In Defence of Ken Loach

So, it’s come to that: Ken Loach is now the target of a character assassination campaign waged by those who will stop at nothing to shield the apartheid policies of Israel. Their message to people of good conscience is simple: Unless you too want to be tainted as an antisemite, keep quiet about the crimes against humanity and the assault on human rights in the land of Palestine. They are putting the rest of us on notice: If we can do this to Ken Loach, a man who has spent his life championing the victims of oppression, racism and discrimination, imagine what we shall do to you. If you dare support the Palestinians’ human rights, we will claim that you hate the Jews.

The art of assassinating the character of a leftist has become better honed in recent times. When the Financial Times called me a Marxist biker, I confessed to the charge gladly. Calling me a Stalinist, as some unsophisticated rightists do, also fails to ignite an existentialist crisis in my soul because I know full well that I would be a prime candidate for the gulag under any Stalinist regime. But call me a misogynist or an antisemite and the pain is immediate. Why? Because, cognisant of how imbued we all are in Western societies with patriarchy, antisemitism and other forms of racism, these accusations hit a nerve.

It is, thus, a delicious irony that those of us who have tried the hardest to rid our souls of misogyny, antisemitism and other forms of racism are hurt the most when accused of these prejudices. We are fully aware of how easily antisemitism can infect people who are not racist in other respects. We understand well its cunning and potency, for instance the fact that the Jews are the only people to have been despised both for being capitalists and for being leftie revolutionaries. This is why the strategic charge of antisemitism, whose purpose is to silence and ostracise dissidents, causes us internal turmoil. This is what lies behind the runaway success of such vilification campaigns against my friends Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Brian Eno, Roger Waters and now Ken Loach. 

‘Is your exclusive criticism of Israel not symptomatic of antisemitism?’, we are often asked. Setting aside the farcicality of the claim that we have been criticising Israel exclusively, criticism of Israel is not and can never be criticism of the Jews, exactly as criticism of the Greek state or of American imperialism is not criticism of the Greeks or of the Americans. The same applies to interrogating the wisdom of having created an ethnically specific state. When remarkable people like my heroes Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein questioned the Zionist project of a Jewish state in Palestine, it is offensive to claim that to debate Israel’s existence is to be antisemitic. The question is not whether Arendt and Einstein were right or wrong. The question is whether their questioning of the wisdom of a Jewish state in the land of Palestine is antisemitic or not. Clearly, while antisemites opposed the foundation of the state of Israel, it does not follow that only antisemites opposed the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

On a personal note, back in 2015, while serving as Greece’s finance minister, a Greek pro-troika newspaper thought they could diminish me with a cartoon depicting me as a Shylock-like figure. What these idiots did not realise was that they made me very proud! Trying to tarnish my image by likening me to a Jew was, and remains, a badge of honour. Speaking also on behalf of aforementioned friends vilified as antisemites, we feel deeply flattered whenever an antisemite bundles us together with a people who have bravely endured racism for so long. As long as a single Jew feels threatened by antisemitism, we shall pin the Star of David on our chest, eager and ready to be counted as Jews in solidarity – even though we may not be Jewish. At the very same time, we wear the Palestinian flag as a symbol of solidarity with a people living in an apartheid state built by reactionary Israelis, damaging my Jewish and Arab brothers and sisters and stoking the fires of racism which, ironically, always forge a steelier variety of antisemitism.

Returning to Ken Loach, thankfully no smear campaign against him can succeed. Not only because Ken’s work and life are proof of the accusation’s absurdity, but also because of the courageous Israelis who take awful risks by defending the right of Jews and non-Jews alike to criticise Israel. For instance, the group of academics who have methodically deconstructed the IHRA’s indefensible definition of antisemitism, which conflates it with legitimate criticisms of Israel that many progressive Israelis share. Or the wonderful people working with the Israeli human rights organisation B’TSELEM to resist the apartheid policies of successive Israeli governments. I am just as grateful to them as I am to my friend and mentor Ken Loach.


War by Other Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ins and Outs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


War Zones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What role do proxy groups play in West Asia?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you expect to see ISIS’s resurgence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Republican Futures

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

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

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

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

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


Riot on the Hill

Yesterday’s ‘sacrileges’ in our temple of democracy – oh, poor defiled city on the hill, etc. – constituted an ‘insurrection’ only in the sense of dark comedy. What was essentially a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war-surplus barbarians – including the guy with a painted face posing as horned bison in a fur coat – stormed the ultimate country club, squatted on Pence’s throne, chased Senators into the sewers, casually picked their noses and rifled files and, above all, shot endless selfies to send to the dudes back home. Otherwise they didn’t have a clue. (The aesthetic was pure Buñuel and Dali: ‘Our only rule was very simple: no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.’)

But something unexpectedly profound happened: a deus ex machina that lifted the curse of Trump from the careers of conservative war hawks and right-wing young lions, whose ambitions until yesterday had been fettered by the presidential cult. Today was the signal for a long-awaited prison break. The word ‘surreal’ has been thrown around a lot, but it accurately characterizes last night’s bipartisan orgy, with half of the Senate election-denialists channeling Biden’s call for a ‘return to decency’ and vomiting up vast amounts of noxious piety.

Let me be clear: the Republican Party has just undergone an irreparable split. By the White House’s Fuhrerprinzip standards, Pence, Tom Cotton, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, Ben Sasse, Jim Lankford even Kelly Loeffler are now traitors beyond the pale. This ironically enables them to become viable presidential contenders in a still far-right but post-Trump party. Since the election and behind the scenes, big business and many mega-Republican donors have been burning their bridges to the White House, most sensationally in the case of that uber-Republican institution, the National Association of Manufacturers, which yesterday called for Pence to use the 25th Amendment to depose Trump. Of course, they were happy enough in the first three years of the regime with the colossal tax cuts, comprehensive rollbacks of environmental and labor regulation, and a meth-fed stock-market. But the last year has brought the unavoidable recognition that the White House was incapable of managing major national crises or ensuring basic economic and political stability.

The goal is a realignment of power within the Party with more traditional capitalist interest groups like NAM and the Business Roundtable as well as with the Koch family, long uncomfortable with Trump. There should be no illusion that ‘moderate Republicans’ have suddenly been raised from the grave; the emerging project will preserve the core alliance between Christian evangelicals and economic conservatives and presumably defend most of the Trump-era legislation. Institutionally, Senate Republicans, with a strong roster of young talents, will rule the post-Trump camp and, via vicious darwinian competition – above all, the battle to replace McConnell – bring about a generational succession, probably before the Democrats’ octogenarian oligarchy has left the scene. (The major internal battle on the post-Trump side in the next few years will probably center on foreign policy and the new cold war with China.)

That’s one side of the split. The other is more dramatic: the True Trumpists have become a de facto third party, bunkered down heavily in the House of Representatives. As Trump embalms himself in bitter revenge fantasies, reconciliation between the two camps will probably become impossible, although individual defections may occur. Mar-a-Lago will become base camp for the Trump death cult which will continue to mobilize his hardcore followers to terrorize Republican primaries and ensure the preservation of a large die-hard contingent in the House as well as in red-state legislatures. (Republicans in the Senate, accessing huge corporation donations, are far less vulnerable to such challenges.)

Tomorrow liberal pundits may reassure us that the Republicans have committed suicide, that the age of Trump is over, and that Democrats are on the verge of reclaiming hegemony. Similar declarations, of course, were made during vicious Republican primaries in 2015. They seemed very convincing at the time. But an open civil war amongst Republicans may only provide short-term advantages to Democrats, whose own divisions have been rubbed raw by Biden’s refusal to share power with progressives. Freed from Trump’s electronic fatwas, moreover, some of the younger Republican senators may prove to be much more formidable competitors for the white college-educated suburban vote than centrist Democrats realize. In any event, the only future that we can reliably foresee – a continuation of extreme socio-economic turbulence – renders political crystal balls useless.

Read on: Mike Davis’s New Year’s blast to the American left. 


The Trial of Julian Assange

The trial is over. Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that Julian Assange will not be extradited to the United States. If anyone who has been observing the trial says that they aren’t surprised, they’re fibbing.

Nobody who sat through the proceedings (as I did at an earlier stage) could have failed to detect the bias and, on occasion, outright hostility that Baraitser displayed towards the defence lawyers. The bulk of her judgement is in that vein. The defence put forward numerous arguments for why Assange should not be extradited to the US – above all, that the US was bringing political, not criminal, charges against Assange, prohibited by the UK–US extradition treaty – and she ruled against nearly all of them.

She ruled there were no grounds for thinking that Assange’s constitutional rights wouldn’t be upheld in the US or that he would not be subject to arbitrary punishment after extradition. She denied at length, in the final paragraphs of her verdict, that this was a politically motivated prosecution aimed at silencing a journalist – essentially providing a face-saver for the UK government.

Instead, she ruled against extradition on the grounds that it would be ‘oppressive by reason of mental harm’ – that under US pre-trial conditions, held in isolation in a maximum-security prison, Assange would not be prevented from committing suicide.

It seems that the spectre of ‘supermax’ – the brutal reality of the American carceral system – was placed in the dock and found guilty. Pure hypocrisy. Is London’s notorious Belmarsh Prison, where Assange was held in isolation after being forcibly arrested in the Ecuadorian Embassy in April 2019, a humanitarian zone by comparison? In late 2019, doctors who inspected Assange wrote an open letter to the British government, stating that he ‘could die in prison without urgent medical attention’ due to the conditions in which he was kept. Nils Melzer, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, noted that ‘Assange showed all the signs typical for victims of psychological torture’, having been ‘in solitary confinement for all intents and purposes for more than a year now’. But Baraitser gave short shrift to this testimony.

Her ruling is only the first step. We do not know whether Assange will be granted bail pending the US appeal, or whether the judge will be vindictive. At his bail hearing tomorrow, the court will be more concerned about the risk of flight than the risk of assassination. And though Baraitser expressed her grave concern for his psychological wellbeing, she is unlikely to safeguard it by issuing an order of protection.

Questions also remain about the real reasons for this clemency. Did the incoming Biden administration let it be known they would rather avoid a US prosecution, in which the New York Times would be bound to defend Assange’s rights under the First Amendment, since it had also published Wikileaks materials? Did the British government want to link this to its own stalled extradition case against Anne Sacoolas, the US diplomat’s wife who fatally ran over a British teenager in August 2019? More details may yet emerge. But as they say in sport, a win is a win. The refusal to extradite should be celebrated, whatever its motives.  

As most people know, the case against Assange – an initiative of Eric Holder, the US Attorney General under Obama – is little more than an attempt to suppress freedom of expression. In a world where visual propaganda is central to war making, counter-images present a problem for the warmongers. When Al Jazeera broadcast footage of American troops targeting civilians during the War on Terror, a US army general – accompanied by a jeep full of armed soldiers – entered the news channel’s compound in Qatar to demand an explanation. The director of the station, a soft-spoken Palestinian, explained that they were simply reporting the news. A year later he was dismissed from his post.

Wikileaks likewise obtained footage of a 2007 US helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. The pilots were heard cheering, ‘Light ’em all up!’ and cracking jokes after firing on two young children: ‘Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.’ The ghoulish cynicism shocked many after the tape went viral. The crime it depicted wasn’t novel, nor was it comparable in scale to previous American atrocities (massacre of POWs in Korea, chemical warfare in Vietnam, carpet bombing in Cambodia and so on). Yet the Pentagon fulminated that the Wikileaks video would encourage terrorist reprisals. The problem was evidently not with committing war crimes, but with capturing them on film. Thus, Chelsea Manning, who leaked the material, and Assange, who published it, must be made to feel the consequences. 

Wikileaks cast light on the real reasons for the military interventions of the 2000s, which had nothing to do with freedom, democracy or human rights – except as codewords for capital accumulation. Using the internet to bypass legacy media, Assange published more than two million diplomatic cables and State Department records that exposed the machinery of American Empire. The reaction of the US state has often tipped into absurdity; a dog snapping mindlessly at everything ends up biting his own tail. Assange pointed out that ‘by March 2012, the Pentagon had gone so far as to create an automatic filter to block any emails, including inbound emails to the Pentagon, containing the word Wikileaks.’ As a result, Pentagon prosecutors preparing the case against Chelsea Manning found they were not receiving important emails from either the judge or the defence.

Revenge was the lesser motive. The primary aim was to deter other whistleblowers. Yet this was shortsighted and foolish. Those who expose war crimes, corruption or corporate malfeasance are usually courageous but ‘ordinary’ people, often quite conservative, working in establishment institutions: think of onetime CIA employee Edward Snowden or former marine Daniel Ellsberg. Would such a person – whose entire worldview has been shaken by some horror in their conscience – succumb so easily to a deterrent? The attempt to make an example out of Manning and Assange is at odds with the mentality of the whistleblower, whose sense of injustice drives them to accept the life-changing consequences of leaking.

Ellsberg, the State Department official who handed over secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, eventually became a liberal sweetheart, especially amongst Democrats, as he had exposed Nixon’s lies and misdemeanors during the war in Vietnam. I doubt whether Julian Assange will ever reach that exalted status on either side of the Atlantic. He has been slandered by media outlets across the political spectrum. Liberal newspapers have lined up to claim that he is ‘not a journalist’ but an ‘activist’ – or, as the Boston Herald had it, a ‘spy’. His trial never got the coverage it deserved in the NYT, Washington Post or the Guardian. The latter, despite publishing the Wikileaks material back in 2011, now appears to have given up on serious investigative journalism altogether. By contrast, El País and the Suddeutsche Zeitung were more objective.

Given what Assange has suffered, a few weeks of freedom in lockdown Britain will be a gift from heaven. No more cramped space and lack of sunlight; a chance to hug his partner and children, to use a computer, or pick up a random book. ‘I am unbroken, albeit literally surrounded by murderers’, he wrote to a friend from Belmarsh. ‘But the days when I could read and speak and organize to defend myself, my ideals and the people are over…’

Perhaps not.


The German Söderweg

Like the biologist’s dye that stains bodily tissue and illuminates its cellular structure, the laboratory-grade opportunism of Markus Söder is a useful resource for understanding German politics. As the Minister President of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, Söder currently polls as the leading contender to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor next year, despite not having declared his candidacy. The calculus is not strained: the CDU’s own three pretenders – Norbert Röttgen, Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz – could all cancel each other out. For all of northern Germany’s imputed reluctance to being ruled by a Bavarian, the closest election in postwar German history was between Söder’s political mentor, the Deutschmark fetishist CSU leader Edmund Stoiber, and Gerhard Schröder, who only narrowly won after he cannily channeled popular discontent about the US plan to invade Iraq. Most decisively, Söder is a Nürnberger from the relatively industrialized region of Franconia, not some primitive mountain yodeler of Berlin caricature.

From his earliest days, the German press identified Söder as a formidable political animal. After a minor deviation in childhood, when the five-year-old Söder brought home a ‘Vote for Willy’ sticker and his father enjoined him to pray for his sins, Söder slickly ascended the ranks of the Christian Social Union: president of the youth wing of the CSU at 28; CSU association leader for Nürnberg-West at 30; CSU media commissioner at 33; CSU general secretary at 36; CSU chairman for Nürnberg-Fürth-Schwabach at 41; Minister President of Bavaria at 52; and, as of last year, party chairman of the CSU at 53, with a standard CSU-majority of 87.4 percent of the party vote behind him. In what is essentially a Catholic political aristocracy – the CSU now has a room of its own in the Bavarian Historical Museum in Regensburg that follows the suites devoted to the reigns of Ludwig I and Ludwig II – Söder is perhaps only unusual in being a Protestant. Long known as the CSU’s attack dog – a reputation only aided by his beefy figure and faintly menacing, and quite possibly self-administered, haircut – Söder has been known to pick gratuitous fights with opponents. His ability to switch positions nimbly with plausible conviction, and his sheer enjoyment of political battle, has consistently earned him comparisons to Schröder. In their biography of the ‘Shadow Chancellor’, Roman Deininger and Uwe Ritzer note that Söder, who had a poster of Franz Josef Strauß, the Barry Goldwater of German politics, above his teenage bed, was also impressed by the pageantry of George W. Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’, which he witnessed at close range as a CSU emissary to the 2004 Republican Convention in New York (Curiously, Armin Laschet introduced this fairly critical biography of Söder at an online event in Berlin the other day, partly, it seems, as a gambit to narrow the race for the Chancellorship down to the two of them.)

How did this immaculate CSU stalwart become, over the past year and a half, an ardent progressive, posing as Merkelite Landesvater? It is one of the puzzles of contemporary German politics. The answer has roots deeper than simply the fact that Söder, with his eye on Merkel’s job, now has some appreciation for how she does it. To begin with, it’s worth recalling how drastically both he and the current Interior Minister (and preceding Minister President and CSU chair) Horst Seehofer misread the consequences of Merkel’s 2015 decision to keep the German border open to asylum-seekers. In their interpretation of events, the political crisis over refugees was the uncorking of a bottle that would release all of the conservative spirits that Merkel had suppressed. As Merkel seemed to reveal her true colors – that of a delusional humanitarian – Söder and Seehofer finally thought they had her cornered. 2015–18 was the period in which they tried to finish her off by riding the wind of the right-wing backlash toward her and her policies (Needless to say, there was no principle in any of this: in his days as the Health Minister under Kohl, it was Seehofer who was regularly criticized within his own party for being ‘communist’ when it came to the destitute). Seeing no threat from the AfD, Seehofer and Söder decided to relax the CSU’s Strauß doctrine (‘Never allow a democratically legitimized party right of the CSU’) and appeared to think that the fledgling party’s promotion of more forthright Euroscepticism could be helpful. Then comes the CSU’s Austrian romance. Let us revisit those happy days:

  • Mid-December 2017: The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz of the ÖVP, and his coalition partner, Heinz-Christian Strache of the hard-right FPÖ, presented their coalition agenda withdrawing protections for refugees at the Kahlenberg, site of a decisive 1683 battle against the Turks.
  • Early January 2018: Alexander Dobrindt, head of the CSU’s parliamentary group, published his call for a ‘Middle Class Conservative Turn’ in Die Welt (Springer’s ‘prestige’ paper). Portions of it read like a less erudite version of Anders Breivik’s manifesto.
  • Early January 2018: Viktor Orbán was the guest of honor at the CSU-Klausur, and gave an interview to Bild-Zeitung (that had been leading a pro-Kurz campaign for weeks by then): ‘We are not talking of immigrants or refugees, we are talking about an invasion’.

And so the CSU with Söder in the driver’s seat appeared prepared to go down the Austrian road: EU-critical, Putin-curious, agrarian-traditional, culture-war-trigger-happy, maximally Islamophobic neoliberal.

Then came the stunning upset. The CSU was humiliated in the 2018 October regional election. Söder lost 10 percent of the vote, much of which seemed to have been recouped by the Greens, who offer an ever more urban and online electorate the sought-after credentials of anti-racism and cosmopolitanism. With 16 seats lost in the parliament, Söder’s majority vanished. He had to build a humiliating, if not unprecedented coalition with the Free Voters of Bavaria, a hodge-podge ‘non-ideological’ party of the centre. It was now clear that the turn to the right had been a mistake. How did Söder respond? By conducting one of the most dramatic U-Turns in recent German history. Overnight he became a lover of bees and trees – calling for new regulations for their protection. He declared combustion engines would be banned by 2030. His progressivism even overshot what his party was prepared to stomach. At the CSU conference last year, Söder’s proposal for a quota of 40 percent women at all levels of the CSU was rejected by the party delegates. The CSU still has the best discipline of any party in the land, but there are audible grumblings from lower quarters. The CSU Landtag chair Thomas Kreuzer has been lately appending pointed reminders about ‘the farmers’ to Söder loyalty oaths.

What all of this reveals is not simply that Söder is now, belatedly, reforming the CSU in the same way that Merkel did the CDU. It shows that, with his eye on the Chancellorship, Söder knows that he has no choice but to forge a working alliance between main sections of export-oriented industry and the progressive middle classes. He grasps the objective pressure Merkel is under to balance the hegemonic alliance of big multinational corporations (as opposed to smaller, more conservative family businesses), moderate conservatives and urban liberals. Urbanization and export-orientation are two of the dominant forces shaping German social life: and they are moving the country in a progressive and liberalizing direction. (The AfD, caught in factional infighting, and experiencing diminishing returns on its novelty, has meanwhile become a party of last resort for disenchanted members of the state security apparatus and the Bundeswehr). Söder knows that he must divert some of the Green vote or at least make the prospect of ruling with them more plausible. The Austrian example was always an unworkable fantasy in Germany, even in Bavaria, where there are fewer traditional Catholics, the population is urbanizing, and there is a strong ‘progressive’ neoliberal ideology that emanates from BMW (Munich), Siemens (Munich), Adidas (Herzogenaurach), Audi (Ingolstadt), etc. Companies like this do not exist on the same scale in Austria; the country is 20 percent less urban than Germany; and Austrians never underwent any comparable ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, as they still prefer to think they were not responsible for crimes committed by Nazi-Germany. Despite Kurz’s relative popularity among the professional classes of Vienna, and his wing of ÖVP’s closer position to the Federation of Austrian Industries (Industriellenvereinigung), which represents big capital groups, Austrian conservatives can still cobble together a majority without the sort of urban progressives on whom Merkel has increasingly come to rely.

What are Söder’s chances for Chancellorship? It is still too early to say. He has acquired enemies all over the country, but also ardent supporters in unlikely places. As he approaches the seat of power in Berlin, he will come under much more scrutiny. It is practically a German political rite of passage at this point to plagiarize your doctoral dissertation, but if anything it’s a sign of Söder’s intelligence that he did not resort to the copy-paste method of his peers, but rather appears to have commissioned the thing wholesale, unless one is persuaded by the image of one of the busiest political operatives in the land pouring over hundreds of documents written in Kurrentschrift in a state archive to produce the 263-page thesis, ‘From old German legal traditions to a modern community edict: The development of municipal legislation in the Kingdom of Bavaria between 1802 and 1818’. That said, Söder has had a very good pandemic, which suited both his and the CSU’s authoritarian instincts. He locked Bavaria down faster, harder, and more coherently than any other state minister, and his resolute media performances played well in the liberal press. As he considers the dimensions of Merkel’s shoes, Söder is seeing like the German state: no longer the optics of the Mittelstand businessman or the farmer in the beer tent, but something more total and omniscient: Der ideelle Gesamtkapitalist.

Read on: Joachim Jachnow on the degeneration of the German Greens; Christine Buchholz’s wide-ranging survey of the political landscape under Merkel.


Blasted Sea

On 1 August in north-east Scotland, midway through the hottest summer yet, two sets of microphones were recording. One was trained on UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as he stood outside a Shell-owned gas processing terminal at Scotland’s easternmost tip, unveiling a plan to authorise 100 new licences to drill for fossil fuel in the North Sea. Some distance off the coast – and far from any media attention – a second set of microphones was being dragged through the water. Under the command of Texas-based geophysics company SAExploration, they were being used to survey the seafloor, searching for the fossil fuels that might lie beneath.

Such surveys are part of a booming industry. The latest IPCC report made it clear that no new fossil fuel projects can be initiated if we are to avoid catastrophic global heating. Yet according to Offshore Magazine, a trade publication for offshore fossil fuel exploration, ‘the future is looking bright’. The sector is expected to expand by 14% this year alone. Major offshore explorations are underway in the waters of Argentina, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Colombia, Greece, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, the UK and the United States. This expansion is driven in part by disruptions from the war in Ukraine, new technological developments and an industry buoyed by inflated profits and keen to defend and extend its position. The quest for offshore fuel is also propelled by growing scarcity. Much of the ‘conventional’ supply of oil and gas is already over-exploited, forcing mining companies to go to greater lengths.

Tapping ‘unconventional’ deposits requires advanced technology. Before an offshore oil or gas well can be sunk, the area needs to be mapped, and the most accurate way to do that is via a process called ‘seismic exploration’. This involves a ship slowly traversing the ‘acquisition area’ – industry jargon for the place being mapped – trailing pneumatic guns and microphones behind it, sometimes on 10km-long lines. The air-guns fire regular sound blasts into the water; the microphones record the echo bouncing back from the seafloor. To penetrate the sub-seafloor, where oil and gas may be found, the blasts have to be extremely loud. At an unimaginable 240 decibels, they are among the loudest sounds humans can produce. For comparison: these are louder than the sound produced by the explosion of an atomic bomb. To map the acquisition area, hundreds of thousands of such blasts are required. The guns fire every ten seconds, 24 hours a day, for months on end. At this rate the number of blasts adds up quickly. By the time of Sunak’s announcement, SAExploration’s vessel in the North Sea would have fired off almost one million blasts over the first 108 days of its mission.

One marine biologist-turned-whistleblower, disturbed by the possible ecological impacts of this practice, recently described her time aboard a seismic exploration ship that was working off the coast of Australia. She was given a pair of binoculars and tasked with keeping an eye out for whales; if the crew had visual confirmation of specific types of whales, they would temporarily pause the blasting. But this safeguard was limited, not only because the pneumatic guns were being dragged 10km behind the ship – near or beyond the horizon – but also because the blasts continue through the night when no observer is on duty.

The blasts are no doubt keenly heard by cetaceans – dolphins and whales – who experience sound in distinctive and complex ways (they are able to ‘see’ and feel with sound). Humans can hear frequencies between 20 and 20,000 hertz (Hz); Bottlenose dolphins can hear up to 160,000 Hz. They use their ultra-precise hearing to locate food, to navigate and to communicate. Hundreds of thousands of nuclear bomb-volume blasts ripping through their habitat is likely to affect their senses in ways we cannot understand. It is an act of phenomenal violence. What of the other inhabitants of the overfished, acidifying ocean? What happens when microorganisms are hit with a 240-decibel sound wave? The short answer is nobody knows; it hasn’t been adequately studied.

This lack of ecological research contrasts sharply with the level of technoscientific knowledge needed to transform the audio recording of the blasts echoing back from the seafloor into maps for fossil fuel companies. Processing these recordings is highly complicated, often requiring super-computers to crunch the geophysical data. The US-based multinational oil company ConocoPhillips, for example, has one of the world’s top supercomputers, a purpose-built 1000m2 machine that sits in a data facility in Houston. Much of its processing power is given over to turning seismic exploration data into maps. Such processes are central to the extraction industry – a fact that complicates the call to ‘follow the science’ with respect to climate change. Oil and gas companies are following the science – indeed, they are using the most advanced science available, and they are using it to extract even more fossil fuel.

Marine seismic surveys, according to Australia’s regulatory agency, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) (which ‘recognises climate change’), are undertaken not only to identify ‘potential oil and gas reservoirs below the seafloor’ but also ‘reservoirs suitable for storing waste carbon dioxide to prevent it from entering the atmosphere and contributing to climate change’. A discerning reader will note that these two purposes exist in different universes. The first is real and dangerous, a practice that needs to be halted immediately if the planet is to remain liveable. The second is, at best, a science fiction concocted by the fossil industry.

Seismic exploration is a telling manifestation of the technoscientific reorganisation of global capital. It embodies the central contradiction that has been with us since the first nuclear explosions which opened a new epoch of cybernetic capitalism. At the cutting-edge of science and using some of the world’s most powerful calculation engines, the technique is as rationalised as it gets. Yet the blasting of an atomic bomb of sound every ten seconds is belligerent in the extreme toward the oceanic ecosystems, while the aim of expanding the frontier of fossil fuel extraction at a time of increasingly acute climate crisis is nothing short of demented.

Herein lies a deeper problem: a society dedicated to endless growth is necessarily pushed towards meeting expanding energy requirements. Governments of all stripes, from greenwashing ‘pragmatists’, like Labor in Australia, to anti-greens like Sunak’s Tories – also claiming to be ‘pragmatic’ – are forced to intensify the quest for more energy and thus the drive towards technoscientific instrumentalisation. Cybernetic capitalism, compelled to seek new ‘smart’ ways to achieve endless expansion, leaves behind a blasted sea and a boiling sky.

Read on: Timothy Erik Ström, ‘Capital and Cybernetics’, NLR 135.



As if demonstrating that the repressed does return, politics has erupted in the supposedly apolitical world of American psychoanalysis. An advocacy group, Black Psychoanalysts Speak, and a documentary film, Psychoanalysis in El Barrio, seek to redress the racial and class biases of analysis. Unbehagen, a psychoanalytic list-serve, features a roiling debate over whether it is necessary to match the analyst’s gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation with the patient’s. The American Psychoanalytic Association itself has been shaken by political recriminations, purges, resignations and denunciations. An article by Donald Moss, published in the association’s journal, provided the catalyst in this case. According to its abstract:

 Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has – a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which ‘white’ people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one’s body, in one’s mind, and in one’s world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts’ appetites voracious, insatiable and perverse.

The reaction to the article was sharply divided. Some saw it as a valuable extension of psychoanalytic theory, while others believed it neglected vital determining factors of racialization, such as deindustrialization, union discrimination and the inequities of the real estate market. In response to the controversy, an internal body was appointed, the Holmes Commission, to ‘investigate systemic racism and its underlying determinants embedded within APsaA, and to offer remedies for all aspects of identified racism’. Among the repercussions has been a debate over anti-Semitism precipitated by a speaking invitation to a controversial Lebanese psychoanalytic therapist, which led to the resignation of the President of the Association, Kerry Sulkowicz.

These developments are noteworthy in themselves, but they also raise wider questions about the relation between psychoanalysis and politics. What is striking about the politicization of contemporary psychoanalysis is the extent to which it conforms to the liberal identitarianism, sometimes termed ‘wokeness’, prevailing in the broader culture, which views systematic wrongs such as racism as emanating from individual psyches, along the model of sin. This marks a sad detour for a current of thought that provided a genuine alternative to moralism. Yet the stakes are greater than psychoanalysis per se. They concern the prospects for a twenty-first century Left that can encompass a non-reductionist conception of the relations between the social world and individual psychology. Recent years have also seen a certain resurgence of psychoanalytic thinking on the American Left. Sam Adler-Bell, co-host of the podcast Know Your Enemy, traces this to the defeat of Bernie Sanders. ‘There’s an inward turn’, he speculates: ‘maybe this purely materialist analysis of people’s motivations doesn’t give us what we need to make sense of this moment’. A new journal, Parapraxis, describes itself as a ‘psychoanalytically oriented supplement to radical critique and historical materialism’, promising to uncover ‘the psychosocial dimension of our lives’.

To address this, we need to consider the intertwined histories of socialism, feminism and psychoanalysis. Socialism’s core contribution was the idea that democracy and individual freedom could not be achieved without countering capitalism in significant ways. By uprooting the peasantry and gathering workers together in cities, industrialization created the basis for a revolutionary movement. Less often remarked is that this same process transformed the family. Previously, the family had been the primary locus of production and reproduction, and hence the individual’s sense of identity was rooted in his or her place in both work and the family. Industrial capitalism separated paid work from the household. The consequences were twofold. First, the separation helped give rise to a new gender order among the emerging bourgeoisie based on the cult of true womanhood, which implied that women’s suffering endowed them with moral authority. Second, the separation contributed to loosening the bonds that tied individuals of both sexes to their place in the family, giving rise to the idea of a personal life – an identity distinct from one’s place in the family, in society, and in the social division of labour.

Understanding that modern capitalist society is based not simply on the rise of industry, but also on the withdrawal of production from the family, helps clarify the contributions and blind spots of these three emancipatory currents. Socialists tended to reduce culture and psychology to the economy. Focused on political economy they left the family and personal life to psychoanalysis and to feminism. Psychoanalysis and feminism in turn focused on the family, neglecting its relation to the capitalist economy. In the sixties, a predominant view on the left was that psychoanalysis was apolitical or ‘individualistic’. But in fact, it was political in a different way, focused not on capital vs labour, but rather on the freedom of the individual from internalized forms of authority, including those targeted by the democratic revolutions, such as tradition, lord/servant relationships and the church, all of which Freud loosely tied together as paternal law. Over time, especially by the sixties, those influenced by psychoanalysis turned their attention to other forms of internalized authority, particularly racism and sexism, as well as forms of shame and guilt specific to capitalism, deference to supposed scientific knowledge, doxa and, of course, deference to psychoanalysis itself.

In general, psychoanalysis did not directly confront institutions, but rather worked indirectly, through its effects on individuals. In this way it reflected the new experience of personal life, which was presupposed by Freud in the theory of the unconscious. According to that theory, the ideas or stimuli that came to the individual from society or culture were not directly registered but were dissolved and internally reconstituted in such a way as to give them personal, even idiosyncratic, meanings. As a result, the inner lives of modern men and women were organized through symbols and narratives that had become personal or idiosyncratic; psychical life could be interpreted but not reintegrated into a previously existing whole. In this view, a person’s race, gender or nationality doesn’t simply translate into their intrapsychic world, but rather is refracted through the contingencies of their personal life. This meant that politics entered the consulting room in terms of its meaning for the individual patient, rather than in the service of a political programme. Far from being defined by any given political ideas, psychoanalytic practice was open-ended, non-utilitarian and unpredictable.

For several decades, the potential contribution of psychoanalysis to radical politics was not widely appreciated. One reason is that psychoanalysis was not oriented to an identifiable sociological group, such as the working class, but rather to new, historically specific possibilities for personal emancipation, which capitalism promised but could not deliver. The limits of psychoanalytic politics also reflected the psychical or cultural reductionism built into the separation of the family from the economy. That separation gave rise to new ways of thinking about history and politics centred on the role of psychology in understanding both individuals and groups or masses, but these tended to be argued in themselves, rather than as part of a broader social theory. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the 1960s rebellions – in which women and issues of personal life were central – played a key role in redefining the politics of psychoanalysis.

This shift began with black intellectuals who drew on psychoanalysis to elucidate the inner costs of racism. Sociologist Horace Cayton, describing his own psychoanalysis, wrote that while he had begun with the idea that race was a ‘convenient catchall’, a rationalization for personal inadequacy, he ended up understanding that race ‘ran to the core of my personality’ and ‘formed the central focus for my insecurity’. ‘I must have drunk it in with my mother’s milk’, he added. Richard Wright, deeply shaped by psychoanalysis, claimed ‘that what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our flights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure’. Fanon, a Freudian psychiatrist, wrote:

I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects…I took myself far off from my own presence…What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a haemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood? I marry white culture, white beauty, white whiteness.

Such works were never intended to replace analyses of segregation and the plantation system, but rather to complement, deepen and complicate them. The result was Freudo-Marxism, in which individual psychology and social theory were each given their place. Other efforts to strike that balance included reinterpretation of the Reformation (Erik Erickson, Norman O. Brown, Erich Fromm), and works on mass society and mass culture (Wilhelm Reich, Theodor Adorno, Christopher Lasch, Richard Hofstadter, Herbert Marcuse).

The sixties efforts to produce a non-reductive understanding of the relations of the social and the psychical were short-circuited. Although the cult of true womanhood was long dead, many women remained suspended between two different approaches to the family: first, that the family, and personal relations more generally, were women’s special – moral – realm and, second, that sexual and personal emancipation required freedom from the family. The result was a deep ambivalence toward psychoanalysis, which was at least as consequential in shaping attitudes as the very real sexism of American psychoanalysts. What carried the day was feminists’ forthright expression of the extent of women’s suffering, and the profound sense of the injustice of a male-dominated society. The result was that the ambivalence was resolved negatively. This resolution informed two books that in 1970 announced the birth of second wave feminism: Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex. For Millett, Freud was the leader of a counter-revolution against feminism, waged under the banner of penis-envy. Firestone redefined penis-envy as power envy and replaced Marx and Engels’ idea of a dialectic of class with a dialectic of sex, according to which the rule of men over women and children was the driving force in history. Both books sought to replace psychoanalysis with feminism. Gayle Rubin famously called psychoanalysis ‘feminism manqué’.

Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) marked a new turn in the encounter between feminism and psychoanalysis. Mitchell was a socialist ­– and an editor of NLR influenced by Fanon and by the existential psychoanalysis of David Cooper and RD Laing. The question that concerned her was how women live in their ‘heads and hearts a self-definition which is at core a definition of oppression’. In 2017 she recalled:

it was my fascination with the rabid anti-Freud stance of the first American feminists in the second half of the nineteen-sixties that made me go to the British Museum library to read Freud’s five articles on women. Instead, I read twenty-three volumes of his translated work non-stop. Psychoanalysis and Feminism was the result. I had found what I wanted – some way we could think about the question of the oppression of women.

Her book criticized second wave feminism for having gotten ‘rid of mental life’. For them, she lamented, ‘It all actually happens… there is no other sort of reality than social reality’.

In the late seventies and eighties, some feminists, gays and, to a lesser extent, people of colour became analysts, therapists or psychiatric social workers. They did not, however, for the most part join Mitchell in returning to Freud. Rather, they transformed psychoanalysis into the so-called relational paradigm, which focused not on the individual unconscious but on interpersonal relations. Based on Winnicott’s famous aperçu, ‘there is no such thing as a baby’ – i.e., the mother is always present – relational psychoanalysis was a compromise formation, combining a mother-centred paradigm, practical introspection and a new code of behaviour. Psychoanalytic feminists substituted ‘gender’ for ‘sex’, thus jettisoning the psychoanalytic theory of motivation, without putting another in its place. Melanie Klein’s theory of unconscious object relations, largely if not wholly consistent with Freud, was misrepresented as interpersonal or relational. Nancy Chodorow and Jessica Benjamin prioritized gender difference and idealized attunement and other female-associated, interpersonal skills. For others, the unconscious disappeared into a phenomenology of intimate relations, such as flirting, kissing, tickling and being bored or into a micro-sociology of insults and injuries.

The relational turn substituted an ethical theory of interpersonal relations for the unconscious. This contributed to what is today known as ‘wokeness’. What happens in the absence of a theory of the unconscious is projection. All evil and wrong is seen as coming from the outside. The theory of penis-envy was unpleasant, painful and even wrong, but its very structure included an effort to elucidate how women might have mobilized their aggression against themselves. When individuals lack even the concept of an intrapsychic life, much less access to it, they will project their aggression and other ‘bad’ feelings outward, generating the need for trigger warnings, moral judgements posted next to paintings, Deans and Provosts who play the role of police officers, for definitions of the university – and the New Left – as a rape culture. This idea that aggression comes from the outside works very well with the liberal/market paradigm, which is founded on an equilibrium model and denies that there is any aggression within the market system, and that any problems must be external – coming from the state, monopoly or China. The denial of aggression leads to moralism, based on the idea – which stems from the cult of true womanhood – that victimhood bestows moral authority. Here, the intrinsically duplicitous structure of capitalism shows itself in the realm of morality.

The demand for recognition may be read as the political counterpart to the relational turn. The overwhelmingly negative reaction of feminists to Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1979) signalled the triumph of a newly minted Hegelian ‘recognition theory’ over Freudian self-reflection. In that book, Lasch viewed the demand for recognition as a symptom of an attention-based society, in which processes of mirroring and idealization prevailed. Yet to his feminist critics he was an advocate of a passé and ‘masculinist’ ideal of autonomy, and only that. Meanwhile, responding not to feminism but to Germany’s trauma of the Nazi years, Jürgen Habermas dismissed Adorno and Horkheimer’s attempts to combine Freud and Marx in favour of a paradigm based on intersubjectivity, democratic dialogue and communicative action, rooted in American pragmatism and social psychology. These currents were brought into relation with feminism by Axel Honneth, who argued that the demand for recognition, in the Hegelian sense of Anerkennung, is the master key of justice. The result was a new notion of ‘critical theory’, which replaced Freudo-Marxism: Winnicott stood in for Freud and Talcott Parsons stood in for Marx.

Let us now return to our nineteenth-century roots, when the withdrawal of production from the family created the modern demand for personal freedom, understood as something beyond the economy. Surely Marx, who read everything, and embraced the work of non-socialist thinkers like Charles Darwin and Lewis Henry Morgan, as well as that of monarchists like Honoré de Balzac, would have been fascinated by Freud, Fanon and Mitchell among others. As we learn from post-colonialism about the nation, we need to think about the family in terms of combined and uneven development. Bringing into one institution the most backward elements of society and the most visionary possibilities, the politics of the family is combustible. The forced separation between forms of personal emancipation, such as women’s liberation, antiracism and identity politics on the one hand, and socialism on the other, took place in the 1960s when the three emancipatory currents – socialism, feminism and psychoanalysis – were closest to being united.

The alternative to wokeness, finally, is not the abstract, liberal separation of the individual and the political, but rather the interdependence between the individual and the collective. All human beings have basic material and social needs that can only be met collectively. This is what socialists have historically understood. But the individual’s needs cannot be reduced to the collective; they are also internal, psychological and personal. Hence the logic of the idea of psychoanalysis complementing socialism. A revitalized psychoanalysis, galvanized by the rediscovery of the personal character of the unconscious, would greatly deepen our explorations of human freedom – in psychotherapy, in the arts and in public discourse ­– and would be a natural ally for a revitalized socialist politics. Meanwhile, there is always a place for moral reformation, even under socialism – just not within psychoanalysis.

Read on: Juliet Mitchell, ‘Psychoanalysis and Child Development’, NLR I/140.


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.


The Mexican Question

One indication of the plight of the left worldwide is the calibre of its contemporary lodestars. Just last century we were learning from and for revolutions. Today we are invited to take inspiration from the likes of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican president now entering the final lap of his six-year term. In a recent Sidecar article, Edwin F. Ackerman described AMLO’s ‘overarching project’ as to ‘move away from neoliberalism towards a model of nationalist-developmentalist capitalism’. Any such transition, Ackerman notes, ‘must take place in a structural setting shaped by neoliberalism itself: the erosion of the working class as a political agent and the dismantling of state capacity’. AMLO’s tenure ought therefore to be assessed according to progress in these areas. While Ackerman concedes other weaknesses – AMLO’s ‘dismal record’ on migration, his lukewarm response to Mexico’s feminist movement – his account is broadly positive. How accurate is this assessment?

In Ackerman’s description, the working class has re-emerged as a ‘political actor’, visible in workers’ uprisings and successful unionization drives, and reflected in the increasingly working-class composition of the president’s support base. Initial signs of a revival of class politics were rhetorical: AMLO adopted a populist idiom of confrontation between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’. But this, Ackerman claims, was followed by substantive social policy, in particular expanding and universalizing cash transfers.

The truth however is that cash transfers are nothing new in Mexico, and nothing if not neoliberal. Pioneered by the government of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), Progresa epitomized the new state doctrine that displaced the more collectivist ideology of the Mexican Revolution. Rather than a universal entitlement, cash transfers were granted with conditions such as keeping children in school and attending regular health check-ups. The policy was conceived as enabling the individual to better navigate the uncertainties of the market as they pursued their personal betterment. More to the point, these schemes were akin to pre-emptive compensation while the Mexican state implemented a dramatic wave of privatization, liberalization and deregulation.

Ackerman argues that the removal of most conditions for welfare payments represents a break with this model. Having dispensed with ‘micro-targeting and means-testing’, cash transfers ‘now reach 65% more people than under previous governments’. This dramatically overstates the scale and significance of the change: the 65% figure is only true for three programmes – a pension for seniors, a stipend for primary and high school students, and another for farmers. The overall picture of social spending under AMLO is far less impressive. In 2018, the last year of the previous government, social programmes reached 28% of the population. By 2022, the figure was 35%, and total social expenditure was $1.3 trillion pesos – only 1.4% higher than what it was in 2014 when adjusted for inflation. This modest expansion of welfare support, moreover, obscures its regressive cast. The increased spending has not meant more protection for those most in need. The proportion of the poorest 5% of Mexicans benefitting from a social programme actually fell from 68% to 49% between 2016 and 2022, while the richest 5% saw their welfare coverage increase from 6% to 20%. Ackerman omits to mention AMLO’s dismal response to the pandemic, which followed a ‘path of minimal action’: Mexico’s excess death toll was the fifth-highest in the world.

Ackerman equally commends AMLO’s ‘concerted effort to increase the state’s tax collection capacity’, which he says has ‘had a significant redistributive impact’. A comparison with recent administrations in the region is instructive. Kirchnerism in Argentina increased tax revenue as a percentage of GDP from 21% to 28.9% during its first six years in government; Morales increased Bolivia’s tax revenue from 19.3% to 25.9% in his. By contrast, available data for AMLO’s first four years in power show a meagre increase from 16.1% to 16.7% (in 2022 tax revenues even declined in real terms). AMLO’s 0.6% increase is comparable to Lula’s first term in Brazil, but the figure obscures quite different tax structures. By 2009, Brazil’s tax revenue was 31.2% of GDP, almost double that of Mexico, which remains the lowest in the OECD and well below the average in Latin America.

Mexico’s underfunded public services, meanwhile, are being subjected to la austeridad republicana. Though Ackerman acknowledges this may undermine the effort to strengthen the country’s welfare system, he nevertheless argues that such austerity is part of an attempt to weed out neoliberal practices: ‘Since Mexican neoliberalism forged extensive links between the state and private enterprise, austerity is seen as a means of breaking such connections – casting off parasitic companies whose profits rely on government largesse.’ But such practices have not ended. The Mexican state now relies more on direct acquisitions than public competition, and friends of AMLO’s family have benefitted from this. In truth, it is difficult to regard ‘republican austerity’ as anything other than a leftist slogan for an old neoliberal tool.

Labour policy is the one area that has seen real progress under AMLO. Ackerman rightly points to the ‘pro-worker reforms’ – formalizing rights, simplifying unionization processes, improving conditions including increasing the statutory holiday allowance and raising the minimum wage, which this year reached 207.40 pesos ($12.30), 82% higher than it was in 2018. But again, nuance is called for. Ackerman says AMLO has overseen ‘the largest minimum-wage increase in more than forty years’. From the 1970s until the mid-1980s, the minimum wage remained above 300 pesos ($17.90), peaking at 396.40 pesos ($23.69) in 1977. Neoliberalization pushed down wages, and since 1996, until the recent hikes, the minimum wage hovered around 100 pesos ($6). The reforms therefore merely begin to reverse neoliberal excess.

Moreover, since not all workers earn the minimum wage, raising it has not resulted in a dramatic redistribution of income to labour as a whole. According to the latest data, between 2018 and 2020, when the minimum wage increased by 29%, Mexico’s labour income share as a percentage of GDP only rose from 33.4 to 35.2%. For comparison: between 2004 and 2010 in Argentina the labour income share grew from 38.7 to 49.3% of GDP. In the same time frame, during Lula’s first stint in power, Brazil’s labour income share rose from 56.1 to 57.9%, and would continue to grow – even under Bolsonaro – to 63.1% by 2019. (The minimum wage in each country increased by 147% and 50%, respectively, in the same six-year period.) As AMLO’s first Finance Minister candidly put it, his government would be ‘to the right of Lula’.

Many of the gains were also set in motion by previous administrations, and impelled by external factors. Mexico’s new labour policy was in part the result of Obama’s pressure to increase wages below the Rio Grande to deter America’s carmakers from further factory closures in the US. Accordingly, a constitutional reform that strengthened labour rights was approved in late 2016, two years before AMLO took office. In a peculiar combination of forces, US national interests, spurred by the country’s union movement, softened the excesses of the Mexican bourgeoisie. When AMLO was elected in 2018, the way had already been paved ‘from the outside’, as academics euphemistically call this episode of US intrusion into Mexican labour policy.

So far, so threadbare. A further priority of the AMLO administration, according to Ackerman, has been to roll back the neoliberal tide that had outsourced government functions to private companies, and he explains how this has been combined with a series of eye-catching construction schemes, including an airport in Mexico City, an oil refinery in AMLO’s home state Tabasco, and a train around the Yucatán peninsula. But lacking ‘real administrative capacity’ to oversee these megaprojects, Ackerman writes, AMLO has ‘become increasingly reliant on the military to build and operate’ them.

That is a serious understatement. The military has become a major contractor of the government, running and profiting from several airports including the new one it helped to build in the capital, a luxury hotel in Yucatán, and some sections of the new train; soon it will run its own commercial airline. The administration’s effort to bulk up the state apparatus has chiefly been accomplished through the comprehensive militarization of public life. Aside from the executive, the only part of the state whose power has grown under AMLO is the armed forces. By 2021, military spending was already 54% higher than at the start of his presidency. And that does not include the swelling budget of the National Guard, established in 2019 to replace the federal police which AMLO disbanded soon after taking office.

AMLO promised the National Guard would be a civilian-led force, but it is now under army command. Almost immediately, the National Guard started anti-immigration operations, deploying some 2,400 soldiers. Now there are 6,500 troops on the border with Guatemala and 7,400 on the border with the US – amounting to a full-blown ‘war against migrants’. AMLO’s government has effectively deputized the armed forces, in National Guard uniforms, as a Mexican branch of US border patrol. Under pressure from Trump and now Biden, the Mexican state no longer turns a blind eye to migration from Central America. The National Migration Institute has been militarized; its facilities function as detention centres. Last March, a rebellion by Central American migrants being held in Ciudad Juárez led to a fire that killed 39.

Ackerman contends that ‘AMLO’s use of the repressive apparatus’ to control the flow of asylum seekers is ‘largely a capitulation’ to US pressure, to which he says AMLO bows in order to gain ‘leverage in negotiations’. The fact is that AMLO did not dare to resist because Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports. AMLO could have responded with reciprocal tariffs, which might have ended free trade in North America. There was a time, in the 1990s, when he called for just that. To the extent that the Mexican government has used its role as anti-immigration lackey to the US to gain leverage, meanwhile, it hasn’t been exploited for ‘progressive’ negotiations, but to rescue General Salvador Cienfuegos from American justice after his capture on drug trafficking and corruption charges in 2020. Cienfuegos was the head of the armed forces from 2012 to 2018. The army pushed AMLO to lead a diplomatic operation that included direct talks with Trump to free the general. The charges were dropped; last year Cienfuegos was a guest of honour at the opening of the new Felipe Ángeles airport.

State propaganda has long portrayed the army as ‘the people in uniform’. But Mexico’s military is the same as it always was: soldiers still disappear or murder hundreds of innocent civilians. It is the same chain of command that was involved in the kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in 2014. A group of experts investigating the mass abduction ceased operations this year after reaching a dead end; in its final report, the panel noted the army was ‘hiding very relevant information for the clarification of the case.’ AMLO immediately defended the armed forces, saying ‘it’s not true the navy and the army aren’t helping.’

Whatever AMLO’s shortcomings, in Ackerman’s view the ‘attempt to break with neoliberalism cannot easily be dismissed’. But in reality, however much he has adorned his programme in the language of the populist tradition, his policies have amounted to little more than neoliberal fine-tuning, and in many areas he has actually deepened the worst excesses of the neoliberal state – more budget cuts, more fiscal discipline, more ‘free’ trade. On top of this he has pursued overtly right-wing measures, which Ackerman underplays, above all this unprecedented and dangerous expansion of the role of the military. Relations with the US, meanwhile, remain far from anti-imperialist and closer to client state dynamics.

The truth is that AMLO has become the latest case of left romanticization of a Latin American strongman. If there is a lesson from his tenure for the left worldwide, it is that AMLO’s populism is not the answer. The warning would be familiar to Mexican communists of the 20th century, whose hard-earned insights José Revueltas shared in his 1962 Essay on a Headless Proletariat:

The progressive politics of the government is a relative negation of the bourgeoisie as a class (since such politics seem to contradict their interests through concessions to the working class, nationalist measures, granting of democratic freedoms, etc.), but at the same time it affirms the national bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class, it affirms the apparent existence of a non-bourgeois government, ‘friend of the workers’ and enemy of a bourgeoisie that, apparently, is not in power either.

From this social diagnosis, Revueltas extracted a strategy for working-class independence, an old and seemingly forgotten theme of the Mexican left. Not all communists were as principled as Revueltas, who served time in prison. Others, like Vicente Lombardo, insisted on the need to stay loyal to populism, always supporting its candidates in elections. Even after the Mexican regime killed hundreds of students in 1968, Lombardo remained steadfast, even lamenting that the students went beyond ‘protest’ and ‘tried to become a revolt’. The populist rule that emerged from the Mexican Revolution was not to be contested, only cautiously criticized. In this strategy, the left must remain a junior, docile partner of the centre.

In the late 1980s, under the influence of Eurocommunism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Mexican communists followed Lombardo’s lead, becoming absorbed by populism. The result was a vacuum on the left, which still exists in Mexico today. The disease of Lombardismo has infected many parts of the left around the world, often in more virulent forms. At least Lombardo distinguished the left from populism. Now, the left is urged to become populist – a ‘left-populism’ in theory but just another centrism in practice. Yet the lesson the left should take from Mexico is to avoid it.

Read on: Jorge Castaneda, ‘Mexico: Permuting Power’, NLR 7.


Western Pravdas

Mögen andere von ihrer Schande sprechen,

ich spreche von der meinen.

Let others speak of their shame,

I speak of my own.

Bertold Brecht, Deutschland, 1933

It’s the early 1970s. An American and a Soviet are debating which of their societies is freer. ‘At least we can criticize Nixon!’, the American blurts out. ‘So what?’, the Soviet replies. ‘We can criticize Nixon too.’ Nixon was, after all, more than worthy of critique: his administration was responsible for perpetuating the worst massacres in Indochina, the extermination of the Black Panthers at home, for backing Pinochet’s bloodstained coup in Chile; the list goes on. But today it appears that the roles have been reversed. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, Westerners find themselves in a situation not unlike that of the Brezhnev-era Soviet. ‘We are free to criticize Putin!’, they exclaim.

To be clear: Vladimir Putin is a true reactionary, with his nostalgia for the Tsars, his Orthodox Christian fervour and ironclad alliance with one of the world’s most objectionable religious hierarchies, his vision of a feudal state-capitalism, the rampant corruption he has enabled and encouraged, his butchery in Chechnya, his repression of dissent. And of course, his suicidal invasion of Ukraine, an anachronistic return to trench warfare in Europe that risks an atomic holocaust over territory – the Donbass – that a decade ago hardly anyone knew existed. To measure the extent of Putin’s folly beyond the horrors he has unleashed, one need only recall that in 2013, 80 per cent of Ukrainians had a positive opinion of Russia.

We would not have been awed by the bravery of Soviets who criticized Nixon’s barbarism – by a commentator in Leningrad describing him as the new Hitler. The same holds true today: unlike Russian citizens who risk their lives in doing so, we should hardly be celebrating the ‘courage’ of pundits in the West who deprecate the cruelty of this Eastern satrap (Oriental despotism: will this rhetorical topos, the coinage of Karl August Wittfogel, ever die?). Not to mention the unpleasant aftertaste of cowardice in the unremitting dictum of ‘we’ll arm you and you fight’ for which they have been a megaphone over the past year and a half. It’s all too easy to play tough with other people’s lives.

The phenomenon being outlined here echoes the past in some respects, while not abiding by it. The same division of the world into good and evil defined the McCarthyism of the 1950s. For readers who don’t remember, the term derived from American senator Joseph McCarthy, who together with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUCA), led a witch hunt targeting anyone (actors, directors, journalists, musicians, writers, diplomats, even members of the armed forces) suspected of being a communist. It’s no coincidence that Wittfogel himself participated in this witch hunt. In 1951, he accused the UN delegation chief and Canadian diplomat Herbert Norman of being a communist agent. Norman denied everything, but he was once again put under indictment. He committed suicide in Cairo.

There are, of course, significant differences. McCarthyism deprived its targets of their livelihoods in the name of a hunt for spies and traitors. Today’s campaign hasn’t gone as far. McCarthyism infected the American state and media, but since it also attacked them as either soft on communism or harbouring secret communists, an internal opposition grew, and it was ultimately ended by the establishment itself. Currently, what we might call Western Brezhnevism seems to be spreading unopposed. The result is a homogenization of perspective. Rather than la pensée unique, we have a récit unique. What is required of NATO members is unwavering adherence to an orthodoxy, demanding a level of self-censorship that recalls what the atomic physicist Leo Szilard said about Americans during the Cold War: ‘Even when things were at their worst, the majority of Americans were free to say what they thought for the simple reason that they never thought what they were not free to say’. 

Here I’m not referring merely to war propaganda, which is a given (and inevitable): our bombs only hit military targets, the enemy’s exclusively civilian ones; our soldiers are gentlemen, theirs are barbarians who commit atrocities; if we lose a city, it was of little strategic importance; if the enemy loses it, it was vital. I’m not even talking about lies, again a given in war; propagated not out of malice, but because you cannot give true information to the enemy. I’m describing something more subtle that permeates our thinking. The clearest signs, as always, come in lexical form. Why, for example, are Russian billionaires called oligarchs, but never Western ones? Billionaires in any nation form – by definition – a small group that exerts great power over the country. But the term oligarch implies something more: that the regime in which they operate is not a true democracy (read: like ours) but an oligarchy. The term is thus a building block for the construction of a non-democratic, authoritarian enemy.

The double standards are more telling in the use of the term ‘empire’. In Russia’s case – whether for Tsarism, the Soviet era, Putin’s revanchism – the term is used constantly, but in the mainstream press it is never applied to the United States, a peace-loving state concerned only with defending itself against ignoble aggressors. That the US has more than 750 military bases in 85 countries is an irrelevant detail (by way of comparison, the UK has 17 military bases abroad, France 12, Turkey 10, China 4, Russia 10, of which 9 are in countries within the borders of the former Soviet Union). Equally irrelevant is the fact that since the Second World War, it has triggered more wars than any other state on earth (in Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria…). And that’s not counting the coups d’état staged in Chile, Iran, Cuba…

Then there is the received vocabulary for hired soldiers, by now a resource used by almost all militaries (let’s not forget its august forefather, far less romantic than the stories we have been told, the French Foreign Legion established in 1831). On the American side they are demurely referred to as ‘contractors’, while their Russian counterparts are ‘mercenaries’ (an appropriate term in both cases). Meanwhile the former head of the Wagner Group, the recently deceased Yevgeny Prigozhin, was part of the ‘inner circle’ or ‘clique’ of the Kremlin Tsar, but the head of Blackwater, Erik Prince, is merely a ‘businessman’ who just happens to be the brother of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s education minister. All such organizations recruit criminal offenders and all commit atrocities, though some are euphemized as ‘unintended casualties’ while others are signs of ‘barbarism’. We need a quantitative analysis of the Western media’s use of adjectives like those carried out by Franco Moretti on literary texts.

Perhaps the most telling indication of this new orthodoxy is the proliferation of the expression ‘Putin’s useful idiots’. A search on Google yields 321,000 results. The history of ‘useful idiots’ – implying as it does a cynical view of politics, in which good faith and naivety are exploited – is enlightening. As William Safire wrote in a New York Times Magazine article from 1987: ‘This seems to be Lenin’s phrase, once applied against liberals, that is being used by anti-Communists against the ideological grandchildren of those liberals, or against anybody insufficiently anti-Communist in the view of the phrase’s user.’ But Safire’s research failed to uncover the expression in any of Lenin’s writings and speeches. The cynicism of the term was thus used against its supposed first formulators.

Use of the expression faded with the end of the Cold War which had spawned it (‘Cold War’ itself a term coined by Walter Lippmann). But in 2008, it was reinvented as ‘Putin’s Useful Idiots’ in Foreign Policy. Paraphrasing Safire: to qualify one merely had to be insufficiently anti-Putin in the eyes of those using the phrase. One should, of course, remember the context. In the early 2000s Putin was asking to become a NATO member (as Foreign Policy reminded its readers last year in the article, ‘When Putin Loved NATO’). But by 2008, things had been turned on their head; the issue was no longer if Russia should be accepted, but how to grant Ukraine and Georgia access to NATO as a move against Russia (this was also the year of the war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia). ‘Putin’s useful idiots’ appeared again in a New York Times article in 2014, the year of Ukrainian President-elect Viktor Yanukovych’s dethroning. Usage has steadily intensified, the floodgates finally opening after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since then, it’s appeared in headlines (just to give an idea) in the Atlantic, the Spectator, Politico and the Economist.

An example of the term’s noxious application comes from Steve Forbes, editor of the eponymous magazine, who in June 2022 attached the epithet to French president Emmanuel Macron for having the temerity to propose a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The episode recalls when another French president insolently refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Such was George Bush’s anger at Jacques Chirac that his administration tried to convince Americans to change the name of ‘French fries’ to ‘freedom fries’. This was a repeat of the campaign undertaken during the First World War, in a climate of intense Germanophobia, when ‘frankfurters’ were renamed ‘hot dogs’ – considerably more successful than Bush’s feeble rebranding of fried potatoes.

On the long list of Putin’s useful idiots, one name that is conspicuous by its absence is Henry Kissinger, who wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post in 2014:

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil. The Black Sea Fleet – Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean – is based by long-term lease in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.

He concludes:

Putin should come to realize that, whatever his grievances, a policy of military impositions would produce another Cold War. For its part, the United States needs to avoid treating Russia as an aberrant to be patiently taught rules of conduct established by Washington. Putin is a serious strategist – on the premises of Russian history. Understanding US values and psychology are not his strong suits. Nor has understanding Russian history and psychology been a strong point of US policymakers.

Clearly, Kissinger has the qualifications necessary to be on the list of ‘Putin’s useful idiots’. Why has he not been branded as such? Because it’s hardly credible that the old fox of Realpolitik is an idiot, let alone at the expense of a comparative youngster like Putin. Perhaps he could have been termed a Putinversteher instead (Google yields 41,000 results for it), the German equivalent meaning ‘one who understands Putin’, which replaces the instrumental contempt of ‘useful idiots’ with innuendo: ‘understanding’ hinting at sympathy, support or complicity.

The sleight of hand is not an innocuous one. The war had barely broken out when Repubblica, one of the most important Italian newspapers, published a list of Putinverstehers, an exercise in public derision of prominent journalists and ambassadors for their adherence to the notion – verified a thousand times over throughout history – that the guilt of one party does not imply the innocence of the other. ‘But this is just pro-Putinism in disguise!’, retort commentators who until the day before yesterday hailed Putin as a political heir of Talleyrand and Metternich, ignoring his butchery in Chechnya, not to mention his ridiculous shirtless horseback rides, his photo-ops with tigers, his childish passion for martial arts, his boundless admiration for C-list actors like Jean-Claude Van Damme. How can you attribute intelligence to someone who idolizes Van Damme?

Swiftly, the discourse migrated from Putinversteher to all-out Russophobia. As Mikhail Shishkin argued in the Atlantic:

Culture, too, is a casualty of war. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian writers called for a boycott of Russian music, films and books. Others have all but accused Russian literature of complicity in the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers. The entire culture, they say, is imperialist, and this military aggression reveals the moral bankruptcy of Russia’s so-called civilization.

That Ukrainians adopt this stance is understandable – à la guerre comme à la guerre – though they might have stopped short of closing the museum in Kiev dedicated to their compatriot Mikhail Bulgakov on account of his opposition to Ukrainian nationalism. Many great Russian authors were Ukrainian: Gogol, Chekhov (born near Mariupol), Akhmatova (born in Odessa)… But the fact they were born in Ukraine doesn’t mean they felt Ukrainian, just as writing in Russian doesn’t make you Russian, just as Austrian or Swiss authors would never feel German for writing in German, and Americans wouldn’t want to be called English just for writing in it. I have great admiration for the novel The Penguin, written by Andrei Kurkov, a Ukrainian author who writes in Russian but champions the Ukrainian cause. All this underlines the speciousness of Herder’s triad: ein Volk, eine Sprache, ein Land.

Denigration of all things Russian can be observed everywhere. Register the sudden absence of Russian films from our cinemas, even those of esteemed directors like Andrey Zvyagintsev, winner of several prizes at Cannes and a Golden Globe. The classics of world literature have not been spared either. See, inter alia, ‘From Pushkin to Putin: Russian Literature’s Imperial Ideology’, published in Foreign Policy, which characterized both Tolstoy and Pushkin as Russian imperialists (even if the latter’s reconstruction of the Pugachev Rebellion seemingly demonstrates his sympathies for the insurgency). Since the war began, several monuments to Pushkin in Ukraine have been demolished (and yet we express indignation when the Taliban destroys statues of Buddha?), and as the Financial Times reports, ‘some Ukrainians now refer on social media to “Pushkinists” launching missile attacks on their cities’.

No artist has suffered this vilification more than Dostoevsky. The equation is linear: Dostoevsky fashioned himself as the standard-bearer of the so-called ‘Russian soul’ (Russkaia Dusha) which ‘embodies the idea of pan-humanistic unity of brotherly love’. The Russian soul is at the heart of the idea that Russia must unify all of the Slavic people within and beyond its borders, and therefore the theoretical foundation for Russian imperialism of which Putin is an expression. Ergo, Dostoevsky is the inspiration for Putin, just as Nietzsche was for Hitler. For more than a century, Dostoevsky – along with Tolstoy – was considered a literary giant alongside Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Goethe. Suddenly he’s a reprobate.

The analogy between Dostoevsky–Putin and Nietzsche–Hitler brings us to a final discursive aspect of this new orthodoxy: the constant comparison to Hitler and Stalin, which in modern secular theology means only one thing – identifying the person one speaks of as Satan. It is not the first time we have seen this film: figures whom only yesterday world powers had treated as trusted friends are suddenly declared monsters, madmen, criminals. An expedient amnesia is employed, alongside a moral rigour worthy of Cato the Younger. No need to go back to the praise that the Anglo-Saxon press bestowed on Mussolini (Hitler received the same treatment for a while too); one has merely to remember how Saddam Hussein was financed and armed to fight against Iran, only to become a criminal, and then a condemned man after an abominable farce of a trial. The same happened with Bashar al-Assad. In short, as soon as a crony ceases being a crony, he becomes a criminal (not that he wasn’t one before, but our eyes were closed then). Roosevelt’s immortal reply to those who pointed out that Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was a son of a bitch applies in every case: ‘Yes, but he’s our son of a bitch’.

Putin stopped being our son of a bitch some time ago now. But that doesn’t automatically make him a new Hitler. His was a violence of an almost metaphysical ferocity, so terrifying, so apocalyptic, that it doesn’t compare to that of the little despots who are often likened to him. To put Hitler side by side with any old murderer is akin to comparing every neighbourhood massacre to the Shoah. It ultimately diminishes the enormity of the Judeocide, a step towards absolving its perpetrators.

One last consideration: you know you’re in trouble when the political class starts to talk about the defence of values. As Carl Schmitt observed, values are an intrinsically polemogenous category, that is to say, one that generates conflict. In order to value, one must devalue other values – defeat them and subordinate them, thereby exercising tyrannical power. If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, values are more like the first resort of tyrannical powers: it is no coincidence that fascism championed ‘the ethical state’. There is no possible compromise in the defence of values; only crusades can be fought in their name. This is especially true when we’re dealing with an idea as vague and ill-defined as ‘Western values’. What are these: slavery, practised for centuries? Wars to force a country to import opium? Concentration camps in which to cage asylum seekers, the billions handed to tyrants to keep them out, the patrolling of the seas to make them drown in the tens of thousands?

Western values seem to function intermittently, like a car’s indicator lights. For Kosovo, the idea that a linguistic and ethnic minority has the right to secession and independence holds. But not for the Donbass. For Ukraine, the right to resist invasion and occupation is sacrosanct. But not for the Palestinians. The truth is that in the game of the great powers, the issue is not really the territorial integrity of Ukraine. This is a mere pretext for the ‘defence of values’, for their export in fact. Better still if they’re exported by means of cluster bombs banned by a UN convention signed by 111 states (but not the US, Russia, Ukraine, China, India, Israel, Pakistan and Brazil). Cluster bombs render Western values all the more convincing.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘Rise and Fall of the Daily Paper’, NLR 111.


Living Together

In a 1977 lecture at the Collège de France, later published in How to Live Together, Roland Barthes explored a ‘fantasy of a life, a regime, a lifestyle’ that was neither reclusive nor communal: ‘Something like solitude with regular interruptions’. Inspired by the monks of Mount Athos, Barthes proposed to call this mode of living together idiorrhythmy, from the Greek idios (one’s own) and rythmos (rhythm). ‘Fantasmatically speaking’, he says, ‘there is nothing contradictory about wanting to live alone and wanting to live together’. In idiorrhythmic communities, ‘each subject lives according to his own rhythm’ while still being ‘in contact with one another within a particular type of structure’.

Although in Barthes’ view this unregimented lifestyle would be the exact opposite of ‘the fundamental inhumanity of Fourier’s Phalanstery with its timing of each and every quarter hour’, his vision is similarly utopian. But whereas Fourier proposed a plan for an organized, enclosed community, Barthes was not so much sketching a model as seeking to define a zone between two extreme forms of living: ‘an excessively negative form: solitude, eremitism’ and ‘an excessively assimilative form: the convent or monastery’. Idiorrhythmy is thus ‘a median, utopian, Edenic, idyllic form’: a ‘utopia of a socialism of distance’. In this middle way between living alone and with others, the interplay between individuals is so light and subtle that it allows each to escape the diktat of heterorhythmy, where one must submit to power and conform to an alien rhythm imposed from outside.

Barthes’ fantasy has considerable relevance for eco-socialist visions today. The aporia he identifies – between solitude and sociality, autonomy and coordination – has parallels in the conflicts animating the ongoing argument between degrowth and advocates of a Green New Deal or its equivalents. Impelled by the intensification of the ecological crisis, the disarray of mainstream thinking and the buoyancy of the climate movement, the debate has become one of the liveliest on the left intellectual scene.

A key area of disagreement concerns the problem of technology and scale. For ‘eco-modernists’ like Matthew Huber, author of Climate Change as Class War (2022), in order to green our societies and abolish global poverty, ‘a massive social effort of public investment and planning’ is required to accelerate technical progress: ‘solving climate change requires massive development of the productive forces’. As Huber wrote on Sidecar last year, ‘solving climate change requires new social relations of production that would develop the productive forces toward clean production’. In this traditional Marxist perspective, socialist planning – new social relations of production – would allow us to deploy technological solutions currently fettered by the capitalist hunt for profits.

The Japanese philosopher Kōhei Saitō, by contrast, takes a less sanguine view of the eco-socialist potential of technological advance. According to his reading of Marx, laid out in Marx in the Anthropocene (2023), the productive forces eco-socialists would inherit are the ‘productive forces of capital’: their technological content is indissociable from capitalist relations of production. More troubling, in Saitō’s interpretation, capital’s domination over labour is not just a matter of ownership, but results from the growing socialization of production: ‘capital organizes cooperation in the labour process in such a way that individual workers can no longer conduct their tasks alone and autonomously, but are subjugated to the command of capital.’ Saitō concludes that the ‘productive forces of capital cannot be properly transferred to post-capitalism because they are created in order to subjugate and control workers’. Capitalist technology ‘eliminates the possibilities of imagining a completely different lifestyle’. According to his degrowth vision, ‘the abolition of the despotic regime of capital may even require the downscaling of production.’

Both Huber and Saitō make important, perceptive arguments about the ecological transition toward socialism, though their positions in many respects mark opposite poles on the spectrum of left theorizing about the climate crisis. Each view has limitations. While the first involves a reckless act of faith in the wisdom and agility of a future socialist leadership to deal with capitalist’s technological legacy, the second overlooks the fact that the abandonment of ‘the productive forces of capital’ and the scaling down of production would result in a de-specialization of productive activity, leading to a dramatic reduction in the productivity of labour and, ultimately, a plunge in living standards. If the potential price of the eco-modernist embrace of technological development is human alienation and techno-capitalist reification, the likely cost of the degrowth rejection of it is austerity and impoverishment.

So, just as the problem of idiorrhythmy was for Barthes ‘the tension between power and marginality’ – between excessive regulation and excessive isolation – the strategic task for eco-socialists is to define a space equidistant from the promethean excesses of eco-modernism and the ascetic excesses of degrowth communism, even if the tension may not finally be resolvable. Fantasmatically speaking, as Barthes might say, there is nothing contradictory about wanting to enjoy the riches of a technologically advanced society and wanting to develop oneself in harmony with nature. Rather than choosing between acceleration and downscaling, ecosocialism should attempt to strike a balance between these alternatives. The reification of the productive forces inherited from capital and some degree of alienation in the labour process should be tolerated only to the extent that they are put to democratically legitimate ends through planning, in order to stabilize the climate and fulfil human needs.

Once this median course is accepted as a matter of principle, the truly hard work for eco-socialists begins. The degrowth scholar Jason Hickel recently proposed a broad definition of the goals of ecosocialist (and anti-imperialist) transformation:

We must achieve democratic control over finance, production and innovation, as well as organize it around both social and ecological objectives. This requires securing and improving socially and ecologically necessary forms of production while reducing destructive and less-necessary output.

Hickel’s wording seems uncontentious, but defining our social and ecological objectives, and deciding which forms of production are necessary and which destructive, entails revolutionary change. As ecological-economist pioneer Karl William Kapp observed back in 1974:

The formulation of environmental policies, the evaluation of environmental goals and the establishment of priorities require a substantive economic calculus in terms of social use values (politically evaluated) for which the formal calculus in monetary exchange values fails to provide a real measure – not only in socialist societies but also in capitalist economies. Hence the ‘revolutionary’ aspect of the environmental issue both as a theoretical and a practical problem.

Barthes did not fully elaborate on the political implications of his ideas, but they were in his view of great importance. As he explains at the beginning of the lecture, the force of desire – the figure of fantasy – is at the origin of culture. Yet in the quest for an emancipatory balance between cooperation and autonomy – developing productive forces and transforming social relations – abstract speculation will be less important than paying close attention to our historical situation and real-world institutions. The power of fantasy is only as strong as the concrete visions it produces.

Read on: André Gorz, ‘Political Ecology: Expertocracy versus Self-Limitation’, NLR I/202.


Forecasting China?

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman does not mince his words:

the signs are now unmistakable: China is in big trouble. We’re not talking about some minor setback along the way, but something more fundamental. The country’s whole way of doing business, the economic system that has driven three decades of incredible growth, has reached its limits. You could say that the Chinese model is about to hit its Great Wall, and the only question now is just how bad the crash will be.

That was in the summer of 2013. China’s GDP grew by 7.8 per cent that year. In the decade since, its economy has expanded by 70 per cent in real terms, compared to 21 per cent for the United States. China has not had a recession this century – by convention, two consecutive quarters of negative growth – let alone a ‘crash’. Yet every few years, the Anglophone financial media and its trail of investors, analysts and think-tankers are gripped by the belief that the Chinese economy is about to crater.

The conviction reared its head in the early 2000s, when runaway investment was thought to be ‘overheating’ the economy; in the late 2000s, when exports contracted in the wake of the global financial crisis; and in the mid-2010s, when it was feared that a buildup of local government debt, under-regulated shadow banking and capital outflows threatened China’s entire economic edifice. Today, dire predictions are out in force again, this time triggered by underwhelming growth figures for the second quarter of 2023. Exports have declined from the heights they reached during the pandemic while consumer spending has softened. Corporate troubles in the property sector and high youth unemployment appear to add to China’s woes. Against this backdrop, Western commentators are casting doubt on the PRC’s ability to continue to churn out GDP units, or fretting in grander terms about the country’s economic future (‘whither China?’, asks Adam Tooze by way of Yang Xiguang). Adam Posen, president of the Washington-based Peterson Institute, has diagnosed a case of ‘economic long Covid’. Gloom about China’s economic prospects has once again taken hold.

That there are structural weaknesses in the Chinese economy is not in dispute. After two waves of dramatic institutional reform in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, China’s economic landscape has settled into a durable pattern of high savings and low consumption. With household spending subdued, GDP growth, slowing over the past decade, is sustained by driving up investment, enabled in turn by growing corporate indebtedness. But despite this slowdown, the current bout of doomsaying in the English-language business press, half investor Angst, half pro-Western Schadenfreude, is not an accurate reflection of the fortunes of China’s economy – plodding, but still expanding, with 3 points of GDP added over the first six months of 2023. It is rather an expression of an intellectual impasse, and of the flawed conditions in which knowledge about the Chinese economy is produced and circulated within the Western public sphere.

The essential thing to bear in mind about Western coverage of the Chinese economy is that the bulk of it responds to the needs of the ‘investor community’. For every intervention by a public-minded academic like Ho-fung Hung, there are dozens of specialist briefings, reports, news articles and social media posts whose target audience is individuals and firms with varying degrees of exposure to China’s market, as well as, increasingly, the foreign policy and security establishments of Western states. Most analysis of China strives to be of a directly useful and even ‘actionable’ kind. The stream of profit- and policy-oriented interventions, aimed at a small section of the population, shapes the ‘conversation’ on the Chinese economy more than anything else.

Two further features follow from this. First, the most salient preoccupations of Western commentators reflect the skewed distribution of foreign-owned capital within the Chinese economy. China’s economy is highly globalized in terms of trade in goods but not in terms of finance: Beijing’s capital controls to a large degree insulate the domestic financial sector from global financial markets. Overseas financial capital has only a handful of access points to China’s markets, meaning international exposure is uneven. China-based companies with foreign investors, offshore debt or listings on stock markets outside of the mainland (that is, free of China’s capital controls) generate attention precisely in proportion to their overseas entanglements. Thus countless news articles over the past two years have been devoted to the defaulting saga of real estate giant Evergrande – a Hong Kong-listed firm that has relied on dollar-denominated debt. Journalists and commentators may be gearing up to give the same high-visibility treatment to Country Garden, another troubled property developer with a Hong Kong listing and offshore debt. By contrast, the Wall Street Journal or New York Times subscriber will be forgiven for not remembering the last time they read an article about State Grid (the world’s largest electricity provider) or China State Construction Engineering (the world’s largest construction firm) – two companies less dependent on global finance and over which international investors are unlikely to lose any sleep.

The second feature relates to the financial industry’s reliance on the art of political-economic storytelling to sell investment options. Clients with money to invest want more than an analyst’s projection about the likely rate of return on a given investment product; they want a sense of how that product fits into the ‘bigger picture’ – into an overarching tale of opportunity, innovation or transition in one part of the market, in contrast to vulnerability, decline or closure elsewhere. Discussion of the Chinese economy is regularly inflected by narrative arcs of this marketable variety, whether ‘bullish’ or ‘bearish’. These have included, for instance: the theory of Xi Jinping ushering in a third wave of institutional reform – ‘Reform 3.0’ – at the Central Committee’s third plenum in November 2013 (nothing of the sort happened); fears of a ‘hard landing’ if not a ‘Lehman moment’ during China’s financial volatility of 2015 and 2016 (GDP growth remained close to 7 per cent); and belief in the inevitability of China ‘rebalancing’ from investment to consumption through the 2010s (the investment share of GDP has remained above 40 per cent since 2003). Such narratives, which seem to be crafted in response to the storytelling needs of Western investors and financial intermediaries, become magnets for public debate. The ‘rebalancing’ story, for example, served as a compelling inducement to invest in consumer-facing sectors of the Chinese economy – until it gradually lost credibility. Some money was made along the way, and some lost, and in that sense the story was partly successful on the industry’s own terms even though it was a poor reflection of economic fact.

That so much of the discourse on China’s economy takes shape in response to investor interests may also explain its susceptibility to short-term reversals of sentiment. As a rule, the performance of financial markets is more volatile than that of the real economy, and in China’s case it is mostly the former – to which overseas investors are most exposed, if unevenly – that drives perceptions of the latter. Hence the sharp mood swings from bullish to bearish and back, from one financial cycle to the next. In part fluctuating with the vagaries of market sentiment, Anglophone commentary also lacks consistent, credible criteria with which to assess China’s economic performance. How much growth is enough? What kind of economic expansion would it take for China not to be in a ‘crisis’? In 2009, as the Chinese government was unleashing a spectacular wave of bank lending to stimulate activity in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, it was widely believed that growing the economy by 8 per cent was necessary to avert mass unemployment and social instability. That benchmark has now conveniently vanished from view; nobody in the West today would dream of saying China should aim to grow by 8 per cent per year. And is GDP growth itself an adequate metric of economic strength? The significance that Chinese authorities attribute to GDP performance has declined. The official target for 2023 is an approximate one – ‘around 5 per cent’ – affording a measure of leeway, meanwhile the Fourteenth Five-Year Plan (2021–2025) dispenses with an overall GDP target altogether.

In addition to protean standards for evaluating performance, there is also a degree of confusion about how to interpret major developments within the Chinese economy, especially in relation to the intentions of policymakers. The travails of the real estate sector are a case in point. The slow-motion collapse of over-indebted Evergrande has repeatedly been portrayed in the Western media as a calamity in waiting for the entire Chinese economy, in yet another iteration of the ‘Lehman moment’ trope. This elides the fact that the Chinese government deliberately prevented highly indebted property developers, including Evergrande, from accessing easy credit in the summer of 2020 – a measure since referred to as the ‘three red lines’ policy. Of course, no large-scale corporate default and restructuring is desirable per se. But it appears that failures like Evergrande’s have been treated by Chinese authorities as the price of disciplining the property sector as a whole and reducing its weight in the broader economy. Although the real estate downturn, with investment declining sharply in 2022, has weighed negatively on China’s overall growth performance, this seems to be the consequence of a concerted attempt to ‘rectify’ the sector – whose shrinking share of total economic output, even at the cost of GDP growth, might well be described as a positive development.

A starting-point for a more level-headed approach to the Chinese economy is to put the current moment in a longer-term perspective. China’s economy was comprehensively transformed in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result of the waves of reform that defined those decades, agricultural production passed from the collective to the household; state industries were converted into for-profit enterprises; the allocation of goods, services and labour was thoroughly marketized; and a powerful private sector was born, expanded rapidly and was consolidated. Since this era of intense institutional restructuring ended in the early 2000s, China’s GDP has more than quadrupled in real terms but the country’s fundamental economic structure has remained stable, in terms of both the balance between state-owned enterprises and private capital, and the precedence of investment over consumption. In this context, instances of significant change – technological upgrading, the expansion of capital markets – have been slow-moving. The decline of GDP growth is itself a protracted affair, and the essentials of the present configuration are likely to endure for some time. China’s economy is neither a ‘ticking time bomb’, as Joe Biden daringly opined last month, nor – an overused expression – ‘at a crossroads’. The China bulls of the West may well continue to morph into China bears and vice versa in the coming years, while the Chinese economy indifferently trudges on.

Read on: Ho-fung Hung, ‘Paper-Tiger Finance?’, NLR 72.


Indefinite Exception

When El Salvador celebrates its Independence Day in mid-September, it will be a year and a half into an indefinite State of Exception. Elected in June 2019, President Nayib Bukele, young millionaire and former public relations man, has remilitarized politics and criminalized dissent; his increasingly authoritarian regime has drawn comparisons with the country’s darkest decades of military rule and repression. The difference, for now, is Bukele’s enduring popularity. He is poised to secure an illegal second term in the upcoming 2024 elections.

Bukele’s propaganda machine has earned him both renown and notoriety worldwide. Through strategic use of paid influencers, trolls and aspirational ‘inspo’ content, he crafted a messianic image. His outlandish vision for the country – rebranding it as a tech investment hub, using cryptocurrency as legal tender, diverting geothermal energy resources to bitcoin mining – collapsed with the price of bitcoin last year. Yet he quickly moved to consolidate his rule and neutralize discontent over the faltering economy, adopting draconian security policies which have sustained his approval ratings and become a reference point for would-be autocrats across the hemisphere.

Bukele’s New Ideas (NI) party imposed the State of Exception on 27 March 2022, after the breakdown of secret negotiations between the government and the country’s criminal gangs resulted in a spate of mass murders that saw 74 people killed in a single weekend. Since then, the thirty-day order has been renewed seventeen times and counting. A de facto declaration of martial law, it suspends constitutional guarantees including the right to due process, freedom of association, the presumption of innocence, the right to counsel and protections from illegal searches and seizures.

In this constitutional vacuum, Bukele has waged his so-called ‘war on gangs’. More than 72,000 people have been arrested so far, with only 7,000 subsequently released for lack of evidence. The prison population has nearly tripled. With 2% of its people behind bars, El Salvador’s incarceration rate now surpasses even that of the United States. Inmates are denied contact with their families or legal representatives; survivors report conditions of overcrowding, disease, starvation and torture. In July, the legal aid group Socorro Jurídico Humanitario confirmed at least 170 deaths in custody, 84 of which appeared to be violent and another 52 the result of apparent medical neglect. By the beginning of September, the toll had surpassed 180. According to the non-profit Cristosal, not a single one had been convicted of a crime.

Analysing the data from March 2022 to January 2023, Cristosal found that more than 99% of arrestees faced charges limited to gang affiliation; fewer than 1% are accused of committing serious criminal acts like extortion, assault or homicide. Thanks to further penal reforms pushed through in recent weeks, suspects will be processed by the hundreds in mass trials. Legislators have also eliminated the two-year limit on pre-trial detention, while multiplying the length of prison sentences for gang members, including minors.

Despite such horrors, most Salvadorans continue to support the crackdown. Street-level gang activity has demonstrably lessened in the working-class communities that have suffered extortion and violence for decades. Whatever sinister bargains it may obscure, the temporary respite has renewed popular support for Bukele, just in time for the next elections.

The repression, however, has not gone uncontested. While legal aid and human rights groups scramble to provide services and document abuses, organizations like the Movement for Regime Victims (MOVIR, in Spanish) are mobilizing relatives of the incarcerated. Part of the leading opposition coalition, the Popular Rebellion and Resistance Bloc (BRP), MOVIR is fighting to destigmatize victims and provide support to families struggling to find lawyers, get news of their loved ones or make ends meet without them. Predictably, such groups are subject to harassment and persecution. The State of Exception has not only targeted alleged gang members and unfortunate bystanders; it is also being used to criminalize protest and prosecute dissidents, with public-sector union leaders and organized rural communities in the crosshairs.

Conditions for public-sector workers have deteriorated markedly under Bukele’s revenue-starved administration. Tens of thousands have been laid off since 2019; the Movement of Fired Workers (MDT) counted over 2,500 legislative employees, 3,800 city employees fired from NI-run municipalities and 14,000 from central government institutions. Those who have kept their jobs face state repression. According to the MDT, at least sixteen public-sector unionists have been arrested under the State of Exception, many of them during disputes over unpaid salaries.

In the countryside, Bukele’s security forces have used the pretext of fighting gangs to lay siege to historic bastions of popular militancy and resistance, including Liberation Theology-inspired Christian Base Communities and ‘repopulated’ towns that were resettled by organized refugees in liberated FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) territory during the civil war. In January, the ‘Santa Marta Five’ – a group of Cabañas activists who turned a local struggle against toxic gold extraction into a national campaign to ban metals mining – were imprisoned. Their treatment sparked international outrage. But campaigns of mass arrests, military harassment and occupation have taken place across the country, targeting organized peasants in the Bajo Lempa region and repopulated communities like Nuevo Gualcho in eastern Usulután. Residents, many of them survivors of a previous generation’s state terror, warn that militarization is a cover for land grabs for extractive industries and real estate development for coastal tourism.

The State of Exception has thus provided the president with a powerful weapon. But well before this, Bukele was using lawfare to disable and demoralize his opposition. He rose to power by leveraging prevailing anti-corruption discourses against his opponents on both the right and the left, drawing false equivalencies between the oligarchic ruling class and the ex-guerrillas in his own former party, the FMLN. Harassment of journalists and NGO workers has drawn widespread condemnation, but the prosecution, imprisonment and exile of left politicians have provoked less sympathy – a testament to the success of the efforts to discredit his progressive predecessors.

Some two-dozen former FMLN cabinet members, elected officials and party leaders have faced trumped-up corruption charges since Bukele’s election. These include the first FMLN president, Mauricio Funes, as well as former guerrilla commander and president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, both of whom were granted asylum in Nicaragua. These former politicians, many of them elderly ex-combatants, are confronting a range of flimsy to outright false accusations of embezzlement, money laundering and even gang involvement over the Funes administration’s efforts to support an ill-fated 2012 truce between the country’s warring criminal groups.

As well as undermining opposition leaders, these prosecutions have helped to erase the social gains of FMLN governance from popular memory, creating a depoliticizing tide of cynicism, as well as rancour toward the left. In electoral terms, the highly publicized prosecutions of party leaders, coupled with the sweeping repression of its historic bastions of support, has effectively neutralized the FMLN as a political force. For good measure, Bukele has also hobbled select adversaries from the notoriously crooked ARENA party, which implemented the neoliberal restructuring of the economy over four consecutive terms from 1989 to 2009. These include former president Alfredo Cristiani, enjoying exile in Europe, and the less fortunate former San Salvador mayor Ernesto Muyshondt, who has spent more than two years behind bars.  

As a result, no political actor poses a credible threat to Bukele and his party in the forthcoming elections, which will see legislative and presidential voting in February and municipal contests in March. Despite his robust popularity and the absence of viable challengers, Bukele is nevertheless going to great lengths to insulate his project from democracy. El Salvador’s constitution prohibits consecutive presidential terms, but in 2021, NI’s new legislative super-majority illegally ousted the Attorney General along with the entire constitutional court, and replaced them with loyalists who dutifully authorized Bukele’s candidacy.

In June this year, with the primary process already underway, Bukele’s party imposed a package of seismic electoral changes that quite literally redraw the map of Salvadoran democracy. Legislators voted to eliminate 83% of municipalities, slashing their number from 262 to 44, and to cut the number of legislative seats from 84 to 60. They also jettisoned the remainder method of apportioning the legislative seats, which had favoured smaller political parties. Under the new measures, the remaining municipalities will be converted into districts, which will be governed by unelected managers appointed by the president. As the BRP summarized in a communiqué, the reforms are designed to prevent opposition parties from regaining power in NI-run municipalities; to ensure NI’s overrepresentation in the legislature; to eliminate local autonomy; and to centralize power in the executive, ensuring one-party rule at every level of government.

Once a beacon for internationalist revolutionaries, then a posterchild for liberal-democratic transition, El Salvador’s autocratic spiral is tragic and alarming. In a regional context, however, the country’s path is hardly exceptional. Central America’s tenuous post-war bourgeois democracies, while governed by very different regimes, have all been roiled by crisis in recent years. This speaks to the profound exhaustion of a neoliberal political economy that has reproduced the subordinate role of the isthmus in the capitalist world system since the defeat of the insurgent movements of the 1980s. While the 1990s peace agreements dismantled military dictatorships and demobilized former insurgents, the region’s highly unequal economies continued to rely on vast reserves of low-wage labour and US-bound exports. In a deregulated landscape of scarce formal employment and woeful wages, millions were displaced to the United States. There, their labour fed the lowest segments of the deindustrializing economy’s growing service sector, while their remittances became an increasingly critical source of household income and foreign exchange back home.

The successive shocks of the global financial crisis and Covid-19 have laid bare these contradictions. This has produced divergent responses, including within El Salvador itself. The FMLN’s brief conquest of state power suggested, at its best, an emancipatory exit from the wreckage of neoliberalism, oligarchy and dependency – a promise that has propelled progressive popular forces into power in Honduras and, most recently, Guatemala. The FMLN’s trajectory, however, also offers a grim warning about the limits to transformation within the existing system. It is a lesson that Bukele has taken to heart.

Bukele offers no real solutions to El Salvador’s crisis. His cryptodreams dashed, he has embraced a familiar foreign investment-driven accumulation strategy centred on tourism and the export of low-wage migrants, maquiladora goods and call centre services to the US. This programme has failed to improve the country’s economic prospects, and while the anti-gang assault has buoyed Bukele’s approval ratings, economic concerns still top the list of perceived problems. As working-class youth swell a saturated prison system, the contradictions of poverty, inequality and dependency that produced El Salvador’s gangs are as glaring as ever.

The dozens of organizations that comprise the BRP are calling Salvadorans into the streets on Independence Day next week to march against the State of Exception, Bukele’s reelection bid and the latest slew of antidemocratic electoral reforms. These groups, most of them with origins in the FMLN, are working to rebuild the Salvadoran left in unenviable conditions. In the meantime, Bukele is remaking the country in his own image. It is an ugly sight.  

Read on: Hilary Goodfriend, ‘The Changemaker’, NLR-Sidecar, 12 August 2021.


The Spanish Impasse

At the end of May, following a right-wing surge in the Spanish regional and municipal elections, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez – leader of the centre-left PSOE – announced that the country would soon return to the polls. A snap general election would decide whether Spain would be governed by a coalition of the Partido Popular and Vox: the reactionary alliance presiding over many of the country’s autonomous communities. It was widely anticipated that these parties would form a governing majority after the vote on 23 July. Yet the final results came as a surprise: an even split between the progressive and right-wing blocs. The PP picked up 137 seats while Vox won 33. The PSOE retained 121, and Sumar – the grouping of left-wing parties previously led by Podemos – came away with 31. Given the current parliamentary arithmetic, this leaves only two possible options: either a reinstatement of the current coalition of the PSOE and Sumar, backed by smaller nationalist parties, or another election. The right, which had made extensive preparations for government, was dismayed by the outcome. What were the dynamics behind it?  

A decade ago, Spanish parliamentary politics was based on a two-party system in which the electoral landscape was overwhelmingly dominated by the PP and PSOE. These sprawling apparatuses would sometimes rule with absolute majorities, sometimes with the biddable support of conservative Catalán and Basque nationalist parties. Today, that landscape has been reconfigured, with both the PP and PSOE consistently unable to govern without the support of parties that are situated to their right or left respectively. As a result, there are now two polarized political formations, each subject to various internal tensions.

The main problem for the PP, led by Alberto Nuñez Feijoo, is Vox – the party of the extreme right, which emerged out of a rupture within the PP itself. These outfits have a common genealogy and, up to a certain point, a shared social base. They are both descended from the cadre of Francoists that survived the transition to democracy and adapted without much effort to the new regime: ultra-monarchists, Spanish nationalists and cultural conservatives. Yet they represent distinct fractions of this sector. While the PP is an organic party of the bourgeoisie, Vox was always rooted in the old middle classes, infected by a nationalist-Catholic discourse that rails against modernity, denies the existence of sexism and climate change, and identifies itself with far-right forces elsewhere in Europe.

Vox articulates the grievances and moral panics of a stratum that has seen its privileges threatened by gradual changes in social life during the neoliberal era. Its unique combination of radicalism and conservatism is, at present, the main obstacle to the advance of the traditional right. On the one hand, the PP relies on this combative political formula to unite its base and mobilize it against progressivism. On the other, its use undermines the PP’s chances of reaching an accord with regionalist parties, whose support is essential to form a parliamentary majority. It is still too early to tell how the right intends to resolve this basic contradiction.

Moreover, by rallying the left-leaning electorate, Vox has been the decisive factor in creating the possibility of another progressive administration. Sumar, led by the Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz, lost more than 600,000 votes and seven deputies in the recent election; but given that its primary aim was to maintain a position that would allow it to play a role in cabinet formation, this result was not so bad. It was offset by the relatively strong performance of PSOE, which increased its constituency by more than a million votes.

At present, reviving the current coalition depends on the participation of Catalán nationalists, represented by the centre-left ERC and centre-right Junts. The present outlook for independentism is bleak, given the general exhaustion with the Catalán process. The ERC, ceding votes to the PSOE and to abstention, has fallen from 13 to 7 seats, while Junts has lost one deputy, bringing its total to 7 as well. Yet these weakened organizations now find themselves in the paradoxical role of kingmakers – able to make or break the governing alliance.

While the ERC’s support can be taken for granted, Junts is less predictable. Its demands – amnesty for more than 3,000 people charged with involvement in the unauthorized independence referendum of 2017 – are reasonable from a democratic perspective. But it is difficult for the PSOE and Sumar to accept them, for they are liable to alienate their supporters and spark conflict with the right-wing judiciary. As a result, everything depends on the calculation of the Junts leader and former Catalán president Charles Puigdemont. Will he capitulate, or will he hold the line? His party exemplifies the ‘autonomization of the political’ like few others. Though it started out as the vehicle of the Catalán business elite, today it answers only to itself, with a radicalized and committed base, but without a coherent programme or strategy for independence. This makes its next move all the more uncertain.  

If Puigdemont falls in line with Sánchez, the prospective coalition can only be understood as a transformist alliance of the forces that have dominated Spanish politics over the past decade: a PSOE that has reestablished itself at the centre of political life by winning enough passive support from the electorate, especially the youth; a Sumar that has banished and buried the radicalism of the early Podemos, remaking itself as a party with bland technocratic pretensions, akin to the German Greens; and a flaccid independentism that must choose between accepting Sánchez’s negotiating framework or remaining mired in perpetual crisis.

Behind the current parliamentary instability, then, lies a restoration of the status quo ante. If the 15M movement issued in a crisis of the two-party system, it has been revivified by these elections, with the PP and PSOE winning 65% of the vote between them – a significant increase on the previous four ballots. This surge in support by no means correlates to confidence in the PSOE’s programme, however. Its voters are no longer seduced by its siren songs of ‘change’ or ‘social transformation’. The only factor that allowed the centre left to avoid collapse was the emergence of Vox, and the fear it inspired among a large part of the public.

This being the case, how did the left move from a position of strength – aspiring to ‘overthrow the regime of 78’ – to one of weakness, if outright defeat, over the past ten years? The government formed by the PSOE and Unidas Podemos in 2019 was the first coalition since the start of the Republican period. Its rhetoric suggested a historic rupture. Yet, in practice, the administration made little progress on its social priorities, dedicating most of its efforts to stabilizing the constitutional order rather than pursuing any confrontation with the dominant classes. There were obvious reasons for this ‘reformism without reforms’. Unidas Podemos aimed to compensate for its lack of power in Sánchez’s cabinet by pursuing a limited legislative agenda which it hoped would lay the groundwork for future gains. Yet, as we know, it is much easier for a vitiated social democracy to pass superficial laws than to make deeper structural changes amid low growth and falling profitability.

For instance, although it passed some measures to increase the minimum wage, the PSOE-UP government failed to undertake any far-reaching action to reverse the secular decline in working-class purchasing power. Inflation peaked at 10% last year, while average wage growth stood at only 2%. Yolanda Díaz’s labour reforms may have expanded waged employment, but they left many injurious policies untouched – including the laws that make it easy for bosses to dismiss workers. EU ‘stimulus’ funds merely fattened the accounts of large energy companies, while the millions gifted to banks following the 2008 financial crisis were never repaid to the public. In foreign policy, Unidas Podemos aligned itself fully with NATO’s imperial project, augmenting the military budget by 25% at its behest. It was complicit in the state’s racist border policies, with shocking instances of fatal violence against African migrants on the Moroccan frontier. It could perhaps boast of streamlining the legal recognition of trans people and improving paternity leave – but such measures hardly validated its self-description as ‘the most progressive government in history’.

If this was the balance sheet of the last legislature, nobody expects its successor to be any better. In the progressive camp, debate is now focussed on how this precarious coalition might reproduce itself in power. This will involve some kind of political rebalancing among the different territories of the Spanish state, within the constitutional framework and without any federalist fervour. It will also mean maintaining social stability and avoiding labour unrest at all costs. Towards this end, the major trade unions, the CCOO and UGT, will assist the government in suppressing militancy and engaging in civil dialogue with employers’ organizations. With public expectations low, Sumar hopes that this will be enough to consolidate its support and see off challenges from the right. One factor that might threaten its agenda, however, is the EU’s return to fiscal discipline. Mechanisms to contain the previous social crisis through public spending – creating new civil service jobs, distributing meagre aid to the poorest sectors, managing the decline of public services – may no longer be possible in 2023, given the iron laws of the Commission.

This impasse – a PSOE-led government precariously in power, yet with no real programme for government – marks the termination of the previous Spanish political cycle, characterized by 15M, the Catalán independence process, the rise and fall of social movements and the eventual formation of the progressive coalition. Most of the forces that claimed to be anti-systemic during this period have now been reabsorbed into the dominant power structure. This reflects a deeper dialectic between the political sphere and civil society. It is at the level of politics that social mobilizations assume their ultimate form. The dynamics of the former determine the fortunes of the latter. In Spain, 15M found its final articulation in Podemos. The party’s rightward shift was then translated into widespread social passivity – marked by the integration of key activist layers into an ‘expanded state’. Thereafter, the public was further pacified and Spanish social contradictions were managed through the implementation of modest military-Keynesian policies.

Even so, the country remains riven with precarity and hardship, which poses a perennial threat to its political system. There is a growing proletarianized layer, comprising both migrant and native workers, excluded from official society and lacking electoral representation. Deindustrialisation and peripheralization has devastated swathes of Andalusia, Extremadura and the forgotten Spanish mezzogiorno. At the same time, sections of the working and lower-middle classes that once enjoyed relative stability are tending towards immiseration. A university degree no longer guarantees a stable job, nor does a job assure a decent salary. Rising inflation has created a gulf between a shrinking fraction of the middle classes capable of maintaining their living standards and ordinary workers – many of them in the manufacturing, logistics and service sectors – who are merging with the impoverished mass. This group is organizationally atomized. There is some trade union capacity in industry, but it remains negligible in services.

Spain’s peculiar class configuration is bound up with three major unresolved crises that will continue to shape its political landscape over the coming years. One is purely a domestic phenomenon, while the others are outgrowths of global capitalism. The first is independentism – most acute in Catalonia, Euskal Herria and Galicia. This forces the country’s progressive camp to make alliances with nationalist forces which it will struggle to hold together in the long term. It also serves to isolate the right, whose fanatical unionism allows it to collect votes in Spain while losing them in the stateless nations. Nationalist parties, meanwhile, have failed to move past the defeat of the Catalán process. Caught in a strategic crisis, they have sought their own transformist path via reintegration into the Spanish constitutional framework.

The second major crisis concerns Spain’s role in the world economy. As a minor post-imperial nation, its international position is that of foot-soldier to the US and the EU. Its link with these prosperous powers makes it ideologically invested in the fantasy of neoliberalism: the limitless possibilities opened up by free markets and unfettered enterprise. But, in reality, its relatively backward form of capitalism makes it dependent on the oscillations of European monetary policy. This is particularly damaging in the current global conjuncture, where the American Leviathan is stimulating ‘green growth’ while its European partners are forced to bear the brunt of the Ukraine war. The EU’s relegation to the role of second-tier power will have damaging effects on its weaker member states: deflationary contraction, further cuts to public spending, and attempts to shift the burden of a future recession onto the working class. These factors will further constrain the programme of any Spanish government.

Finally, the structure of the Spanish economy impedes its adoption of increasingly necessary environmental measures. It remains reliant on tourism, devoid of energy autonomy, and beholden to a parasitic business class that benefits from generous state subsidies. There is an urgent need to transform the country’s productive base to cope with the impact of climate change – already manifest in deadly heatwaves and droughts over the past season. Yet none of the mainstream parties is willing to contemplate this shift. Without it, the country’s crisis tendencies will only deepen.

In the near future, we will see whether Sánchez can assemble a parliamentary majority or whether he will have to call new elections. Alongside the process of transformismo, the influence of the radical left continues to wane, as demonstrated by the poor showing of the CUP in Catalonia and of Adelante Andalucía. To reverse this trend, socialists must refuse to be tied down by electoral cycles and abjure any association with state progressivism. Their first priority should be to develop a programme for this new conjuncture and radicalize what remains of the social and trade union movements. Given the limitations of the ruling parties, new outbursts of resistance are likely to occur over the coming years. But they will be futile in the absence of a new left project, actively supported by significant sectors of the working class and independent of the governing bloc. Only such a movement could reopen the political possibilities that parliamentarism has foreclosed.  

Read on: Pedro M. Rey-Araújo & Ekaitz Cancela, ‘Lessons of the Podemos Experiment’, NLR 138.


Under Western Eyes

Milan Kundera, the Czech writer who died earlier this summer aged 94, represented a number of things, but they were all variations – to borrow one of his own favourite words – on the theme of freedom. To the Western readership which embraced his work perhaps as eagerly as that of any non-Anglophone writer during the final quarter of the twentieth century (Marquez was the obvious competitor) he seemed to offer a distinctive, unorthodox and unassailably authoritative approach to novelistic form, literary history and the sanctity of private life. But no less important to Kundera’s project and legacy were the liberties he took, the freedoms he granted himself – from responsibility and rigour, from his obligations to coherence and even reality.

He was born on April Fools’ Day 1929 in a small Moravian city, Brno, where his father, a pianist, served as the head of the state conservatory named after his mentor Leoš Janáček. Kundera initially studied music before turning to poetry, short stories and plays while lecturing in world literature at the FAMU film school in Prague. Though he had been temporarily expelled in 1950 from the Party, his early collection, Man, A Wide Garden (1954), was a classic of Czech communist verse and Kundera was, in the words of his contemporary Ivan Klíma, ‘an indulged and rewarded child’ of the regime. That changed in 1967, when he published a novel critical of political orthodoxies, The Joke, and delivered a speech at the annual writers’ congress celebrating the vitality of Czech culture and denouncing censorship, a contribution to the reformist movement that culminated in Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring. After the country’s invasion by Warsaw Pact forces in August 1968, Kundera was fired from his teaching post, and his books – along with those of 400 colleagues – were removed from libraries and banned from shops.

His emergence as a figure of international prominence was extraordinarily swift. Until the late 1960s, Kundera’s only work to attract attention outside Czechoslovakia was a play, The Owner of the Keys (1962). Following publication of The Joke however, he received a visit from a delegation of Latin American writers (Marquez, Cortazar and Fuentes); introducing the French edition, Louis Aragon called it one of the great novels of the century; a film adaptation was shown in London and New York. In 1973, his second novel, Life Is Elsewhere, which had been smuggled out of Czechoslovakia by Claude Gallimard, was awarded the Prix Médicis, an award for under-appreciated writers, and Edgar Faure, the President of the French parliament, helped Kundera and his wife, Věra Hrabánková, to obtain a travel visa. They moved first to Rennes, then Paris, where he was made a professor at the L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales. (He compared his move to a rebirth, something he had previously hoped for from Communism.) Briefly stateless after the revocation of his Czech citizenship, in 1981, he was granted a passport by Mitterrand.

By this point, he was arguably the country’s most famous émigré writer. A one-volume edition of Kundera’s story cycle Laughable Loves had appeared in Philip Roth’s Penguin series ‘Writers from the Other Europe’, and his stirring sequence of related narratives The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980), the first book he wrote in exile, was serialized in the New Yorker. When it appeared in hardback, the New York Times ran both an interview with Roth and a review by John Updike under the shared headline ‘The Most Original Book of the Season’. Kundera was felt to be bringing news from behind the Iron Curtain, offering descriptions of Soviet oppression and hypocrisy – the most memorable being a passage about the Communist poet Paul Éluard participating in an anniversary dance while his friend Záviš Kalandra was being hanged. But in a development that Kundera welcomed, his intervention was taken as primarily formal, political to the degree that it challenged the primacy of politics – no ‘dissident’ intervention along the lines of Czesław Milosz’s The Captive Mind (1953) or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward (1968). Kundera chose to write about the society he had left for the virtues it embodied, however residual or under siege. History in his telling was ‘an alien force’ which man ‘cannot control’, yet the novel was ‘born of man’s freedom’. His kind of ‘thinking novel’ – almost always divided into seven parts – was an assembly of narrated episodes, ‘reflective passages’, macro-structural dichotomies, adaptation of musical techniques (leitmotif, counterpoint, fugue, variation), anecdote, allegory, dream, fairytale and farce. There was consensus over the sort of unencumbered authorial figure he cut. John Bayley described him as ‘a man let loose among all the literary fashions of the West, grabbing this and that, intoxicated by the display patterns of freedom’, while Terry Eagleton, as different a critic as you could imagine (though unlikely successor to Bayley’s Oxford chair), remarked that he ‘treats the novel as a place where you can write anything you like’.

During the closing act of the Cold War, in a literary culture characterized by self-conscious cosmopolitanism and PEN galas, Kundera was the object of rhapsody, his work discussed – or name dropped – by a dizzying range of figures at or near their own height of prominence, from E.L. Doctorow to Tzvetan Todorov, Italo Calvino to Elizabeth Hardwick, David Lodge to Madonna. Raymond Carver, leading short story writer of the day, used the key passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being – about the ‘lightness’ imposed on human beings by having only one life – as the epigraph for his final collection Elephant (1988). Kundera provoked not just passionate advocacy but acts of devotion. Ian McEwan, a committed anti-Communist and notably reluctant literary journalist, reviewed both The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Kundera’s next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), in addition to interviewing him for Granta; Edmund White, newly celebrated as the author of A Boy’s Own Story (1982), translated from French his lecture on the tragedy befalling ‘Central Europe’; Susan Sontag turned theatre director to stage his play Jacques and his Master, at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater, in 1985.

Kundera’s aims and sensibility came into sharper focus with the appearance of his literary essays, collected in a series of books starting with The Art of the Novel in 1986. Reviewing Philip Kaufman’s film of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Pauline Kael explained that Kundera set himself up as a ‘rational spokesman for playfulness’, mischievously adding (in parenthesis) that he ‘also sees it as a tradition’. That tradition originated in the early days of the novel – Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot, de Laclos – and rallied again with Kafka, Musil and Broch. The tendencies of the nineteenth century, the novel’s putative peak, were at once too Romantic or subjectivist, too in thrall to plot at the expense of a confiding narrator. According to another conception of the thinking novel – Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism – Dostoevsky would belong in this company, as a practitioner of Menippean satire. But for Kundera, Dostoevsky was the bête noire, an example of a writer for whom feeling was elevated to the rank of truth – a lyrical attitude that the true novelist existed to expose.

In The Joke, he had offered something close to a paean to mid-life disappointment, the realization that one’s dreams were a lie. Life is Elsewhere (1973), about a poet and police informer who dies aged twenty, more directly revealed the enemy as youth and putatively youthful concepts – solipsism, revolutionary fervour, the poetic impulse. ‘A person becomes mature when he leaves his “lyrical age” behind’. At the end of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, in a passage Kundera described as an ‘oneiric image of an infantocratic future’, Taomina moves to an island exclusively populated by children and is killed. In the same book, Kundera outlined two kinds of laughter, that of the devil, who exhibits lofty disdain for the idea of order, and that of angels, who laugh to restore or underscore a sense of divine harmonies. His concept of a ‘broadly developed and mature personality’ was one that recognised ‘illusions concerning progress’.

There’s an obvious precedent for an aesthetically inclined, would-be apolitical, anti-Soviet, Dostoevsky-bashing novelist with a wife named Vera, who dispensed churlish mots, set great store by a specialized category of bad taste, published in a second language, railed against sentiment and seriousness, and found fame in exile: Vladimir Nabokov. But Kundera exhibited a deeper kinship with another exile from the East, Joseph Conrad, whose work was underpinned by a similar conviction about the futility of human agency. (Conrad went so far as refusing to sign petitions, even one protesting the imminent execution of his old friend Roger Casement.) Defining irony in a glossary of words collected in The Art of the Novel, Kundera quotes a would-be revolutionary from Conrad’s Under Western Eyes – a riposte to Dostoevsky – to the effect that an ironic stance negates ‘all saving instincts . . . all faith . . . all devotion . . . all action’. The formulation finds an inverted echo in Kundera’s claim, in a well-known passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that ‘kitsch’, a term he associated with self-serving fantasies but applied to virtually anything he did not like, banishes ‘every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end up by doubting life itself)’ and ‘all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously)’.

The title of The Joke refers to a lampoon of Party optimism sent on a postcard by Ludvik, one of the narrators, to an earnest girlfriend, who reports him. But it also refers to the joke played on him by fate when decades later he tries to exact revenge. His ‘mission’ involves seducing the wife of the apparatchik who ruined his life only to discover that the man is a willing cuckold, glad to be shot of her. In the memorable final section of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas, a promiscuous former surgeon, and Tereza, the woman who has ended his regime of ‘erotic friendships’, are living deep in the Czech countryside, an internal exile resulting from a half-hearted but nonetheless ill-fated anti-Communist gesture on Tomas’s part. (The setting recalls Patusan, where ‘Lord’ Jim moves to leave behind what Marlow calls his ‘earthly failings’ and ‘reputation’.) In the final moments, Tereza apologises to Tomas. She had forced him to move back to Prague from Geneva on account of her homesickness. He is quick to reject the apology. When she says that surgery had been his mission, he insists that missions are ‘stupid’. He calls it ‘a terrific relief’ to recognize you’re ‘free, free of missions’ – a position no less applicable, it seems, to working as a surgeon than to taking a fruitless and costly stand against a repressive government.  

The central difference between Kundera and Conrad is how they conceive of the next step. Their attitude to radical programmes – to programmes of any kind – was similarly pitying and dismissive, but whereas Conrad deployed irony as something like a filter, a tool and marker of his detachment from terrestrial affairs, an aid in his search for transcendent meaning, Kundera was on constant guard against being gulled. To Conrad, a higher salvation was possible – if ‘saving instincts’ were to be rejected, it was in favour of a ‘saving truth’. Kundera receded into a pseudo-rationalist defeatism. 

Václav Havel, who had debated Kundera in the late 1960s on the question of whether Czechoslovakia was consigned to its fate, noted with admirable empathy that ‘total scepticism of Kundera’s kind’ was a ‘natural outcome of losing one’s enthusiastic illusions’. Kundera acknowledged that his own ‘lyric age’ had coincided with ‘the worst period of the Stalinist era’, yet this awareness failed to put a brake on his convictions. In his essay ‘Paris or Prague’, which appeared in English in Granta in 1984, he identified himself as an optimist of scepticism, a believer in scepticism’s force and power to prevail. He continued that what he shared with Central European novelists was ‘sorrow about the Western twilight. Not a sentimental sorrow. An ironic one.’ But it’s hard to construe what this distinction amounts to in the sphere of practice, how it differs from the fruitless despair that Sartre, discussing The Joke in his 1971 essay ‘The Socialism that Came in from the Cold’, was adamant that Kundera had stopped short of exhibiting.

Kundera’s positive vision was entirely retrospective. As he wrote of Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: ‘Only looking back could bring her consolation’. He defined a European as ‘one who is nostalgic for Europe’, and called ‘Czechoslovakia’, which originated in 1918, ‘too young’ a term to use. He was especially drawn to the idea of Central Europe, of which Bohemia formed a part, having been destroyed by Communism, an Eastern import – ‘raped by Asia’, in Havel’s paraphrase. He invoked a lost haven of pluralism and variety, a unity that ignored conventional topographic borders and markers, and was prone to saying things like ‘Do you know that in the seventeenth century Lithuania was a powerful European nation?’ It was exactly the sort of misty thinking that he professed to deride. Perry Anderson compared the notion that Kundera’s homeland was closer to ‘Western than Eastern patterns of historical experience’ to ‘the kind of redescription to be found in estate agents’ brochures’. Even Timothy Garton Ash, a fellow promoter of a Central European mirage, recognized that Kundera’s treatment of Russia was ‘absurd’.

The sternest rebuke came from Joseph Brodsky, writing in 1985, in response to an essay in which Kundera cleanly equated Communism, Dostoevky’s novels, and Eastern irrationality. Brodsky was no supporter of the Soviet Union – he moved to America after enduring a decade of persecution – but he lamented Kundera’s ‘lopsided’ historical vision. And though he said that he could readily understand why Kundera should wish to be more European than the Europeans, he argued that Kundera displayed a stubborn aversion to remembering the intellectual origins of Nazism and Marxism, and the emotional radicalism that was supposed to underpin them. ‘The idea of the noble savage, of an inherently good human nature hampered by bad institutions, of the ideal state, of social justice and so forth – none of these originated or blossomed on the banks of the Volga’, he wrote. On seeing a Russian tank in the street, there was ‘every reason to think of Diderot’ – the writer Kundera had turned to when asked to adapt The Idiot for the stage. (‘I do not feel qualified to debate those who blame Voltaire for the gulag’, Kundera said a few months later, when receiving the Jerusalem Prize.) Dostoevsky’s novels in fact portrayed the Russian denouements to scenarios that developed in the West. The Possessed, for example, provided a reminder that Communism had encountered greater resistance in Russia than it later would in Kundera’s beloved and super-sensible Central Europe.

Brodsky, though focused on a local debate, had identified Kundera’s characteristic capacity for swatting aside any obstacle to what he wanted to say or do. He was not alone. Milan Jungmann claimed that in Kundera’s interviews his ‘true likeness is completely obliterated’. Like Tomas’s lover Sabina in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he began to insert ‘mystifications’ into his biography, describing himself in the period before the invasion as a ‘relatively unknown Czech intellectual’. The scholar J.P. Stern accused him of perpetuating ‘the myths on which he and I were brought up’. Todorov noted that Kundera’s belief that barbarity reigns was hardly compatible with the wide recognition of his work; Will Self that his reductive certitude was ‘poorly governed’ by its avowed belief in a pluralist mindset. Kundera’s fiction was by no means immune. Updike felt that elements of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting were ‘rooted in the sky, in whims beyond accounting’, and later summarized its effect as ‘etherealized’. Klíma, notionally ventriloquizing the position of the Czech intelligentsia – though with notable gusto – said that ‘the hardness of life has a much more complicated shape’ than we find in Kundera’s novels, which instead resembled ‘the sort of picture you would see from a very capable foreign journalist who’d spent a few days in our country’.

Yet this cluster of vices – a vice-in-variations – is largely absent from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A star-crossed love story, it is, along with The Joke, his most solidly constructed book, far less capricious and conversational than its predecessor The Book of Laughter and Forgetting or successor Immortality (1988) or the four novellas he wrote in French, Slowness (1995), Identity (1998), Ignorance (2000) and The Festival of Insignificance (2014). It also offers the widest range of competing visions, and more than anything he wrote resists – though it did of course attract – the go-to Kundera adjective, ‘brilliant’. Janet Malcolm noted that the novel seemed to lead a ‘charmed life . . . Every door Kundera tries opens for him’. The claim is reminiscent of Updike calling The Great Gatsby ‘superbly fortunate’ and of James Wood’s reflection that certain novels – he named Dead SoulsMidnight’s Children, and Herzog – achieve something like ‘the inventor’s secret machine, elixir, or formula’.

In a sense, The Joke, with its devilish central conceit, more properly belongs in this company. But The Unbearable Lightness of Being offers portraits of characters who achieve dynamic life while illustrating the narrator’s stated theme – whether or not to live with ties, and the impossibility, within a single life, of evaluating the chosen course. The most palpable source of luck is that the seductive quiddity of narrative works not only to rein in Kundera’s discursive tics but also outwit his habitual certainties. The ‘lightness’ of a life without commitment is revealed as freighted with risk, as fraught with danger, as an existence weighed down by connection or conviction. The emphasis on the difficulty of having just one life, of not having the benefit of ‘eternal recurrence,’ forces a recognition in Kundera of the precarious truth-status of any position: engagement or apathy, feeling or detachment, Geneva or Prague. But, however at odds this was with how he talked about the world, it vindicates his idea of the novel – as a vehicle for uncertainty, a route to ‘suprapersonal wisdom’, much as Franz, an academic and devoted dissident with whom Tomas shares a lover, says that New York achieves a richness that far exceeds the conscious intentions of ‘human design’. Kundera frequently cut corners – Todorov used the word ‘oversimplification’, Klíma ‘simplified’ – but he also managed to write at least one book that tells the reader, as he said a novel should, that ‘things are not as simple as they seem’.

In 2002, Harold Bloom, in a nominal introduction to a collection of essays exploring Kundera’s work, cast doubt over the writer’s ‘lasting eminence’. He called The Unbearable Lightness of Being ‘formulaic, over-determined, and in places unbearably light’, and asserted – on what basis he does not specify – that ‘young people no longer go off to the Czech capital with his novels in their backpacks’. Kundera may have ceased to be a cult or sensation, the near-to-hand reference-point that he had been for the Gen X heroes of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995) and Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995).

Such gloating talk of Kundera’s eclipse is exaggerated. If he was no longer in backpacks, he was still on library desks and bedside tables. And his example has endured. Geoff Dyer, noting that readers had started to take their ‘amazement’ with Kundera for granted, argued that, far from being a mere ‘influence’ like, say, Martin Amis – stylistic, or tonal, or temperamental – he had developed a novelistic software that fellow practitioners could download. Writers who have directly cited his influence include Adam Thirlwell, Jonathan Safran Foer, Benjamin Markovits, Leïla Slimani, Taiye Selasi. Though The Unbearable Lightness of Being has claims to being a separate, extra-authorial phenomenon – it is at once his best-known and least typical book – the vision of the thinking novel as exemplified in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Immortality anticipated the essayism and autofiction now rather narrowly credited to W.G. Sebald. 

A greater challenge to Kundera’s legacy than the inevitable loss of modishness may be the charge most extensively levelled by Joan Smith in the ‘Czech mates’ chapter of her book Misogynies (1989). Even Jonathan Coe, having defended him against Smith’s claims, ended his 2015 essay ‘How Important Is Milan Kundera Today?’ with a reference to ‘the problematic sexual politics which send ripples of disquiet through even his finest books’. But this seems not to be the dominant position today. Gina Frangello, writing in the LARB in 2020, acknowledged Kundera’s misogyny only in the course of celebrating his work as a ‘definitive craft book’ on the uses of authorial omniscience. As recently as May – 37 years after the Madonna name-check – the English-Albanian pop star Dua Lipa praised The Unbearable Lightness of Being for its portrayal of sexual relationships.

It is easy to imagine Kundera’s novel enjoying an essentially charmed afterlife as well, proving sufficiently resilient or multivalent to withstand polemical blows, becoming a beneficiary as well a victim of the loss of its original context in Cold War jockeying and Anglo-American fetishism of Slavic sexual freedoms. John Banville expressed his astonishment, on returning to the book in the new millennium, at how little ‘a work so firmly rooted in its time’ had seemed to age. But then distance is often a boon to the longer-term reputation of writers apparently defined by a series of spot-lit moments, offering readers a reprieve from churlish sermonizing, misplaced stridency, or the spectacle of artistic decline, and bringing a sense of proportion and perspective, even a kind of serenity, a freedom from the fray, that provides more fertile ground for appreciation. As Tomas reflects, following a break-up with Tereza, ‘Now what was tiring had disappeared and only the beauty remained’.

Read on: Jiří Hájek, ‘Condition of the Novel (Czechoslovakia)’, NLR I/29.