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Scotland’s Manager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not Over Yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Throttling Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Erdoğan’s Zigzags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eros After Covid

1

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5

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

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

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

6

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

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

7

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

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

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

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Abandon Ship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blasphemy Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Kuban Stanitsa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Comedy of American Communism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well, what do you mean?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha Ha Ha.

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

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Whose Green New Deal?

Socialist visions of a Green New Deal abound, but political roadmaps for their realization seem to have been foreclosed. After the electoral defeats of Corbyn and Sanders, and the fracturing of the climate movement in the Global North following its apex in the autumn of 2019, this disjuncture is starker than ever. From it, a range of dilemmas arise. Foremost among them is how socialists should conceive of the Green New Deal now that its precondition, the prospect of administering the state, has receded into the distance; and how the left can reconcile the ‘long game’ of democratic socialism with the urgency of the climate timeline. To address these questions, a preliminary look at the two main iterations of the GND – British and American – is necessary.

At Labour’s September 2019 conference, a motion approved by party members and two of Britain’s three biggest trade unions defined the GND as ‘a state-led programme of investment and regulation, based on public ownership and democratic control, for the decarbonization and transformation of our economy.’ Bernie Sanders’s presidential manifesto contained a more expansive definition: ‘a ten-year, nationwide mobilization centered around justice and equity during which climate change will be factored into virtually every area of policy, from immigration to trade to foreign policy and beyond.’ Looking back at these proposals, it is tempting to view Biden’s ‘green Keynesian’ infrastructure plan as a concession to the GND (which the president has himself described as a ‘crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face’). Yet, in their political ambitions and implications, the environmental programmes of Sanders and Corbyn are substantially different to Biden’s.  

In the case of Corbyn’s Labour, we can pinpoint three features that pushed the Green New Deal beyond the Keynesian framework, towards a non-reformist programme of reform. First, decommodified forms of ownership were central, taking precedence over policies that sought reforms within the market, such as co-ops and inclusive share ownership funds. Marxist economist Mary Robertson – who, as Corbyn’s head of economic policy, was the unsung architect of this agenda – has pointed out that Labour’s public ownership programme aimed, through ‘removing key areas of social and economic reproduction from the system of production for profit’, to delink large sectors of the economy from the commodity structure as a vital component of its decarbonization plan.

Second, Labour’s 2030 target date for decarbonization intended to disrupt the gradualism that is the default temporality of social democracy. Corbynism marked a welcome turn away from the mimetic revolutionary politics of Trotskyist grouplets, yet the urgency of the climate crisis had nonetheless robbed us of the luxury of the ‘long march through the institutions’. Without revolutionary strategies or horizons, the 2030 deadline was intended to acknowledge the imperative of immediacy. It was the closest thing in Labour’s programme to Andreas Malm’s second principle for ecological Leninism: ‘speed as paramount virtue.’

Lastly, the recomposition of the working class was integral to Labour’s GND. It held out the possibility of superseding itself by reconstituting a proletarian subject that might push the transition beyond carbon into a confrontation with capital as such. Without the support of the firefighters’ (FBU) and postal and communication workers’ (CWU) unions, and the slower but no less significant backing of Unite, there would have been no 2030 target. Labour’s decarbonization strategy was crafted by rather than merely for organized labour. The GND thus had an immanent answer to the charge from the autonomist left that it overlooked the necessity of agents acting outside and against the state. Quite the opposite: new green industries; existing low-carbon sectors valorized and enlarged; decommodified public utilities and renewed trade unions, freed from the need to protect carbon-heavy jobs, would together change the balance of class forces.

The Sanders GND bore many similarities to Corbyn’s. Both shared the same vision of a just, state-led transition away from fossil fuels, foregrounding mass green job creation and the revival of trade unions. And both contained the beginnings of an internationalist (if not consistently anti-imperialist) orientation, with commitments to free or ‘equitable’ transfers of green tech to the Global South. Just as Labour’s manifesto held out the prospect of climate reparations, Sanders promised to slash the Pentagon’s budget to fund the GND. 

Perhaps the most significant shift from AOC’s GND congressional resolution in November 2018 to the Sanders presidential programme was the latter’s explicit commitment to public ownership of new renewable energy infrastructure. However, aside from this policy and the Medicare for All plan, Sanders’s platform contained no other pledges on public ownership (as against rail, mail, energy and water in Corbyn’s manifesto). His 2050 decarbonization target also failed to recognize both the disaster invited by delay and the West’s historic climate debt. Yet, free from the constraining influence of right-leaning trade unions, Sanders was more openly antagonistic towards the fossil fuel industry than his British counterpart. He was not afraid of naming the enemy and threatening them with prosecution.

What now for such promises, after the left’s electoral failures? Evidently, the field is much more open in the US. Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs plan seems to mark a paradigm-shift towards green Keynesianism, commanding widespread support from business and labour leaders alike. But while it comes closer to the ambition necessary for staving off catastrophe than anything previously contemplated by governments in the Anglosphere, the scale is still insufficient. Biden’s plan commits to around $125 billion spending per year on clean energy. As Kate Aronoff has observed, this is a mere four times ‘the amount of money [American] consumers spent on children’s toys last year’. Sizing up the annual 0.6% of GDP that the plan allocates to ‘climate-related’ projects, The Economist, in its own understated way, concurred with such critics: the scheme is, ‘if anything, a little on the low side of most estimates for the costs of rethinking and largely recreating an industrial civilization.’ Measured against the $16.3 trillion of public investment that sat at the centre of Sanders’s GND, Biden’s proposal seems almost trivial.

A comparison with Labour’s 2019 programme is instructive. One of Biden’s headline pledges is to ‘build, preserve and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings’, whereas the plan to decarbonize Britain’s energy system – drawn up by energy experts and civil engineers and adopted in Corbyn’s manifesto – aimed to retrofit the country’s entire housing stock: 27 million homes within a decade. In the entirety of Biden’s plan, just $40 billion is committed to all public housing projects, whereas the Sanders–AOC ‘Green New Deal for public housing’ demands $180 billion for retrofits and upgrades alone. Scale is not the only problem. Public ownership is nowhere to be seen, and Biden’s entire climate strategy is guided by the death-knell 2050 net zero target (although, even then, it falls short of the investment needed to meet it). Seth Ackerman has suggested that, were Biden to make the family allowance provisions of the first stimulus package permanent, this would mark the transformation of the Democrats into a ‘responsible, democratic-minded party of the center-right’. The American Jobs Plan seems to herald a similar shift in climate policy: not meaningless, but modest. That said, Biden’s most important climate legacy may not lie in his infrastructure spending but in the PRO Act, which would dramatically change the conditions for labour organizing in favour of unions were it to pass the Senate and then POTUS’s desk.

If Biden has partially incorporated some of the American GND’s uncontroversial themes, the picture is more straightforward when it comes to Starmer. Having promised to ‘hardwire the green new deal into everything we do’, the Labour leader now appears to have abandoned transformative climate and economic policy tout court. He is evidently too busy with authoritarian-nationalist posturing and a granular bureaucratic crackdown on the left to pay any attention to planetary emergency. The traces of radicalism that remain are largely rhetorical, confined to the occasional interventions of Ed Miliband in his role as shadow business, energy and industrial strategy secretary. Two episodes neatly encapsulate Labour’s direction of travel. Last November, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions Jonathan Reynolds demanded that UK pension funds be made carbon neutral by 2050, declaring with no hint of irony that ‘the climate emergency demands urgent action’. And in March Starmer forced Alex Sobel (a low-ranking shadow minister and stalwart of the party’s ‘soft left’) to apologize for having once suggested that business was the enemy in the fight against climate change. In his follow up comments to the press, Starmer more or less proclaimed that nobody – including the Conservatives – is more pro-business than him.

In both the US and UK, then, the GND as a programme for decarbonization through socialist transformation – which would be able to take action at the speed and scale necessary to mitigate catastrophe – will not materialize for the foreseeable future. One plausible path for radical environmentalism in this context is co-optation by the political centre and green fractions of capital. Activists have long been attuned to this danger, hence the many prefixes that have accompanied the slogan ‘Green New Deal’: ‘socialist’, ‘radical’, ‘left-populist’, ‘global’, and ‘internationalist’, to name a few. But two factors now heighten this risk. First, GND ‘advocacy’ has become tied to nebulously progressive NGOs and think-tanks. Many of these organizations, constrained by philanthropic funding streams and donors, are incentivized to obfuscate antagonisms and claim easy victories. Last year, Britain’s leading Green New Deal NGO came up with a campaign slogan (‘Build Back Better’) so timid that it was taken up by both Boris Johnson and Joe Biden’s presidential transition team. Greenpeace UK, meanwhile, cheered on BP’s ‘net zero’ public relations stunts, declaring that the company had ‘woken up to the fact that the next decade will be crucial to survival’. With champions like these, inimical to class-based climate politics, the GND’s prospects look bleak.

The political paradoxes of the climate timeline are the second condition that could encourage co-optation. Adam Tooze has written that ‘in a foxhole, survival is paramount, and radicalism fades’. This is especially true of the climate crisis. Every fraction of a degree of warming mitigated or reversed might mean the avoidance of a tipping point. The politics of emergency – in the medium-term at least – are therefore just as likely to encourage resignation to moderation as the flourishing of radicalism. Catastrophism that couples declarations of emergency with disavowals of class politics (in the mold of Extinction Rebellion) is liable to collapse into a paradoxical combination of nihilism and liberal tinkering. With democratic planning a distant prospect, it’s easy to envisage the GND being absorbed into a ‘green’ capitalism that would not address the fundamental drivers of climate breakdown.

Thea Riofrancos argued in May 2019 that it was ‘precisely the indeterminacy of the Green New Deal that provides a historic opening for the left’. Yet if the GND is not to become hegemonized by the centre, these contradictions and ambiguities must now be resolved by a coherent socialist programme. Political advocacy has been central to the operations of groups like the Sunrise Movement and Labour for a Green New Deal, leading to significant influence on the formation of the Sanders and Corbyn programmes. But socialists successfully lobbying leaders in Washington or Westminster, absent any real social power or organizational base, was entirely contingent on an aberrant historical circumstance: those leaders being self-described socialists. As Matt Huber has recently stressed, no amount of ‘closed door corporatist bargaining’ from climate campaigners will move Biden. Neither Starmer, nor Johnson. Imagining that the GND might be adopted by centrist politicians – if only they are pressed hard enough – is a recipe for confusion and demobilization at best, and abandonment of the programme’s non-reformist potential at worst.

There is also a risk of losing sight of the fronts on which it is most crucial to extend the programme. Take the GND’s fledging internationalist elements, which have always been more gestural than substantive. Confrontation with China and a return to Atlanticist norms are enjoying bipartisan (if not quite unanimous) support in Washington and London. The appointment of John Kerry as ‘climate tsar’ on Biden’s national security council – lauded by the Sunrise Movement –  points to the imperial considerations underlying the administration’s climate strategy. Indeed, Biden’s domestic spending plans are driven as much by consternation about the eclipse of American hegemony as by any organized pressure from the left. As Brian Deese, director of the president’s National Economic Council, put it in a recent interview: Biden is ‘thinking about the infrastructure investments necessary… in contra position to what he is seeing China doing, in terms of strategic investments’. Deese went on to present the left-turn in domestic economic policy as a precondition for revived American global leadership. Biden’s climate advisors might trade in rhetoric about frontline communities, but the State Department’s diplomatic war on Bolivia and the Pentagon’s South China Sea build-up continue apace. Even if the White House acceded to demands from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing for larger climate investments, the result would be a greener empire rather than anything resembling a ‘global Green New Deal’.

In this context, supporters of the GND could do worse than direct their energies towards building a socialist climate movement and arming it with clear, antagonistic themes and demands. Rightly preoccupied with winning support for Corbyn and Sanders over the past five years, the left largely neglected the task of intervening in and shaping social movements, leaving liberals and NGOs ascendant. There are already institutions which render socialists well-placed to recapture the initiative: left-led trade unions in Britain, Momentum, Labour for a Green New Deal, the DSA’s eco-socialist working group, and think-tanks like Common Wealth and the Democracy Collaborative. To the climate movement, socialists can bring a majoritarian political programme with significant existing popular support. Movement-building can also temper the organized left’s ‘liberal trust in the power of policies to persuade’ – to borrow Katrina Forrester’s term – and sharpen its political strategies. This reorientation would strengthen the hand of socialist legislators in the present, and might help create political opportunities for them in future electoral cycles.

Temporarily decoupling the GND from the electoral arena may also provide the space to radicalize and retool the programme. There is much work to be done in organizing around and thinking through difficult areas like aviation and geo-engineering that have sometimes been dodged by GND activists. Beyond some academic circles, there has so far been scant engagement with Holly Jean Buck’s warning that oil companies could use carbon capture projects to ‘essentially take us hostage’, monopolizing these nascent technologies to redouble their illusory promises of net-zero. A coherent left climate strategy could begin to neutralize such threats.

Post-mortems of the Anglo-American left’s electoral failures have often diagnosed the underlying issue as one of structural weakness. Left commonsense states that there are ‘no shortcuts’ to building the organizational and industrial strength necessary for future victories. Perhaps not. But we must hope that political contingencies can dramatically shorten the timeline. If the emergency brake is ever to be glimpsed, let alone grasped, then a socialist climate movement bound together by the Green New Deal is a good place to start.

Read on: Robert Pollin, ‘Degrowth vs a Green New Deal’, NLR 112.