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Profits Before People

At the court of Vicenza, a small, well-to-do town in the northern Italian region of Veneto, a trial has just begun whose significance resounds well beyond its provincial setting. At stake, in fact, is one of the most expansive industrial contamination cases Europe has ever seen. Miteni, a chemical manufacturer based in the foothills of the Venetian Alps, faces prosecution for repeatedly – and over a period of several decades – disposing of toxic substances in the streams and rivers adjacent to its plant. Chemicals have gradually permeated the soil around their manufacturing site, accumulating in groundwater and flowing into aqueducts that serve some twenty municipalities in three different regional provinces. A population of around 350,000 unknowingly ingested poison for years – a veritable example of mass contamination, the latest in a growing catalogue of cases.

It is not just the size of the population involved that renders this trial unique (to give a sense of scale, imagine poisoning the entire population of Cardiff). Veneto is one of Italy’s most prosperous regions; its rolling hills, dotted with vineyards and Renaissance villas, even out into more populated plains to the south where factories, shopping centres, warehouses and motorways are the more usual features of the landscape. For years, the whole of northeast Italy has been a paragon of Italian economic success.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of this case relates to the chemicals under scrutiny: perfluoroalkylated substances, known as PFAS; an acronym all too familiar in Veneto of late, though it remains obscure to many.

Invented in the 1940s, PFAS names around 4000 distinct compounds, assembled by combining specific quantities of fluorine and carbon, and classified according to molecular length. In 1949 the American firm 3M patented two chemicals, known as PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) – ‘long’ molecules with water and grease resistant properties. In 1951, DuPont acquired PFOA, using it as a foundation for its signature Teflon product. PFAS’s versatility proved almost limitless: in Italy, for instance, textile manufacturers Marzotto began importing 3M’s PFOA in 1965, facilitating their entry into the emerging market for waterproof materials. Today, PFAS can be found in non-stick pans, plastic plates and food packaging. They’re used to waterproof leather, in fabrics branded as Goretex or Scotchgard, in fire-fighting foams, clingfilm products, and countless other everyday items.

The harm these substances cause is by now beyond question. Scientific literature on the matter abounds; an EU directive published in 2006 classified PFOS as ‘persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic’. Since 2009, the chemicals have been subject to restrictions according to the terms of an international treaty known as the Stockholm Convention, and in 2016 the International Agency for Research on Cancer identified PFOA as a possible cause of renal and testicular cancer.  

A closer look at the history of PFAS requires us to leave the Venetian hills momentarily and take a detour through the United States – West Virginia, to be precise. From as early as the 1960s, both 3M and DuPont were aware of the potential danger posed by perfluoroalkylated substances. In 1961, DuPont’s researchers observed that the chemicals caused significant swelling to the livers of rats, rabbits and dogs. In 1978, also at DuPont, high concentrations of PFOA were discovered in employees’ blood; it was subsequently noted that a number of workers overseeing the production of Teflon had given birth to infants with defects of the eye. Six years later, the company recorded significant quantities of PFOA in the drinking water used around its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. But none of these studies was ever disclosed to the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They were merely added to an increasingly unsettling cache of company secrets.

It is largely thanks to the residents of Parkersburg that this information is now available. In the early 2000s they began denouncing DuPont, noticing that it had been dumping contaminants directly into the Ohio River. A lengthy legal battle followed these initial accusations, thanks in part to the efforts of tenacious environmental lawyer Robert Billot. DuPont ultimately agreed to settle the matter by paying over $300 million in damages to its neighbours. It was also fined $16.5 million – the most onerous sanction ever issued by the EPA – for withholding information that proved the chemicals’ toxicity and the firm’s own malpractice in handling them.

Arguably the most notable outcome of the litigation was the establishment of the first epidemiological laboratory dedicated to the study of the effects of PFOA exposure. Between 2004 and 2011 the EPA monitored 70,000 people who lived in the environs of the Parkersburg plant. Researchers now seem convinced of a relationship between PFAS and tumours of the testicles and kidneys, thyroid disorders, and various other diseases which, incidentally, are also being observed among the inhabitants of the Venetian provinces more recently in the spotlight.

The Miteni scandal is thus the second case of mass contamination by PFAS that has come to the attention of the public. In Veneto, however, the population in question is five times as numerous as in West Virginia. Considering the pervasiveness of the substances at issue, one can only wonder how many similar cases might emerge. In 2004 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) began investigating the presence of PFAS in the continent’s river basins. The final report, published two years later, revealed the Po as the most polluted by some margin, adding that notable quantities of PFAS were also present in the most populated river basins in the United Kingdom. Whilst the Thames had shown lower than average emission rates compared to other European rivers, its concentration levels were amongst the highest.

The report forced the Italian Ministry of the Environment to commission an investigation from the National Research Council, which identified the levels of PFAS in Veneto’s rivers as the most alarming. It was at this point that the local Environmental Protection Agency was able to identify Miteni’s plant as the source of the PFAS emissions. Their investigation, published in 2013, was the first public revelation of widespread PFAS contamination in northern Italy.

The point we can’t lose sight of is that the plant had been operating since 1965. Back then it was known as Rimar, short for Ricerche Marzotto. It had begun producing PFOA for its parent company’s textile business, but the demand for the newly-invented compounds was such that in a short period of time the firm transitioned from textiles to the production of intermediate components for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. In 1988 Marzotto sold the chemical plant to a partnership between Mitsubishi and the Italian company Enichem (giving the firm its current name, Miteni). The latter ultimately offloaded its stake in 1996, and in 2009 Mitsubishi sold the plant for the symbolic sum of  €1 to the International Chemical Investors Group (ICIG), an investment fund based in Luxembourg.

In all this time, contempt for environmental safety at Miteni remained constant, regardless of its ownership. For half a century it continued to spew chemicals without much afterthought, often using the industrial park the plant itself was built on as a dumping ground. Groundwater disperses at an average speed of 1.2 kilometres per year; as time elapses the contaminated area therefore expands. By now, the zone at highest risk reaches towns and villages within 40km of the plant.  

Admittedly, few ever paid attention to the issue during the 1960s and 70s. There would be accidents every once in a while, after which everything seemed to return to normal. As a testament of this routine, the older generation of residents here remember how the river Agno was often tinted with the pigments used by Marzotto by the time it reached towns and villages downstream from its factory in Valdagno.

That Marzotto operated unchallenged for years was not coincidental. In the decades following the Second World War, industrial development was the absolute priority for the European economy; Italy in particular was emerging from a history of backwardness and rural poverty. Between the 1950s and 1970s the steel, chemical and automobile industry transformed the country into an industrialized nation. Factories employed millions of people, creating a middle and working class accustomed to a certain quality of life. The toll of this wellbeing on the environment was hardly on the agenda. This is not a purely Italian story; the same occurred in Europe, Japan and the Americas. Pollution was visible, of course, but was considered collateral damage – a price worth paying for prosperity. Earth, water and air were entirely conceded to industry, bequeathed without obligations. Unions were preoccupied with altogether different questions: wages, the redistribution of income and social security. Only later did the environment – and its obvious connection public health – become a point of contention.  

Even when emission regulations became more stringent in the decades that followed, many firms continued to circumvent them. In the case of Miteni, the court’s findings reveal that between 1990 and 2009, Mitsubishi commissioned numerous investigations into the plant they had acquired in Veneto, knowing as a result that underneath it lay numerous pollutants, including PFAS. But just as DuPont had done, it chose not to disclose this to public health agencies – a cover-up that constitutes one of the charges the company will have to answer for in court.

Yet the presence of PFAS in Veneto’s drinking water would never have reached public attention – nor perhaps even a court of justice – if it hadn’t been for the pressure mounted by local residents. When the scandal was revealed in 2013 local authorities ran for cover, installing new filters in its aqueducts to mitigate the risks. The regional government ordered Miteni to install barriers to contain the toxic refuse, and to plan a comprehensive drainage operation around the site of its plant (the former injunction was respected only partially, and regarding the latter a project has yet to materialize eight years on). It also imposed lower than average limits on the presence of PFAS in drinking water, sparking an altercation with national authorities who at the time hadn’t even registered the issue. Locals might have thought the nightmare was over; only after a number of years did they realise this was far from the case.

Whilst it might be clear today that PFAS have caused an environmental and public health disaster of dizzying proportions, breaking the silence surrounding the case has proved no easy task. A handful of doctors from the Italian national health service were the first to notice startling rates of illness amongst workers and the general public in the affected region, leading local environmental associations to begin researching potential causes. After a randomised survey of local residents revealed disturbing levels of PFAS in the blood of the adult population, small civic initiatives and public assemblies began convening, along with the first protests in front of Miteni’s offices.

Under pressure, the regional health body initiated its first ‘health surveillance plan’ for residents of the most contaminated zone born between 1951 and 2002, beginning with the younger section of the population. In the first months of 2017 families in the province of Vicenza discovered that their children had quantities of PFOA in their blood up to ten or twenty times those considered safe. It was therefore possible to conclude that despite the installation of new filters, water remained unsafe to drink. Nobody had thought to inform locals of this.

For the inhabitants of the small Venetian province this came as a shock. It was only then that many discovered that those unpronounceable, colourless substances were suspected carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, with the capacity to interfere with hormones, affecting growth, development and reproduction. A group named ‘Mothers Against PFAS’ quickly formed; an association of parents representing their poisoned teenagers. They began studying chemistry and collecting data relevant to their growing case against Miteni. ‘The more we studied’, one of them recalls, ‘the more our rage grew.’

Somewhat paradoxically, Miteni continued its operations throughout this whole period. To be sure, it no longer produced the now incriminated PFOA and PFAS; it had, however, moved onto a new group of perfluoroalkylated compounds with shorter molecules known commercially as C6O4 or GenX. Several studies indicate that the latest generation of PFAS are no less harmful than their predecessors, even if official regulations have yet to provide clarity. Regardless, between 2014 and 2017 Miteni extracted GenX from wastewater imported from plants owned by Chemour (DuPont’s successor) in the Netherlands, until local authorities there warned the Italians of the potential risks involved. Shortly thereafter Miteni declared bankruptcy.

It is now clear that both the initial Japanese group and the subsequent proprietors from Luxembourg continued to produce PFAS at the plant up until they could guarantee handsome profits, without spending a penny on shielding the neighbouring population from the consequences of production. Then, as regulations became more and more demanding, and having squeezed all possible returns from the plant, they let it go under, dumping the cleaning costs onto the local community.  

This is precisely what makes the case of this small province in Veneto paradigmatic. A single thread ties DuPont to the Italian textile industry, Japanese investors and speculators in Luxembourg. Binding them is the toxic logic of profit; disdain for the safety of workers and the sacrifice of collective well-being at the altar of immediate, maximised gain. 

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti

Read on: Sharachandra Lele’s contribution to NLR’s eco-strategy debate.

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AMLO’s Austerity

In Mexico as elsewhere in Latin America, yawning inequalities and a fragile public healthcare system have exacerbated the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. But one area where Mexico clearly stands out is in the limited scale of the government’s economic response. While other countries in the region rolled out substantial stimulus measures last spring – ranging in size from 7 per cent of GDP in Chile and Peru to 2 per cent in Argentina – the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced additional spending totalling only 0.7 per cent of GDP. Long decried by the Western establishment press as a dangerous ‘populist’, the Mexican president has now earned the rare distinction of being taken to task in the same circles for not spending enough money.

López Obrador’s fiscal restraint may seem surprising, but it is entirely in keeping with his government’s policies: since taking office just over two years ago, he has implemented one austerity measure after another. In summer 2018, AMLO – he is universally known by his initials – won the Mexican presidency in a landslide, and the coalition led by his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), secured comfortable majorities in both chambers of Congress. The result signified not only the defeat of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but a broader collapse in support for the country’s established political forces. AMLO’s ascent also seemed to promise a dramatic overhaul of Mexican politics – an ambition summed up in his vow to bring about what he dubbed the ‘Fourth Transformation’ (‘4T’): a twenty-first-century refashioning comparable to the Independence struggle, the mid-nineteenth-century liberal reforms overseen by Benito Juárez, and the Mexican Revolution.

Yet the methods for achieving this have come as a shock to many. They range from mass layoffs to swingeing cutbacks in education and healthcare; from slashed arts and science funding to raffling off the presidential plane. When AMLO announced the ‘end of neoliberalism’ in March 2019, he was implementing cuts of a kind not seen under his most neoliberal predecessors. That November, the Mexican Congress approved a ‘Federal Republican Austerity Law’, legally enshrining fiscal discipline as a cornerstone of state administration. This agenda has raised many hackles domestically, and prompted concerns about whether such a government can be deemed remotely progressive. His actions in other areas – an embrace of the army, conservative rhetoric around the family, hostility towards recent feminist mobilizations, deployment of troops against migrants at the behest of US – have deepened the widespread sense of disappointment, even betrayal, created by his economic programme.

This obsessive pursuit of austerity seems to conform to the disastrous pattern of ‘consolidations’ that followed the global financial crisis of 2008–09. Yet AMLO’s brand differs from the global model of the 2010s in three intertwined respects. Firstly, la austeridad republicana has long been a part of AMLO’s political project, which itself needs to be understood as an attempt to revive the energies of Mexico’s long-lost revolutionary nationalism. Secondly, AMLO’s austerity aims to remake the Mexican state in a way that distinguishes it from the neoliberal variant. Thirdly, however, the horizons for that ambition are limited by the tightening constraints of Mexico’s fiscal framework over the past forty years. As well as creating turbulence for his administration in the short term, his commitment to austerity should prompt more searching questions about just what kind of transformation is being carried out.

While the 4T is in many respects novel, its character owes much to the formative matrix for AMLO’s political career. A native of the oil-rich coastal state of Tabasco, AMLO once proudly described its politicians as products of its abundant tropical environment. ‘Here everything blossoms and overflows’, he wrote in El poder en el trópico (2015), a four-volume history of the state’s politics, observing that ‘in line with our surroundings, we Tabascans don’t know how to pretend.’ A combative campaigner, AMLO has a reputation for single-mindedness as well as a stubborn, contrarian streak. Though he went to university in Mexico City, he was raised in Tabasco, and his political baptism came when he returned there to work on the 1976 senatorial campaign of the poet Carlos Pellicer. By this time he had joined the PRI, and served in various state-level government posts over the following years. While AMLO’s pride in his patria chica is not unusual, it isn’t complemented by the kind of internationalism that shaped much of the Mexican organized left; nor does he share the Mexican elite’s attachment to the US. He is a politician with resolutely national horizons.

The conjuncture of the late 1970s is crucial for understanding AMLO’s outlook. This was a moment when the PRI, flush with petrodollars, expanded spending and made rhetorical gestures towards the radical reforms carried out under Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s. But the pile-up of debt left the country vulnerable to external shocks, and the combination of collapsing global oil prices and the US hike in interest rates provoked a downward economic spiral. The peso crisis of 1982 ushered in a new era of macroeconomic sobriety, and simultaneously laid bare the hollowness of the PRI’s promises. These developments set down some important parameters for AMLO’s subsequent political evolution. On the one hand, they only deepened his aversion to debt, seen as undermining sovereignty and paving the way to national humiliation; on the other, they bequeathed a desire to make good on the many failures of the PRI’s developmentalism. In the aftermath of the peso crisis Mexican policymakers adopted a fiscal discipline that has remained largely in place under every subsequent administration.

If the late 1970s and early 1980s were formative for AMLO, it was only in the new century that his political project really took shape, after he was elected jefe de gobierno of Mexico City in 2000. In the interim, the country’s political economy had been entirely remade: in the 1990s Mexico underwent one of the most accelerated downsizings of the state’s economic role ever enacted. The PRI’s Carlos Salinas sold off 150 state-owned firms from 1988 to 1994. This eradicated the final vestiges of developmentalism, bringing a spike in inequality along with a new class of oligarchs. It also meant a drastic reduction in the state’s revenue base, without any compensating efforts to increase the tax take. This combination – low public investment and limited powers of taxation – has hamstrung the Mexican state ever since, making investment programmes more difficult to envisage and further tightening the noose of fiscal discipline.

During his tenure as the capital’s jefe de gobierno from 2000 to 2005, AMLO presented himself as an alternative to the reigning neoliberal consensus. He implemented a number of social programmes that drew comparisons with the then-nascent Pink Tide, and displayed a taste for mega-projects in an older priísta mould: most notably the construction of a second storey for the vast concrete motorway ringing Mexico City. Both the redistributive measures and the showy infrastructure were also a form of publicity for his presidential ambitions. What kind of agenda would AMLO seek to implement on a national scale?

In 2004, AMLO laid out a blueprint for government in Un proyecto alternativo de nación: hacia un cambio verdadero. While such documents are often forgettable, in this case there are remarkable continuities between the AMLO of the 2000s and that of the present. Many of the motifs of the 4T were already formed in 2004, including ‘the poor first’ – itself an echo of Liberation Theology’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ – and the conception of the oil sector as the ‘lever of national development’. Also present was the conviction that ‘it would not make sense to change the macroeconomic framework’, with an accompanying call for low inflation and fiscal discipline.

Yet more striking still is the emphasis AMLO laid on ‘republican austerity’, defined here as ‘not only an administrative issue but one of principles’. Harking back to the personal probity of Benito Juárez, AMLO insisted that ‘it is impossible to imagine a rich government with a poor people’ – words that have now become one of the catchphrases of the 4T. While stressing the need for honest and committed public servants, he outlined measures designed to ‘reduce the cost of government for the benefit of society’: trimming bureaucratic excess to make state spending more efficient. In Mexico City, he claimed, public works and anti-poverty measures were achieved without adding to the cost of debt servicing. For AMLO, austeridad was a way of squaring the circle of fiscal discipline and state-led social and economic development – not a narrow budgetary policy, but a whole philosophy that combined honesty, equity and sovereignty in a virtuous cycle.

Central to the idea of austeridad republicana was an impulse to reshape the Mexican state. While neither the attachment to fiscal discipline nor the expansive anti-poverty agenda were new, the idea of furthering both goals at the same time through a slimming down of the bureaucratic apparatus was. Although AMLO’s project might be termed neo-Cardenista – in particular his obsession with reviving the fortunes of PEMEX, the company formed when Cárdenas nationalized oil in 1938 – his plan for the state ran in the opposite direction: not an expansion, but a contraction. He believed that the Mexican state as currently constituted was geared neither to promoting national growth nor serving the poor, and that these goals would be better served by streamlining its apparatus. While such a programme might fit with neoliberal moves to prune back the state, it is important to note the difference in motives: whereas ‘structural reforms’ have generally been part of a class project to redistribute incomes upwards, AMLO’s austeridad avowedly aims to transfer more resources directly to the poor.

AMLO’s presidential ambitions were thwarted in 2006 when the country’s electoral authorities awarded a fraudulent victory to Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN), and blocked again in 2012 when he finished a clear second to the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto. By the time the avalanche of 2018 finally took him to the presidency, the country had been shattered by the ‘War on Drugs’ and demoralized by widespread corruption and deepening inequalities. But while much has changed in Mexico since 2004, AMLO’s approach remains consistent, as evidenced by his continued attachment to daily 7am press conferences and colossal infrastructure projects such as the ‘Tren Maya’, whose plan to cut through indigenous lands has drawn vociferous opposition.

The cutbacks AMLO has enacted since taking office are also consonant with his earlier blueprint. They have not simply taken the form of budgetary reductions – though there have been plenty of those, including ‘voluntary’ pay cuts of up to 25 per cent for state functionaries. He has also assailed the bureaucratic apparatus, announcing in April 2020 that he would abolish ten sub-Secretariats within different government ministries. At the same time, he removed many of the conditions previously attached to Conditional Cash Transfer programmes, preferring to pay recipients directly. While education spending has been slashed, a larger proportion of it now goes to programmes giving cash grants to families with children in school. The goal here is both to reduce spending and to remove layers of bureaucratic mediation between state and populace. AMLO’s fiscal policy has also been framed as a campaign against corruption, turning off the financial taps in much the same way as he clamped down on huachicoleros, thieves siphoning petrol from PEMEX pipelines, at the beginning of his presidency.

The contours of austerity AMLO-style help to explain the gap in domestic responses to it. The establishment media, intelligentsia and cultural elites have condemned the cuts from several angles (and with varying degrees of bad faith), joined by swathes of the middle classes in the capital and elsewhere. But AMLO’s overall approval ratings remain at around 60 per cent, despite his erratic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Lack of testing has obscured its true scale in Mexico, but the toll is undoubtedly among the most severe in the region. In June 2020 AMLO announced that a ‘clean conscience’ was the best defence against the virus; on 24 January, he revealed that he himself had contracted it.) Some of his sustained popularity is due to his administration’s early economic success: in its first year, labour incomes rose by close to 6 per cent, more than double the increase achieved in the whole of Peña Nieto’s presidency, with a still more marked rise of 24 per cent among the poorest 20 per cent of workers. It also seems plausible that the cutbacks have not (or not yet) affected the broad mass of the population. And while budget reductions continue, the number of beneficiaries of government social programmes has increased, from 13 million under Peña Nieto to 21 million now.

In historical perspective, what is perhaps most distinctive about AMLO’s project is his total disinterest in courting the Mexican middle class, the cultural elite and intelligentsia, whom he has at times actively goaded. Where previous administrations would have carried out comparable cutbacks, neither the PRI nor the PAN would have antagonized these constituencies, who after all included their social peers as well as the media arbiters of their political fortunes. The same is not true of AMLO, who is confident – perhaps overly so – that his power base lies elsewhere.

Yet AMLO’s austerity is a fragile keystone on which to build a politics with transformative ambitions. Firstly, and most obviously, his room for manoeuvre is tightly delimited by the framework he has carried over from previous administrations. Committed to a balanced budget, and reluctant to increase the debt burden, he began his term by promising there would be no tax increases in the first half of his sexenio. Though this leaves open the possibility of a tax hike after 2021, it’s unlikely he will overhaul the tax system to significantly alter the country’s fiscal parameters. Though AMLO has succeeded in getting several large corporations to pay overdue taxes, Mexico’s overall tax-to-GDP ratio of 17 per cent is the lowest of any OECD member-state. Wrapped in the same fiscal straitjacket as his predecessors, AMLO has promised much more than them. Amid global economic slowdown and sluggish growth within Mexico itself, reallocations from one part of the budget to another will not be enough to deliver on even a fraction of his agenda. What is needed is a huge increase in investment – in productive capacity, infrastructure, health, education. Yet with AMLO’s current approach, and with PEMEX bonds downgraded to junk, it will be difficult to obtain the necessary revenue.

In paring back the Mexican state, AMLO is wagering that a slimmer version can reduce poverty and more directly serve the people. But as the global record of austerity demonstrates, a downsized state seems more likely to become a mechanism for even greater neglect, and balanced budgets an alibi for abdication of responsibility. Above all, the shrinkage AMLO envisages seems to involve a relinquishment of the activist state that has been one of the key instruments for radical social change in Latin America and elsewhere. Dispiriting lessons lie close at hand. In a broad sense, Pink Tide governments were undone by the persistence of structural obstacles that they could not remove while they held state power. Is AMLO’s austerity kicking away the only props that might give his project a chance of transforming Mexico at all?

Read on: Tony Wood on the historic struggles of central Mexico’s campesinos.

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Vietnam’s Pandemic

South Korea and Taiwan have been consistently praised as models for coping with Covid-19. But Vietnam, a much poorer nation with a population of 97 million, has done at least as well – despite attracting far less attention. This is partly because the Party’s tight control over official data understandably raises doubts about the figures. Nevertheless, although one can’t make any predictions about a third or fourth wave, Vietnam does seem to have achieved a real degree of success so far. While leaders in the US and UK downplayed the virus last March, Vietnam highlighted its risks through an effective communication strategy, including a viral music video that garnered 67 million views. Travel restrictions, contact-tracing and quarantine measures were imposed without delay. Borders were closed to all except Vietnamese nationals and some invited experts on 24 March, and remain so, while schools and universities shut from January to May. The effect? Only a brief lockdown was needed, lasting two weeks nationally, three in high-risk areas. The first wave had been eliminated by mid-July, and smaller outbreaks since then have been crushed quickly and effectively. In total, there have been 35 deaths.

Some have argued that Vietnam’s authoritarianism enabled it to stamp out the virus – and this surely can’t have hurt. But specialists such as Guy Thwaites, head of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam, have dismissed this easy explanation for the country’s success. In fact, an unusual level of state transparency has characterized the Covid-19 response, winning the confidence of a population which, contrary to perceptions, is not particularly trusting of the authorities. Others have claimed that, while European nations spent decades outsourcing their state capacity, Vietnam maintained a unified state apparatus which has underpinned its successful public health programme. Yet the Vietnamese state is not as cohesive as one may assume. Under the 2006-2016 premiership of Nguyễn Tấn Dũng – whose son-in-law owns the country’s McDonald’s franchise – Vietnam underwent what has been described as a ‘hyper-liberal turn’. It increased its reliance on foreign capital, extended the privatization of state-owned enterprises and encouraged provinces to compete with one another to create the most business-friendly environment. The result was a rapid fragmentation of its capacity which drew concern from none other than the World Bank. Despite rising levels of public investment, Vietnam’s national healthcare system has been reshaped by marketization, with private individuals having to pay an increasing amount for treatment.

When Dũng stepped down in 2016, a factional struggle within the Communist Party saw General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng and his allies achieve dominance. Trọng was perceived to be an old-guard conservative, sceptical of Dũng’s reform agenda. But in office he has largely continued his predecessor’s legacy: retreating from targeted industrial policies, overseeing an aggressive anti-graft campaign, and cracking down on dissent to protect major private conglomerates, whose influence has steadily grown.

Vietnam’s success in combatting the virus cannot therefore be attributed to state repression or economic centralization. Its swift-footed response was well within the means of richer liberal-democratic nations, had they summoned the political will. Indeed, in a recent interview, Mai Tiến Dũng, the chief of Vietnam’s Office of Government, did not put the country’s success down to any political and economic characteristics, but to the fact that in January 2020 they went much further than the World Health Organisation was advising, and mounted a full-on containment strategy from the beginning. As Thwaites has pointed out, the key ingredient in its success was ‘good epidemiology’, plain and simple.

This was also accompanied by an economic plan, whose flagship was a 62 trillion dong relief package providing tax breaks and low-interest loans to businesses, along with financial support to struggling households. The payments were modest, ranging from 250,000 to one million dong per month ($11–$43), and their distribution was impeded by a set of unwieldy bureaucratic conditions. Informal migrant workers were asked to produce non-existent business licences to qualify for the scheme, while other groups such as sex workers were almost entirely excluded. But even so, they remained a crucial lifeline for much of the population. The cash transfers were supplemented by assistance from state-led civil society groups – the mass organisations under the Communist Party-aligned Vietnam Fatherland Front. Though largely ineffective at campaigning for social and political change, these state-backed institutions were well equipped to distribute material provisions at the onset of the crisis. The trade union federation, for example, provided personal protective equipment, information and financial support to workers, while the Women’s Union helped female-run small and medium enterprises to access loans and supported survivors of domestic violence amid an increase in offending rates.

Coronavirus-related spending increases were mostly funded by existing cash reserves and treasury bonds, obviating the need to borrow on the international market or request budgetary assistance. Combined with its suppression of the virus, this made Vietnam the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2020, and the only Southeast Asian state to see positive growth rates. Yet poorer sections of the population though still faced serious hardship. Closing international borders brought the tourism industry to its knees, with the sector losing an estimated $23 billion in 2020. A push for domestic tourism under the slogan ‘Vietnamese travel in Vietnam’ managed to soften the blow, but it could not recoup the revenue usually brought in by international arrivals. Both public and private airlines have requested bailouts, while manufacturing exports declined – particularly in the key sectors of garments, smartphones and seafood – prompting a rise in unemployment. Others reliant on these industries, such as street-hawkers who target the tourist strips or sell to factory workers, also suffered substantial losses. There was also a huge fall in labour export; a vital source of income for communities which depend on remittances from expat workers.

By the end of 2020, 32.1 million Vietnamese had been affected by the economic impact of the pandemic through unemployment, furlough, or reduced incomes: 71.6 per cent of workers in the service sector, 64.7 per cent in industry and construction, and 26.4 per cent in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Wildcat strikes rose for the first time in years, as workers campaigned for safe conditions in the early days of the pandemic, as well as fair wages and compensation in its aftermath. In an unprecedented move, the National Wage Council, which negotiates annual minimum wage rises, decided not to raise the minimum wage this year. Falling incomes in turn benefitted illegal loan sharks, who charge extortionate interest rates and trap their clients in permanent debt peonage. Some Vietnamese have been driven to suicide as a result.

A major debt crisis has meanwhile roiled the country’s social security fund – responsible for health insurance, pensions and unemployment benefits. In normal times, Vietnam’s social security setup facilitates theft by bosses. Workers’ dues are automatically taken from their salaries, and employers are entrusted to transfer them to the fund along with their own payments. Employers can therefore withhold their contributions and steal those of their employees – often without fear of consequence. This practice became even more widespread in 2020, as exemptions for businesses affected by Covid-19 were exploited to minimize employers’ payments. As a result, the fund’s debt levels soared to around 20 trillion dong. The shortfall was compounded by workers withdrawing the entirety of their social security allowance as a lump-sum, or pawning their social insurance books to stay afloat.

Nonetheless, by the end of 2020 there were indications that the Vietnamese economy had more or less stabilised. The labour market began to recover; the VN-Index reached its highest levels since November 2019; and some multinational corporations began to shift production to the country. Overall, its economic balance sheet is now the envy of its neighbours. Indeed, it is a sign of Vietnam’s accomplishment that the pandemic was by no means the major event dominating national politics last year. In October and November, storms battered the country’s central regions, causing widespread property damage and many more deaths than the virus. At the same time, the US launched a probe into Vietnamese timber exports and alleged currency manipulation, threatening to sever one of the country’s most important bilateral relationships. The government will have to negotiate such matters with the incoming Biden administration, in addition to encouraging them to retain Trump’s hawkish stance on China, which has been widely popular with the Vietnamese public.

Other developments this month may further eclipse Covid-19. On 1 January a new Labour Code came into force, allowing the existence of independent Worker Representative Organisations for the first time, unaffiliated to the state-controlled General Confederation of Labour. This could mark a significant change in industrial relations, potentially freeing organized labour from the dominion of the Communist Party. But this victory may yet be counterbalanced by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an agreement negotiated in secrecy over the past seven years, which has been widely condemned as an attempt to erode workers’ rights. It is thus an open question whether Vietnam’s decades-old tradition of self-organised labour militancy will persist into 2021, or whether the freedoms enshrined in the Labour Code will come up against greater obstacles.

Perhaps more significantly, beginning on 25 January over 1,500 delegates will gather in Hanoi for the 13th Party Congress to decide on a new leadership. Usually, the decision is made in advance of the Congress and then formally agreed by delegates, but this time things are far from certain. Trọng was not supposed to stand again for General Secretary. According to the rules, he should not be allowed to serve a third continuous term. He is also too old and quite ill. It was expected that the new General Secretary would be either Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, a regular at the World Economic Forum, described by one commentator as a ‘policy-savvy pragmatist’, or Trần Quốc Vượng, who has been a major player in the government’s recent anti-corruption campaign. Proceedings are shrouded in obscurity, but the latest rumours suggest that Trọng may succeed in twisting arms – and the rulebook – to remain as General Secretary. While the vaccine rollout may put the finishing touches on Vietnam’s Covid-19 response – a success story that puts Western countries to shame – it will not determine how these interlocking changes reshape its polity and economy.

Read on: Pierre Brocheux’s reflections on Vietnamese nationalism and communism.

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War by Other Means

One principle that gives relative coherence to the political rationality of the Trump faction is this: politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. That was on full display in the rhetoric of previous weeks, with Rudy Giuliani calling for ‘trial by combat’, or Trump exhorting his followers to show ‘strength’ at the US Capitol. This combative approach is not reserved for moments of crisis; it rather permeates the political reasoning of Trumpism, and identifies it as a direct outgrowth of a long line of reactionary thought.

Here I want to investigate not so much the ‘warlike’ logic of Trump’s politics but the other half of the equation, which is its grounding condition: the assumption that traditional logics of political mediation are vacuous and serve merely as a ruse. Here one can discern a rational kernel in the deeply mystified shell of Trumpian thought.

First, let me step back and explain briefly what it means to assert that politics is a continuation of war. In his 1976 lectures at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault invoked this transformed relation between politics and war, ‘the inversion of Clausewitz’s formula’, to grasp the functioning of power (admittedly, in a very different political context than our own). When Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian military theorist, famously claimed that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’, he intended to emphasize that diplomacy between states (this is primarily what he meant by ‘politics’) does not cease with the outbreak of war but continues in other forms. Or, to put this in different terms, military confrontation does not mark the end of political mediation but its persistence in a different mode.

Foucault, then, adopts Clausewitz’s logic in reverse: whereas for Clausewitz war is still ‘filled’ with political mediation, for Foucault politics are reduced to confrontation, ‘emptied’ of mechanisms of mediation. Foucault is experimenting with this formula, in my view, as a key to interpret the emerging neoliberal strategies to undermine the structures and mechanisms of political mediation, such as trade unions, welfare structures, the reformist Keynesian state, and so forth. (Although he poses this inverted formula as part of a general analysis of power, it is reasonable to speculate that it serves also as an indirect analysis of the political developments of the 1970s, especially since this argument appears primarily in his courses, which were much more tied to current events than his books.) The neoliberal vision of a politics without political mediation certainly persists in the Trump world, but it has become more extreme in many respects.

This frame helps cast a different light on the events of January 6. It is instructive that apologists for the descent on the US Capitol claim it was no different to BLM protests of the previous summer. That assertion betrays blindness to many essential distinctions, one of which is that, in contrast to BLM actions, the Capitol siege was not a protest. The logic of protest assumes a context of political mediation: a situation in which social and governmental structures at various levels will potentially respond with reforms. The demand to ‘defund the police’, as it is generally understood, for example, only makes sense in a context characterized by potential political mediation. Yet for Trump and his supporters, since the logic of and potential for political mediation is absent, protest makes no sense. They expected no mediation in response to their actions, only a political result: to remain in power. There was, then, no passage from politics to war on January 6. Trumpist political praxis was already animated by war logic, which is to say, devoid of mediation.

The lack of credence in political mediation also illuminates the Trump faction’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of election results since, at a deep level, claims of political representation are conceptually allied to those of political mediation. There is, of course, an overtly opportunistic element to Trump’s acceptance of some and rejection of other election results, as there is too with the longstanding Republican strategy to exclude voters (especially Black voters and other people of color). But these opportunistic tactics rest on the view, deeply embedded in reactionary thought, that claims to political representation are deceitful. For instance, in the early 20th century Robert Michels, wary of the rising electoral power of European socialist parties, sought to unmask what he considered their false assertion of representational legitimacy: all parties – even those purporting to express the popular will – are in the final analysis dominated by elites, and political representation is an elaborate deception wielded by those elites to gain and maintain power.

The same logic, at a much lower level of sophistication, underpins Trump’s view of representation, and that of the Republican Party more generally. Neither suppressing voter turnout through devious legislative fabrications (as Republicans have long done) nor discarding legitimate ballots (as the Trump faction recently attempted) appears scandalous or hypocritical, because claims of representation – like those of political mediation more generally – are seen as inherently bogus. From this perspective, liberal hand-wringing about democratic safeguards is simply disingenuous, since those who champion representation are not really handing power to ‘the people’, but rather using the ruse of representation to legitimize their side’s social, media, and political elites. Every election, by definition, is rigged.

This brief characterization therefore suggests that, beneath the cloud of lies and buffoonery, a relatively coherent rationality animates Trumpism: since effective political mediation is lacking and claims to representation spurious, the thinking goes, politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. Last week, Mike Davis and Thomas Meaney debated the meaning of the Capitol Hill riot for the future of the Republican Party. If we accept my hypothesis about the rationality of the Trump faction then we should also consider its consequences for the left in the US and elsewhere. What constitutes an adequate response to such agonistic logic? One might reasonably reply that we should contest its premise, championing the existing structures of political mediation and representation as effective and progressive. Alternatively, one could advocate that we inhabit the same plane of combat as our adversaries, treating political contestation as war. My view is that neither of these is adequate. Structures of political mediation have indeed largely been withdrawn and structures of representation are relatively ineffective, but the solution is precisely to invent new mediations, including novel mechanisms of democratic participation and collective decision-making. This is, in fact, what some of the most powerful social movements today are already doing. Articulating that next step, however, must wait for another occasion.

Read on: Hardt and Negri revisit the theses of Empire, twenty years after its release.

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Lusophone Stories

The Angolan-born writer José Eduardo Agualusa once said that he wrote his first novel because he wanted to understand his country. ‘You cannot explain the present if you do not understand the past.’ This is not to say his fiction is didactic – anything but. Take his remarkable A General Theory of Oblivion (2015), first published in Portugal in 2012, whose expressive prose is deftly captured by Daniel Hahn’s translation.

The novel is mainly set in the Angolan capital where, on the eve of Independence in 1975, Ludovica, a Portuguese woman marked by a traumatic past, decides to build a brick wall to keep out intruders seeking a bag of raw diamonds that her brother-in-law has left behind in the chaos. Sealing off her eleventh-floor apartment in downtown Luanda, she survives on wild pigeons and vegetables grown on her terrace; slowly burning first the furniture, then the thousands of books in her brother-in-law’s library, on a cooking fire. Over the years, the apartment block fills up with new residents, moving in from Luanda’s shanty towns or fleeing the countryside roiled by civil war. They bring chickens, music, country habits. A magnificent mulemba tree grows in the courtyard, its upper branches reaching Ludo’s terrace. Satellite dishes sprout like mushrooms across the neighbouring roofs.

Ludo, who remains in this state of self-imposed house arrest for 28 years, gives the narrative a static point around which disparate plotlines can unfurl and extend. While she resists any engagement with the civil war that rages on her doorstep, it reaches us – in patchwork form – through snippets of overheard conversation, scenes witnessed on the street outside, radio news bulletins and Ludo’s diary entries. These fractured mediums furnish apparently self-contained stories, each with an oblique relation to Ludo, which encode the complex, often violent history of Angola’s post-liberation period, as rival independence forces fought for supremacy – a struggle prolonged by foreign intervention, with the US and South Africa backing rebel UNITA forces, while the ruling MPLA called in help from Cuba.

Agualusa’s kaleidoscopic fiction captures the diverse actors in this conflict and the subjective changes wrought by successive historical conjunctures. Monte, a former revolutionary, becomes a leading figure of the political police. Jeremias, a Portuguese mercenary, escapes a regime firing squad and joins the nomadic Mucubal tribe. The orphan known as Little Chief, a young political dissident jailed and tortured by Monte, roams the streets disguised as a madman and builds up a business empire.

Their stories, told backwards and forwards, make up a fretwork of Angolan history. The demonstrations, strikes and rallies of 1974, ‘filled with the laughter of the people on the streets, which burst into the air like fireworks’. The farewell parties of the Portuguese settlers, who danced till dawn while young people were dying in the streets. The MPLA prison of the late 70s, where Monte tries to break Little Chief, and where:

American and English mercenaries, taken in combat, lived alongside dissident exiles from the ANC who had fallen into misfortune. Young intellectuals from the far left exchanged ideas with old Portuguese Salazarists. There were guys locked up for diamond trafficking and others for not having stood to attention during the raising of the flag.

After 2002, with the MPLA’s victory in the civil war: ‘The socialist system was dismantled by the very same people who had set it up, and capitalism rose from the ashes, as fierce as ever. Guys who just months ago had been railing against bourgeois democracy . . . were now dressed in designer clothing, driving round the city in cars that gleamed.’ The new wealth is manifested in the landowner’s fences – a millionaire general, with armed goons in jeeps – that block the migration of the Mucubals’ herds. Monte is appalled by the free-market turn – ‘the capitalist system, thriving like mould amid the ruins, had begun to rot everything’ – and angered when two ruling generals instruct him to take out Daniel Benchimol, a local journalist whose reports, tempered by a touch of humour, infuriate the new bourgeoisie.

While Agualusa eschews a reductive and didactic treatment of Angolan national history, he assembles myriad suggestive fragments of what it has entailed. By and large, the novel registers historical conflict through personal experience, the objective facts of the civil war by way of subjective changes in fortune – and the insights that they yield. The narrative register – refusing to reduce the characters to their political roles – is punctuated by harsh judgements, pillorying the MPLA for its suppression of dissent and abandonment of egalitarian principles.

Yet Agualusa’s fiction also resists any reading as national allegory, on the lines of Fredric Jameson’s once-famous hypothesis – that in third-world texts, stories of private individual destiny are always an allegory of the embattled situation of the country’s culture and society. Neither Ludo, Monte, Little Chief nor Jeremias approximate to figurations of Angola’s struggle, in the way that Jameson suggested Lu Xun’s protagonist Ah Q, proud to be ‘number one in self-belittlement’, could stand as an allegory for semi-colonial China. This is not an allegory in any formal sense, with the characters as stand-ins for a set of abstractions – Power, Colonialism, Capital, Angola.

Agualusa’s fiction is ‘allegorical’ only in the loosest meaning of the word, as a synonym for symbolism or representation itself. Taken on their own terms, the characters do not constitute a totalized portrait of Angola; they rather demonstrate its hopeless fragmentation. Yet by interweaving their stories in the fabric of his fiction, the narrator establishes a precarious set of relations that (for most of the novel at least) remains inaccessible to the characters themselves. The relation of fictional forms to cultural and political-economic realities is insistently complicated here. The theme of ‘oblivion’, for example – or esquecimento, whose literal meaning in Portuguese is closer to ‘forgetting’ – is considered from multiple perspectives. Ludo wants to consign her teenage rape to oblivion, but also to shut out the joyful, chaotic, violent eruption of Angola’s independence. This impulse is what atomizes her: she becomes a hermit, as alienation and esquecimento go hand in hand.

Yet walled off in her flat, Ludo gains a new relationship to the world from her terrace, open to the sky and the city, ‘and off in the distance, a long necklace of abandoned beaches, fringed by the fine lacework of the waves’. ‘We should practice forgetting’, she tells an aged Jeremiah who has come to apologise to her, thirty years on, about the diamonds. He replies: ‘Forgetting is dying, forgetting is surrender.’ As he struggles to explain about the Mucubals’ problems, Ludo recalls Pessoa’s lines: ‘I feel sorry for the stars / which have shined for so long’ – ‘Is there not, finally… / Some kind of pardon?’ Meanwhile the workers employed in Little Chief’s handicraft business have a more sardonic take on the theme. Their best-selling carving is the Thinker, a popular figure in traditional Angolan statuary, but now with a gag over his mouth, whom they dub, ‘Don’t Think’.

Nor does the narratorial strategy of A General Theory offer an easily read allegory of Angola’s cultural situation. ‘A man with a good story is practically king’, the narrator declares at one point. But if narrative and power are major themes of the novel, neither is straightforward. In this case, the story – that a visiting French writer was suddenly swallowed by quicksand, leaving only his hat behind – was confected by a security officer to cover up a murder gone wrong, and the boy who tells it a dupe, serving to keep the status quo in power.

In this sense, when the narrator offers explicit political judgements, or sweeping statements on Angolan history, these interventions are less clear-cut than they seem, for they are belied by an awareness that unified narratives are often imposed by the powerful upon the powerless. Such self-consciousness – which destabilizes the narrator’s most categorical, objective register – comes through in his tendency to interrupt and second-guess himself after making decisive pronouncements:  

When people look at clouds they do not see their real shape, which is no shape at all, or maybe every shape, because they are constantly changing. They see whatever it is that their heart yearns for.

You don’t like that word – ‘heart’?

Very well, choose another, then: soul, unconscious, fantasy, whatever you think best. None of them will be quite the right word.

A General Theory of Oblivion reflects precisely on the difficulty of finding ‘the right word’ to summarize Angolan realities.

Not allegory, then. But neither is Agualusa’s fiction ‘national’ in any conventional sense. Its imagined community is Lusofonia, the Portuguese-speaking world-system that encompasses Brazil, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, Goa and East Timor as well as Angola, Mozambique and Portugal. Post-colonial landscapes of a pre-modern empire, deeply marked both by the South Atlantic slave trade and by what the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre welcomed as a unique degree of mestiçagem, the contemporary Lusosphere was formed under a European metropole that was itself a peripheral country, already semi-colonized by the UK.

From a family of mixed Brazilian, Portuguese and Angolan descent, Agualusa was born in 1960 in Huambo, then Nova Lisboa, a railway town on the Angolan plateau that would be a vortex of MPLA–UNITA fighting; its verdant landscape and deep blue skies have been constant motifs in his fiction. He left Angola as a teenager in the late 70s, studied in Portugal, worked as a journalist for the Africa service of Portuguese television, and has since operated as a pan-Lusophone intellectual: a columnist for Luanda’s A Capital and Lisbon’s Público, presenter of a radio show on African music and poetry, co-founder of the Rio de Janeiro publishing house Editora Língua Geral, dedicated to bringing Portuguese and African writing to Brazil. Currently based in Mozambique, Agualusa has fourteen novels to his name, six of them translated into English by Hahn, as well as several short story collections and countless journalistic pieces.

Among these fictions, Agualusa’s first novel, A Conjura (1989) recounted the background to a 1911 uprising against Portuguese rule in Angola, its central character a poor black anarchist barber. Nação Crioula (1997) centres on a 19th-century slave ship, the last to transport human cargo from Angola to Brazil, but which also provides the means of escape for two lovers, a footloose, free-thinking Portuguese traveller and Ana Olímpia, a beautiful and wealthy former slave. In O ano em que Zumbi tomou o Rio (2002), exiled Angolan military officers join a black-power rebellion in the Rio favelas.

The Society of Reluctant Dreamers (2017, trans. 2020), the latest to appear in English, is largely narrated by the journalist, Daniel Benchimol – one of many recurring characters in Agualusa’s fiction. It is set in the overlapping worlds of Lusophone intellectuals, artists and journalists, on the one hand, and generals, secret police and big businessmen, on the other. Benchimol’s ex-father-in-law supplies the archetype of the latter: director of an important state firm, member of the party’s central committee, immensely rich even before he switched to the private sector, he can get his ex-son-in-law sacked from any newspaper in Luanda with a phone call. Benchimol’s counterpart is a former UNITA guerrilla, Hossi Apolónio Kaley, captured by Cuban security forces, whose dream diaries from Havana contribute the rest of the narrative.

Dreams here occupy a comparable role to forgetting in A General Theory. As Benchimol discovers, they may be personal, practical, aesthetic – the basis for an extraordinary photographic series by a Mozambican artist, another of Agualusa’s angelic female characters, with whom Benchimol falls in love – or political. Benchimol’s daughter, arrested for protesting against the Old Man – Angola’s president – awakens him to the new democracy movement: ‘You wouldn’t believe the dreams that fit inside this prison.’ The novel ends with an evocation of the protests that helped to drive José Eduardo dos Santos from office in 2017 after nearly four decades in power. Agualusa’s work might better be read as auto-fictional essays on ‘third-world literature’, staging the tension between subjectivity and historicity, cosmopolitan and national perspectives, whose struggle for hegemony is like a civil war within these books themselves.

Read on: Gabriel García Márquez on Cuban internationalism and the MPLA.

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Ins and Outs

For several years now, a serious effort has been under way in Brussels to learn nothing from Brexit, and the way things are it may well be successful. What could have been learned? Nothing less than how to shake off the late-twentieth century technocratic, anti-democratic, elitist chimera of a centralized European neoliberal empire and turn the European Union instead into a group of friendly sovereign neighbour states, connected through a web of non-hierarchical, voluntary, egalitarian relationships of mutual cooperation.

The internal life of the European Union is unendingly complicated and uniquely opaque, but one principle applies throughout. To understand it you must grasp the domestic politics of three key member states, Germany, France and Italy, and their complex trilateral relations. There is no supranationalism here at all, or only as a veil behind which the real action, national and international, takes place. France sees Europe as an extended playing field for its global ambitions; Germany needs the European Union to secure production sites for its industries, markets for its products, and low-wage workers for its domestic service sectors, as well as to balance its relations with France and the United States; and Italy needs ‘Europe’, in particular Germany, for its survival as a capitalist nation-state and economy.

The British never really understood this. Even the famously formidable British diplomatic service found the Brussels underbrush utterly impenetrable. While Thatcher hated the EU – too foreign for her taste – Blair believed that by turning it into a neoliberal restructuring machine, together with Chirac and Schröder, he could become its Napoleon: the Great Continental Unifier, this time from without. Little did he know. France and Germany let him walk into the Iraq war alone, as adjutant of his American friend, George W, and subsequently into his demise. And Cameron learned in 2015 that even Great Britain, used to ruling the waves, was unable to extract from Merkozy the tiny concessions on immigration that he thought he needed to win the referendum of 2016 – called after all to cast British membership in stone. There was no consideration in Germany of the effect on the British vote of Merkel’s open borders in the summer of 2015, letting in one million refugees, mostly from Syria, driven from their homes by a civil war deliberately left hanging by Germany’s American friend, Barack Obama. For Merkel, this was an ideal opportunity to correct her image as ‘ice queen’ acquired in the spring of the same year when she had let it be known that ‘we cannot take in everybody’.

Mystification was mutual. On the Continent nobody believed that the Cameron government could lose its referendum gamble. The only Brits to which the ‘European’ educated classes ever talk are from the British educated class, and these were for widely different, often incompatible reasons in unqualified love with the EU. For the Euro-idealists on the liberal left the EU was a preview of a political future without the blemishes of a political past, a constitutively virtuous state if only because it was not yet a state at all, uniquely desirable for people who saw their own post-imperial country in need of a moral refounding from above. Others who knew how Brussels works must have laughed up their sleeves – in particular a political class which had long cherished the possibility of moving difficult subjects directly into the bowels of that inscrutable Brussels Leviathan to be dismembered beyond recognition. This included the post-Blair Labour Blairists. Having lost power, and facing a working class that they in good British tradition found not quite up to snuff, they were happy to import a residual social and regional policy from Brussels – knowing full well that Brussels was unable to deliver anything of importance, not least because British governments, including New Labour, had pulled the teeth of the ‘social dimension’ of the ‘internal market’ by subjecting it to the sacred imperatives of economic ‘competitiveness’. Nobody realized that this was bound to backfire the moment people began to wonder why their national government had left them unprotected in the social desert of global markets, having turned over responsibility for its citizens to a foreign power and a foreign court.

When Cameron lost, left to his own devices by Merkel and Co., the shock was profound, but then EU politics resumed as usual. France saw an opportunity to unearth its original concept of integrated Europe as an extension of the French state, with the special purpose of locking Germany into a French-dominated alliance. In case Britain changed its mind and the Remainers got their way after all, the return to the flock had to be humiliating enough to rule out any possibility of future British EU leadership. Negotiations on a divorce settlement were to be led on the EU side by the French diplomat Michel Barnier, one of the outstanding technocrats of the Brussels scene. From the beginning he played hardball, doing little to help the referendum revisionists on the British side. But neither was Britain to be let go easily. Here Germany chimed in, keen to uphold discipline among EU member states. Macron and Merkel insisted that the divorce settlement had to be expensive for Britain, preferably including an obligation to accept Internal Market rules and the jurisdiction of the EU court forever, even outside the EU. For Germany this was to show other member states that any attempt at renegotiating their relationship with Brussels would be futile, and that special treatment either inside or outside the Union was entirely out of the question.

It will fall to historians to uncover what really happened between France and Germany during the negotiations between the EU and Britain. There is no democratic, or presumably democratic, political system on earth that operates as much behind closed doors as the European Union. The German national interest in maintaining international discipline notwithstanding, the German export industry must have been equally interested in an amicable economic relationship with post-Brexit Britain, and it must have informed the German government of this in no uncertain terms. No trace of this was visible, however: neither in the negotiating strategy of Barnier nor the public pronouncements of Merkel. Very likely, this was because Germany at the time was under pressure from Macron to use the British departure as an opportunity for more and stricter centralization, especially in fiscal matters – an issue where Germany’s reluctance to agree to arrangements that might in future cost it dear had met with the tacit support of the British, even though the UK was not a member of the Eurozone.

As the deal-or-no-deal day approached and the usual ritual of negotiation until the last minute unfolded, it appears that Merkel finally threw her weight behind the demands of Germany’s export sector. The United Kingdom had now been sufficiently humiliated. During the final negotiating sessions Barnier, while still present, no longer spoke for the EU; his place was taken by one of von der Leyen’s closest aides. Toward the end France used the new ‘British’ coronavirus strain to block traffic from Britain to the Continent for two days, but this could not prevent the deal being closed. Johnson’s brinkmanship was rewarded with a treaty that he could reasonably claim restored British sovereignty. He paid for it with a lot of fish, mercifully obscured by the further unfolding of the pandemic.

What are the consequences of all this? France hired 1,300 additional customs officials to be deployed to interrupt economic relations between Britain and the Continent, including Germany, any time the French government feels that the deal’s ‘level playing field’ is no longer being maintained. France and Germany succeeded in scaring other countries, especially in the East, out of claiming the settlement with the UK as a precedent for their aspirations for more national autonomy. Pressures inside the EU for a more cooperative and less hierarchical alliance didn’t even emerge. And Merkel’s successors will have to navigate an even more complex relationship with France than in the past, having to resist Macron’s embraces without British succour and in the face of the uncertainties of the Biden administration in the US.

As to the United Kingdom, for the Lexiters Parliament rules again, unconstrained by ‘the Treaties’ and the European Court, and British citizens finally have only their own government to blame if something goes wrong: no responsibility without responsiveness. Moreover, the Remainers – the euro-revisionists – seem to have given up, at least for the time being, although they may continue to look for other protections against strictly majoritarian parliamentary government. There is also the possibility of Scotland breaking away from the UK, as the Scottish National Party might mop up pro-European sentiment with a promise to apply for the empty British seat at what will by then be King Emmanuel’s Round Table of 27 knights. This would amount to turning Scottish national sovereignty over to Brussels immediately after having recovered it from London, forgetful of the mixed historical experience of Scotland with French allies and rulers. As long as there is in Brussels a reasonable prospect for Scottish entry, forget about Brussels learning from Brexit. On the other hand, unlikely as such learning is in any case, one might just as well leave the matter to the good sense of the Scots.

Read on: Christopher Bickerton’s analysis of European futures.

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War Zones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What role do proxy groups play in West Asia?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you expect to see ISIS’s resurgence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Republican Futures

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

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

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

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

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

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Burying Pinochet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A New Voice

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

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

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

Les Inrockuptibles, 19 August 2020

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

Elle, 28 August 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For several months, I imitate my classmates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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