The Sycophant

Everybody has heard by now that British higher education is in a parlous state. Indebted students. Overworked staff on squeezed pay. Misery all round. The question is who is responsible. Some misdiagnose the condition, blaming overly inclusive admissions policies (‘Some people just aren’t university material’); others see an epidemic of wokery (‘Students nowadays aren’t willing to be challenged’). Far more sensible to point the finger at recent governments, and at the university bosses and managers their policies have empowered. The damage they have wrought is incalculable. Yet this too leaves out an important part of the picture. The uncomfortable truth is that academics have been complicit, and often instrumental, in bringing about the present predicament. It’s awkward to say it. For one thing, I am an academic myself. During strikes (which, to academics’ limited credit, have become more frequent – albeit belatedly – in recent years), solidarity seems to require the putting aside of internecine gripes. Victory to the UCU! And all that.

But the elephant can only be ignored for so long: we need to talk about academics. Rather like journalists, academics exhibit a profound mismatch between self-image and reality. They pride themselves on being independent thinkers and see themselves as possessing a somewhat irreverent or subversive orientation toward authority. But in fact, this self-conception masks its opposite. In a famous interview with Noam Chomsky in which he schools Andrew Marr on the ways in which the media selects for ideological positions, Chomsky draws a connection between this mechanism of ideological control and the education system:

There’s a filtering system, that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100% but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination… There’ll be behavioural problems. If you read applications to a graduate school you’ll see that people will tell you, he’s not, he doesn’t get along too well with his colleagues, you know how to interpret those things.

Academics are on the whole people who did very well in school. That is not to say that they all liked it, of course. But by and large, they would not be where they are if they had been utterly unable or unwilling to tolerate the kind of rigidly hierarchical and authoritarian structure that characterises school. Those who tend to fall foul of authority are usually weeded out well before the time of graduate study (‘behavioural problems’), with the result that academics as a group tend to be disproportionately deferential. It may not look that way to academics themselves, but this is hardly surprising: what counts as conformism (or rebelliousness) is relative.

This fundamental disposition toward conformity – detectable in the political alignment of the bulk of academic work – is on display in many a departmental or union branch meeting. It’s not that academics aren’t habitually disgruntled, or that they don’t complain constantly about the erosion of working conditions or the latest assault on educational standards. They are and they do. A typical academic gathering could easily be mistaken for a support group. But if after the rounds of Ain’t It Awful someone suggests doing something about it – such as simply not doing the latest thing that management has demanded we do (and which everyone has just agreed is pointless, harmful, or both) – those defiant voices melt away. ‘Oh no,’ they say, ‘that would probably upset management; we’re in a weak position as it is.’ And so they grumble and roll over, time and again.

If there’s one thing that infuriates academics more than university managers ever could, it’s other academics suggesting that they’re not being radical enough in standing up to management. I can well imagine that somewhere, an academic (perhaps one of my own colleagues) is reading this and already frothing at the mouth. Do I not understand the importance of maintaining good relations with management if we are to get anywhere at all? Would I have the department closed down in my quest for ideological purity?

For those of us who have recently emerged from a period of dutiful flirting with a briefly (if imperfectly) compos mentis Labour Party, this is all too familiar. The rage that those seen as overly radical or ‘hard left’ provoke in union and party ‘moderates’ alike. The unmistakable fact that they dislike us far more than the official opposition (management, the Conservatives). The lectures on the importance of being ‘strategic’ (and point-blank refusal to entertain the possibility of differing ideas as to what that means). The framing of opponents as idealists, irresponsible wreckers, out of touch, undemocratic or dictatorial, thuggish, or infantile (perhaps the ubiquitous idea of ‘grown up politics’ also belongs to the long shadow of childhood and school, in which a powerful con-trick equates maturity with acquiescence). And the sad reality that, in both cases, the supposedly outrageous radicals are really not very radical at all.

Negotiation and diplomacy are, of course, important, in university politics and beyond, as is ‘picking your battles’, and expending your ‘political capital’ wisely (though the people who most liberally employ these phrases often seem unwilling to pick any battle at all). The fear that resistance will be met with a punitive response, meanwhile, is not unfounded. It is hardly paranoid to worry that a department with a reputation for trouble-making might be ear-marked for closure. That concern cannot be taken lightly. Yet if resistance is often futile and sometimes counterproductive, that still leaves a question ordinarily beloved by political ‘sensibles’: what is the alternative? The answer of many academics, implicit or explicit, seems to be as follows: we cultivate good relations with management so that they see us as reasonable and trustworthy; we will then be in a better position to press our claims through reason and argument. What this approach presupposes is a basic commonality, or at least compatibility, of interests and objectives between the parties involved. Under such conditions, it makes sense to expect a certain reciprocity, whereby when we are nice to management, management will be nice back.

In many domains of life, that is how human relations work. But, clearly, there are also relationships and situations in which this fails to hold, or in which the dynamic is reversed: you give an inch, and the other person will take a mile. The relationship between labour and capital is one example. There is room for negotiation and compromise between the parties, certainly; but the way for workers to protect their interests is not to be as nice and obliging as possible toward their employers, but rather to flex their collective muscle by forming strong unions and strategically withdrawing their labour when the situation requires. This has nothing to do with how nasty or nice the employers or owners of capital are as individuals: workers and bosses have their parts to play, and they are going to play them more or less no matter what.

The relationship between university managers and academic staff is not precisely that of capital and labour, but it is much closer to this than to a relationship between neighbours or friends (this despite – and perhaps camouflaged by – the fact that there is a great deal of overlap between the populations: many managers are or used to be academics). Managers have their agenda, one fundamentally at odds with the interests and wishes of most academic staff: slashing ‘costs’ through cuts and casualisation, hiking student rents, increasing capital expenditure, inflating bosses’ salaries, expanding the role of private ‘providers’ in everything from cleaning to counselling and teaching. Ceding ground, acquiescing to their demands in the hope that this will be rewarded is a bit like throwing lumps of meat to a shark and hoping that it will not come back for more. ‘You’ve been very obliging, so we won’t push you any further,’ said no manager ever. Control is to the manager as profit is to the capitalist (and in the contemporary university, profit too is never far away). ‘We got away with that’, the real-life as opposed to the imaginary manager says: ‘What’s next?’

With departments closing all around us, and for reasons that often have nothing to do with their ‘performance’ or with anything their members have or haven’t done, the idea that we might save ourselves by keeping our heads down is, at best, a hope that they’ll come for someone else first. In reality, even this is so uncertain a strategy as to border on magical thinking. This is not to pretend that it is easy to stand up to the bosses, or that real improvement is possible without wider political change (scrapping fees, for a start). But it is possible, through strategic non-cooperation, to slow the decline, to make things sufficiently arduous and annoying for the enemy that they will think twice before making the next attack. From this perspective, the ‘strategic’ position of many academics and their union representatives looks a lot like Einstein’s definition of madness: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But it is not madness, exactly. It is teacher’s pet syndrome: an ingrained trust in authority – the conviction that those in power are basically reasonable people who have our interests at heart – and an equally ingrained fear of getting in trouble.

There is a tendency among the ‘Oh, the humanities’ crowd – those who defend, rightly if sometimes insufferably, the intrinsic social value of higher education – to tell a particular story about the decline of the British university. It all started to go wrong around 2010, the year when £9k fees were forced through (they were imposed on the first cohort of students in 2012). This story paints an overly rosy picture of what came before, and conveniently erases the role of the narrators in precipitating the Great Falling Off which so exercises them.

Many of the things that have ruined higher education can rather – like the things that have ruined our society more generally – be traced back to the 1980s. The first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which sought to evaluate and rank academic research (and to allocate funding accordingly), was held in 1986. Older and retired academics tell a familiar story about how this unfolded: much scoffing and derision at the philistinism of attempting to measure research ‘quality’, followed by total acquiescence. ‘I said, obviously we should refuse to participate in this’, one of my elder informants recalls. ‘They said: ah, but we can probably do quite well in it…’. It was in the Thatcherite 80s, too, that tenure was effectively abolished (since which even ‘permanent’ academics can in practice be got rid of with relative ease). That decade also saw the first big push to introduce the sharp differentials in pay that most academics now regard almost as a fact of nature (that at Cambridge University until the 1980s there was one basic lecturer’s salary is likely not only unknown but virtually unbelievable to many who work there today).

So, the rot did not begin in 2010 when the Tory–Lib-Dem coalition tripled tuition fees, nor in 2004 when the Blair government raised them to £3,000 a year, nor in 1998, when it introduced them. Fees are a disaster, but today’s marketised nightmare has deeper roots. And then as now, academics do not come out of the story looking good. At every step, they have not only failed to mount effective resistance to the forces that have mutilated the sector, but they have been actively complicit. And I do mean ‘active’. The RAE and its successor, the Research Excellence Framework (‘the REF’), are not done to academics but by them: senior academics form the panels and assess the ‘outputs’, even as they moan about the burdensomeness of the task and the overwhelmingly negative effects of the exercise on the life of the university. Again and again, they grumble and scoff (‘“Impact”? Ludicrous! “Prevent Duty”? Nobody could take it seriously…’), and again and again, they roll over.

Academics, it seems, are like the acquaintance who Dorothy Parker said ‘speaks 18 languages and can’t say “no” in any of them.’ The issue is not just servility, however, but a hubris that can superficially look like servility’s opposite, as when academics tell themselves that they are only humouring management while actually pursuing their own, subtly subversive agendas. But management, academics often forget, are generally indifferent to mockery or critique, however finely-crafted and devastating. They are happy enough to let us tire ourselves out. One of their favourite tactics, in fact, is to set academics onerous, pointless tasks to keep us busy. Could we gather some evidence to support our claims that the new policy is having a detrimental effect? Could we present the case for why we really need to have such things as offices? Could we fill in this consultation? Academics exhaust themselves writing meticulously argued treatises against the latest deleterious thing management wants to do, and then management do it anyway. Often, we even do it for them. Could we nominate some teaching rooms that we could stand to lose, in order to help management decide how to redistribute the ‘space envelope’? Would we mind drawing up a plan for whom to make redundant and in what order?

Yet the idea of academics as incapable of protecting their own interests captures only part of the truth. There is a clear sense in which the docile behaviour of academics is self-defeating. But equally clearly, academics are not all in the same boat: the well-paid professor has little in common with the lecturer on a fixed-term contract. If they lack class consciousness, it is partly because they do not constitute a class (and tend to have an uneasy relationship with that category even on the occasions they acknowledge it as something that might have relevance to them).

Another ingredient in the typical academic’s mental mix (also plausibly school-borne) is a deep-seated competitive individualism. It’s this which accounts for the ease with which academics are seduced into auditing and ranking exercises and jumping through the proliferating hoops that are the prerequisites for promotion. It’s this, too, which likely explains the generally low (though rising) rates of unionisation among academic staff. Even those who are union members often do not go on strike. They treat the union as a kind of insurance scheme (something that might be useful for them in a dispute over a promotion, for example). Some strike for part of the time, apparently seeing industrial action as a kind of ‘every little helps’ situation. Anecdotally, the willingness to forfeit pay seems to be inversely proportional to wealth and salary. The poorer and more precarious, the more willing to take risks and financial hits. The richer and more secure, the more liable to be heard complaining about not being able to afford to strike.

Individualism of this kind is the opposite of solidarity, which in academia is decidedly patchy. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the 2018 pensions strike and its aftermath. Graduate students and casualised academics, who can only dream of having retirement incomes to defend, turned out in droves to protect the pensions of their more secure colleagues; not long after, when the union balloted its members again over the issues of pay, workload, inequality and casualisation, few branches met the 50% turnout threshold. Permanent academics, false as their sense of security may be, are apparently more concerned with their next grant application than the fate of the temporary lecturer who will be brought in to cover their sabbatical. As a result, the unchecked march of casualisation is leading to a paradoxical proletarianisation, subjecting junior academics to a hazing ritual of insecurity and impoverishment only the independently wealthy can afford.

Who’s to blame for the plight of higher education? Time to consult the mirror. Looked at one way, academics are their own worst enemies. But viewed from another angle, their failure to defend their own collective interest makes more sense: the collective is not their concern. If the goal is to get ahead of the next guy, then a general deterioration of conditions is a cost that can be borne. For all the heart-rending laments from academics about the state of the universities, the reality may be still more depressing. Maybe they like what they see.

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘In the Academic Counting-House’, NLR 123.


Fossil Media

Few people outside France have heard of far-right billionaire Vincent Bolloré’s takeover of the Journal du Dimanche. Yet it marks an important moment in the country’s political trajectory. The JDD is a weekly newspaper, founded in 1948, which acts as a sort of unofficial governmental gazette. It is carefully read by most journalists, politicians and CEOs. Despite its modest circulation – 135,000 per week, compared to Le Monde’s 500,000 daily sales – it is often used by senior politicians to announce new legislation and set out their agendas. Its bland centre-right orientation means it can align itself with both the Republicans and the right of the Parti Socialiste. More recently it has been described as ‘Macron’s Pravda’, and online memes have mocked its tendency to feature glorifying portraits of different cabinet ministers on its front page each week.

Yet earlier this summer, Bolloré launched a coup against this bastion of establishment politics. Having spent years patiently building a majority stake in Lagardère, the media group that owns the JDD, he announced the appointment of a new chief editor: the notoriously reactionary journalist Geoffroy Lejeune. Lejeune had previously worked at the magazine Valeurs actuelles, where he was involved in countless controversies: publishing a fictional piece that depicted the black MP Danielle Obono as a slave being sold in Africa, as well as an antisemitic cover story that described George Soros as a ‘global financier plotting against France’. His new role was anathema to the JDD’s staff, who responded by launching indefinite strike action – preventing the newspaper from being published for several weeks.

For Bolloré, this was nothing new. He had previously bought the TV broadcasting group Canal Plus and replaced its executives with his hand-picked stooges, triggering a lengthy strike which ended with the departure of most journalists at I-Télé – France’s equivalent of CNN. He then set about recruiting a new team and remaking the channel as CNews, modelled loosely on Fox. The mogul also purchased Hachette, the largest European publishing company, whose subsidiaries play a major role in producing educational textbooks. Bolloré is now the twelfth wealthiest individual in France with a net worth of €11.1bn. In the early days of his career he was lauded for importing cutting-edge financial techniques to France from the US. He adapted a variant of the 1980s leveraged buyout procedure and rebranded it poulies bretonnes after his home region – an innovation that helped to earn him the nicknames Petit Prince du cash flow and Mozart de la finance in the French business press.

Yet Bolloré was not above more traditional methods of accumulation. In fact, he has most consistently operated in old, declining sectors. The ailing business he inherited from his father specialized in cigarette paper. After selling it, he began to focus on postcolonial assets, particularly the port infrastructures and plantations that comprise the shadowy world of Françafrique. He owns approximately 500,000 acres of plantations across various countries including Cameroon, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. Until recently, Bolloré Africa Logistics presided over port infrastructures in most West African countries from Senegal to Congo. Its owner also acquired fossil assets, including oil depots in France and Switzerland, building a carbon empire through numerous acquisitions. All the while, Bolloré has crafted a public profile that personifies French family capitalism. To celebrate the bicentenary of his company, he donned some old-style Brittany velvet clothing and posed in front of his village church with his sons, whom he told to start planning for the next two hundred years. His political interventions typically promote right-wing Catholicism, unapologetic patriarchy and social hierarchy.

Bolloré’s acquisition of the Journal du Dimanche sparked indignation, with 400 prominent journalists, actors, trade unionists and former ministers publishing an op-ed opposing Lejeune’s appointment. Others denounced it as a bid for ‘almightiness’ and a ‘crusade for the Christian West’. The left and centre-right were united in their concern that French public discourse would be poisoned by this far-right insurgency. Yet such responses often misunderstood the significance of Bolloré’s actions, describing them as merely an exercise in narcissism by a vain, ageing billionaire.

Unfortunately, Bolloré is much more than that. He represents a powerful segment of the French business community, at the intersection of fossil industries, privatized utilities and postcolonial assets. The paranoid rhetoric of his outlets – on topics like the grand remplacement, ‘green dictatorship’ or ‘wokeism’ – is not incidental. It is an integral part of this business model. Racial domination is essential to the Bolloré Group’s operations in Africa. The suppression of environmental movements facilitates its dealings in the French oil sector. And patriarchy is ingrained in a firm that has been passed down from male owner to male heir over six generations.

Nor is Bolloré an isolated case. Other billionaires have gone on similar buying sprees over the past few years. In 2018, the Czech tycoon Daniel Kretinsky, who amassed his wealth in coal mining and power plants, purchased Le Monde – adding it to his portfolio of media assets including Elle, Marianne and Franc-Tireur. He is now expected to acquire the second-largest French publishing group, Editis, from Bolloré. CMA-CGM, a French maritime transportation giant and major player in logistics on the African continent, has recently taken over the business newspaper La Tribune, and plans to launch a competitor to JDD in the coming months. (The company is also currently in the process of acquiring some of Bolloré’s business ventures.) It thus appears that, while French news corporations have been historically controlled by entrepreneurs in the luxury, defence and telecommunications sectors, they are now being bought by fossil capitalists and Françafrique investors.

What explains this shift? For one thing, these sectors have experienced tremendous growth in recent years. The fact that the public considers them somewhat passé has not made them any less lucrative. In 2022, CMA-CGM achieved the all-time record for the highest profits ever made by a French company, with €23bn. Kretinsky’s fossil investments are also thriving. Thanks to the energy crisis, the profits of his firm skyrocketed from €1.2bn to €3.8bn in 2020-22, while the Bolloré Group made a record €3.4bn during the same period. This leaves such companies with ample funds left over to spend on shaping the ideological landscape to reflect their interests.

Capitalists like Bolloré have compelling motives to engage in this struggle over public opinion. France’s ability to project power in Africa has been diminished by the recent spate of coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, threatening to undermine the very architecture of Françafrique. Macron’s African policy is also less interventionist than that of his predecessors – allowing friendly regimes to collapse while letting the French judiciary investigate corrupt business practices in former colonies. At the same time, France has nominally committed to the European Commission’s plan to ban most automotive combustion engines by 2035, reach net-zero targets and discourage investments in fossil energy. Given all this, Bolloré has reason to worry about who will defend his ports, plantations and oil deposits in the decades to come. He has wagered that it is better to get on the front foot than to leave his inheritors with stranded assets.

Macron’s response to the controversy at JDD has been muted. When the strike was announced, the government was careful not to criticize Bolloré. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne described it a ‘delicate’ issue, stressing that the state ‘should not interfere in the management of the media’. It was only the Education Minister, Pap Ndiaye, who stuck his head above the parapet, saying that he was ‘worried’ about the takeover given that Bolloré had turned his other media ventures into mouthpieces for the ‘radical far right’. In response, Bolloré’s news networks went into attack mode, denouncing Ndiaye as an enemy of free speech. At the next governmental reshuffle, Macron sacked him from his post and reassigned him to an obscure position in Brussels.

After forty days of striking, the journalists finally gave up, with many of them leaving the newspaper. The following Sunday the next edition appeared, having been written and edited in secret by another team of journalists recruited from CNews, Minute and Valeurs actuelles. Remarkably, it included an interview with one of Macron’s ministers: Sabrina Agresti-Roubache, the Secretary of State for City Planning. She later claimed that her decision to speak to the newly radicalized JDD was motivated by her support for ‘Charlie Hebdo’ and ‘free speech’ – implying that it was necessary to take a stand against the striking journalists were supposedly impeding press freedom.

Macron’s tacit endorsement of Bolloré’s growing influence may not be as surprising as it seems. After all, billionaire-owned media played a significant role in both his election campaigns, and it has been a major asset amid the recent unrest over pension reforms and racist policing. Since losing his parliamentary majority in 2022, the President has adopted an approach of strategic ambiguity towards the far right, alternately condemning and embracing its ideas. Could there be some eventual détente between the hardliners at the JDD and the centrists in the Élysée Palace? Will one tendency hegemonize the other? It remains too early to tell. What’s clear is that, together, these forces are pushing French politics in an increasingly reactionary direction. It may prove difficult to reverse course.

Read on: Grey Anderson, ‘Grander Narratives’, NLR 142.


Darning the Planet

How had no one thought of it before? As millions sweltered in record-breaking temperatures across America and Southern Europe, a solution was hiding in plain sight. Simple, effective, and right under our noses – yet it took the perspicacity of the President of the French Republic to spot it. During Paris fashion week, Macron’s Secretary of State for Ecology, Bérangère Couillard, announced a groundbreaking new measure: from next autumn, subsidies ranging from €6 to €25 will be available to any French citizen who has an item of clothing repaired. The climate crisis will be averted by a trip to the tailor or the cobbler. Thanks to the meticulous bureaucracy of the French state, we already have the fine print of this bonus réparation textile:

For a pair of shoes:

€8 for an insole

€7 for the heel

€8 for stitching or gluing

€18 for a complete resoling (€25 if the shoes are leather)

€10 to replace a zipper

For a garment:

€7 to mend a hole, tear or rip

€10 for a lining (€25 if it’s complex)

€8 for a zipper

€6 for a seam (€8 if it’s double)

It could be argued that before it starts encouraging consumers to be less wasteful, the French government ought to encourage the textile and footwear industries to curb their practice of planned obsolescence, by imposing warranties that would oblige them to repair defective items free of charge for several years, or requiring the use of more durable materials. Educating citizens about environmentally friendly practices is certainly no bad thing. But given that – as Mies van der Rohe once said – ‘God is in the details’, it is worth taking a moment to consider the sums involved. The total amount allocated for this revolutionary measure was €154 million. Assuming that this figure doesn’t include the cost of employing bureaucrats to assess requests, disburse subsidies and supervise the quality of the repairs, this means a handsome €2.26 has been allocated for each of France’s 68 million people. Even if one were to only consider the 29.9 million ménages composed of an average of 2.2 members, each household would receive a grand total of €5.13 per year. To put this in context, recall that the French state spent some €7 billion on its pointless colonial mission in Africa, Operation Barkhane, which ended in ignominy last year; roughly €100,000 euros per year for every solider dispatched to the Sahel.

These numbers say a lot about the extent of the French government’s environmental commitments, and, more broadly, about the gigantic practical joke being played by world leaders in their ‘declaration of war’ on global warming. It is not just Macron. Look at how the rulers of countries hit by the record-breaking July heatwave behaved: as if global warming was some future menace, to be mended with the odd €6 for a jacket here and there (or €10 if it’s lined).

We’re not dealing with denialists here: they are comparatively unthreatening, for their bad faith is transparent, and they grow more pathetic by the hour despite their corporate bankrolling. Far more dangerous are those like Macron – that is, the overwhelming majority of the world’s political class, irrespective of ideological orientation – who feign concern from their air-conditioned offices and private planes, and then do nothing. Worse than nothing, in fact: for they make the public believe that the problem can be solved with half-measures and palliatives, promoting market solutions for a problem created by the market itself.  

The world is currently suffocating beneath a deluge of plastic, yet the plastic industry, which may well have the most effective lobby on the planet, is glaringly absent from environmental debates. The oil industry on which it depends meanwhile has discovered an irrepressible passion for the environment, according to its advertising campaigns; the term ‘greenwashing’ is appropriate precisely because it recalls money laundering by criminal organizations. They also propose utterly improbable solutions. Think of the electric car delusion – in order to pollute less we apparently need to build an electrical grid spanning the entire globe, replace every single car in the world (trucks and vans included) and furnish them with batteries whose production is one of the most polluting processes known to man.

Scientists contribute to these absurdities. A recent report in Nature described attempts to introduce crystals into the ocean in order to increase its alkalinity: a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions end up in the ocean, which acidifies the water, making it potentially inhospitable to life. What this plan amounts to is throwing lime (or some equivalent) into the sea. The problem is that humanity produces 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (in 1950 the figure was 6 billion). A quarter of this is over 9 billion tonnes, which could only be neutralized by a quantity of crystals of the same scale, which would presumably be dropped into the sea from the air. How much CO2 would be emitted by the production and global distribution of billions of tonnes of ocean antacid (without even discussing the immense pollution that this ‘solution’ would entail)?

Every year – as CO2 emissions and plastic production continue to climb – objectives that everyone knows to be unattainable are pompously announced. The 2015 Paris summit’s overarching goal was to hold ‘the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’ and pursue efforts ‘to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° above pre-industrial levels’, requiring greenhouse gas emissions to ‘peak before 2025 at the latest and decline 43% by 2030’. Such communiqués resemble a letter to Father Christmas; childish wishes for gifts to fall from the sky, or down the chimney. Only here governments around the world are writing Christmas letters to themselves. The World Meteorological Organization announced in May that there is a 66% chance that the 1.5° temperature rise will be reached before 2027. Yet the same organization maintains that already in 2022, the planet was 1.15 ± 0. 13° warmer than the pre-industrial average, making the last 8 years the warmest on record; that between 2020 and 2021 the increase in the concentration of methane in the atmosphere was the highest since measurements have existed (methane is far more damaging than carbon dioxide to the greenhouse effect); that the rate of ocean level rises doubled between the decade 1993-2002 and 2013-2022; that ocean acidification is accelerating. And so on.

Yet the environmental crisis is treated as a future threat, notwithstanding the warnings emanating from outlets as close to polluting corporations as the Financial Times, which sternly informs its readers that we are dealing with ‘a present reality’. The planet is becoming unliveable already. As an acquaintance recently joked to me, ‘you can’t live locked in a refrigerator’; yet the fastest growing city in the US is Phoenix, where this summer the temperature exceeded 40° for more than a month, forcing people to rely constantly on air conditioning (which further accelerates global warming).

Inspired, perhaps, by Ionesco and Beckett, today’s world leaders have invented a politics of the absurd. To get a measure of the situation, one need only compare the attention, ideological mobilization and resources devoted to the war in Ukraine with those devoted to the environmental crisis. The difference being that while the war endangers the lives of 43.8 million people and directly impacts 9 million more who live in the disputed territories, the environmental crisis endangers the lives of billions of people, condemns billions more to poverty and starvation, and has already forced 30 million people a year to migrate, with some forecasts predicting 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050. Meanwhile, Russia and NATO spend hundreds of billions on arms, while the war drives up commodity prices and government deficits. If just a tenth of these sums were devoted to the environmental crisis, the effect would be revolutionary.

This gives us a clear sense of how high the environment ranks in our ruler’s priorities. From a certain perspective, the masters of the earth behave towards nature as the US has towards Russia: waging a war against it without outright declaration. They treat the planet like marauders who plunder cities, burning everything to the ground. Why such obstinacy on behalf of our ‘cognitive aristocracy’? Why do they have it in for our planet? It’s not like they can emulate the marauders who, after sacking one city, could move on to the next. As much as they tout their mythical space industry, they will not be able to emigrate to a new planet after rendering this one uninhabitable. Pure recklessness, perhaps? A complete immersion in the present that effaces any thought of tomorrow? Boundless selfishness? The syndrome of the scorpion, for whom the earth plays the part of the frog? Or is it simple cowardice, a lack of courage to face the problem?

Perhaps a clue was recently provided by the ineffable Macron himself, when he spoke of the violence that broke out in late June among French youth – overwhelmingly children of immigrants living in the banlieues – triggered by the killing of a young man by the police. The solution, according to Macron, was simple: ‘order, order, order’. ‘Authority must be restored’ because the violence ultimately depends on a ‘parental deficit’. ‘An overwhelming majority’ of the protestors, he explained ‘have a fragile family framework, either because they come from a single-parent family or their family is on child support benefits’. In short, it’s the fault of single mothers (implied to have loose morals), who have failed to instil the values of civil etiquette in their turbulent offspring. In other words, the youth of the banlieues are violent because they’re sons of… To think we hadn’t realised! Maybe the elites exercise such violence on the planet because, without ever admitting it, they too are sons of…

Read on: Adam Hanieh, ‘Petrochemical Empire’, NLR 130.


Unrest and Repetition

When riots erupted in France at the end of June, it took police just under a week to make more than 3,000 arrests. Clashes on the streets of Paris and Marseille evoked other recent confrontations with the forces of state repression: think of the 22,000 arrests made by the Iranian police last autumn, or the 10,000 detained in America during the summer of Black Lives Matter. What do these three uprisings, across three different continents, have in common? To start with, the age and social class of the protesters. Those arrested were almost entirely under 30, and a disproportionate share were NEETs (those not in education, employment or training). In France and the US, this was linked to their status as racialized minorities: 26% of the youth population in zones urbaines sensibles are NEET, compared to the national average of 13%, and African Americans comprise almost 14% of the general population but 20.5% of NEETs. In Iran, meanwhile, the decisive factor was age: young people have lived their entire lives under US sanctions. Recent figures show that around 77% of Iranians between the ages of 15 to 24 fall into this category – up from around 31% in 2020.

The second common factor is even more striking. In all three cases, protests broke out following a murder committed by police: George Floyd, an African American, was killed in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020; the 22-year old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in Tehran on 16 September 2022; and the 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, of Algerian descent, in Nanterre on 27 June. In the aftermath of these killings, the media spotlight was placed on the ‘vandals’, ‘thugs’, ‘hooligans’ and ‘criminals’ who took to the streets, but rarely on law enforcement itself. In Iran, the identity of the policeman who caused Amini’s death isn’t even known. In France, Éric Zemmour’s spokesperson launched an online fundraiser to support the cop who killed Nahel, which collected more than €1.6 million before it was taken down.

A third feature connects such protests and their repression to unrest in other countries: monotonous repetition. There is always the same recurring scene: smashed shop windows, burnt-out cars, some looted supermarkets, tear gas and the occasional bullet from the police. In the West, the same formula has been operative for decades: the police kill a young person from a marginalized community; the youth of this community rise up; they destroy a few things and clash with the police; they are arrested. The atmosphere reverts to a kind of precarious tranquillity, until the police decide to murder someone again. (Iran’s protests last year were the first major uprising against police violence in the country – a sign that even the land of the ayatollahs is easing its way into ‘Western modernity’.)

France has a long history of such incidents. To give just a few indicative examples: in 1990, a young paralysed man named Thomas Claudio is killed in the suburbs of Lyon by a police car; in 1991, a policeman shoots and kills the 18-year-old Djamel Chettouh in a banlieue of Paris; in 1992, again in Lyon, the gendarmerie shoot and kill the 18-year-old Mohamed Bahri for attempting to evade a traffic stop; the same year, in the same city, twenty-year-old Mourad Tchier is killed by a brigadier-commander of the gendarmerie; in Toulon in 1994, Faouzi Benraïs goes out to buy a hamburger and is killed by police; in 1995, Djamel Benakka is beaten to death by a policeman in the police station of Laval. Fast-forward: the riots of 2005 were a response to the death of two teenagers, Zyed Benna (17) and Bouna Traoré (15); those of 2007 sought redress for the death of two more, Moushin Sehhouli (15) and Laramy Samoura (16), whose motorcycle collided with a police car. The litany is unbearable: it would be sufficient to remember the death of Aboubacar Fofana (22) in 2018, killed by police in Nantes during an identity check. Note how strikingly Gallic the names of victims are: Aboubakar, Bouna, Djamel, Fauzi, Larami, Mahaed, Mourad, Moushin, Zyed . . .

The exact same dynamic can be found across the Atlantic. Miami, 1980: four white police officers are charged with beating to death a black motorcyclist, Arthur McDuffie, after he ran a red light. They are acquitted, precipitating a wave of tumult that rocks Liberty City, resulting in 18 deaths and over 300 injuries. Los Angeles, 1991: four white police officers beat up another black motorcyclist, Rodney King. The subsequent unrest causes at least 59 fatalities and over 2,300 injuries. Rioting spreads to Atlanta, Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco, and San Jose. Cincinnati, 2001: a white policeman kills a black man, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, and 70 people are injured in the ensuing protests. Ferguson, 2014: a white police officer kills Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man; riots, 61 arrested, 14 injured. Baltimore, 2015: a 25-year-old black man dies of various injuries incurred while he is detained in a police van; clashes leave 113 police officers injured; two people are shot, 485 arrested, and a curfew is imposed with the National Guard ultimately intervening. Charlotte, 2016: police shoot 43-year-old African-American Keith Lamont Scott; riots, curfew, deployment of the National Guard. A protester is killed during demonstrations, 26-year-old Justin Carr; 31 are injured. We eventually arrive at George Floyd; the scenario repeats itself.

British police have no reason to feel inferior to their transatlantic counterparts, nor their neighbours across the Channel. Here a few examples among many: Brixton, 1981: constant police brutality and harassment issues in protests and riots among the black community; 279 police and 45 civilians are injured (protestors avoid hospitals out of fear), 82 arrests, over 100 burnt vehicles, 150 damaged buildings, a third of which are set on fire. The upheaval spreads to Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds. Brixton, 1985: police search a suspect’s house and shoot his mother, Cherry Groce. A photojournalist is killed, 43 civilians and 10 police officers are injured, 55 cars are set on fire and a building is completely destroyed after three days of rioting (Cherry Groce survives her wounds but remains paralysed). Tottenham, 1985: a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, dies of cardiac arrest during a house search carried out by police, and a policeman is killed by crowds in the resulting riots. Brixton, 1995: protests after a 26-year-old black man dies in custody; 22 arrests. Tottenham, 2011: police shoot and kill Mark Duggan; riots break out, extending to other areas of London and then to other cities. Over the next six days, five people are killed, 189 police officers are injured and 2,185 buildings are damaged. Beckton, 2017: a 25-year-old black Portuguese man, Edson Da Costa, dies of asphyxiation after being stopped by police. In subsequent protests in front of the police station, four are arrested and 14 police officers are injured.

I imagine this list was as exasperating to read as it was infuriating to write. At this point, police violence cannot be considered a bavure, as the French say, but a persistent and transnational feature of contemporary capitalism. (It brings to mind Bertolt Brecht, who, faced with the reaction of the East German government to popular protest in 1953, asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be simpler if the government dissolved the people and elected a new one?’) What’s astonishing is that after every one of these upheavals, thousands of pitiful urbanists, sociologists, ‘youthologists’, criminologists, healthcare professionals, charities and NGOs turn, in their contrition, to the profound social, cultural and behavioural causes of such ‘violence’, ‘excesses’, ‘outbursts’ and ‘vandalism’. The police, however, are not deemed worthy of the same attention. Police violence is often described but seldom scrutinized. Not even Foucault sharpened our understanding of it, focussing instead on specific sites where law enforcement is organized and institutionalised.

Policing has clearly evolved over the centuries: it has been subdivided into specialised corps (traffic, city, border, military and international police) and its tools have been refined (wire-tapping, tracking, electronic surveillance). But it has remained identical in both its opacity and its unreformability. The states mentioned above have never put meaningful police reform on the agenda. None of their governments has ever pushed for an alternative – for why would a regime want to tamper with its most effective disciplinary mechanism? Nor have upheavals, riots and agitations managed to bring about change. It would seem, conversely, that popular rage is a stabilising factor, a safety valve for the social pressure cooker. Ultimately, it solidifies the image that the powerful have of the populace. In Herodotus’s Histories, written in the 5th century BC, the Persian nobleman Megabyzus states:

There is nothing so void of understanding, nothing so full of wantonness, as the unwieldy rabble. It were folly not to be borne, for men, while seeking to escape the wantonness of a tyrant, to give themselves up to the wanton­ness of a rude unbridled mob. The tyrant, in all his doings, at least knows what he is about, but a mob is altogether devoid of knowledge; for how should there be any knowledge in a rabble, untaught, and with no natural sense of what is right and fit? It rushes wildly into state affairs with all the fury of a stream swollen in the winter, and confuses everything.

From the point of view of the regime, it may well be that riots are welcome, for they guarantee renormalisation, they permit social ‘bantustans’ to remain such, and they deflate discontents that could otherwise be perilous. Naturally, for them to perform this stabilizing function they must be subject to outward condemnation: vandalism should be denounced, violence should spark indignation, looting should cause disgust. Such reactions justify the ruthlessness of the repression, which becomes the only means to beat back the tide of barbarism. It is under these conditions that riots serve to ossify social hierarchy.

We cannot but recall the popular revolts that periodically shook the ancien régime and were regularly and mercilessly repressed: the Grande Jacquerie of 1358 (which gave rise to the common name for all subsequent peasant uprisings), the Tuchin Revolt in Languedoc (1363-84), the Ciompi Revolt in Florence (1378), the Wat Tyler’s Rebellion (1381), the Peasant’s War in Germany (1524-6), the Carnival in Romans (1580) and Masianello’s Revolt in Naples (1647). The historian Samuel Cohn has counted more than 200 of these instances in France, Flanders and Italy from 1245 to 1424. But it was the great historian Marc Bloch who noted how the feudal system needed these revolts to sustain itself:

A social system is not only characterised by its internal structure, but also by the reactions it provokes: a system founded on commandments can, in certain moments, imply reciprocal duties of aid carried out honestly, as it can also lead to brutal outbursts of hostility. To the eyes of the historian, who must merely note and explain the relationships between phenomena, the agrarian revolt appears as inseparable to the seigneurial regime as, for instance, the strike is to the great capitalist enterprise.

Bloch’s reflection leads us to the following question: if the jacquerie is inseparable from feudalism, and the strike from Fordist capitalism, then to what command system does the tumult of the NEETs correspond? There is only one answer: a system – neoliberalism – in which the plebe has been reconstituted. Who are these new plebians? They are the NEETs of the US high-rise projects and the neighbourhoods of south Tehran, the subproletarians of the zones sensibles. They are the class that many of today’s so-called ‘progressives’ disdain, fear, or at the best of times ignore.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘The French Insurgency’, NLR 116/117.


Decapitalizing Culture

There are countless debates among sociologists and economists concerning the terms ‘human capital’ and ‘cultural capital’. The general view is that the former implies a rational instrumental attitude to the attainment of skills, whereas the latter suggests an investment in what Bourdieusians call illusio: the denial that the game of culture is in fact a game. Iván Szelényi once characterized the distinction slightly differently, writing that human capital denoted skills that are rewarded because of their contribution to productivity, while cultural capital was fundamentally a claim to rent. It seems to me, however, that we ought to be raising a different set of questions. In particular, it is important to ask: under what historical conditions does culture take the form of an ‘asset’ or ‘quasi-asset’?

The preconditions of this formation are a prior process of cultural expropriation, and a subsequent process that can reproduce this expropriation on an ongoing basis. Such ‘primitive accumulation’ of cultural or human capital can take place in a number of ways. It can involve the imposition of a single dialect on the national language which suddenly devalues pre-existing ones, as occurred inter alia with the Florentine dialect on the Italian peninsula. Or it can mean the devaluation of indigenous knowledge, such as managing commons and wastelands according to fertility cycles. Yet a more articulated analysis is needed here. For it is not true that the only options in the formation of cultural capital are complete equality or private possession. Swathes of human history have been marked by a sort of collective, class-wide possession of culture, such that it could not be seen as individually possessed ‘capital’. Consider the culturally omnivorous Renaissance men of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, or the debating publics that Habermas took as his model. Within these spaces of relative exclusivity, culture was a collective ‘possession’. It did not appear as an alien object to the members of the dominant class; it was not an individually appropriated ‘asset’.

This is significant for the politics of the university, and beyond that for the politics of culture in contemporary capitalism. Today, the academy is often defended on the basis of its contribution to ‘cultural’ or ‘human’ capital. But this approach is self-undermining. The claim to be providing ‘capital’ to some is premised on the exclusion of others. Cultural or human capital is only as valuable as it is scarce. Thus, as currently configured, it is not in the interests of the elite universities to provide degrees for all or even most of the people who would like to attend them. The relative value of the degree, like any other asset, declines with the expansion of access.

The response to this from the social-democratic left, ‘free higher education for all’, hardly touches the underlying issue. For the universalization of higher education would simply entail a reduction in its economic value unless the meaning of education were radically transformed. Culture must first be decapitalized; it must cease to be an asset. The humanized university, rather than being a place for the acquisition of human or cultural capital, would be an institution devoted to the construction of the personality. This should not be conceived as a return to the gentleman scholar, but as the formation of a new type of intellectual. The new intellectual would still possess an array of skills, yet the means by which those skills would be transmitted would likely differ from the current classroom. The craft of teaching itself would become increasingly the teaching of craft. Mutatis mutandis, the widespread availability of ‘information’ (rather a misnomer), via the internet and artificial intelligence, would support the project of academia as opposed to undermining it. Our aim should not be the universalization of access to cultural or human capital, but their abolition as social realities. Here, as elsewhere, the programme of the humanized society is not the redistribution of property but its overcoming as a real category.

Read on: Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Pierre Bordieu: Critical Sociology and Social History’, NLR 101.



At an event in Washington on Tuesday 23 May, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Ukraine’s new Ministry for Digital Transformation made a remarkable pitch to the American people. US taxpayers were told that they were now ‘social investors’ in Ukrainian democracy. Wearing the Silicon Valley uniform of blue jeans, a T-shirt and a headset mic, strutting the stage like he was delivering an impassioned TED talk, Ukraine’s 31-year-old Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov explained the many features of the country’s pioneering mobile application. Thanks to Diia, he said, Ukraine would be run less like a country and more like an IT company, soon becoming ‘the most convenient state in the world’. USAID Administrator Samantha Power echoed this aspiration, noting that Ukraine – long known as the breadbasket of the world – was now ‘becoming famous for a new product . . . an open source, digital public good that it will give to other countries’. This would be achieved through the transatlantic partnership between the two nations. ‘The US has always exported democracy’, Fedorov said, ‘now it exports digitalization.’

When Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2019, he promised to transform Ukraine into a ‘state in a smartphone’, making most public services available online. A digitalization agenda of this kind was virtually unprecedented, dwarfing ‘e-Estonia’ in both the speed of its rollout and the scale of its ambition. The programme’s crown jewel was Diia, launched in February 2020 with ample support from USAID. US funds reportedly amounted to $25 million for ‘the infrastructure underpinning Diia’ alone. Additional grants have come from the UK, Switzerland, the Eurasia Foundation, Visa and Google. The app is now used by some 19 million Ukrainians, about 46% of the country’s prewar population.

Diia means ‘action’ in Ukrainian, and the word also works as an acronym for ‘the State and I’ (Derzhava i ia). What makes the app remarkable is its array of functions. It permits Ukrainians to access numerous digital documents, including ID cards, foreign biometric passports, drivers’ licenses, vehicle registrations, insurance and tax numbers. Ukraine claims to be the first state in the world with a digital ID that’s valid throughout the country. The app also offers a variety of services, including ‘the fastest business registration in the world’, where ‘you only need two seconds to become an entrepreneur’ and ‘30 minutes to found a limited liability company.’ Diia can be used to pay debts or fines, receive Covid vaccination certificates and obtain various documents and services related to the birth of a child, via eMalyatko (‘eBaby’). To ensure widespread adoption of the app, the government produced a miniseries with well-known Ukrainian film stars – creating what Fedorov calls ‘the Netflix of education’, particularly for those in rural areas and the elderly.

After the Russian invasion, the app’s remit was expanded. Diia began allowing users to apply for internally displaced persons certificates as well as state benefits (IDPs receive a monthly sum of UAH 2000, or about 60 euros). When Russian forces destroyed numerous TV towers, Diia launched broadcasting services to ensure an uninterrupted stream of Ukrainian news sources. Ukrainians can also register destruction to property from Russian military strikes, which the government says will guide the country’s post-war reconstruction. Beyond the introduction of these useful wartime services, Diia has rolled out an array of ‘civil intelligence’ features. With Diia eVorog (‘eEnemy’), civilians can use a chatbot to report the names of Russian collaborators, Russian troop movements, the location of enemy equipment and even Russian war crimes. Such reports are processed through support services at Diia; if deemed legitimate, they are submitted to the headquarters of the Ukrainian armed forces. At first glance, the interface looks like a video game. Icons are illustrated as targets and army helmets. After users submit a report about the location of Russian troops, a muscle-flexing emoji pops up. When they submit documentation of war crimes, they click an icon of a drop of blood.

Diia is part of a larger nation-branding exercise that positions Ukraine as a technological powerhouse forged in war. In the emergent national mythology, Ukraine has long possessed technological expertise and talent, but was held back by inferior Soviet science and, more recently, Russia and its culture of corruption. This rhetoric is nothing new for Eastern Europe. A number of cities, including Vilnius and Kaunas in Lithuania, Sofia in Bulgaria, and Constanta and Iasi in Romania, have touted themselves as having the fastest internet in the world. A little over a decade ago, Macedonia inaugurated an ambitious – and since abandoned – project that brought broadband internet to 95% of the country’s inhabitants. Estonia famously embraced IT upon gaining independence, launching the widely publicized e-Estonia initiative which placed most government services, as well as voting, online. Most recently, tiny Montenegro is aiming to become the world’s ‘first longevity-oriented state’, fostering investment in health tech, longevity biotechnology, synthetic biology and biomanufacturing. Spearheaded by Milojko Spajić, leader of the Europe Now! Party, which captured the presidency last April, a series of programmes aim to transform Montenegro into a ‘crypto hub’ (Vitalik Buterin, the creator of Ethereum, has just been granted Montenegrin citizenship). During Tuesday’s visual presentation, which echoed the aesthetics and spirit of a late-aughts Steve Jobs iPhone rollout, it was announced that by 2030, Ukraine intends to have become the first country to go entirely cashless and have a court system governed by AI.

The global communications scholar Stanislav Budnitsky has written extensively on e-Estonia and nationalism in the digital age. In assessing the value of these online services, he stresses the importance of separating the technological from the mythological. Technologies like Diia have clear benefits, particularly for internally displaced people and refugees, but the mythology attached to them requires further consideration. For example, Diia has been widely touted as an antidote to corruption, notoriously rife in Ukraine. The app promises to reduce bribery dramatically by eliminating low-level officials who are well-positioned to demand payment in exchange for certain essential tasks. Diia also introduces ‘randomness’ into the assignment of court cases, which the app’s enthusiasts claim will diminish corruption in the judiciary. As Zelensky noted at a recent Diia Summit, ‘A computer has no friends or godfathers, and doesn’t take bribes.’ Yet while Diia may help to decrease low-level corruption, it will do little to confront its larger and more damaging manifestations, such as the long-standing symbiosis between oligarchs and the state. Often, tech-mythology serves only to obscure the most vexed political problems.

Diia is more than an app; it is now ‘the world’s first virtual digital city’: ‘a unique tax and legal space for IT business in Ukraine’. IT companies ‘resident’ in Diia City enjoy a preferential tax regime. ‘This is one of the best tax and legal regimes on the planet’, said Zelensky; a place ‘where the language of venture capital investment is spoken’. Residents of Diia City will also benefit from a ‘flexible employment model’, including the introduction of precarious ‘gig contracts’, hitherto nonexistent in Ukraine.

Now USAID wants to expand Diia to ‘partner countries’ around the world; in Power’s words, ‘to help bring other democracies into the future too’. At the World Economic Forum in January, Power announced that an additional $650,000 would be provided to ‘jumpstart’ the creation of Diia-ready infrastructure in other countries. On Tuesday, Power said these would include Colombia, Kosovo and Zambia. This global effort builds upon USAID’s 2020-2024 digital strategy published during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. (It’s little wonder that conspiracists tend to link Diia to the so-called ‘Great Reset’: a WEF initiative that aims to rebuild trust in global capitalism by promoting ‘multi-stakeholder’ partnerships that unite governments, the private sector and civil society ‘across all areas of global governance’.)

Perhaps the most striking thing about the rhetoric around Diia is that its app-inspired tech solutionism is such an anachronism. A recent video introducing Ukraine’s IT sector to the world looks as if it belongs to a simpler, more optimistic time. ‘IT is about freedom’, the narrator says. ‘All you need is a computer to invent a great variety of things.’ An interviewee explains that the first computer in continental Europe was built in Ukraine. ‘There were a lot of talented specialists in Ukraine, but the borders were closed and private entrepreneurship was mostly illegal.’ As these words are spoken, images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Ronald Reagan and the Pepsi logo flash up on screen.

This is the threadbare rhetoric of 1989 paired with a haggard California ideology. The idea that Twitter was going to bring democracy to the Middle East was stale well over a decade ago. When the Clinton State Department introduced the notion of ‘digital diplomacy’ – with one senior advisor telling NATO that ‘the Che Guevara of the 21st century is the Network’ – it already rang hollow. But in 2023, at a time when banks are collapsing in Silicon Valley, tech jobs are hemorrhaging by the hundreds of thousands and San Francisco is in seemingly terminal decline, such unyielding faith in app-driven prosperity sounds more than naïve. It reflects the impoverishment of the Western liberal-democratic imagination, unable to deliver a convincing or desirable vision of the future, on- or offline. In this imperial thought-world, the Cold War rhetoric of freedom has been replaced by the limp promise of convenience.

Read on: Lily Lynch, ‘A New Serbia’, NLR 140/141.


Death Merchants?

On 24 September 1938, Benito Mussolini posed a question to a large crowd of his followers in Belluno: ‘Faced with the absolutely ridiculous alternative: butter or guns, what have we chosen?’ Their response was unequivocal: ‘Guns!’ Over the following years, Italians would suffer the consequences of this choice: massacres, destruction, economic ruin. Yet, nowadays, not even Vladimir Putin would dream of asking an audience of Russians whether they prefer butter or missiles, since he knows that – notwithstanding the rhetoric of Holy Mother Russia – they would vote unanimously for buttered toast. Nor would any Western leader run the risk of consulting their citizens on such a ‘ridiculous alternative’, aware that foreign policy decisions are best kept out of public hands.

Today, of course, the choice of missiles and drones is a given. It’s even considered morally indispensable – a ‘humanitarian necessity’. NATO has officially sent Ukraine more than a thousand tanks and over two million rounds of ammunition (but really it’s much more than this). And the Russian army, in turn, has mustered an equivalent level of armaments. Once the logic of rearmament is triggered, the Thatcherite maxim concerning finance capitalism rings just as true: ‘there is no alternative’.

Even a cursory analysis shows the profundity of the gap separating 1938 from the present period. In the interwar years, phrases like ‘mercanti di cannoni’, or ‘death merchants’, were used to describe those who reap the spoils of war. Now such terms are virtually banned from public discussion. The fact that there are people profiting from mass slaughter has been expunged from our political consciousness. Not even the most lucid and disenchanted commentator would dare affirm, as Anatole France did in 1922, that ‘We think we are dying for our country; we are dying for the industrialists’.

To be sure, the peace movement still denounces increased arms sales. In 2022, the world spent $2.24 trillion on arms, 39% of which was accounted for by the United States, 13% by China, 3.9% by Russia, 3.6% by India and 3.3% by Saudi Arabia. NATO members made up 55% of the global total. Peace activists have responded to such figures by pointing out that the total spent on arms could be used to solve more urgent problems: ‘With $25 billion we could resolve the most serious humanitarian crises around the world, with $100 billion we could mount an efficient offensive to the global climate crisis, and with $200 billion we could reach all of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals’.

Yet, although their arguments may be the same, the tone and rhetoric of the anti-war movement has shifted. Addressing International League of Peace Fighters in 1932, Anne Capy began by giving a much more concrete tabulation of war expenditure following WWI:

With the money the war cost, we could have provided a house worth 75,000 francs to every family in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium and Russia. We could even have fitted these houses with furniture worth up to 25,000 francs, and provided an advance of 100,000 francs to every family. There would still have been enough money to give each city of 200,000 inhabitants of the abovementioned countries 125 million for libraries, 125 million for hospitals and 125 million for universities. And there would still have remained a sum of capital which, placed at 5%, would have permitted to pay 125,000 schoolteachers and 125,000 nurses 25,000 francs per year.

She went on to denounce the ‘parasitic, international super-capitalism which dominates nations and has for years directed a great dance of speculation, governing behind governments reduced to the role of puppets’. It is hard to imagine such words being uttered today. Whereas Capy and her contemporaries had a clear critique of the ‘international profiteers of nationalism’ (a phrase used by Francis Delaisi in his 1913 pamphlet Le Patriotisme des plaques blindées), their inheritors typically use a more sanitized parlance – one that revolves around ‘human rights’, ‘diplomacy’ and the ‘rules-based order’.  

Indeed, who among us is capable of naming even a single Western capitalist or Russian oligarch profiting from the slaughter in Ukraine? Even if we were able to identify a few, it would be highly unusual to label them ‘geniuses of destruction’ (the appellation once given to Gustav Krupp), nor would we speak of the ‘Jackal International’, as Mil Zankin did in his 1933 pamphlet L’Internationale des charognards: Les marchands de canons veulent la guerre. Nowadays, it would be atypical to refer to an arms dealer in the following terms:

Sir Basil Zaharoff, the passion of whose declining years is orchid culture, would probably not be aghast at the suggestion that he was the greatest murderer the world has even known. He has heard it too often. And he may even enjoy the irony of his gifts (they took a few millions out of the hundreds of millions he made from the World War) for hospitalization of the ‘War wounded’.

This portrait of Zaharoff, then the world’s most powerful weapons magnate, wasn’t penned by an angry pacifist, but by an impeccably mainstream journalist for Fortune. The publication, founded in 1929 by Henry Luce, described itself as anIdeal Super-Class Magazine’, a ‘luxury’ mouthpiece of American capitalism sold for a dollar a copy (equivalent to $16 today). In 1934 it published an unsigned dossier, ‘Arms and Men’, with the lengthy subtitle, ‘A primer on Europe’s armament makers; their mines, their smelters, their banks, their holding companies, their ability to supply everything you need for a war from cannons to the casus belli; their axioms, which are (a) prolong war, (b) disturb peace.’ Reproduced by Reader’s Digest, and later published as a pamphlet, the essay travelled widely. Its opening paragraph is striking, for it demonstrates how the capitalist class of the 1930s exhibited attitudes that have since become unthinkable. Imagine if the Wall Street Journal or Forbes began an article like this:

According to the best accountancy figures, it cost about $25,000 to kill a soldier during the World War. There is one class of Big Business Men in Europe that never rose up to denounce the extravagance of its governments in this regard – to point out that when death is left unhampered as an enterprise for the individual initiative of gangsters the cost of single killing seldom exceeds $100. The reason for the silence of these Big Business Men is quite simple: the killing is their business. Armaments are their stock in trade; governments are their customers; the ultimate consumers of their products are: historically, almost as often their compatriots as their enemies. That does not matter. The important point is that every time a burst shell fragment finds its way into the brain, the heart, or the intestines of a man in the front line, a great part of the $25,000 much of it profit, finds its way into the pocket of the armament maker.

It isn’t that this unofficial spokesman of American capital woke up one morning with the pressing urge to denounce the European war industry (its US counterpart only got a cursory mention). It was rather that a national campaign was already underway, culminating in a Senate Committee tasked with investigating the ‘manufacturing and sale of munitions and the economic circumstances of US entry into World War I’. The Democratic majority in the Senate elected Gerald Nye, a Republican from North Dakota, as chairman – responsible for overseeing a total of 93 hearings. Predictably, although the investigation ‘produced a sordid report of intrigues and bribery; of collusion and excessive profits; of war scares artificially fostered’ and disarmament conferences ‘deliberately wrecked’, its ultimate impact was nil. It fulfilled the usual function of such inquiries: to brush the issue under the rug.

A few years later, it wasn’t just Mussolini and his supporters who chose guns over butter; the whole world followed suit. Thus, for all the sympathy and nostalgia that the anti-war movement of the 1930s may arouse today, there are two things worth noting about its trajectory: it was entirely inefficacious, and – as we shall see – most if not all of its arguments have been rendered outdated by our new political-economic conjuncture.

In the erstwhile discourse of pacifism, the ‘merchants of death’ were often presented as occult forces. As the Fortune piece asserted:

. . . without a shadow of doubt there is at the moment in Europe a huge and subversive force that lies behind the arming and counterarming of nations: there are mines, smelters, armament works, holding companies, and banks, entangled in an international embrace, yet working inevitably for the destruction of such little internationalism as the world has achieved so far. The control of these myriad companies vests, finally, in not more than a handful of men whose power, in some ways, reaches above the power of state itself.

This ‘handful of men’ whose power ‘reaches above the state’ were the same figures who, in Delaisi’s words, ‘specialise in manufacturing machines of war, concentrate on systematically corrupting the senior civil servants responsible for national defence, induce panic amongst an easily-excitable public opinion with loud press campaigns, exert pressure on legislatures to raise funds for lucrative orders and, by playing on patriotism as a dividend machine, entrench the odious regime of “armed peace” when not launching bloody conflicts directly.’ This image of puppet-masters pulling the strings of governments belonged to the era of magnate capitalism. But this regime was superseded by a distinct form of managerial capitalism at the turn of the Second World War. At that point, ‘death merchants’ were displaced by the ‘military-industrial complex’.

It was the American sociologist C. Wright Mills who, in his 1956 book The Power Elite, argued that a new oligarchy had consolidated itself, constituted by economic, political and military elites whose roles were increasingly integrated and intertwined. Politicians, Mills wrote, were no longer puppets controlled by industrialists and bankers, a ‘committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. They had been subsumed into the elite itself, and formed an essential element of its power structure – capable of shaping it and being shaped by it. The idea of a ‘military-industrial complex’, however, was most memorably conveyed by Dwight Eisenhower in his famous farewell message on 17 January 1961. ‘In the councils of government’, he declared, ‘we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.’

From then on, talk of ‘death merchants’ was limited to shady figures who trafficked arms to Third World states and terrorist militias. World powers, on the other hand, could comfortably rely on their military-industrial complexes. Like snakes changing their skin, this moulting from death merchants to military-industrial functionaries had the effect of anonymizing the warmongers. Real-life people – who could in theory be named and shamed – were supplanted by an impersonal bureaucratic structure. The ‘complex’ saved them from accountability.

These days, if there’s a scarcity of munitions, arms producers will ask for assurances from governments before building new factories, as they don’t want to be stuck with idle factories once the war is over. The military-industrial complex therefore serves not only to produce armaments for the military, but also to guarantee that industrialists won’t find themselves with stranded assets. The constant interchange between the arms industry and the upper echelons of public life is best described through the metaphor of the ‘revolving door’; or, perhaps, the more expressive French term pantouflage: i.e., senior public officials (civil servants, cabinet ministers, generals) who become managers of private companies and vice versa. The current Italian Defence Minister, for instance, previously worked for the Leonardo group, a leader in the Italian armament sector, and served as president of the Federation of Italian Companies for Aerospace, Defence and Security.  

In the twenty-first-century imaginary, death merchants have been replaced with drug traffickers, as demonstrated by the endless Hollywood films in which the antagonist is a shady dealer in pills and powders. This represents an extraordinary act of misdirection, given that the global war industry employs more than 50 million workers and 500,000 scientists: a universe infinitely larger and more dangerous than that of drug pedalling. What’s more, the arms sector is now integrated into, and controlled by, the respected realm of finance. We now find great investment funds at the helm of arms companies. The same fund will invest in a chain of retirement homes in Germany, a lithium mine in Africa and a soy plantation in Brazil, as well as partnering with a multinational manufacturer of ‘suicide’ drones and buying equity in the US space industry. Everything is exchangeable, and therefore everything is permissible. For the investor, the anti-tank missile cannot be differentiated from the hospital bed, as both are bluntly characterised by their cost-benefit relationship, and hence subject to the same criterion of benchmarking.

Financialization of this sort has two primary effects. First, it stages the passage from the international to the global. A century ago, as Delaisi wrote, it was possible to identify a ‘Great International, long searched for by political idealists and working-class strategists, taking shape in the arms industry’. These were national figures operating according to an international logic; but now, in a striking inversion, we see transnational actors with global interests adapting themselves to national exigencies. Second, and perhaps even more insidiously, financialization has rendered all of us – the postman, the primary school teacher, the factory worker – shareholders (and thus, in a certain sense, both owners and profiteers) in the death industry. Since pensions have been privatized, our derisory retirement funds have to be invested, which means handing them over to corporations. Without knowing it, large swathes of the Western workforce have come to depend on the dividends of missiles launched in Ukraine. This may be an unconscious reason for the silence that surrounds the death merchants – a reticence that makes the indignation of the last century seem dated.  

Yet this doesn’t mean that, on at least a couple of points, we shouldn’t heed the old analysis of the arms industry. Fortune’s explanation of the ‘philosophy’ of the death merchants remains as relevant as ever: ‘Keep Europe in a constant state of nerves. Publish periodical war scares. Impress governmental officials with the vital necessity of maintaining armaments against the “aggressions” of neighbor states. Bribe as necessary. In every practical way create suspicion that security is threatened.’ In our current media landscape, these techniques still predominate – animating the nightly news coverage and shaping its parameters.

Moreover, the mutually reinforcing dynamic of arms sales is just as evident as it was in Delaisi’s time. ‘Under this strange system’, he wrote,

the war potential of a great country, or of a group of countries, is strengthened by the development of the adverse military power. The trade in arms is the only one in which the orders obtained by a competitor increase those of his rivals. The great armament firms of hostile powers oppose one another like pillars supporting the same arch. And the opposition of their governments makes their common prosperity.

This is why, as the Russian war machine experiences an unprecedented boom, its Western counterparts are also rejoicing. In the UK, BAE Systems has increased its revenues by 9% and seen its orders expand from £21,458 to £37,093 billion. Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Germany’s principal defence provider, Rheinmetall, experienced a similar surge in orders, sending its revenue to €6.4 billion, inflating its profits by 61% and more than doubling the value of its stock. Even in a country like Italy, which has provided Ukraine with precious few weapons, the Leonardo group can boast of a 30% increase in orders, especially from allied states that need to replenish their arsenals.

As such, the idea that the great armament industries of hostile countries constitute pillars holding up the same arch – that the antagonism between their governments produces their common prosperity – is not so far-fetched. As ever, patriotism continues to function as a ‘dividend machine’.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Edward Thompson, ‘Notes on Exterminism’, NLR I/121.


Capital’s Militant

He’s not as rich as Jeff Bezos, not a social media star like Elon Musk, nor an icon like Bill Gates. Yet he is the most interesting of the Silicon Valley tycoons, for more than any other he embodies the new breed of capitalist ideologue. Rather than using politics to make money, he uses his billions for politics, in the hope of emancipating the rich from ‘the exploitation of the capitalists by the workers’. Peter Thiel (b. 1967): German by birth, American and South African by upbringing; according to Forbes, he is worth $4.2 billion. Equipped, in contrast to his peers, with a degree in philosophy and a doctorate in law, he likes to affect the posture of a philosopher king. In his most ambitious piece of writing, The Straussian Moment (2004), he sketches a kind of Geistes Weltgeschichte in light of 9/11, citing with carefully cultivated intellectual effrontery Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Pierre Manent, Roberto Calasso, and name-checking Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Nietzsche and Kojève.

Ever since his university days, Thiel has been devoted to a kind of impudence of position, always embracing the most conservative one possible (he has been an admirer of Reagan since high school). According to his biographer Max Chafkin, Thiel felt that ‘mainstream liberals had accepted communists, but conservatives were unable to bring themselves to associate with members of the far-right…He really wished the right would become more like the left’. Enrolling at Stanford, the most reactionary of the top-tier universities, Thiel spent his time railing against what he saw as the institution’s endemic leftism, co-founding the Stanford Review with the blessing of conservative guru Irving Kristol and financial backing via the Olin Foundation (a key entity in funding and organizing the neoliberal counteroffensive, as documented in my forthcoming book, Masters: The Invisible War of the Powerful Against their Subjects). It campaigned against multiculturalism, political correctness and homosexuality. Its editorial board was composed exclusively of men.

On LGBT rights, the review claimed that ‘the real scourge was homophobia-phobia, that is, fear of being labelled a homophobe… anti-gay bias should be rebranded “miso-sodomy” – hatred of anal sex – to focus on “deviant sexual practices”’. According to The Economist, the article ‘even defended a fellow law student, Keith Rabois, who decided to test the limits of free speech on campus by standing outside a teacher’s residence and shouting “Faggot! Faggot! Hope you die of AIDS!”’. (Rabois would later become one of Thiel’s closest business partners.) Thiel went on to co-author The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford (1995), published by a right-wing think tank, the Independent Institute, thanks again to a grant from the Olin Foundation. Formidable chess player that he is (a ‘Life Master’), Thiel already understood that to fight the battle of ideas effectively, adequate funding was required. He complained that ‘only one in four Stanford alumni were millionaires’ – further proof, in his eyes, of the uselessness of the traditional academic curriculum.

Following brief stints as a lawyer and derivatives trader at Credit Suisse, Thiel returned to California in 1998 and established his own investment fund, Thiel Capital Management, with $1 million raised thanks to ‘friends and family’ (in all the biographies this episode is vague; as we know, the first million is always the hardest). The turning point came in 1999, when Thiel founded PayPal with a group of friends (thanks especially to Max Levchin, a Ukrainian-born cryptographer who thought up the basic algorithm for the system of online payments). This economic venture claimed an ideological motivation: ‘The driving ideal of PayPal’, he wrote, was to create ‘a new world currency, free from all government control and dilution – the end of monetary sovereignty, as it were’. The so-called PayPal mafia was formed: a famous photo depicts the audacious youths (all men) dressed as Italian-American mobsters of the prohibition era. Six would become billionaires. It’s notable that three had a past in apartheid South Africa: Thiel, Musk and Roelof Botha, PayPal’s CFO, later partner at the investment fund Sequoia. Thiel has a difficult relationship with Musk: amongst other things, he removed him as CEO of PayPal when the latter was on his honeymoon.

Thiel made $55 million from PayPal in 2002, launching him into the world of venture capital. The list of companies he has invested is extensive (Airbnb, Asana, LinkedIn, Lyft, Spotify, Twilio, Yelp, Zynga). His fame as a far-sighted capitalist was cemented in 2004 when, as the first external investor, he gave (a mere) $500,000 to Mark Zuckerberg in exchange for 10.2% of Facebook’s shares, earning him over a billion dollars. If instead of realizing his stake, however, he had participated in Facebook’s recapitalization, he would now have around $60 billion. This hasn’t been his only mistake. In 2004 he refused to invest in Tesla and YouTube (both founded by ex-members of the PayPal mafia). In 2006, when Musk needed funds to develop Tesla’s electric cars, Thiel passed on the opportunity – a costly choice, given capitalization surpassed $2 billion in 2010 and peaked at $1,061 billion in 2021, a growth of 50,000% (by April 2023 this had dropped back to $584 billion, but still represents a rise of almost 30,000%). Musk put Thiel’s refusal down to ideological reasons: ‘he doesn’t quite fully buy into the climate change thing’.

What does Thiel buy into? Between 2004 and 2014 he busily expounded his world-view at conferences; in articles for the Wall Street Journal; in The Straussian Moment; essays such as ‘The Education of a Libertarian’ (2009) for the Cato Institute (a think tank financed by the Koch brothers) and ‘The End of the Future’ for the National Review; another book entitled Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (2014) based on a course he taught at Stanford. (This was co-authored with one of his students, Blake Masters, later chief operating officer of Thiel’s investment firm, Thiel Capital, and president of the Thiel Foundation; in 2022 Thiel generously supported his failed campaign for the United States Senate).

In a typical move, Thiel often presents himself and his allies as victims. Just like the French who claim to be victims of North Africans, or Israelis who say the same of Palestinians, the rich are bullied by the poor. Like any reactionary, his is also a tale of decadence. For Thiel, we are in full-blown cultural decline, ‘ranging from the collapse of art and literature after 1945 to the soft totalitarianism of political correctness in media and academia to the sordid worlds of reality television and popular entertainment’. The cause is democracy, in particular its extension to women and the poor (note the association between the two): ‘The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.’

Enlarging the franchise is said to have hindered the technological and scientific progress which in the past permitted the generalization of a certain quality of life, even to those who didn’t deserve it. Since the 1970s – with the exception of the tech industry – this has stalled, with no great innovation registered in transport, energy or even medicine. Thiel concludes that progress is ‘rare’ in human history (perhaps not as rare as he thinks; the invention of the keel for watercraft seemed inconsequential in the medieval period, but it eventually made oceanic navigation possible). His solution: we must return to some kind of monarchical regime, because history’s great inventions have all been produced by companies (or startups) which function as absolute monarchies, or monopolies.

Thiel’s publicity efforts are often dedicated to extolling the parallel virtues of monarchy and monopoly: ‘Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits’. In a typical intervention for the Wall Street Journal, ‘Competition is for Losers’, he argues that competition produces copies or improvements of what already exists, but never true novelty – a fact that leads him to argue that ‘actually, capitalism and competition are opposites’.

It feels almost futile to note the logical inconsistencies of these arguments. Thiel maintains that progress is rare in human history, yet absolute monarchies have been the norm, from which one can only deduce that absolute monarchies have seldom generated progress. Monopolies don’t come from nowhere but arise precisely when a firm beats its competitors. One might in fact say that in an unregulated market monopoly is an inevitable result of competition: competing implies winners and losers, and as the winner is increasingly successful it becomes easier for them to dominate. This is why in the proto-history of capitalism of every country, we see the emergence of monopolies. To avoid their formation, it has always been necessary for states to implement anti-trust laws. Moreover, as soon as they’re established, monopolies cease to innovate and tend to live off rentierism. 

There is an even more fundamental contradiction here. How can someone declare themselves a libertarian yet support absolute monarchy? Whose freedom is he talking about? How many monopolies can the world accommodate? Freedom for the very few, slavery for the vast majority is the destination. Many have discussed the influence of Nietzsche on Thiel’s thinking, but perhaps the more precise reference is Max Stirner. Not for nothing, in Stirner’s Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844) the ‘Unique’ or ‘Ego’ is defined by its ‘property’, and may use any means – fraud, deception – to realize its power. For Stirner also, free competition is a limitation on freedom, given that it can only be ensured by a state which begets servitude. How can one be against the tyranny of the state and in favour of absolute monarchy: the most despotic, intrusive and arbitrary kind of state? The answer is Stirner’s notion of the absolute instrumentality of every position. The Unique can say anything it likes if it is useful to him. Thiel has been accused of inconsistency and self-contradiction, but he is merely putting this Stirnean strategy into practice.

One example. Thiel spends his time denigrating Stanford and higher education in general (even financing, with much fanfare, a foundation for students who abandoned university to found their own startups – with extremely limited results). But he then paid money to teach a course at that very same university, which in turn allowed him to publish a best-selling book legitimated by the Stanford brand (the true number of copies sold remains uncertain: a million, a million and a half, even three million according to various claims, but the real number could be much lower). Another: Thiel spent his youth berating gay people only to come out in 2016, marrying a man and simultaneously admitting to a romantic relationship with a male model. If the ostentatious homophobia of his time as a student can be attributed in part to an anti-PC, anti-diversity crusade, it’s less clear why Thiel would bring a lawsuit against the website Gawker for outing him in 2011. The explanation offered by his biographer is that amongst the major investors in Theil’s capital venture are ‘Arab sovereign wealth funds controlled by governments that considered homosexuality to be a crime’.

This libertarian advocate for absolute monarchy also has no qualms about making money through mass surveillance. In 2003, he founded Palantir, which specializes in big data analysis and immediately received funding from the CIA’s investment fund, In-Q-Tel. Contradiction? In The Straussian Moment, just as he founded Palantir, Thiel wrote: ‘Instead of the United Nations, filled with interminable and inconclusive parliamentary debates that resemble Shakespearean tales told by idiots, we should consider Echelon, the secret coordination of the world’s intelligence services, as the decisive path to a truly global pax Americana.’ Echelon is the most intrusive planetary surveillance mechanism yet devised in human history.

Palantir floundered until in 2011 a rumour began circulating that the company had ‘helped kill Osama’. From then on, contracts abounded, with the German police even seeking its services, which include not only software but also the manpower to use it (the Germans have now changed their minds and want to rescind on the deal). A paradox of capitalist profitability, Palantir is valued at $17.6 billion – without ever generating profits – and today forms the most substantial part of Thiel’s fortune. On the one hand, this libertarian makes his money helping the state spy on people; on the other, he promotes Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies as instruments of emancipation from the tyranny of states (as I discussed in a previous article for Sidecar). This is not a question of incoherence or contradiction: it is pure and simple cynicism. Even his self-image as a ‘contrarian’ is part of the game, the goal being to present himself as an oppressed minority, an outsider, an underdog, an anticonformist. But what kind of anticonformism is it to wish to become rich and powerful? Even the defence of monopoly is perfectly aligned with the zeitgeist: think of the rehabilitation of monopoly by the neoliberals, the veritable ‘revolution in corporate law’ guided by Henry Manne. 

To be sure, this total lack of scruples recalls the attitude of the Nietzschean Übermensch, for whom everything is permissible – to be a libertarian and simultaneously flirt with Opus Dei, participate in the Bilderberg Group, fund Steve Bannon, become for a time Donald Trump’s sponsor in Silicon Valley then standard-bearer for a Trumpism without Trump and finally a promoter of the New Right. (Thiel’s jeremiad against political correctness echoes Nietzsche’s lament in On the Genealogy of Morality about the revolt of slave morality: ‘the higher man is liquidated, the morality of the common man emerges victorious’.) His desire is to oversee a permanent secession not of the plebs from the patriciate, as occurred in ancient Rome (as in the fable of Menenius Agrippa) but of the patriciate from the plebs. Hence the acquisition of a 477-acre estate in New Zealand, and his financing of Seasteading, a project for a self-sufficient community located far out in international waters, which after serious mishaps reduced its ambitions to operating 15 miles from the coast, only to then be shelved entirely. This separatist impulse is also present in his investment in Space-X with Elon Musk: Thiel is far less tepid about the idea of isolating himself in space than ‘the climate change thing’.

Yet the question arises: to what end? The price of nihilism is the meaninglessness of life itself, of one’s own troubles, of wanting to go to one’s grave loaded with gold. It’s no surprise that fear of death seems to be a dominant motivation. It reminds one of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), in which a knight plays his final game of chess against death. This consummate chess player believes death is ‘nothing but a bug in the feature set of mankind, and one he can buy his way out of’. This is why he throws bags of money at ventures such as Halcyon Molecular, Emerald Therapeutics, Unity Biotechnology, Methuselah Foundation, financing start-ups which promise to lengthen life to at least 120 years, the definitive cure for Alzheimer’s and so on. And if all this doesn’t work, he’s ready to have his brain frozen and wait for his reincarnation once technology makes it possible. (He’s not the only billionaire hoping to outsmart death; Jeff Bezos and Larry Page both fund the Alcor Life Extension Foundation ‘which has been freezing bodies and brains of the dead since 1970’.)

The contempt Thiel nurtures towards the rest of humanity must be almost equal to that which he appears to harbour towards the female gender, if he believes us slaves to be so masochistically inclined as to be ready to accept his morality. If he succeeds, he would be the first political activist to win over his audience not by promising anything in particular, but by guaranteeing hell as the only future we – the herd – deserve. The name that has been coined for this new manifestation of global capitalism is truly appropriate: the Dark Enlightenment. Switching off the lights is indeed the inevitable result.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘Celebrity Thaumaturge’, NLR 74.



In the first two hundred days of 2022, Taylor Swift’s private jet made 170 flights, covering an average distance of 133 miles. It emitted 8,293 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the process. By way of comparison, the average annual carbon footprint for a US citizen is 14.2 tonnes. In Europe it is 6.8, in Africa 1.04. Swift’s jet, in other words, has a carbon footprint equal to 1,603 Americans, 2,225 Europeans and 14,552 Africans.

None of us would consider taking a plane to travel 133 miles. But evidently, we live in a world apart from the likes of Kylie Jenner – sister of Kim Kardashian – who is apparently partial to taking 12 minute flights. One wonders about the mental processes that govern such decisions, or those that led her to post on Instagram a black-and-white photograph of herself and her partner kissing in front of two private jets, captioned: ‘You wanna take mine or yours?’ It’s dispiriting to see that their uncertainty is seemingly no different from that of children deciding which scooter to ride. But the 7 million plus people who liked the post – evidently dreaming of owning a pair of jets themselves – inspire even more despair.

The dream of everyone having their own private aircraft – every man an Icarus – has been a figment of the Western imagination since before air travel even existed. See, for example, this French illustration from 1890 of a graceful lady with hat and parasol on her flying taxi-carriage: 

Albert Robida, Un quartier embrouillé, illustration for La Vie éléctrique, Paris 1890.

Just as the carriage, once the preserve of ‘gentlemen’, became available to all classes once it was mechanical and motor-powered, so too the aeroplane would one day become a personal form of travel, whizzing along the boulevards of the sky. An American illustration from 1931 already exhibited the idea of city parking for planes, even suggesting, perhaps in keeping with the ineffable Jenner, that a family may possess a number of them, just as they own multiple cars.

From Harry Golding, The Wonder Book of Aircraft, London 1931.

An unsustainable utopia: imagine a world with a few billion aircraft whirling around the sky. A few billion cars are already unbearable for the planet. But of course, it is the rarity of aircraft that makes them so desirable. There are 23,241 private jets in operation worldwide (as of August 2022), 63% of which are registered in North America. (The number of private aircraft as a whole is much greater; there are still 90,000 Pipers in operation, plus several other brands of private propeller planes).

Orders for new private jets are on the rise, even as calls to reduce CO2 emissions intensify. Beyond the opulent lifestyles of starlets and ephemeral idols, it is major corporations that are leading the charge. An Airbus Corporate Jet study found that 65% of the companies they interviewed now use private jets regularly for business. The pandemic caused this figure to skyrocket. Last year saw the highest jet sales on record. As one commentator noted: ‘According to the business aviation data firm WingX, the number of flights on business aircraft across the globe rose by 10% last year compared to 2021 – 14% higher than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. The report lists more than 5.5 million business aircraft flights in 2022 – more than 50% higher than in 2020’.

While solemn international summits make plans for reducing emissions (along with the use of plastic, noxious chemicals and so on), elites are polluting away as if there were no tomorrow. Meanwhile, the poor fools down below busy themselves with sorting out their recycling. For our rulers, the question of whether it would be better to have an egg today or a chicken tomorrow is entirely rhetorical. Never in human history has a king, emperor, statesman or entrepreneur chosen the chicken: it is always and only the egg today, at the cost of exterminating the entire coop.

As Le Monde reports, the five largest oil companies posted ‘an unprecedented $153.5 billion (€143.1 billion) in net profits for 2022. The oil giants are approaching the total figure of $200 billion in adjusted net profit’ (i.e. excluding provisions and exceptional items), of which ‘$59.1 billion in adjusted earnings (+157%) for ExxonMobil (US); $36.5 billion (+134%) for Chevron (US); $27.7 billion (+116%) for BP (UK), despite a net loss of $2.5 billion linked to the Russian context; and $39.9 billion (+107%) for Shell (UK).’ Even the environmentally friendly Norwegian state pension fund, Equinor, will benefit from the bonanza: it posted ‘an adjusted net profit of $59.9 billion at the end of just the first nine months of 2022’.

The announcement of these record profits (which have not been taxed by any government) comes on the back of last year’s much-hyped COP27 conference in Sharm el Sheik, attended by as many as 70 executives from the fossil fuel industry. They will be gathering again for another no doubt portentous summit later this year, presided over by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, chief executive officer of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. (Naturally, a geopolitical emergency serves as a good excuse to delay the slightest environmental action: war in Ukraine has led even the ecologically-minded Germans to reopen their coal mines. Rather than prompting a shift away from natural gas, the war has sparked a frantic search for more of it. The pandemic likewise led to a vertiginous increase in plastic consumption, and if for a few months it helped reduce the emissions from road and air traffic, it dealt a far more serious blow to public transportation, now viewed with suspicion, as a site of infection and contagion.)

It is as if global elites weren’t just mocking the rest of humanity, but the planet itself – poisoning it with one hand while greenwashing with the other. The Italian oil company Eni has as its symbol a six-legged dog, formerly black, now green, thus assuring us of their environmental bonafides. ‘Investment firms have been capturing trillions of dollars from retail investors, pension funds, and others’, Bloomberg writes,

with promises that the stocks and bonds of big companies can yield tidy returns while also helping to save the planet or make life better for its people. The sale of these investments is now the fastest-growing segment of the global financial-services industry, thanks to marketing built on dire warnings about the climate crisis, wide-scale social unrest, and the pandemic.

Wall Street now rates the environmental and social responsibility of business governance, though Bloomberg rightly points out that ESG scores ‘don’t measure a company’s impact on the earth and society’, but rather ‘gauge the opposite: the potential impact of the world on the company and its shareholders’. That is to say, they are not intended to help protect the environment from the companies, but the companies from the environment. ‘McDonald’s Corp., one of the world’s largest beef purchasers, generated more greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 than Portugal or Hungary, because of the company’s supply chain. McDonald’s produced 54 million tons of emissions that year, an increase of about 7% in four years.’ Yet in 2021 McDonald’s saw its ESG score upgraded, thanks to the ‘company’s environmental practices’.

The elites are fond of dangling a grass-coloured future in front of us – deodorized, disinfected and depolluted thanks to biofuels and electric cars. But to produce sufficient biofuel we’d have to cover the earth with soy plantations, definitively deforesting the planet (not to mention the production of fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural machinery). As for the electric car, whilst it pollutes less than its petrol-powered equivalent when used, it actually creates far more pollution to produce one. According to one professor at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Energy Technology, manufacturing an electric car emits as much CO2 as driving 170,000km in a regular car. And this is before the electric car’s engine is even turned on. As one academic study concluded:

the electric cars appear to involve higher life cycle impacts for acidification, human toxicity, particulate matter, photochemical ozone formation and resource depletion. The main reason for this is the notable environmental burdens of the manufacturing phase, mainly due to toxicological impacts strictly connected with the extraction of precious metals as well as the production of chemicals for battery production.

This is without even counting the fact that the electricity used to drive the car will benefit the environment only if it’s produced by clean and renewable sources. At best, the electric car is a mere palliative: the problem is not so much having billions of non-polluting cars, but producing billions of cars in the first place (in addition to the necessary infrastructure).

The elites are fooling the world, but they’re also fooling themselves. They believe they can poison the planet with impunity but save themselves by escaping to recently-acquired estates in New Zealand, far from all the smog and radiation, or else to Mars or some other extra-terrestrial refuge. Infantile dreams, cartoon utopias. One wonders what right they have to proclaim themselves elites in the first place. In the original French, ‘troupe d’élite’ denoted a superior stratum. The term was popularized in postwar sociology by C. Wright Mills’s Power Elite (1956), essentially as a modern synonym for the classical ‘oligarchy’. After the sixties, it fell out of fashion, until reappearing again in the 1990s.

In The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995), Christopher Lasch wrote that what characterized the new elites was their hatred of the vulgar masses:

Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing.

(Note how the fortunes of the term ‘elite’ have gone hand-in-hand with those of ‘populism’, wielded as a pejorative).

Lasch defined the elite in intellectual terms, thereby opening the way for the problematic concept of the ‘cognitive elite’. The champion of the term was Charles Murray, who together with Richard Herrnstein published The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), a book whose essential claim is that black people are more stupid than white people. (In a subsequent conversation with the New York Times, aided by a significant amount of alcohol, Murray summarised his life’s work as ‘social pornography’.) Its introduction claims that ‘modern societies identify the brightest youths with ever increasing efficiency and then guide them into fairly narrow educational and occupational channels. These channels are increasingly lucrative and influential, leading to the development of a distinct band in the social hierarchy, dubbed the ‘cognitive elite’.

Those who govern today’s world consider themselves part of this enlightened set. The legitimacy of their power is based on their supposed intellectual superiority. This is meritocracy in reverse. Rather than ‘They govern (or dominate) because they are better’, we have ‘They are better because they govern (or dominate)’. Weber had already caught onto this inversion in the early twentieth century:

When a man who is happy compares his position with that of one who is unhappy, he is not content with the fact of his happiness, but desires something more, namely the right to this happiness, the consciousness that he has earned his good fortune, in contrast to the unfortunate One who must equally have earned his misfortune. Our everyday experience proves that there exists just such a need for psychic comfort about the legitimacy or deservedness of one’s happiness, whether this involves political success, superior economic status, bodily health, success in the game of love, or anything else.

Given the social, environmental and geopolitical disasters which we are heading towards at breakneck speed, it is easy to doubt the claims of the elite to cognitive superiority. Yet perhaps it is not so much that they are dim, but rather that they are asleep at the wheel – and accelerating towards the precipice.

P.S. I must confess that before researching this article I did not know of the existence of Taylor Swift and Kylie Jenner: it must be me, rather than the elites, who lives in a world apart.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Jacob Emery, ‘Art of the Industrial Trace’, NLR 71.


Curious Stranger

July 1957. A 26-year-old Romila Thapar waits at Prague Airport. She is dressed in a sari. The pockets of her overcoat are bulging with yet more saris. ‘It is blasphemous’, she laments in her diary, to have crumpled ‘the garment of the exotic, the indolent, the unobvious, the newly awakening East’. But there is no more room in her suitcases. They are stuffed with photographic equipment (‘cameras, cameras, more cameras’) and saddled with ‘large bundles of books and papers, strapped together with bits of string’. Thapar – today the pre-eminent historian of ancient India – is on her way to China along with the Sri Lankan art historian Anil de Silva and the French photographer Dominique Darbois. Earlier in the year, the Chinese Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries had accepted de Silva’s proposal to study two ancient Buddhist cave sites in the northwestern Gansu province, Maijishan and Dunhuang. After some hesitation, Thapar, then a graduate student at SOAS in London, agreed to join de Silva as her assistant. She had been nervous about her limited expertise in Chinese Buddhist art, as well as the practical difficulties posed by the cave sites. And not without good reason. Just imagine crawling about in those rock-cut caverns ‘enveloped in billowing yards of silk’.

But China was still far away. The three women were waiting for their delayed connection to Moscow. The latest, much-publicized, Soviet plane had got stuck in the mud. Loitering in the terminal, Thapar observed the entourage of the Indian actors, Prithviraj Kapoor and his son Raj, a newly anointed superstar in the Socialist Bloc. As heavy rains poured outside, some members of the group began discussing the film Storm over Asia (‘Would they think it rude if I gently pointed out to them that the film was not by Sergei Eisenstein, but by Vsevolod Pudovkin, and that the two techniques are so different that one can’t confuse them’). Elsewhere, a French family tune into Radio Luxembourg; a young African man listens to the BBC on his radio; the terminal loudspeakers play the Voice of America (‘poor miserable propagandists’). Late into the night, Thapar leisurely smokes her black Sobranie. She thinks of herself ‘an overburdened mule wrapped in folds of cloth’.

This journey followed a new, but already well-worn, diplomatic trail. In 1950, India had become the first non-socialist country to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Two years later, a motley crew of Indian economists, writers and artists embarked on a self-styled Goodwill Mission. Their visit inaugurated a wave of political and cultural exchange that lasted for nearly a decade. In 1954, Nehru and Zhou Enlai signed the Panchsheel Agreement (‘five principles of peaceful co-existence’) in Beijing. Friendship societies bloomed on both sides of the MacMahon Line. And Indian trade unionists, state planners and litterateurs became eager pilgrims to Mao’s fabled cooperative farms. This growing decolonial intimacy was memorably captured in the breathless opening sentence of a 1956 dispatch, ‘Huai aur Cheen’ (‘Huai and China’), by the cultural critic Bhagwatsharan Upadhyay: ‘Abhi mazdoor-jagat Cheen se lauta hoon’ (‘I have just returned from the workers’ world of China’). The tone of the original Hindi conjures a neighbourhood gossip returning with the latest news from a corner teashop.

Thapar’s diary, recently published as Gazing Eastwards: Of Buddhist Monks and Revolutionaries in China, is a relic of this fraternal decade. But she was neither an emissary of the Indian state nor a member of any friendship societies. Unlike her fellow countrymen, Thapar’s travels were not fettered by the demands of cross-border diplomacy. Traversing the Chinese hinterland on trains and trucks by day and recording her experiences by night (often in the flickering light of a single candle), she travelled and wrote with greater freedom. The resulting travelogue is not only steadfastly historical, but also unexpectedly entertaining, a quality sorely missing from the reverential accounts of her compatriots. For instance, when the historian Mohammad Habib chanced upon a group of elderly war veterans during the Goodwill Mission, he sanctimoniously declared: ‘We are your sons from distant India’. Spreading her arms, a woman promptly responded: ‘If you are my sons, then let me press you to my heart’. When Thapar encounters a member of the youth team working on the Beijing-Lanzhou railway line, she cheerfully asks the young man if he stuck pictures of pin-up girls on the wall by his dormitory bed (he did).

Thapar’s political commentary is equally revelatory. Unlike other visitors who eulogized the popular emblems of Chinese development – factories, farms, oil refineries, dams – she highlights the uncanny persistence of ancient China in the Maoist era. As the workers laid the foundations for new construction sites, the remains of prehistoric societies were turning up with unprecedented frequency. After just a few years, hundreds of accidental archaeological digs spread out across the country. During stopovers at a neolithic excavation site near X’ian and a Ming-era Buddhist monastery in south Lanzhou, Thapar learned that groups of archaeologists and younger students were being attached to construction sites, where they mended, labelled and catalogued the discovered artefacts on the spot. The quantity of newfound prehistoric greyware was in fact so large that the country was facing a severe shortage of buildings to house them. During conversations with Thapar, the officials explained this popular enthusiasm by repeatedly quoting Mao’s directives to archaeologists – ‘discover the richness of China’s past’ and ‘correct historical mistakes’.

Faced with Thapar’s inquiries about the pitfalls of ‘salvage archaeology’, the provincial archaeologists and museum officials regurgitated statistics; politics was never mentioned, while the name of Marxist archaeologist Gordon Childe drew blank faces. Her requests to meet the historians of ancient China, university students and young intellectuals meanwhile were brusquely ignored. This puzzled Thapar to no end, not least because their counterparts in India were working through similar problems. Back in Bombay, she had recently come into contact with the left-wing polymath D.D. Kosambi, whose work contained a blend of Marxist theory, numismatics, archaeology, linguistics, genetics and ethnographic fieldwork. In An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956), Kosambi lyrically described India as ‘a country of long survivals’, where ‘people of the atomic age rub elbows with those of the chalcolithic’. China, Thapar slowly realized, was no different.

Recording her group’s trek towards Maijishan and Dunhuang, Thapar’s travelogue gracefully blends the world-historical with the everyday. Multiple timelines gather a heterogenous throng of characters onto the stage. At a monastery in Xi’an, we hear of the legendary seventh-century monk Xuan Zang lugging cartloads of Buddhist manuscripts, sculptures and relics collected during his sixteen-year sojourn across northern India. Back in the twentieth century, in nearby Lanzhou, Czech-made Škoda buses ferry Chinese workers to a power station. As Thapar proceeds across the hinterland, extended spells of isolation are broken only occasionally, as when a radio set catches the BBC News (‘the Russians had developed an intercontinental rocket that had alarmed the Western world’). On most days, Thapar’s battered copy of Ulysses serves as a marker of the passage of time (‘Ulysses is stuck at page 207 and at this rate will probably see me all through China’). Fittingly, this drama reaches its climax at the ancient cave sites, nested at the Chinese end of the Silk Routes which had once linked the region with Central Asia, India, and the eastern Mediterranean.

Thapar and her companions were the first group of foreign researchers to access the Maijishan site. Carved into sheer cliff faces, the caves contained hundreds of Buddhist murals and sculptures created over the course of a millennium. They were ‘like museums of Chinese paintings’: offering something like a historical timelapse of how the earliest Gandhara-era depictions of Buddha’s life were gradually adapted to the Chinese landscape. Every evening, the group descended from ‘heaven’ on rickety wooden ladders, sometimes nearly a hundred meters long. Back in the candlelit monastery, as wolves and bears roved outside, their experiences were equally startling: we hear of holidaying Chinese soldiers singing Cossack folk songs picked up from the touring Russian Red Army choir; a head monk toasting the end of the hydrogen bomb; a guard playing scratched folk records, featuring a Chinese cover of ‘Aawara Hoon’, the title song of Raj Kapoor’s latest hit. Meanwhile, at Dunhuang, the group discover that the Western explorers of the early twentieth century had vandalized and stolen numerous murals, paintings and manuscripts from the ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’. In 1920, the White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks had found refuge in these same caves, and had spent their days gouging out gold from the artworks.

The thread of the present ties these proliferating timelines together. In 1957 the Chinese revolution started to unravel. Shortly before Thapar’s arrival, Mao had effectively ended the Hundred Flowers Campaign. His key distinction between ‘fragrant flowers’ and ‘poisonous weeds’ had instead impelled a brutal ‘anti-Rightist campaign’. Meanwhile, despite stiff resistance, the CCP was still pushing its ill-fated campaign for rural collectivization. Arriving in Beijing, Thapar fleetingly notes the ubiquitous ‘bright, bold cartoons and statements’, portraying the so-called ‘Rightists’ as venomous snakes. In the following weeks, her solidarity with the Maoists was severely tested by ongoing clampdowns on intellectual freedom (she was greatly disturbed by the case of the feminist novelist Ling Ding, who had been denounced and exiled). Despite warm encounters with the locals, she greeted village cooperatives with a mixture of guarded suspicion (‘Were we expected to believe that before 1951 production was low, in 1954 it rose by half and by 1956 it had doubled?’) and open cynicism (‘I asked somewhat diffidently if they had tried any experiments along the lines of Lysenko in Russia’). On returning to Beijing, she was told that Professor Xiang Da, an authority on Dunhuang, was too busy to meet her, only to discover from a newspaper report that he had already been charged as a Rightist last month. Soon China would be utterly transformed by the Great Leap Forward and the ill-fated Sino-Soviet split. The 1962 Sino-Indian War over their borderlands would close the curtain on a short-lived decolonial friendship.

In the six decades between Thapar’s journey and the diary’s publication, her scholarly studies have spanned the history of state formation in early India, the politics of the Aryan question, the conflicts between the Brahmanas and the Shramanas (the Ajivika, the Buddhist and Jaina lineages), the Itihasa-Purana traditions, and the Indian epics, among others. Along with Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma and Bipin Chandra, Thapar is widely credited for inaugurating a paradigm shift in the study of Indian history – a radical break with the British colonial periodization and research methods. Her honours include both the Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences, and the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India (she has declined it twice). In the context of such an illustrious career, the diary is likely to be read as a relic of youthful indulgence. And yet, as Thapar has often argued, past events always accrue new, unexpected meanings in the present. It is hardly surprising, then, that the diary has significant affinities with her later work.

In the widely acclaimed Somnath (2004), Thapar describes how a single event – the destruction of a Hindu temple by Mahmud of Ghazni, a Turkic king, in 1025 – has been narrated across Turko-Persian and Arabic chronicles, Sanskrit temple inscriptions, biographies and courtly epics, popular oral traditions, British House of Commons proceedings and nationalist histories. Patiently decoding these dissonant voices, Thapar disproves the myth of Hindus and Muslims as eternally warring civilizations, established by British colonizers and popularized by their modern-day heirs, the Hindu nationalists. In doing so, Thapar reflexively shows that history is a process of ‘constant re-examination and reassessment of how we interpret the past’. Her pursuit however has never devolved into a postmodernist free-for-all. This is not just because of Thapar’s lifelong engagement with sociological theories, economic histories, archaeological methods and Marxist debates, but also because her scholarship has always been grounded in the public life of postcolonial India. Thapar has written school textbooks, given public lectures on All India Radio, and published extensive writings on the relationship between secularism, history and democracy in popular periodicals.

In recent decades, Thapar’s work has been systematically discredited by a Hindu right-wing smear campaign (popular slurs include ‘academic terrorist’ and ‘anti-national’). She has responded with characteristic aplomb, poking more historical holes in the fantasies of a ‘syndicated Hinduism’. Shortly before turning 90, she published Voices of Dissent (2020). Written during the upsurge of nationwide protests against the new citizenship laws (CAA and NRC), the book traces a genealogy of dissent in India – spanning the second millennia B.C. of the Vedic times, the emergence of the Sramanas, the medieval popularity of the Bhakti sants and Sufi pirs, and the Gandhian satyagraha of the twentieth century – that offer a vital corrective to the popular right-wing tendency to label ‘dissent’ as an ‘anti-national’ import from the West. Yet with the BJP pushing for the privatization of higher education, its affiliates infiltrating university administrations and its stormtroopers terrorizing college campuses, the struggle for decolonizing Indian history is no longer merely a matter of critique. There now exists a nationwide network of 57,000 shakhas operated by the RSS (the parent organization of the BJP), where the rank-and-file receive both ideological and weapons training, while the BJP’s IT Cell has infiltrated the social media feeds of millions of Hindu middle class homes, promoting its historical propaganda.

These changes have not only upended the paradigm shift in Indian history of which Thapar was a leading figure but have also illuminated its political limits. Historically anchored in the Nehruvian-era universities, the decolonial turn has struggled to significantly transform popular consciousness beyond the bourgeois public sphere. The Hindutva offensive has put liberal and left intellectuals in a difficult double bind. This contradiction was first captured by Aijaz Ahmad, shortly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, now widely recognized as the emblem of the ‘Hindu nation’. The Indian left, Ahmad had argued, cannot abandon ‘the terrain of nationalism’, but nor can it just occupy this terrain ‘empty-handed’, that is, ‘without a political project for re-making the nation’. In Ahmad’s words, to counter Hindutva with secularism is certainly ‘necessary’, but it remains ‘insufficient’. Likewise, countering the syndicated, market-friendly Hinduism by recovering a subversive genealogy of the Indian past is necessary but by itself, it too remains insufficient.

Thapar’s studies of ancient India naturally offer no ready-made cures for these modern maladies. One incident from Gazing Eastwards though reads like an allegory for future action. As Thapar declared in a lecture for All India Radio in 1972, ‘the image of the past is the historian’s contribution to the future’. In Lanzhou, Thapar and de Silva’s clothes drew considerable attention from the Chinese public. Trailed by curious strangers, they found it difficult to walk the streets. To blend in, they ditched their saris in favour of peasant jackets in the customary blue, made famous by Maoists at the time. As the universities continue to crumble, perhaps historians of the new generation should also discard their clothes of distinction, and blend as organizers, pedagogues and foot soldiers into the agrarian and citizen struggles erupting against the BJP-led right.

Read on: Pranab Bardhan, ‘The “New” India’, NLR 136.