reforms will be even harder to achieve. Castro intends to abolish the ‘ZEDES’ – special economic zones in which the Constitution doesn’t apply – yet this may have to wait until at least 2023 when the next Supreme Court is elected, by the same Congress. Any anticorruption agenda will depend on the cooperation of the attorney general, whose term also expires in 2023 and is also elected by the Congress.

She will also have to contend with whatever further machinations President Hernández might employ to protect himself. In October 2019, his brother Tony was convicted in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and sentenced to life for money laundering, arms sales, drug trafficking and other crimes. Tony’s trial and subsequent cases are replete with evidence against the president, who allegedly took a $1 million bribe from El Chapo Guzman, the famous Mexican cartel leader; appointed a known death squad leader as National Director of Police and instructed him to commit murders; and vowed, memorably, to ‘shove the drugs up the gringos’ noses’. It is widely assumed that the New York prosecutors will charge Juan Orlando once he has left office. But the current attorney general – Oscar Chinchilla, who has been named in New York courts as working with drug traffickers, and is close to both Hernández and top US officials – could refuse to extradite him.

The military and police present Castro’s most serious, and potentially deadly domestic challenge. They remain loyal to Hernández, who has spent eight years promoting his cronies into top positions. The current Minister of Security, Julian Pacheco Tinoco, has four times been named in the SDNY for his involvement in drug trafficking, while the two most senior police officials have protected narcos. Evidence in the New York trials revealed that drug traffickers allied with the president have utilized government military bases, planes and helicopters, and deployed dozens of soldiers to oversee border shipments. These security forces have a long history of repressing peaceful protests in the streets and killing activists. They have used Covid restrictions as a pretext to further occupy the entire country. They are accustomed to tremendous power and could take over or cause disruption through provocateurs at any moment.

But the biggest threat to the president’s ability to govern as she chooses is the United States. The US not only supported the overthrow of Castro’s husband; for twelve long years it has provided the Honduran security forces with training, equipment and funding and looked the other way at drug trafficking up top. For twelve long years it has propped up a government that criminalized and slaughtered Indigenous, Afro-Indigenous, and campesino activists. Leopards don’t change their spots; they find new strategies for capturing their prey.

On November 30, Blinken was quick to recognize Castro – praising Honduran voters for their ‘commitment to the democratic process’. It’s important to mark that historic moment, when the US reversed its decade-long project of supporting the post-coup regime. A week before the election, Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, travelled to Honduras to meet with top officials in the Hernández government and military. It appears he read them the riot act about manipulating the election results, and instructed them to allow Castro to win. But it’s uncertain how much further the State Department wants the elites and security forces to cede control, and what concessions from Castro it may have extractedin exchange for allowing her to be elected.

How do we explain the State Department’s tentative acceptance of Castro? First, her wide lead in the polls would have made it difficult for the US to try to legitimate another election stolen by the National Party – especially when members of the US Congress, led by Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Hank Johnson and Senators Patrick Leahy and Jeff Merkley, have been ratcheting up pressure for the US government to rescind its support for Honduran security forces. Second, the Democrats are rightly worried that Republicans will once again use the immigration question to triumph in the 2022 and 2024 elections, and aware that another National Party presidency would not solve the root causes driving migration. Past practice suggests that the US will now pressure Castro to concede to allies to her right on a number of crucial points, while it subtly questions her ability to govern on her own. Nasralla, a wild card who has been close to the US for many years, has already undermined the president-elect’s authority by declaring that she will not in fact recognize China, Venezuela or Cuba, or convene a constituyente.

In trying to manage Castro, the Biden administration’s goal at the deepest level will continue to be defending and expanding the operations of US-based transnational corporations in the region, whether in garment factories, export agriculture or extractivism. Beyond the interests of any particular company, it wants ensure a wider regional context in which all forms of corporate capitalism can flourish. Its close alliance with transnational capital was made clear in a May 2021 programme launched in a supposed attempt to stop migration, a ‘Call to Action to the Private Sector to Deepen Investment in the Northern Triangle’, in which the administration announced it was working with PepsiCo, MasterCard, Nespresso and other corporate behemoths to expand their investments in the region. 

The administration’s economic goals are enforced, in turn, by the United States Southern Command (Southcom), which sustains close relationships with US-funded, trained, and equipped Honduran armed forces, shares intelligence and issues public statements praising its top officers. Even if the US State Department sees no alternative to working with Castro for the time being, Southcom is an engine that runs by itself, backed by billions from military contractors. It has repeatedly demonstrated that it will raise the alarm about ‘enemies’ in order to extract more power and money from Congress, and has enthusiastically embraced a new Cold War with China. We don’t yet know how its leadership is reacting to Castro’s victory, or what signals it is sending to the Honduran military.

In its new posture of ostensibly supporting Castro, the State Department has publicly welcomed her commitment to fighting corruption. But its definition of ‘corruption’ is highly selective. When hundreds of thousands of Hondurans rose up in 2015 to protest Hernández’s theft from the national health service, the US blocked their demand for a UN-based commission. Instead, it orchestrated a far weaker body under the auspices of the Organization of American States, in order to maintain control and whitewash the regime, while attempting to discipline it. The State Department’s recent lists of corrupt individuals, mandated by Congress, have assiduously ignored Hernández, his top advisor, the president of congress, the attorney general, and the minister of security. We can assume that under Castro the US will continue to use ‘anti-corruption’ initiatives to choose which figures to rein in and which to protect, attempting to shape the leadership and thereby mould the Honduran government in its interests.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration will continue to flood the country with uncharted billions in ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ aid. We lack analyses of the full objectives and impact of these ‘soft power’ programmes, in which well-meaning functionaries circle in and out of USAID, think tanks, universities, the State Department, Congressional offices, NGOS and private contractors – learning the same toolkit from MA programmes and their mentors. What exactly do their ‘governance’ programmes consist of? In Honduras, ‘democracy promotion’ has in part meant grooming leaders that will serve US interests; ‘institution-building’ has included shoring up corrupt judges, prosecutors, and police by training them in technical skills; ‘gang prevention’ has meant working with a repressive police force that answers to a criminal chain of command, while marginalizing dedicated activists already working in their communities. Soft power – a seemingly benevolent imperialism – has a well-documented racist history, based on the idea, dating back to the expansion of the US empire into the Philippines and Caribbean, that ‘little brown people can’t govern themselves’ and are in need of tutelage from their white superiors.

Since Biden was elected, the US has been increasingly committed to ‘supporting Honduran civil society’, by which it means pouring tens of millions of dollars into puppet organizations like the evangelical-based Association for a More Just Society, an ostensible anti-corruption organization that follows US policy in lockstep and is understood to be close to Hernández. Private funds are also at play, such as the Seattle International Foundation, whose directors have worked closely with the State Department. It lobbies the US Congress and has moved into funding and showcasing Honduran and US journalists and other civil society actors, attempting to draw so-called independent journalists as well as solidarity activists into the administration’s agenda. Top officials from both the Association for a More Just Society and the Seattle International Foundation are routinely quoted in the mainstream US media as experts on Honduras.

All these challenges are formidable indeed. In the wake of Castro’s astonishing victory, we must once again take up the hard work of solidarity, supporting the grassroots social movements who will challenge their new presidenta to realize their dreams for Honduras’s future, and reject the profit fantasies of the United States.

George Black, ‘Central America: Crisis in the Backyard’, NLR 1/135.


Chilean Stalemate?

In the upcoming presidential ballot on 19 December, Chileans will be asked to choose between a far-right Pinochet apologist and a social democrat – not, as outlets like the Economist and Financial Times have claimed, between ‘two extremists’ offering different variants of populism.   

In the first round of the elections on 21 November, which drew only 47% of the electorate to the polls, José Antonio Kast – a member of the Chamber of Deputies who founded the nationalist Republican Party – won a majority with 1.96 million votes (28% of votes cast). In close second, with 1.8 million votes, was Gabriel Boric: also a member of the Chamber of Deputies, a former student leader turned candidate of the Apruebo Dignidad, which includes the ‘new left’ coalition Frente Amplio and the electoral pact Chile Digno, composed of the Communist Party, ecologists, regionalists and the Christian left. Commentators were once again dumbfounded. How, after a popular uprising against neoliberalism and Pinochet’s constitution, could an unashamed neofascist win the largest share of the vote?

In 2017 Kast had run as an independent to the right of current President Sebastián Piñera, coming in fourth place with half a million votes (almost 8%). This time round, he more than tripled his support, capitalizing on the 1.6 million-strong electoral base that voted rechazo (‘reject’) in the October 2020 plebiscite on writing a new constitution. He managed to raise his profile by appearing constantly on talk shows – where he proposed digging ditches on the border to keep immigrants out – and forming an alliance with evangelicals against ‘gender ideology’. Boric, on the other hand, stood on a measured social democratic platform that included a national health system, a new pension scheme, and a national care system with subsidies for domestic labour. He received the same number of votes as when he ran in the Apruebo Dignidad primaries, where he beat the Communist candidate Daniel Jadue by a significant margin.

As the results came in, the center-left began to panic. Candidates from the ‘renovated’ right and the ex-Concertación – which has ruled Chile for most of the past thirty years – secured 24%. In addition, an independent representing the aspirational popular and middle classes, Franco Parisi, who founded the Partido de la Gente (Party of the People), a populist formation that pledged to alleviate the pressures on consumers and entrepreneurs, got 12.8%. Given this electoral landscape, Boric is faced with a choice: either court centrist voters, peeling them off from the far-right, or pitch himself to the 53% of people who opted out of the electoral system altogether (most of whom come from the popular classes and have been marginalized or neglected by parties from across the political spectrum).

Voter turnout figures have progressively decreased since Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990. The initial euphoria of free elections after the dictatorship was quickly replaced by apathy, thanks to the unresponsiveness of successive center-left governments. Frente Amplio, a coalition rooted in the 2011 student movements with which Boric was associated, initially seemed to offer an alternative – yet it too has shed its disruptive character for a more ‘mature’ and ‘responsible’ politics. Leftist critics have long described Boric as amarillo (‘yellow’) because of his tendency to avoid confrontation and adopt servile, middle-of-the-road positions. It was therefore unsurprising that, once the campaign got underway, he decided to cater primarily to establishment voters worried about the destruction of property that ensued from the uprising of October 2019. 

Kast’s politics run in the family. His father, Michael Kast, was a Nazi soldier who managed to escape to Chile after the war with fake documents from the Red Cross, while his eldest brother, Miguel, was a Chicago Boy who worked for Pinochet, serving as the head of Odeplan during the late seventies (overseeing the neoliberal adjustment plan), then as the Minister for Labour in 1980, and finally as President of the Central Bank in 1982. José Antonio studied law and has been in politics since 1996, first as a city council member in rural Buin, then as a representative to the Chamber of Deputies for four consecutive terms. He was a long-time member of UDI, the party founded in 1983 by the jurist and Pinochet adviser Jaime Guzmán, until he resigned in 2016 to organize among elites who wanted to revive the former dictator’s legacy. In collaboration with the global Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an organization founded by Alan Sears that has brought together Catholic and evangelical representatives to protect the traditional family, Kast assembled an international summit of ultra-conservative politicians to discuss Chile’s future. In 2019 he launched the Republican Party, which now works with the evangelical right in Congress.

Kast’s 2021 presidential programme – promising to ‘restore order’ and reclaim Chile from an alleged communist insurgency – included proposals to lower corporate taxes and eliminate inheritance tax; grant legal immunity to the armed forces and fund the legal defense of police officers accused of using excessive force; give the President sweeping powers to crack down on dissent; establish an International Anti-Radical Left Coalition to ‘identify, arrest and prosecute radicalized troublemakers’; shut down the Human Rights Institute; exit the United Nations; repeal the ILO Convention No. 169 on indigenous peoples; and eliminate the Ministry of Women, offering financial incentives for heterosexual marriage while erasing ‘gender ideology’ from the education curriculum.

Meanwhile, Boric pursued the failed strategy of trying to defeat the far-right on its own terrain. He secured the backing of the Christian Democratic Party after meeting with its leaders and sought to win over the business moguls at the Confederation of Production and Commerce (CPC), opening talks to quell their ‘legitimate anxieties and fears’. Rejecting the popular demand to liberate all those jailed during the uprising, Boric has called for a tough line against protesters accused of ‘burning and looting’, even though such allegations have in many cases been confected by police (indeed, five separate reports have documented human rights violations perpetrated by carabineros and cases of intra marcha agents involved in acts of vandalism, including the destruction of Santiago’s Hotel Principado). As a representative in the lower house, Boric approved the ‘anti-barricade law’ that criminalized protest by imposing prison sentences between two months and five years on those who occupy public spaces or build blockades. He later apologized for backing the reform, conceding that it gave more arbitrary power to police and judges, yet he refuses to support pardons for those who have been jailed because of it.

Boric has been both praised and criticized for his conciliatory attitude towards the right. A month after the uprising in 2019, he was one of the opposition leaders invited by the government to negotiate the terms of the constituent process. A conversation he started in a men’s bathroom with the far-right Senator Juan Antonio Coloma ended fifteen hours later with a ‘social peace agreement’ signed at 2am. This deal stipulated that a two-thirds supermajority in the Constitutional Convention was required to approve new constitutional articles – giving effective veto power to elite interests – and created an obligation to respect existing commercial treaties. (Since then, President Piñera has been pressuring Congress to fast-track the ratification of TPP11, which would force the state to pay crushing fines to private companies for nationalizing natural resources).

Following his swerve to the center-right, Boric has ingratiated himself with the ex-Concertación and even with the government coalition, whom he implores to unite against the threat of fascism. His new campaign manager for the 19 December election, Izkia Siches, has announced that Boric’s government would retain the current Undersecretary for Health, Paula Daza (who asked for unpaid leave to campaign for Kast). Siches also said they would consider bringing on board the other right-wing presidential candidate and former Piñera cabinet minister, Sebastian Sichel. As a result, this electoral alliance can only come at the cost of abandoning the struggle against the neoliberal model and the parties that have administered it for three decades. Although Boric’s coalition is nominally antifascist, his campaign’s decision to incorporate figures like Daza, and its intention to grant more legal power to police and judges, undermines any ostensible commitment to democracy. If this neoliberal ‘Antifa’ can achieve anything, it will most likely be a reconfiguration of establishment forces, aiming to implement what Boric calls a ‘responsible transformation’ that eclipses the radical energies unleashed in 2019.

While Kast’s vote share is expected to reach 40% in the next round, given that all right-wing parties have endorsed him, Boric has the support of all the parties of the ex-Concertación, even if some Christian Democratic leaders remain sceptical. Parisi has refused to endorse Kast but is so far silent on Boric. Nevertheless, the ‘Antifa’ strategy appears to be yielding results, with polls putting Boric three to 13 points ahead of his rival. At this rate, the social democrat is set to win by a comfortable margin; although a legislative stalemate is inevitable since right-wing parties have captured half the seats in both houses of Congress.

Because the new constitution is scheduled to be ratified in September 2022, Boric will either have to start implementing it by decree or delay its enactment until the congressional arithmetic changes. If he chooses the second option, he will provoke widespread anger and frustration among the working class. This may open the door for Kast, who stands to gain from a further erosion of trust in liberal democracy. With a deadlocked Congress, and a social democratic President who may be unwilling to govern by decree to avoid being called a tyrant, prospects for the transition to a new sociopolitical order look grim. A pressure cooker has once again been placed on the stove.

If hope is to overcome fear and paralysis, new political mechanisms will be required to loosen the grip of reactionary forces and radically redraft the Constitution. In recent months the Convention has heard testimony from popular organizations demanding local decision-making power and direct democratic procedures to decentralize power, protect the environment and fight corruption. Giving citizens the right to initiate legislation, repeal corrupt laws, cancel extractivist projects and recall representatives would not only enable urgent structural transformations (such as repealing the ‘save-for-yourself’ pension system), but also set a proper pace for them. The move from a neoliberal model to a social democratic one requires intensive legal and policy work, not by halting negotiations and political immobility. For the truth is that Boric’s hoped-for ‘stability’ is elusive. Delaying the passage of essential socioeconomic reforms will not prevent future eruptions of popular discontent; it will only imperil the fragile status quo to which the establishment is so attached.

Read on: Manuel Riesco, ‘Is Pinochet Dead?’, NLR 47.


Balkan Reversal

Until recently, in Washington and in Brussels, North Macedonia was considered a Euro-Atlantic success story. The country of two million people – the only republic of the former Yugoslavia that saw no violence during the 1990s – had managed to overthrow the conservative nationalist government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for National Unity) after a decade in power. In 2017, Gruevski’s place was taken by Zoran Zaev, the mayor of the agricultural city of Strumica and leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, or the SDSM, the successor of the state-socialist League of Communists of Macedonia. Zaev’s new Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, was on exceptionally friendly terms with the US Embassy; he had served as National Coordinator for NATO Integration under Gruevski, and embassy cables revealed that he had worked for years as a CIA protected source.

Two successive protest movements – Protestiram in 2015 and the Colorful Revolution in 2016 – had elevated a number of telegenic youth activists from the streets to positions in the SDSM government, promising hope and change. An anti-corruption campaign was launched to deal with the cases generated by Gruevski’s graft-riddled reign. After the SDSM rechristened the country ‘North Macedonia’ in 2018 (ending a long-running feud with Greece, which claims the name ‘Macedonia’ as its own), Athens dropped its objection to the country’s NATO membership, and in March 2020 the Atlantic alliance welcomed its newest member. EU accession was next on the agenda.

But relatively quickly, the hopeful glow that had haloed Zaev and the SDSM began to fade. Last month’s local elections revealed the depth of public disenchantment. Zaev’s party went into the ballot holding 57 municipalities while the VMRO-DPMNE had just 5. After the vote, the SDSM hung onto 16; VMRO secured 42. The remaining 15 municipalities went to Albanian parties. The poll has been widely interpreted as a verdict on the SDSM’s tenure, and the latest surveys conducted by the Institute for Political Research Skopje (IPIS) reveal that the party is fast losing support at national level: 22.5% of respondents said they would vote for VMRO-DPMNE if parliamentary elections were held next week, while 17.5% said they would vote for the SDSM. 

The disastrous result marked the onset of a new crisis in North Macedonia. Zaev, who pledged to resign if his party lost the capital of Skopje in the second round, reneged on his promise. This triggered a bizarre cascade of events in which the opposition accused the government of kidnapping an MP from the Albanian party, Besa, in order to prevent him from participating in a planned no-confidence vote against Zaev. One week later, Zaev appeared to have changed his mind again, declaring that he would resign and appoint a new leader to head the SDSM. He has encouraged pro-EU MPs to stick with his party; yet since Bulgaria vetoed the country’s accession in 2020 – citing disputes over language, history and minority rights – there has been no viable plan to initiate negotiations with the bloc. 

It’s worth examining how the SDSM arrived at this low point. Few parties in the Balkans have received such effusive praise from Western diplomats, thinktanks and media outlets; and few have disappointed so thoroughly. It must first be stressed that the party inherited a country in disarray, reeling from a decade of dictatorship, illiquidity, a collective identity crisis and corruption on a vast, almost awe-inspiring scale. When Gruevski first came to power in 2006, the US and EU lauded his commitment to neoliberal adjustment and NATO membership. But the warm relationship soured at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, when Greece vetoed the country’s entry to the Atlantic compact: a moment of humiliation that reportedly prompted Gruevski to turn away from the West.

That same year, the global financial crisis provided a new path for the PM. Gruevski’s market-friendly reforms, along with a sophisticated government PR campaign, managed to seduce international investors. ‘While the architecture of global liquidity crumbled,’ writes Fabio Mattioli in Dark Finance (2020), ‘the Macedonian government found itself able to access investments from actors interested in diversifying their portfolios or committed to preventing a Balkan-wide contagion of the debt crisis that had begun to wreak havoc in Greece.’

Much of the new public debt was channelled into mass construction projects, most ostentatiously ‘Skopje 2014’, which cost at least 683 million euros and transformed the capital into a giant open-air museum of bronze nationalist statues and incongruous neo-baroque and neo-classical buildings. Skopje now looks like a kitsch hybrid of a Central Asian capital, a Balkan Las Vegas and Macedonian-nationalist Disneyland. The ​​pièce de résistance of Skopje 2014 is the 35-meter statue of Alexander the Great atop a horse in the city’s main square. Sometimes, during the Gruevski years, surrounding speakers blasted Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ as dancing fountains pulsed in time.

Gruevski’s remaking of the city allowed him to achieve a crucial political objective. The SDSM, having overseen the country’s privatization process during the 1990s, when socially-owned enterprises were sold to private investors at an average of 6.5% of their estimated value, had long been favoured by the country’s oligarchs. But in Skopje 2014, Gruevski found a means to purchase the support of such interests, offering lucrative contracts for domestic businesses which, by turning Skopje into a ‘world-class city’, began to attract finance from abroad. While Skopje 2014 was detested by the middle classes, it proved popular among lower-income workers. The speculative building spree expanded access to housing through a variety of credit schemes and kept employment levels high in the construction sector.

But Gruevski’s cross-class coalition was not to last. Details of the criminal machinations behind the urban renewal plan began to emerge after tape recordings of backroom deals were passed to Zaev (allegedly by disgruntled secret policemen, although Gruevski claims that foreign intelligence agencies were involved). Zaev, who subsequently began holding press conferences and sharing the recordings with the public, quickly became the face of the opposition and mass protests filled the streets, drawing crowds of up to 30,000 in Skopje during the late spring of 2016. 

Cue significant interest from Western governments, particularly the US, which saw an opening amid the public dissatisfaction with Gruevski. The PM and other hardline nationalists had long opposed any change to the country’s name to appease Greece – an intransigence that rendered NATO membership out of reach. As tensions with Russia flared over Ukraine, eastward expansion became an urgent priority for Washington – and Gruevski, an obstacle. There was also long-held optimism that resolution of the name dispute would have knock-on benefits for the entire region, where issues of contested history or territory still linger in Cyprus, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo. 

At the height of the demonstrations, the United States’ Office of Transition Initiatives – a branch of USAID – opened an outfit in North Macedonia. The OTI was established in 1994 to ‘support U.S. foreign policy objectives by helping local partners advance peace and democracy in priority countries in crisis’ (for which read: facilitate regime change). VMRO supporters soon discovered that the OTI programme was supporting the same network of NGOs and media outlets as George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, and that there was a significant overlap between the employees of these US-funded NGOs and the activists leading anti-Gruevski protests on the streets of Skopje. A ‘Stop Soros’ campaign was launched, drawing support from some Republican Senators in the US. In March 2017, six of them wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson:

Unfortunately, we have heard credible reports that, over the past two years, the U.S. Mission to Macedonia has actively intervened in the party politics of Macedonia, as well as in the shaping of its media environment and civil society, in an improperly partisan manner, one that, directly and indirectly, has influenced the outcome of elections in Macedonia. 

The US Embassy in Skopje denied such allegations but made little effort to conceal Washington’s priorities. In an email to me at the time, embassy spokesperson Laura Brown wrote that ‘Macedonia’s four major political parties requested the EU and the US government help Macedonia move past its political crisis’. ‘Our policy’, she continued, ‘is to support Macedonia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions as a resilient, prosperous, and inclusive democracy, developing economically.’

This was not the only instance of foreign political support flowing into the country. In 2016, with Gruevski still clinging onto power, the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SJO) opened with much fanfare. The SJO would, in the words of then Ambassador Wouter Plomp of the Netherlands, ‘establish accountability for past wrongdoings revealed by the wiretaps’. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded the SJO to the tune of 649,990 euros. Its three chief prosecutors, Katica Janeva, Lence Ristoska, and Fatime Fetai, received the endorsement of top European officials, as well as fawning coverage from Western media, with the BBC calling them ‘the real crime-fighting Charlie’s Angels’.

Despite the ongoing corruption investigations, the VMRO managed to eke out a narrow victory in the December 2016 snap parliamentary elections. Gruevski’s party won 51 seats while the SDSM took 49. In the aftermath, however, the VMRO struggled to form a coalition, and the SDSM – with rumoured behind-the-scenes support from Western embassies – successfully courted the country’s largest Albanian party and long-time kingmaker, the DUI. VMRO supporters were determined to obstruct the frail new coalition. In an April 2017 parliamentary session to initiate the formation of the new government, a small nationalist mob stormed the Sobranie. Zaev and three other MPs received mild injuries during the ensuing confrontation. Images of a bloodied Zaev went viral, but the drama ended there. There was no coup or renewed Balkan conflict. The Gruevski regime, which once seemed ingrained in every fibre of the country – every phone call, every illegal transaction – finally crumbled like cheap plaster. 

It was a heady moment for the SDSM, yet the elation and relief were short lived. In 2018, the SJO launched a major investigation under the codename ‘Empire’. One of its suspects was Jordan Kamchev – recently named North Macedonia’s richest man – whose reported net worth of 228 million euros was allegedly earned through fraud and money laundering. It turned out that Kamchev had friends in high places. The businessman had reportedly turned to Boki 13, a flamboyantly dressed pop star with cheeks and lips cemented in filler, in an effort to secure lenient treatment from the SPO. Boki 13 had ties to the upper-echelons of the SDSM; in one leaked taped recording he claimed to have direct links to Zaev himself. Kamchev allegedly paid Boki 13 at least 1.5 million euros in cash in an effort to avoid a harsh prison sentence. Janeva, one of the ‘Charlies Angels’ prosecutors, was charged with taking a 50,000 euro bribe from Kamchev. The tabloid-ready scandal dealt a spectacular blow to the credibility of both the SJO and the new government.

Hopes for the SDSM atrophied further in September 2018, when the country organized a referendum on whether to change its name as required for Euro-Atlantic integration. Under the slogan ‘Never North’, the majority of voters boycotted the vote, whose participation rate stood at just 36%. Although this fell far short of the 50% required to legitimize the results, the SDSM nonetheless declared the referendum a victory and pushed through the name-change – prompting widespread disenchantment with the democratic process and crystallizing the image of the SDSM as a conduit for Western interests. 

During its 2017 election campaign, SDSM supporters claimed that Zaev would ameliorate poverty and increase living standards. Zaev played up his humble origins in the southeastern provinces and his early life as a manual labourer. A new Personal Income Tax Law, ratified in January 2019, was supposed to introduce a progressive tax code affecting only the richest 1% of citizens. Yet less than a year later the Ministry of Finance released a twenty-page policy paper explaining its decision to roll back this modest reform. The Ministry cited widespread tax evasion, yet the real reason for the volte-face was clear enough. As a report by the European Commission concluded, the decision was taken to ‘buffer the angry sentiments of the business community’. The Minister of Finance Dragan Tevdovski, widely seen as leading the pro-welfare wing of the SDSM, was removed from office despite enjoying one of the highest approval ratings of anyone in government. Zaev, whose attempt to assume the role himself was deemed unconstitutional, instead appointed Nina Angelovska, a young e-commerce entrepreneur and opponent of Tevdovski’s modest redistributionist policies. Angelovska was in turn replaced by Fatmir Besimi, who had served as Minister of Economy under Gruevski – undermining any pretence that the SDSM had broken with the previous administration.

A series of recent disasters have further damaged the government’s credentials. Last September, a fire at a new hospital built to treat Covid patients in Tetovo killed 14 people. In the aftermath, it emerged that the company contracted to build the hospital was owned by Koco Angjusev, a notoriously corrupt businessman and Zaev’s former Deputy Prime Minister. An investigation concluded that the fire had occurred due to a faulty defibrillator. Predictably, no one was held accountable. Health Minister Venko Filipče tendered his resignation and had it summarily rejected by Zaev.

Then, on 9 November, while the public was fixated on the post-election fallout, the government quietly declared a ‘30-day state of crisis’ in the energy sector. To meet its daily electricity needs, the country has been forced to draw on European energy supplies and racked up a sizable debt. Dramatic measures have since been introduced to curb consumption: Christmas lights have been cancelled in most towns across the country, and a new decree outlines criteria for reducing the lighting of streets, squares and other buildings to a ‘minimum safety level’. In recent months the REK Bitola coal plant, which generates 75% of the country’s electricity and dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide, has been the site of numerous fires. It is difficult to view the SDSM as a modernizing force when they have plunged the country into darkness.

With North Macedonia still mired in multiple crises, three potential outcomes have been forecast for the months ahead. In the first, the current SDSM-led majority stays but with a new leader entirely subordinate to Zaev. In the second, favoured by the VMRO, snap elections are called, with the requisite 120 days allotted to organize elections in the middle of unprecedented health and energy crises. In the third, the current majority simply collapses and opposition parties attempt to form a new coalition. The precise parameters of North Macedonia’s future are uncertain. What is clear is that the country’s once-bright Euro-Atlantic future now looks distant and dim. 

Read on: Peter Gowan ‘The NATO Powers and the Balkan Tragedy’, NLR I/234.


Frugal Germany

Whatever happened to the ‘European Army’? Some of us may still remember the public appeal, issued three years ago by the philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, urging ‘Europe’, as identified with the EU, to arm itself, so as to defend its ‘way of life’ against China, Russia and the Land of Trump, and in the act advance its ‘ever closer union’ in a supranational superstate. Cosignatories were a handful of German political has-beens, including Friedrich Merz, then still of BlackRock. Here, for a change, there is good news: the ‘European Army’ is as dead as any army can be and, unlike perhaps the indefatigable Merz who is currently running for the umptieth time for president of the CDU, beyond resurrection.

What sealed its fate? In various ways, never publicly discussed, as is the neo-German custom when it comes to questions of life and death, the ‘European Army’ project was linked to the longstanding German pledge to NATO to increase its military spending to 2% of GDP, i.e., by roughly one half, by some unspecified date in the transatlantic future. It was and is easy to find out that this would raise German ‘defence’ expenditure above that of Russia, not counting the rest of NATO. It is equally easy to note that German military spending can only be on conventional and not on nuclear arms. In the 1960s, West Germany was one of the first countries to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, as a condition of the Western Allies returning some of its sovereignty. Moreover, it was and is obvious that Russia, with its expensive nuclear force, would be unable to keep up with Germany in a conventional arms race, which would lead it to invest in upgrading its ‘nuclear capabilities’. While this should frighten the bravest of Germans, in fact it does not, as merely mentioning issues of this kind marks you as a Putinversteher (Putin empathizer), and who wants to be that?

What exactly the 2% were to be good for, apart from generally adding to the firepower of ‘the West’, was never explained, although it was clearly related to the idea of turning NATO into a global intervention force. Note that the entire German military, unlike the other member countries, is under the command of NATO, aka the United States. Note also, however, that France, too, wants Germany to work towards the 2%. France itself has for years met that target, the reason being that, just like Russia, it is maintaining an expensive nuclear force, and is therefore lacking in conventional muscle. Seen from France, a German non-nuclear military build-up need not necessarily benefit the US but, under favourable circumstances, could benefit France, as it might compensate for its conventional deficit caused by its nuclear surplus.

It is here that the European army of Habermas and friends comes into play. For the French, what Macron calls ‘European strategic sovereignty’ can be achieved only if Germany can be extracted from its Atlanticist military entanglement, wholly or at least in part, in favour of a European-French entanglement. While this would be difficult enough generally, it would be impossible without new units and ‘capabilities’ designated from the beginning for self-determined European rather than US-determined transatlantic purposes. All it takes, however, to discard this prospect is a look at German budgetary planning for the post-Corona near future (if post-Corona it will be). As passed under Merkel as Chancellor and Scholz as Finance Minister, the current five-year budget forecast envisages a decline in defence spending from 50 billion euros in 2022 to 46 billion in 2025, although no less than 62 billion would be needed for an increase to 1.5% of GDP, far short of the 2% NATO target. During coalition talks, military sources let it be known that they had no hope for a turnaround under a government dominated, in their view, by ‘the left’. According to them, the only way under these conditions for the armed forces to repair their allegedly ‘disastrous condition’, due to decades of neglect under successive Grand Coalition Merkel governments, was by cutting military personnel by 13,000, down from 183,000.

Soldiers, like farmers, always complain. However much money you give them, they feel it should be more. But with the huge deficits run by the German federal budget in 2020 and 2021, and with the determination of the incoming Scholz government, with Lindner at Finance, to hold on to the debt brake, not to mention the giant public investment planned for de-carbonization and the ‘digital transformation’, one can safely assume that the dreams of Habermas and Merz of a ‘European army’ were dreamt in vain, and that its hoped-for dividends for both ‘European integration’ and the arms industry will never materialize. The coalition agreement, interestingly, avoids the 2% issue with almost Merkelian chutzpah: ‘We want Germany in the long run (!) to invest three (!) percent of its gross domestic product in international action, in a networked and inclusive approach (?), thereby strengthening its diplomacy and development policy and fulfilling its NATO commitments.’ Nothing on how this is to be paid for, and nothing there for Macron, up for re-election in the spring of 2022, with which to convince his voters of progress toward ‘European sovereignty’, conceived as an extension of French sovereignty – with France post-Brexit being the EU’s only remaining nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, and with German tanks nicely complementing French nuclear submarines, hopefully rendering the AUKUS fiasco forgotten.

Is there a prospect for some sort of compensation? Hope, as a German saying has it, dies last, and this may be particularly true for France in matters European. For four years now, Germany and France have been talking about a French-German fighter bomber, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), to succeed the French Rafale and the German Eurofighter as the two countries’ sixth generation fighter aircraft. Originally FCAS was a French-British project which, however, fell by the wayside in 2017 when the UK chose to go for a plane of its own, the Tempest. Urged by Macron, Merkel agreed to fill the gap. In 2018 Dassault and Airbus Defence signed on as core contractors, and Belgium and Spain were brought in as further project participants. Still, work progressed only slowly, with severe disagreements especially on intellectual property rights, technology transfer and, important for France, arms export policies. Under pressure from Paris, and probably following up on confidential side-agreements in the 2019 Treaty of Aachen, the Merkel government got the Bundestag budget committee in June 2021 to authorize 4.5bn euros as a first tranche, to insure against a possible change in the German parliamentary majority after the September election.

It is no secret that among the German political class, FCAS has few supporters if any. This holds also for the military, who consider it one of those overambitious French grands projets that are doomed to fail due to excessive technological ambition. The system, which officially is to go into operation around 2040, consists not just of a fleet of stealth bombers but also of swarms of unmanned drones that are to accompany the planes on their missions. There are also satellites to support the planes and the drones, and generally to add cyber warfare capabilities to the system, giving it a sci-fi flair that stolid German generals tend to find, at a minimum, frivolous. Recently the German Federal Audit Office, in a confidential report, reprimanded the government for having left open crucial issues in negotiating the agreement, while the Bundeswehr procurement office has expressed doubts over whether the system will ever become operative at all. No doubts over whether FCAS will be expensive. Right now official, or semi-official, estimates are around 100bn euros, while knowledgeable insiders at Airbus believe the bill would be at least three times as high. For comparison, the NGEU Corona recovery fund, to be divided between 27 members states, amounts to 750bn.

Could FCAS be a consolation prize for Macron, to make him forget about the ‘European army’ and ‘European strategic sovereignty’? Perhaps if there was still more money around, but hardly now, after the Great Corona Drain. In Germany FCAS is considered more of an embarrassment than a strategic or industrial opportunity – one of the many problems left by Merkel, with her inimitable skill at making incompatible and unrealizable promises and getting away with it, as long as she was in office. While there are some ‘Gaullists’ left in the German political class for whom the alliance with France – leading, it is hoped, to a French-German/German-French Europe – takes precedence over the alliance with the United States, none of them can be found in the new government.

Indeed, where it might speak of a ‘European army’, the coalition agreement merely foresees ‘increased cooperation between the national armies of EU member states…in particular with respect to training, capabilities, interventions and equipment, as for example already envisaged by Germany and France’. And not to be misunderstood, it adds that ‘in all this, interoperability and complementarity with the command structures and capabilities of NATO must be assured’, declaring even more explicitly a few pages later: ‘We will strengthen the European pillar in NATO and work for more intensive cooperation between NATO and the EU.’ FCAS is not even mentioned, or only indirectly, in language that cannot but hurt French feelings: ‘We are strengthening defence technology cooperation in Europe, especially through high-quality cooperation projects, taking into account national key technologies and enabling small and medium-sized companies to enter the competition. Replacement purchases and systems available on the market are to be prioritized for procurement in order to avoid capability gaps.’ Chances are that the project, if it does not fall apart for technological problems or a tug-of-war over industrial leadership and patent rights, will at some point be abandoned for its costs.

FCAS scepticism is found not just in SPD and FDP. The incoming Foreign Minister, the Green chancellor-candidate-in-vain, Annalena Baerbock, is a faithful Hillary Clinton-type Atlanticist who managed to impose her views on the coalition document throughout. During the coalition talks, the Greens insisted on an early replacement of the Luftwaffe’s aging Tornado fleet with the American F-18 fighter bomber. Not to be confused with the Eurofighter, the Tornados are Germany’s contribution to what NATO calls ‘nuclear participation’ (nukleare Teilhabe). This provides for some European member states, above all Germany, to deliver American nuclear warheads with bombers of their own, with American permission and under American direction. (As far as one knows, the United States or NATO cannot formally command member states to nuke a common enemy, but member states cannot nuke an enemy without American authorization.) For the purpose, the United States maintain an unspecified number of nuclear bombs on European, in particular German soil.

Recently leading figures in the SPD have doubted the wisdom of nuclear participation. The United States for their part have complained about the Tornadoes, first put into service in the 1980s, becoming outdated, demanding more comfortable travel arrangements for their warheads. Currently the few remaining Tornadoes capable of flying – one hears, less than two dozen – stand to lose their (American) license to kill in 2030. Unless one lets the programme wither away, which is what some on the SPD left would prefer, the Tornadoes could in principle be replaced with the French Rafale or the German Eurofighter (both of which are to be replaced, in some nebulous future, by FCAS). It so happens, however, that to be capable of carrying American bombs, non-American planes have to be certified by the United States, which takes time, no less than an impressive eight to ten years. This brings in the F-18, which would be instantly available to inflict nuclear Armageddon on anyone any future POTUS might determine to be deserving of it. It so happens that the F-18 seems to be the favourite of the German military, desperate to preserve their reputation with their American idols and avoid the risks of French technological devilment.

To their relief, speedy procurement of a generously sized fleet of F-18s turned out to be one of the Baerbock Greens’ most unremittingly fought-for demands in the coalition talks. After acrimonious negotiations, they got their way. In the coalition agreement, in language fully comprehensible only to the initiated, the parties announced that they will ‘early in the twentieth legislative period’ – one has to use Google to find out that this is the legislative period now beginning – ‘procure a successor system for the Tornado fighter aircraft’ and ‘accompany the procurement and certification process objectively and conscientiously with a view to Germany’s nuclear participation’. The F-18 being far from cheap for a cash-strapped government, this is more bad news for Macron and his ‘European strategic sovereignty’. While the US won’t get their 2%, at least they get to sell Germany a fair number of F-18s. France, by comparison, is likely to end up empty-handed, getting neither a European army nor, ultimately, FCAS.

Read on: Wolfgang Streeck, ‘Plus Ça Change’, NLR 131.


Strike Wave

Thirty-five years ago last month – October 1986 – the giant agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere locked out striking members of the United Auto Workers. This event, following shortly on lockouts of meatpackers by Hormel Foods and steelworkers by USX (formerly and today again US Steel) signalled that the punishing waves of layoffs and plant closures of the early 1980s had not satisfied capital’s appetite for working-class blood. In 1959, the year of the previous nationwide steel strike, over half a million workers had walked out. By the time of the defensive action at USX in 1986, there were only 20,000 workers left to do so.

With manufacturing under severe profitability pressures, collective bargaining in the 1980s and 1990s became an orgy of so-called ‘givebacks’ – contract concessions that would have been unthinkable at almost any point in the previous half-century. The UAW, like much of the US labour movement, put up a fight, but eventually begged off. ‘What do you do?’ asked a union official. ‘You can’t control the actions of management.’ In February 1987, both UAW members at John Deere and steelworkers at USX trudged back to work, having accepted a deal with no wage increases in the first case and outright wage cuts in the second – both in return for job security commitments.

The bleeding went on. In 1997 the UAW signed a contract with John Deere that again gave no hourly raises and instituted a two-tier system, with decreased wage rates for new hires. Such structures proliferated across collective bargaining agreements as unions limped into the neoliberal era – evidently the price of survival for a battered labour movement hunted by Republicans and unaided by Democrats.

This month, the UAW settled with John Deere after five weeks on strike, an action launched when the membership rejected an agreement negotiated by union leadership, and renewed after two weeks on strike with the rejection of a second tentative agreement. The 10,000 John Deere workers finally agreed to the company’s offer, overall very similar to the rejected second agreement: a 10% wage increase in the first year, 5% in the third and fifth years, and 3% lump sums in the second, fourth, and sixth years, along with an immediate bonus of $8,500. While the settlement is clearly a victory marking the end of the concessionary years, it does not uproot the hated tier system that divides the workforce, nor get wages back on their pre-1997 trend.

Along with a dozen or two other recent, ongoing or potential labour actions, the John Deere strike forms what has been dubbed ‘Striketober’ – an unexpected revival in working-class militancy in its classic form. Unlike the wave of teachers’ strikes in 2018-2019 known as the ‘Red for Ed’ movement, the current episode spans all sectors: nurses recently settled a strike in Buffalo, coal miners are on the line in Alabama, hospital workers in the Kaiser Permanente health care chain on the west coast, musicians in San Antonio, graduate students at Columbia. Tens of thousands of Hollywood’s technical workers authorized a strike with 99% vote at 90% turnout, and only narrowly ratified a settlement instead by means of arcane electoral rules. Numerous others wait in the wings or have recently settled.

Such militancy represents the sharp, organized tip of a more diffuse phenomenon, the so-called ‘Great Resignation’: the quit rate has been driven to historical highs by the conjunctural combination of accumulated outrage at the workplace brutalities of the pandemic, plus increased working-class confidence and labour market leverage due to the emergency expansions of the social safety net and the recovery of employment.

Even as unemployment falls toward 4%, the labour force participation rate remains two points lower than before the pandemic, and does not appear to be rising: in other words, the uptick in wages and downtick in unemployment are not drawing more people back into labour markets who have decided or been compelled to exit them over the past two years. This fact has lent the current episode of refusal its generally atomized shape, due to the low level of organization across the working class – what would once have been strike action appears today more often in the form of unfilled vacancies. But it also helps to explain the trans-sectoral character of the organized workplace activity, particularly the centrality of overwork in many strikes, as employers calculate that it is preferable to force 12-hour shifts than to raise wages sufficiently to lure nonparticipants back into the workforce.

The weakness of much of the labour movement also has paradoxically created room for the ideological left to establish footholds, around which scatterings of militants may emerge – a subtle shift that deserves some credit for rising militancy across sectors. Once-marginal activist formations have proven able to gain ground within union organizations in teaching, nursing and across the culture industries; a democracy movement has emerged within the United Auto Workers, a union which has become a shadow of its former self, plagued at the top by corruption and incompetence. Most significantly, the rank-and-file reform slate recently captured control of the Teamsters away from the Hoffa dynasty in a landslide election.

While mainly due to the weakness of traditional conservative leadership, this is also in part a superstructural phenomenon. For example, rising militancy among journalists has caused a recovery in labour journalism, in turn magnifying the quantity and quality of images and narratives of labour struggle. Discursively, the labour movement commands attention once again from a broad liberal public that shunned it for decades, and while the significance of this development is difficult to estimate with any precision, its effects appear to be widespread in the current moment: unions receive more favourable responses in public opinion polling, and professional organizers across much of the country have reported anecdotally a significant increase in direct contact from disgruntled workers.

I was born the month of the last John Deere strike; I turned 35 during the recent one. Minimum-wage jobs going unfilled, assembly plant workers voting down contracts – these are new marvels in my lifetime. While it is possible to make conjunctural sense of this episode, the true challenge is to search out a strategic path by which such intensified engagement along what remains an exceedingly narrow front might widen into something more. The present strike wave, such as it is, is a matter of only tens of thousands, not the millions of earlier episodes of US labour history. Workers in the United States have been taught a hard lesson for years that collective action only yields punishment. The effect, over the past generation, has been two-sided, shearing apart the working class along its seams of organization and relative security: with union density down to 10%, union members look out on the millions all around who would gladly do their job for less and become resigned to ineffectual leadership and concessionary bargaining; the unorganized 90% see the inability of unions to deliver, and can make out little reason why they should say yes if an organizer ever comes knocking.

Over the past 35 years, labour’s technicians have tried every trick to get the wheels turning again. They installed new leadership, as when John Sweeney triumphed in the AFL-CIO’s first-ever contested presidential election in 1996, running on a promise to reinvigorate the federation’s organizing capacity and renew its taste for confrontation. They developed the so-called ‘comprehensive campaign’, a method for seeking leverage on employers by means other than direct economic power – most famously in the Justice for Janitors campaign of the late 1990s. They launched modest political adventures, founding groups such as the short-lived Labor Party, New York’s Working Families Party, and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. They engaged in mergers and divorces, combining unions and spinning off new umbrella organizations – most prominently the new federation Change to Win, formed by AFL-CIO breakaways in 2005. They launched major organizing campaigns in sectors from higher education to hospitals to hotels to Southern auto assembly plants. Some of these initiatives counted major successes, some degenerated into fiascos, but none generated movement on the scale of the class as a whole, or even a significant fraction. (The teachers’ strikes, arguably the only exception, occurred almost entirely as an organic expression of rank-and-file militancy and socialist leadership rather than any kind of leadership stratagem.)

What is the nature of the present fragmentation of the US working class? Paul Samuelson, high priest of the postwar neoclassical synthesis in economics, once speculated that the American stagflation problem of the 1970s would only admit a Chilean-style macroeconomic resolution at the point of a gun. An orthodox Keynesian, Samuelson – coiner of the portmanteau ‘stagflation’, uncle of Larry Summers – conceded that the Chicago Boys indeed had a solution that could tame inflation, but objected that such an exploit would require a ‘fascist political state’. Looking back on four decades of neoliberalism, we might say that, in certain respects, Samuelson’s hyperbole contained a kernel of prophecy. Certainly, there existed ample precedent in US history for such a campaign of repression, marking neoliberalism as more continuous with the country’s tradition of coerced labour than whatever novelty Samuelson imagined. Nonetheless, what came after 1979 cannot be understood in narrowly economic terms: the smashing of the labour movement was only the most targeted blow. Punishment rained down indiscriminately on the class as a whole, through political means as well as in industrial relations.

The first waves of mass industrial layoffs triggered a downward cascade in the labour market – the context in which industrial unions first agreed to concessionary contracts. Millions of individuals either relented to lower-wage work than they had accepted previously, or exited the labour market entirely and were thrown back onto family, the illicit and informal economy or the state for their survival. A radical increase in household labour supply followed, as women filed into fast-expanding low-wage service economy jobs to compensate for the vanished family wage, even as an assault on the social state continued to transfer the costs and pressures of social reproduction onto them. Largely, moreover, they joined sectors of the labour market already fenced off institutionally as a zone of low wages and precarious working conditions, particularly in what has come to be called the ‘care economy’, which accounted for 77% of all low-wage job growth for women between 1983 and 2007, as Rachel Dwyer shows.

Punitive social policy further eroded proletarian room for maneuver. After over a decade of state-level erosion of income support for the poor, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform pushed millions into the bottom of the labour market and, as Melinda Cooper observes, granted fathers automatic custody rights to children regardless of prior relationship – in effect terrorizing poor mothers off the welfare rolls and into minimum-wage work. If this were not enough, the apparatus of policing and imprisonment underwent its extreme metastasis in this period – not precisely what Samuelson imagined as the Chilean solution, but close enough.

Already, global competitive conditions and weakening labour law gave potency to managers’ threats of plant closure or subcontracted work. Even for organized workers, employers were equipped for an increasingly asymmetrical conflict, armed with the power to outsource their jobs or to permanently replace them during strikes. The full chain of implications of this power has grown as the surrounding labour market and social policy environment has become increasingly hostile: the power to permanently replace strikers or outsource positions became the power to push workers toward the unlivable minimum wage, throw them back into abusive relationships, and toss their children into cells. There is no need to lock up trade union leaders themselves if you can instead intimidate their members with the threat of criminalized unemployment – if walking out of the factory gates for the last time means walking into the jaws of the jailor. The form of struggle that results from this punitive dimension of the American class system is, obviously, racialized, and occurs more in the streets and prisons than in the workplaces.

Those parts of the expanding service economy shielded economically against capital flight are contained by other barriers, no less potent. Either because they enact labour processes that cannot be relocated due to the necessity of direct human interaction, or because they carry out functions of social importance that attract state support, workers in food service and hospitality, health care, child care and education are not buffeted by the same forces at play in much of the shrunken manufacturing sector. By the same token, however, the service industries are characterized by stagnant productivity, which presses down wages systematically and constrains workers’ leverage, in turn inducing employers to decompose the employment relation itself in order to hold labour costs down.

Such constraints impel workers to engage in political contestation of the social wage as the medium for their own industrial conflicts – as when teachers struggle over classroom sizes, nurses over staffing levels, or Uber drivers over the legal definition of employment. To some degree the productivity constraint has in this way also generated political potentiality, as workers in such circumstances discover they can only win economic gains on the political field, not in industrial conflict alone, and therefore must construct coalitions sufficient to engage broader policy questions – a strategy the labour movement has begun to explore under the name ‘Bargaining for the Common Good.’

The recovery of the labour market from the pandemic’s damage – renewing the belated and warped recovery from the prior crash in 2008 – has stimulated renewal of working-class militancy within the narrow confines of the organized zones, aided by temporary and partial expansions of the social safety net. But this stimulus is unlikely to translate directly into any kind of broader class unity at the social level or a renewal of class polarization within the political sphere, because it arrives in a working class so badly divided by forty years of defeats. Class formation, as Adam Przeworski observed long ago, is a discontinuous process. Its stops and starts lay down historical deposits that form into new conjunctures upon which disparate proletarian elements must again attempt to compose themselves, in the process he describes as ‘struggles about class’, which precede class struggles. ‘In each successive historical conjuncture, some carriers of the relations of production are organized as such, some are not organized in any manner, and some appear in struggles about class organization in forms that do not correspond in one-to-one manner to places occupied in even a broadly conceived system of production.’ The modest but noticeable rediscovery of workplace militancy in the organized rump of the US working class has occurred amid precisely such a discontinuity.

Classically it would have been the task not of the labour movement but of the socialist movement to bring into contact with one another the various struggling fragments – those who are organized as carriers of the relations of production, those not organized in any manner, and those engaged in struggles that do not correspond to any broadly conceived system of production, in Przeworski’s terms. The promising recovery of American socialism in the past decade is not to be made light of, but it too represents a distinct and delimited social stratum – the frustrated young professionals – and its primary points of encounter and affiliation with the broader working class have been in the electoral sphere rather than the more intimate zones of the social and economic.

This current strike wave, then will almost certainly ebb rather than accumulate the way the unrest of the early 1930s did. But even after it recedes, we will be able to see the pools it leaves behind – reservoirs of solidarity, consisting of material victories and new political experiences. These will occupy more of the terrain next year than they did last year; they will be, if still distinct, nearer to one another – and its examples nearer to hand.

Read on: Mike Davis, ‘The AFL-CIO’s Second Century’, NLR I/136.


Picking Winners

The annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, which convenes the 197 states and territories which have signed on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is one of the anchoring events of climate politics discourse, alongside the release of IPCC reports and increasingly regular occurrence of climate-fueled natural disasters. Since the first was held in Berlin in 1995, when atmospheric carbon levels were around 358 parts per million (today they hover around 414), a steady procession of COPs have produced a great deal of geopolitical drama, but have not yet managed to reduce carbon emissions. 

In 1997 there was the fight over the Kyoto Protocol, widely criticized for concessions to the US insistence on market mechanisms; followed in 2001 by George W. Bush’s announcement that he would not implement it anyway. In 2009, many expected that Barack Obama’s election would clear the way for a legally binding agreement at COP15, in Copenhagen – officially branded ‘Hopenhagen’ by the UN. Instead, negotiations nearly collapsed over bitter disagreement between developed and developing countries, and eventually culminated in a weak deal brokered behind closed doors by Obama and Wen Jiabao. Six years later, the Paris agreement was hailed as a world-historic triumph, even though the voluntary commitments made by individual member states failed to add up to the agreement’s stated goals. As climate activists pointed out, and even the text of the agreement acknowledged, although the agreement set a goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below 2º C’, the aggregated commitments would result in an estimated 3º of warming. Nor were the Paris Accords complete: they dictated that signatories update their pledges five years later. This was the key task set for COP26 in Glasgow.

Although more people are paying attention to the COP process than ever before, there has also been a striking decline in public confidence. The years since 2015 have seen serious challenges to international action of many kinds. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement prompted subsequent acts of defiance from the likes of Bolsonaro, Modi and Putin, while the gilets jaunes protests against Emmanuel Macron’s gas tax prompted new anxieties about the backlash to climate policy. At the same time, rising tensions between the US and China have contributed to pessimism about the prospects for global agreement. The ‘Climate Behemoth’ – a reactionary alliance between right-wing populism and national fossil capital, schematized by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright – has gained popularity, countering the bid for planetary sovereignty they see represented in the COP process. Pledges aside, carbon emissions continue more or less unabated.

In many ways the circumstances of Glasgow recall the disastrous proceedings in Copenhagen: taking place in the aftermath of a world-shaking economic crisis, marked by protest and dissatisfaction, undercut by the failure of a US president to secure domestic climate policy. Even Greta Thunberg’s memorable description of COP26 as a place of talk and no action – ‘blah, blah, blah’ – was less novel than it initially appeared: ‘Blah, Blah, Blah, Act Now!’ had already adorned signs at the Copenhagen protests in 2009. On the uselessness of the talks, Thunberg and the world leaders she indicts likely agree: Xi and Putin did not even bother to attend.

By the conclusion of the conference, a few new agreements had materialized, although most came with caveats. Twenty nations agreed to stop financing global oil and gas projects abroad, although most continue to subsidize oil projects at home – echoing the G20’s commitment to stop financing coal plants internationally, even as member countries continue to use coal domestically. A hundred countries, led by the US and EU – but excluding China, India and Russia – pledged a 30% methane reduction by 2030. A hundred and forty-one countries agreed to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030 – although Indonesia, where primary forest has decreased by approximately 50% since the 1960s, immediately backtracked, calling the terms ‘inappropriate and unfair.’ The US, France, Germany, EU and UK struck an $8.5 billion agreement to help South Africa transition away from coal use – important in its own right, but perhaps even more so as a potential demonstration of the feasibility of a ‘just transition’. Most incredibly, the text for the first time in the history of the COPs includes the words ‘fossil fuels’.

But even most boosters have been forced to admit that Glasgow was a disappointment. By now the problems with the COP process are well-canvassed, ranging from the features of its institutional design to the nature of national sovereignty. The consensus model tends to result in a lowest common denominator approach to agreement. Countries set their own decarbonization goals, but also report their own progress towards them; unsurprisingly, a Washington Post report recently found that progress towards decarbonization is seriously overstated. Absent a global sovereign, there is no way to compel action, even when agreements are reached.

So be it, many would say: too much time has been wasted on global diplomacy when real progress is being made elsewhere. The conventional wisdom on climate politics is shifting away from the need for grand global agreements focused on climate specifically, and instead emphasizing the potential for addressing climate change with economic mechanisms: industrial policy, trade agreements, global finance. This is, in many respects, long overdue. In spite of the massive fossil fuel delegation and distasteful corporate pavilions, COP26 is not really where important investment decisions are made. The UN’s array of environmental agencies has always been a shadow to the fora where global capital makes its rules.

Advocates of green industrial policy in particular challenge the ‘collective action’ framework, suggesting that climate action is no longer a cost to be shouldered, and that free-riding is no longer the central problem to be solved. Rather, the ‘energy transition’ offers benefits in the form of industrial renewal and jobs: instead of shirking their commitments to decarbonize, states will compete for green market share.

The promise that a brighter green future is just around the corner is another familiar refrain of climate politics: back in 2011, for example, Obama promised to ‘win the future’ with investments in ‘innovation.’ But what is genuinely different about this COP is that the private sector is lurching into gear. The recent rash of corporate net-zero pledges and surge of ESG (‘Environmental, Social, Governance’) funds should not be taken at face value, of course. But Chinese state investment in low-carbon technologies, and solar panels in particular, has catalyzed the renewable energy industry and set a challenge to Western governments.

The hope of industrial policy advocates is that the US, EU, and China will compete for the green tech market – at least, the sectors which China does not already dominate – setting off a virtuous circle of competition amongst green capitalists. Politically, state support for fledgling green tech industries is expected to generate constituencies for decarbonization which can serve as a counterweight to the entrenched power of fossil capital. Green industrial policy advocates tend to flatten the differences between labour and capital, suggesting that the central axis of conflict is between carbon-intensive and decarbonizing coalitions, even as clean-energy darlings like Tesla union bust. It is a view which puts most stock in the power of one fraction of capital to counter another; popular mobilization and labour strife feature primarily as threats to stability to be warded off. Joe Biden’s pair of infrastructure bills, for example, take cues not from the public investment-driven Green New Deal of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but from the innovation-oriented Green New Deal of the late 2000s, as outlined by Thomas Friedman and Edward Barbier. The model, which targets subsidies at strategic sectors like clean hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage, is more Silicon Valley than the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Focused on production in one country, industrial policy frequently relies on a methodological nationalism which neglects the global interdependence of contemporary production, while frequently threatening to tip into a more overtly political nationalism where convenient: this is a vision of climate policy that can coexist with, and perhaps even benefit from, increasing antagonism between the US and China. The key elements of its international policy are not grand global agreements but trade deals like the recent US-EU agreement to reduce steel tariffs and incentivize the production of ‘green steel’.  

Industrial policy oriented towards boosting ‘green tech’, however, has limits as climate policy. It does little to directly reduce fossil fuel use, prevent the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, or even directly reduce carbon emissions. It also faces political obstacles of its own. The tariffs and subsidies necessary to nurture emergent domestic industries are likely to garner objections from the WTO. A state which takes a more active role in ‘picking winners’ will face familiar challenges of domestic distributive politics. At the same time, as Cédric Durand has argued in Sidecar, by failing to undertake more substantial planning, states risk a slower and more disruptive transition away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile the still-powerful fossil fuel industry will seek to turn any stumbles to its advantage, as Adam Tooze warns.

From the perspective of many of those gathered at COP26, however, what is perhaps most concerning about the shift to green industrial policy is that it bypasses the many parts of the world which have little hope of competing with the big industrial powers on green tech. There will be ripple effects down the supply chain, of course. Some countries will garner new interest in minerals like lithium and cobalt. Those with relatively intact forests may be able to sell carbon offsets to help multinationals meet their net-zero promises – nearly all of which are currently premised on carbon removal in some form. But many other parts of the world will be surplus to the ‘green economy’, except as consumers of the products it generates. It has long been hoped that developing countries would be able to ‘leapfrog’ fossil fuels altogether and move straight to renewable-powered electricity. The countries most in need of electrification, however, are typically faced with high borrowing costs – a problem which bears directly on the energy transition, since renewable energy infrastructure is often more capital-intensive than coal-fired power plants. The problem of access to finance is made still worse by the fact that, as Kate Mackenzie observes, countries deemed to have a high ‘climate risk’ must pay more to borrow.

There was much talk about climate finance at COP26. But for economist Daniela Gabor, what it revealed was simply ‘status-quo financial capitalism entering its green age’ rather than any more transformative project. The response to Covid-19 spurred talk of the ‘end of neoliberalism’ and the return of the interventionist state. But the response to climate change thus far suggests a less dramatic reorientation: as Gabor observes, thus far the role marked out for the state in climate finance is not to undertake public investment but to ‘derisk’ private investments in green sectors.

A different response to the dead end of the COP process, then, would be to make a lateral move, taking climate justice to the global financial institutions. The political scientist Jessica Green argues that international trade and finance ought to replace the UN framework as the ‘locus of climate policy’, while also calling for major reform to global financial institutions. The problem is figuring out how such long-sought reforms might come about. Labour and environmental movements in countries with valuable minerals or powerful industrial sectors may be able to exert some influence over trade deals, as United Steelworkers did in the US-EU steel agreement. The global reach of green supply chains offers the possibility for more internationalist organizing, as Thea Riofrancos has argued. But the prospects for reform of global trade and financial institutions are hazier.

The global climate justice movement has undoubtedly spurred a change in the conversation. But at present, it simply does not have the power to realize its goals. At COP26, climate justice activists criticized the failure of developed nations to make good on their commitment to spend $100 billion annually on climate finance – a sum agreed on in 2009 in an attempt to salvage the Copenhagen talks. Yet the more ambitious demand, both then and now, is for a framework for loss and damage, which would require open-ended funding for harms incurred as a result of climate change – something which might come close to climate reparations. The argument in favour of it is morally unimpeachable. But it is hard to see what could force the US or EU to agree to a programme that would expose them to liability claims long into the future.

Lacking leverage, the movement has resorted to the tools it has available: spectacle, and, most notably, shame. This year, the foreign minister of Tuvalu, Simon Kofe, gave his COP26 speech knee-deep in ocean waves to symbolize the threat that rising seas pose to his island nation’s existence. This, too, recalled a previous moment of COP politics, in 2009, when President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives held an underwater cabinet meeting prior to the ill-fated meeting in Copenhagen. But if the power players at COP26 have learned to speak the language of climate justice, they have so far remained shameless. Andreas Malm has called for a reevaluation of tactics, arguing that the climate movement must become more combative. Different tactics may help disrupt business as usual – but they are unlikely to solve the fundamental problem of power.

As climate policy is finally incorporated into economic policy, whither the COP process? The COP cycle will continue. But it seems increasingly likely to be an afterthought: a forum where countries with no chance of competing on green tech or being invited to G20-like summits do what they can – which is to say, not very much – to extract concessions from the rich and powerful countries which have built their wealth on ecological destruction, and which are now using that wealth to escape its consequences. In other words, not so much an emergent global sovereign as a charity fundraiser.

Lola Seaton, ‘Painting Nationalism Green?’, NLR 124.