Nigeria’s Malaise

On 28 July, Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, a Dubai-based 38-year-old Nigerian internet influencer better known as Hushpuppi, pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering in a US court. Born in a Lagos slum – his father was a taxi driver and his mother hawked bread – he burst onto the scene in 2014 and quickly totted up 2.4 million Instagram followers as he recorded his increasingly lavish lifestyle. This naturally attracted the attention of the FBI. When he was arrested, detectives seized about $40 million in cash, along with 13 luxury cars worth $7 million. He was charged with defrauding a US law firm of about $40 million, illegally transferring $14.7 million from a ‘foreign financial institution’, and attempting to steal $124 million from an English football club. Initially he protested his innocence; then he came clean and started singing.

Among those he has fingered is Abba Kyari, a deputy police commissioner in Nigeria, whom he allegedly paid $20,600 to detain one Vincent Chibuzo. The latter had apparently threatened to rat on a $1.1 million scam he and Hushpuppi had perpetrated against a Qatari businessman. According to US court documents, Kyari sent a text message to Hushpuppi confirming that the deed was done: ‘We have arrested the guy. He is in my cell now. This is his picture after we arrested him today.’ To which Hushpuppi replied, ‘I want him to go through serious beating.’ Before his recent suspension, Kyari had been one of the most decorated police officers in Nigeria’s short history. An internet celebrity with a milieu of actors and musicians, he also had a reputation for killing alleged criminals and stealing their riches.  

What is the wider national context in which such internet scammers and rogue police officers can flourish? As I write, the US is seeking Kyari’s extradition, but the Nigerian government appears reluctant to comply for the simple reason that he is a member of the Hausa-speaking aristocracy: a group from the Muslim-majority north (as opposed to the Christian-majority south) which has effectively ruled the country since independence in 1960. Compared to the north, the south has greater resources (notably crude oil) and higher levels of education, plus the major port and commercial centre of Lagos. Demographically, southern ethnic groups outnumber their northern counterparts. Shortly after independence, the northern Hausa and Fulani ethnicities made up 29.5% of the population, whereas the southern Yoruba and Igbo constituted a combined 36.9%. Yet the distribution of political power has always run in the opposite direction.

The northern emirs were used as enforcers by early twentieth-century British colonialists who vigorously promoted regional solidarity in the north and exploited cultural-ethnic divisions in the south. When, under British influence, the state adopted the principle of regional per capita representation; this gave the Nigerian government a locked-in northern majority. Northerners were also overrepresented in the military, as the colonial administration identified them as the ‘martial races’ most fit for active service. As the northern leader Ahmadu Bello put it in 1960, ‘We must ruthlessly prevent a change of power. We use the minorities of the North as willing tools and the South as a conquered territory and never allow them to rule over us, and never allow them to have control over their future.’

Northerners ruled for all but two-and-a-half of the years 1960–1999 under a succession of military dictatorships. After an attempted putsch by Igbos in January 1966, a July counter-coup consolidated the power of the northern generals. Igbos were slaughtered in pogroms and forced to flee their homes en masse. When the Igbo colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu led a successionist movement the following year, establishing the independent state of Biafra in the south-east, the government of Yakubu Gowon embarked on a campaign to retake the territory. Armed and financed by the British, he waged a brutal civil war that killed an estimated 50,000 people and prompted a mass famine in which up to two million Biafrans died.

With Nigeria reunited under Gowon and Ojukwu sent into exile, post-war reconstruction efforts channelled southern oil revenues to northern Hausa-Fulani areas. There was little challenge to the country’s hegemonic faction amid a series of faltering attempts to revive civilian rule. However, things changed in 1993, when General Ibrahim Babangida promised to hold democratic elections, and the presidential campaign of southern Yoruba businessman M. K. O. Abiola gained ground. Abiola, a UK-educated military hardware supplier and founding member of the National Sharia Committee, ran on an anti-poverty platform, promising to renegotiate Nigeria’s debt repayments amid a dramatic increase in the urban-slum population – the result of punishing IMF structural-adjustment policies.

Yet, unwilling to cede the presidency, Babangida swiftly annulled the election, sparking riots in the south-west in which over a hundred people were killed by state forces. Journalists were arrested and courts prevented from challenging the annulment. Amid the crackdown, Defense Minister Sani Abacha – a participant in the July 1966 counter-coup and commanding officer in the civil war – seized power. He imprisoned Abiola, escalated repression and appointed military officers to key positions in regional and national government. Southern-based extractivist industries were central to his economic programme, as rising oil prices allowed him to reduce debt and inflation. When Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other prominent environmental activists protested against the activities of Royal Dutch Shell in the Ogoni region, Abacha had them hanged.

However, despite his iron-fisted rule and 3,000-strong personal security service trained in North Korea, Abacha died in mysterious circumstances in 1998 and was buried without an autopsy. Fearful of another attempt at southern secession, the northern power-brokers made a concession to the marginalised ethnic groups. Henceforth, they decided, presidential power would rotate between north and south, with representatives from each region serving a maximum of two four-year terms. If the president was a northerner, the vice-president must be a southerner and vice versa. Olusegun Obasanjo, the first leader under this arrangement, was a south-western Yoruba, seen as a safe pair of hands who would generally do the north’s bidding. He selected an even number of cabinet ministers from both parts of the country and loosened the state’s grip on the media. Yet, in most respects, the military-era model remained intact. Economic policy rested on an oil-driven neoliberal ‘development’ plan overseen by the IMF, which involved mass privatizations and public sector downsizing. Communal tensions were dealt with through a massive expansion of the police force, which regularly beat and tortured detainees. The army was deployed to the Niger Delta to quell secessionist sentiments among a cluster of militant groups, killing thousands of civilians in the process.  

Obasanjo’s successor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, died just three years into his tenure, disrupting the smooth alternation of power. His vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner from the Niger delta, was left to see out the remainder of his term. For the next half-decade, Jonathan presided over a corrupt regime that did nothing to rebalance the country’s geographically inflected power structure, allaying the anxieties of northern elites with billions’ worth of kickbacks. In 2015 he faced off against Muhammadu Buhari, the former army major general who had ruled as military dictator from 1983-85 after toppling the fragile Second Republic. In his first incarnation, Buhari drew worldwide condemnation for imprisoning journalists and executing convicted criminals with a retroactive decree. (His damaged reputation on the world stage was partly why he could be overthrown with minimal resistance after just 20 months in office.) Yet, this time round, southern intellectuals – not excepting the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka – persuaded themselves that he was a reformed character who would rescue the country from the cluelessness of his predecessor. Running as a ‘born-again democrat’, he opportunistically opposed Jonathan’s removal of fuel subsidies – winning the support of the northern urban poor, and picking up 54% of the vote.

Buhari pledged to strengthen the security apparatus and wipe out Boko Haram, which had kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in April 2014 while Johnathan stood by. Yet behind the façade, he was no different to the man who ruled in 1983: a kleptocratic Islamic fundamentalist who often declared his willingness to die for the cause of Sharia. Invested in maintaining Hausa-Fulani supremacy, he was banned by Twitter for his incitement of violence against Igbo dissidents: ‘Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War’, he wrote last June. ‘Those of us in the fields for 30 months who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.’

Among the Igbo groups Buhari has confronted is the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), led by Nnamdi Kanu, which seeks to revive the breakaway state that millions died for in the late 1960s. Kanu, a divisive figure with a Messiah complex (you can watch him on YouTube having his feet kissed by acolytes), started broadcasting on Radio Biafra in 2009 and founded IPOB three years later. In 2015 he was arrested on treason charges and held for twelve months. The high court has designated IPOB a terrorist organization, and state forces have regularly been deployed to assassinate its members. As regional polarization widens under Buhari, such outfits have taken steps toward administering their own territory. In late 2020 Kanu established a paramilitary offshoot, ostensibly to protect farmers in the south-east from bandits and deter Fulani herdsmen who bring their flocks south to graze on Biafran land. The central government responded by burning to the ground several buildings thought to be housing IPOB operatives, prompting weeks-long clashes in January 2021 which ended in a setback for the secessionists.

Since he came to power, Buhari has been steadily appointing northerners to every top position in the army, air force, police, security services and judiciary. ‘I have been with them throughout trying times,’ he said of his former military colleagues, describing the political appointments as a reward for their ‘dedication and suffering’. One such ally, the Police Inspector General Usman Baba, launched ‘Operation Restore Peace’ last May: a large-scale offensive in the south-east to beat back Igbo insurgents. As well as promising a pension review to boost morale among the force, Baba has made the government’s intentions clear. ‘Don’t mind the media’, he told his officers. ‘If anyone accuses you of human rights violation, the report will come to my table and you know what I will do. So take the battle to them wherever they are and kill them all. Don’t wait for an order.’

Alongside the skirmishes in the south, Buhari is busy spending almost $2 billion on a railway line from the northern city of Kano to Maradi in Niger, even though the country’s trade flows in the opposite direction. The megacity of Lagos, home to 20 million people, accounts for 90% of goods entering West Africa. Aliko Dangote, the wealthiest person on the continent, has recently revealed that Lagos State accounts for half his profits from sugar interests. Yet public investment is withheld from these industries and redirected to the north, in line with the government’s ethnic ties and patronage networks – causing high levels of unemployment in the south (sometimes reaching almost 40% in border states). Nonetheless, poverty is even more rampant in the north, with one of the highest illiteracy rates worldwide. Large sections continue to suffer from economic neglect which Buhari’s transport renovations will do little to redress. Endemic corruption has hobbled the healthcare sector, dominated by commercial interests and sapped by an ongoing brain-drain. Huge numbers of northern ‘migrants’ flock to Lagos each year to do work typically shunned by southerners: motorcycle taxi riders, shoeshine boys, water sellers. Frustration at these conditions sometimes spills over into popular protests. But if such disparities breed resentment at the more affluent south, then Buhari and his northern clique remain the ultimate beneficiaries.  

Now, with the next elections looming in less than 18 months, there is talk of the north deserving a third term on the grounds that Yar’Adua’s death robbed them of their rightful time in office. It will be instructive to see whether this disingenuous attempt to cling to power can succeed. The fact that the northern political establishment have yet to name a candidate is perhaps an indication that they are themselves uncertain about the endeavour. The leading contender is Nasir el Rufai, the former minister of the Federal Capital Territory and current governor of Kaduna State, where Islamic police known as Hizbah – not recognised in the 1999 constitution, yet no less powerful for that – have been known to arrest secular police officers for drinking beer. Should el Rufai take the reins, we can assume that the new regime will be continuity Buhari: cronyist appointments, rising inequality, and the entrenchment of northern rule underpinned by violent repression.

The inability of this model to create a productive economy is what accounts for the large number of educated, unemployed youths like Hushpuppi – many of whom naturally turn toward crime. Nigeria’s kleptocracy is equally unable to support a justice system worth the name, hence the ubiquity of corrupt cops like Kyari, who will not be extradited lest he drags other senior officers down with him. Both figures are symptomatic of a malaise that has only deepened under Buhari. This sickness was not cured by one civil war; now we look set to descend into another.

Read on: Rob Wallace & Rodrick Wallace, ‘Ebola’s Economies’, NLR 102.


21st-Century Gossip

If we try to recall the most widely circulated pieces of gossip from the last century – those we read or heard about (or saw adapted for the screen) – we find: Prince Rainier III’s marriage to Grace Kelly (1956); the divorce of Shah Reza Pahlavi and Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari (the ‘Sad-Eyed Princess’), who were obliged to separate despite being ‘madly in love’ according to the tabloids; the opera singer Maria Callas’s divorce from Giovanni Battista Meneghini, and her subsequent affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (1959); the adventures of Marilyn Monroe and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and his brother Bobby (1954-62); the love story between Onassis and the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, for whom he left Callas (1968); the diamond-studded infatuations and disavowals of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton (1961-76); and the last great scandal of the 20th century, Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s divorce (1996), plus her death the following year. This is the luxurious world of private islands and jewelry, where one’s only piece of nightwear is Chanel No. 5. It is the world of aristocrats – regents, even – heads of state, actors, opera divas and prime donne.

But if we browse the gossip sections of 21st-century newspapers, we no longer see a sparkling world of nobility and celebrity. Instead, we find ourselves in the boardrooms of major corporations. In the second half of the last century the deaths that caused the most commotion – other than the Kennedys, Monroe and Diana – were those of Eva Perón (wife of the Argentinian general and statesman Juan Perón), Albert Camus, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In this century, however, the death that stands out in terms of its global resonance was that of Steve Jobs.

One story that has occupied public attention in recent months, and continues to fill the broadsheet pages, is Bill and Melinda French Gates’s divorce in May 2021. Much like the classic cases of scandal-reporting from the last century, details about the Gates–French affair have gradually been drip-fed by the media, such as Bill’s association with Jeffrey Epstein. But however laden with outrages and infidelities these stories might be, it’s not the sexual content of the hearsay that captures our attention. It’s the money, pure and simple. Luxury has been supplanted by money in the tabloid reader’s fantasies. The distinction between the two is the same as that between eroticism and hard porn. The former is a semiotic unit – its meaning refers to other meanings (like refinement and style) – whereas the latter refers only to itself.

We have read about the dizzying sums involved in Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott’s 2019 divorce: Bezos leaving his ex-wife 4% of Amazon’s shares (worth $38 billion). We know that Steve Jobs’s widow Laurene Powell inherited nearly the entirety of his fortune, estimated at the time to be around $10.8 billion (including 5.5 million shares in Apple). The amount Melinda French Gates will receive is still unclear, though it will certainly be between $3 and $65 billion. In this whirlwind of billions we are struck by another fact. High society ladies of previous centuries completed their education in private colleges (finishing schools), more often than not Swiss, such as the Institut Alpin Videmanette (attended by Lady Diana and, more recently, by fashion magnate Tamara Mellon); the Mon Fertile (Camilla Parker Bowles); the Institut Le Mesnil (Queen Anne-Marie of Greece); the Brillantmont (Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur); but also American, such as Manhattan’s Finch College (Isabella Rossellini). By contrast, their contemporary equivalents have a far more direct path to fortune. Laurene Powell obtained a BA in Political Science, then a BS in Economics from the Wharton School, and finally an MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; in between she spent three years working for Goldman Sachs and Merill Lynch. Melinda Gates graduated from Duke with a bachelor’s in computer science and economics before pursuing an MBA at its School of Business. MacKenzie Scott’s trajectory seemed less predestined: she studied literature at Princeton, where she was taught by Toni Morrison, before writing a number of middle-brow domestic novels. But she underwent an entrepreneurial transformation at Amazon, brainstorming names for the company in its early days and shipping its very first orders through UPS.

Bourdieu noted that women’s education had been revolutionized in the 19th century by changes in the marriage market, as the emerging bourgeoisie came to expect new qualities from their brides. It was no longer necessary for them to possess land, wealth, jewels; but it was vital for them to know how to preside over a salon, play the piano and hold conversation, preferably in French. The education of these ‘madams’ could no longer be confined to sewing and running a kitchen. Now, in the new millennium, we are witnessing another such revolution, where the ability to play Chopin from memory is replaced by the capacity to identify opportune moments to buy or sell subordinated risk swaps on the derivative market. If paparazzi photos used to show celebrities naked, nowadays their bodies are covered but their finances are laid bare. Fortunes are revealed, wallets unbuttoned. Diderot’s Indiscreet Jewels have reverted to their literal meaning.

The Gates’ separation is exemplary. The more we learn about the story, the less its jealousies and indiscretions (real or imagined) seem to matter. Bill Gates had a tartuffesque approach to inviting women for dinner: ‘If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened’, he had the habit of writing in email postscripts. But much more weight has been placed on his rift with Melinda over the management and control of the Gates Foundation, which holds assets valued at around $49.8 billion. The struggle for sovereignty over this kingdom was what made their break-up particularly bitter. This was well-understood by Warren Buffett – ‘the Oracle of Omaha’ – one of the richest men in the world with a net worth of $104 billion, who rules over the conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett joined the Gates Foundation in 2006 and has since invested $33 billion, serving until this year as one of its trustees. As soon as there was word of divorce, he ran for the hills as quickly as his nonagenarian legs allowed him.

It’s astonishing how seldom the philanthropy business has been the object of sustained criticism. It is barely known that, as an institution, the ‘philanthropic foundation’ in its current legal form is relatively recent, dating back to the First World War. From the moment it was dreamt up, the institution – now seemingly as natural and necessary as the air we breathe – was met with raised shields and vigorous opposition, not just from American unions, but from establishment politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. When the proposal was first brought to establish a Rockefeller foundation, Roosevelt observed that ‘No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.’ Taft called on Congress to oppose the plan – describing it as ‘a bill to incorporate Mr. Rockefeller’ – while the American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers growled, ‘The one thing that the world would gratefully accept from Mr. Rockefeller now would be the establishment of a great endowment of research and education to help other people see in time how they can keep from being like him.’ (I discussed the controversy over foundations more extensively in my latest book, Dominio. La guerra invisibile dei ricchi contro i poveri – Dominion: The Invisible War of the Rich on the Poor – published in Italy last October.)

Today we still have only a rough idea of the financial benefits these tax-exempt foundations enjoy. Indeed, most people are unaware that their returns on investments also go untaxed. If the Gates Foundation happens to invest in Microsoft shares, the dividends of those shares (or the capital gains if they are sold) will not be touched by the state. This explains one of the great mysteries of the foundations: however much they donate, their assets continue to grow.

It’s clear that MacKenzie Scott, like many of her peers, hates having so many billions; she donated $4.1 billion in 2020 and another $8 billion in June of this year alone. But according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, on 9 August 2021 her net worth had grown to $59.2 billion (whereas in 2019 it was ‘only’ $38 billion following her divorce settlement). This increase is partly attributable to the fact that Amazon shares rose from $1,789 to $3,341 in the space of two years. Likewise, Laurene Powell’s wealth never seems to diminish despite her vast donations: she was worth $21 billion in 2012; now she has $22.5 billion to her name. Not to mention the spectacular and constant appreciation of the assets held by the Gates Foundation:

YearNet worth ($ billion)

For all their self-aggrandizing PR, such institutions are ultimately financed by tax exemptions – that is, by public funds. In 2011, for example, the total amount of ‘donations’ made by American foundations was $49 billion; but in the same year, fiscal subsidies to philanthropic works cost the US Treasury $53.7 billion. In other words, American philanthropists donated $4.7 billion less than what they took from the state. They gave away none of their own money, but rather that of others.  

But there’s more: the conduct of a foundation is rarely subject to scrutiny because the donors are under no obligation to answer for their actions. As Joanne Barkan writes, ‘When a foundation project fails…the subjects of the experiment suffer, as does the general public. Yet the do-gooders can simply move on to their next project.’ Alongside this lack of accountability is a tendency to encourage obsequiousness. Before the donors we are all mendicants come to beg for support, a loan, logistical assistance. This feature of the philanthropy economy was enough to scandalize even one of the standard-bearers of the Chicago School, Richard Posner, a man who once supported a ‘free baby market’ – i.e. the unregulated buying and selling of children – as an optimal mechanism for adoption. He remarked in 2006 that

A perpetual charitable foundation is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody. It competes neither in capital markets nor in product markets (in both respects differing from universities), and, unlike a hereditary monarch whom such a foundation otherwise resembles, it is subject to no political controls either. It is not even subject to benchmark competition. The puzzle for economics is why these foundations are not total scandals.

Posner hits the nail on the head. The foundation is a monarchy, absolute rather than constitutional. This is perhaps the key to understanding why the foundation magnates are so often the protagonists of 21st-century gossip. As contemporary royals, wielding all the arcane power associated with such figures, they carry out the same symbolic functions that were once the purview of royal dynasties in the previous century. The Marquess of Boeing, the Archduke of Facebook, the Prince of Google, the Landgrave of Amazon.  

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Reform to Preserve?’, NLR 120.


Agile Workplace

Sparked by the publication of Harry Braverman’s now-canonical Labor and Monopoly Capital, Marxists and other leftists mounted manifold criticisms of capitalist work regimes throughout the 1970s and 1980s. These discussions, later dubbed the ‘labour-process debate’, primarily focused on the thematic of Taylorism – the influential and enduring set of organizational principles developed by Ur-management consultant Frederick Winslow Taylor, who sought to synthesize industrial workflows by decomposing tasks, standardizing procedures, eliminating waste and siloing labourers. Though many of the labour-process analysts considered the extent to which Taylorist maxims had spread beyond the shop floor – impressing themselves upon so-called ‘white-collar’ work in administrative, clerical and service sectors – there was one nascent field that did not elicit any particular interest: software development. Still predominantly a military endeavour, it was occluded by a focus on workplace automation in general.

Much of the working culture of software communities appears collaborative by design. The labour and knowledge indexed by discussion forums, listservs, how-tos and public code repositories stand in contradistinction to the bureaucratic rationality of industrial assembly lines. Yet, as we shall see, two managerial strategies have thus far prevailed in software development’s history. The supremacy of one of these strategies over the other – Agile and Waterfall, respectively – is cognate to a broader structural renegotiation that took place between capital and labour in the twilight of the twentieth century.

Beginning around 1970, in response to what several NATO Software Engineering Conference attendees had diagnosed as a ‘software crisis’ – wherein unwieldy, difficult-to-manage initiatives routinely exceeded their allocated budgets and timeframes – attempts were made to mould computer programming in the shape of the scientific-managerial doxas then in vogue. Various methodologies were suggested to solidify the field; one – the Waterfall model – was eventually victorious following its adoption by the US Department of Defense. The intent of Waterfall was to systematize the often ad-hoc activity that comprises large-scale software production. Among the features that enabled Waterfall to conquer rival methodologies was its division of software development into six sequential stages: requirements, analysis, design, coding, testing, and operations.

The familiar features of the Taylorist factory floor are here transposed from industry to information technology: each stage corresponds to a dedicated department of specialists, who mechanistically repeat their métier ad nauseum. In Waterfall, work cannot begin on any one stage until work on the preceding stage has been completed and its quality assured, with the only necessary coordination between stages being the assurance of ticked checkboxes. Participatory input is discouraged; requirements provided by managerial strata in the first stage chart the full course for the following five. Improvisatory exploration is suppressed; formalities such as contracts, approvals, specifications and logs abound.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, criticisms of Waterfall in software engineering meshed with a new wave of criticisms of work erupting throughout the Western capitalist world. These expressions of popular discontent did not just take aim at the familiar target of exploitation, as conceived by the trade union movement. Rather, they emanated in large part from a relatively affluent subset of the younger working population, disaffected with the heteronomy of work, and emphasizing affective-existential themes like boredom, dehumanization, inauthenticity and meaninglessness. Marking a shift from quantitative material demands for wage increases, employee benefits and job security, this qualitative critique of working life resonated with the vocabulary of urban intellectual and artistic circles. This is what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello refer to in The New Spirit of Capitalism as the ‘artistic critique’: an attack on bureaucratic calcification and hierarchical segmentation, on infantilizing work routines, stern schedules, and a sense of futility under the rubric of Taylorism.

The artistic critique instituted something of a paradigm shift in managerial literature during the 1990s, as new organizational forms were required to render capitalism seductive once again. The rejection of once-sacrosanct bureaucratic-rational principles of twentieth-century scientific management was so pronounced in this literature that Peter Drucker, prominent management consultant and prognosticator of ‘post-industrial society’, termed it a ‘big bang’. These texts – drafted by business managers, organizational engineers, industrial psychologists and the like – were a laboratory in which a properly twenty-first-century capitalist ethos was concocted: a new ‘spirit’, based on cultures, principles, assumptions, hierarchies and ethics that absorbed the complaints of the artistic critique. What emerged was a novel social arrangement, fashioned especially for skilled workers and the children of middle-class cadres, whose regulative principles were employee autonomy, participatory exchange, temporal flexibility and personal self-development.

Boltanski and Chiapello call this arrangement the ‘projective city’. In the projective city, the vertical command-control structures of the Taylorist factory are supplanted by the horizontal ‘network’, whose absolute and ideal amorphousness comes to dominate life both inside and outside the firm. This transformation imposes new operative compulsions, hierarchies of status, intra- and inter-firm politics, and affective states on wage-earners. In the projective city, the central locus of daily life is the project: the determinate activation of a discrete subsection of the network for a definite period and toward a specific goal.

The project – and its regime of continuous activity, the proliferation of which forms an end in itself – becomes the precondition for the connections between agents in the network. Agents cohere into teams which then disperse once the project’s common endpoint has been reached; success on one project is measured by each person’s ability to make it to the next. Rather than a career spent dedicated to a single specialty within the protective environment of the large firm, agents in the projective city are encouraged to multitask, collaborate, adapt and learn by forging interpersonal connections through successive projects. These agents can then incrementally leverage the skills and connections attained on past projects into more interesting, diverse, and – what amounts to the same thing – prestigious future projects, the very heterogeneity of which becomes their primary mark of esteem.

In the aftermath of Y2K and the bursting of the dot-com bubble, a new workplace methodology called Agile emerged as an attempt to sow these principles in the technology sector. Agile’s manifesto – drafted by an alliance of 17 software developers at a Wasatch Range ski resort in 2001 – consists of a mere four lines and 24 words, outlining grammars of action heretical to the Waterfall bible:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan.

Agile is everything that Waterfall is not: lightweight, incremental, fluid, encouraging plasticity with regard to tasks, roles, scheduling, and planning. Whereas initial stakeholder requirements in Waterfall are binding – often the product of months-long planning – Agile’s recurrent testing of products in-progress allows for feedback, reevaluation, modification and pivoting. So-called ‘lean’ teams are released from their individual silos, pushed toward an ideal symbiosis via an endless ascesis of observing, listening, and questioning. Face-to-face interaction and exchange become conduits for learning and self-development. Team members are interchangeable, picking up variegated tasks as needed by the project, countervailing Waterfall’s tendency toward increasing atomization and autonomization of spheres. Here enters the figure of the Project Manager or Team Lead – whose responsibilities can overlap with the Product Manager or Product Owner, depending on the environment – who acts as a facilitator: connecting individuals, redistributing information, unifying energies, routing vectors.

Today, these values congeal around a set of shared terms and best practices. Much of the vernacular antedates Agile, inherited from previous collaborative workplace methodologies like Scrum, Extreme Programming, DSDM or Crystal – but all have now been absorbed into its lexicon. In the Agile firm, the temporal unit of measure is the sprint, so called for its brevity and its intensity. A sprint ranges between two and four weeks, instilling a sense of urgency in the sprinter. While the activity that takes place within it is not strictly scheduled, a predetermined chunk of work must be completed by the time one reaches the finish line.

On desktop, the sprint is visualized two-dimensionally as a horizontal tableau of epics, stories and tasks. Epics correspond to projects, subsuming several stories and tasks. Stories are kept intentionally vague, merely denoting a single functionality that the finished product must support, in the format of: ‘as a <type of user> I can <action> because <intent>.’ While multiple individuals are assigned to a story, single individuals are assigned to a task, which is the smallest byte of work in the project. In the same vein as the sprint, the stand-up or daily scrum keeps team members on their toes; at the start of each working day, programmers assemble and serially recite the tasks they have achieved since yesterday, and which tasks they intend to achieve before tomorrow.

Agile has now not only usurped Waterfall as the dominant paradigm of IT, it has also spilled into areas beyond software development, including finance, sales, marketing and human resources. In recent years, a wave of gargantuan firms in legacy industries – Barclays, Cisco, Wells Fargo and Centene to name a few – have undertaken company-wide ‘Agile transformations’, plucking ‘coaches’ from top business schools and the Big Four consulting firms, and at the same time creating a vast market for productivity software suites made by big-cap companies like Microsoft, Atlassian, ServiceNow and SAP.

The question that nags is: why are employers across sectors willingly, even at considerable expense, instituting changes of this nature? Only one of two possible answers can suffice. The first is that these concessions are plain acts of benevolence on behalf of executives and shareholders, who aim to placate the legitimate malaise voiced by the artistic critique. The second is that a silent bargain between capital and wage-labour has occurred, with capital steadily shedding impediments to accumulation, and wage-earners forfeiting hard-won security in exchange for putative freedom.

It is clear that Agile dissolves many of the more visible features of hierarchical managerial control. But it does so only to recontain them in subtle and nuanced ways. For one, the self-organizing strategies of teams allow for certain workplace disciplinary mechanisms to take the form of normative compulsions rather than explicit instructions. Here, the complex interpersonal modalities of ‘sprint planning’ are illustrative. At the start of the sprint, teams convene to assess the tasks they’ve prioritized. One-by-one, the Project Manager identifies each task, describes what it entails, and asks if the criteria make sense. The goal is then for the team to map story points to that task, which is a number that defines its level of complexity. The team cannot discuss the next task until all team members have mutually agreed upon the current task’s number of points.

In hardline Agile firms, a device called point poker is used. In this game, team members blindly impute a number to the task – they ‘point’ – and then the Project Manager ‘reveals’, showing the level of complexity that each team member believes the task to be. There is an element of motivation psychology here: no programmer wants to be caught assessing a task assigned to them as exceedingly difficult, an anxiety that exerts a consistent downward pressure on the number of points assigned to tasks. Because points can be doled out until the sum of points reaches the velocity number – the maximum of points that the team can reliably handle before the next sprint – pressure is exerted upon individuals to shoulder a larger workload.

The homeostatic regulation of the Agile team accrues additional advantages to capital. Its internalization of discipline renders redundant much of the managerial and supervisory strata of Waterfall. This is also the case with the necessarily transient nature of the connections between agents in Agile: links to product owners, leaders, managers, teams and outside firms can often last solely for the duration of a single project. A project-centric culture, coupled with the premium placed on lean teams and fungible team members, encourages wage-earners to move freely not only from project to project, but from firm to firm. Hence, we see the proliferation of recently devised hiring instruments like temping, subcontracting, outsourcing, zero-hours, freelancing and permalancing, forming part of the basis for what has come to be known as the ‘precariat’. In this way, through the mores and rhythms of the work itself, relationships are rendered tenuous, and employers are freed from the commitment to long-term employee well-being.  

The virtue most venerated in the Agile environment is autonomy – which, in practice, amounts to a cult of individual performance. All are engaged in a constant battle with ossification. Ceaseless self-education, self-training and self-improvement is required. Workers must practice both the one-upmanship of accruing more responsibilities on projects and the continual anticipation of future competency needs. Threatened by what Robert Castel calls ‘disaffiliation’, an anxious self-consciousness pervades the projective city. Make yourself useful to others – or die. Boundaries between work and non-work disintegrate, not least due to the voluntary labour one must perform to extend one’s network socially. Underlying each project, the long-term personal meta-project is employability. For that, it is not enough merely to complete the task: one must distinguish oneself.

There are also the more familiar corporate control mechanisms that Agile’s progenitors claim no longer exist. Principles of self-determination clash with technocratic implementation. In today’s corporate pantheon, the Product Manager or Product Owner is a kind of hybrid entrepreneurial-aesthetic visionary, embodying the qualities previously associated with the artist of high modernism. The software product is the outcome of his creativity and ingenuity. While his co-workers are not figured as employees, but as formally equal teammates or collaborators, behind this façade the Product Manager enforces an ever intensifying work regime: ticketing systems to monitor activity, daily stand-ups to create accountability, deadlines to meet quarterly revenue streams. By breaking down his reveries into actionable assignments to be fulfilled in the span of days, the Product Manager controls the pace at which technology is created. Decision-making rests upon his word; deploying the product as quickly as possible is his objective. Under this despot cloaked in a dissident’s garb, the Taylorist separation between conception and execution reappears in the projective city: as if Agile has itself succumbed to the rationalization it pledged to banish.

Read on: Rob Lucas, ‘Dreaming in Code’, NLR 62


The Puzzle

‘Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.’ Franz Fanon’s declaration in The Wretched of the Earth is quoted towards the end of La Discrétion, the new novel by French-Algerian author Faïza Guène. It captures the preoccupations of this gifted writer who, in five previous works of fiction, has explored the contradictory experience of growing up with Arab immigrant parents in the Paris suburbs.

Guène, now 36, came out of the starting blocks fast. After high school she went straight into writing and filmmaking, and at the age of 19 published her first novel, Kiffe kiffe demain. A short autobiographical comedy about a teenager living in a housing estate just outside the French capital, Guène’s debut was a bestseller and translated into 26 languages. Her films were less polished, looking more like home videos with ropey acting and few artistic flourishes, but they revealed much about the subjects that would fuel her later fiction. Her 2002 short feature RTT explored the impact of France’s statutory 35-hour working week on an Algerian family who could not afford to take leisure time; and her documentary, Mémoire du 17 octobre 1961, featured interviews with people who had been present when scores of Algerian independence protesters were killed by Paris police in 1961.

The themes from both these early films re-emerge in La Discrétion. Guène is clear about how the notorious events of October 1961 – a massacre the French government has long refused to acknowledge – have become relevant in her adulthood. ‘I have always felt that something could escape me’, she said, reflecting on her relationship with her parents. ‘Early on I wanted to understand their story. Thanks to the documentary, I was able to make my father speak for the first time about this event that was so important for me. I understood that each generation has its mission to fulfil, and ours perhaps is to collect these stories and recount them.’

La Discrétion marks an upgrade in ambition for Guène, shifting the focus from her own generation to that of her mother, presented in the fictionalized character of Yamina, who grew up in Algeria in the 1950s and left for France during the war of independence. The novel has a simple style and structure. Alternating chapters bring us back and forth from Aubervilliers in 2019 to Algeria in 1949, when Yamina was born, and subsequent flashbacks recall her romance with Brahim, a migrant worker who spent long stretches of time in France during the early eighties. Together they moved to the suburbs and raised their children: three daughters, Malika, Imane and Hannah, and a son, the youngest child, Omar. The novel is told in the third person, though it adopts the voices and viewpoints of the different family members, occasionally decentring Yamina as the protagonist.  

Yamina is kind and unassuming, portrayed with evident tenderness by Guène. She appears not to notice the subtle ways she is treated as a second-class citizen. Or does she? The novel raises this possibility without confirming it, allowing the uncertainty to pervade the atmosphere. Guène suggests that many women in Yamina’s position may have consciously chosen to ignore everyday racism in order to avoid confrontation. Passages like the following suggest the mother’s passivity could be an active choice:

Yamina does not see what the doctor’s coarse gestures communicate. She doesn’t realize that he is abrupt and efficient. Sometimes he even bumps her while lifting her arm to take her blood pressure, but she would never dare point this out to him. As if being in pain was acceptable. As if nothing about herself was serious. In a way, Yamina is protected.

She doesn’t understand in what geometry the world has placed her. Her innocence protects her from the violence of the doctor’s attitude. She does not appreciate the vertical relationship that plays out in the office of the doctor, whom she respects so much, for his position, his years of study and his knowledge. She doesn’t see that invisible ladder on which he perches above her every time he speaks to her.

It makes you wonder if Yamina isn’t doing it on purpose, as she seems incredibly deaf to the anger that calls out to her.

Perhaps, then, could it be she has chosen not to let herself be damaged by contempt?

Maybe a long time ago Yamina understood that if she started picking up on every little thing then it would never end.

La Discrétion’s style is telegraphic, with short sentences giving a conversational rhythm to the prose. This is classic Guène, evoking the sharp dialogue of earlier novels. But the register has also shifted to something more literary. There is not as much direct quotation; instead, Guène injects italicized passages that seem to be snippets of speech, although their appearance on the page does not necessarily coincide with their moment of utterance. Italics are also used to signal set phrases – idioms or marketing slogans:

Omar’s sisters are three radically different personalities. To express their distinctness, their father calls them: morning, noon and night. It makes Brahim laugh. He says all the time: Ah my girls, they’re like medication. It’s morning, noon and night!

These devices give Guène’s narrative a striking precision and authenticity. The story is told in a series of brief episodes – each chapter taking place in a different setting – which range from the Algerian war to a heated conversations on the streets of present-day Paris. The writing is concise but never cold, and the plot is interspersed with haunting descriptive passages, such as this account of Yamina’s visit to the dentist (or l’arracheur, ‘the tooth-puller’, as she calls him):

The sour-tempered man orders her to sit on the wooden stool and open her mouth. The little girl barely has time to take a look at the tools. In truth, there is only a small metal blacksmith’s pliers, unsterilised.

It is worse than the worst nightmare.

The man violently pulls out her tooth, it makes a terrible noise, Yamina will never be able to forget that noise. The tooth carries on crumbling, still stuck in the pliers, under the pressure of the puller’s hand.

Yamina screams, her head is going to explode, blood pouring down her throat. The voices, the noise, the hum of the market that drives you crazy – all of it gradually fades away. Little Yamina’s vision goes fuzzy, she feels herself fainting. She has never known such pain[…]

Now Yamina has to get home alone, walking under the blazing sun.
Until 1973 she would suffer regularly from abscesses and migraines – almost fourteen years, without anyone around her caring.

One day, in front of a pocket mirror, in despair, unable to bear the pain any longer, she hollows out her bloody gum with the help of a vine stalk, and pulls out a large piece, slightly black: the rotten bit of tooth that the tooth-puller left behind.

One cannot help but see some symbolism in the piece of decaying tooth that has been lodged in Yamina’s gum for 14 years: the rot of her ruined childhood, robbed from her by war and exile, which continues to gnaw away throughout adulthood. When the pain becomes too severe, Guène tells us, it will eventually force its way to the surface.

Yet if this is the arc of Yamina’s story, her children’s lives are different – particularly the three daughters. They have not inherited their mother’s meekness, nor her impulse to repress the feeling of cultural dislocation. In one illustrative scene, Malika ponders her arranged marriage and subsequent divorce, explaining to herself why she went through with it. Guène then draws back from Malika’s perspective and elaborates on the condition of first-generation immigrants in France – caught between clashing ‘codes’, and resisting erasure from the society they inhabit:

If older siblings like Malika came to terms with their old rules, it was because they knew the parents were doing the best they could. There had to be rules, after all! They had to invent them!

They had to organize themselves a bit, even if they were only passing through, even if they still believed in a miraculous return [to Algeria]. A life, even a temporary one, takes over. This is how they instinctively invented their hybrid laws, halfway between the home of their memory and this place where they now lived.

Because they lived here. They had to admit it now. It is true that it was going on longer than expected. It must be said that this country is good at stealing years from men, it is good at confiscating their hopes and burying their dreams in thousands of small coffins[…]

It’s not that easy to make the right decisions without understanding all the codes. They were afraid of losing everything, of compromising themselves. They wanted to stay who they are. They did not want to give it up. They refused to be erased, A SECOND TIME. How not to fear erasure? It’s what this country knew best to do, it had already tried to erase them, and now it was going after their children.

La Discrétion is one of several new French novels that explores such issues of belonging and marginalisation in immigrant communities in and around Paris (Fatima Daas’s fiction is another noteworthy example). Yet Guène’s work stands out for its historical sweep, spanning multiple generations and continents. Its achronological narrative connects the events of the 1950s to contemporary experiences, but it does so with a light touch, balancing the seriousness of the subject with a liveliness and humour that resists didacticism. In a memorable scene, Yamina and her daughters discuss whether it is possible to show respect for Algeria while also identifying with France. When one sibling speculates about moving to Paris and getting a job with a half-decent salary, her sister retorts: ‘Hey you, stop playing the smartass, Frenchwoman with her papers – ha! Listening to you youd think you’re called Nadine and grew up in Brittany. What did France ever do for you?

For someone who partly grew up in Brittany and has a cousin there called Nadine, I could well have been excluded from this joke, which is both funny and deadly serious. But Guène’s writing has the opposite effect: you laugh too, either with the family or at yourself, because the tone is one of gentle mockery rather than outright hostility. This wryness has had a peculiar effect on Guène’s reception, however. Her books have found plenty of readers, but they have generally been treated as insubstantial comedies – as if their wit offers an excuse for ignoring their indictments of colonial ideology.

During the novel’s second half, the four children are pursuing their own paths, with Omar causing the least friction – driving a taxi and finding a stable girlfriend. Malika has an administrative job in the Bobigny town hall, where she has already caused a ruffle by speaking Arabic to a man who struggles with French. There is a rule that requires employees to speak exclusively in French, and Malika’s colleague Bianca – who comes from Martinique – snitches on her to the boss. It strikes Malika as a disgrace to Fanon’s legacy that someone from a French-controlled territory has betrayed a colleague from a former French colony. Back at the family home, Yamina tells her daughter to ‘stay discreet’ and keep below the fray. Hannah blows up at this mention of discretion: ‘People are dead because of your discretion’, she bellows, ‘isn’t that enough?’

For the two eldest daughters, Yamina’s past in Algeria is an increasingly troubling presence. It acts as a psychic barrier as they try to build their lives in France. Malika’s response to this impediment is intellectual, whereas Hannah is gripped by an anger she does not understand and cannot channel. Bored one day at work, Malika scours the internet for details about the place where her mother grew up and where much of her family still lives. But while digging through the archives she realizes there is no trace of their surname. It makes her feel as if her life is full of phantoms – as if she too is a ghostly presence, inhabiting a story full of gaps and silences. Malika finally accepts that her biography is fragmented, her memory in pieces, her heritage an unsolvable puzzle. We do not know where she will go from here, but it seems likely she will adopt a similar attitude to Guène: she will keep digging, speaking to people, interrogating neglected episodes from her history, without assuming these will add up to a self-consistent whole.

If Malika’s reaction to feeling incomplete involves a turn outward, Hannah takes a contrasting turn inward. Towards the end of the novel she makes a breakthrough by seeing a therapist to whom she describes the nightmares she has had since she was a girl, in which a young Jean-Marie Le Pen snatches her mother away from her. The therapist is reassuring, evoking Fanon in her reply:

This violence is normal, it’s a part of you, of your history, you carry within you this violence and the humiliations of those before you so that in a certain way you are the inheritorBut you alone can’t carry all this weight. You alone cannot repair the affront.

Imane, the youngest daughter, is less preoccupied with these questions of heritage. By the end of the novel she has left home, moved into a studio in Paris and started a job at Maxi Toys. She is happy enough, but her difficulty in finding a boyfriend makes her contemplate her residual out-of-place-ness:

Too independent for some, not enough for others. She supports freedom of expression but that doesn’t make her Charlie. She is Muslim and feminist. She is French and Algerian. She has neither straight nor curly hair. She is vegan when it isn’t halal. She is modern and reactionary. She is everything and its opposite.

Imane lives in a world that is not ready to welcome her complexity.

In the final pages of La Discrétion we follow the family to the countryside for a surprise holiday to celebrate Yamina’s birthday. They get on well with one another, but the old woman who rents them the apartment is rude and remote. Is this a symptom of her half-deafness, or is it a sign of racial prejudice? The daughters play their childhood game, ‘Racist or Not Racist?’, but they cannot quite settle on an answer. Guène’s spirited ending is also an ambiguous one. She does not set out to crack the problems of inheritance, but the children’s trajectories nonetheless chart various escape routes, even as their environment grows increasingly hostile and intolerant. Yamina’s daughters are not likely to become political activists; but at the level of their everyday interactions, they enact the psychological break with colonialism at the heart of Fanon’s mission.  

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘Just Remember This’, NLR 95.


Debacle in Afghanistan

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August 2021 is a major political and ideological defeat for the American Empire. The crowded helicopters carrying US Embassy staff to Kabul airport were startlingly reminiscent of the scenes in Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – in April 1975. The speed with which Taliban forces stormed the country was astonishing; their strategic acumen remarkable. A week-long offensive ended triumphantly in Kabul. The 300,000-strong Afghan army crumbled. Many refused to fight. In fact, thousands of them went over to the Taliban, who immediately demanded the unconditional surrender of the puppet government. President Ashraf Ghani, a favourite of the US media, fled the country and sought refuge in Oman. The flag of the revived Emirate is now fluttering over his Presidential palace. In some respects, the closest analogy is not Saigon but nineteenth-century Sudan, when the forces of the Mahdi swept into Khartoum and martyred General Gordon. William Morris celebrated the Mahdi’s victory as a setback for the British Empire. Yet while the Sudanese insurgents killed an entire garrison, Kabul changed hands with little bloodshed. The Taliban did not even attempt to take the US embassy, let alone target American personnel.  

The twentieth anniversary of the ‘War on Terror’ thus ended in predictable and predicted defeat for the US, NATO and others who clambered on the bandwagon. However one regards the Taliban’s policies – I have been a stern critic for many years – their achievement cannot be denied. In a period when the US has wrecked one Arab country after another, no resistance that could challenge the occupiers ever emerged. This defeat may well be a turning point. That is why European politicians are whinging. They backed the US unconditionally in Afghanistan, and they too have suffered a humiliation – none more so than Britain.

Biden was left with no choice. The United States had announced it would withdraw from Afghanistan in September 2021 without fulfilling any of its ‘liberationist’ aims: freedom and democracy, equal rights for women, and the destruction of the Taliban. Though it may be undefeated militarily, the tears being shed by embittered liberals confirm the deeper extent of its loss. Most of them – Frederick Kagan in the NYT, Gideon Rachman in the FT – believe that the drawdown should have been delayed to keep the Taliban at bay. But Biden was simply ratifying the peace process initiated by Trump, with Pentagon backing, which saw an agreement reached in February 2020 in the presence of the US, Taliban, India, China and Pakistan. The American security establishment knew that the invasion had failed: the Taliban could not be subdued no matter how long they stayed. The notion that Biden’s hasty withdrawal has somehow strengthened the militants is poppycock.

The fact is that over twenty years, the US has failed to build anything that might redeem its mission. The brilliantly lit Green Zone was always surrounded by a darkness that the Zoners could not fathom. In one of the poorest countries of the world, billions were spent annually on air-conditioning the barracks that housed US soldiers and officers, while food and clothing were regularly flown in from bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It was hardly a surprise that a huge slum grew on the fringes of Kabul, as the poor assembled to search for pickings in dustbins. The low wages paid to Afghan security services could not convince them to fight against their countrymen. The army, built up over two decades, had been infiltrated at an early stage by Taliban supporters, who received free training in the use of modern military equipment and acted as spies for the Afghan resistance.

This was the miserable reality of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Though credit where credit is due: the country has witnessed a huge rise in exports. During the Taliban years, opium production was strictly monitored. Since the US invasion it has increased dramatically, and now accounts for 90% of the global heroin market – making one wonder whether this protracted conflict should be seen, partially at least, as a new opium war. Trillions have been made in profits and shared between the Afghan sectors that serviced the occupation. Western officers were handsomely paid off to enable the trade. One in ten young Afghans are now opium addicts. Figures for NATO forces are unavailable.

As for the status of women, nothing much has changed. There has been little social progress outside the NGO-infested Green Zone. One of the country’s leading feminists in exile remarked that Afghan women had three enemies: the Western occupation, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. With the departure of the United States, she said, they will have two. (At the time of writing this can perhaps be amended to one, as the Taliban’s advances in the north saw off key factions of the Alliance before Kabul was captured.) Despite repeated requests from journalists and campaigners, no reliable figures have been released on the sex-work industry that grew to service the occupying armies. Nor are there credible rape statistics – although US soldiers frequently used sexual violence against ‘terror suspects’, raped Afghan civilians and green-lighted child abuse by allied militias. During the Yugoslav civil war, prostitution multiplied and the region became a centre for sex trafficking. UN involvement in this profitable business was well-documented. In Afghanistan, the full details are yet to emerge.

Over 775,000 US troops have fought in Afghanistan since 2001. Of those, 2,448 were killed, along with almost 4,000 US contractors. Approximately 20,589 were wounded in action according to the Defense Department. Afghan casualty figures are difficult to calculate, since ‘enemy deaths’ that include civilians are not counted. Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that at least 4,200–4,500 civilians were killed by mid-January 2002 as a consequence of the US assault, both directly as casualties of the aerial bombing campaign and indirectly in the humanitarian crisis that ensued. By 2021, the Associated Press were reporting that 47,245 civilians had perished because of the occupation. Afghan civil-rights activists gave a higher total, insisting that 100,000 Afghans (many of them non-combatants) had died, and three times that number had been wounded.

In 2019, the Washington Post published a 2,000-page internal report commissioned by the US federal government to anatomise the failures of its longest war: ‘The Afghanistan Papers’. It was based on a series of interviews with US Generals (retired and serving), political advisers, diplomats, aid workers and so on. Their combined assessment was damning. General Douglas Lute, the ‘Afghan war czar’ under Bush and Obama, confessed that ‘We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing…We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we’re undertaking… If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.’ Another witness, Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy Seal and a White House staffer under Bush and Obama, highlighted the vast waste of resources: ‘What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion? … After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.’ He could have added: ‘And we still lost.’

Who was the enemy? The Taliban, Pakistan, all Afghans? A long-serving US soldier was convinced that at least one-third of Afghan police were addicted to drugs and another sizeable chunk were Taliban supporters. This posed a major problem for US soldiers, as an unnamed Special Forces honcho testified in 2017: ‘They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live…It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first, they just kept asking: “But who are the bad guys, where are they?”’.

Donald Rumsfeld expressed the same sentiment back in 2003. ‘I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan or Iraq’, he wrote. ‘I read all the intel from the community, and it sounds as though we know a great deal, but in fact, when you push at it, you find out we haven’t got anything that is actionable. We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.’ The inability to distinguish between a friend and an enemy is a serious issue – not just on a Schmittean level, but on a practical one. If you can’t tell the difference between allies and adversaries after an IED attack in a crowded city market, you respond by lashing out at everyone, and create more enemies in the process.

Colonel Christopher Kolenda, an adviser to three serving Generals, pointed to another problem with the US mission. Corruption was rampant from the beginning, he said; the Karzai government was ‘self-organised into a kleptocracy’. That undermined the post-2002 strategy of building a state that could outlast the occupation. ‘Petty corruption is like skin cancer: there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably okay. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.’ Of course, the Pakistani state – where kleptocracy is embedded at every level – has survived for decades. But things weren’t so easy in Afghanistan, where nation-building efforts were led by an occupying army and the central government had scant popular support.

What of the fake reports that the Taliban were routed, never to return? A senior figure in the National Security Council reflected on the lies broadcast by his colleagues:

It was their explanations. For example, [Taliban] attacks are getting worse? ‘That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability.’ Then, three months later, attacks are still getting worse? ‘It’s because the Taliban are getting desperate, so it’s actually an indicator that we’re winning’… And this went on and on for two reasons, to make everyone involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.

All this was an open secret in the chanceries and defence ministries of NATO Europe. In October 2014, the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon admitted that ‘Mistakes were made militarily, mistakes were made by the politicians at the time and this goes back 10, 13 years…We’re not going to send combat troops back into Afghanistan, under any circumstances.’ Four years later, Prime Minister Theresa May redeployed British troops to Afghanistan, doubling its fighters ‘to help tackle the fragile security situation’. Now the UK media is echoing the Foreign Office and criticising Biden for having made the wrong move at the wrong time, with the head of the British armed forces Sir Nick Carter suggesting a new invasion might be necessary. Tory backbenchers, colonial nostalgists, stooge-journalists and Blair-toadies are lining up to call for a permanent British presence in the war-torn state.

What’s astonishing is that neither General Carter nor his relays appear to have acknowledged the scale of the crisis confronted by the US war machine, as set out in ‘The Afghanistan Papers’. While American military planners have slowly woken up to reality, their British counterparts still cling to a fantasy image of Afghanistan. Some argue that the withdrawal will put Europe’s security at risk, as al-Qaeda regroups under the new Islamic Emirate. But these forecasts are disingenuous. The US and UK have spent years arming and assisting al-Qaeda in Syria, as they did in Bosnia and in Libya. Such fearmongering can only function in a swamp of ignorance. For the British public, at least, it does not seem to have cut through. History sometimes presses urgent truths on a country through a vivid demonstration of facts or an exposure of elites. The current withdrawal is likely to be one such moment. Britons, already hostile to the War on Terror, could harden in their opposition to future military conquests.  

What does the future hold? Replicating the model developed for Iraq and Syria, the US has announced a permanent special military unit, staffed by 2,500 troops, to be stationed at a Kuwaiti base, ready to fly to Afghanistan and bomb, kill and maim should it become necessary. Meanwhile, a high-powered Taliban delegation visited China last July, pledging that their country would never again be used as a launch pad for attacks on other states. Cordial discussions were held with the Chinese Foreign Minister, reportedly covering trade and economic ties. The summit recalled similar meetings between Afghan mujahideen and Western leaders during the 1980s: the former appearing with their Wahhabi costumes and regulation beard-cuts against the spectacular backdrop of the White House or 10 Downing Street. But now, with NATO in retreat, the key players are China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan (which has undoubtedly provided strategic assistance to the Taliban, and for whom this is a huge politico-military triumph). None of them wants a new civil war, in polar contrast to the US and its allies after the Soviet withdrawal. China’s close relations with Tehran and Moscow might enable it to work towards securing some fragile peace for the citizens of this traumatised country, aided by continuing Russian influence in the north.

Much emphasis has been placed on the average age in Afghanistan: 18, in a population of 40 million. On its own this means nothing. But there is hope that young Afghans will strive for a better life after the forty-year conflict. For Afghan women the struggle is by no means over, even if only a single enemy remains. In Britain and elsewhere, all those who want to fight on must shift their focus to the refugees who will soon be knocking on NATO’s door. At the very least, refuge is what the West owes them: a minor reparation for an unnecessary war.

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Mirage of the Good War’, NLR 50.


The Changemaker

Since winning the presidency with a decisive mandate in 2019, Nayib Bukele – the charismatic millennial millionaire president of El Salvador – has launched a major authoritarian crackdown: using the armed forces to intimidate parliamentarians; enforcing a militarized state of exception during the pandemic; attacking independent journalists; prosecuting the political opposition; and orchestrating a legislative coup to replace Supreme Court magistrates and the Attorney General. Backed by a sizeable portion of the population, Bukele is turning a weak neoliberal democracy into a militarized autocratic state. He has reversed the fragile gains of the 1992 Peace Accords, destroying the country’s post-civil war political system in the process. His rise to power, however, can only be understood in the context of that system’s extended crisis.

The bloody Salvadoran civil war pitted a US-backed military dictatorship against the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftist guerilla army made up of five political-military organizations and supported by peasant, labour and student movements. After twelve years of sustained insurgent warfare and scorched-earth repression yielded no clear military victor, UN-sponsored negotiations brought the conflict to a close. The Truth Commission report estimated the war’s toll at 75,000 deaths and 10,000 disappearances, with only 5% of the violence attributed to the FMLN.

The Peace Accords demilitarized the Salvadoran state and established a tenuous liberal institutional framework, but they left its highly unequal, export-driven, US-dependent economy in the grip of the oligarchic class: an incestuous clique of old landowning families with large commercial and financial investments in the region. As the FMLN underwent a complex transition from clandestine guerilla army to political party, the Salvadoran elite followed US directives to implement far-reaching neoliberal reforms. Over the course of four consecutive terms (1989–2009), the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party – founded by the death-squad leader who ordered the assassination of archbishop Óscar Romero in 1980 – enacted sweeping privatizations, deregulation and trade liberalization. This restructuring shifted the axes of accumulation from monoculture exports to maquiladora manufacturing and, increasingly, migrant remittances. Tens of thousands of workers, displaced from the public and agricultural sectors, were pushed into the informal economy or the racialized substrata of US labour markets.

In the late 1990s, the mass deportation of Salvadorans from the US returned thousands of migrants to the working-class neighborhoods around San Salvador, some of whom brought with them the gang culture that flourished in US prisons. This soon took root among large numbers of young people excluded from the country’s postwar neoliberal development. Aided by Washington, ARENA deployed iron-fist policing and mass incarceration against the gangs, prompting their maturation into sophisticated criminal enterprises. Amid rising economic hardship, the FMLN, which had been steadily consolidating local electoral power for over a decade, launched an effective presidential campaign led by progressive journalist Mauricio Funes. In June 2009, he ascended to El Salvador’s highest office with 51% of the vote.

The FMLN’s victory, clinched in the first round, was a repudiation of the order that had failed to deliver on the promises of the 1992 agreement. Yet the FMLN came up against significant obstacles while in power. It was constrained by both exogenous and endogenous forces. The military coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya in neighboring Honduras – backed by the Obama administration – sent a stark warning to the Funes government during its first weeks in office. The US frequently exercised an imperial veto over the FMLN’s social reforms, threatening to sever aid or withdraw temporary immigration protections for the Salvadoran diaspora. The legislature, courts and corporate media worked to destabilize the government, overturning progressive fiscal measures and obstructing development programmes. The Supreme Court even suspended the urban transit system, declaring bus lanes unconstitutional. Further problems were created by an opportunistic pact with the conservative GANA party, founded in 2010 by ARENA defectors. GANA agreed to lend its votes to FMLN, overriding ARENA’s opposition to some legislative changes. But in return it demanded cabinet posts and concessions to capital.

Despite these barriers, the FMLN enacted important social policies over its two five-year terms: building an expansive, Cuban-modeled healthcare system; providing free uniforms, supplies and meals to public school students; paying reparations to victims of war atrocities; and institutionalizing protections for women, indigenous communities and the LGBT population. But the pace of change slowed during the party’s second term under Sánchez Cerén (2014–19), as the impact of the financial crisis reached Latin America. The waning of the Pink Tide and collapse of Venezuelan oil prices left the FMLN increasingly isolated internationally, while the domestic opposition starved the government of funding from its bastions in the legislature and Supreme Court.

Ten years in government took its toll on the FMLN, which became increasingly consumed by the everyday maintenance of state power. After punishing losses in the 2018 midterms, it entered the 2019 presidential race with a defensive strategy and a demoralized base. The revolutionary rhetoric of its first term was replaced by a conciliatory appeal to preserve the gains of the past decade. At the same time, the party’s credibility took a devastating hit, as a series of politically motivated (though not necessarily baseless) charges were levelled against Funes over the misuse of public funds. Enter Bukele in the role of changemaker.

Nayib Bukele is one of many sons of the late Armando Bukele, a wealthy businessman and intellectual of Palestinian descent. A leading figure in El Salvador’s Muslim community, Bukele Sr was also a longtime supporter and financier of the FMLN. After dropping out of college, Nayib had a short-lived career as an entrepreneur, running a nightclub into the ground and working at a family advertising agency. In 2012, Bukele Sr used his connections to launch his son’s political career. Nayib joined the FMLN at the age of 31 and ran for the mayoralty of a small suburb of Nuevo Cuscatlán, where he built up his personal brand – including his signature color, cyan, a notable departure from the FMLN’s traditional red and white. In 2015 he was elected mayor of San Salvador, with his sights set on the presidency.

Bukele’s youth and PR skills brought him broad popularity both within and without a party still led by an aging comandancia. But his ambition and indiscipline provoked increasing conflict with the leadership. In 2017 he was finally expelled from the FMLN after making a sexist remark to an FMLN city councilwoman. With the 2019 presidential elections fast approaching, it was too late for Bukele to register as an independent, and he failed to launch his ‘New Ideas’ party in time to compete. He opted to join the GANA ticket, recruiting FMLN defector Felix Ulloa as his vice-presidential candidate. Presenting himself as a rebellious and irreverent outsider, Bukele hijacked the establishment’s wrecking campaign against the left, attacking both the FMLN and ARENA as enemies of the people. His base was comprised of working- and middle-class Salvadorans, including a large number of fundamentalist evangelical Christians and frustrated former FMLN voters. Factions of Salvadoran capital outside the traditional oligarchy have swung behind him, along with the shadowy military and narcotrafficking interests represented in the GANA bloc. It proved to be an unbeatable coalition. Bukele won easily, with 53% of the vote.

In government, he has surrounded himself with a tight circle of family and friends. His brothers Karim, Yusef and Ibrajim work as unofficial advisors and spokespeople, while his cousin Javier Zablah Bukele presides over the New Ideas party. Two longstanding acquaintances of Bukele, Ernesto Castro and Conan Castro, serve respectively as his private secretary and president of the Legislative Assembly. At least three cabinet members are the president’s former schoolmates. Despite his anti-corruption rhetoric, Bukele’s primary project has been to consolidate this patrimonial power. In lieu of a development strategy, he has dedicated unprecedented resources to publicity, while reversing the FMLN’s modest reforms. Making expert use of social media, he deploys evangelical Christian tropes to present himself as a messianic figure crusading against the demonic forces of the political establishment, gang violence, and a cabal of NGOs, journalists and foreign interests.

Following the legislative coup on 1 May, in which lawmakers voted to replace the Attorney General and all five magistrates of El Salvador’s constitutional Chamber, the president has used the newly subordinate judicial branch to harrass the opposition, targeting the left in particular. On 22 July, police arrested five former FMLN cabinet members on trumped-up corruption charges and issued warrants for several others, including former president Sánchez Cerén. In addition, Bukele has re-politicized the armed forces and expanded their role in public life, pledging to double their ranks. He has directed the vice president to embark on a secretive process to reform the Constitution in the hope that this will ease his path to reelection.  

Bukele’s party swept the February 2021 midterms, winning a legislative supermajority plus the better part of mayorships nationwide. Polls continue to reflect his personal popularity, but after two years of false promises and a deepening economic crisis, that support has begun to falter. Desperate for financing, Bukele has raised the national debt to over 90% of GDP, while courting foreign tourism and tech-bro investors. Yet his autocratic and unpredictable governance style may jeopardize those efforts by imperiling international loans and tanking the country’s credit ratings. Meanwhile, El Salvador’s relationship with the US has reached a historic low. The Biden administration, under pressure to combat the ‘root causes’ of mass Central American migration, views Bukele as a difficult and unreliable subordinate. Caught between a performative commitment to democratic norms and the need for security cooperation to contain migration flows, the US has resorted to aid restrictions and sanctions to discipline El Salvador’s premier. If tensions with the hegemon continue to escalate, the impact on the country’s US-dependent economy will be significant.  

Last June, in a bid to boost foreign investment, circumvent possible sanctions and stimulate illicit economies, Bukele made the controversial decision to impose Bitcoin as legal tender. Yet this cryptogamble is unlikely to pay off. The reform, undertaken with no public consultation and pushed through parliament at rapid speed, is deeply unpopular, eliciting comparisons with ARENA’s disastrous dollarization of the economy in 2001. The Salvadorian left, however, is in no position to capitalize on the discontent. The 2021 midterms reduced the FMLN to near irrelevance, with only four legislative seats and a handful of tiny mayorships. Under the weak leadership of former vice president Óscar Ortiz, a faction associated with the old Communist Party has effectively taken over the organization. This group, which controls the national subsidiary of the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA, now dominates the FMLN’s principal decision-making bodies. It has pushed for increased collaboration with the government, convincing two of the party’s four legislators to vote with New Ideas in an attempt to claw back influence.  

The FMLN’s demise is not predestined. A scenario in which the party returns to its popular roots remains possible, as indicated by the Communist Party’s recent revival in Chile. The remnants of the labour movement have largely been coopted, although feminist, LGBT, student and environmental organizations continue to mobilize against the government. Thousands turned out last May to protest against the lack of provisions for workers and the unemployed during the pandemic. Yet without a progressive electoral force capable of commanding broad support, the right will be best placed to profit from Bukele’s decline. Certain factions of big capital – like the Kriete family, with massive regional aviation, real-estate and agribusiness holdings – have aligned themselves with the ruling bloc, but many others still view Bukele with unease. The 2020 midterms saw a multiplication of small right-wing parties, as Salvadoran big business casts about for viable alternatives. Without a left revival, these forces could eventually anoint Bukele’s successor: someone less erratic, less likely to alienate the US, but no more capable of remedying El Salvador’s structural ailments.

Harald Jung, ‘Class Struggles in El Salvador’, NLR I/122.


Avoidance Strategies

The prologue to Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel takes the form of a diary. Some 450-pages long – more than double the length of the eponymous work that serves as the book’s second section – it is one of the great evasive acts of twenty-first century literature. Paralyzed by a recently awarded Guggenheim fellowship, Levrero begins the diary in lieu of the novel he is meant to finish. ‘The aim is to set the writing in motion, no matter what it’s about, and keep it up until I’ve got into the habit’, he explains. For just over a year, the prosaic features of his existence – his PC, to which he’s addicted; detective novels; dreams and interpretations; physical ailments; tango; pigeons; women with whom he enjoys varying levels of intimacy – are subject to the gentle, implacable pressure of sustained attention. For Levrero, the guilt of impasse is a generative literary mode. Distractions glitter with significance, blooming into chapter-length digressions or precipitating existential crises. Banality itself seems to illuminate some great, unspoken risk. Levrero establishes a mysterious periphery among the nodes of light concealed in the mundane, the corporate, the hopeless, and the absurd. Neither autobiography nor autofiction, his magnum opus is a kind of solipsistic anti-literature, an extension of Perecian daring, its prodigiousness enabled by its constraint. It is both a grotesque failure and a masterpiece, a fussy, limpid, gorgeous, grumbling work of love and obsession. It is a novel upon which cults are founded.

Mario Levrero was born in 1940, in Montevideo, Uruguay, and died there in 2004. A heart murmur precluded him from attending high school. He spent his teenage years in bed, reading and listening to the radio. His further education was a matter of autodidacticism and chance. (He is said to have discovered Joyce at a Montevidean tango club.) Despite the irreducible nature of his talent, Levrero has been grouped with ‘los raros’, or the strange ones, a multigenerational cohort of Uruguayan writers including Juan Carlos Onetti, Felisberto Hernández, and Armonía Somers. (Fittingly, he rejected the label.) After a brief stint in the Uruguayan Communist Party – he once ate chorizo poisoned by fascists during a march in support of Cuba – he remained staunchly apolitical in later life. His literary endeavours were unpredictable and haphazard. He described his first novel, The City (1970), as ‘an attempt to translate Kafka into Uruguayan’. He ran a used bookstore in his twenties, wrote comic books, articles, and short stories, edited a crossword magazine, and completed some twenty books. He was resistant to publicity, granting only a few interviews in his lifetime. Despite this reticence, his influence on Latin American literature has been enormous. Alejandro Zambra’s experimental formalism is unthinkable without Levrero, as is the light-footed recursiveness of César Aira. ‘We are all his children’, the Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrique has said.

There is a chaotic variance to his oeuvre, from the cerebral abstraction of his early ‘involuntary trilogy’, to the mid-career noir send-up Nick Carter Enjoys Himself While the Reader Is Murdered and I Expire (1985), to the later autobiographical novels Empty Words (1996) and The Luminous Novel, published posthumously in 2005, and now translated into English for the first time by Annie McDermott. (McDermott has written of Levrero’s self-described influences: ‘Mandrake the Magician, a comic-strip hero who hypnotized his enemies, along with Lewis Carroll, tango music from the 1940s, detective novels, the Beatles, and the early days of Tía Vicenta, a satirical Argentinian current affairs magazine.’) What unites these disparate works is a sensibility in which lightness and profundity are inextricable. Levrero’s unassuming prose style admits the quotidian and the speculative alike. He is both dilettante and savant. Levrero the novelist is also Levrero the physicist, the theologian, the literary critic, and the palm reader. The proper form eludes him. This is what makes his fictions so improvisational and exhilarating.

Levrero practices what Michael Hofmann, in reference to Robert Musil, has called an aesthetic of postponement. The Luminous Novel ritualizes the wastefulness, procrastination, and deferment that underlie the endeavour of fiction. The novel is bound by a curious theory of leisure. ‘Leisure doesn’t have its own substance, it’s not an end in itself’, Levrero writes. ‘It’s nothing: leisure is an attitude of the soul, and it can accompany any kind of activity.’ The Guggenheim (which Levrero won in 2000) affords him a large sum of money that should, in theory, free him to write. But this ostensible freedom is freighted with an expectation that confounds his literary impulse. He spends part of the grant money on two chairs (one for reading in, one for sleeping in), and an air-conditioning unit. He writes guilty letters to ‘Mr. Guggenheim’ apologizing for his laziness. Meanwhile the mysterious nature of The Luminous Novel – that is, the novel he should be writing – lurks somewhere farther within the diary. (For hundreds of pages, we have no idea what it is.) It seems to take shape only when he isn’t trying to write it. ‘I’ve developed a kind of contempt, or lack of respect, for the things you obtain through effort’, he writes.

His writing-toward-leisure is in constant tension with a lifestyle entirely unsuited to literature. Instead of writing the diary (itself a suspension of the novel), he stays up every night exploring what he calls ‘the world of the computer’. In Windows operating systems and the far-flung corners of the young Internet, Levrero discovers a vast, hermetic remove. ‘If I’ve gone over to live in the world of the computer, it’s because there’s almost no other world possible for me’, he writes. ‘Where else could I go, what else could I do?’ He plays endless games of Mine Sweeper and Free Cell, downloads hundreds of illegal programs, tweaks files and registries, defrags his hard drive, collects pornography on ancient storage mediums, and tracks the inexplicable blind spots in Word 2000’s dictionary (‘penis’, ‘brothel’, ‘incipience’). That such a world is incompatible with writing – and with life – seems to be its primary draw. His technologist’s zeal doubles as an avoidance strategy, a way to postpone erotic frustration, personal responsibility, and the vagaries of artmaking.

In a novel lacking the traditional materials to sustain forward motion, Levrero’s hypochondria serves as a propulsive narrative anxiety. His various health problems – high blood pressure, haemorrhoids, poor eyesight, bad posture, insomnia, toothache – are private dramas perfectly suited to cloistered, diaristic appraisal. (The diary has always been the hypochondriac’s preferred literary form: Kafka, Darwin, Boswell, and countless others have been seduced by the charitable tolerance of its intimate world.) The novel of ailments must be funny, lurid, or surreal to outpace the reader’s pity and boredom. Levrero uses his maladies as invitations to countervailing digression. Feelings of agoraphobia bring about tales of excursion. His poor posture urges him toward a disquisition on office chairs. There is a sense that life is teaching him something through these trials. A bizarre, inverted gratitude takes shape among them. (‘The name of wisdom is: arteriosclerosis’, he writes.) The taxonomizing of this pain is itself a kind of contestation. It gives Levrero grounds for dignity. He becomes legible in complaint.

Levrero wrote the novel while in his early sixties. Eros is still present, then, though somewhat neutered. Most of the young women Levrero spends time with are maternal figures, taking him for walks, or bringing him stews and milanesas. The one exception is a woman he calls Chl (which we later learn is short for chica lista, or ‘clever girl’). Their once-intimate relationship has over time become a chaste friendship, though Levrero has never abandoned the hope of its rekindling: ‘She’s still the only female presence that can move me to my very core’, he writes. Her appearances dictate Levrero’s emotional stability throughout the novel. He tends to overburden her with redemptive potential. She is linked indelibly to the larger melancholy of aging. Their relationship constitutes a transition between the ideal of spiritual and sexual congress, and the sordid reality of physical degeneration and failure. Levrero mourns in a horny, humiliated, postlapsarian present. Thus the world of the computer, the detective novels, the endless cataloguing of minutiae: insulation to mute the echo of erotic fascination.

Levrero’s secular mysticism lends the novel an astral quality. The diary itself is a sort of hesitant tarot. Prediction, coincidence and inexplicability reign. He is preternaturally attuned to the weird and the phantasmal. He interprets dreams, both his own and those of others. He sees projections of Chl and other figures wander the halls of his apartment at night. He connects telepathically with a bookseller. These instances are not relayed with any sense of winking irony. Levrero is simply undeterred by the outward appearance of things. He is a hermit in the desert electrifying reality with visions, intuitions, and fantasies. His spiritualism broadens his fictional impulse. Uncanniness establishes its own ordering principles, narrative lanes, and fictive speeds. The novel is one long psychical luge, slick with the residues of fate and consequence.

What follows the diary – that is, The Luminous Novel proper – is an unfinished work, only a few chapters long. Insofar as it’s about anything, it circles a few moments in the narrator’s life when a distinct change in perception was registered. ‘Have you ever been looking at an insect, or a flower, or a tree, and found that for a moment your values, or your sense of what’s important, have completely changed?’ he asks. If this sounds like stoner tosh, well, it is. But one goes along with it – indeed, is even moved by it – because Levrero has by now established the purity of his vision. He is the innocent of reality, shepherd of an interior pastoral. He has earned his wonder and his occasional triteness. The pain of perception – ‘an act of surrender’, he calls it – is never less than apparent. It is the pain of ephemerality, and of the writer’s necessary incapacity. ‘The luminous events, once written down, cease to be luminous; they disappoint, they sound trivial’, he writes. But the depletion of the luminous is the very stuff of literature. Even the most distinguished novels are artefacts of deficiency, misapprehension, compromise. Levrero’s gift is to articulate this inevitability in an interesting and sympathetic way.

The seeming pointlessness of the novel, its lack of a discernible narrative mechanism, is not a failing, then, but rather its very reason for being. The novel is:

a pointless task, and that’s exactly why I need to do it. I’m sick of going after things that have points; for too long now I’ve been cut off from my own spirituality, hemmed in by the demands of this world, and only pointless things, only indifferent things, can give me the freedom I need in order to get back in touch with what I honestly believe is the essence of life, its ultimate meaning, its first and last reason for being.

This freedom from form is the quintessential Levrerian pursuit. Form itself is often the unstated antagonist of his works. It seems to raise the spectre of completion or certainty, states incompatible with his vision for the novel. Only by eluding literature does he discover its possibility. This negative approach has been practiced to great effect – in the works of Fernando Pessoa, say, or Jacques Roubaud – though only Levrero is so uniquely and majestically unliterary. His late fictions are taxonomies of distraction, intimate networks of absurdity, beguilement, and (strangely, incredibly) latent romance. When subjected to such scrutiny, even DOS programs and dead pigeons emit ambiguity like a vapor. That it barely hangs together hardly matters. ‘This book, taken as a whole, is a display or even a museum of unfinished stories’, he admits in the epilogue. But to be unfinished is not to be excluded from a kind of wholeness. Levrero’s impossible project is a novel despite itself – and a luminous one at that.

Read on: Eduardo Galeano, ‘The Noose’, NLR 17.


After the Blast

It has been just over a year since the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on 4 August 2020, which destroyed several neighbourhoods and shattered the national psyche. The blast was all too predictable: the upshot of a 2013 decision by port authorities to confiscate a cargo ship carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate and store it in a warehouse without proper safety provisions. Few believed that the political system would survive the fallout. Yet so far it has persisted, even in the absence of a stable government. Sporadic outbursts of public anger have not been enough to prompt a widespread change in political allegiances. For many, recent developments have paradoxically affirmed the need for institutionalized sectarianism and corruption. To uncover the reasons for this stasis, we must place the events of last summer in a broader historical perspective. 

The state of Lebanon was created following the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which France and Britain agreed to divide the Ottoman Empire between them. France acquired most of Syria, and in 1920 carved out Lebanon as a ‘safe haven’ for Christians in the region. The French decision to include Maronite villages to the north, south and east of historical Mount Lebanon led to the incorporation of major areas inhabited by Sunnis (especially in the north) and Shi‘is (especially in the south and north-east). The new borders shifted the demography away from Maronites, and Sunnis and Shi‘is came to form almost 50% of the population.

To correct the imbalance, France established a sectarian system that would guarantee Maronite hegemony. Almost all senior roles in government went to Maronites. They controlled the presidency, governorship of the central bank, and leadership of the army and security forces. Other religious communities – Sunnis, Shi‘is, Druzes, Orthodox Christians – became a supporting cast. Sunnis were awarded the posts of prime minister and police chief but given little actual power. Shi‘is received the ceremonial position of parliamentary speaker. Sectarianism was later enshrined in the National Pact, an oral accord that Lebanese politicians approved when France granted Lebanon independence (nominally in 1943, effectively in 1946).

This led to a political crisis in 1958, when Muslims, no longer willing to play second-fiddle to the Maronites, aligned themselves with the insurgent cause of Arab nationalism. US marines joined with Lebanese military intelligence to beat them back. The country’s unequal economic model – in which the dividends of rising growth rates flowed to the West’s favoured groups – was entrenched. This created the conditions for the civil war of 1975–1990, in which an estimated 120,000 died and over a million were displaced. During the conflict, Israel inflamed communal tensions by using Christian militias as a proxy force to fight the PLO. The civil war eventually yielded the Taif Accord, signed in Saudi Arabia in 1989, which dismantled Maronite supremacy and gave every religious group a real stake in government. Yet rather than weakening the grip of sectarianism, the agreement merely intensified it.

Under the new system, people born into a particular religious sect were compelled (by incentives or otherwise) to rally around certain political dynasties in order to maximize their social and economic leverage – embedding patronage and corruption in the country’s democratic processes. The so-called ‘confessional’ structure determines how many MPs can come from each sect, what ministerial posts they can fill, which areas they can represent, and how key positions in public bodies (and some private ones) are assigned. If disenfranchised Sunnis, Shi‘is and some Christians once hoped to topple sectarianism, years of civil war convinced most that this was impossible, not least because of external pressure from Israel, the West and Syria. Instead, they opted for greater influence within the sectarianized state as the second-best solution.

By stemming the conflict, the Taif Accord ushered in a period of tremendous optimism. But it did little to solve a series of underlying economic problems. With scant domestic resources, Lebanon has always depended on its role as a regional hub for travel and banking, shipping and commerce, education and healthcare services, publishing and performing arts – leaving it prone to the vagaries of international markets and regional politics. More recently, this has allowed successive US administrations to inflict maximal hardship on the country through blacklists and embargos, adopted at the behest of Israel to target the ‘infrastructure’ that supports Hezbollah. Such measures squeezed the public finances to their limit during the Obama and Trump years. In response, the Lebanese Central Bank resorted to a Ponzi scheme: raising interest rates to attract deposits from local banks in the knowledge that it would not be able to repay them. This triggered a severe financial crisis in autumn 2019. The country defaulted on its foreign debt payments for the first time. A wave of bankruptcies was narrowly avoided when the government allowed depositors to access a fraction of their money at an exchange rate far below that of the open market. Most depositors were effectively given a haircut, whether they liked it or not. Working-class Lebanese flooded the streets, demonstrating against the corruption of the political class.

Then came the explosion of 4 August. The currency went into freefall; today the US dollar fetches around 20,000 Lebanese pounds, compared to 6,750 before the blast (and 1,500 before the 2019 crisis). Public funds have dried up, and the lack of dollars has forced the rationing of many imports, especially fuel for cars and electricity. There have been extended blackouts and long queues at petrol stations. Since most workers are paid in Lebanese pounds, their purchasing power has fallen sharply. Many are forced to restrict themselves to essential shopping and minimize ‘luxury’ expenses such as meat or clothes. Medicine, though subsidized, is in short supply. Employment opportunities are dwindling: a large number of college graduates cannot find work to match their qualifications. This reinforces the sectarian system, as religious networks or political connections are often the only means to get a job. Those who cannot do so tend to migrate, their remittances extending a lifeline to the very system that ejected them.

By deepening the economic crisis, the explosion increased the population’s dependence on traditional sectarian leaders. Politicians turned to their international backers (the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Iran) to secure cash and supplies to distribute to their local supporters. Concurrently, the popular cross-religious demonstrations of 2019 petered out. Over the past year we have seen more sectarian gatherings tied to specific political outfits, whose primary aim is to score points against other groups. The explosion has also eroded the fragile relationships between these outfits – who, as in previous crises, are more concerned with blaming their rivals than finding the real culprits. When prime minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated in 2005, four pro-Syrian generals were jailed, then released a few years later when it became clear they had no role in the killing. Likewise, the judiciary is currently using its ‘investigation’ to target individuals whom it can scapegoat for institutional failures.

This has instilled an atmosphere of distrust which inhibits the formation of a government. Just days after the blast, the Lebanese PM Hassan Diab announced the resignation of his cabinet. Yet he has stayed on in a caretaker capacity amid faltering negotiations to assemble a new administration. Two attempts to establish a viable executive, under diplomat Mustapha Adib and former PM Saad Hariri, have failed. Another former PM, Najib Mikati, is now in talks with president Michel Aoun, but whether they can strike a deal before highly anticipated parliamentary elections in May remains uncertain. As the country’s resources contract at an unprecedented rate, its religious factions have become increasingly unwilling to risk their positions by compromising with their adversaries. Each of them fears that their constituents will view any concession as a betrayal. 

The arm-wrestling between politicians is not helped by redoubled foreign interference. Israel has been launching aerial attacks on Southern Lebanon: a stark warning that it will not tolerate a Hezbollah-dominated government. The Saudis have similar priorities, wary of the link between Lebanon’s Shi‘is and Iran. France and the EU have threatened to impose sanctions on Lebanese politicians if they cannot decide on the composition of a cabinet. Their tactics are deeply counterproductive, since by targeting specific groups they compound the impression that external actors are handing power to their proxies, in a direct replay of the colonial era. France has promised renewed economic assistance – but this is conditional on obtaining the contract to rebuild Beirut’s seaport, siphoning off billions provided by the IMF and other donors. Riad Salameh, the governor of the Central Bank, was installed by France and the US to do their bidding in the banking sector, attracting foreign investment and pleasing international creditors. He has remained in post throughout the crisis, despite coming under investigation for money laundering.

If the Taif Accords gave every religious sect a piece of the pie – large enough that they would not seek to challenge the system itself – now the pie is shrinking; disappearing, in fact. This leaves politicians reliant on foreign backers to sustain their patronage system: the only thing that can ensure the survival of Lebanon’s dysfunctional confessional democracy. Ordinary citizens who aren’t co-opted by the system tend to leave the country, weakening the social bloc best placed to change it. For those who stay behind, sectarianism is seen as the devil they know. A year after the explosion this arrangement shows little sign of changing. And yet, if increased foreign interference sparks a backlash from the Lebanese public, there remains a chance – distant, but not impossible – that a popular, cross-sectarian opposition to the political class may reemerge over the next decade.

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Mid-Point in the Middle East?’, NLR 38.


On the Run

In colonial India, news of the Russian Revolution was widely censored by British authorities. Newspaper reports were allowed to run for no more than two or three sentences. Yet these snippets drew the attention of Rahul Sankrityayan, a young Vaishnava sadhu who had become disenchanted with the cloistered world of Hindu asceticism. The 24-year-old Brahmin had already fled from two different Hindu monasteries and turned down an offer to become the future mahant (chief priest) at the famous Uttaradhi Math. By 1917, he was drifting closer to the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement that rejected the ritualistic trappings of the religion for a primordial Vedic identity. It was at one of Samaj’s newspaper offices that Sankrityayan began to pore over the scattered news fragments, piecing together a narrative of the events transpiring in distant Russia. Thus began a series of tumultuous changes in Sankrityayan’s own life, thrusting him into the nationalist fold of the Congress Party before remaking him as a Buddhist monk and communist peasant leader, whose intellectual and political activity took him as far as Tibet and Iran, the Soviet Union and Sri Lanka.

Rahul Sankrityayan (born Kedarnath Pandey) came from a family of farmers in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Rejecting both his child marriage and his family’s attempt to prime him for a career in colonial administration, he left home at an early age – motivated by a desire to study the Vedanta, one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. He spent the next years wandering the subcontinent as an ascetic, adopting a number of different aliases. In 1919, when nationwide protests erupted against the Rowlatt Act – a piece of imperial legislation that allowed for non-jury trials – Sankrityayan was living in the Arya Samaj stronghold of Lahore. A general strike swept the city, and the young Hindu reformist was impressed by the strength of anticolonial resistance. Otherwise living in segregated quarters, Hindus and Muslims came together in the streets, chanting political slogans and drinking from the same glasses (a common taboo at the time). Although he was still entranced by the spectre of Bolshevism, the Communist Party of India had not yet been formed, and the non-cooperation movement was gaining ground. Sankrityayan chose to quit the Arya Samaj and join the Congress.

Over the following three years, his work as a grassroots political organizer saw him arrested and jailed twice. In prison he read Trotsky’s Bolshevism and World Peace, his first encounter with Marxism. Having come into contact with Buddhists in Bihar, he began studying The Majjhima Nikaya, a Theravada Buddhist scripture, as well as the Avesta. Sankrityayan taught himself French, and even wrote a utopian work of science fiction, Baisvi Sadi (Twenty-Second Century), an idiosyncratic blend of Gandhian nationalism, inchoate Buddhism and homespun communism. By the time he was released, the Congress Party was in turmoil. Gandhi’s decision to suspend the non-cooperation movement in response to protestors setting fire to a police station in Chauri Chaura had caused a series of defections. Although Sankrityayan did not join the breakaway Swaraj Party, he became increasingly disenchanted with Gandhian politics. In 1928, he retreated from activism and went to teach Sanskrit at Vidyalankar Parivena, one of the largest Buddhist monastic colleges in Sri Lanka, where he studied the Pali language, extended his engagement with epigraphy and archaeology, and became a dedicated reader of the Tripiṭaka. When Rudolf Otto, the German scholar of theology and comparative religion, met Sankrityayan at the Parivena, he was shocked to learn that the latter had never received a formal education.

After a year of teaching he undertook the first of four journeys to Tibet in hope of recovering a trove of ancient Buddhist palm-leaf manuscripts inscribed in Sanskrit. Denied a travel visa, Sankrityayan disguised himself as a Tibetan monk and made his way to Kathmandu, where he befriended the Drukpa Lama and moved in with his disciples. Under tight colonial surveillance, Sankrityayan quietly set about learning the Tibetan language before striding across the Himalayas on foot and arriving safely in Lhasa. His visit coincided with an upsurge in tensions between Nepal and Tibet that spilled over into violent clashes. With war likely to break out at any moment, Sankrityayan searched for the ancient manuscripts and began to compile the first Tibetan–Sanskrit dictionary. On the verge of pennilessness, he was eventually forced to cut short his sojourn and walk back across the Himalayas along with twenty-two pack mules, each of them carrying manuscripts, paintings, and other ancient artefacts he had acquired during his short stay. On his return to Sri Lanka in 1930, he renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism – adopting, for the first time, the name Rahul Sankrityayan.

Sankrityayan deepened his political commitment on two short visits to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, first as a tourist and then as a professor of Sanskrit at Leningrad University. During his second visit, he married the Mongolian scholar Ellena Kozerovskaya. They worked together on Sankrityayan’s Tibetan–Sanskrit dictionary and had a son, Igor. Still captivated by the romance of the Russian Revolution, Sankrityayan did not realize he had arrived in a different Leningrad. He declared Stalin’s regime a utopian society and dismissed criticism of the purges as ‘anti-Soviet conspiracies’. Sankrityayan even remarked that his own presence in the country – as a foreigner and Buddhist – should have been legitimate cause for suspicion among the Soviet authorities (who were disappearing numerous Indologists and communists of Indian origin at the time). When the university refused to extend his teaching contract, he flirted with the idea of joining the armed communist movements in China or Spain. But instead he returned home and signed up with the outlawed Communist Party of India – traveling extensively in the Bihar countryside to organize peasant struggles and survey experiments in cooperative farming. After months of being tailed by secret police, Sankrityayan, now the president of All India Kisan Sabha (the CPI’s peasant front), was finally arrested in 1940, in a brutal nationwide crackdown on communists orchestrated in collusion with the Congress Party.

The Kashi Pandit Sabha, an organization of Brahmin scholars based in Banaras, gave Sankrityayan the famous title Mahapandit, ‘the great scholar’. Yet this was not entirely suited to his temperament. Sankrityayan was of course a polyglot and a polymath: during his lifetime he learned 33 languages – including Arabic, Russian, German, and Tamil – and wrote 140 books, including biographies, social histories, studies of Buddhist philosophy, travelogues, religious polemics, dictionaries, plays, novels, and an autobiography that spans six thick volumes. Yet little in this bustling oeuvre could be considered ‘scholarship’ in the strictest sense. Sankrityayan spurned specialization for the bricolage that he had honed at the Samaj newspaper office: improvising his texts out of heterogeneous sources and traditions. Drifting through monasteries, prisons and political parties, he thought and worked on the go (and often on the run). His various transitions – from Hindu to Buddhist to Communist – were not always clear-cut. While studying the Russian Revolution, Sankrityayan was simultaneously becoming a zealous Arya Samaji, planning to travel to China and Japan on proselytizing missions. Long after he abandoned Hinduism, he was still publicly wearing the garb of a sadhu (if only to avail of free food and lodging at religious institutions). In 1922 he struck an isolated figure at his first Congress meeting, arriving barefoot and shaven-headed, wearing the customary Vaishnava robes and holding a kamandal in his hand.

Earlier this year, the first complete English translation of Sankrityayan’s literary magnum opus, Volga se Ganga Tak (From Volga to Ganga) was published by LeftWord. Translations of the book are already available in Czech, Chinese, Russian, Polish, and numerous Indian languages. The new edition builds on a previous translation by the British Marxist historian V.G. Kiernan from 1946. Like many of Sankrityayan’s works, Volga – a fictional history of the migration of Aryans from the higher reaches of Volga to the Indo-Gangetic plans – was composed in jail. The epic spans 8,000 years of human history, beginning in 6000 BCE, the ancient age of matrilineal clans, and concluding in 1942 CE, the high noon of the Indian nationalist struggle. The subject matter is forbidding enough on its own terms. But Sankrityayan had the audacity to write it in the midst of a raging nationalist struggle while locked up for political sedition. He prepared for the project over the course of several months, during which time he delivered a daily lecture series on Indian philosophy for his fellow inmates and went on hunger strike to demand better provisions for reading and writing. Once he finally set to work, Sankrityayan completed the manuscript in just 20 days during the summer of 1942. The book was published the following year and was excoriated by the Hindu right, earning Sankrtiyayan the title of Nagnavadi Vedanindak (‘the nudist critic of Vedas’).  

Despite its millennia-spanning scope, Volga is not an intimidating read. Its longue durée narrative has the rhythm of an extended anecdote. It unfolds as a series of twenty interlinked vignettes and stories, each tracking the shifting fortunes of ordinary people at different historical junctures: the incestuous activities of ancient matriarchal clans; the fear of civilizational collapse prompted by agricultural progress; women’s everyday resistance to impositions on their sexual freedom; the fateful encounter between Aryans and Asurs amid the rise of the caste system. The many twists and transitions in Volga add up to an affective history of class struggle.

The novel’s everyday protagonists are interleaved with a panoply of Great Men: Ashvaghosha, the ancient Buddhist philosopher, poet and dramatist, is depicted dreaming of an anti-Brahmanical revolution in philosophy; Baba Nooruddin, the Sufi saint, repurposes a ruined Buddhist monastery into a khanqah, to the chagrin of orthodox Mullahs and Brahmins; and Mangal Singh, a fictitious Hindu king, befriends Marx and Engels in London. Although Sankrityayan’s text is deeply indebted to Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, it does not accept the theory of socialist ‘stages’. Its civilizational arc is flickering and non-linear, demonstrating how millennia-old contradictions have taken on new forms during the nationalist struggle.

In July 1942, communists were released en masse and the ban on CPI was repealed. This dramatic shift was prompted by the party’s unflinching support for British involvement in the ‘People’s War’ against Nazism. Following the party line, Sankrityayan, like other communists, paid little attention to the sudden militant turn in the Congress-led Quit India Movement. While millions laid siege to colonial police stations, public offices, telegraph networks and railway lines, the CPI remained focused on anti-fascism, even if it involved provisionally supporting British imperialism. Its consequent loss of popular support was compounded when the CPI failed to disentangle demands for self-determination from the ‘communal question’, endorsing the Muslim League’s resolution for a separate Islamic republic.

Although the CPI ultimately reversed these positions, a strain of reactionary Indian nationalism had gradually taken hold of Sankrityayan during the mid-40s. This was influenced by the CPI’s ‘Pakistan for Muslims’ line and by his ongoing communication with cultural organizations linked to Arya Samaj. Scandal erupted at the Akhil Bhartiya Hindi Sahitya Sammelan (All-India Hindi Literary Conference), held just months after partition. Having recently returned from his third visit to the Soviet Union, Sankrityayan declared that Hindi should be adopted as India’s ‘national language’ and that all religions, including Islam, should be ‘Indianized’. The audience were shocked that Sankrityayan’s anticolonial politics had curdled into popular Hindu nationalism. He was promptly expelled from the party. Back in the Soviet Union, Kozerovskaya was ordered to divorce Sankrityayan. When she refused, she was fired from Leningrad University, and the state put an end to the couple’s correspondence.

Three years later, the second part of Sankrityayan’s autobiography, Meri Jeevan Yatra, was published in Allahabad. Its epigraph, a paraphrase of Buddha, read: ‘I took thoughts as a raft to carry me across, not as a load to be carried on the head.’ Despite his political exile and marital breakdown, Sankrityayan’s proverbial raft had not yet foundered. After marrying Kamala Pariyar, his assistant at the time, he applied to join the CPI in 1955 and was readmitted. Repudiating his affinity with Hindu nationalism, he wrote a blistering polemic against Swami Karpatri Maharaj, a rightwing Hindu monk who was arrested for barring Dalits from the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple in Banaras. In a pamphlet titled Ramrajya aur Marxvad (Ramrajya and Marxism) – an inversion of Karpatri Maharaj’s 815-page tome, Marxvad aur Ramrajya – Sankrityayan attacked the symbiotic relationship between modern capitalism and hierarchies of caste and gender, as enshrined in the Brahmanical utopia of Ramrajya (the Kingdom of Rama). Holding out hope that Dalits and Bahujans might soon overthrow the Brahmanical supremacy in the Hindi heartland, Sankrityayan rejected the notion that religion was the opium of the masses. Instead, he suggested that in the subcontinent Buddhism was a historical forerunner of Marxism, and that Buddha should serve as our Hegel.

Throughout his meandering career, Sankrityayan’s instinct for improvisation was closely entwined with his impulse for ghummakari – ‘the practice of wandering’. With time, however, this impulse became difficult to sustain. In 1958, while traveling to Tibet, Sankrityayan – now burdened with diabetes and high blood pressure – suffered a debilitating stroke. Another followed in 1961, leaving him physically incapacitated. He was transported to the Soviet Union for medical treatment – but having lost most of his memory, he failed to communicate with Kozerovskaya and Igor. In 1963, Sankrityayan died shortly after receiving the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award.

It is tempting to suggest that the complete English translation of Volga will secure Sankrityayan’s place in the legacy of Indian communism. Yet the survival of this legacy is itself contested. The region where Sankrityayan spent long stretches of his life is now a wellspring of Hindutva. The ranks of far-right Hindu organizations have mushroomed. Hate speech, lynchings and pogroms suffuse everyday life in the region. Meanwhile, communists struggle to appear relevant. In this landscape, Sankrityayan has come to resemble one of the fabled relics he collected. His biography seems like a work of historical fiction – perhaps even the unwritten twenty-first story of his Volga – rather than a contemporary reality. And yet, this apparent distance between the author and his present-day readership could prove instructive. While studying his political trajectory, we are forced – like Sankrityayan in the newspaper offices – to reconstruct a revolutionary narrative which seems impossibly far away, but which may be closer than we think.

Read on: Francesca Orsini, ‘India in the Mirror of World Fiction’, NLR 13


Remnants of Utopia

For some writers, not all, there comes a time when old stuff gets recycled. Earlier work is sent into another circuit of value-production – and even the pieces that were rejected become revalued. This applies to the collection Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances by the English writer Owen Hatherley, with its gathering of materials from various times and places: blogs now resting in ‘indefinite suspension’; salvos once composed for new net-based aesthetic-political fora; think-pieces punted to specialised building, design and architectural publications; and, as time goes by, columns, articles and longer essays for mainstream journalistic outlets. To reuse is to get a second chance to construct an argument – for sometimes commissions were muffled in the first instance, as attested by the inclusion of an essay on socialism and nationalism on the Danube (which previously appeared in truncated form), or an exposé of fascist influence in the design of Walter-Benjamin-Platz in Berlin (which was spiked by the London Review of Books). Such recycling is appropriate for someone whose thought developed in dialogue with the remnants of modernism, itself an aesthetics of scraps and quotation which queries what constitutes the truly new.

These off-cuts and online off-the-cuffs deserve to be read again, rescued from the ephemeral moment of their publication. Here they are reorganised thematically according to spatialised concepts. These range from ‘Spaces’, which explores the trajectory of post-war building practices, to ‘Screens’, which rewinds to Hatherley’s starting point in reviews of art cinema, and includes a poignant reflection on the work of onetime friend and blogger-in-arms Mark Fisher. This collating allows the reader to measure just how much foresight was at work in Hatherley’s writing. How sensitive was his radar? How many more libraries or public toilets have shut in the interim? How many more ‘golden turds’ erected? How much more idiosyncratic shop signage has been replaced by dull identikitism and how many more fascist architects have been rehabilitated? This retrospection could lead to despair – what effect does such caustic probing have, if it all keeps getting worse or not better? But the pleasure that comes from his prescient formulations carries its own reward, which may have something to do with solidarity.

Many of the fragments contained here initially appeared in altered form in Hatherley’s ten books, and some continue to float around forgotten corridors of the internet (the eight blogs he participated in can still be found, frozen in time). But their collection in a single volume allows for a re-evaluation of this scattered oeuvre. The driving purpose of the essays is clear: they argue with, bluster over and call to account the delusions and missteps of two decades of urban planning and design, predominantly in the UK, but also as far afield as Palestine. There are also some side glances to pop music. Hatherley began writing for a wider audience at a time when to write meaningfully – politically but also aesthetically – meant to write about music. Or that is what the people who influenced him had done: Simon Reynolds and Jon Savage, Ian Penman, Kodwo Eshun, and Fisher. From the 80s to the mid-90s music was the vector for political reflection and imagination, in its broadest sense.

By the time Hatherley moved to London to study English and History at Goldsmiths in 1999, it had become more enticing – and practicable – to write to one’s own deadlines, about whatever one wanted, without being edited. An army of online critics was assembling. Hatherley joined them, accessing the internet in a local library or cheap café. By then, music had moved to the margins. The NME was dying, criticism was deprofessionalising, and the medium was no longer capable of mingling trash, pulp and experiment. Hatherley’s primary concerns were the inaccessibility of social housing, the dismantling of the welfare state and the legacy of modernism – although he continued to write short-form music reviews for Wire magazine, and in 2011 he produced a monograph on Pulp, Uncommon, which is as much about Sheffield and council flats as about the band itself.  

Hatherley began to focus primarily on the political legibility of urban landscapes, and the depleted energies of modernism that they drew off. Disappointment is present in his earliest pieces. But this is not a loss-obsessed melancholia, because the author understands that modernism was always a warring realm between those who performed for the benefit of the rich and those who developed the capacity to politicise the aesthetic. Modernism is an unfinished project, not a dead one. La luta continua. And the scope or site of that struggle extends from local observations to international ones. For five years, Hatherley spent time in Poland and the former Eastern Bloc. In an echo of Walter Benjamin, drawn to Moscow in pursuit of Asja Lacis, Hatherley followed then-partner Agata Pyzik into the heart of Soviet Constructivism, deepening his understanding of the ‘failed experiments in non-capitalist systems’. Plenty of Western idealists have gone East chasing illusions. Hatherley punctures some and inflates others.

The subtitle of the book, ‘Finding a Home in the Ruins of Modernism’, relays the conundrum. There is no definitive end to modernism, even if at some operative level it is overwritten by an ideological epoch-cum-project called postmodernism. We have the ruins from which our new Jerusalem may be rebuilt. To find a home in ruins does not suggest that the ultimate ambition is to make oneself comfortable amidst the debris. Hatherley’s stance is not the one that Benjamin attributes to New Objectivist Erich Kästner and his ‘left-radical intelligentsia’. These ‘agents or hacks who make a great display of their poverty and turn the gaping void into a feast’ have made themselves ‘comfortable in an uncomfortable situation’. Know-all ironists, they turn political struggle into items of consumption, hawking their Kulturkritik to the highest bidder. Benjamin compares Kästner to a man who contorts himself according to the market’s whims, like someone suffering the spasms of poor digestion.

If Benjamin claims that constipation accompanies melancholy (an early twentieth-century idea recently reaffirmed by scientists exploring the interface of gut microbiome and emotions), Hatherley inverts this logic. The writer has Crohn’s Disease, diagnosed in 2005 after years of gut problems, which makes him dependent on the provision in public space of toilets for urgent access at any moment. ‘The Socialist Lavatory League’, a 2019 essay for the LRB, provides one possible meaning for the title Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances, as in how does one avoid soiling oneself when the progressive impulses that led St Pancras vestryman George Bernard Shaw to champion a public convenience in Camden Town seem like a pipedream in today’s privatised, austerity-saturated townscape? Hatherley offers a wide-ranging analysis of the significance and practicality of various prominent buildings, but his most trenchant – because most urgent – criticism can be found in the least expected of places (public toilets), figured as a prime site of collective struggle, embodying a civic ideal that recedes by the day.

Hatherley’s title also draws, more directly, on a 1978 interview with Who manager Peter Meaden in which he reflected on Modism and Mod living. ‘Clean living under difficult circumstances’ has something to do with keeping yourself and your cheap razors sharp – with remaining slick and neat amid the pressures of factory work and council-house existence. Hatherley stands up for the virtues of council housing and the expanded vistas of the modern tower block, even if his dress is not nattily Mod. Indeed, his floppy-haired, slouchy demeanour and crumpled suits lend him something of the air of his adversary, founding member of the Victorian Society John Betjeman. Hatherley’s defence of post-war council estates, the vision they expressed and the lives they made possible, is not done in the smarmy style of the New Brutalists who benefitted from right-to-buy: hoovering up capaciously dimensioned council flats in the Barbican and elsewhere, and overriding their modernism with Farrow-and-Ballification. It is undertaken from the perspective of someone who grew up in a well-designed Southampton estate and considered it a ‘sanctuary’ which provided stability for his single-parent mother.

Circumstances got more difficult during the period when Hatherley began to study part-time at Birkbeck for a doctorate on constructivism and architecture (I was his supervisor): a project which bloomed into his 2016 book The Chaplin Machine. The first essays in the volume were written at this time, when Blair was elected for a third term and Blairism had markedly changed the landscape, visual and ideological. These texts were conceived as acts of historical recovery, against New Labour’s repetition of stories about ‘old’ Labour, Red Robbo, British Leyland, union bullies and the rubbish piling high in the streets. The Blairist mythology of salvation from the recent excesses of both Old Labour and Thatcherism by blue-besuited Democrats is rebutted. In addition, a longer story is told about what modernism had made possible, in the name of true progress, at the precise historical moment when architecture merged with Private Finance Initiatives, speculation, and the windowless megaboxes of shopping centres and call centres. Blairism terminated in post-crash waves of Torydom, austerity and the manipulative kitsch of 1940s-derived Keep-Calmism, as the remaining scraps of the welfare state were sold off or choked of life. Sent out across the land, in emulation of Daniel Defoe, to report on the state of the nation, Hatherley chronicled the various shapes that ideology assumed in the built environment.

Clean living also suggests something ethical or pure. There is a sense in which Hatherley, as a jobbing writer, must have regarded himself as clean for being in nobody’s pocket (or for being in everybody’s – and so nobody’s in particular). He has no debts to pay off, or only real ones, which means he can say what he likes. He can call celebrated American architect Philip Johnson what he was: a Nazi activist. He does this not to puff and pant with moral outrage, but to diagnose the political aesthetic of this ‘talentless liar’ and its effect on contemporary architecture. Such refusal to compromise gives Hatherley’s work one of its most admirable and distinctive qualities: an unrelenting insistence on the connections between environment, economy, political decision-making and historical legacy, all comprehended in relation to street-level experience.

In 2018 Hatherley got a regular gig as culture editor for Tribune after its purchase by Jacobin (another instance of revamping an old piece of Labour Movement heritage). If Hatherley’s early writing had skewered the cheerlessness of urban development under smiley-snakey Blair, he has now taken the place of another Blair, ‘the forefather of all Progressive Patriots: the India-born, Eton-educated former Burmese policeman, Eric Arthur Blair, aka George Orwell’, once literary editor of Tribune. Hatherley dealt with Orwell’s complicated profile as anti-imperialist and traditionalist in his Ministry of Nostalgia (2016), juxtaposing the era of post-war poverty with the ‘austerity nostalgia’ of the 2010s. The former may have been awful – but writers like Orwell witnessed the birth of the NHS first-hand, and retained some hope that similar modernist projects could change society for the better. Does Hatherley share their optimism? Despite its apparent objects – buildings, public squares, LPs, films – his criticism is motivated by a deep disenchantment with the present political moment, as the shenanigans of the Nasty Party clash with the pieties of Labour (before and after Corbyn). In Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances, he takes a moment to zoom out from this conjuncture and reflect on its more hopeful antecedents. We are invited to look back with him, in anger (of course), and in awe as well.

Read on: Owen Hatherley, ‘Comparing Capitals’, NLR 105.