Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Belated Responses to Gaza - 3

This Wieseltier poem actually says it all, and no need for exegesis:


So they'll call the Little Prince
stick a submachine gun in his hand and say:
you might have come from another star
but now you're here
and that's not an elephant you see
from under the painted hat, but a tank.
The lamplighter's a terrorist
and if you don't wipe out those sheep
it'll be your head instead.
That's how it is, little prince.

Monday, March 02, 2009

on the chavez referendum

So what is happening in Venezuela today? What does Chavez's victory in the recent referendum mean for the future of democracy in Venezuela and in Latin America? Following this victory, Chavez and other elected public representatives will be able to stand for as many terms as they like, and can only be removed by popular mandate. Chavez's earlier attempt to pass this measure, as part of a wide-ranging set of constitutional reforms, had failed the popular vote earlier; now, stripped of its associations with the other measures (which included gay and lesbian rights, workplace democracy, but also a closer integration of executive, judicial and legislative powers), it has passed the test of public opinion. It reverses a previous constitutional provision that only allows elected representatives two terms of office.

Predictably enough, Chavez was attacked for despotic pretensions during and after the referendum. What can this mean, ask the mainstream Western media, both on the liberal left and the right, but a desire to extend authoritarian controls over the country, in keeping with the Venezuelan leader's obvious love of self-advertisement, and the charisma he so evidently commands? The more hysteric versions of this have been: Chavez wants to appoint himself President for life, and this is just a cleverly executed manouevre to legitimize it. This is one in a long series of policy measures, beginning with the nationalization of the oil industry, passing through the threatened use of military force to expropriate inefficient businesses and place them in the hands of workers if they so desire, and the withdrawal of private TV broadcasting licences, designed to culminate in Stalinist, one-party authoritarian rule. So we're told.

Chavez has also been defended, and idolized, with fervour that sometimes breaks the bounds of the rational. Any criticism, any apprehensions about the trajectory of his political regime are scrutinized for signs of an imperialist agenda, in hock to the United States' foreign policy agenda. Chavez is a great revolutionary democrat, and accusations of authoritarian tendencies can only come from a Right that is deeply invested in the repressive projects of the war on terror, the stabilization of neo-liberal capitalism and economic imperialism, and the maintenance of US global hegemony. So we're told.

How, then, can the signs be read? Chavez very clearly seeks a third term as President. It is worth remarking the fact that he found the issue urgent enough to have to resolve just a few months after his reforms package had been rejected - the first time he had suffered an electoral reversal of any kind during his rule. He clearly wants to preserve his power, and he wants it urgently enough to take it to the people a second time. This was an enormous gamble, it was a wager that could not be calculated. What would the consequences have been had he lost, for his credibility inside Venezuela and in world politics at large? He would have, irresistibly, appeared as a power-hungry demagogue, desperate to indefinitely defer the passage of authority. But he gambled, and he won.

I don't have the competence or knowledge to conduct a political psychoanalysis of Chavez, to dissect his intentions, secret wishes, dreams, and pathologies. Let us assume, for the moment, that power and popular approval - both of which he clearly has in good measure - involve a certain temptation to despotism, a certain inflation of political ego. For balance, let us also assume that he identifies himself with the socio-political transformation of Venezuela quite sincerely, that this is not a corrupt, greedy bid for power but one energized by a quite genuine commitment to the ideals that he publicly upholds. What then emerges as significant, in the first place, about the events of recent months is the form of the referendum, elevated to a founding political principle by Chavez, that was used to secure this advance in authority.

Why the referendum? Is it a 'populist' measure in the simple sense of the term, a symbolic public ratification of political will, a manipulation of Venezuelans that rides a temporary crest of public approval for Chavez? This is unconvincing. All the evidence points to a genuine, grass-roots democratization of Venezuela over the last decade, whether one sees Chavez as an agent or an enemy of the process. Even if we were to dismiss the 'Bolivarian revolution' enacted by Chavez and his supporters as a disguised bid for absolute power, the forms it has taken - the extension of power to local councils and collectives, the devices of democratic self-management offered to industrial and other workers, the resurrection of political debate in the barrios, the reduction of absolute poverty, the spread of basic literacy, the democratization of health services - cannot be understood except as a profound extension of democracy, if the word is to have any meaning. Perhaps Chavez is riding the wave cynically, waiting for it to accommodate his dreams of world domination; perhaps right-wing alarmists are right about the nature of his agenda, but even if this were true, it is undeniable that the wave of popular mobilization that has rocked the country in the last ten years is, in the most radical sense, a democratic wave. If Chavez is a Stalin in drag, as right-wing journalists believe, he would have made sure to have clamped down on forms of popular authority that he could not direct. Instead, he has extended these forms immeasurably, and laid himself open to a democratic calling to account.

A decision to institute the referendum as the prime machinery of political decision-making and ratification can only make sense in such a profoundly democratic context, where power is seen to reside with the people, and their choices and decisions carry all the weight of an order. This involves taking an enormous gamble on one's own popularity, and laying oneself open to recall at a moment's notice. Morales, significantly, has triumphantly ridden out a recall referendum in Bolivia, a situation that one can easily envisage in Venezuela in the not-so-distant future.

The fact that Chavez and Morales need popular approval so desperately tells us something important about the deeply democratic shifts in political authority that have characterized the recent history of Latin America. Both leaders have 'gone to the people' repeatedly, and barely ever returned from the polls disappointed. Numerous international observers and watchdog agencies have confirmed the freedom with which Venezuelans and Bolivians have voted, and the fairness and adequacy of electoral processes. Allende, at the height of his popularity, never commanded half of Chile's vote. Neither Chavez nor Morales has ever commanded less.

'Riding a wave' is too thin a metaphor to capture the meaning of this. The power asserted on the streets when Chavez was removed by his political opponents in a US-backed coup in 2002, which forced the leaders of the coup to restore him to power, is not power that can be manipulated at the touch of a button. When Chavez's first reforms package was rejected at the polls, he accepted his defeat as gracefully as a political leader can. Whether one sees this as the sign of a profound commitment to democracy or as a pathetic attempt to recoup some Brownie points and lull democrats into a false sense of security, the point is that Chavez did not consider, for a moment, the possibility of ignoring the popular mandate and pressing ahead with reforms that were clearly very close to his heart. There can really only be two convincing explanations of this. First, that Chavez's commitment to democracy is at heart genuine. Second, that whatever the content of Chavez's own beliefs and agenda, he does not consider himself powerful enough to reverse what a 'people's verdict' has decreed - he understands that power flows to him, not from him.

Consider Chavez's successful attack upon the term limit. Some democratic countries institute term limits, others don't. The United States adopts a partial version (which doesn't apply to all elected representatives). The U.K. doesn't have it at all. India doesn't have it, except for the purely honorary and practically redundant President of the Republic. So a decision to reverse term limits, on its own, need not have to bear the oppobrium of an attack on democracy. Most of the time, a term limit is just a pragmatic safeguard against individual despotism, and has no bearing upon the many efficient structural despotisms that govern life.

The question in Venezuela, which is in the grip of a deep political and social transformation, has to be posed in different terms. Chavez's measure implies, in the context of Latin American politics, a remarkable wager on democratic approval, which might succeed or fail. By removing constitutional limits upon his own authority, and upon the authority of other elected representatives, Chavez has declared complete reliance upon the weight of public opinion in a deeply politically aware country. He knows from his continent's recent history how quickly this can change - witness Bolivia's repeated and successful mobilizations that toppled non-performing administrations, prior to Morales' assumption of power. In Latin America at the present conjuncture, with its constellations of popular protest, its radical-democratic movements of workers, peasants, unemployed, tenants, and homeless people, its feminisms and its alternative-sexualities movements, its rising expectations and its growing demands, the test of public approval is a demanding one.

But the politics of Venezuela, as shepherded by Chavez at present, also entail a wager on democracy itself, on the capacity of more and more direct forms of democratic decision-making to transcend the limits previously set by liberal-democratic, consensus-based politics. This is a more ambiguous wager, though also one that is potentially richer. It can yield disturbing results. Why, for instance, is Chavez apparently so critical of constitutional checks and balances, of the independence of legislature, executive and judiciary from one another? If we leave aside for the moment the hysteric accusations of bloodthirsty tyrant and Pol Pot-in-the-making that have been showered upon Chavez, one can see in these measures a desire to strengthen democracy's executive arm, to enable decisions to be made more quickly, executed more quickly; for justice to be dispensed more speedily and efficiently. None of these, by themselves, are suspicious desires - they attest the desire for a democracy that can deliver freedom, security and justice with greater dexterity and readiness. But the wager undertaken here is that the partial collapsing of these checks and balances will only produce a greater efficacy in democratic functioning, that 'the power of the people' will not be abused by a paranoid executive, that the democratic force exercised by popular opinion will be able to fill in the place of legal safeguards. These are deeply problematic assumptions. They militate against the liberal dogma that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the truth of that dogma has been proven enough times in the history of the twentieth century to allow a certain scepticism about Chavez and Venezuela's efforts to transcend it.

Of a piece with this is the urgency of the question of the term limit, and this brings me to another worrying question. Why did Chavez feel this question, rather than, say, gay rights or workers' control, needed to be decided so quickly, by a referendum? I personally would quite like to see Chavez at the helm after 2012, if he continues along policy courses similar to his present ones. But what was the fear of losing power in 2012 - for the liberal and right-wing critics may well be correct here, this was the fear that drove the decision to go to the people - based on? If we reject 'totalitarian' explanations of Chavez's imperatives, the disturbing thought remains that he sees this revolution as somehow bound up with his own person, perhaps that he lacks faith in his likely political successors. Now this lack of faith, this centrality of Chavez to the transformation of Venezuela, may well be true, and it may also be true that the current democratic upsurge can only be brought to fruition with him at the helm. But is this, by itself, not worrying? If Chavez's 'revolution' has not been able to accomplish a mature accommodation to the prospect of the passage of power, will this not bring it into conflict, eventually, with the checks on power that are so necessary for democracy to work? How long will it take to find a way of sustaining radical-democratic impulses that are freed of the need of reification, of their personification in a master-figure? Can this even be done?

An attack on both term limits and the separation of powers represents a very specific act of faith, a very particular kind of 'wager on democracy'. This is the belief in a self-reproducing circuit between a mobilized, politically aware people and a responsive, radical-democratic state. The latter draws its authority from the wishes of the former. Now such a circuit almost certainly does exist, at a number of levels, in contemporary Venezuela. The political climate allows this richness of everyday political experience: the decisions of leaders do have to be brought to the electorate, the wishes of people and communities can find, swiftly, a place in governmental decision-making, or at least exert a significant pressure upon it. But how long can such a moment be made to last?

The answer to this riddle is crucial, for upon it rests the future success of radical democracy in Venezuela, and in Latin America at large. At present, there is an experience of freedom, in a very precise, practical sense, that is probably without precedent in the history of Latin America, an experience that can be likened only to a revolutionary opening. But such moments of freedom and popular agency have historically been liminal; they have separated the dissolution of accepted forms of authority from the realization of new, stable forms of authority. In such situations, forms of authority instituted, democratically, at the ground level have seemed to draw unprecedented force. Direct democracy has appeared both possible and efficacious. Yet in virtually all democratic revolutions, these have been the first victims. Whether it is Lenin disbanding the 'parallel' power of the soviets, or liberal democrats more gently damping down the more transformative impulses of the Eastern European revolutions, this violent or subtle expropriation of popular power has grounded the passage of truly revolutionary transformations.

Now if Chavez's proclamations and the Bolivarian Revolution are to be taken seriously, then the only step ahead would be the 'making permanent' of this explosive democratic ferment, the transformation of every day into a new, carnivalesque experience of democracy. This may be the richest political project of our times, but it is also a paradoxical, potentially dangerous project - for its ability to sustain the democratic nerve crucial to it through hard, embattled times has never been demonstrated. How can popular, direct forms of democracy be sustained by a regime that is driven to paranoia by global hostility and that faces the wrath of national and global corporations? How can democracy itself be made the weapon with which economic and political blackmail is to be fought against? This is another crucial question, for the history of the Left is replete with instances of democracy being sacrificed to 'save' the revolution: this has been by far the dominant trajectory of state socialisms of all kinds. In Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America, the success of the many transformations under way will depend on the precise articulation that is achieved between democracy and revolution.

So it may well happen, now and in the years to come, that Chavez will appeal for vigilance against 'the enemies of the people' (which he's done), institute restrictions on free speech and dissidence (which, quite remarkably given what he's faced, he hasn't). Much of this may use, quite sincerely, the rhetoric of protecting the revolution. Given the past experiences of global left-wing solidarity with revolutionary regimes, a good, Kantian, a priori tactic would be - assume such measures of restriction are unjustified, even if there are compelling reasons to support them. In this respect, I'd make the provocative claim that the right-wing suspicion of Chavez is something that left-wing sympathizers - like myself, for instance - should adopt wholesale. Not because it's true - most of the time it isn't - but because the dangers of a Stalinist regression are always going to be real enough to justify, from sympathizers, the most paranoic vigilance. Whenever Chavez takes refuge in the rhetoric of the 'necessary' sacrifice of democratic principles to facilitate the revolution, or enacts policy founded on it, liberal alarmists will be right, and just, in seeing the shadow of Stalin.

This will always be a spectre that is in some measure a diversion, it will always be at some level corrupted by the taint of self-serving, 'anti-Bolivarian' propaganda, or will be easily pressed into the service of such propaganda: in other words, the danger of an 'authoritarian regression' will be a rhetorical flashlight even when there's no justification for such suspicions. But as long as Chavez continues to play a role in this fascinating, and deeply democratic, transformation, he will have to answer questions of democratic accountability, he will have to be called to account for his decisions far more rigorously than a liberal-democratic politician. If this seems unfair, it is the history of the Left that is to blame for such suspicion, not that of its adversaries. Precisely because history leaves deep marks, and because the promises held out by the Bolivarian Revolution appear so genuine and so hopeful, the duty of suspicion, even of alarmism, is incumbent upon everyone who professes solidarity. The experiments in Latin America are too real, too full of possibility, and too important to be allowed the temptation of Stalinisms of their own, temptations which have to be real and potent even as democracy deepens across the continent, and moves leftwards.

But anti-Stalinist vigilance is, in the current context, an appropriate tactic for left-wing sympathizers, and nothing more: it cannot substitute for an attempt to understand, with some precision, the dynamics of the changes in Venezuela and in Latin America at large. These dynamics cannot be understood through the democratic/Stalinist or democratic/totalitarian dualisms. They are better understood as a genuinely crucial moment within the history of democracy, as a moment when the structures of existing liberal democracy can no longer accommodate the forces, the pressures, and even the new forms of popular sovereignty that threaten to emerge from within them.

The term limit, for instance, is founded on an essentially cynical liberal-democratic dogma: the rotation of power and influence is needed to stabilize democracy, to prevent the breaking of consensus through the establishment of alternative structures of power that might exist parallel to constitutionally ratified ones, and so term limits are necessary, because they prevent individuals from building such bases, and keep power rotating, and democracy stable. At some level, isn't this particular form of faith in democratic 'turnover' essentially a cynical declaration that a political representative's capacity to win successive elections is meaningless, that she should surrender her power, for the sake of 'stability', the supreme political virtue, to opponents or successors who may command none of the same support? The fear of democratically elected representatives turning their constituencies into fiefdoms is a justified enough fear - a glance at the politics of West Bengal, for instance, brings that home sharply. But is this the only fear that grounds the belief in a limit? Isn't there, for some of the proponents of this limit, also the fear that the capacity to win elections repeatedly might confirm upon an elected representative the legitimacy and support necessary to enact wide-ranging structural transformations, of the kind that Chavez and Morales have?

I agree, broadly, with the Chavistas on the question of term limits, and with their critics on the question of the separation of powers - that is, I see the former as inessential to democracy, and the latter as essential. But in a sense the questions posed to the strategists of the Bolivarian revolution, the question that can only be answered in practice, are the same in both cases: what place does the restraint of power play in your version of democracy? The success of your revolution has so far depended upon the articulation of two dynamisms, that of popular democracy from below, and an imaginative, bold and democratic leadership from above. The two have fused together in a project, but projects are by their nature temporary. When will the project fructify, stabilize into some kind of a structure, that no longer requires this kind of willed, voluntarist politics from above, but instead is able to reproduce the flow of popular, participatory decision-making, in the same way, for instance, that the silent operation of property markets and wage-labour relationships help reproduce the logic of capitalism? Is it not inconsistent to even expect this - that a particular set of state structures will stabilize, and reproduce, popular agency? If it is inconsistent, are we then to put our faith, ultimately, in the democratic intentions and good sense of the 'leaders', after all? And what degree of hope does history allow us to have of these?

Once again, even as I write these lines, I'm aware that these questions are haunted by the spectre of Stalinism, and this is frustrating, but also necessary. Lenin and Stalin, after all, also faced a hostile world order, attempts to break their regime economically and politically: the survival of the socialist project, and of a new path for world politics, was at stake. They made their choices, and the tragedies and horrors unleashed by these choices are well known, none more so than the truly tragic horror of Stalinism, the first, catastrophic experiment in socialist despotism, from which all the others flowed. The choices made by Chavez and Morales, in a similarly hostile global conjuncture, have been radically different, but they have yet to make the decisions that Stalin made so brutally: how is the relationship between popular, democratic mobilization and the preservation of the experiment ('socialism' in one case, '21st century socialism' or 'radical democracy' in the other) to be conceived, and forged, and administered? Soviet Russia gave us the first model, a repetition of which would be unbearable, and also seems unlikely. Contemporary Latin America is the latest in a long series, but also perhaps the most powerful, of instances of an opening where that elusive 'second way' can be discovered, and enacted. In the winter of this economic crisis, what happens in Venezuela, and Bolivia, and Argentina, and Ecuador, and a growing circle of countries, may matter more for the world's future than what happens on Wall Street.

Belated Responses to Gaza - 2

Wieseltier again. This is, oddly enough for something posted in a piece entitled 'Responses to Gaza', a patriotic poem by an Israeli. It's also one of the very few patriotic poems I've ever found genuinely moving.

Garbage Dump, 2000

I didn't like your faces from the start.
The words you spoke sounded phony.
Your plans were tiresome.
Even your women dreamed about something else.
But I carried on next to you day after day.
I simply had nowhere else to go.

Your futures looked doubtful to me.
Your fondness for your mistakes and your lies made me sick.
Your blindness wasn't even innocent.
Some appendage sprouted in you, bequeathed from a lower order of mammals.
But I kept finding myself in your company.
I was an orphan, completely broke.

I saw you polluting everything around you without restraint.
The most simple solutions you took as castles in the air.
Only desolation seemed simple and real enough to you.
Your children learned to growl in helpless agreement.
But I didn't turn my back on your company.
Somehow I learned to love and to hope.

My love and my hope had nothing to feed on.
Shadowy corners in the junkyard were all heat and rust.
Even the nights were thick and hazy.
Sated, sleepy faces displayed a vacuous denial of mortality.
But I made up my mind long ago this is where I'll end.
My body and soul have ripened as fruit of this dump.

This is a meditation that unfolds in four symmetrically conceived verses. In each of the verses, four lines announce a crippling distaste for one's inheritance, a distance from it that allows the coldest of dissections, delivered in brief, contemptuous phrases. 'I didn't like your faces from the start.' 'Your blindness wasn't even innocent.' 'Your children learned to growl in helpless agreement.' 'My love and hope had nothing to feed on.' This, for Wieseltier, is what his national inheritance can be reduced to - this is what 'belonging' really means, this is what he belongs to.

This could, then, have been an angry poem of disavowal, in the vein of a Brodsky or an Akhmatova denouncing the crimes of their 'socialist fatherland', or in the vein of Ginsberg's wonderful lines, 'Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb', delivered to Cold War America. Such renunciations - of party, of faith, of nation, of the bonds one is made to wear and made to feel proud of wearing, by all the smoke-screens and lies woven around us - are what gives much political poetry its bitterness, its prophetic, Cassandra-like force that tears away illusion and posturing, that drives it to, in Seamus Heaney's words, 'prophesy, give scandal, cast the stone.'

Yet Wieseltier's poem is not an act of disavowal, it is an act of belonging. The concluding couplets of each verse affirm that belonging, that attachment which has nothing at all to do with pride or with celebration or even with hope. 'I simply had nowhere else to go.' 'I was an orphan, completely broke.' 'But I didn't turn my back on your company.' 'My body and soul have ripened as fruit of this dump.' There is a helplessness to belonging, because belonging is what we are 'thrown' into, what every act of disavowal conjures up despite itself.

These lines nail, with an honesty that is stark, bare and bleak, the impossibility of belonging in the full sense, if one refuses to suture the wounds of history and the present by masking the truth, by denying to ourselves what it is that we belong to. Our 'belonging' entails necessary complicity with 'some appendage....bequeathed from a lower order of mammals' - the angriest indictment imaginable of military-patriotic fervour, of the drum-rolls of war and national sacrifice, of the sheer, amoral animality of the stories we tell to buttress this 'belonging'. And while Wieseltier writes these lines as an Israeli, with all the poignancy that this particular denunciation/affirmation of national belonging involves, I read the poem as an Indian, and would have read it as an American had I been one, or as a Palestinian had I been one. No form of national belonging is innocent of these charges, no form of national belonging has been unwilling to dip its hands in gratuitously shed blood.

And yet, knowing all this, one belongs. One builds answers, ways out of the tragedy, 'castles in the air', and one continues, all so often, to belong, with all the self-division and the pain that this creates. When Wieseltier writes that he 'was an orphan, completely broke', this is plain truth. He and his mother and sisters (his father had been killed serving in the Soviet Army) were among hundreds of thousands who made the hungry, cold trek from Moscow when the city was evacuated in 1941, the year of his birth. He ended up in Israel in 1949, an eight-year old who had already travelled, as a deportee, through Poland, Germany and France. Quite literally, he had 'nowhere else to go.' Israel was thrust upon him, over the years, as an experience of national chauvinism, paranoia and hypocrisy that he turned his back on with disgust, but at the same time he developed attachments to the land, the air, the trees, the cities and the people in ways that could not be reduced to the nationalism he was urged to feel by his society and its state. We all do, and this, really, is all that national 'belonging' can mean if we're honest, in its simplicity and its profundity. I have never read an affirmation of country, of belonging, of identity that has moved me as much as the concluding line of 'Garbage Dump, 2000': My body and soul have ripened as fruit of this dump. For most Zionists, this would be the statement of a 'self-hating Jew', the standard appellation for Jews who choose to separate their need for a home, for security, community, belonging, from the state of Israel as it exists today, for Jews whose Jewishness refuses to be bound by 'loyalty to Israel'. Wieseltier is writing from within Israel, but his 'patriotism' has nothing to do with notions of loyalty, or faith, or sacrifice. He can affirm his belonging while denouncing all that he belongs to, without looking for imaginary succour from Zionist or utopian fantasies.

But there is more than helplessness and a surrender to belonging in the kind of attachment that Wieseltier is bound by. There is something beautiful that is usually hidden by the collectively authorized forms of 'belonging', an experience that is personal, irreducible and authentic in the only true sense of the word. For at rare moments of freedom, belonging can break the bounds of duty and break into the realms of choice. In one of his most exquisite poems, Wieseltier plucks out a sense of belonging, of homeland, that transcends nation and myth, from a memory of his childhood in the small town of Netanya. As his translator Shirley Kaufman writes, this takes the form of 'a bittersweet nostalgia for his preteen years, uncorrupted by symbols of nationalistic fervour.' Here, finally, is a form of belonging that one needn't be ashamed of.

Far From The Flag Parade

It was sweet, dark and tangy
under the heavy branches
of the citrus trees bent
around Ein-Hatkehelt and Avikhail.
I called it homeland.
Shade streaming from the trees,
the heavy heads of the Shamutti oranges
scattered around me,
a glowing, saturated yours-for-the-taking,
far from the flag parade,
I called it homeland.
That was a long time ago. A kind of piratical act
of a boy who found
something he wasn't looking for.

'Homelands' envelop us all in embraces that are suffocating and unwanted. Sometimes, though, a truer sense of home can be produced by a 'piratical act' of the imagination, which lays claim to an experience that cannot be contained in ritual genuflections to the motherland, an experience which is a 'glowing, saturated yours-for-the-taking', bereft of all the symbolisms our senses of belonging are colonized by, an experience that is always, always, far from the flag parade.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Belated Responses to Gaza - 1

Browsing through my favourite secondhand bookshop in London, several months ago, I came across a volume of poetry by someone I'd never read or heard of, an Israeli dissident poet named Meir Wieseltier. It appears that this selection is the only available English translation of his work, and more's the pity. His apparently iconic status in Israel points to some of the complexities that have to be hidden beneath the surface of his country's rampant brutality towards the Palestinians, and the shrill rhetoric and shriller missiles that define its policy. In 2000, as his translator Shirley Kaufman puts it, Wieseltier became

the distinguished recipient of the Israel Prize, his country's highest honor, awarded on Independence Day in the millennial year 2000 in the presence of the Israeli establishment (president, prime minister, minister of education, chief justice of the Supreme Court, mayor of Jerusalem, and so on) to its most antiestablishment poet.

Here is Wieseltier himself, in a poem that is precisely dated, and precisely targeted. It is dated April 15, 2002, four days after the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp at Jenin on the West Bank, which had claimed over fifty lives and unleashed terror in the daily lives of Palestinians, as numerous personal testimonies recount. Here's Wieseltier's account of the mentality that drives such slaughter:

Sonnet: Against Making Blood Speak Out

If I die one day from the bullet of a young killer -
a Palestinian who crosses the northern border -
or one day from the blast of a hand grenade he throws,
or in a bomb explosion while I'm checking the price
of cucumbers in the market, don't dare say
that my blood permits you to justify your wrongs -
that my torn eyes support your blindness -
that my spilled guts prove it's impossible
to talk with them about an arrangement -it's only possible
to talk with guns, interrogation cells, curfew, prison,
expulsion, confiscation of land, curses, iron fists, a steel heart
that thinks it's driving out the Amorites, destroying the Amalekites.
Let the blood seep into the dust; blood is blood, not words.
Terrible - the illusion of the
Kingdom in obtuse hearts.

One of the biggest tragedies of our times is the resonance of these lines. How I wished, while reading this poem, that it was written of a different time, that times had changed. That it was, like Auden's Spain, written seventy years ago, so that old injustices had been reversed, and spoke only of the memories of old women and men, and perhaps enshrined a popular mythology. That it was possible to shudder, and think, those were bad times, I'm glad I wasn't born in those times. But there is no waking from the repeated nightmares of history: if the poem seemed apt then, back last year, it seems a precise, prophetic indictment of the present predicament facing the Palestinians in Gaza today. A document about Jenin holds a clue to Gaza, and it is important to take note of this, for it is no coincidence. The resonant power of this sonnet, across two distinct historical events - for who would read it today and not be struck by the purchase it has upon the experiences of December and January? - tells us a story too stark to be ignored.

Reading it now reveals the Gordian knot that ties the present bombing to the permanent, everyday reality that Palestinians experience: a reality of checkpoints, daily humiliations, expropriations of land and property, and the eternal prospect of military invasion. It isn't hard at all to get to the heart of that reality if one simply inverts the standard myth: that Israeli military and state action is basically reactive, that these are punitive reprisals for terrorist action. This is a myth. Reverse it and you begin to approach the truth: a classic colonial occupation, the last of the settler colonialisms, has generated this sequence of events; the totality of the Israel/Palestine question can only be understood within this historical framework.

The Israeli rhetoric of reprisal, in its subliminal, and sometimes explicit meanings, is enacted in Wieseltier's poem, '....a steel heart / that thinks it's driving out the Amorites, destroying the Amalekites.' These are standard tropes of justification that circulate in state rhetoric, fundamentalist propaganda and popular discourse. We are told this is a timeless battle, not between Israeli and Palestinian but, transcendentally, between Arab and Jew; between, in short, civilizations. The creatures in Gaza and the West Bank are not fighting against a state that battens down on them with force and death, but against Joshua and Saul. They do this because this is what 'Arabs' or 'Muslims' do, as their election of a fundamentalist organization like Hamas to power proves. The daily injustices of occupation, the erection of a wall that annexes vast swathes of agricultural land the Palestinians need to survive, the herding of people into Gaza like pigs in a pen and blockading them from food and fuel: these are footnotes, glosses on the grand text of terrorist fundamentalism and anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitism undoubtedly present, and growing, among many Palestinians naturally bears no relationship to the fact that the IDF soldiers who humiliate them at checkpoints are compelled to wear the Star of David on their uniforms, to the fact that Palestinians are routinely told by their adversaries that this brutality is necessary for the survival of Judaism. Israeli Zionism's disgusting manipulation of Jewish history, reified into myth, casts Palestinians in the manner Wieseltier distils in his phrase - they are the Amorites, ganging up on Joshua; they are the Amalekites, ambushing Saul. Or they are carrying out Hitler's orders, issued beyond the grave. Historical time and space are evacuated, and repopulated with this timeless conflict.

The repeated nightmares of history: this is crucial. The repetition, the sheer force of the same event recurring, time and again, over a condensed period of sixty-odd years, is striking. This takes the events of the last three months out of the purely tragic realm, for such a repetition, the brute beast of military power rising after every rebuff to lumber after its shrinking, almost entirely civilian prey, can only belong to the world of comedy. And that is why Jon Stewart, who recently broke a long, mostly consistent liberal silence on Israel in American public discourse, probably captured the true dimensions of what happened in Gaza most accurately, on The Daily Show. Not because he said anything new or anything particularly remarkable, but because he said it laughing. For only laughter can give the colossal events of December and January their true meaning, their magnitude. The parallel spectacles of a people bombed out of their homes, their sanity, their bodies - and, on another channel, the Panglossian reiteration that this was the best thing that could have happened, that Hamas had to bear full responsibility for it, that the Israelis, with the best and most lethal technology on offer, were simply forced to do it, as they were in Lebanon, as they were in Jenin, as they were everywhere....what could possibly capture this absurd concatenation but comedy? How else to execute the one meaningful act in the hysteric rhetorical world of militaristic, retributive discourse, and reduce the beast to its own size, give it its own shape and form? Not the shape and form of a beleaguered democratic oasis holding out bravely against another hydra head of the Axis of Evil, but that of a powerful military machine grinding down a subjugated, angry people. Only comedy can lay this bare, for that's what Israel and the United States' politicians, military strategists and analysts were, on prime-time TV: professional comedians rehearsing a tired, played-out routine. And it's only fitting that it was Jon Stewart who, by not saying anything very much at all but by playing their words and the images from Gaza in juxtaposition with each other, told it like it was.

The motive force of Wieseltier's sonnet comes from these lines: 'don't dare say / that my blood permits you to justify your wrongs'. Here the accusation, the injunction, is given its prophetic dimension by history and the present. The blood of Israeli people, as of all human beings in this conflict, is simply that: blood. The astonishing phrase that rounds off this line of thought is this: Let the blood seep into the dust; blood is blood, not words. The words that envelop the tragedies suffered by human beings in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank are words that manipulate their blood, make it bear burdens it cannot possibly bear, make it speak against its will. These words are a vampiric act: they shed blood, grow on it, and extract more blood, as tribute. The Final Solution is paranoically, masochistically implanted in public memory, as a reminder of the fate to expect if you let up on the bombing. An Israeli friend who'd been through military training and experienced this propaganda at close quarters once told me of her experience as a schoolgoer, being taken to Germany at her government's expense, as schoolchildren are, taken to one of the concentration camp sites (I forget which), and being herded into a pitch-dark room, and forced to listen while the instructions of a guard were reproduced, in loving detail. The Holocaust being drilled into the heads of young Israelis, by the state that claims to have been founded to relieve Jews of that historic burden. 'And then', my friend continued, 'we were told that this is what the Arabs would do to us.'

Zizek writes in several places, more or less persuasively, of the ideological illusion involved in looking for the human depth that redeems inhuman acts, the veil that separates people and their acts, relieving them of the burden of their responsibility by propounding a distance between person and action. 'I am a politician who orders the death of hundreds, but deep down inside I'm a warm cuddly human being': this would be a typical instance of such ideological self-distancing. I persist, ideologically no doubt, to believe in 'human depth', and to believe that we often feel our decisions, our spines and our ethics bent and twisted beyond our control as we confront our world. But I see his point when I think of Wieseltier being handed the Israel Prize by, probably, Barak, Prime Minister in 2000, riding a crest of liberal hope. Barak more recently returned to his IDF roots as Defense Minister, in 2007, and, as barely needs mention, orchestrated the rape of Gaza. I can't help but wonder the thought ever crosses his mind: 'I am a politician who has just ordered the killing of hundreds, but deep down inside I'm a warm, sensitive liberal who reads and appreciates Meir Wieseltier....'

Such conceits of human depth, of course, suffuse the representations of the Middle Eastern tragedy in dominant discourses. From the professional lies of an Alan Dershowitz, to the debates on websites oriented towards a liberal Zionism, one side receives its due share of human complexity, whereas the other serves as straw man, depthless force of ressentiment, or rhetorical counterpoint to Israeli democracy, fundamentalist certitude pitted against liberal pluralism.

The 'liberal middle ground', not only within Israel but globally, reproduces this line of thought, often against its will. Philip Roth's absorbing and profound Operation Shylock, for instance, falls short despite its complexity. His dissections of Israeli society are acute and merciless: they show us a complex, suffering, flawed and fragmented people. His Palestinians, despite his efforts, remain at best a place-holder for the conscience of the liberal Zionist - even if, in all his other writing, Roth is no Zionist at all. Spielberg's Munich, needless to say an inferior work in every respect, but nonetheless interesting because it demonstrates a once committedly Zionist filmmaker grappling with realities he can no longer wish away as fictional, falls into the same trap. ' Is it really your father's olive trees that this is about?', asks a Mossad agent of a Palestinian guerrilla in the movie. The latter's silence tells us all Spielberg would have us know.

Roth and Spielberg, however, give us doubt and self-division that perhaps goes beyond the essentially cynical veil of ideological self-distancing that Zizek describes, for we live in history, and things are changing around us as we speak. The certitudes of a reigning consensus have been shaken over the last decade, and Wieseltier's selection for his country's highest prize tells us that some of this ferment, after all, must be in process in Israel as well. Hundreds of dissident Israelis, some of the bravest people on the planet, refuse to murder for their country, or to lie for it. If Wieseltier's Israel Prize tells us anything, it is that this mood has - or, in the present war hysteria, would it be more accurate to say, has had? - some force in the intangible realms of public conviction. And what of Ehud Barak, poster-boy of Labour Zionism? What of the state that claims to speak for every Israeli citizen, even Meir Wieseltier? A 'steel', yes, and an 'obtuse' heart - Wieseltier's last line sums it up - the heart of a physically brutal and a morally corrupt state.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A dark night in Delhi. The street lamps that are on flicker desperately. They tell us it isn’t safe, tell us the night threatens us all. I’m in a speeding auto-rickshaw. B., a little and mild-mannered boy, probably still in his teens, is driving me back home. We take a fly-over, monstrous arch over a nightmare city, and come down at high speed. We take another, and B. slows down suddenly, peering out of the auto with worried eyes. A bunch of uniforms shuffles across our sight-screens. Policemen stroll over to the truck piled high with heavy wooden boxes, which has skidded to a halt at a peremptory police whistle. Their narrowed, shifting eyes pass over us once, as we slow down and pause by a broken signboard, the smoke from my cigarette curling in the lamp-lit air. The policemen’s eyes jerk us through, and we move on, surveyed and humiliated.

A pause as we gather speed through the dark streets. I bring out a lighter. Click. He takes out a box of matches. Snap. We move on, two glowing dots of red light zig-zagging through the darkness. Load-shedding. The summer’s going to be hard for little people with less food, clothes, money, access to shelter that they need to last out the season. The little people clear their throat. B. speaks.

‘Char hazaar se kam nahin lenge.’ Nothing under four thousand rupees. ‘A chalaan?’ I ask. He nods his head. The guys driving that truck are fucked, then. And it could have been B. I begin asking questions, and he begins talking. How much does he make in a month? He makes about five or six hundred on an average night, for this is his shift: the darkest hours of the cycle, between eight at night and eight in the morning. That would make, I calculate, about fifteen or eighteen thousand rupees a month, a comfortable sum. But B. doesn’t keep the money. Each day he has to hand over four hundred rupees to his boss, most of his night’s earnings. His boss sounds faintly humanitarian: apparently he pays for petrol expenses. Most auto and taxi maliks make their employees pay for fuel.

And then there’s the police. B.’s bitter. The daily humiliations, the lowering of the eyes when a uniform passes. The scraping of the feet and the bowing of the head. The random searches, insults, occasional beatings. Men bound up in small, petty lives taking out their bile on weaker men. The rip-offs that beset most auto-drivers at regular intervals: the misfortune to be caught without identification, or a license, or to be marginally over the speed limit. Four thousand rupees as a fine, a chalaan: it’s the standard going rate, though they might adjust it upwards during this phase of inflation.

So they need to borrow money. And it’s cap in hand, head down, at his master’s mercy the next morning. And it’s a temporary advance, to be deducted from B.’s wages for the next month. On a bad roll, for the next two months. B. is twenty, and he sags like an old man.

We’re nearer home now. A police car lies sprawled insolently across the road, we skid round on a speed-breaker and B. mutters a curse. I snatch a furtive glance at the uniformed body and face inside the car. But the body’s slumped against the back of the seat, and the face is young, asleep, strangely vulnerable. A person’s face and body, for once not filled out in monstrous shapes by the daily role they’re paid to perform.

We approach home. I feel I should say something. Awkwardly, I tell him I might write this up, send it somewhere, see if anything can be done. The puerility of such promises hammers in my ears like a storm. I’ll write, and I’ll be a degree less troubled, my political conscience slightly salved, for, in a small way, bearing witness. Testimony. Narcissism. And B. will go his way, handing his wages – his labour – to his master every day, paying tribute to the police every few weeks. Exploitation. Resignation. He’ll go his way and I’ll go mine.

I know this and so, I think, does he. But he seems neither expectant nor scorning, neither supplicant nor judge. B., a boy far away from home, nods his head gravely.

‘Haan ji, likhiye. Likhiye auto-walon ke baare mein. Likhiye ki humein tang na kare.’ Yes, write. Write about us auto-drivers. Tell them not to make our lives hell.

He nods his head once again, gravely, and then I get off, and he takes the money, acknowledges the tip, and I turn to go, and he’s gone.
I suppose a year - and a bit - is a long enough time for a sabbatical. Time to start blogging again.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The year began with Nandigram, and ended with the Bhutto assassination, the resurgence of the BJP, and carnage in Orissa. Happy 2008 to everyone.
And goodbye to 2007, and fucking good riddance.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Here's another recently published piece, this time in Socialist Worker - it appeared in abbreviated form, so I thought I'd put the original up on the blog.
Freeing Land from the Tiller: Communist Experiments in Neo-Liberalism in West Bengal

Nandigram is a rural area in the East Midnapur district of West Bengal, a state governed for three decades by a Left Front dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Through the course of 2007, this agrarian belt has witnessed one of the most significant movements against global neo-liberalism and state power anywhere in the world. The issue was the acquisition of rural land for a Special Economic Zone, to be leased primarily to the Salim Group from Indonesia, close supporters of Suharto during his dictatorship. The MoU between the Indonesian corporate giant and the West Bengal government had been signed in July 2006. On 2 January 2007, an official notification informed the inhabitants that 25,000 acres of their land were to be acquired for the establishment of a chemical plant, as part of the proposed SEZ. None of the inhabitants had been consulted prior to this decision, and it had not gone through the authorized legal channels, the village and district representative bodies. A massive movement from below, seeking to defend rural land against corporate invasion, began at the beginning of 2007.

The countryside of southern West Bengal had already been convulsed for some months over a similar land takeover bid, backed by the Left Front government, by the Tatas, India’s biggest industrial house, for fertile agricultural land in Singur. By December, the resistance in Singur had largely been crushed. To prevent a similar loss of land in Nandigram, the villagers took to direct action. They responded to news of their dispossession by digging up roads and destroying bridges, making it impossible for the police or local CPI(M) cadres to enter. Violent clashes broke out between villagers and armed cadres at the beginning of January. The latter fired rounds of gunfire into the barricaded villages, hurled bombs and killed people, backed by muscle power from Lakshman Seth, the local M.P. The villagers retaliated in kind, killing a local party leader and burning down his house. The vast bulk of the villagers gathered under the stewardship of the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee or the B.U.P.C., the association set up to mobilize against the takeover of land, a loosely organized body of people from various political parties (including opposition Trinamul Congress members, far-left activists, Left Front supporters whose land was threatened, and ordinary villagers without political affiliations). There were expulsions of CPI(M) supporters who had participated in the attack on Nandigram.

Between January and March, there was something of a lull, as the movement in Nandigram consolidated its authority, the state remained blocked out of the villages, and Lakshman Seth and his allies made plans for a reprisal. Matters came to a head in March. On the 14th, a battalion of policemen and CPI(M) cadres disguised as policemen ripped through Nandigram, firing upon an unarmed crowd and hacking their way through the villages in an orgy of savagery that left at least 14 dead (according to official figures) and hundreds seriously injured, lying in hospitals that years of government neglect had left woefully unprepared for situations like this. Rape and sexual mutilation of the most horrific kinds were systematically used by party cadres as tools of retribution. The villagers managed to repulse the attack, in a heroic counter-mobilization, and drove out the ‘police-cadres’ (the term, used by the villagers, originated in the discovery that cadres of the ruling party had disguised themselves as policemen to participate in the blood-letting) on 16 and 17 March. The state and party had to withdraw, but carried on war by other means, including an attempted economic blockade of Nandigram, an attempt to starve out the resistance.

In the meantime, the West Bengal CPI(M), shamefully backed by the central party leadership, carried out a heavy but unconvincing propaganda campaign, pointing the finger at ‘the communal menace’, ‘the Maoist menace’, and any number of allegedly self-explanatory ‘menaces’ that would detract attention from what Nandigram’s peasants were actually, and obviously, engaged in: a grassroots popular movement to retain the land they lived and worked on. In a weak attempt to append the carrot to the stick, the chief minister made a couple of half-hearted pronouncements to the effect that land would not be acquired without consent. CPI(M) propaganda has consistently harped on this theme: why did the resistance continue despite the chief minister’s reassurances? The answer is quite simple. No party leaders had the gumption to visit Nandigram after the massacre. No serious relief measures were organized by the state, which instead sought to impose an economic embargo on the villagers. No compensation was offered to those who suffered from the violence in March. The enquiries of the judiciary and the Central Bureau of Investigation were consistently scuttled and delayed by the government, and none of the accused was brought to justice. There was little reason for Nandigram’s villagers to trust their chief minister, and every reason for them to consider him their enemy. Subsequent events were to bear this out tragically.

Between March and November, a low-level civil war raged in the villages of the area. CPI(M) workers encircled the resisting villages, and kept up a sustained barrage of gunfire, bombs, and threatening abuse across loudspeakers. There were further expulsions of party supporters from Nandigram; there was also, conversely, the flight of B.U.P.C activists and supporters terrorized by attacks by the ruling party’s cadres. There was armed violence on both sides, which was hardly a surprise, since the rural politics of West Bengal has for many years been characterized by the use of arms, which have been made plentifully available to villagers for use in inter-party conflicts, especially prior to local government elections. Reprisals and counter-reprisals ravaged Nandigram through the summer, though the forces and resources arrayed on the side of the state were infinitely greater, and the balance of violence was utterly lop-sided. Nevertheless, the government failed to secure re-entry into the villages of Nandigram. The barricades stayed up, the villagers on one side united in defence of their land, and party cadres on the other, wielding guns and waiting for their moment, to avenge the humiliation in March. So things stayed, for over seven months.

The latest instalment in this tragedy took place recently. On 30 October, the villages of Satengabadi and Ranichak were attacked by the police and by cadres in an attempt to regain the area. Between 5 and 10 November, cadres and local police stepped up efforts to ‘recapture’ Nandigram. A lightning raid on Satengabadi virtually destroyed the village, rendering over a thousand people homeless, their houses looted and burnt. On 10 November, the final capitulation occurred. Party cadres swooped down upon a demonstration by the BUPC, abducted 600 protestors, and used them as a human shield to secure re-entry into the villages. The state finally, after over eleven months of civil war, managed to re-enter the villages. Since then, there have been massive and spectacular acts of violent revenge, by party workers who’d been waiting for this moment for a long time. Rapes, killings, and torture characterized the re-establishment of ‘law and order’. At the present moment, there is a campaign of absolute terror and effective enslavement going on, as villagers are being forced to sign affidavits pledging complete obedience to the CPI(M)’s commands, and to join rallies organized by the party. Nandigram at present resembles nothing so much as a vast slave camp.

The spectacle of a professedly left-wing government first trying to secure land for a massive project of corporate expansion, then confronting a people’s movement with force and armed terror, has produced a politics of mass revulsion that all the attempts to stifle or deflect dissent have not subdued. This has been manifested in recent events in West Bengal that have rocked the stability of the ruling regime. Most dramatically, in September there were food riots against the hoarding and sale of food marked out for public rationing. These black-market practices are common in Bengal, and are usually organized through local party channels. A series of elections to students’ unions in colleges in West Bengal, in the wake of Nandigram, delivered decisive mandates against the Students’ Federation of India, the party’s student wing. An unexpected electoral reverse in elections to a local dock union supplemented this trend. A scandal over an inter-religious love affair in Calcutta, where the state government scotched an enquiry into the death of a Muslim boy allegedly brought about by the actions of the girl’s well-connected business family, affirmed suspicions that the Left Front was now consistently shielding vested propertied interests. The organized Left’s citadel is no longer secure, and social tensions that had simmered beneath the surface for many years are coming to the boil.

The epicentre of solidarity with Nandigram has been Kolkata, and here there has been a remarkable efflorescence of democratic disgust with the CPI(M): students, intellectuals, artists, lawyers, and doctors have, for the first time in decades, gathered together to protest, often in the face of brutal police attacks and arbitrary arrests. On 14 November, Kolkata saw a spontaneous demonstration of over 100,000 people, marching silently to protest the carnage in Nandigram. It was a red-letter day in a city where demonstrations for many years had meant nothing more than exercises in self-publicity conducted by political parties, usually the ruling Left Front combine, and where the memories of an earlier Kolkata, vibrant with political passion and engagement, had apparently long died. Poetry, discursive analysis, demonstrations, candlelit vigils, boycotts of government awards by intellectuals once close to the Party: every possible means is being used to shame the mighty. The enormous outpouring of solidarity in Kolkata has been immensely moving, especially since previous acts of state brutality and corporate invasion in the country had evoked nothing on this scale, and it had become passé among most educated middle-class Indians to turn a blind eye to the conditions of the country’s poor.

Things are changing, and it is a time of possibilities, openings, and dangers. Some of the noise around Nandigram has come from political rivals of the CPI(M), just as compromised or more, without any of the CPI(M)’s earlier history of agitation for the downtrodden, who have jumped on to a convenient bandwagon. Some of it comes from the Indian far left, in its many guises, which faces internal strife, inner authoritarianism and dogmatism, and, most of all, the constant threat of repression, in a country where attempts to resist the writ of the state, no matter what their provenance, are labeled either terrorist or ‘Maoist’ and rendered fit for arbitrary, Patriot Act-style counter-mobilizations of terror. Some of the initiative comes from mobilizations loosely described as ‘people’s movements’, some of which command much popularity but are without the organization or coordination needed to mount an immediate political challenge. However, the messiness and internal contradictions of the present moment should not blind us to a key fact. Neo-liberalism in India has hit a road block. Projects for corporate expansion, economic restructuring and land seizure, backed by armed state force, have been announced across the length and breadth of the country: Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, the North-east, to pick random examples. Each project has become a site of prolonged resistance and conflict: Nandigram may be the most dramatic, but it is by no means the only one. There may be no blueprints at hand that tell us what ‘alternatives’ may look like, but the resistance to global neo-liberal capitalism has been near-universal, it has been uncompromising, and it has come from the bottom up. A movement of resistance, in other words, that a real Left would be proud to be part of.

Where does India’s ‘real’, which is to say officially designated Left, actually stand? The jury is still out, though the evidence continues to mount. The shameful silence of the central leadership of the CPM has destroyed the party’s credibility as a force that can claim political principle and commitment. An outright condemnation of the Nandigram violence from the party leadership would have saved the face of the official Left, though there is precious little they could actually have done: the tail wags the dog, and the actions of the West Bengal party unit clearly determine Politbureau stands, rather than the reverse. The CPI(M) clearly sees its continued hegemony in West Bengal – where most of its seats in Parliament come from – as necessary to its continued relevance in Indian politics. The price being paid, however, is the increasing absurdity of the party’s claims upon ‘left-hood’. The central leadership has to, therefore, resort to more and more ridiculous justifications and lies covering up what really happened in West Bengal. The agitation against the takeover of land is consistently depicted by Party propaganda as a machination of either the Trinamul Congress and the right-wing BJP, or as a Maoist conspiracy. There have been, however, muted and not-so-muted voices of dissent from within circles once considered close to or part of the official Left project in India: prominent party members have resigned and condemned the Left Front’s handling of Nandigram, others have spoken out against their Party’s official stands and had their voices muffled, and there appears to be churning within the official Left at various levels.

Whether there will ever be a credible, reformed CPI(M) freed of corruption and compromise is an open question: it is clear, however, that this is ruled out as long as the Party does as it pleases in West Bengal. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was recently praised by Henry Kissinger, who said the Communist chief minister reminded him of Deng Xiaoping. Not coincidentally, Bhattacharya has also been the darling of the corporate media in India, which was therefore faced with a crisis during Nandigram, not quite knowing which way to look while he executed the policies they wanted in a manner that didn’t quite smell of roses. Lakshman Seth and Benoy Konar, proven to be the chief masterminds and instigators of the attacks on Nandigram’s peasants, have neither been brought to justice, nor disciplined, nor even reprimanded by the Party leadership.

As a conclusion, let me present two contending claims about Nandigram and what it symbolizes for Indian politics. First, the view of the official Indian Left. Bengal, we hear, is a citadel of left-wing resistance to the politics of communalism that dominates Indian politics, the politics of imperialism that globally encircles it, and the economics of neo-liberalism that threatens its experiments in left-wing economic and social reform. The survival of the Left Front government in West Bengal is supposedly crucial to the continued relevance of the CPI(M) in national politics, and is thereby essential. The ‘law-and-order’ problem posed by the movement in Nandigram threatened the continued political and economic alternative held out by the Indian Left, and thus needed to be resolved by firm state action. It was necessary, therefore, to ‘recapture’ Nandigram.

Let me now put matters another way. There is, indeed, urgent need for global resistance to the politics of empire and neo-liberalism that seeks to swamp the world, and stamp out the possibility of any alternatives. But the Left Front Government in West Bengal – and by implication the official Indian Left – has long given up on that fight, beyond empty pieties that never actually threaten the hegemonic structures of the world. And now, with Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s embrace of global capitalism, West Bengal under CPI(M) rule represents one of the prime entry points of global capital with its neo-liberal strategies into India. The politics of Stalinism and the economics of neo-liberalism have given birth to a monster.

The experiences of the twentieth century have taught us that ‘the Left’ is always a complex noun. It cannot, however, possibly be complex enough to include the Party in West Bengal. A party that pushes for the introduction of Special Economic Zones, bypasses popular consultations of any kind in making its decisions, makes deals with the corporate group that bankrolled Suharto’s massacre of Indonesian Communists, and nourishes and protects thugs who shoot peasants and protestors, may be called all sorts of things, but ‘left-wing’ is not among them.

Nandigram’s peasants were not fired by such geo-political calculations as I have just outlined: they simply wanted to hold on to their land, and they refused to buy into the myth that they were being offered a better deal. But the meaning of their resistance has experienced the political transvaluation that turns immediate battles for survival into epochal acts of resistance. It has become one of the central nodes in the chain of global movements that seek to resist a neo-liberal hegemonic project that rests upon the intensified exploitation of labour, the arbitrary acquisition of resources, and the stifling of internal political dissent. To achieve the success of this project, it was necessary to destroy the movement. The CPI(M) in West Bengal, having decided to do so, has demonstrated its inherent similarity with the other forces on the Indian political spectrum: its common function with them as neoliberal capitalism’s slave, victim, and agent.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A working-class dream dies and is replaced by another.

The miners’ strike of 1984 is defeated. Coal miners and mining – an occupation, a community, a world and its meanings – disappear. Margaret Thatcher crushes the militant centre of British working-class life and politics, and changes the face of Northern England. The pits empty out; men are made redundant. The jobs will not come back. Something flowers, though, in the midst of this defeat. A boy from a family of striking miners begins to dance. He achieves his dream against his family, his community, the childhood he’s been given, and the boundaries within which he has been taught to leash his talent. He leaves the dying for the new; he becomes a professional ballet dancer. This is the story told by Stephen Daldry’s 1997 runaway blockbuster, Billy Elliot.

There is a plausible hard-left way of looking at this. Thatcherism ushers in a new world. The textures and horizons of working-class solidarity, and also of a whole way of life, are eliminated, and replaced by individual achievement. The boy in the film accomplishes his dream in a manner worthy of Hollywood. The space that once belonged to working-class solidarity is emptied out, and all that can replace it is the celebration of individual success. Millions fail, but there is a boy who succeeds, who dances, who wins against the odds. And this personal success redeems the bitter experiences of his community, personal and collective failure and defeat. Somehow things are put right. The miners lose the strike, their work and the shape of their lives, but it’s all right because a boy dances. This is how a hard, unblinkered leftist might well see the film.

And none of this is untrue. Billy Elliot does offer us such apparently mawkish consolations, and it sentimentalizes and softens defeat. As an evocation of a particular moment in recent British history, it is in many ways false. It is a fantasy of individual accomplishment ultimately redeeming collective defeat. But is this sentimental evocation of a lost working-class world, then, really a disguised celebration of the triumph of capitalism, an apologia for Thatcherism? There’s more depth to the film’s portrait of a changing Britain than this. The fable of a working-class boy who wants and manages to escape his world is more complex than it might appear at first. To understand this, we need to go back to an earlier film, made years before Thatcher murdered coal mining and miners, in an era when that working-class life was too real to be sentimentalized into fantasy.

In Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), Billy, a boy from a mining family befriends a kestrel, masters it, teaches it to fly back to him and perch on his wrist. For a brief while, assisted by a caring schoolteacher, Billy’s pleasures in the bird take wing, he discovers there can be more to life than the mining pit he’s destined for. But soon his brother, brutal and brutalized, kills the bird to punish the boy for a small misdemeanour, and this destroys the dream. The oppressions of a mining town’s family and community life, which the boy’s relationship with the bird symbolized an escape from, return, reinforced and inescapable. Class persists, and people are fixed in it through the compulsion to labour, to know their place and stay there.

People in the village are not necessarily bad, but not necessarily good either. They have no time to love one another, to cherish one another’s dreams and desires. Work is too grinding, school prematurely hardens boys of Billy’s age into the men they must become. Softness is despised, and life has to go on but is rarely happy. One moves from tedium to tedium, frustration to frustration, defeat to defeat, and little moments of tenderness and hope – like Billy proudly bearing the kestrel on his wrist – are easily ground to dust, leaving no trace. The film ends with the boy sobbing, controlling his tears, and burying his beloved bird. ‘Not going down t’pit’, he yells defiantly at his brother at the start of the film, but he almost certainly will, and he’ll stay there through his life. This, of course, is the Ken Loach of Cathy Come Home, grimly social-realist, deliberately eschewing dramatic resolution and climaxes that square the circle. We are offered neither the dramatic consolations of hope, nor those of despair, and we are denied also the satisfaction of catharsis.

In the late 1960s, when Loach made the film, there was virtually no other life imaginable for a young boy brought up in that time, in that community, despite the contemporary, and anodyne, reassurances of general social dynamism and class mobility. The working class that Loach loves and feels for as a socialist can also be, as he recognizes and shows us, a space of immense cruelty, heartlessness and humdrum routine. Contra left-wing certitudes, it is not a necessary space of revolutionary upheaval and transformation. It is, rather, a world where people in working-class communities subdue their dreams and transgressions, perform and repeat the social roles ascribed to them. The thankless, repetitive chores of their labouring existence circumscribe, limit, and brutalize them. Loach’s late-sixties style is founded on a political aesthetic where cinema performs the function of social criticism with sober senses, and precludes the illusory completeness – and nobility – of drama.

Death confers the finitude that casts life into a whole, unchangeable pattern, and memory transforms lived life into the structures of drama. Three decades on, Stephen Daldry makes Billy Elliot, and the times have changed. Nostalgia is the founding aesthetic now, and the light of a generous, but resigned, posterity glows upon the working class that once eked out its existence in the pits. Daldry quite evidently glances backward at Loach; his eponymous hero shares a name with the older director’s creation. Very little remains of the world of the heavy-drinking, unionized male miner that Loach castigated. It was a life that Thatcher snuffed out in 1984. On the other hand, the dream of escape has been realized – ironically for most, in the form of a total destruction of livelihood and community; happily for a few, in the form of the individual talents and slices of good fortune that pull them into a new existence. As a consequence, both – the world of the mining community and the world of the dreaming boy – can be retrospectively romanticized. The miners are reasonably gentrified, clean and well dressed and well fed. Their poverty and despair are invoked but never convincingly shown, their need is never shown, and nothing ever leads to real dehumanization. People are basically tender towards one another. They sacrifice themselves for their loved ones, but the sacrifice is never truly made, for no one is truly destroyed. Scabs are chastised, but not ostracized or cruelly humiliated, by their striking workmates. And then there’s the boy who wants to dance, who pursues his dream and fulfils it, and in some measure redeems the failed strike. This redemption is conveyed poetically in the film: the last, soaring moment, the aging father, once so hard and proud, now soft and wobbling with joy as his son leaps into the stage’s shimmer, to the notes of Swan Lake.

The misery and the suffering have been real, but art is ultimately redemptive. The workers are dead, they are redundant, society has no use for them – they live through their children, the generation that redeems their failure, not through the accomplishment of the collective dream that they once shared, but through its displacement on to the terrain of individual talent and genius. There is no such thing as society, as Thatcher once famously declared.

But there’s more depth to the film. Its sympathy with the striking miners is serious. If the movie describes, at some level, the success of Thatcherism, it nevertheless celebrates, and pays homage in a number of ways, to the struggle against it. And there is a tension between the two motifs in the film – the boy’s struggle to break free of his world and that world’s struggle against its annihilator, capitalism.

In one scene, the boy reads out a letter from his mother, written to him while she way dying, to his ballet teacher. It says, in brief: Billy, I’m proud of you, be what you are, live your dream, remember that this is what I want for you. It is, for me, a deeply unsatisfying scene. It’s an effective tearjerker – my eyes filled up – but it’s too easy, kitsch, Hollywoodish, it takes too little effort to produce a scene like that. It’s been done all too many times before, if usually with much less sensitivity. But it does effectively describe the boy’s dream, the content of it, its relationship to his life, his family, his world. He wants a way out of the certainties and limits of a coal miner’s life. When forbidden to dance by his father, he kicks strike posters in anger (while in the background T. Rex’s Children of the Revolution blares). He lashes out at the chains that bind him to his class and prevent him from moving away – and up. And in the process, he lashes out at the solidarity that gives working-class identity political meaning, because this is an identity and a politics that belittles and excludes his desires and dreams.

Another moment describes this working-class existence in different terms. Billy’s father decides to scab to pay for his son’s dance education. Here the choice is a bitter one, between his duty to his comrades and to shared working-class life, and on the other hand to his son and to the future. Once again the resolution is perhaps too easy: he leaves off scabbing, and is welcomed back into the fold, sobbing in his elder son’s arms. Workers accepting a strayed comrade back so easily? No blood spilt? This is far too easy. A strike can be just but unkind, and the miners’ strike was brutal on all sides. And Billy’s future is nevertheless financed; the whole mining village pitches in for his benefit, which, again, is less than plausible. But it’s a moving moment all the same – the father cannot scab, even for his son – but his decision is not a tragic and hopeless one, he doesn’t have to compromise the principles he has lived by all his life to help his son up the ladder. When push comes to shove, he finds a way of saving his son from the bleakness of his own future, and does this without betraying his comrades.

And then, of course, redemption happens – Billy makes it to the Royal Ballet School, and becomes a great dancer. This is rose-tinted fantasy. But it is also moving, and it works. It’s fantasy, but a fantasy worthy of the history it explores. And after all, it explores only one human possibility within the historical tragedy of the miners’ strike, which may be softened but is never belittled or diminished in scale. The film ends, of course, on the crescendo thrill of Billy dancing to Swan Lake, a triumphant affirmation of the worth he wrested in defiance of his upbringing. But it is preceded by a juxtaposition, in successive frames, of images that sit more ambiguously beside this celebratory finale. Billy’s bus, headed to London, tearing him away from the dying world of the miners. Billy’s brother yelling to the boy that he loves him, words lost to Billy, who cannot hear them through the windowpane his nose is pressed against. And finally, a joyless and dark return to work – the strikers, Billy’s father and brother among them – are pressed against each other like sardines in a tin, their headlamps knocking against each other, as the cage they’re locked in pushes them down, once again, into the heart of the earth, a mine that will soon be closed.

Billy realizes his dream, and asserts his claim upon the world in a way his father could never have done. But the horizons of his talent are not all that change in the course of the film. Much more changes, in at least one major life-world. Pre-adolescent boys tentatively explore sexualities that are not straight, and enter professions that their straight male worlds forbid. Billy is not a ‘poof’, but his closest friend, Michael, is. Michael eventually ends up in London, a miner’s child with a lover who is both black and gay, and they sit, at the movie’s close, beside the quintessentially male militant working-class father and son to watch Billy perform on stage. During their childhood, Michael briefly, embarrassedly kisses Billy, and is rebuffed, but not cruelly. And Billy comes to accept Michael for what he is, and – briefly, embarrassedly - returns the kiss towards the end of the movie, as he leaves for London. Men and their sons wear women’s clothes in private. Through ballet, a boy who’s being pressed into boxing discovers a new body and a new way of taking pleasure in it. Billy becomes androgynous through his dance, and his father and brother, contemptuous of poofs and wankers and ballet-dancing men, come to not only accept but also respect him for what he is. Lives, identities and relationships change as an old order ends.

The strike ended in tragedy, in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods, in despair and the apparently permanent victory of Thatcher and the social injustice she embodied and celebrated. Nothing can possibly redeem all this. But still, flowers did bloom in the desert. Within a year, miners were doing the unthinkable, and leading gay parades. At the May Day demonstration in London this year, I personally witnessed the wider historical meaning of this: a rally for workers was led and punctuated by troupes of gay and lesbian activists. And as same-sex couples held hands and kissed and danced, an old working-class man, bent and wizened, grinned toothlessly at me and made a V-sign. Poofs and dykes were no longer the object of militant workers’ hatred. And in the world of cinematic fantasy, Billy danced on stage, and Michael took a gay lover. These redemptions do not outweigh or even balance the tragedy of the strike’s defeat. But neither are they unreal or unworthy.

Billy in Kes reminds those of us who value the rights and hopes of labour that the world of the worker is not pretty or fair or kind, that it is also a world where the weak, marginalized and dissident get screwed over and are thrust into unwanted lives and roles. Billy in Billy Elliot reminds us that a miner’s son can live his dream, and if doing so means copping out of a worker’s existence, it also means work, it also means pain, and it can produce beauty. The final moments of the film can move one to tears. The father, now older and weaker, stumbles through London – an unfamiliar, dizzying world to one who’s never left Durham in his life. Bemused by it all, dragged on by an impatient elder son, he stumbles to an aisle seat at the ballet, and his old head nods and his old eyes shine with tears and rapture as, on stage, his son explodes into music, motion and magic. Kes offers us a vocabulary of grim realism, Billy Elliot one of redemptive fantasy. Both films are recognizably enough made from the Left, though in different registers. Both films challenge some of the Left’s holy cows. That is reason enough to value them both.