Avalanche of Numbers

In the last few weeks, a report has been circulating in the online fora of the ultranationalist Indian diaspora. Its author, Shantanu Gupta, an ideologue closely associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatya Janata Party, ‘tracked the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in India of 6 global publications – BBC, the Economist, the Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times and CNN – via web search results over a 14-month period’. His argument is that these outlets have distorted and exaggerated the effects of coronavirus in India. On what does Gupta base this thesis? On the fact that all these sources have used absolute numbers rather than cases per million. By the latter metric, we are told, ‘India is one of the better performing countries on the global map’. Here he is undoubtedly correct.

Countless times this spring we’ve seen the dramatic, record-shattering daily death counts from India, as it reportedly became the country with the third highest Covid deaths in the world. A quick look at these records: deaths in India reached their highest level on May 18th, with 4,525 per day. The USA topped this morbid leaderboard on January 12th with slightly lower numbers: 4,466. The UK reached its peak on January 20th, with 1,823 daily deaths; Italy on December 3rd with 993.

The problem is, India’s population stands at 1.392 billion. The USA’s is just 332 million, while the UK and Italy have 68 and 60 million respectively. If, then, we were to count the number of deaths per million inhabitants, ranking the highest daily death count yields quite different results: the UK holds a strong lead, with 28 deaths a day per million inhabitant; Italy is in second place with 17; the USA follows with 14; and India comes last, with just 3 per million inhabitants. Regarding the total number of deaths per million since the beginning of the pandemic, each country is almost identical, the only change coming at the very top: Italy clinches gold with 2,091 deaths per million, the UK 1,873, the USA 1,836, and India just 243.

One might argue that Indian statistics are unreliable (a fair objection, no doubt), due to the impossibility of accurately recording deaths in slums and other deprived areas. We now know that the true Covid death count in Peru was around triple the official figure. But multiply the Indian death count by four and it would still be inferior to that of more developed countries with far higher per capita incomes such as the USA, UK and Italy.

So has the pandemic in India been a bed of roses, as Modi has repeated for around a year, and as Gupta still maintains? Not at all. Try selling this to the families brought to ruin buying oxygen tanks on the black market or rooms in facilities with ventilators, or to the millions of precarious workers sent back home on foot, without a penny or subsidy to speak of. Even if, epidemiologically, Covid has not hit India more violently than other countries, it nonetheless spelled catastrophe for the health service and the wider economy. The numbers presented to underscore India’s Covid ‘tragedy’ in reality told an entirely different story. They were a testament to the brutal inequality of Indian society and the awful state of its health service: underfunded, staffed with underpaid workers, and lacking all kinds of vital equipment.

India’s pandemic casualties are but a macroscopic example of how numbers can be made to say anything, often conveying the opposite of what they really mean. In this past year and a half we’ve been submerged, buried, asphyxiated by an ‘avalanche of numbers’, as the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking terms it. In his exceptional The Taming of Chance (1990), Hacking examines the fervour for statistics that took hold of Europe in the 1800s, following the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Statistics, he argues, were endowed with a double dimension: by the 19th century they emerged as pillars of a new mode of governance, and underpinned a colossal epistemological revolution in science (just think of statistical mechanics, the kinetic theory of gases, and the attendant appearance of unsettling concepts: entropy first, the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics after). It was this ‘avalanche’ that gave rise to the human sciences. Modern sociology was made possible by the availability of statistical data; Durkheim couldn’t have written his foundational text on Suicide (1897) without the mass of information provided by censuses. Our contemporary image of human beings derives in large part from the means developed to count them – an image that omits all that cannot be counted or indexed.

Statistics – numbers, that is – were obviously the primary tool for enacting what Foucault termed ‘biopolitics’, a form of governance in which it is essential for the sovereign to know the average life expectancy, the mean age of marriage relative to level of education, the number of possible conscripts at any given time, how long the state would have to pay a life salary, and so on. But a discipline cannot be an instrument of government without becoming a weapon of politics. The manipulation of statistics was born alongside statistics itself, hence the unforgettable, lapidary maxim from Mark Twain in his Chapters from My Autobiography (1906): ‘there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’.

This whole process gave rise to a new artform, as the rhetorical use of numbers ripened into a veritable ‘rhetoric of the number’. The media spectacle we’ve witnessed in the last 17 months has deployed this numerical rhetoric to the full extent of its powers; instructive, threatening, persuasive, dissuasive, distortive. It’s opportune, then, to examine this rhetoric a little more closely. We could begin by asking, as Jacques Durand did in his first, pioneering treatment of the subject: ‘What is a number? Is it a word amongst others, an integral part of language? Or is it a purely scientific object, extralinguistic in nature?’

We may not realize it, but we’re perennially bombarded by numbers used in what might be termed an ‘extra-arithmetic’ register: The One Thousand and One Nights, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fahrenheit 451, The Seventh Seal, Ocean’s 11, Agent 007, 7-Up, 7-Eleven, the ‘number of the beast’ 666. In politics, the rhetorical use of numbers derives ‘from the fact that numbers and statistics – even from official sources – do not hold a mirror to reality but instead reflect, and deflect, it’. Precisely because of this function, numbers produce an effect of irrational persuasion. If I’m told that thousands of people have died in some disaster, I can accept this or I can remain sceptical, but if I’m told that the death count is 12,324, I must take it or leave it in toto. Numbers thus retain a persuasive force comparable to that of an image (‘worth a thousand words’). At the same time, numbers serve to decontextualize and absolutize.

We’re so inundated with numbers that we tend not to perceive just how much of the information we are presented with is superfluous and arbitrary. When we were told, for example, that Malaysia registered a record number of 5,298 cases on the 30th of January, nobody interrogated the reason why this figure was chosen. Why have we never been given daily updates on tuberculosis cases, even if every year it causes the death of around 1.7 million people? Think of the 1.4 million people who die every year in car accidents. Why are we not informed of roadside fatalities in Chile or the Philippines every evening? It’s curious that during Covid’s second wave all mention of deaths in nursing homes vanished; they have literally disappeared from mass media, yet the elderly continue to die in great numbers. The hypocritical sobs for the ‘tragedy of the elderly’ and the crocodile tears for ‘our grandparents’ have now been muted.

So, the first mechanism the rhetoric of numbers employs is the choice of which figures to include and which to omit. To declare the accumulation of total deaths, rather than the rate of mortality relative to the size of a given population, is a shining example of this numerical rhetoric. Rarely does the news – broadcast or print – use relative figures; it generally deals in absolute tallies. Less lethal but just as serious is the doctoring of statistics relating to work, with many curious stratagems at play in assessing the rate of unemployment (in the US, for example, people are not counted as unemployed if they worked just one hour the previous week). Then there are the various figures of speech which we do not have sufficient space and time to analyse at present. With numbers you can use antithesis: ‘A €700,000 fine for missed payment of €1.20’, ‘Murder for €20’; tautology: ‘2021 is not 2001’; repetition: ‘in 12 days, with 12 bottles, your face is 12 years younger’; enumeration: ‘buy two, pay for one’ (a shoe advert) , ‘one exceptional offer, two lifestyles, three advantages’; accumulation: ‘920 tonnes at 920 km/h’. This doesn’t even cover rhetorical devices that mix words and numbers. The list is long.

It’s evident from this brief excursus that numbers are not words like any other, nor are they completely extralinguistic signifiers. Strangely enough, their logic recalls (to come full circle) the use of Hindi words in English-language Indian dailies, which are replete with local terms that communicate what in English would be inexpressible. They represent an exotic solecism embedded in standard English and hark back to a shared local heritage. In everyday consciousness numbers surely enjoy a similar exotic fascination, owing partly to the general public’s imperfect grasp of arithmetic.

What remains to be evaluated is the intention behind this particular wielding of numbers. There’s little doubt here: general panic amongst the population was a poorly-concealed – if not declared – objective of the pandemic response. I don’t wish to say that the pandemic wasn’t to be feared. I do, however, think that authorities around the world considered instilling a long-lasting panic amongst the general public necessary in order for much-needed lockdown measures and curbs on civil liberties to be accepted with such acquiescence. A well-dosed and administered media panic was, and still is, far less costly and intrusive than police measures. And for this aim the rhetoric of numbers has no match.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘Geographies of Ignorance’, NLR 108.


Canny Reader

The death of J. Hillis Miller, in February, marked the end of an astonishing period in American academic literary criticism – North American really, since the dominant figure, Northrop Frye, was born in Québec and taught in Toronto. The period might be said to start in 1947, with the publication of Frye’s first book, the Blake study Fearful Symmetry, and yielded a body of work drawing on the kind of Continental resources – Marxism and psychoanalysis but also theology, linguistics, hermeneutics, and mythopoetics – that had been accorded little place by earlier formalist approaches. Miller, the author of twenty-five books, was rare among the central figures in devoting his attention to study of the novel, from Emily Brontë to Ian McEwan. The arc of Miller’s career has been described by Fredric Jameson as ‘unclassifiable’, but in bald terms, it was the story of a pair of Francophone mentors, Georges Poulet and Jacques Derrida, who washed up in Baltimore – more specifically, the campus of Johns Hopkins, where Miller taught from 1952 until 1972. Miller welcomed their interventions and ran with them, transforming himself into a leading exponent of two critical schools, one – phenomenology – that remains more or less pegged to its post-war moment, the other – deconstruction – with wider fame and implications, and a more contested legacy.

He was born in Virginia, in 1928, and raised in upstate New York – ‘definitely the boondocks’, he recalled. His mother was descended from Pennsylvania Dutch; one of her ancestors, a Rhode Islander, had been a signatory on the Declaration of Independence. Miller’s father, himself the son of a farmer, was a Baptist minister as well as a professor and an academic administrator who emphasised women’s higher education. But Miller’s upbringing wasn’t especially urbane. When he arrived at Oberlin, to study physics, he had never heard of T. S. Eliot. And when he moved to Harvard for graduate studies, he felt uncomfortable – out of step with what he called the ‘white-shoe tradition’. (Miller later wrote that he and his wife, Dorothy, thought of the shift from physics to English during his sophomore year ‘as a vow of poverty for us both’, adding, ‘That has not exactly happened’.)

The subject of Miller’s PhD was Dickens, not an established area of academic study. ‘The idea was that a gentleman had already read these novels’, he told me, during an encounter in 2012. ‘You don’t have to teach them’. When Miller was hired at Hopkins, he was the department’s first Victorianist: ‘Until I came, everything stopped at 1830’. One effect of the appointment was Miller’s meeting with the Swiss critic Georges Poulet, a member of the Geneva School of phenomenology (though, in fact, he never taught there), who argued that literature embodies the ‘consciousness’ of the author. Miller’s dissertation, notionally supervised by the Renaissance scholar Douglas Bush – whose only comment was that he uses ‘that’ when he means ‘which’ – had been written under the influence of Kenneth Burke, especially his idea of symbolic action. But in the published version, which appeared in 1958, he announced the Poulet-like desire to identify in Dickens’s fiction a unique and consistent ‘view of the world’ and called the novel the means by which a writer apprehends and creates himself.

Miller never formally rejected Poulet, but looking back, he saw his period as a phenomenologist as something like a diversion, even a cop-out. He had always been drawn to ‘local linguistic anomalies in literature’, he said, and consciousness criticism provided a ‘momentarily successful strategy for containing rhetorical disruptions of narrative logic’ through reference to the authorial perspective as a unifying – and grounding – presence. But at a certain point in the late 1960s, he abandoned what he called ‘an orientation toward language as the mere register of the complexities of consciousness’ in favour of ‘an orientation toward the figurative and rhetorical complexities of language itself as the generative source of consciousness’. In The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968), he continued to emphasise ‘intersubjectivity’ – how the ‘mind of an author’ is made ‘available to others’. But by the time of Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (1970), he had begun to embrace what he called ‘a science of tropes’.

It was a shift cemented in 1972, when Miller was hired by Yale, where his colleagues included Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and Jacques Derrida. Talk of a ‘Yale School’ now goes back almost fifty years, but did it really exist? Derrida, for his part, said that he didn’t identify with ‘any group or clique whatsoever, with any philosophical or literary school’. Yet Miller argued that in spite of such ‘complexities’ – i.e. the best-known putative member claiming otherwise – ‘a Yale School did exist’, and characterised its activities as ‘a group of friends teaching and writing in the same place at the same time, with closely related orientations’.

Miller once argued that the Yale critics were united by an interest in the eighteenth century. It’s a bizarre contention, the meta-critical equivalent of counting the people at a dinner table but forgetting to include yourself. Bloom, Hartman, and de Man were certainly engaged in an effort, spearheaded by Frye, to overturn a prejudice against Romanticism enshrined by Eliot and disseminated by the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry. The notable products included Hartman’s 1964 study of Wordsworth, the essays in de Man’s Blindness and Insight (1971), and Bloom’s books on Shelley and Blake as well as The Visionary Company (1961), his foolhardy reading of the entire English Romantic canon. Miller, by contrast, specialised in fiction of the Victorian and modernist periods; as late as 2012, he had never read anything by Samuel Richardson.

So the orientations to which Miller alluded are not altogether clear. Even Deconstruction and Criticism (1979), the ‘manifesto’ of the Yale School, exposed the degree of ambiguity, the conjunction in the title separating Bloom from the ‘gang of four’ who practised something called ‘deconstruction’. Hartman complicated things further in his preface by calling Miller, Derrida, and de Man the true ‘boa-deconstructors’ – a gang of three. Even the book’s intended unifying element, an emphasis on Shelley’s ‘The Triumph of Life’, was lost along the way. Looser points of convergence seem more persuasive. Miller pointed out that what he, de Man, Bloom, and Hartman – a different gang of four – were up to differed substantially from the activities of both the New Critics and Northrop Frye. The late Irish academic Denis Donoghue said that what linked the members of the so-called Yale School was simply that they ‘teach at Yale’.

What remains beyond doubt is that Miller was closely aligned to de Man and Derrida, and that their influence explains the discrepancy between the best books of his early period, The Disappearance of God (1963) and Poets of Reality (1965), and the books he published while at Yale, Fiction and Repetition (1982), and The Linguistic Moment (1985), his book on poetry. Miller first encountered de Man’s work at a Yale colloquium in 1964 where he delivered a version of the paper that became the Lukács essay in Blindness and Insight. Another turning point was Derrida’s appearance, two years later, at the star-studded Johns Hopkins conference, ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man’ – theory’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Miller was teaching a class when Derrida, a thirty-six-year-old lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure, and a last-minute addition ­– delivered his exhilarating lecture, ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’. But he witnessed Derrida in other sessions – for example, he heard him tell the phenomenologist and autofiction pioneer, Serge Doubrovsky, that he didn’t believe in perception.

It was one of many things he didn’t believe in. Derrida’s project, owing debts of varying sizes to Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Freud, was to show that the majority of modern thought remained implicitly metaphysical, and posited a foundation – a Transcendental Signified, the logos or Word – from which many unchecked assumptions derived. The conference had been organised to remedy East Coast indifference to structuralism. In the event – a word that became a crucial part of theoretical vocabulary – the opposite was achieved. Derrida dethroned Claude Lévi-Strauss, and deconstruction was born.

You might say that the effect of deconstruction, in its literary-critical mode, was to augment a presiding canon of largely B-writers (Baudelaire, Benjamin, Borges, Blanchot, etc) with a group of H-figures (Hölderlin, Hegel, Heidegger, Hopkins, to some degree Hawthorne and Hardy), and to replace a set of keywords beginning ‘s’ – structure, sign, signifier, signified, semiotics, the Symbolic, syntagm, Saussure – with a vocabulary based around the letter ‘d’: decentring, displacement, dislocation, discontinuity, dedoublement, dissemination, difference and deferral (Derrida’s coinage ‘différance’ being intended to encompass both). And there was also a growing role for ‘r’: Rousseau, rhetoric, Romanticism (one of de Man’s books was The Rhetoric of Romanticism), Rilke, and above all reading, a word that appeared, as noun and participle, in titles of books by de Man, Hartman, and most prominently Miller: The Ethics of Reading, Reading Narrative, Reading for Our Time, Reading Conrad.

The New York Times, one of various media outlets that offered a beginner’s guide to this new creed, defined deconstruction as the theory that words and texts have meaning only in relation to other words and texts. That better describes the structuralist concept of intertextuality. A typical deconstructionist reading reveals the ways in which a text deconstructs itself, essentially by keeping irreconcilable ideas in suspension. (Caution: paraphrase ahead!) De Man argued, for example, that Hegel’s Aesthetics was dedicated to the same act – preserving classical art – that it reveals as impossible; autobiography at once veils and defaces the autobiographer; a literary text is something that asserts and denies its own rhetorical authority. Harold Bloom, in the recent posthumous book Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles, called de Man’s Shelley an ironist who believed that disfiguration annihilates meaning, and then pointed out that this also describes de Man’s Rousseau, his Wordsworth, his Proust…

If Derrida was the founder of deconstruction, and de Man its most concise and feline practitioner, Miller was responsible for extending its range beyond philosophy and poetry. He defined the novel as ‘a chain of displacements’ – author into narrator, narrator into characters, donnée into fiction. He pointed out that attempts to characterise the literature of a given period as closed or open are undermined by the impossibility of demonstrating whether any one narrative is closed or open in the first place. It’s possible to reply that Miller’s criticism gravitated to novels openly concerned with the challenge of reading signs, with language as something that both uncovers and evades: The Wings of the Dove, Lord Jim, Between the Acts. But in his essay ‘Narrative and History’, he argued that Middlemarch, traditionally considered a realist text, can be seen as displacing ‘the metaphysical notions of history, storytelling, and the individual, and the concepts of origin, end and continuity’ with ‘repetition, difference, discontinuity, openness and the free and contradictory struggle of individual human energies’. The ‘canny reader’s motto’, from his formidable – and longest-gestating – book, Ariadne’s Thread (1992), begins: ‘Watch out when you think you’ve “got it”’.

Miller also emerged as the critic best-placed, or anyway keenest, to stand up for deconstruction – against the right, who saw it as iconoclastic and jargon-riddled, and the left, who saw it as elitist. He was frequently forced to deny that deconstruction was simply nihilist. ‘It’s not that nothing is referential’, he said, ‘but that it’s problematically referential’. His best-known essay, and the most virtuoso display of his thinking in action, ‘The Critic as Host’, which appeared in Deconstruction and Criticism, was a response to M.H. Abrams’s essay, ‘The Deconstructive Angel’, which argued that a deconstructionist reading was parasitic on the ‘univocal’ reading of a text. Then there was the charge, recently repeated by Louis Menand in his book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, that deconstruction was just as cloistered as the New Criticism – that it ignored, in Menand’s phrase, the ‘real-life aspects of literature’. There’s an argument that deconstruction only looked at history when history more or less forced itself onto the agenda when it emerged, in 1987, that de Man had published articles for Belgian newspapers under Nazi control. But Miller had already been engaged in rejecting the view of deconstruction as formalism by another – fancier – name.

In 1986, the year he left Yale for the University of California, Irvine – Derrida went along too – Miller used his first Presidential Address to the MLA Conference to attack the narrowness of newly resurgent historical approaches, and his own later work offered a serial deconstructionist’s riposte. His first formal intervention was Hawthorne & History: Defacing It (1991), an attempt to show that literature never merely ‘reflects’ history, and this was followed by a short book on the relationship between text and images, Illustration (1992), which Jameson called his contribution to ‘“cultural studies” as such’. In the last decade of his life, he produced a study of George Eliot that doubled as an exercise in ‘anachronistic reading’, an account of writing – including the work of Kafka and Toni Morrison – in relation to Auschwitz, and a study of ‘communities’ (always more conflicted than they just appear) in the work of writers as varied as Thomas Pynchon and Raymond Williams. 

But Miller was not content to offer deconstruction as an alternative to what he considered ‘logical’ historicism. He saw it as a truly materialist aesthetics. As long ago as 1972, Jameson argued that opposition to an ‘Absolute Signified’ encoded a critique of the authoritarian and theocentric, and compared the Derridean analysis of the word and its dominance to Marx on money and the commodity. The first overt statement of this position came a decade later in de Man’s essay ‘The Resistance to Theory’, in which he argued that those who dismissed theory as oblivious to social and historical reality exhibited an unconscious fear that it would expose their own ideological mystifications. Then he added, ‘They are, in short, very poor readers of Marx’s German Ideology.’

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that this one sentence determined the course of Miller’s work ever after. He became increasingly insistent on the similarity, even interchangeability, of the two traditions. Rhetorical reading was political reading, with an essential role in teaching citizens how to decode what he called the ‘imaginary formulations of their real relations to the material, social, gender, and class conditions of their existence’. In the 1986 MLA address, Miller called for a deconstructionist understanding of the material base. Later, though, he appeared to suggest that such an understanding had always existed. In ‘Promises, Promises’, a 2001 essay principally concerned with similarities between Marx and de Man, though inevitably emboldened by Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993), Miller called The German Ideology ‘a deconstructive literary theory avant la lettre’, adding ‘If Marx is a deconstructionist, deconstruction is a form of Marxism’. Both were based, in his account, on a refusal to take things for granted, and a need to investigate how a certain sign system – language, the commodity – was established, how it works, and how it might therefore be changed.        

There seems little consensus about the influence or afterlife of the movement to which Miller belonged. For many, it appears to have been something transient. Menand, in The Free World, argues that Derrida’s ‘anti-foundationalism’ never had much effect outside literature departments and ‘some kinds of art practice’. But Camille Paglia, writing in 1993, lamented that post-structuralism had ‘spread throughout academe and the arts’ and was ‘blighting the most promising minds of the next generation’, adding with only a dash of melodrama: ‘This is a major crisis if there ever was one, and every sensible person must help bring it to an end’. And Jameson, writing in NLR in 1995, noted that the ‘maddening gadfly stings’ of Derrida’s attack on metaphysics had hardened into orthodoxy – though he didn’t specify where.

Miller, for his part, liked to emphasise the deconstructive strain in the work of feminist critics such as Shoshana Felman, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Barbara Johnson (who pointed out that the Yale School was always a Male School), and Judith Butler. He never stopped writing and lecturing about Derrida or de Man or the self-immolating tendencies of language or the self-critical faculties of novels or the radicalism inherent in good reading. But he noted with regret that what he called ‘the triumph of theory’ had been undone, and he stopped using the term deconstruction, arguing that ‘a false understanding’ had won the day with the media, and ‘many academics too’.

Leo Robson is lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

Read on: Fredric Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’, NLR I/209.


Pavelić’s Ghost

Like all holidays, the advent of Ramadan unleashes a social media storm of congratulatory memes. Friends, family, and distant acquaintances share photographs of mosques and stylized images of the crescent-and-star superimposed with a snippet of text, ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ or ‘Ramadan Kareem’ – wishes for a bountiful holy month. My twitter feed brimmed with such greetings on the first morning of Ramadan, but one in particular caught my eye, a retweet of Jusuf Nurkić, the Bosnian basketballer who plays centre for the Portland Trailblazers in the National Basketball Association. Nurkić’s message was brief: the hashtag #ramadankareem, three emojis – a crescent moon, a heart, and a pair of hands expressing gratitude or piety – and a caption for the accompanying photograph: ‘Zagreb. 1944 Croatia’. The black-and-white image that Nurkić tweeted depicted a rotunda surrounded by three towering minarets. The sinister political context captured by the photograph was implicit, but the flood of responses to the tweet indicated that it was not lost on Nurkić’s followers. He had posted a picture from a notorious episode in Zagreb’s history: the conversion of a famous art pavilion into a mosque by the Nazi comprador government of the Independent State of Croatia and its leader, Ante Pavelić.

Along with Ferenc Szálasi in Hungary, Ion Antonescu in Romania, and Jozef Tiso in Slovakia, Pavelić was a quisling dictator who rose to power on Hitler and Mussolini’s coattails. His Ustaša Movement seized power in 1941 following the Axis attack on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In short order, they set about cleansing ‘Greater Croatia’ – a region that included most of Bosnia and parts of Serbia’s Vojvodina region, as well as Croatia – of centuries of linguistic, religious and ethnic plurality. Pavelić’s most gruesome legacy was the Jasenovac concentration camp, a marshy abattoir on the floodplains of Slavonia where some 100,000 Jews, Roma, Serbs and anti-fascists were murdered between 1941 and 1945. The Ustaša ambition to Croat ethnic purity was assimilatory as well as genocidal. Drawing on the marginal theories of the 19th Century proto-nationalist Ante Starčević, Pavelić and his cohorts argued that Bosniaks were religiously but not ethnically distinct. In other words, the Ustaše considered Bosniaks to be Muslim – rather than Catholic – Croats, thereby erasing all historically- or culturally-rooted claims to Bosniak distinction. As ostensible Croats, Muslims were desirable components of the Ustaša body politic. Pavelić trumpeted this fascist openness to limited religious plurality by converting Zagreb’s House of the Fine Arts into a mosque in 1944.

The neoclassical-modernist pavilion-cum-mosque had only risen several years earlier, but it was already a weathervane for the region’s rapidly shifting political winds. Initially conceived as a monument to Yugoslav King Petar I, its design was an expression of Ivan Meštrović’s genius. Meštrović was Yugoslavia’s premiere sculptor, a proponent of the Vienna Secession, a disciple of Rodin, and a firm believer in the unity of the South Slavs, the ideological adhesive that bonded Yugoslavia between the wars. His new art pavilion honoured Petar I, a scion of the Serbian Karađorđević dynasty who, from 1918 to 1921, was the first sovereign of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – the predecessor to Yugoslavia. Yet when the pavilion opened in 1938, the rabidly anti-Serbian Ustaše were already consolidating power in Italy under the patronage of Mussolini, who hosted Pavelić in exile for over a decade. Less than six years later, the building was re-dedicated to a dramatically different cause: Muslim-Catholic unity in the new ethnic polity, the Independent State of Croatia. Changes to the building were swift, and mostly cosmetic: the three minarets and interior ornamental motifs befitting a mosque.

These additions proved ephemeral. After the war, Tito’s partisans quickly transformed the building’s function and name again – by 1949, it had become the Museum of the Revolution. This proved to be the site’s lengthiest incarnation, at least thus far. The Museum of the Revolution persisted until 1993, when, in the wake of Croatia’s withdrawal from Yugoslavia and the subsequent war, the building reverted to its original function as an art pavilion and headquarters for the Croatian Association of Artists. Although it remains an exhibition space today, residents of Zagreb still colloquially refer to the building and its surrounding neighbourhood as Džamija, ‘the mosque’, without reflecting on the fascist genealogy of the title. Paradoxically, a trip to Zagreb’s ‘mosque’ does not usually end at the city’s actual Muslim house of worship, a Yugoslav-era campus in a relatively poor, peripheral neighbourhood. Stranger still, ‘the mosque’, a linguistic relic of the Ustaše, resides at the centre of the Square in Honour of the Victims of Fascism, a public space that explicitly condemns Ustaša depredations.

Whether or not Nurkić considered this dense history when he posted his Ramadan tweet featuring the fascist-era image of the mosque, his provocation was clear – the shot scored. One reply to the tweet denounced him as an Ustaša, while another leaned on a common racial-religious slur, branding him a ‘Turk who sold his faith for taxes’. A wag suggested that he had failed to understand the difference between the NBA and the NDH, the Croatian acronym for the Ustaša state. Supportive replies were less common, though a few neo-fascists reared their heads to salute the Portland player. Nurkić’s tweet also inadvertently called attention to an anniversary that passed largely unnoticed in Croatia and the region: the eightieth anniversary of the foundation of the Ustaša state only a few days earlier, on 10 April. In Jutarnji List, Zagreb’s daily paper of record, the journalist Robert Bajruši pointedly lamented that ‘the institutions of the Republic of Croatia have absolutely silenced this terribly important event – terrible in the literal sense of the word’. Nurkić’s Ramadan greeting did Croatian institutions one better, though not in the manner Bajruši might have hoped.  

Many in the region reasonably claim that official silence is preferable to stoking the smouldering flames of communal antagonisms. Pavelić continues to haunt Croatia in many spheres beyond the circles of the far right that openly laud his legacy. Postcards and memorabilia from the Independent State of Croatia, including the very photograph of the mosque that Nurkić repurposed for Ramadan, sell for exorbitant prices in Zagreb’s flea markets, sandwiched between Iron Crosses and busts of Tito. Yet Pavelić and the Ustaše have no place in official memory today – a muteness that contrasts starkly with the socialist era when they were bugbears and collective enemies par excellence.

This official muting of the Ustaša past is a condition of possibility for the political successes of Croatia’s contemporary centre-right party, the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, HDZ). Nostalgic praise for the Ustaše circulates openly in the right-wing circles from which the HDZ draws some of its support, applauded by figures such as the ethno-folk balladeer Marko Perković, known popularly as Thompson. The party itself, however, aspires to the respectability of its Christian Democratic brethren elsewhere in Europe, and officially abjures the Ustaša legacy. Rather than Pavelić, it is Franjo Tuđman, the first president of independent Croatia who died in 1999, who personifies the nation-state today. Tuđman epitomizes a polite Croatian nationalism, as opposed to the barbaric nationalism of Pavelić and the Ustaše. Yet the two are not so easily quarantined. In the context of the warfare of the 1990s, Tuđman and the HDZ partially rehabilitated Pavelić and the Ustaše as earlier architects of Croatian sovereignty. This political resurrection was entwined with the parallel rehabilitation of another World War II-era fascist movement, the Četniks, on the part of Slobodan Milošević and like-minded Serbian nationalists. The violence of the 1990s was the crucible for a politics of memory in both Croatia and Serbia that found new uses for the Ustaše and Četnici, respectively. 

Zagreb recently erected a monument to Tuđman, cementing his status as an embodiment of the nation. Pavelić’s legacy in the city is far less evident. Several weeks ago, I visited the ruins of his official residence, Villa Rebar, on the slopes of the Medvednica mountain north of Zagreb. It rots anonymously at the end of an unmarked dirt road, inhabited only by racist graffiti and a hodgepodge of litter: broken DVDs, condom wrappers, beer bottles. In a room that was once a cocktail lounge, I discovered a pile of discarded primary school textbooks, including a history primer that no doubt fails to mention his name.

Elsewhere, however, Pavelić’s memory resists ruination, and stirs with troubling new vitality. I witnessed stirrings of this resurgent potential several years ago on a summer morning in Madrid’s San Isidro Cemetery. Just as Mussolini sheltered Pavelić in the 1930s, Franco provided safe haven for him near the end of his life; though he initially fled to Italy and then Argentina and Chile after the war, he died in Spain in 1959 as the result of an assassination attempt in Buenos Aires several years earlier. Pavelić’s grave in San Isidro is a potent site of Ustaša memory. When I arrived, I found two strapping young men taking selfies in front of it. Several bouquets had already been deposited that day, and I heard more Croatian than Spanish spoken during my sojourn in the graveyard. Upon departure, I asked the cemetery gate attendant whether Croatian visitors were frequent – ‘Yes, of course’, he replied, ‘they come to see their leader.’

For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of abstention and spiritual reflection. As the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed to Muhammad, it is a period of heightened awareness to the entailments of Islam. It is also a season of peace, when even the most entrenched conflicts frequently abate, if only for a time. Regrettably, Nurkić failed to consider these entailments of Ramadan before tweeting the image of Zagreb’s erstwhile fascist mosque. Had he done so, he might have refrained from such a belligerent incitement in a context in which peace is still a recent achievement. Still, he was evidently unfazed by the conflagration he ignited on Twitter. He went on to score eight points the following day in a close loss to the Boston Celtics.

Read on: Catherine Samary, ‘A Utopia in the Balkans’, NLR 114.


Breathless India

In just the past month, India has officially recorded around 10 million Covid-positive cases and 100,000 Covid-related deaths. As the second wave of the pandemic spirals out of control, India’s healthcare system is facing a chronic shortage of oxygen, hospital beds, vaccines, and critical medicines. Last month, 62 patients died when three of New Delhi’s biggest private hospitals ran out of oxygen. Similar tragedies are unfolding across the country: in Mumbai, Amritsar, Gurgaon, Kurnool, Nasik, Moradabad, Jammu, and Goa. Here and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of patients have found themselves stranded outside hospital buildings, gasping for one final breath or surviving on one rapidly depleting oxygen cylinder.

Last month, the crematoriums in New Delhi ran out of wood. Since then, they have also run out of funeral platforms and ash urns, and have recorded 20-hour long queues. Funeral pyres are now being lit in the parks and parking lots of the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, there is still no news of how the pandemic is affecting the vast swathes of rural India. A recent exposé by the journalists of Dainik Bhaskar, a popular Hindi daily, uncovered more than 2,000 dead bodies secretly buried along the banks of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh. These half-buried, half-burnt bodies, some of them eaten away by kites and stray dogs, are a glimpse of the disaster currently unfolding across the Indian countryside. A new report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that the actual number of Covid-related deaths in India is around 650,000, thrice the official number. It projects that by September India’s death toll is likely to surpass 1 million.

As the spectre of mass death looms, a dramatic political transformation is underway. A host of corporations have stepped in to play the role traditionally reserved for the Indian state. In the last month, Amazon, Paytm, and the Adani group, owned by India’s second-richest man, Gautam Adani, have airlifted and shipped in thousands of oxygen cylinders, BiPAP machines, ventilator units, cryogenic tanks, and portable oxygen concentrators and generators. In turn, the key industrial giants, including Reliance Industries, Tata Steel Ltd, ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel, and JSW Steel, have started producing and supplying medical-grade oxygen to various state governments and hospitals. Some of them, including Reliance, owned by Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India and second richest in Asia, have also started setting up new healthcare facilities. 

The relief efforts of the government, by contrast, have been trifling at best, limited largely to coordinating the logistics of supply chains between different state governments. Even here, rather than fulfilling its responsibility, the BJP has blamed the individual states where it is not in power for the medical shortages they are facing. Its control of oxygen production has been even worse. A recent report revealed that it was only in October – by which time millions were already infected and thousands dead – that the tenders for building 150 oxygen generator plants were floated. Six months later, amidst the deathly clamour of mass breathlessness, the plants remain nowhere to be seen.

With the government now facing growing criticism, it is crucial to grasp that its failure is not simply a case of botched governance, the kind that stems from ‘poor planning’ and ‘bad policymaking’. The government has not so much failed as altogether refused to intervene in the current crisis. And this refusal is not a one-off. It is systemic in nature, part of a drastic neoliberal transformation where every such refusal is accompanied by a deepening dependence on corporations to fulfil the responsibilities of the state.

Consider, for instance, the annual budget presented by the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman earlier this year. Given its pandemic-setting, it was widely hyped by political commentators; Sitharaman herself claimed that ‘the budget will be remembered for 100 years to come’. And yet, what ensued was merely the tragic repetition of a yearly farce: the privatization of yet more state-owned assets; continued cutbacks to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (by 34.5 percent) and the Ministry of Women and Child Development (by 18.5 percent); the reduction of the Corporation Tax/GDP ratio to such a low level (2.5 percent) that Indian citizens will pay more taxes than corporations; and so on.

This systematic withdrawal of the Indian state, particularly from the lives of the poor, is the reason why the Covid-relief efforts have been dependent upon corporate giants. As of 2018, the country had one doctor per 1,453 people and one hospital bed per 2,000, while over 70 percent of its hospitals were controlled by the private sector. And even though Sitharaman claimed a record 137 percent increase in the funds allocated to healthcare in the budget, this increase already included the ongoing Covid-relief efforts, and the actual expenditure amounted to only 0.34 percent of annual GDP. No amount of philanthropy can make up for this ruined infrastructure; in fact, insofar as this aid circulates within the bounds of a deeply iniquitous system, it will only serve to reproduce it.

Commentators have repeatedly underscored the immense scale and speed at which this crisis is evolving. Indeed, its all-pervading character is in stark contrast to other decidedly ‘local’ crises in the country, that have afflicted only specific sectors and groups: the privatization of farming and education; the anti-Muslim citizenship amendments; the settler-colonial violence against Kashmiris; the routine lynching of Dalits; the revocation of existing labour protections; the military-led dispossession of the tribes and Maoists in Central India. As this list of the ‘enemies of the Indian state’ continues to swell, the anti-fascist chestnut – in the morning they came for us, at night they will come for you – has become increasingly popular in the Indian public sphere. The warning is generally directed at the Hindu middle class, which overwhelmingly backs the government, and has enjoyed relative political stability in recent years. As the second wave builds, it seems the wolf of history has finally caught up with them. But it is not that someone­­ has come for them. Rather it is that no one has come to save them. No ambulances, no healthcare workers. Only the invisible hand of capitalist markets, which has shrunk the middle class by 32 million within a few months and is now swiftly choking them to death.

As thousands lie stricken outside hospitals, a black market has sprung up around them: oxygen cylinders and critical medicines are being sold for exorbitant prices while vans transporting oxygen to hospitals are getting stolen. And yet, for a Prime Minister who revels in instructing the millions of unemployed to become ‘self-reliant’– ‘fry and sell pakoras outside public offices’ – this ‘informal economy’ is presumably nothing to lament.  

Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, Narendra Modi unveiled the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, a grand national plan for self-reliance. This sparked a brief surge of panic in the business community, with many noting the uncanny echoes of Nehru’s ‘socialist’ vision of atmanirbharta. Fears of a return of ‘import substitution’ and ‘license raj’ though quickly subsided when the government announced plans to boost private sector investment in social infrastructure, and to open several other sectors, including defence, space, and mining, for private investment. Modi’s rhetoric was in fact only pastiche: it was not the country but the people who were to be made self-reliant, by systematically weaning them off their dependence on the Indian state, while, in turn, making the state itself more dependent on private corporations.

This neoliberal lockstep of ‘refusal’ and ‘dependence’ is perhaps most clearly embodied by last year’s relief package. The sudden imposition of a 75-day national lockdown rendered 450 million migrant workers jobless and homeless. After forcing them to walk thousands of miles back to their native villages, the government announced support measures that were among the lowest in the world – totalling a miserly 1 percent of the country’s GDP. In addition to a meagre 5kg of wheat or rice per month, its proposed financial support for a family of four amounts to only 4 Rupees per day per person, when the poverty line in rural and urban areas is 50 Rupees and 73 Rupees per person per day respectively.

A broad range of heterodox economists and social activists criticized these austerity measures. Some also proposed alternatives. The Heterodox Economists’ Collective called for the government to universalize the Public Distribution System in order to provide free cereals, pulses, and cooking oil to all for the next six months; to make cash transfers of 15,000 Rupees to the bottom 80 percent households to compensate for lost wages; and to guarantee 200 days of work to everyone including the migrants who were forced to return to their native villages. Others, including the leading development economist Jayati Ghosh, offered alternate blueprints designed to revive a faltering economy: both short-term measures to stimulate demand and long-term schemes funded by a range of fiscal and legislative measures, including temporarily suspending the Fiscal Budget Regulation Act, increasing corporation tax, and implementing a 2 percent wealth tax on the top 1 percent.

But the government has refused to even acknowledge these proposals. To put its intransigence in perspective: earlier this year, even the IMF, whose fabled touch is known to turn all things into a Structural Adjustment Program, urged its members to increase public spending, and to not worry about increasing their indebtedness. It would seem that the Indian government has successfully out-IMFed the IMF. Rather than increase public expenditure, it has chosen to hold fast to the ‘correct’ level of fiscal deficit, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Even more striking is the lack of attention these entirely feasible counter-proposals have received in the public sphere. The less said the better, then, about actual utopian questions. (Why, for instance, must the wellbeing of the population be tied to the rate of return?) As the emergent mutual-aid networks struggle to survive the ever-expanding swirl of new viral strains and mutants, there has been growing agreement among liberal and left commentators that voting the BJP out of power is now a precondition for making democratic politics possible again. During the recent elections in West Bengal, the slogan ‘No Vote to BJP’ gained widespread popularity, especially among young urban voters, and proved remarkably successful in keeping the party out of power. Though fledgling in its national appeal, the slogan conveys something essential about the present conjuncture.

This rallying is of course an expression of the disgust that the BJP now widely inspires, directed into an emergency electoral measure. Anyone but the BJP will do. But the strategy remains freighted with pitfalls. For one, what if we simply lapse into a vacuous form of secular populism, which might offer a short-term term electoral alternative to the BJP, but not an alternative to the crisis-riven, neoliberal trajectory of the country? In five years’ time, that may well return an even stronger right-wing Hindutva to power. Given the longstanding decline of the parliamentary left – the CPM-led Left Front won a total of zero seats in the recent elections in West Bengal, a state where it ruled for 34 years, while many of its leaders, voters, and cadres defected to the BJP – the poverty of genuine political alternatives is an urgent question. Just anyone will not do.

Read on: N. R. Musahar, ‘India’s Starvation Measures’, NLR 122.


Big Man

Family lore has it that during the First Russian Revolution – 1905 – his mother carried anti-Czarist pamphlets in her school knapsack, and that she later worked briefly as a secretary to Rosa Luxemburg. That is where any biographer of Marshall Sahlins might want to begin. Or with the 18th-century mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic Judaism, from whom the Sahlins clan sometimes claimed descent. Born in 1930, Sahlins grew up on Chicago’s West Side, in a family unaffiliated with any Russian faction, but the radical nimbus remained. His interest in anthropology came early, as a boy, playing cowboys and Indians, with a decided preference for the latter. The discipline attracted the children of Jewish immigrants in the interwar decades. Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld, fellow West Siders, also started out in anthropology, which provided critical purchase on their otherwise headlong plunge into American society, along with the means to levitate thrillingly above the folkways of the old country that persisted in their families and neighbourhoods.

Sahlins is sometimes treated as an heir to the grand American anthropology tradition of Franz Boas. In fact, he stemmed from a rival line. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, he studied with the Mencken-like maverick – and anti-Boas brawler ­– Leslie White. A former student of Veblen and a member of the Socialist Labor Party, White had toured the Soviet Union on the eve of the Great Depression and wrote for Party publications under the name ‘John Steel’. He was a paradoxical figure. Culture, in his conception, was both a reflection of a society’s underlying economic constraints, but also an autonomous force organizing its social life. He developed a theory of technological determinism in human history, but also insisted that most of his contemporaries had underplayed the degree to which humans were a symbolically constituted species (these were among the antinomies that Sahlins would try to resolve). White led a relentless, at times ad hominem, campaign against Boas and his students at Columbia, whom he believed had failed to appreciate the gap between primitive societies and the impersonal structures of modernity. Boasians were adept at collecting ethnographic data, White conceded, but they were poor interpreters and theoreticians of their bounty. They seemed to care only about the diffusion of social forms, but not their history. The Boasians, in turn, viewed White as a crude evolutionist who was, consciously or not, abetting the worst of the racial science of the 19th century. As for his student: Sahlins relinquished the technological evolutionism but retained the radical and historical commitments, as well as the intellectual scrappiness. Like his mentor, he detested schools and disciples: there are admirers of Sahlins across the social sciences, but no hard-line Sahlinists.

In 1951, for his doctoral work, Sahlins moved to Columbia where the Boasian dynasty was now being eclipsed by a more radical generation. There was Elman Service, who fought against Franco and forged the typology of band, tribe, chiefdom and state; the anti-fascist anthropologist-poet, Stanley Diamond, who founded Dialectical Anthropology; as well as better known left-wing scholars such as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz. Sahlins’s main influence while at Columbia was the Hungarian exile visiting professor, Karl Polanyi, then in his 60s. It was through Polanyi as well as the classicist Moses Finley that Sahlins got his first prolonged taste of a heterodox theory of the economy. He learned from them not only how artificial and state-conditioned the neo-classical understanding of the market was, but also how alien it was to settings outside the modern North Atlantic. While Finley and Polanyi applied their substantivist economic theory to the ancient world of the Near East and elsewhere, Sahlins started to do the same with Oceania. His dissertation, Social Stratification in Polynesia, which sought to demonstrate how Polynesian culture adapted to various island environments, was an attempt to blend the anthropological materialisms of White and Polanyi. It is a careful, library-produced work that gives a foretaste of the authority, but not the explosive creativity, of its author.

Sahlins, as was the case with Claude Lévi-Strauss, did not conduct as much sustained fieldwork as many of his contemporaries. In 1955-56, Sahlins and his wife spent nine and a half months living on the central Fijian island of Moala, which had 1,200 inhabitants, three Chinese shop-owners, and two outboard motors (though only one was operational). Upon arriving, the couple were frustrated to find themselves treated as superior beings. ‘It is unrealistic to believe that any European can be fully “accepted”; he can never be a Fijian in their eyes’, Sahlins wrote. After a few weeks, however, Sahlins was able to lower himself successfully in the Moalan hierarchy, to the point that he was no longer the first one served the local sedative drink of Kava, but came fifth or sixth. The couple spent most of their time on the island trying to discern pre-colonial rituals and social forms, though many of Sahlins’s most searching findings have to do with how the Fijians made use of colonial developments for their own ends. Colonialism had already thoroughly cannibalized some of the rituals on Moala. In wedding ceremonies, for instance, Sahlins described how families now indebted themselves far more than they ever would have in the pre-colonial period where gifts were made up of replaceable produce from their own land rather than movable goods from the outside. Rituals once meant to solidify kinship ties now threatened to devastate families (and demonstrated how Polanyi was correct to view the ‘rational economic actor’ as a fiction).

In 1965, nearly a half a century before Sahlins’s own student, David Graeber, co-coined the slogan ‘We are the 99%’, Sahlins coined the ‘teach-in’. After his doctorate, Sahlins had moved back to Michigan, where faculty members critical of the war in Vietnam came under fire for their plan to conduct a ‘teach-out’ – to teach their classes off campus. In response, as a consensus-building measure, Sahlins proposed ‘teaching-in’ – occupying classrooms and criticizing the war late into the night. (‘I might have been disposed to binary oppositions because in the 1960s Lévi-Strauss was an oncoming rage in the USA.’) The following year, Sahlins travelled to Vietnam, where he spent only a week but managed to produce ‘The Destruction of Conscience in Viet Nam’, a withering ethnographic report on the tribe of Kennedy-era operatives, whom he memorably described as ‘hard-headed surrealists’. He detailed the way Americans evaded structural questions by blaming ‘graft’ and ‘corruption’, minimized responsibility by conceiving of themselves as ‘advisers’, and channelled their rage for order into the torture of prisoners.

Sahlins was in Paris for 1968, working in Lévi-Strauss’s Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, where he was immediately recognized as capable of holding his own, and even occasionally showing up le maître. A decade later, in Culture and Practical Reason (1976), Sahlins tried to play the peacemaker between Marxists and structuralists. Marxists needed to recognize that structuralists had something to teach them about ‘primitive’ societies, while structuralists needed to acknowledge that Marxists had a unique purchase on the structures of modernity. Sahlins himself was more of an accretive thinker: he didn’t so much move through methodological phases, but compounded them, never really discarding anything, as his library vividly attested. Ultimately, however, Culture and Practical Reason fell on the side of the structuralists – cultural reason over practical reason. Sahlins charged the tradition from Morgan to Marx with willy-nilly positivism. Marxism, itself a product of bourgeois society, had only gone halfway in its analysis of it. For Sahlins ‘production is itself a system of cultural intentions’, as Lee Drummond once put it. Any Crow warrior who stumbled into 20th century Chicago would have been puzzled by the cultural distinctions between steak and kidneys, dog meat and pork, if they relied on practical reason alone, which would, according to Sahlins, see each of these as relatively equal sources of protein.

‘The Original Affluent Society’ – first published in Les Temps Modernes in 1968 – will probably go down as Sahlins’s most widely read essay, though despite its obvious power, it’s also the one most vulnerable to empirical criticism. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sahlin’s epic history of Hawaii in the Sandalwood period, Anahulu [1992], is his most empirically valuable book, but among his least read.) In it, Sahlins argued that far from being an epoch of misery and deprivation, life in the palaeolithic period consisted of a roughly 30-hour work week. With characteristic ferocity, Sahlins tried to account for this by going hour by hour through the palaeolithic working day. There was something quixotic in trying to generalize and tabulate about such a vast expanse of human history, and something anachronistic about trying to jam the concept of ‘leisure time’ into the social lives of cave-dwellers in 8000 BC. But the essay remains a political tour de force, less for its details, than for its bold re-conception of what scarcity can – and has – meant for humans for most of their history. If anything, Sahlins’s development of the argument, Stone Age Economics (1972), is a more urgent book now for the advocates of degrowth than when it was first published.

Even by the standards of postwar anthropology, Sahlins was a formidable critic, capable of laying waste to entire trends and subfields with an essay. A notorious instance was his attack on the ‘cultural materialism’ of Marvin Harris. A widely respected fellow student of White, Harris published a book called Cannibals and Kings (1977), which essentially argued that the Aztecs had practiced cannibalism because they needed the protein. Many hunter-gatherer tribes in Meso-America had practiced ritual sacrifice with a consumption element, but the Aztecs were a giant civilization that instead of quitting the practice – like so many other societies around them – simply upgraded it to civilizational-scale. The reason, according to Harris, was because they couldn’t get enough protein from the Valley of Mexico. In the New York Review of Books, Sahlins subjected this argument to withering criticism. After his trademark athletic tabulating, in which he tried to show that the Aztec elite could not possibly have acquired enough protein from the human limbs that Harris claimed they partly subsisted on, Sahlins pointed to the adequate protein available in a multitude of different forms around them: ‘Why build a temple, when all you need is a butcher’s block?’

The most famous of Sahlins’s many disputes was with the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere about the fate of Captain Cook – a historical episode Sahlins was always prepared to squeeze more insight from. Two years after the American Revolution, Cook had arrived on the main island of Hawaii and been apparently treated by the islanders as a God, but then they later killed him. Why? For Sahlins the answer was that Cook had arrived in the middle of a ritual in which a local god was welcomed on the island, and so he was taken to be that particular god, but when he later returned after breaking a mast, he haplessly entered into another pageant in which the god – which was now, again, himself – was killed and the king of the island restored to his station. Obeyesekere took the view that this was pure exoticization on Sahlins’s part: the islanders clearly had viewed Cook as a possible ally in their wars against Maui, and only killed him when they had determined he was more of a threat than an advantage. Moreover, they never thought he was a god until after his death, as was the case for all Hawaiian royals. There was something curious about the confrontation, as Clifford Geertz noted at the time: Sahlins, the white American scholar, taking the ethno-particularist position, Obeyesekere squarely in the universalist camp. As was often the case with Sahlins, there was something ‘highly carpentered and suspiciously seamless’, in Geertz’s words, about his account. Captain Cook’s perfect timing sets off what appears to be a ballet sequence. But Obeyesekere’s projection of realpolitik onto the islanders seemed even more dubious.

The debate turned out to be not a particularly fruitful episode for the discipline, as it mostly broke down on academic kinship lines. For Sahlins, it was another occasion to pursue what was perhaps his major preoccupation: reconciling the opposition between ‘structure’ and ‘event’ in the social sciences and philosophy. The point was not to privilege either, but to show their inextricableness: an event can only be an ‘event’ from the standpoint of a wider structure, which in turn can be reshaped or shifted by the event. Threading the needle between the event and the longue durée, Sahlins helped clear the way for anthropologists to refocus on the question of historical change that previous generations of structuralists and functionalists had abandoned. The postwar anthropological turn to history, as Joel Isaac has shown, was in large part an attempt to explain the persistence of human institutions, and provincialize state-centric accounts. No one battled the legacy of Hobbes and his vision of the weak sociability of humans more forthrightly than Sahlins, who believed that only by dislodging Western assumptions about the necessity of states as guarantors of human sociability, could the full panoply of possible human flourishing come back into view. In answer to Sartre’s old question: ‘Do we have today the means to constitute a structural, historical anthropology?’ Sahlins was in no doubt: ‘Oui, le jour est arrivé.’

For more than half a century, Sahlins was a member of the University of Chicago’s storied anthropology department. He never lacked for critical targets, either academic or political.  During the Bush years, it was the enlistment of anthropology by the US government in the ‘Human Terrain’ program in the Afghanistan War. In 2013, he dramatically resigned from the Academy of Sciences when he learned of the extent of the program and of the fact that they had inducted Napoleon Chagnon, a former White student who notoriously broke many of the codes of fieldwork and tried to augment the violence among his Yanomamö subjects, into the membership. More recently, Sahlins exposed the network of Confucius Institutes, propaganda mills run by the Chinese government that occupied parts of scores of university campuses in the US, to which he devoted one of his Prickly Pear pamphlets, a very valuable series of short books of which he was co-publisher. What was remarkable was not so much that the Chinese government was running an operation on the fourth floor of the Judd Building at the University of Chicago, but that it took an 83-year-old muckraker to expose it.

A friend of mine once house-sat Sahlins’s dog, a Great Pyrenees named Trinket, whom he had the duty of giving a haircut. ‘She’s too old to go to the doggy salon any longer, so, well, you do your best’, Sahlins told him. My friend explained he had no experience. ‘Do your best’, he said. The verdict was hard on his return: ‘Your best wasn’t very good.’ I remember Sahlins more as a presence than a figure. For decades he kept his fire trained tightly on the economics department, that was still in thrall to Stigler and Friedman, but by the time I arrived, he had sawed off the barrel and brought the whole of Western Civilization into range. My home in the classics department was not spared, since certain Ancient Greeks figured as particular villains in his story. To my shame, I barely knew who the author of Apologies to Thucydides was while I was trying to write an undergraduate thesis on Greek historians. But Sahlins was close with my advisor, and once commented that Thucydides’s History was ‘a good book to read against the grain of the war’. I didn’t realize at the time that he was probably referring to Iraq, not the Peloponnese.

Read on: Jacob Collins, ‘An Anthropological Turn’, NLR 78.


A True Fascist

Certain words make you feel like you belong to another time. You think you’re at home in the present, but then you’re forced to think again. For me, one such word is ‘antifa’. For the entirety of my childhood, youth and adult life the term ‘fascist’ was the most injurious of insults: the shortened epithet – ‘fascio’ in Italian, ‘facho’ in French – recalling the similar abbreviation that gives us the word Nazi. Then, all of a sudden, ‘anti-fascist’ became a slur, repeatedly used by Donald Trump as a synonym for ‘left-wing terrorist’. My generation came of age in a ‘republic built on anti-fascism’, where – unlike today – that orientation was taken for granted. Now, the term has become a slogan for the subversive left, most commonly associated with black bloc anarchists, portrayed in the media as the specular image of the alt-right.  

What remains unresolved about this word ‘fascist’, which 76 years after the deaths of Hitler and Mussolini, continues to haunt our political imaginary? When it comes to fascism (and fascists), we struggle to see beyond cinematic representations. I remember the first time I listened to a recording of Goebbels at the film archive in Göttingen: to my great surprise, he didn’t bark! His mellow, judicious tone bore little resemblance to the image of the Nazi grandees spawned by post-war Hollywood. In this century, the figure of the ‘fascist’ has become an archetype. It functions as a damnatio memoriae: a sentencing of the past without appeal, and a plenary absolution of the present. For it’s unthinkable that anyone among us might share the patent mental deficiency of most fictional Nazis and Blackshirts.

The Italian-American historian Victoria de Grazia’s new book, The Perfect Fascist, counters such commonplaces through a cathartic immersion in the past. This dive into the first half of the last century purifies us of many ills – including the idea of a ‘fascist temperament’ or ‘authoritarian personality’. De Grazia sets out to show how ‘fascists are made, not born’: how the ‘decent man’ she takes as her subject wound up leading gangs of thugs and collaborating with the SS. Her book also rids us of a deeper, more insidious conviction: that human beings are normatively average – that being ordinary consists of ‘not deviating from the norm’, rather than understanding normalcy (and mediocrity) as a sum of interacting exceptions. In unravelling these themes, the story De Grazia tells us is emblematic of a certain age, although its plot couldn’t have been dreamed up even by Hollywood’s most twisted screenwriters.

Who could possibly conceive of a story that charts the entangled lives of Attilio Teruzzi, ‘the perfect fascist’, and Lilliana Weinman, the opera diva? Teruzzi, of Milanese origin, was born in 1882. His father was a vintner and his mother’s father worked as a farmer for a family of nobles. In fin de siècle Italy, the army was the only institution that presented an opportunity for social ascent to the young Attilio, who decided to enlist, even if he lacked the means or titles to be admitted to a military academy. He was promptly dispatched to Eritrea, where he succeeded in becoming a quartermaster. His good looks and respect for his superiors earned him a place at the academy at Modena, the Italian equivalent of West Point, Sandhurst or Saint-Cyr. As an officer he participated in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 and the conquest of Libya, where he was wounded, decorated, and hailed back home as a war hero.

During the Great War he conducted himself honourably. He joined the Freemasons and became aide-de-camp to General Giuseppe Vaccari, earning himself a promotion to Major. To illustrate the prospects awaiting officers of his rank after the war – provided they survived trench warfare – it is sufficient to note that the other assistant to General Vaccari at the time was a certain Raffaele Mattioli: later a friend of the renowned economists Piero Sraffa and John Maynard Keynes, CEO of one of the largest financial institutions in Italy (Banca Commerciale), putative saviour of Gramsci’s Quaderni and, after the Second World War, the first to finance Enrico Mattei’s newly founded petroleum company, ENI.

At this point in the narrative, the ‘childhood’ of our protagonist-leader – to paraphrase the title of one of Sartre’s celebrated short stories – is already rife with contradiction. For one thing, how did a Freemason rise to the forefront of a movement, party and regime that decried a global conspiracy of ‘Judeo-Masonic’ origin? (This seems anomalous until we learn that several fascist leaders were, in fact, Freemasons: Italo Balbo, Giuseppe Bottai, Emilio De Bono, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, Roberto Farinacci and Achille Starace, to name just a few. Fascism’s relationship to Freemasonry bore a resemblance to the US military’s policy towards homosexuality: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’.)  

The First World War was a turning point for Teruzzi. The Kingdom of Italy’s victory translated into defeat for Italians, whose opportunities for social mobility were drastically diminished. In this context, fascism would present itself as the only means to ‘elevate’ one’s status. Little by little, our ‘decent man’ became increasingly involved in the movement. At first, he oversaw the brutality of the squadristi against workers’ associations and parties, participating in the March on Rome as a handsome war veteran – fascism’s ‘virtuous face’ – before being implicated in the assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. It was around this time that Teruzzi met Lilliana Weinman in Milan. She was the daughter of Jews from Austrian Galicia that, after emigrating to New York, had made a fortune by ‘patenting a design for elastic trouser belts’. They reinvested their wealth in their daughter’s career: Weinman was a young woman with a burning aspiration to become an opera singer. ‘I feel I will become a great prima donna’, she writes, ‘and a great prima donna’s prerogative is to take, not to give.’

Through Weinman, de Grazia reflects on the relationship between fascism and Jewishness, confronting all the standard cliches. On the one hand, we know of many Jews who adhered to fascism up until the Racial Laws of 1938. To them it was a ‘patriotic’ movement, a check on the growing menace of Bolshevism. Some illustrious German Jewish scientists were driven out by Nazism but would have gladly continued furthering Germany’s ‘glory’ if given the chance. Equally, Italy’s National Fascist Party took an ambivalent view of Jews at least until 1937. For several years, Mussolini’s lover and muse was the Venetian art critic Margherita Sarfatti, who loved him to the point of writing a laudatory account of his life and converting from Judaism to Catholicism (though this did not exempt her from exile once the Racial Laws came into effect). Even Roberto Farinacci, who distinguished himself for his merciless antisemitism, employed and confided in his Jewish secretary Jole Foà, but neither their intimacy nor her convinced fascism could prevent her deportation and ultimate demise at Auschwitz. Weinman – who for many years declared herself a fascist – wasn’t Teruzzi’s only Jewish partner. After parting ways with her he fell in love with the Cairo-born Roman Jew Yvette Blank, with whom he had a daughter. In the final, convulsive months of the war, when the fascist regime amounted to no more than a puppet maneuvered by Kesselring, Teruzzi would do everything to save Blank from the last consignments destined for the camps. It was to the modest lodge she had opened in Procida that he would return in 1950 following his release from prison, before dying in April of that year.

Here another subtext of The Perfect Fascist becomes apparent: the symbolic violence that fascism exercised on women, thematized more thoroughly in another essential book by de Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1920-1945 (1992). A Royal Decree of 1939 outlined the specific roles in the workforce that were suitable for women: typists, telephone operators, stenographers, banknote or ticket counters, shop assistants and seamstresses. Under fascism, school fees doubled for female students and female teachers were prohibited from teaching literature, philosophy and history. But despite the open chauvinism and misogyny of the regime, many women remained unwaveringly loyal. On the eve of WWII, 3,180,000 women were enlisted in the Party’s organizations – many of them in the Fasci femminili (Women’s League). My grandmother was an out-and-out fascist, although after the war she became a professor in a discipline prohibited to women by fascism. My primary school teacher, a middle-aged Jewish lady, still identified as a fascist ten years after the war had ended (by which time her two children had emigrated to the new-born state of Israel).

A further piece of received wisdom dismantled by de Grazia’s work is the monolithic – at times granitic – conception of totalitarian regimes. As she follows Teruzzi’s journey from member of parliament to Deputy Minister of the Interior, from Governor of Cyrenaica to leader of the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party, from Inspector-General in Spain during the Civil War to Minister of the Colonies (even if these were lost by then), de Grazia sketches the intrigues of the regime’s upper echelons: Farinacci’s revolt, attempted conspiracies against the Duce, the contempt ex-generals working for the regime had for its political strategists, the party’s web of internal wiretaps (even its leaders weren’t above suspicion), and the vacillations which many people experienced between the desire to replace an aging ruling class and the thirst for its patronage.

A good portion of the work is dedicated to Africa, where Teruzzi began his military career, and where he returned on two occasions: first as a governor in Libya (1926-28), then as brigadier general of the Blackshirts in the invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. In these chapters we witness the spectacle of an opera singer from New York performing the role of colonial governess paid homage by Bedouin tribes. Africa was where colonialists could vent their lust (note the alliance of racism and machismo in one of colonial Italy’s most famous songs, Faccetta Nera: ‘Pretty black face, beautiful Abyssinian / Wait and see, for the hour is coming! / When we are with you / We shall give you another law, another king’). It was there that Italy pursued its dream of modernity, just as colonialism – in its ‘traditional’ form – was waning. Teruzzi carried out public works in Libya and built roads in Ethiopia, both of which burned through state finances in a striking exemplar of fascist imperialism’s lack of economic rationality. (To think that, at the same time, the Italians in Libya were sitting on oceanic oil reserves which were never exploited).

The abyss that separated the fascist regime’s self-image and Italy’s true position in the hierarchy of world powers is evident from the net result of the counter-insurgency campaign it waged in Libya. At its close in the early 1930s, ‘the army had killed 1,226 rebels, captured 296 rifles, killed 2,844 camels and captured 842, captured 18,070 goats and sheep and killed another 5,050, seized 172 cows and 26 horses’. Evidently, the retributory seizure of camels and goats did not amount to adequate preparation for a World War against the United States.

If the comparison is permissible, Teruzzi could be said to bear some resemblance to Julien Sorel from Stendhal’s The Red and The Black. Sorel exhibits qualities that allow him to clamber from his small town in the Jura to the salons of Paris, but the traits that lead to his rise also limit it, and ultimately contribute to his death. For Teruzzi these attributes were his military experience, his loyalty, his dependability and his mediocrity, which rendered him toothless as a potential rival (Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano considered him ‘mediocre, but loyal, very loyal’). Thanks to these, Teruzzi found a way to the top of the social ladder (the actress Anna Magnani was, for a time, a bridge partner of his). But it was this very fidelity that turned him into an executor, an unbridled accomplice of the regime’s infamies. His personal demise coincided with that of the regime. ‘At the time of the liberation’, De Grazia writes, ‘three or four, or as many as seven “Teruzzis” were lynched’: unfortunate resemblances based on his distinctive beard.

De Grazia makes clear that her story is not a biography: ‘It is a social history of a man who, as he makes his way in the complexity of his political and human relations, often captured from the vantage point of his women, shows us how Italian fascism really worked’. A social history, that is, which helps us to specify exactly what being ‘antifa’ should entail.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘What Is Trump?’, NLR 114.


Scotland’s Manager

On May 6, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) came within 2,000 votes of winning an outright majority at Holyrood, the country’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh. Holyrood’s proportional voting system was designed to discourage majority results. Sturgeon has won every election she has fought as SNP leader – six in seven years. By the time the next Scottish election takes place in 2026, the SNP will have held power at Holyrood for 19 years, more than two-thirds of the total lifespan of the parliament itself. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, Scottish nationalism has become virtually hegemonic. The SNP has no serious electoral rivals; the party draws support from a sizeable cross-section of demographic groups.

Sturgeon is the lynchpin of this success. She has been a member of the Holyrood chamber since it was created, or ‘reconvened’, by the House of Commons, in 1999. She became (de facto) leader of the opposition at the age of 34, deputy first minister and health secretary at 36, and first minister at 44. Journalists have spent the last few months poring over the breakdown of Sturgeon’s relationship with her bitterly estranged former boss and mentor, Alex Salmond. Increasingly, however, Salmond – who ran the Scottish government with Sturgeon as his deputy between 2007 and 2014 – looks like a supporting act in the history of modern Scottish nationalism. His newly established party, Alba, took less than 2 per cent of the vote on May 6.

Sturgeonism blends blandly progressive rhetoric with a nebulous form of big tent politics. Sturgeon grew up, in the 1970s and 80s, in Irvine, a small town on Scotland’s industrial west coast, where the values of post-war British Labourism run deep. Yet she has more in common ideologically with European Christian Democrats like Angela Merkel – and even with North American liberals like Justin Trudeau – than she does with Jeremy Corbyn or Tony Benn. Comparisons have sometimes been made to Tony Blair. But Sturgeon is a technocrat, rooted in Scotland’s devolutionary bureaucracy, and shares none of Blair’s populist instincts, particularly on cultural issues like immigration, citizenship, and assimilation. She has been lauded for her ‘steady’ handling of the Covid crisis and grounds her appeal in a Merkel-esque claim to ‘sound’ public management.

The pivotal moment in Sturgeon’s leadership came after the UK general election in 2015, when the SNP crushed Labour in its Central Belt heartlands, turning staunchly working-class cities like Glasgow into nationalist strongholds. Sturgeon’s campaign pitch was left-wing: more powers for the Scottish Parliament, an end to Conservative austerity, and the abolition of Britain’s Clyde-based nuclear deterrent. (The SNP emerged as a major electoral force in the 1960s and 70s, on the heels of the anti-nuclear folk movement.) Yet once Labour – the SNP’s traditionally dominant rival – had been dispatched, Sturgeon, eager to broaden her coalition, changed tack. Flagship pledges to overhaul Scotland’s historically unequal patterns of land ownership, reform the Gender Recognition Act and replace the Council Tax with a fairer system of local government levies were shelved or watered-down. From then on, Sturgeon – a solicitor by training – governed Holyrood from the centre, pressing her own ultra-cautious, vaguely cosmopolitan identity to the forefront of Scottish national life.

Sturgeon has two overriding goals: to consolidate the SNP’s grip on Scotland’s electoral landscape and to extricate Scotland from Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain. Europe is central to her strategy for independence. Long before the Brexit vote, SNP politicians had been making regular trips to Brussels as part of a ‘para-diplomatic’ push to strengthen Scotland’s continental ties and smooth its future entry into the EU – efforts that have accelerated since 2016. Although the threat of a Spanish veto looms, nationalists are confident that the strategy is working (the Sanchez government has indicated its willingness to allow Scottish membership, while PP politicians have played down comparisons between Scotland and Catalonia). Privately, the SNP continues to reassure EU policymakers that Scotland will be a compliant partner in the European project.

Sturgeon styles herself as a social democrat but runs Scotland through a process of national brokerage that meticulously avoids even the slightest hint of class antagonism. The SNP’s base is disproportionately young and poor. In the run-up to the May election, Sturgeon complemented the sweeping centre-left reforms implemented during the early years of SNP government – the abolition of university tuition fees, free personal care for the elderly, an end to drug prescription charges – with a fresh suite of redistributive policies. The party was now formally committed to the creation of a national care service, she announced, and to doubling weekly welfare payments for Scottish families.

At the same time, business interests frame and inform almost every aspect of her governing agenda. In 2019, investigative journalists at The Ferret revealed that Scottish government ministers had met repeatedly with lobbyists from the tech giant Airbnb to discuss the regulation of so-called ‘holiday lets’, which experts blame for exacerbating shortages of affordable accommodation in Scottish tourism hot spots like Edinburgh. The SNP subsequently teamed up with Tory legislators to dilute proposals aimed at reining in the short-term rental sector. Twelve months later, when Scotland was in the grip of its first Covid surge, housing activists called on Sturgeon to impose a rent freeze in Scottish cities. Instead, the first minister enacted a temporary moratorium on evictions and instructed her finance secretary, Kate Forbes, to set up a multi-million bailout fund for landlords. The fund’s objective was to ‘protect incomes’ in the commercial property market; the income of renters, apparently, did not warrant the same support.

Keen to soften the edges of Scottish separatism, the SNP has run an extensive corporate outreach programme. In 2016, Sturgeon invited Andrew Wilson, head of the Edinburgh PR firm Charlotte Street Partners, to rewrite the economic case for independence along market-friendly lines. And in 2020, she asked Benny Higgins, the ex-CEO of Tesco Bank, to map out Scotland’s fiscal recovery from Covid. Both appointments backfired. Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission report was published in 2018 and recommended a decade of spending constraints post-independence. Meanwhile, in an interview with The Times last summer, Higgins launched an unprovoked attack on environmental campaigners, whom he described as ‘ideological zealots’ determined to ‘throw economic growth and jobs under the bus.’ The outburst was embarrassing for Sturgeon, who has spent huge amounts of time laundering Scotland’s green image on the international stage.

Sturgeon’s preference for tepid managerialism at the expense of structural change has produced some striking policy failures. Inequality in the Scottish education system has remained persistently high throughout her seven-year tenure as first minister, despite a supposedly landmark promise, made in 2015, to eliminate the classroom attainment gap. And Scotland now consistently registers the highest drug-related death rate in Europe, with overdose numbers concentrated in the country’s two most deprived cities: Glasgow and Dundee. (In April, Sturgeon conceded that she had taken her ‘eye off the ball’ with regards to Scotland’s drugs crisis.)

Yet these failures have done nothing to undermine Sturgeon’s popularity or dent the SNP’s electoral dominance. To some extent, Scottish nationalists have been blessed with weak opposition. Faced with 150,000 British Covid deaths, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have set an exceptionally low bar for administrative competence. Labour, meanwhile, remains landlocked by the constitutional divide; unable to ditch its traditional antipathy to independence and equally powerless to stop low-income Scots shifting in large numbers away from the Union.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeonism works because Sturgeon is the ideal devolutionary leader. She has spent her entire parliamentary career at Holyrood, navigating the limits of Scotland’s home rule settlement and pandering to Scottish middle-class anxieties. Independence, as Sturgeon sees it, means the gradual extension of Edinburgh’s legislative autonomy and, eventually, the permanent restoration of Scotland’s place in Europe. As deputy first minister in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, Sturgeon was deployed by the Yes campaign to argue that self-government would barricade Scottish institutions from the worst of Westminster’s austerity reforms. These are the hard boundaries to her political vision. So far, all the evidence suggests that they suit Scottish voters just fine.

Read on: Tom Nairn, ‘Scotland and Europe’, NLR 1/83.


Abandon Ship

In an era of startling novelties, the decline of British Labourism feels like old times. A Labour Party promising ‘a new leadership’ purged of the Corbyn left lost the Hartlepool parliamentary byelection last Thursday to Boris Johnson’s governing Conservatives on a 16 per cent swing. On the adjacent coalfield, Durham County Council slipped from the Party’s control for the first time since 1925. It was one of eight local councils lost by Labour, in local elections which saw the Tories take 36 per cent of the popular vote to Labour’s 29 per cent.

Wales aside, where there was a pandemic-related incumbency bounce for the Labour-run devolved administration, Labour’s ex-industrial heartlands in Outer Britain are one by one abandoning ship. Scottish Labour imploded between 2011 and 2015 as the Nationalists swept the board. It now trails in third place in Holyrood elections behind the unmixedly pro-Union Conservatives. In northern England and the Midlands the red wall fractured along the Brexit divide in 2019, handing Johnson his Commons majority.

To borrow a line from Eric Hobsbawm, the heavy-industrial North East used to be Labour with a capital L. Situated about 25 miles down the coast from the larger Newcastle–Gateshead conurbation, Hartlepool hadn’t returned a Tory to Westminster in decades. New Labour’s Peter Mandelson, a former Hartlepool MP ennobled by Gordon Brown, and lately an unofficial adviser to Starmer’s team, was all over the news on Saturday explaining that Jeremy Corbyn was to blame for its loss. How convincing is that explanation?

Though usually red, Hartlepool has been blue before. A medieval town with a Victorian industrial-port annexe, it was enfranchised by Disraeli’s Tories in 1867 and returned the dockyard developer of modern West Hartlepool, Ralph Ward-Jackson, in the Conservative interest. Afterwards it voted Liberal before turning Conservative in 1924 and Labour in 1945.

The seat reverted to the Tories during the consumer prosperity of the late fifties, but Macmillan threw away his advantage through economic deflation to protect sterling on the currency exchanges. The closure of Hartlepool’s shipyard pushed the local unemployment rate into double figures. Labour regained the constituency only for Callaghan to shutter its state-owned steelworks in 1977 as part of a package of cuts agreed with the IMF to stabilize the pound.

In the early nineties, Blair levered Mandelson into Hartlepool as a safe Labour seat adjoining his own Sedgefield constituency. Discontent broke out in New Labour’s first term after the Bank of England governor, granted freedom to raise interest rates by Brown, agreed with a journalist’s assessment that rising unemployment in the North East was an acceptable price to pay to curb inflation in the South. The chair of the group of northern Labour MPs told the BBC that ‘there are regions of this country that are just being ignored’.

Household incomes in Hartlepool slipped further behind the UK average, and the town’s real unemployment rate stood at 19 per cent. Labour lost control of the borough council in 2000, Mandelson’s election agent among the casualties. A separate mayoral contest was won by a football mascot standing as an independent. Mandelson himself came through unscathed despite two ministerial resignations over corruption allegations. In 2004 Blair parachuted him across to Brussels to become an EU commissioner. Higher public spending had quieted backbench dissent, but Labour was run hard in the byelection contest to replace him by the anti-Iraq War Liberal Democrats.

New Labour is not the beacon of electoral success that Mandelson claims. Through neglect it poisoned its own well. With greater candour than of late, he concluded his 2010 memoir, The Third Man, admitting regret that New Labour hadn’t formulated an active industrial policy before the financial crisis hit.

When the growth stopped we were left without a credible vision of how we would meet people’s concerns about their families’ economic future. This was what made the difference in many of the Midlands seats that we won in 1997, retained in the next two elections, but had now lost. Real disposable incomes were either stagnant or falling by the end of the Parliament. The economy was not delivering sufficient numbers of decently paid, skilled jobs.

One of the local authorities that was subsequently hardest hit by the Cameron government’s spending cuts and welfare restrictions, in 2016 Hartlepool defied it to vote 70 per cent in favour of leaving the European Union. In the pro-Remain big cities, the talk was of pitchforks and a Peasants’ Revolt. Nevertheless, Labour performed strongly in Hartlepool under Corbyn the following year on an anti-austerity ticket, securing 22,000 votes, up from 14,000 under Miliband. In 2019, by contrast, once the Party had strapped Corbyn to a policy of reneging on the referendum verdict, the Conservatives would probably have carried the seat if it hadn’t been for competition on the right from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

‘Hartlepool has always been a working-class town. But it is not a working-class Labour Party anymore’, a first-time Tory voter tells a delighted Telegraph. Only 2 per cent of Labour’s 2017 parliamentary intake came direct from manual occupations while 12 per cent had previously worked as trade-union officials. The larger part consisted of Party workers (38 per cent) and professionals (19 per cent). What was once the Party of Handworkers and Brainworkers, in the Fabian Sidney Webb’s rendering, now overwhelmingly comprises the latter alone.

And what brains. Writing in Unherd last September, Labour life peer Maurice Glasman, founder of the socially conservative Blue Labour tendency, hailed Starmer’s flag-and-families party-conference speech as an electoral game-changer, ‘the first time that Starmer could speak directly to the nation about who he was and what he stood for’:

Labour is under no pressure to develop a manifesto, it needed a general direction of travel, a sense of mission and of vision. A sense of the temper of the man who was leading it. And he seized the opportunity to express the ethics of a profoundly conservative person in a way that no member of the Conservative front bench possibly could.

The complacent Tories were in for a shock, Glasman argued. ‘They can no longer draw comfort from the quiet man who sits alone before them.’ Starmer was poised to take back Labour’s working-class heartlands by tapping their social patriotism. ‘I cannot stress it enough. If you don’t love your country, the red wall will never love you’, explained political consultant Deborah Mattinson, author of Beyond the Red Wall (2020), a focus group compendium. In her own speech to conference, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds pledged Labour to fiscal restraint in contrast to the ‘cavalier’ Rishi Sunak.

Hartlepool represented the first electoral test of this new ideological brew. The campaign was run from on high. Labour’s candidate, Paul Williams, who lost his seat in nearby Stockton in the last election, was reportedly handpicked by Jenny Chapman, Starmer’s political secretary, who lost her own seat in Darlington in 2019. Starmer nominated her for a peerage last year. The Northern Echo characterised Williams as ‘an avid Remainer and second-referendum campaigner’. As if to compensate, Labour headquarters in London were ‘obsessed’ by Union Jacks and the Cross of St. George, a local organiser has complained to the Guardian. ‘There was no fleshing out what the flag means, or what policies have changed because we’re now patriotic. It was just: bung a flag up.’

Meanwhile the Tories, led locally by the 34-year-old mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, focussed on economic development. A latter-day Ralph Ward-Jackson, generously backed by a sympathetic Treasury, Houchen has nationalized the struggling local airport and obtained Free Port tax status for Teesside in a bid to attract corporate investment that he says ‘previously would have wandered off to Holland or Germany’.

On election day, Labour attracted just 9,000 votes, barely half the Conservative total, whose candidate, Jill Mortimer, took 52 per cent of the vote. Houchen secured his own re-election with 73 per cent. The conclusion is obvious: Hartlepool was a defeat for the right in which the right was represented by the leaders of the Labour Party.

Writing in the weekend edition of the Financial Times – more aggressively neo-Blairite than ever under editor Roula Khalaf – Mandelson demands that a sectional mass membership and ‘hard left’ trade-union affiliates be expelled from Labour’s governing counsels. ‘Starmer needs to wipe the slate clean’, he insists. An unnamed party source briefed that the leadership will ‘accelerate the programme of change in our Party’.

In a botched reshuffle, Starmer has appointed as his new shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, an anti-welfare veteran of the Miliband frontbench. Behind the scenes, Deborah Mattinson has been brought in as director of strategy where she joins head of policy Claire Ainsley, author of The New Working Class (2018), overconfidently subtitled How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.  

Labour hasn’t won a general election since the 2008 financial crisis. Is its decline terminal, or will Mattinson and Ainsley ultimately succeed in producing political affinities with estranged working-class supporters under laboratory conditions? Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system props up the debilities of the established parties, as the Conservatives showed after their rout in 1997. Labour remains strong in the big cities where voters have nowhere else to go. The Lib Dems have yet to recover face from the Cameron coalition and the Greens are only just beginning to break through, buoyed by disillusioned Corbynites.

Unless things worsen still further, the Parliamentary Labour Party may yet keep Starmer on as a placeholder against the left until after the next general election. A second northern by-election lies on the immediate horizon, however. No two constituencies are exactly alike, but Labour’s majority in Batley and Spen is under 4,000, and another Tory gain would really set the cat among the pigeons.

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘Revolt of the Rustbelt’, NLR 105.


Blasphemy Wars

Last month, Pakistan witnessed some of the most violent clashes between protestors and security forces in the country’s recent history, which left 6 police officers and 12 protestors dead. The protests were led by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a right-wing religious group that came to prominence defending the ‘honour’ of the Prophet Muhammad after the publication of blasphemous cartoons in France last year. The unrest not only expressed the profound contradictions embedded in the Pakistani state; it also demonstrated the tragic consequences of a weakened internationalist left.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws can be traced back to the competing religious nationalisms of Colonial India. The eruption of a mass anti-colonial movement in the region after the First World War coincided with an increase in political violence among Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities. Known in colonial lexicon as ‘communal tensions’, these clashes tore apart the social fabric of India, leading eventually to the partition of the subcontinent along religious lines in 1947.

In the 1920s, blasphemy became a flashpoint for the growing antagonism between Hindus and Muslims, as Hindu extremist organizations published vitriolic books targeting the prophet Muhammad and the Muslim community. The backlash to these texts – including the murder of a Hindu publisher in 1929 by a young Muslim carpenter, Ilm Din – provided the template for both popular Muslim sentiment on this question and the state’s response to it. Eager to maintain order, the colonial government drew up laws that made intentional insult and injury to other people’s religious beliefs punishable. These were ostensibly meant to provide a legal avenue for resolving disputes between different religious communities, and included protections for ‘reasonable criticism’ of religion. Yet the government aggravated tensions by imposing the death sentence against Ilm Din, turning him into a martyr for many Muslims, who attended his funeral in their thousands.

Following the creation of Pakistan, Islam once again became a political issue, when in 1953 Islamist parties led deadly protests calling for the minority Ahmadiyya community to be officially declared non-Muslim for denying the finality of the Prophet. The government initially refused to bow down to this demand, yet an even larger and more violent movement in 1974 caused Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s administration to capitulate. The legal codification of religion that began in British India was used to exclude an already marginalized community. Three years later, Bhutto’s government was overthrown by General Zia-ul-Haq in a military coup. Zia was backed by the United States in its ‘Jihad’ against the Communist government in Afghanistan. As the military regime clamped down upon leftists and pro-democracy organizations, it revitalized political Islam to shore up support. One of the most glaring examples of Zia’s opportunistic use of religion was the strengthening of blasphemy laws in 1986. The amendments to the law introduced by the dictatorship not only included the death penalty for the crime of blasphemy; they also stated that even if an off-hand remark was interpreted as being blasphemous, it could be punishable by death.

The passing of this law fuelled more accusations of blasphemy, which rose from less than 10 cases between 1947 and 1986 to more than 1,500 cases over the following thirty years. Its ambiguous language allowed people to weaponize such charges in a plethora of private conflicts, including many cases of property disputes. One of the most shocking abuses of the law occurred at a university campus in the city of Mardan in April 2017. Mashal Khan, a journalism student, was organizing against the corrupt practices of the university administration. In response, the university authorities launched a smear campaign against Mashal, accusing him of blasphemy and placing him under official investigation – just one month after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for a decisive crackdown on blasphemous social media posts. As a result, a mob of angry students dragged him out of his room and lynched him while dozens of policemen stood by. A state inquiry later proved that the blasphemy allegations were entirely false. This gruesome incident highlighted the ease with which false accusations could be wielded to eliminate potential opponents.

In 2011, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard for criticizing the blasphemy laws. Mumtaz Qadri, the policeman who killed Taseer in broad daylight, was arrested and hanged in 2016. But he was immediately hailed as a hero by the religious right, who invoked the memory of Ilm Din against the sovereign power of the state. Qadri’s actions gave a renewed impetus to the Islamist movement across the country, which was further strengthened with the emergence of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a wheelchair-bound cleric whose tirades against the West and their subordinates in Pakistan distinguished him from an uninspiring political class. Rizvi formed the TLP in 2015. In a country devastated by foreign interventions, drone strikes and a crumbling economy, his message had immediate cut-through.

The cleric’s moment of triumph arrived in 2017, when it was rumoured that the government planned to remove fidelity to Prophethood from the oath of allegiance undertaken by legislators. This came at a moment of growing tensions between the civilian government led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the country’s military, which had long been conspiring to depose the party and install cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan as Prime Minister. (These machinations were nothing new: the Pakistani military has a long history of destabilizing elected governments through proxies in order to maintain its grip on key political, economic and security decisions.)

Rizvi announced a sit-in in Islamabad over the government’s decision, blocking the main highways for days. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Movement yielded to the pressure and announced its support for the protests. As clashes intensified between police and the protestors, the military leadership stepped in, calling for a ‘truce’ between the two sides. The government was thereby forced into a humiliating capitulation. Over the following days, viral videos emerged of senior military officials handing Rs. 1000 (approx. $7) cheques to each protestor, revealing the covert support for the movement within sections of the security state.  

Since the government’s climb-down in 2017, an emboldened TLP has made further inroads into the country’s political system. In the 2018 elections, the military managed to manufacture a majority for Imran Khan, who displaced the two traditional parties to become the new PM. What received less attention, however, was how the TLP garnered the fourth largest vote share. While Rizvi died of Covid-19 in November 2020, the organization continues to grow in popularity under the leadership of his 26 year-old son, Saad.

The recent clashes can only be understood within this larger history of state-led discrimination. They were triggered by the beheading of the French schoolteacher, Samuel Patty, following accusations of blasphemy. The incident, along with the consequent rise in Islamophobia in France, became the focal point for demands by TLP to expel the French ambassador. In November 2020, as TLP protestors once again blocked major highways, Imran Khan signed an agreement with TLP, accepting their central demand and promising to discuss the matter in parliament.

This was a delaying tactic intended to diffuse a potentially explosive situation, but the decision came back to haunt the government when Saad Rizvi announced a ‘Long March’ in April 2021 to enforce the terms of their agreement. While Khan had previously used the TLP as a tool for blackmailing political opponents, the party’s hardline nationalism was now threatening the interest of the country’s ruling elite, which is dependent on foreign loans and Western military equipment. As such, the PM gave a televised address explaining that, despite his earlier promises, he would not be expelling the French ambassador. The security forces subsequently arrested Saad Rizvi, prompting street battles between protestors and the police which culminated in over a dozen deaths. In the wake of this chaos, the government decided to ban TLP, designating it a ‘terrorist’ organization.

Yet after almost a week of intense clashes, Khan, whose abrupt policy reversals have earned him the title of ‘U-Turn Khan’, announced another round of negotiations with the TLP. Acknowledging the prevalence of its ideology in parts of the state apparatus, the government decided to release arrested TLP activists and the party was allowed to petition for a review of its ban. It also agreed, for the second time, to bring the resolution to expel the French ambassador to parliament, hoping that lawmakers would reject it.

When the resolution was tabled, the scenes in parliament were like a dark comedy, with nearly all legislators going out of their way to avoid discussing the topic. The supposedly liberal PPP boycotted the session, arguing that the government should have consulted their party earlier, while PML-N, which was the target of TLP’s protests in 2017, condemned the government’s crackdown on the protestors while stopping short of endorsing the expulsion of the ambassador. Even government legislators themselves claimed that they supported the TLP’s demands ‘but not its methods’. Their paralysis highlighted the inability of the country’s traditional political class to challenge an ideologically ascendant far-right.

While this power bloc threatens to go the way of India’s Congress, the public finances are in freefall. The European Parliament recently passed a resolution condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and religious persecution, warning that it could bring the country to its knees by removing its trading privileges. Meanwhile the IMF continues to tighten its stranglehold on the economy. Pakistan signed a punishing $6 billion agreement with the financial institution in 2019 which demanded unprecedented cuts to higher education, privatization of health services and freezing salaries of government employees. For the first time in 70 years, the country has a negative growth rate, while unemployment and inflation continue to skyrocket. The IMF has also directed the country’s policymakers to make its central bank ‘independent’ so as to remove it from democratic pressures.

At the same time, Pakistan is witnessing a mushrooming of popular dissent against the ravaging effects of global capitalism, led by revitalized movements of workers, students, women and ethnic minorities. In November 2019, students in more than 50 cities coordinated mass protests via the Progressive Students Collective, demanding an increase in spending for higher education, restoring student unions (banned by the military dictatorship in 1984) and the establishment of a public holiday in memory of Mashal Khan.

Another organization that has inspired the country’s youth is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), whose young leaders come from the minority Pashtun group. Pashtuns have faced the brunt of the War on Terror in the shape of religious extremism, military operations, drone strikes and enforced disappearances. Now they are fighting back, calling for an end to the militarization of the region and formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hold the Pakistani deep state accountable for its actions. Unsurprisingly, leading members of both the Progressive Students Collective and the PTM are facing sedition charges through a colonial law that can lead to a life sentence for ‘conspiring against the state’.

Pakistan is also seeing a resurgence of labour militancy, as workers’ living conditions continue to deteriorate. Last October, hundreds of government employees staged an ‘IMF Out’ protest in Islamabad to reject the IMF-imposed austerity measures. A month later, farmers from across the province of Punjab organized the largest ever mobilization against the exploitative practices of multinational fertilizer and seed companies. The Khan government responded by firing tear-gas shells at the protestors, one of whom was killed. The event demonstrated the widespread discontent simmering beneath the surface of Pakistani society, as well as the government’s willingness to appease its global creditors by using brute force.

Serious talks are now underway among militants of these movements to form a new political force that could confront the current deadlock and beat back the TLP. The affective power of religion in Pakistan shows that, far from producing ideological homogeneity, capitalist modernity reproduces and accentuates pre-modern symbolisms, which find their clearest expression in populist movements. The decadence of Pakistan’s political culture and the subservience of the state to global powers have created a pervasive paranoia about the threat posed to its native religion and ‘national security’. In the absence of a popular anti-imperialist vocabulary, legitimate criticisms of the West lapse into essentialist binaries which serve the TLP. Public rage is directed towards phantoms, and emancipatory alternatives are foreclosed. Today, many forget that the Muslim world – from Indonesia to Pakistan, Lebanon to Afghanistan – was once home to mass left-wing movements that were systematically crushed by right-wing forces under the tutelage of the ‘enlightened’ West. Now these reactionary Islamist ideologies, supported by the US and its client states, have become Frankenstein’s monsters. Yet, alongside them, a progressive coalition is beginning to re-emerge.  

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Revolutionary Perspectives for Pakistan’, NLR 1/63.


The End of Déby

Of Charles XII of Sweden, who was until 19 April this year the last head of state killed in battle, Voltaire said that he was half-Alexander the Great, half-Don Quixote. While in the trenches of Fredriksten, Norway, a bullet went through his head with the plopping sound of ‘a stone forcefully thrown into the mud’ (according to a witness). Death was instantaneous. Almost equally instantaneous were rumours that enemy fire might not be to blame, especially since the king’s death was followed by a coup d’état and a thorough reform of Sweden’s system of government. Kanem, a desert environment with temperatures averaging 40 degrees, is no Norway, but the demise there of Chad’s president Idriss Déby – reportedly from a bullet wound in the chest – bears a few resemblances to Charles’s Norwegian end. There are the rumours, the bullet wound, and the coup d’état – which is plainly what the rushed succession of Déby’s son Mahamat Idriss Déby is. But the deepest parallel is that, ultimately, Déby was a victim of his belief in the mythology of the warrior king, and in the indispensability of that mythology in what remains the fraying edge of France’s ghost empire in Africa. Déby would never have inspired Voltaire’s quip, but he quixotically saw himself as a Napoleonic Braveheart, a mix of French general and tribal captain. Last August, he anointed himself maréchal du Tchad, symbolically placing himself in the tradition of the maréchaux de France and holding, with a beaming smile, a baton modèle empire (the empire in question is Napoleon’s). But his army is tribal and colonial, not national.

Déby’s career began as part of Chad’s efforts to build a national army, but the country has long had a special bond with that of France. The lands France subjugated at the greatest cost during colonial conquest are typically those where its military’s influence remains strongest, and none took a higher toll than Chad. Commandant Lamy, leader of the French invasion, was killed in battle at Kusseri, in April 1900. Victory there only opened the way for further battles against the highly militarised northern tribal chiefs and sultans, who had easy access to firearms supplied by their putative sovereigns, the Ottoman Turks. It took France two decades to finally assume control, littering the land with ‘here…a Colonel, there a Captain or Lieutenant or an Adjutant, a Sergeant-Major, a Sergeant or a humble Corporal, buried under the sands of the Sahara’, to quote a litany from the British missionary Dugald Campbell. The military imprint was also onomastic. The French-built capital was named Fort-Lamy; Sahr, the country’s third largest city, used to be Fort-Archambault; and the oasis town of Faya was rebaptised Largeau, from the name of the conqueror of Borkou and Tibesti. Just a few years after it was considered ‘pacified’, Chad became the military base of the Free French. The Leclerc division which flew the tricolour on Hitler’s Berghof in May 1945, had left from here with 3000 African troops and 55 French officers. As a result of this feat, Leclerc was the leading figure in the final cohort of the maréchaux de France.

Chad became independent in 1960, though the French army did not relinquish control of its northern provinces until four years later. By then, Déby, born into the warlike desert tribe of the Zaghawa, where men must at all times carry a dagger, was entering his teens. The French military played a key role in the reckless administration of the area by southern Chadians. For many centuries, people in what became southern Chad were preyed upon by northern slavers who established their states on wealth from trade with the Middle East. But for French colonialism, the humid south was the ‘useful Chad’, where school education was expanded and from which administrative aides were recruited. In this vision, the north was a realm of restless nomads and fanatical Islam (in fact, the faith only became hegemonic there in the 20th century) where civilian rule and Western education had no place.

Inevitably, at independence power of administration devolved to the south. Chad’s first president, François Tombalbaye, was inextricably a southern nationalist, colonial collaborationist, and Chadian patriot. In these conditions, civilian rule in the north proved a perverse form of homegrown colonialism. A year after the French lifted their boot, the north revolted. A report which Tombalbaye commissioned from French experts, after a French intervention confronted the insurgency, exposed the extent of the ineptitude and insensitivity of southern administrators. Among other egregious details, the report revealed that women were disrobed and paraded in public and men fined for not cutting their beards, in juvenile attempts at imposing southern cultural norms. Tombalbaye mended fences, released political prisoners, and appointed a government half-composed of Muslims. Faced with France’s failure to quell the rebellion, he radically changed his foreign policy, broke diplomatic ties with Israel and brokered an entente with Sudan and Libya that cut the northern rebels off from their foreign bases and supplies. The rebels shrank from a threat to a nuisance.

Tombalbaye also became convinced that the solution to Chad’s problems lay in cultural renovation and threw himself into the building of ‘Tchaditude’ (‘Chadness’), a sense of national identity that embraced ‘African authenticity’ and rejected Christianity and Islam. That’s when Fort-Lamy became N’Djamena, and Fort-Archambault, Sahr. Tchaditude especially appalled Christians, until then a solid base of Tombalbaye’s regime, and it had no discernible impact on the country’s disintegrating economy. Tombalbaye was killed by a band of gendarmes in April 1975. Within a week, one of the perpetrators gloated on Radio Tchad that the slain president had paid ‘mercenaries’ to watch them, when in fact the mercenaries were working for them. The transparent allusion was to Camille Gourvenec and Pierre Galopin, former French military officers who headed Tombalbaye’s secret police, known as ‘N’Djamena’s Gestapo’. Gouvernec and Galopin had multiple loyalties, including to the French state.

Déby had begun training at the national military academy the year of the coup against Tombalbaye. The following year, he was sent to a castle in French Flanders to receive instruction as a military pilot. One day at the school’s cafeteria, a Chadian trainee had a fit of madness and attacked, dagger out, two of his Tunisian schoolmates. There was some bloodletting, but disaster was averted after Déby lunged at the attacker and subdued him. The attacker was expelled from France, and the peace-maker had to turn in his own dagger. But he had been noticed. Back in Chad, the post-Tombalbaye era had descended into a civil war between ‘Sudists’, under President Felix Malloum, and ‘Nordists’ under rebel chiefs Goukouni Weddeye and Hissein Habré. This wrecked the already tattered Chadian state, which was branded ‘un État néant’ by Jeune Afrique, the Francophone weekly of record on African affairs. (The phrase evidently stung, because Déby recalled it in his last interview with Jeune Afrique, forty years later, in November 2019). It also shifted the balance of power to the north. When Déby returned to Chad in 1979, he was co-opted by Habré who put him at the helm of the northern armies. But if the Francophile Déby’s position reflected French influence, Habré saw himself as the man of the Americans.

Taking advantage of the mayhem, Colonel Gaddafi had invaded a northern stretch of Chadian territory, the ‘Aozou Strip,’ over which he claimed Libyan sovereignty. The Reagan administration resolved to ‘bloody the nose of mad dog Gaddafi’ (in the words of Secretary of State Alexander Haig) and put up their first covert operation – before Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the Contras in Nicaragua – to bring Habré to power. Ultimately, it was French military support that secured the victory against Gaddafi. But for his own grasp on power, Habré relied on a ‘Gestapo’ trained by the Americans which proved far more lethal than Tombalbaye’s. Déby was at first a mainstay in that apparatus of control and repression, but its tribal structure made it inherently untrustworthy from the vantage of the man at the top. Loyalty to the putative nation-state, of the kind which Tombalbaye had sought to foster with Tchaditude, had failed to supersede allegiance to a tribe or a clan within a tribe (Habré himself is a Tubu Daza). As a result, a paranoid Habré lashed out all around him in what looked like genocidal mania, and stoked the very rebellions he dreaded would materialise. Moreover, he imprudently posed as an Americanophile in spite of having invited back the French military. Solidly implanted via the anti-Libyan Operation Manta that morphed into Operation Épervier in 1986, the French army was there to stay. Indeed, Operation Épervier was never terminated, simply segueing into the current ‘anti-terror’ Operation Barkhane. Meanwhile, Déby, who Habré once sought to defang by consigning him to a diplomatic sinecure in Paris, joined a movement of armed dissidents that trekked to Darfur, in western Sudan, and attacked the Habré regime from bases there. Shorn of French support and with the fickle Americans gone, Habré decamped to Senegal and Déby took power in December 1990.

To fully get rid of Habré, Déby mounted a commission that was given free rein to investigate the atrocities perpetrated under him. The official report, which established that upwards of 40,000 people had died in Chad’s gaols between 1982 and 1990, started a long-haul process against Habré – the Senegalese state strenuously resisted getting involved – which finally succeeded in the 2010s. But if the investigation-cum-report stoked hopes that Déby would be a different kind of ruler, disillusionment was swift. Deaths in prison, unrestrained police brutality, torture, ‘compulsory disappearances’ (the phrase is used by human-rights advocates) and other features of the Habré tyranny were soon restored. Compulsory disappearances are the result of inadvertent deaths occasioned by torture, when the damaged body becomes an embarrassment for the regime. This was apparently the fate of Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, not seen since his arrest in 2008. The charismatic leader of the Party for Liberties and Development was respected across the country, and Déby held a bitter grudge against him after they fell out in the late 1990s.  

With Déby, the French had struck gold in Chad, or at least something that looked like it. Déby did not have the dreams of Tombalbaye, which ended up making the man impossible to ‘handle’, and unlike Weddeye and Habré he knew how to live with French control. If the democratisation of the 1990s was an opportunity to resume the task of building a sense of national belonging, this time through participatory rather than authoritarian methods, Déby was not one to seize it. His vision of Chad, shaped by his political experience, was cynically tribalist; democratic formalities merely looked like a way to fake legitimacy and get the necessary winks from the ‘international community’. This approach led him into the same impasse as Habré, and brought about similar rebellions. But the French always stuck by him and saved his skin more than once.

What did France gain in tirelessly propping up a dictator against the aspirations of his people? Such interests are at first sight hard to perceive. They are certainly not economic. Even when Chad became an oil producer in 2003, the players were US companies Exxon Mobil and Chevron, paired with Malaysia’s Petronas. The main explanation is instead that Chad is a prized chasse gardée of the military lobby within the French state, and that this accords with the Élysée’s belief that the French empire somehow survives in Africa in the form of ‘strategic interests’ and ‘responsibilities.’ It is this combination that led, for example, to French support of Hutu supremacists in the Rwandan genocide of 1993-94, even though France had no tangible interests in Rwanda. The only comparable situation is that of Russia in the lands formerly included in the USSR. Like many a Francophone strongman, Déby understood and fully exploited the equation.

But Chad is unlike any other Francophone post-colony, in that military and rebel violence have become the principal mode of political action. For most Chad specialists, this culture of violence must be traced back to the slave economy and to colonial militarism, but it was certainly at an unusually high point in the years when Déby entered the political fray. Déby mastered that culture, or so he thought. His thirty-year reign gave him the stability needed for the building of a Chadian army, if one of a very peculiar cast. Recruitment is national, but leadership is tribal, and is steeped in the mythology of the warrior figure rather than the professional soldier. The result is a brutally efficient fighting force, especially when deployed in fields of action where such an ethos is absent. In this way, Chad’s military became something of a glorified mercenary legion at the service of the French in their ‘anti-terror’ crusade in the Sahel, but also of central African despots and warlords.  

In March-April 2020, Déby enjoyed the glory bestowed on his leadership of a punitive expedition against Boko Haram, in the Lake Chad region. There he won his marshal baton, and perhaps gained a thirst for more such action. The rebel column that descended from Libya, ducking French drone surveillance by skirting into Nigerien territory and emerging in Kanem, looked like an opportunity for that. He may not have known Dugald Campbell’s litany, and did not think a dead marshal might be added to it.

The men who killed Déby in a barren field 400 km from his capital are members of the Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad (FACT), which reportedly has benefited from the largesse of Libya’s strongman Khalifa Haftar. They claim to be Chadian patriots. In propaganda dispersed on social media, they affirm that the trigger for their attack was Déby’s decision to remain in power for life, nullifying Chad’s democracy. They explained that the true target must be France, and the final objective, freedom. They referenced similar situations in other Francophone countries, and called for an anticolonial rising.

As if in response, Emmanuel Macron, who flew in to salute a ‘true friend of France’, vowed ‘not to let anybody put into question or threaten today or tomorrow Chad’s stability and integrity.’ In a country that has been the definition of instability for its entire history, the word ‘Chad’ is a tag for the Déby regime. In 2017, at Déby’s request, France had frozen the assets of Mahamat Mahdi Ali, the leader of FACT, branding the man – a French-trained jurist, economist and long-time member of France’s Socialist Party – a terrorist. It must now help the nascent regime of Déby Junior get its bearings, which implies supporting a manhunt into adjacent far east Niger, where the ‘terrorist’ has retreated. As events unfold, one should keep in mind this is Tubu territory, and Mahdi Ali and most of his followers are Tubu. And there is the intriguing fact that last year, a similar Tubu-led politico-military group, the Union of the Patriotic Forces for the Rebuilding of the Republic, emerged in this part of Niger with an equivalent message of revolt against the perpetuation of single party rule in that country by means of fishy elections. But with the repressive apparatus in their hand and the firm backing of the French, there is little chance that such militarised but distant appeals to democracy will frighten rulers in the two countries into opening the political arena. Déby’s end will be seen simply as a lesson about what not to do. 

Read on: Augusta Conchiglia, ‘Ghosts of Kamerun’, NLR 77.