The daily barrage

August 12, 2019 by

A fortnight of cover pages from an Australian newspaper.

There is no editorial concession to variety or audience taste. The message is severe and unrelenting.

The fixation of course is not new: see this sample of sottises from a decade ago. Recent treatment of Moscow by North Atlantic commentators bears comparison. New Zealand before a recent election, Canada’s press of late, pursued the same themes with similar want of proportion.

But the extravagance shown above, beyond all tact or measure, merits attention. Blasts of imperial ideology in the popular press are now sustained for longer, at greater extremity of pitch: without let-up or variation, they grow strident.

What will be whipped up by this immoderate focus of hostile attention on a foreign power? What do the atmospherics prepare?

By itself, the vocabulary of think tank and diplomatic summit — the verbal opacity of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, the unvigorous talk about ‘influence operations’ — is not fit to stir popular sentiment.

Front-page pleas to defend the Western citadel of intellectual-property law are unlikely to recruit many, even if they come from a former official in Obama’s State Department.

But attack à outrance, like that shown above, aims to overwhelm rather than appeal. Who could doubt that it achieves its aim?

The Golden Age is in us: Dutch doldrums

April 5, 2016 by

Tomorrow a referendum, grudgingly conceded by authorities, will test the opinion of Dutch voters, alone of any European electorate, on a commercial and political treaty between the EU and Ukraine.

In February, the Dutch government’s communication strategy for the referendum was leaked. So dreary that its authors escaped much embarrassment, the document paired FAQs with approved talking points.

Why should the North Atlantic ecumene of free trade be extended to the marches of Ruthenia?

The Ukrainian population has the right to decide on their country’s own future, as a mature democracy, without the influence of Russia…

Russia is opposed to this agreement and will be happy with a ‘no’ vote. It’s worth keeping in mind that the Russian president Putin hopes to stop this agreement, keeping Ukraine in its sphere of influence and under its control.

Hostility to Moscow is one thing, in a country now accustomed to a more aggressive foreign policy, and where the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 prompted an official day of national mourning, the first since Wilhelmina’s death.

Yet there is little enthusiasm for what plainly is an intra-elite project, of marginal importance to the local population. Polls are unpromising.

Reading the mood, the EU Commission’s president Jean-Claude Juncker recently gave an interview with Dutch newspaper the NRC Handelsblad, and delivered some pointed advice:

I want the Dutch to understand that the importance of this question goes beyond the Netherlands… I don’t believe the Dutch will say no, because it would open the door to a big continental crisis. Russia would reap the fruits of an easy victory…

Watch out, this could tilt the balance in Europe. Not to threaten the citizen, but he must be well aware of his responsibility. The Dutch voter must act on 6 April as a European strategist.

Popular consultation on EU treaties and edicts is, for well-founded reasons of elite prudence, typically avoided. Yet today’s situation in the Netherlands, and the media atmospherics that accompany it, emit a familiar echo of the recent past.

A year ago, in an interview with Dutch newspaper the Volkskrant, Juncker had warned that the continent was becoming ‘ungovernable,’ because centrist parties were increasingly ‘populist.’

Mainstream Dutch parties, aping the irresponsible fringes, were ‘giving space to discontent,’ and ‘appealing to dissatisfaction among voters about politicians’:

I remember very well your referendum in 2005 on the European Constitution. The Labour Party, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals: they refused to conduct a campaign for the Constitution, fearing they’d be associated with the EU.

So it went to hell.

The EU’s biggest problem was ‘the gap between citizens and the Union.’ The institution had become sidetracked by trivial concerns. ‘We must clearly say that the EU is only about the continent’s larger issues, not the many smaller issues that affect the daily lives of citizens.’

2005 voting results

Of course, Juncker’s memory — in 2005 he was president of Luxembourg — is known to be a little unreliable.

Yet eleven years ago, when Dutch voters rejected the proposed EU constitution, consternation had been acute. As in France, which voted one week before the Netherlands, elite opinion on the matter had been as one.

Every Dutch newspaper, mainstream political party, trade union, business group, church and NGO had demanded approval. Retired eminences, including every living prime minister, were rolled out to join the consensus.

Before voting day, with opinion polls unpromising and the French repudiation ringing in their ears, Europe’s elite tried to impress upon the Dutch public the extent of popular responsibility. The moment was not to be trifled with.

The Christian Democrat premier, in an open letter to the Telegraaf, explained that he had visited Auschwitz, Normandy and Yad Vashem. Haunted daily by these images, mindful of their lessons, he wanted the Dutch public to understand that ‘everyone in Europe needs to prevent such things.’

His Justice Minister likewise recommended a ‘yes’ vote, otherwise continental war — Yugoslavia on a European scale — would be risked.

Taking up the theme, a Liberal Party TV advertisement, invoking the national sore point of Srebrenica along with the Judeocide and the Madrid train bombings, reminded voters that ‘danger lurks.’

To ensure peace and safety (‘Never again!’), the EU constitution needed popular ratification at the polling booths.

Following the vote, chastened displays were immediately made in The Hague, Berlin and Brussels. Balkenende, Schröder, Chirac and Prodi declared with humility that the message had been heard and, rest assured, lessons learnt.

Behind the scenes, efforts were in train to circumvent the popular will.

The Labour Party’s leader, Wouter Bos, suggested a new referendum should be held within eighteen months. Repetition would give the Dutch public a chance to correct their mistake.

A constitution, declared the Deputy Prime Minister in the NRC Handelsblad, had not been a fit matter for electoral consultation: ‘We now hold a referendum about a matter on which the population has no idea. This,’ said the minister for economic affairs, ‘creates a bad precedent.’ Before the poll, he had warned that ‘the lights would go out’ in the Netherlands if the EU constitution were rejected.

The Guardian pointed to ‘the perverse streak in the Dutch’, amplified by a momentary ‘surly, rebellious mood.’ In ‘a country that has historically championed internationalism and free trade,’ rejection could be attributed to ‘anti-Muslim sentiment, opposition to EU membership for Turkey and fears over losing control of immigration policy.’

Le Monde Diplomatique explained that ‘hatred’ now dominated Dutch political debate. The ‘no’ vote had been ‘a repeat of the 2002 rightwing populist revolt.’

Conventional opinion thus recognized Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders as demagogic masters of Dutch public opinion.

Here ethno-religious divisions displaced any talk of a breach between rulers and ruled: antagonism between autochtonen and allochtonen (official euphemism for those of Moroccan and Turkish ancestry) was the sole acknowledged principle of political conflict.

Anointed as presumptive kingmaker before the following year’s elections, Wilders in the event secured less than 6 percent of the vote. (The Socialist Party, which has meandered from Maoism to social democracy, scored 17 percent.)

It would take until the 2010 election before Wilders could be hailed as the ‘real winner’, according to Spiegel and the international press.

VVD election ad

Nonetheless, following the murder of Theo van Gogh, the journalist Ian Buruma detected ‘something unhinged about the Netherlands in the winter of 2004’:

Something had changed dramatically in the country of my birth…

‘The country is burning,’ said the announcer on the television news.

In fact, the country wasn’t burning at all. The arsonists in Uden were a bunch of teenagers looking for kicks. The ‘civil war’ that some feared, the pogroms on Muslim areas, the retaliations by newly recruited jihadis, none of this actually happened. Most people kept their cool.

But the constant chatter of politicians, newspaper columnists, television pundits, headline writers, and editorialists in the popular press produced a feverish atmosphere in which the smallest incident, the slightest faux pas, would spark endless rounds of overheated commentary.

That year, a local television poll returned Fortuyn as the greatest Dutch person in history — naturally ahead of Spinoza, Rembrandt, Erasmus, Huygens, De Ruyter, Jan de Witt, Grotius, Multatuli and Van Leeuwenhoek, but worryingly beating even Cruyff.

Why not?

One of several Dutch aspirants to the role of a local Bernard-Henri Levy, the self-promoting philosopher-journalist Yoram Stein, cornered a noted historian of early-modern Europe in a Leiden bookstore. To the latter, Stein attributed the claim that ‘Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an heir of Spinoza.’

Amid national soul-searching, the Dutch public broadcaster dispatched a TV emissary to Princeton to consult with the historian, Jonathan Israel, on contemporary affairs.

What was up with today’s Dutch?

The Dutch deputy prime minister (and minister for Economic Affairs), located the failure in the absence of a bipolar electoral system (as found in the US or Britain). If proportional representation were replaced by a first-past-the-post voting system, the Netherlands could become a ‘normal’ country, in which two responsible, market-friendly parties of the centre-right and centre-left alternated in power.

Thus the most recent Dutch general election was a ‘positive development’ according to the Financial Times.

Defeat of ‘anti-establishment forces’ had ‘given Europe vital breathing space’:

The skies are clearing over Europe. This week Dutch voters injected a much-needed boost of confidence after decisively rejecting eurosceptic voices in a national poll.

The victory of centrist parties supportive of eurozone rescue measures is the first tangible sign that anti-European sentiment may not be as deeply rooted in northern Europe as many had feared.

The outcome, it observed, was ‘greeted with evident relief elsewhere in Europe… with voters shunning eurosceptic candidates on the far right and far left and turning towards mainstream parties.’

In Berlin, the German foreign minister declared that the result ‘marks a strengthening of Europe and a weakening of populists and nationalists.’

To its own evident satisfaction, the FT declared that ‘pragmatism had defeated ideology’, with the poll becoming ‘a two-party contest between the Liberals and Labour.’

Such were the reassuring signs of a stable, respectable polity.

Rutte Samsom

But how typical of broader trends is Europe’s supposed bellwether?

Heine is supposed to have remarked — there exists no record of the quip — that, should the world start coming to an end, he would flee to the Netherlands, since everything happened 50 years later in the Low Countries.

Whether or not the poet’s crack was apocryphal, the fact of Dutch belatedness in Restoration Europe was genuine and striking. What had been the world’s most productive economy — only overtaken by Britain in the late eighteenth century at the earliest, more likely as late as 1820 — now lagged its North Sea peers.

Industrialization in the Netherlands, unlike in newly independent Belgium, did not begin until 1860 or so.


This placement in northwestern Europe’s arrière-garde was unfamiliar. Homeland of ‘the first modern economy,’ for two centuries the Dutch Republic had been, in one historian’s words, ‘the great path-finder between Europe’s past and future.’

Bas van Bavel and Robert Brenner have shown that capitalist property relations — assetless wage labourers and leaseholding tenant farmers — first emerged in the dairy farms, herring fisheries, peatlands and polders of maritime Zeeland, Holland and Groningen in the mid-sixteenth century.

More novel still, the reclaimed polders had been born free of any aboriginal class of peasant smallholders.

Van Bavel 1560 land ownership

dutch agriculture

After 1580 Habsburg absolutism had been precociously overthrown. A new high-revenue, warmaking ‘fiscal-military’ Dutch state was formed in the world’s first bourgeois Revolt.

By virtue of its tax resources, long-term public debt and securities market, the entrepôt became an imperial maritime power active from Brazil to the Spice Islands.

From the 1840s the batig slot from the East Indies contributed around 4 percent of Dutch GDP; as the price of Javanese coffee and sugar boomed, colonial revenue provided up to one-half of the metropolitan state’s total income.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, per capita income in the Netherlands remained nearly double that in the Yangtze Delta, and Dutch literacy was well above British rates.

Such was for a time ‘the model capitalist nation,’ in Marx’s words.

Van Zanden - tax revenue 1500-1800 Holland England France

Capture of Cochin

Are the Netherlands today Europe’s laggard, precursor, standard bearer or national anomaly? The verdict on this small territory seems to depend on whether European publicists are in a complacent, self-satisfied mood, or inclined to panic.

In one register, the continent is a paragon of moderation, secularism and well-adjusted compromise, host to many faiths and open to all cultures, ‘an inspiration to the world’ which other lands — a glance at the United States or Japan — would do well to emulate.

In another vein, the country is exemplar of a European political order recently derailed by xenophobic backlash against cultural and demographic change: ‘Call them the hipsters of European neurosis. Take any of the anxieties that have lately beset Europe’s politics and you find the Dutch got there first.’

At the 2007 Venice Biennale, the Dutch entry ‘Citizens and Subjects: the Netherlands, for example’ took The Hague as emblematic of developments in the capitalist nation-state since 1989. Governments increasingly treated immigration as an ’emergency’, applying the machinery of coercive force rather than welfare and service provision.

Thus does polite opinion veer between self-congratulation and sensationalism, its outlook episodic. Having celebrated the fair-weather comity of Maastricht, two decades later the pact’s bleak upshot provokes liberal commentators to hand-wringing.

Do those presiding over Dutch society today possess a coherent formula for rule? The answer to this question is a source of either journalistic comfort or despair. The nature of this formula, or the origin of its dysfunction, is rarely examined coolly.

What then are the hallmarks of Dutch society and its political order, and how did they arise?

At the convenience of Dutch manufacturing firms, guestworkers from Turkey and Morocco were brought in to accommodate labour demand in textiles, shipbuilding and mining until 1974.

No longer expedient for Den Uyl’s Labour government as recession hit, the inflow nonetheless continued via family reunions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This movement of people, mostly to the Randstad, coincided with a downturn in investment and slack demand for employees.

Migration - Turkey and Morocco

Migration Netherlands

By 1988, just shy of 25 percent of the Amsterdam workforce was unemployed. Over 50 percent of Moroccan-born residents were out of work.

The Wassenaar Agreement confirmed a tilt in distributive power to the advantage of capital: the wage share of GDP fell 10 percentage points. Real wages did not recover their 1980 level for another generation.

A 2006 article in the Cambridge Journal of Economics named Holland as ‘the OECD country where, after 1982, wage restraint was most adamantly pursued at the national level, by labour unions, employers’ associations and government’:

The response to the, by international standards exceptionally high, reduction in real wage growth, that was achieved after 1982, has been disappointing: Dutch GDP growth and productivity growth were lower during 1984–2000 than in the period 1960–80; and while post–1984 GDP growth has been desultory, labour productivity growth has exhibited a clear downward trend, that was much stronger than the OECD average.

Dutch real wages

Dutch profit rate

Profits recovered regardless.

Enormous pension funds — the Dutch system of retirement provision is one of the world’s most privatized — supply a pool of ready savings for the local capital market. Rather than facilitating productive investment, these assets allow Dutch firms to borrow for mergers, acquisitions and divestment.

Neglected for four decades now, the fixed capital stock has become run down and obsolete, while technical change has stagnated. From 2000 until the crash of 2008, private demand was accounted for by residential investment (construction and dwellings improvement).

Capital age Netherlands

Dutch technical change

This peculiar, hollowed-out domestic profile grants the Netherlands its international role: linking the hinterlands of German-centred Mitteleuropa to the broader North Atlantic zone.

Always tightly entwined with London and US financial markets, the Netherlands played an outsized part in gross capital flows within Europe and without in the leadup to the 2007 crisis.

From the late 1990s, foreign ownership of Dutch government bonds rose to wartime levels.

Ownership % Dutch government debt

National territory, dense with people, also accommodates the virtual encampment of corporations.

In 2012 the Netherlands accounted for 15 percent of all foreign profits reported by US multinational enterprises, easily the most of any country in the world (tax havens Ireland, Bermuda and the UK trail far behind).

This haul of loot from the Netherlands — nearly three times as much as is yielded from US affiliates in the UK — is generated by less than one-sixth of the number of employees.

The Netherlands is home to more than 20 000 ‘letterbox companies’, domiciled there for the jurisdiction’s favourable menu of tax exemptions.

In 2009 a White House press release listed the Netherlands as a tax haven, provoking an official démarche from the Dutch embassy in Washington. The so-called ‘Dutch sandwich’ has entered the journalistic lexicon when discussing tax avoidance.

Dutch sandwich

In 2006 the rock group U2 notoriously shifted its operations from Ireland to the more ‘tax competitive’ Dutch jurisdiction. The Rolling Stones had done the same in the 1970s.

Rolling Stones Dutch tax haven

As in other national economies with swollen financial sectors, the country is now exceptionally unequal.

Dutch housewold wealth distribution

The onset of crisis has not helped matters.

Several large firms (Fortis, ABN Amro. Philips, V&D and Nutreco) cut spending or became insolvent. Non-residential fixed capital formation, already low, fell by 16 percent in 2009. Household expenditure has fallen every year since 2007.

Nearly a third of Dutch mortgage holders held negative equity in the their homes, after a fall in house prices of 15% in 2008 was followed by another 6% in 2012.

Net wealth - Netherlands and others

While private spending is constrained, the Dutch government, which saw its credit rating downgraded in November 2013, spends a similarly low amount on social spending to its British and Luxembourg equivalents.

Traditional frugality has not slackened. Having disposed of the uncooperative Wilders, the Liberal prime minister found new partners willing to hike the VAT, cut health subsidies, loosen employment protection and raise the pension age.

After Vestia, a public-housing association, lost €20 million on derivatives deals, the government obliged it to sell residential properties it owned. This left occupants to become tenants of an international investment fund.

Circumstances are such that, eighteen months ago, 1600 people applied for a job working in the cloakroom of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

In the king’s address to parliament that year, Willem-Alexander, as ventriloquist for the prime minister, declared the end of the Dutch welfare state.

Amid this panorama of gaping inequality and social misery, political authority has remained robust.

The Christian Democrat Ruud Lubbers, taking office at the same time as Helmut Kohl, ruled for 12 years; Kok followed for eight years, succeeded by Balkenende for the same span; Rutte is now in his sixth year.

Electoral convulsions, provoking alarm among bien-pensant commentators, have been absorbed without fuss by political operatives themselves. Upheaval at the polls has not been matched by any corresponding fragility at the apex of executive power, or disturbance in the streets and workplaces.

The partisan system is another matter. Differences of label and identity have long outgrown ideological divisions among Dutch political parties. In the 1990s, a pensée unique spawned purple coalitions uniting Labour with liberals in the same enduring, market-friendly ruling cabinets.

To the numbing chorus praising the wonders of markets, efficiency and privatization, an angry counterpoint naturally emerged, drawing attention from a dazed electorate, cast adrift for two decades while wages stagnated and profits surged.

Among the parliamentary blur, how to distinguish friend from foe, sturdy advocate from unprincipled chancer? The old markers of partisan affiliation and programme were henceforth meaningless covers for momentary calculation. Were not shared culture, religion and ‘community’ the only reliable means of securing loyalty and defining boundaries of group membership?

A succession of entrepreneurial figures from within the established scene — Hans Janmaat, the Liberal and former EU commissioner Frits Bolkestein, the Labour Party’s Paul Scheffer, the doyenne of Dutch social democracy, Hilda Verwey-Jonker, and the Freedom Party ideologue Martin Bosma — thus took loud media stands in defence of the Enlightenment, social cohesion and ‘our fundamental values.’

Unique virtues of the Netherlands were threatened by Islam and recent immigrants:

If everyone’s cultural identity is allowed to persist unimpaired, integration will suffer. And integration there must be, because the Turkish and Moroccan immigrants are here to stay. That is now recognized by all.

If integration is officially declared government policy, which cultural values must prevail: those of the non-Muslim majority or those of the Muslim minority?


Here there can be no compromise and no truck.

In many parts of the Muslim world the principles I have mentioned are not honoured. Islam is not only a religion, it is a way of life. In this, its vision goes counter to the liberal separation of church and state.

In many Islamic countries there is little freedom of expression. The case of Salman Rushdie may be extreme but still indicates how far apart we are on this issue.

The same goes for tolerance and non-discrimination. The way women are treated in the world of Islam is a stain on the reputation of that great religion.

I repeat that on these essential points there can be no compromise. These principles have a value that is not relative but of the essence.

As elsewhere, the Rushdie affair supplied a pretext.

Centre Democrats - Nederland voor de Nederlanders

Centre Democrats

Far from being threatened, authority was stabilized by these unruly entrants. In Fortuyn and Wilders, it found a supplement of charismatic appeal to make a hidebound parliamentary scene more appetizing, without ever risking popular mobilization against the forces of order in Dutch society.

The compensation of ethno-politics now provides solace and distraction for all comers. The tribal heraldry of orange lion and Islamic crescent alike salves the wounds of unkind labour markets, harassment by police, bureaucratic hostility, political remoteness, social displacement and cultural unmooring.

By comparison, the Socialist Party’s program offers thin, meliorist gruel: ‘Human dignity, equality of worth, and solidarity together with our rational analysis of the world.’

The shift in popular priorities was sealed when the Immigration Minister, defying advice from Cruyff and others, grandly rejected the naturalization of a promising Cote d’Ivoire footballer.

Might maintenance of domestic order now interfere with The Hague’s mission abroad? Can international high politics, however sound and responsible, survive a narrowing base of popular support?

Since 1945 the Dutch elite has been ‘doggedly pro-European.’

Together with Belgium’s Paul-Henri Spaak, J.W. Beyen — a Philips and Unilever executive, parachuted into the postwar foreign ministry without so much as membership of a political party to his record — embraced supranational institutions as the best way to secure Dutch influence otherwise diminished by the end of colonialism. Continental integration meant upward national mobility.

Meanwhile, having briefly defied Truman in Indonesia, The Hague was brought to its senses by Acheson’s threat to discontinue NATO and Marshall Plan support. Thenceforth Dutch governments have humbly made amends with loyal Atlanticism. Joseph Luns would become NATO’s longest-serving secretary general.

Little genuine risk to these priorities is posed by the electoral success of Wilders, who welcomed the lynching of Gaddafi, expressed hope for the new Libyan regime, salutes Tel Aviv as ‘the first line of defence for the West,’ and approved the deployment of Dutch F-16s to Syria and Iraq.

In Europe, on the other hand, the Union’s oligarchic structure provides the best insurance against popular truculence.

The EU’s locus of power is vested in obscure bureaucracy, adept at ‘closed-door decisionmaking.’ Matters are occasionally delegated to the wider population when the stakes are sufficiently trivial or voters can be trusted to behave responsibly. Otherwise this ‘collusive enterprise… serves to take the steam out of issues which European politicians find too hot to handle in public.’

Where voters thwart the will of the regenten, no dodge is deemed too high-handed to bypass the obstruction. In 2005 the EU constitutional treaty promoted joint military action, cooperation between intelligence agencies, and compatible immigration statutes. These were matters of importance and, after rejection at the polls, they were swiftly achieved via the Treaty of Lisbon.

What of translatlantic solidarity? Balkenende’s first cabinet, which included representatives from the Pim Fortuyn List, prominently supported Washington’s regime-change operations in Iraq. Its foreign minister, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, so excelled himself that he was recruited as NATO secretary general. There he oversaw the ramping up of military occupation in Afghanistan.

Indeed, during the last 20 years under Kok, Balkenende and Rutte, the country’s armed forces have participated in each war initiated by the US: the Netherlands provides the only example of such devotion outside the core Anglosphere.

Thus has the Dutch state’s militarism abroad erected and furnished the domestic stage on which Fortuyn, Hirsi Ali and Wilders strut. War against one Muslim population after another contributes the emulsifying substance without which their demagogy would crumple.

Bolkestein in 1989, speaking as the Soviet satellite states collapsed, invoked a ‘clash of values’ and ‘universal rights’: Huntington and Ignatieff at once. He thereby introduced into local discourse the mood music that would accompany NATO’s expansion and belligerence in Eastern Europe, Southwest Asia, North Africa and Central Asia over the next 25 years.

Hirsi Ali shuttled easily from the Dutch Labour Party to the Liberals, then to the American Enterprise Institute.

For the most part there has, therefore, been continuity between domestic agenda and international stance. Where conflict does appear, the truth is that the popular will as expressed at the domestic ballot box is not decisive in the formation of any European state’s politico-military policy abroad. Plans are designed and deliberated upon on high. When they do not already correspond to the wishes of a domestic constituency, civic assent — negative compliance, if not positive enthusiasm — can usually be contrived; where not, it is trumped or flouted. However disagreeable to the voter, parliamentary majorities are stitched together.

The brutal reality of West European politics is that no government has successfully defied the wishes of the United States on a matter of strategic importance since the Suez Crisis.

No matter which crass, deliberately tactless parvenu is chosen to occupy the Catshuis in coming years, this binding imperative cannot be shirked by any Dutch ruler.

Wilders, pledging to reclaim ‘sovereignty’ from Brussels, has said little about the overlord in Washington. He is, assures Bloomberg, ‘strongly pro-US and pro-Israel.’ These are the prerequisites for high office.

Should Turkish accession to the EU ever become a strategic necessity, Dutch assent will doubtless be forthcoming. The most recent advance, in 2005, came during The Hague’s previous presidency of the EU Council; that it again occupies the office is no coincidence.

The Netherlands possesses an enthusiastic demographic constituency with straightforward material interests in Turkish membership of the EU. The liberal establishment has long supported Ankara’s entry as a matter of honour. The cavils of a rump right, indulged for the moment while convenient, will not be brooked if necessity demands otherwise.

timmermans erdogan

But for now chauvinism of the Heimat thrives. Nearly a decade of prolonged European stagnation, punctuated by the blowback of violent attentats and displaced populations, has dissolved cooperative dreams.

The deputy prime minister warns Europe that ‘the dykes are in danger of bursting’ due to migration from the continent’s east. The finance minister suggests that refugee inflows might ‘blow up the welfare state.’ He proposes that the Schengen Area be trimmed to the Benelux countries, Germany, Austria and Sweden, explaining that ‘countries must take their own measures to protect their society.’

These are the polite voices of centre-left moderation.

Deplored everywhere as regression by a formerly pragmatic, liberal-minded people, Dutch anti-immigrant ideology lacks a local reservoir of atavistic images, depicting a nation unspoiled before the arrival of aliens.

Historians estimate that foreigners already made up one-third of the Dutch maritime labour market (whaling fleet, naval seamen, herring fisheries and merchant marine, VOC crews to the East and West Indies) during the late seventeenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century, they numbered one half.

The Dutch Republic, moreover, was a loose confederation that bequeathed few unitary institutions to the post-Napoleonic state. The monarchy is a recent contrivance. It was restored largely by force of Prussian, British and Russian arms, its rule arranged behind the scenes at Vienna.

The Golden Age thus supplies no obvious images d’Épinal of the public sphere (as distinct from the private household). How then to exalt a continuous heritage around which national sentiment today might congregate?

Chauvinist pride is unable to fix on a distinct religious foundation or appeal directly to ethnic bonds. Instead it celebrates the Netherlands’ contemporary cultural mores: sexual tolerance, emancipation of lifestyle, domestic customs and conversational candour as the badge of national character. Provos of the 1960s are telescoped backwards to Spinoza and Erasmus, in a fantasy of unbroken Dutch Enlightenment.

Staid, unremarkable centuries of Calvinism, not to mention contemporary sources of frustration, are projected on to achterlijke foreigners, yet to achieve Enlightenment:

I don’t feel like going through the emancipation of women and homosexuals all over again… because of Turkish and Moroccan boys…

I don’t hate Islam. I find it a backward culture. I have travelled in many parts of the world. Wherever Islam rules, it’s simply ghastly. All that ambiguity. They’re a bit like those old Calvinists. Calvinists are always lying.

No slave to consistency, Fortuyn also appealed to nostalgia for the lost Netherlands of the 1950s. In that postwar decade, before the loosening of the 1960s, traditional cultural authority remained intact under the Labour government.

Behind such parades of national self-love, there is compensation for today’s worldly hardship. Smugness offers a surrogate, a displacement of passions that disguises the source of straitened circumstances for many Dutch people.

But the fascination with Dutch ‘norms and values,’ the concern for heritage protection of the national character, has a deeper source.

The capitalist market unleashes powerful homogenizing tendencies, with its ‘convergence criteria,’ standardized products, land clearances, and disdain for tradition as an obstacle to trade and profit. National distinctions in European manners, dress, cuisine, buildings, artistic output, material culture, child-rearing practices and political institutions have all diminished since 1945. Hybrids have formed.

The Netherlands, famously open to exchange with the world beyond its borders, has adulterated or relinquished many national peculiarities, and absorbed others.

Having razed all features from the landscape, however, the market grows tired of uniformity. Announcing a new respect for endangered folkways, it seeks to promote ersatz ‘local’ flavour.

National identity is retrofitted as brand, colour or product feature.

Thus a central business and recreational district, planned by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, was recently completed for the city of Almere. Almere is a polder town reclaimed from the former Zuiderzee, built during the 1970s.

The new city centre was named ‘Dutchtown.’

A nameless, placeless town… The polder was a perfect tabula rasa, without context, without history, without obstacles, and with a topography that would be shaped entirely in accordance with their wishes. Since there was nothing, everything was possible.

A description of Almere, a kind of exurb built on sand, appears at the conclusion of Simon Schama’s brilliant book on Dutch culture, The Embarrassment of Riches.

The new city represents, says Schama, the recovery of one essential ‘temper of Dutch culture’: gezelligheid, or coziness:

Recently, in reaction against the vast anonymous compounds of high-rise buildings that comprise the urban overspills of the Randstad, there has been a turn back to neighborly intimacy…

And for a city that is supposed to house 200 000 people, Almere makes a decent effort to return to the principle of the buurt, the neighbourhood, by arranging its houses around courtyards.

Inevitably these have a somewhat artificial look, so that from the air Almere looks more like a cantonment… than a group of spontaneously clustered houses.

But there is much brick and tile there, sloping roofs and little yards, and the people have responded with their own natural inclinations for the gezellig.

Gemeenschap, or its pastiche, was thus recovered in unlikely circumstances. Where rootless anomie might otherwise be thought to reign, ‘Dutchness’ had been planted.

In his S, M, L, XL, Koolhaas noted how the postmodern ‘Generic City’ simulates reverence for the past:

There is always a quarter called Lipservice, where a minimum of the past is preserved; usually it has an old train/tramway or double-decker bus driving through it, ringing ominous bells — domesticated versions of the Flying Dutchman’s phantom vessel.

Its phone booths are either red and transplanted from London, or equipped with small Chinese roofs. Lipservice — also called Afterthought, Waterfront, Too Late, 42nd Street, simply the Village, or even Underground — is an elaborate mythic operation: it celebrates the past as only the recently conceived can. It is a machine.

The Generic City had a past. In its drive for prominence, large sections of it somehow disappeared, first unlamented — the past apparently was surprisingly unsanitary, even dangerous — then, without warning, relief turned into regret…

In spite of its absence, history is the major preoccupation, even industry, of the Generic City. On the liberated grounds, around the restored hovels, still more hotels are constructed to receive additional tourists in direct proportion to the erasure of the past.

Meanwhile, late-capitalist ‘Junkspace’, said Koolhaas, meant ‘the end of Enlightenment, its resurrection as farce.’

In this, as well, today’s Netherlands is hardly alone.

If a crime, a very widespread one: Brazil’s tropical Atlanticism

March 23, 2016 by

A mere 25 years after Flaubert invented a new literary technique for puncturing the daydreams, bêtises and received opinion of the French Second Empire, technology transfer allowed Machado de Assis to release an upgraded version in Brazil.

Machado’s Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881) arrived just as Brazil’s monarchy expired and coffee planters forfeited their human property. Rarely has a novel been so perfectly on the spot to expose ruling delusions at their moment of enunciation. Still relatively obscure behind its lusophone veil, today it remains the national classic.

Towards the novel’s end, its narrating antihero sizes up his brother-in-law, a grotesque ornament of Rio de Janeiro’s mercantile and slave-trading class:

Perhaps Cotrim’s scruples will seem excessive to one who didn’t know that he possessed an extremely honourable character. I myself was unjust with him…

Since he was cold in his manners, he had enemies who even accused him of being a barbarian. The only fact alleged in that particular was his frequent sending of slaves to the dungeon, from where they would emerge dripping with blood.

But, alongside the fact that he only sent recalcitrants and runaways, it so happens that, having been long involved in the smuggling of slaves, he’d become accustomed to a certain way of dealing that was a bit harsher than the business required, and one can’t honestly attribute to the original nature of man what is simply the effect of his social relations.

The proof that Cotrim had pious feelings could be found in his love for his children… He wasn’t perfect, needless to say…

In short, he may have been owing in a few courtesies, but he didn’t owe anyone a penny.

Machado’s late-nineteenth century irony may seem a little heavy: able, surely, to puncture only the crudest and most complacent of elite hypocrisies.

Yet in point of historical fact, self-apology in the Brazilian Empire, the last slave society in the Americas, regularly proceeded in just the manner lampooned.

By 1870 or so, the sense of provincial isolation and national backwardness in the country’s most urbanized, developed districts was stark. Coffee planters in Rio, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, their counter-Abolitionist repertoire now depleted, relied upon diffident and contorted intellectual defences of labour coercion.

With Britain’s Royal Navy having dealt a humiliating slap to Brazilian amour-propre in its own territorial waters, local ideology adopted, as its alibi, the lofty notes of Palmerston’s liberalism in its high era.

Royal Navy 1851 Brazil

How was this done?

In bland oratory before the Chamber of Deputies, lumbering editorial columns in the Jornal do Commercio, and the private diaries and letters of great merchants and landholding families, the awkward details of today’s personal misdeeds were dissolved in a general mist of timeless, universal national failings.

The US South’s ‘our peculiar institution’ had a sheepish Brazilian counterpart. There the contemptuous term for national defects — brasileirice — mitigated the local oligarchy’s gravest enormities, converting them into the merest quirk and bagatelle.

Institutional imperfections, acknowledged as the source of individual misconduct, tempered any undue criticism of either Brazilian notables or society itself.

Cleansed in this bath of tartuffery, mutual self-satisfaction was restored. After a few doleful shrugs, the virtue of planters, politicians and slave traders gleamed anew.

Thus, in his book on Machado, the literary critic Roberto Schwarz quotes a parliamentary address made by the Conservative Party’s then-leader.

In 1850, Eusébio de Queirós sought public exculpation for Brazil’s political corps, following abolition of the transatlantic slave trade:

Let us be frank. In Brazil, the [slave] traffic was linked to the interests, or, more correctly, to the presumed interests of our planters.

And in a country in which agriculture has so much power, it was natural that public opinion… would express itself in favour of the traffic.

Why does it then surprise us that our politicians bowed before that law of necessity? Why is it surprising that all of us — friends or enemies of the traffic — bowed to that necessity?

Gentlemen, if this was a crime, it was a very widespread crime in Brazil. But I maintain that when in a nation all the political parties hold power, when all of its politicians have been called to exercise that power, and all of them agree on one policy, that policy must have been based on very powerful considerations.

It cannot possibly be a crime, and it would be bold to call it a mistake.

The senator for Rio de Janeiro, Queirós was himself born in Angola to a family of slave merchants. He would later remark to parliament: ‘Gentlemen, the great interests, if they do not justify, almost always explain the behaviours which, at first glimpse, are not understood.’

Such, more recently, has been the self-justification proffered by successive Brazilian governments, as corruption scandals consumed the high command of the Workers’ Party (PT).

First came revelations of systematic vote-buying by Lula’s first administration in 2005. More recently a judicial investigation into Petrobras kickbacks, its details gleefully amplified by Globo and the other São Paulo media, has dogged Dilma Rousseff.

Alas, both presidents have declared sombrely, such lack of probity has long been the Brazilian way in public office and business. Contemporary enormities reappear in a flattering light, they explain, when compared to the failings of their predecessors.

When reckoning the moral ledger and comparing eras, must not adjustments be made for inflation?

Such imponderables yield the result that no person convicted of insider trading or other capital-markets crime has ever been imprisoned in Brazil.

After narrow acclamation at the polls in late 2014, the president imposed a ‘fiscal hawk’, nicknamed ‘Scissorhands’, as finance minister. On Dilma’s behalf, Joaquim Levy busied himself ‘cancelling subsidies and cutting handouts.’

The Wall Street Journal made approving note of Dilma’s agile reversal from her electoral platform, with ‘a move to more conservative policymaking’:

During the presidential campaigns, Ms. Rousseff ran campaign ads portraying bankers maniacally laughing as food disappeared from the plates of the poor. Just weeks later, the former Marxist rebel is appointing a banker to her cabinet.

Personal origins, of course, as Brazilian history proves, are no reliable guide to political conduct: Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, was himself once a Marxist sociologist of worldwide fame.

Another scholar, Roberto Unger, renowed theorist of ’empowerment’ at Harvard Law School, briefly became Lula’s minister of Strategic Affairs. (Not the only celebrity appointment: Gilberto Gil was appointed culture minister.)

While in office, Unger oversaw development of a national defence strategy that would, as its main planks, boost industrial capacity in Brasilia’s armaments industry, and plunge Brazil’s armed forces in peacekeeping expeditions abroad.

A few months after the 2014 election, the Economist observed with satisfaction that Dilma’s fiscal and monetary programme was now ‘closer to that of her defeated opponent, Aécio Neves, than to the one she campaigned on.’

Disjunction between spectacle and policy substance remains.

Meanwhile Brazil’s historical pattern of electoral allegiance has been inverted, with the PT now winning voters in the former oligarchic redoubt of the northeast, and disapproval in the traditional urban-industrial centres of the south.

Brazil 2014 presidential election by region

Yet two years of deep recession and the Petrobras scandal now threaten to undo Dilma’s presidency. Brazil’s familiar framework of state-capital relations, erected with Washington’s tutelage in the early 1950s, preserved under the generals, and rejuvenated over the past two decades under PT governments, may yet capsize.

This institutional model was settled upon as a second-best solution when full privatization was not politically acceptable and local credit markets insufficiently deep. Market failures, and the longer time horizons needed for investments in energy and transportation, justified the Brazilian state’s holding a controlling stake in hundreds of firms at national and provincial level.

Today the state holds minority equity positions and provides subsidized credit to local firms via its development bank (BNDES), sovereign wealth fund and pension funds. Rents in oil, mining and utilities, sizeable during the long commodity boom, were shared between government and private owners.

Returns from these high-yield investments funded costly social programmes like the Bolsa Família. Meanwhile disbursement of loans and contracts, and appointment to boards, benefited obedient functionaries and politically connected capitalists (notoriously, Eike Batista and Marcelo Odebrecht).

Thus was a political coalition stitched together.

brazil development bank equity holdings

Into this consensual scene spilled the June 2013 demonstrations, made up largely of the highly educated but tenuously employed. Wrongfooted by negative headlines during the FIFA Confederations Cup, the government responded with a mixture of repression and cosmetic concessions on public services.

To popular discontent was soon added a split in elite ranks.

The following year brought unwinding of the global carry trade, with collapse of the oil price and the emerging-markets asset bubble. Brazil’s currency, government revenue and growth rate fell violently.

In such circumstances, when striking at the nexus between Petrobras, the PT, construction firms, electoral finance and parliamentary clientelism, it suddenly was possible for media and judiciary to challenge longstanding conventions of domestic rule.

Local commentators and international observers now insist that a private-ownership market economy is an all-or-nothing affair. Brazilian firms have become financially constrained since dollar liquidity dried up in 2014. There is no room for coddled favourites or sweetheart deals. State interference in credit allocation must end; government liabilities must be reduced; the double-bottom line of social goals for private enterprises must be replaced by the single objective of profitability.

Since 2011 Dilma has promised much but failed to reform pensions or attack inflation.

The budget deficit and the currency crisis now demand focus on short-term imperatives: restoring creditworthiness of the state and private borrowers, and cutting costs.

The electoral base of the PT — and the constitutionally mandated existence of multiple veto points in the presidency, cabinet, legislature and Party bureaucracy — present obstacles to this project. Painful reforms are too easily thwarted. What is demanded is rule by technocrats insulated from popular accountability.

How to impose such a government, only a year into Dilma’s presidential term, without threatening the entire post-1989 legal framework of civilian rule?

Following his release from detention this week, Lula observed of the PT’s Paulista enemies: ‘with the press leading the investigative process they are going to re-found the republic.’

recent article from the Financial Times summarized the contending perspectives among the local elite leading to Brazil’s ongoing political crisis:

One São Paulo businessman points out that the impeachment of Mr Collor not only relieved the intense pressure within the political system, it also provided the backdrop for important economic reforms — notably the Real Plan that ended hyperinflation…

Most importantly, there is little consensus among the economic, media and political elite about how to resolve the current crisis and considerable anxiety about the consequences of a new impeachment.

Lula’s recent detention may signal the end of the prolonged irresolution. It had, noted the FT, ‘raised hopes among investors that the barriers to political change may be overcome sooner than expected.’

What can be concluded from this scene?

On one hand, since restoration of civilian government in 1985, Brazil has witnessed abrupt reversals in regional growth patterns alongside birth of new political parties. This has produced dramatic swings in electoral affiliation from one ballot to the next (and policy continuity after the new government is sworn in). The 1988 constitution has already been amended more than 70 times.

On the other hand, amid the novelty of social-democratic rule, there seem to persist the perennial national traditions: complaisant acceptance of staggering levels of corruption, deference to authority and respect for social hierarchy.

people 50 most beautiful people 1990

In this huge territory, whose glinting surface announces stillness at one moment and churning disorder the next, what deeper processes are at work?

An exceptionally helpful guide to Brazil’s long-term development from Vargas to Lula can be found in Adalmir Marquetti’s study of Brazil’s macroeconomic performance between 1953 and 2003.

Following the trente glorieuses of postwar industrial development (Kubitschek famously promised 50 years of progress in five years), Brazilian capital accumulation was much slowed after 1980.

Debt repayments to creditors abroad absorbed much of the domestic surplus product. The local propertied classes frittered away most of the rest on luxury displays.

Investment per worker - Brazil

batista car living room

Infrastructure (roads, ports and electricity) consequently languishes in a deplorable state. Only 14 percent of roads in the country are paved. Power rationing regularly looms during summer months.

Paucity of fixed investment, and Brazil’s sectoral shift from manufacturing to less equipment-intensive activities, has also meant a slowdown in mechanization.

Capital-labour ratio Brazil

Lance Taylor has outlined the consequence of policies adopted, by Cardoso and Lula alike, at the behest of the IMF:

Brazil enjoyed GDP growth of about 7.5% per year for more than three decades prior to the international debt crisis triggered by the Mexican default in 1982.

Foreign finance dried up immediately, and to meet debt service obligations Brazil had to transform a trade deficit of 2.2% of GDP in 1980 to a surplus of 5.9% by 1984.

This massive macroeconomic shift required currency devaluation (itself inflationary in an “indexed” economy where most current prices were tied to lagged overall price indexes), demand contraction, and (arguably) steadily rising prices as a means for cutting back on real spending via “forced saving.”

Liberalization-cum-appreciation were associated with de-industrialization. In metropolitan São Paulo, the industrial heart of the country, in 1990 48.7% of private sector workers were employed in industry, with the figure falling to 32% in 1999.

The employment share of services correspondingly increased. Relative service sector as well as skilled wages also rose. In six major metropolitan regions, total unemployment (“open” and “hidden”) went from 10.3% in 1990 to 17.7% in 2000.

As in other countries, demand growth was insufficient to offset faster productivity growth so there was negative net job creation. Informality in the labor market also increased.

Thus growth in domestic labour productivity stalled for two decades, resuming only with Lula’s accession.

Labour productivity Brazil

After falling throughout the 1970s and the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s, Brazil’s output-capital ratio (or ‘capital productivity’, by analogy) recovered in the late 1980s and has since fluctuated with the business cycle.

Labour productivity and capital productivity - Brazil

This result was due less to technical progress, than to the increasing price of output relative to the price of capital goods (equipment, machinery, non-residential buildings). The relative price of capital rose until 1989 then became less costly.

Output-capital ratio Brazil

What, meanwhile, of distributional conflict in notoriously unequal Brazil?

The share of profits in national income, after rising sharply under the dictatorship, fell again from the late 1970s until the mid-1990s. Since the Cardoso administration, the profit share has recovered, with productivity growth mostly outstripping the rise in wages and salaries.

Wage share Brazil - Cardoso and Lula

forbes brazil

Such is the result of drastically unequal bargaining power in the labour market: around 42 percent of non-agricultural employees are informal. Brazil has the greatest number of informal employees of any country besides India.

When combined with stabilization of the output-capital ratio, this favourable distributional climate under Cardoso and Lula has raised the average rate of profit.

Profit rate Brazil - Cardoso and Lula

What by 2007 the world’s journalists hailed as a Brazilian Wirtschaftswunder is nonetheless beset by financial fragility of a familiar sort.

Like other economies that have experienced short-term capital inflow in pursuit of speculative gains, Brazil follows a periodic cycle, at gradually greater amplitudes, of asset-price inflation and exchange-rate appreciation, allowing a consumption boom fuelled by imports and easy liquidity, followed by deindustrialization and a real-estate bubble, and culminating in withdrawal of external funds, currency depreciation and inflation.

Brazil current account to GDP

Brazil exchange rate 2012-2015

Brazil indeed shows evidence of ‘early deindustrialization’: a switching of capital into natural resources and raw materials. Brazilian firms now operate closest to the technological frontier (i.e. approximate the level of the world’s most productive and mechanized firms) in mining, energy and food production.

Brazil labour productivity by manufacturing subgroup

Once more, as though four decades of import substitution had never occurred, the country depends on external suppliers for machinery and consumer goods.

In 1990 Collor, busily dismantling protectionist props for the local steel and automotive industry, joked that ‘Brazil does not produce cars; it builds horse carts.’

Today the rustic image seems apt. Soybeans, sugarcane and iron ore buoy the current account.

Brazil manufacturing industries - trade balance by subgroup

Even as unproductive sectors such as finance and residential construction become more important drivers of growth, since the mid-1990s Brazilian economic output has become increasingly tied to rising carbon dioxide emissions. This is an index of the weight of agricultural and mining activities.

CO2 to GDP ratio Brazil

Brasilia’s external posture follows from this domestic pattern of production. Since the 1990s governments have preoccupied themselves with regional and WTO trade negotiations in which agricultural subsidies might be reduced and the field cleared for Brazil’s ‘national champions’.

What more generally?

Despite the vast size of its population, territory and internal market, and regular overblown promises of its ascent to the ranks of a major power, Brazil has never been a diplomatic or military entity of much significance.

The New York Times complained recently:

While the other three large emerging economies, China, Russia and India, are pursuing muscular foreign policies, under Ms. Rousseff’s watch, Brazil’s voice in the international arena barely registers above a whisper…

American officials saw significant promise in Ms. Rousseff during her early years in office, viewing her as a more pragmatic leader than her predecessor and mentor.

In the United States, misgivings have been voiced that Chinese FDI and Brazilian exports to China make Brasilia a less reliable ally for Washington in the General Assembly.

The odour lingers of Lula’s defiance over Palestine and Ahmadinejad. Brazilian qualms about Obama’s mega-trade agreements irk, without actually endangering a prized US objective.

Yet the facts show Dilma’s government going out of its way to accommodate the State Department. Upon taking office, she immediately embraced the ‘international consensus’ on Tehran, and replaced Lula’s foreign minister with a more amenable nonentity.

The Financial Times noted a ‘growing sense of bonhomie between the two countries’:

For the US, Brazil is looking more than ever like a friendly face in an increasingly multipolar world,  one that is tilting slowly towards east Asia… Brazilian foreign policy has changed subtly under Dilma Rousseff – and become less aggravating to the US…

For ten years Brazil has been nominal head of the US-led military intervention in Haiti. In 2010 Washington and Brasilia signed a military-cooperation agreement governing technology exchange, joint exercises, logistics and intelligence sharing.

Last year Dilma, beaming on a visit to the US capital, assured all that she harboured no hard feelings towards Obama for the NSA’s monitoring of her telephone and email conversations, because ‘should he ever need nonpublic information about Brazil, he would just pick up the phone and call me.’

The ‘love affair’ between Lula and Sarkozy sealed deals for Brazil to acquire submarines and Dassault aircraft, tightening relations with one of NATO’s most belligerent members. Buying French weaponry and sensors, with a technology-transfer agreement attached, is a traditional method by which aspiring military powers enhance their strategic reach while remaining safely within the US security umbrella.

Vast dollar reserves, and the march of Brazil’s agricultural frontier to Pará and the remote Amazonian west, have increased commercial and logistic ties with the rest of Latin America.

Brasilia, notes the New York Times, plays ‘a constructive role in the economic and political evolution’ of Cuba as it is reincorporated into the capitalist world-system. BNDES recently funded and the engineering firm Odebrecht built Port Mariel, a Cuban container terminal tricked out with a Special Economic Zone nearby.

Meanwhile, in support of ‘multi-polarity’, Lula embarked on diplomatic and commercial forays across the Atlantic.

The lusophone band stretching intermittently from Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, to São Tomé and Príncipe and Angola, offered Brazil a potential strategic beachhead in the Gulf of Guinea. It has begun to project its navy into the oil-rich maritime seaboard between Senegal to Angola, taking part in US-led anti-piracy exercises off West Africa, and providing equipment and training to local armed forces.

Since 2008, it has conducted joint naval exercises off southern Africa with its Indian and South African counterparts. Lula installed a ‘military advisory team’ in Walvis Bay, and concluded military agreements with South Africa in 2003, Guinea-Bissau (2006), Mozambique (2009), Nigeria (2010), Senegal (2010), Angola (2010), and Equatorial Guinea (2010 and 2013).

Brazilian corps Africa

The bonds of shared culture and ‘South-South’ solidarity aside, geology has supplied Brazilian statecraft with its legitimizing theme.

When Petrobras discovered abundant offshore hydrocarbon deposits in the South Atlantic, Lula hailed it as the second coming of national independence.

His Secretary of the Navy invented the term ‘Blue Amazon’, affirming that ‘the untold riches of the marine space under national jurisdiction also require a Naval Power able to protect them.’ The government’s 2012 military White Paper rebranded Brazil’s offshore Exclusive Economic Zone as an integral part of the national territory.

This strategic novelty was accompanied by textbooks and an educational campaign for the Brazilian public, so patriotic schoolchildren could take appropriate pride in deepwater oil deposits.


blue amazon

But offshore ambitions extended far beyond Brazil’s coastal waters.

The 2012 White Paper declared a national interest in controlling South Atlantic trade routes:

The Atlantic Ocean holds some relevant strategic areas, such as the “Atlantic Throat”, the area between the Brazilian Northeast Coast and Western Africa which is vital for world trade. The southern passages, which link the Atlantic to the Pacific, constitute an alternative route to the Panama Canal, mainly for large ships. The Cape of Good Hope’s route, connecting the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, is an alternative to the Suez Canal and also offers better maritime access to Antarctica.

Between the Caribbean and Antarctic, a new gyre of seaborne freight had formed.

Nigerian oil, no longer directed across the Atlantic to North America, was increasingly shipped to East Asia. Tankers skirted the South American coast on their way west through the Drake Passage, Cape Horn and Magellan Straits.

Mindful of events in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, where regional governments operate as Washington’s proxies in its contest against Beijing, Brasilia’s planners warned ‘militarily significant states of other regions’ against interference:

The military presence of these states in the Atlantic Ocean should be reduced and, in future, eliminated. States located in other regions should not project on the South Atlantic any conflicts and rivalries that are alien to it.

Thatcher’s ‘spirit of the South Atlantic’ was to be reclaimed by the locals.

Was this a hopeless velleity? Cool-headed rejection of the internecine logic churning the maritime straits of Southeast Asia – or just another instance of it?

The Brazilian government would equip its navy to undertake patrols and inspections, conduct surveillance and establish reconnaissance facilities, engage in interception and forced boarding, detain crews and seize vessels throughout ‘the region delimited by the 16th parallel north, the west coast of Africa, Antarctica, the East coast of South America and the East coasts of the Lesser Antilles.’

South Atlantic maritime transit
South Atlantic islands

In earlier decades, a few Brazilian strategists had fantasized about dominating the sealanes of the South Atlantic. But for over a century the local elite had not sought a naval domain consonant with the nation’s population, coastline or dependence on seaborne freight.

What now accounted for the change?

Unger, under whom Obama had studied at Harvard, reversed traditional diplomatic verbiage in offering an explanation. Brasilia was not defensively responding to existential threat, but seeking the place in the sun due to any self-respecting rising power:

We are not concerned by the strength of our neighbors, but we are concerned by our own weakness. The national defense strategy is not a circumstantial response to circumstantial problems. It is a far-reaching inflection, a change of course and a change of direction.

His president took the opposite line, pleading Brazil’s territorial vulnerability to imperial plunder.

When the US Navy re-established its Fourth Fleet in 2008, Lula publicly fumed:

The [Brazilian] Navy plays an important role in protecting our sub-salt reserves, because the men of Fourth Fleet are almost there on top of the sub-salt areas…

Our Navy has to be the guardian of our offshore oil platforms to protect our patrimony, because before you know it some wise guy will come along and say: ‘This is mine, it’s at the bottom of the ocean anyway, so it’s mine.’

His defence minister, later revealed to be a sub rosa source of intelligence for the US State Department, went further in playing to national feeling:

Brazil will not allow the Fourth Fleet to enter and operate within the limits of the  territorial sea. This is not a boast, but a warning. If it enters territorial waters, Brazil will have every right to protest and the U.S. will not want a diplomatic incident. Anyway, the reactivation shows an urgent need to re-equip and modernize the Brazilian Navy…

Thus did the public rhetoric of ‘multi-polarity’ prosper last decade. Among sympathetic journalists, it was presented as a counterweight to the unilateralism and bullying of the G.W. Bush administration.

Would not Brazil — a former colony, newly democratic, its multi-ethnic population famously genial and only recently indigent — promote a diplomacy of treaties and consensus, rather than the belligerence and ultimatums favour by the western hemisphere’s long-time overlord, accustomed to getting its way?

Perhaps, duly enlarged with fresh members, the oligarchy of imperial powers might adopt new methods for resolving disputes and mediating claims. Remade to 21st-century specifications, the new security order would preclude the outbreak of destructive, fratricidal conflict, and end the post-1945 subordination of lesser (European and East Asian) capitals to Washington.

Might the gradual development of strategic parity — in which emerging economies like Brazil, playing catch-up, found their ambitions accommodated — create a more peaceful, less anachronistic inter-state system?

Such pieties did not survive Dilma’s first presidential term.

Brazilian aggrandizement does not presage arrival of a Concert of Powers, sharing the world equitably and pacifically. It is a symptom, not a correction, of chronic disproportion in the world’s productive capacity and relations between states.

As propensity to invest within the United States wanes, aspiring powers can leverage great, momentary flares of dollar liquidity. Asset prices are bid up, local firms enjoy huge rents, the Treasury is filled. New spending power allows firms to acquire foreign assets and the government to upgrade military programs and extend its reach abroad.

Once gained, these prizes must be preserved against encroachment from foreign rivals.

Last year came reports that Beijing was negotiating a base at Walvis Bay. Meanwhile Chinese investment in Nigeria, Mozambique, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa has brought in its tow influence in regional palaces and chancelleries.

This, as AFRICOM and its NATO allies discover new missions in stability promotion and counter-terrorism, is the context for Brasilia’s neighbourly approach to anti-piracy drills.

As speculative euphoria within Brazil collapses, Dilma’s fiscal retrenchment has mostly spared weapons programs. If the Planalto’s occupant is not yet judged an automatically loyal second for the White House, Brazil remains a ‘responsible stakeholder’ within the US system of power.

Otherwise, with its debt now rated as junk, Brasilia has little capacity for effective political initiative outside South America.

dilma obama g20

If the armed forces have played an outsized role in national life since the War of the Triple Alliance and founding of the Republic, traditionally the Brazilian elite has neglected to pursue external ambitions.

Brazil’s frontiers abut almost every country in South America. But these border regions are largely impassable jungles, mountains, and arid, sparsely populated badlands. This topography has secured against attack or invasion from abroad, while nurturing a somewhat parochial outlook among the local oligarchy and intellectuals.

More crucially, the unpropitious landscape — Amazon in the west, unforgiving Sertão in the northeast, Cerrado in the interior, and precipitous slums in the urban southeast — has challenged the state’s ability to maintain exclusive authority, knit together an integrated national market and extract an economic surplus from its vast territory.

Rebellions against government authority are met with ferocity: land clearances for dams on the agricultural frontier, special forces rampaging in the favelas.


The sea beyond this territorial cage has often served as a utopian fantasy for Brazilian artists, isolated by language and geography from the rest of Latin America.

‘There’s gold in the sea beyond,’ announces a stricken Geraldo Del Rey, tramping across Brazil’s arid northeast in Black God, White Devil.

‘The sertão will become the sea and the sea the sertão,’ comes the answer from followers of a messianic leader, modelled on the historical figure of Conselheiro. (Conselheiro’s separatist community was brutally razed by the Rio government in 1897. He was later traduced in Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel about the battle of CanudosWar at the End of the World).

In Barravento, Glauber Rocha spins an allegorical picture of Brazilian society out of a Bahia fishing village’s relationship with the sea, and their worship of a sea goddess.

The last decade of placid growth, helped by a benign wind from the east, was said to have lifted Brazil out of its accustomed position, catching it in permanent updraft: in Unger’s words, ‘inflection, a change of course and a change of direction.’

The latest volta do mar has brought one more familiar deluge.

Promises, promises: Turkey as borrower and proxy

December 9, 2014 by

In 1936, two months after arriving at Istanbul University from Hitler’s Germany, the philologist Erich Auerbach reported back to Walter Benjamin in Paris, offering his first impressions of Kemalist Turkey.

Charmed by his ‘glorious’ new house on the Bosphorus, Auerbach viewed the cultural policies of the ‘sympathetic autocrat’ in Ankara more warily.

Official replacement of Arabic by Latin script, and the ‘purification’ of alien loanwords from the language, seemed to the German scholar to have brought cultural deracination.

The Turkish young had been severed from any link to their Persian, Ottoman and Arabic past:

They have thrown all tradition overboard here, and they want to build a thoroughly rationalized—extreme Turkish nationalist—state of the European sort.

The process is going fantastically and spookily fast: already there is hardly anyone who knows Arabic or Persian, and even Turkish texts of the past century will quickly become incomprehensible since the language is being modernized and at the same time newly oriented on “Ur-Turkish,” and it is being written with Latin characters…

According to official mythology Turks were, indeed, the very originators of human language and spreaders of civilization to the world.

A few months later, Auerbach sketched out the programme of the Kemalist state and its ‘fanatically anti-traditional nationalism’:

Rejection of all existing Islamic cultural heritage, the establishment of a fantastic relation to a primal Turkish identity, technological modernization in the European sense, in order to triumph against a hated and yet admired Europe with its own weapons: hence, the preference for European-educated emigrants as teachers, from whom one can learn without the threat of foreign propaganda.

Result: nationalism in the extreme accompanied by the simultaneous destruction of the historical national character…

Istanbul itself was a ‘a wonderfully situated but also unpleasant and rough city consisting of two different parts’:

The old Stambool, of Greek and Turkish origin, which still preserves much of the patina of its historic landscape, and the “new” Pera, a caricature and completion of the European colonization of the 19th century, now in complete collapse.

A year later Auerbach again complained, this time to Johannes Oeschger, of ‘a purist nationalism that destroys the living tradition, and that bases itself in part on completely fantastical conceptions of ur-times, and in part on modern-rationalist ideas’:

Piety is combated, Islamic culture despised as an alien Arabic infiltration, one wants to be at the same time modern and purely Turkish, and it has gone so far that through the abolition of the old script, through the elimination of Arabic loan words and their replacement by Turkish neologisms and partly by European loan words, the language has been totally destroyed: no young person is any longer able to read the older literature — and there reigns a spiritual lack of direction that is extremely dangerous.

In 1926 Kemal had notoriously imported Mussolini’s penal code from Italy, embracing it as ‘compatible with the needs of our century’.

Abolition of the Caliph, suppression of dervishes, etc., was necessary, Kemal proclaimed, ‘in order to prove that our nation as a whole was no primitive nation, filled with superstitions and prejudice.’ The fez had ‘sat on our heads as a sign of ignorance, of fanaticism, of hatred to progress and civilization.’

Thus spoke the great Gazi (the term itself a religious honorific) in his six-day, 36-hour speech to the Turkish assembly.

He is pictured below at a blackboard marked with the new alphabet.

Kemal 1928 blackboard

By the mid-1930s, placed in European context, Turkish autocracy presented alarming signs to the émigré Auerbach.

What was ‘not yet a certainty for everyone’ in fascist Italy and Germany, ‘steps forth here in complete nakedness’:

The language reform—at once fantastical ur-Turkish (“free” from Arabic and Persian influences) and modern-technical—has made it certain that no one under 25 can any longer understand any sort of religious, literary, or philosophical text more than ten years old and that, under the pressure of the Latin script, which was compulsorily introduced a few years ago, the specific properties of the language are rapidly decaying…

I am more and more convinced that the contemporary world situation is nothing other than the cunning of providence to lead us along a bloody and circuitous route to the Internationale of Triviality and Esperanto culture.

I thought this already in Germany and Italy, especially in the horrifying inauthenticity of Blut und Boden propaganda, but here for the first time it has become a certainty for me.

Such was not merely the familiar tendency of German exiles, easily discomposed, apt to detect worrying similarities to Hitler’s regime in places of refuge.

Across Europe, the invented traditions of late-Victorian nationalism — the ceremony of flags, anthems, rituals and insignia — as well as compulsory schooling in a common language, the fusing of national markets by domestic transport and communication infrastructure, and the assumption by national bureaucracies of administrative and tax-raising power over a henceforth homogenized territorial jurisdiction, had famously converted peasants into Frenchmen.

In both the European metropoles and their colonial possessions, ‘modernization’ proceeded through the dragooning of diverse peoples into a unitary national culture. ‘Annihilate the patois!’ ran the project.

Yet the particular grandiosity and vacuity of Turkish nationalism after 1923 rested on a blank slate, both territorial and cultural, created by erasure and ethnic cleansing.

In the same year that Kemal abolished the Caliphate, launched his Kulturkampf and imposed the Turkish Republic’s enlightened new constitution, he addressed an audience in Adana:

The Armenians have no rights whatsoever in this fertile land. The country belongs to you, the Turks. This country has been Turkish in history, and thus is Turkish and will eternally live as Turkish…

The Armenians and others have no rights in this place. These fertile places are a profoundly and quintessentially Turkish country.

In 1916 the grand vizier Talaat Pasha had issued an edict concerning the ‘Turkification’ of assets confiscated from Armenians deported and killed during the genocide.

Looted wealth was to be assigned to the local Muslim elite, urban merchants and peasantry:

The movable property left by the Armenians should be conserved for long-term preservation, and for the sake of an increase of Muslim businesses in our country, companies need to be established strictly made up of Muslims. Movable property should be given to them under suitable conditions that will guarantee the business’ steady consolidation.

The founder, the management and the representatives should be chosen from honourable leaders and the elite, and to allow tradesmen and agriculturists to participate in its dividends, the vouchers need to be half a lira or one lira and registered to their names to preclude that the capital falls in foreign hands.

The growth of entrepreneurship in the minds of Muslim people needs to be monitored, and this endeavour and the results of its implementation needs to be reported to the Ministry step by step.

The plunder of Armenian property in Anatolia included farms, houses, livestock, factories, workshops, plantations, shops, schools, churches, tools and equipment — all officially designated as ‘abandoned properties’ after the land had been denuded of Armenians, massacred under cover of war.

Confiscated Armenian buildings by province 1Confiscated Armenian buildings by province 2

Under Kemal, agents of genocide were rewarded for services to the fledgling nation, with the president’s own official residence lifted from an Ankara merchant:

[The] family of district governor of Muş, Servet Bey, who in 1915 had annihilated the Armenians of that city, was awarded a composite package of Armenian property.

The family of Cemal Azmi, the murderous governor of Trabzon, was also assigned considerable ‘reparation’, specifically from Armenian properties.

Hafız Abdullah Avni, a hotel owner who had collaborated in the genocide in Erzincan, was executed for his crimes in 1920 by the Istanbul tribunal. His wife, Hatice Hanım, was compensated with a house and a field from the Armenian villages of Şuhe and Kani.

The fanatical district governor of Boğazlıyan, Mehmed Kemal Bey, had left behind a family in Yozgat. They received a large apartment and a house from the available Armenian property in that area.

Dr. Bahaeddin Shakir Bey’s family received a house in the upmarket Şişli district of Istanbul.

The former district governor of Urfa, Mehmed Nusret Bey, had played a key role during the genocide and was executed in 1919 for his crimes. His wife, Hayriye Hanım, was compensated with a shop and a house in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, on Cadde-i Kebîr (the current İstiklâl Caddesi) on numbers 264 and 266. The property was located in the Aznavur Han and originally belonged to a merchant named Bedros.

Cemal Pasha’s heirs and family were compensated with the property of Vicken Hokachian, a merchant in Istanbul. A shop and a strip of land in Beyoğlu across the French cemeteryas large as 1,450 square metres, was assigned to his wife Senice, his daughter Kamran, his sons Ahmed Rüşdü, Hasan Necdet, Hasan Behçet, his big sister Şaziye and little sister Bakire.

The list is long…

All are signed by President Mustafa Kemal Pasha and his cabinet of veteran Young Turks…

Along with the local Turkish population, new Muslim settlers to Anatolia (from the Balkans and Caucasus) picked over the booty left behind in suddenly vacant Armenian villages:

In 1915 the amount of property allocated to settlers was 20 545 buildings, 267 536 acres of land, 76 942 acres of vineyards, 7 812 acres of gardens, 703 491 acres of olive groves, 4 573 acres of mulberry gardens, 97 acres of orange fields, 5 carts, 4 390 animals, 2 912 agricultural implements, 524 788 planting seeds.

Forced expulsion across the Aegean of nearly one million Anatolian Greeks in 1923 was capped off, in 1955, by Istanbul’s anti-Greek pogrom.

The objective, in the words of the Turkish Army in 1922, was that Greek and Armenian ‘material ties to Anatolia will be disconnected.’

By 1924 the non-Muslim population of Anatolia, 20 percent in 1912, was down to 2 percent.

Kemal in Smyrna 1922

Kemal in Smyrna 1922 more

One upshot of this severing was that Turkish nationalism, inheriting razed earth, would be likewise unbound by preexisting constraints or obstacles.

Kemal’s state-led modernization, leaving property relations untouched and making no attempt at agrarian reform, would aim to drive an ethnocultural clean sweep through the smouldering Ottoman ruins.

The fanciful mythology of ur-Turkey, about which Auerbach complained, was both compensation and boast by a new state whose territory had been emptied at birth by the killing of one-tenth of its inhabitants, whose founding act was the expulsion of another tenth, followed by the internal displacement, ‘Turkification’ and bloody repression of Kurds, another one-fifth of the population.

Dersim massacre 1937

While adulation of the national founder remains a mainstay, over the decades other elements of the Kemalist recipe have been trimmed, adapted and discarded according to the exigencies of the hour.

Yet the homogenizing element in the republic’s founding ideology has endured as a bedrock: official pursuit, according to the Interior Minister in 1934, of ‘a country speaking with one language, thinking in the same way and sharing the same sentiment.’

The confessional turn in the electoral scene, most pronounced since the 1980 military coup and the premiership of Turgut Özal, has brought sharp modifications to Turkey’s public life: growing numbers of religious schools, flagrant displays of devoutness, the Crescent rivalling the sword for symbolic preeminence, as a powerful executive branch stamps its mark on all agencies and directorates of the state.

Movement towards EU membership, meanwhile, has obliged some ecumenical gestures and concessions to Kurdish and Alevi cultural rights. Erdoğan lifted the state of emergency in the southeast, and wound back language proscription in 2004.

But the basic formula is unchanged, Copenhagen criteria notwithstanding. Education, bureaucracy and media remain zones free of linguistic or cultural impurity. The Armenian genocide, likewise, is officially a non-topic.

In today’s Turkey, the decidedly post-secular AKP leadership nonetheless vaunts an integralist slogan of ‘one nation, one flag, one religion, one language’, and a notorious penal article that makes ‘insulting Turkishness’ a criminal offence.

This detour through the recent history of Turkish nationalism helps to clarify current arrangements, explaining how matters reached such a pass in the Caucasus, Black Sea and Caspian basin, Cyprus and eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Levant.

These are the former contested borderlands of Russian tsar, Ottoman sultan and Persian autocracy.

Today, in the words of its prime minister, the AKP’s former foreign minister and eminent grand strategist, Turkey is ‘a country with a close land basin, the epicentre of the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, the centre of Eurasia in general and is in the middle of the Rimland belt cutting across the Mediterranean to the Pacific.’

Turkey Stratfor

Within elite circles this view, at least publicly, has its detractors.

Turkey, Nicolas Sarkozy once declared on the campaign trail, ‘is in Asia Minor’:

I will not explain to little French school children that the borders of Europe extend to Iraq and Syria.

Once safely installed in the Élysée Palace, Le Pen’s voters having been tossed a few verbal sops, the French president’s pedagogic concerns evaporated.

Sarkozy treated his population to a demonstration of Dassault’s aerial might over North Africa, later striking a triumphant pose atop a Benghazi podium.

His Socialist successor extended the Libyan campaign to Mali and the Central African Republic.

A ‘Europe of values’ (Blair’s oily phrase, found useful by Cameron and Sarkozy) acknowledges few boundaries. If the Maghreb, why not Thrace?

The European continent, the concept a recent invention, may be demarcated however you like. But the frontiers of Christendom are firm. They do not extend to the Euphrates.

Ocean littorals, on the other hand, are free to expand or retreat as required, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization supplemented with whatever ‘add-on’ Washington wishes for its Eurasian beachhead.

Turkey’s frontiers with Syria, Iraq and Iran thus present NATO with a boundless operational vista in the Mashreq and beyond.

Referring to ‘challenges we’re facing in the east and the south’, today’s incoming secretary-general says: ‘NATO has a strong army after all. We can deploy it wherever we want to.’

US Patriot missiles may thus be placed east of Jerusalem in the name of European and North American security. (The US air base at Incirlik is itself built on expropriated Armenian land. The Air Force’s approved history of the site ends discreetly in 1921).

And, if today’s armed conflict in the Levant threatens Ankara’s security, ‘NATO will be there’, says the secretary-general.

The ‘post-Cold War enlargement of NATO and EU’, said the US Vice President earlier this year, ‘is not complete, in my view.’

What task remains undone, what destiny unfulfilled?

To the post-1923 status quo that had prevailed in the Black Sea-Caucasus-Central Asia region following the collapse of Ottoman and tsarist empires, the retrenchment of Moscow’s power since 1991 has threatened disruption.

Washington’s objective, laid out unblushingly by its strategists, is to hinder the local powers from reaching convivial terms, and to prevent, at all costs, any state outside its own military alliance structure — Moscow, Tehran, Beijing — from attaining regional predominance.

Brzezinski Turkey Russia Iran

There exists, explained Turkey’s current prime minister Davutoğlu to the US Council on Foreign Relations, ‘a compatibility’ between this need of the United States and Ankara’s ‘unique’ ability, arising from its convenient location.

Washington is a non-Eurasian power that hopes to remain the dominant power on the Eurasian continent. Turkey can help ‘close this gap of geographical discontinuity’:

Turkey is right at the center of Afro-Euro-Asia, having multidimensional characters of geopolitics. Turkey is a European country, an Asian country, a Middle Eastern country, Balkan country, Caucasian country, neighbor to Africa, Black Sea country, Caspian Sea… all these geopolitical challenges are in the agenda of American global strategy…

The United States needs allies in Africa-Eurasia, and Turkey needs a cooperation with a global power.

Thus has Europe’s Eastern Question been resolved, if only temporarily and after a fashion.

To the apparent satisfaction of the continent’s elite and with Washington’s benevolent approval, Ankara’s EU candidature was placed in prolonged abeyance, even as Turkey assumed new regional prominence, becoming NATO’s geographic fulcrum for ‘out of area’ missions in the eastern Mediterranean, Caucasus and West Asia.

On its eastern border, the Turkish state acts as faithful proxy in Syria, seeking to overthrow Assad’s Iran-friendly government. In the Black Sea basin, it facilitates continued thrusts and harassing operations against Moscow.

Washington, seeking to conduct a proxy war at two removes in Syria, has relied on its local agents in Ankara and the Gulf monarchies to supply weapons, funds, training and cross-border transit.

Turkey’s intelligence chief was recorded, in conversation with Davutoğlu, musing over how best to ‘make up a cause of war’ with the Syrian government by staging a false-flag operation against Ankara.

Atmospherics from the US Vice President, aimed plainly at a domestic rather than diplomatic audience, convey the nature of Turkey’s helpful efforts in the Levant:

The Turks, who are great friends — I have a great relationship with Erdoğan , whom I spend a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing?

They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world…

Now they’re sealing their border.

To Ankara’s role as NATO proxy is added that of ’emerging market’ debtor.

Since 2002, under the AKP Turkey has become increasingly dependent on short-term external borrowing, mostly portfolio investment in search of speculative gains. This has increased financial fragility, exposing Turkey to asset-price inflation and the risk of worse if capital is withdrawn.

International borrowing rests ultimately on a promise to pay US dollars. Issues of the Turkish domestic currency are a form of debt: the credibility of the borrower depends on its ability to pay the ‘best’ money: the liabilities of the global hegemon.

hierarchy of money

Should Turkish growth founder, capital inflow cease, and local banks become unable to refinance their debts, international creditors will no doubt be found in a compassionate mood. A stabilization loan, arriving swiftly, will come attached with less onerous conditions than those applied to Cyprus.

Turkey, as a ‘geopolitical pivot,’ is too important for the IMF (behind it the US Treasury) to countenance domestic upheaval on any great scale.

Just as credibility of the Turkish lira rests on a promise to pay US dollars (the ultimate international means of settling debts), behind Turkish arms Washington sits in poised reserve, ready to back up its NATO proxy whenever Ankara’s Ostpolitik in the Mediterranean and Levant goes awry.

In NATO parlance, this is known as ‘extended deterrence.’ US solicitude is manifested in the form of radar installations (since 2011) and (since 1961) nuclear missiles deployed on Turkish territory, aimed at Russia and Iran.

On this foundation, grandiose regional ambitions flourish. The latter focus on Turkey’s strategic potential as an energy corridor, reducing Moscow’s bargaining power in Europe.

Turkey is Iraq’s ‘gateway to the European Union’, Davutoğlu has noted. And ‘Erbil is our gateway to Basra.’

In Istanbul, three months ago, the World Economic Forum held a Special Meeting on Unlocking Resources for Regional Development, the Turkish president and prime minister contributing to that noble cause by demanding, in keynote addresses, armed overthrow over the Syrian government.

There an Emirati oil CEO, with investments centred on Iraqi Kurdistan, suggested that ‘if Turkey became a price-setting centre for the region [that] could really bring on much more supply from Middle East resources, which would not only meet Turkish needs, but go on to meet European needs as well.’

Ankara’s energy minister deplored political difficulties in Iraq and Iran: ‘You can’t have a growing economy and a shrinking energy sector.’

A fortnight ago the Atlantic Council held its Energy and Economics Summit in Istanbul.

There the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, long touted by the Energy Ministry as ‘the natural direction for exports of hydrocarbons from the region [of Iraqi Kurdistan] to the world’s market’, received a boost.

Alongside President Erdoğan in Ankara, the Russian leader announced that Gazprom’s planned South Stream pipeline was to be abandoned, after EU thwarting efforts and US sanctions.

The US Vice President was on hand to salute the news, calling for ‘development of a strategic pipeline from Basra to Ceyhan.’

The Turkish state, its line of strategic credit secure in Washington, has leveraged its momentary good fortune to pursue regional initiatives otherwise beyond its reach. A permanent military presence in Cyprus has been declared not negotiable. EU accession, less urgent, has been allowed patiently to simmer, safe for another day.

Yet what realities lie behind the salesmanship about ‘Anatolian Tigers’ and a ‘boom on the Bosphorus’?

In the past three decades, the Turkish economy’s capital-labour ratio, or capital intensity, rose at a distinctly lower rate (6.6% annually from 1964-1978, compared to an average of 3.7% over the next thirty years).

Capital intensity Turkey

Taking account of the business cycle, there has been a steady fall in the output-capital ratio, or what may be termed ‘capital productivity.’

Capital productivity - Turkey

Technical change has followed a labour-saving, capital-using pattern familiar elsewhere.

Labour productivity and output-capital ratio in Turkey

Turkey’s development, all in all, has been modest. Agriculture retains a high share of employment (24%); female labour-force participation is abysmal (29%, below Sudan and well below Armenia).

State-led modernization by a republic descended from one of Europe’s largest imperial powers, with a population greater than France or Britain at its disposal, has produced unscintillating results.

Not needing to displace a landlord class in any agrarian revolution (small independent farms long predominated), nor did industrialization of the classical modernizing sort follow.

The Turkish army — the most numerous in Europe besides Russia’s, and occupying Cyprus since 1974 — and a traditionally hefty state officialdom absorb much of the investible surplus. The familiar features of the externally indebted economy — credit expansion, consumption growth, speculative bubbles in real estate and asset prices — further discourage productive expenditure. Patronage networks and political clientelism siphon the residue, all impeding local formation of a substantial capital-goods sector.

Small wonder, amid such frustrations, that the consoling appeal of religion plays a growing part in Turkish electoral politics.

Yet not every plan has gone awry.

Kemal’s language reforms were recently described as a ‘catastrophic success’. A linguist noted, amid the general poverty of Turkish expression, that a mere 26 years after it was delivered, Kemal’s great speech already needed to be ‘translated into the present-day language’ so that it could be intelligible to the young.

A weary time

December 4, 2014 by

Two hundred years ago last month, Hegel wrote contemptuously to a friend about the patriotic vaunting of national identity (Deutschdumm, or ‘Germandumb’) that was sure to follow the Congress of Vienna:

[According] to a few rumours, the era after the Congress of Vienna is — apart from the political aspect, which does not concern us — to be assured by an interesting literary-artistic idea: the erection of the great memorial column dedicated to the Nation along with a comprehensive national archive for the conservation of Old German monuments and patriotic relics of all sorts, including the song of the Nibelungen, Imperial treasures, King Roger’s shoes, electoral capitulations, free constitutional charters, Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts, Norica, and so on.

It will be built on a quiet spot, so that its enjoyment will be more secure from the noise of the rest of reality…

The entire Congress, however, is to be concluded with a great ceremony, a torchlight procession with the ringing of bells and roaring of cannons to the ultimate rule of reason in which the German people [Pippel] will be trampled in the dirt.

Behind Pippel there follow, as valets and attendants, a few tame house cats, such as the Inquisition, the Jesuit Order, and then all the armies with their sundry commissioned, princely, and titled marshals and generals.

Romantic nationalism, tricked out with philosophical respectability by Fichte and Schlegel, was one cause for sarcasm.

Another was the conclave itself, where autocrats plotting Europe’s post-Napoleonic order had decorated their arcana imperii with liberal banners:

It is a new, unforgettable experience for the peoples to see what their Princes are capable of when they convene to devote themselves in mind and heart to discussion of the welfare of both their own peoples and the world  all, to be sure, according to the most noble declared principle of universal justice and the welfare of all.

For centuries we have only seen action taken by cabinets or individual men for themselves against others. The present phenomenon, however, is unique and calls for a brilliant result.

Kissinger Metternich

Of the War of Liberation that had expelled the French, Hegel commented scornfully: ‘if by chance I see any liberated individuals I myself will rise to my feet.’

There were ‘still many things to be asked about this Liberation of ours which is said to have taken place’:

I have already noticed that the public hopes that Imperial freedoms will be won back again, and the rabble is convinced. They hope to have back the good old days.

It will then once more be permitted, as one man puts it, to give a box on the ear for sixteen pennies — for that is what it cost under the Old Regime — while a second man thinks he will be free again to have his ears boxed.


Great events have transpired about us. It is a frightful spectacle to see a great genius destroy himself. There is nothing more tragic. The entire mass of mediocrity, with its irresistible leaden weight of gravity, presses on like lead, without rest or reconciliation, until it has succeeded in bringing down what is high to the same level as itself or even below.

Six years earlier, in October 1808, Hegel had appealed in gossipy tones to the poet Karl Ludwig von Knegel, demanding to learn ‘for my personal edification’ about Napoleon’s audience with Goethe at Erfurt:

What did Napoleon talk about at the ball with Wieland and Goethe?…

Tell me about it when you feel inclined. And tell me whether there was any delight in it for you, and whether even some honour slipped in along with it  I do not want to say for the Germans, but rather for those individuals of such great merit.

Goethe and Napoleon at Erfurt

In October 1806 Hegel had famously observed the Weltgeist trotting through Jena on horseback:

I saw the Emperor  this world-soul  riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.

Hegel’s enthusiastic evocation of the conquering hero is one of the more familiar, quotable, exoteric passages in an otherwise forbidding and obscure output.

So let’s renew our interest by reminding ourselves that, for him, Napoleon’s arrival heralded the onset of military occupation, with all its predictable depredations and rapine.

The latter began just before winter set in, and the philosopher soon complained to friends of French ‘plunder’ of food and timber for fires, along with ‘the inevitable inflation, thievery… Nobody has imagined war such as we have seen it!’

Moreover, the Grande Armée‘s advance had made Hegel’s own financial circumstances suddenly precarious.

In late September 1806 his publisher had imposed a final deadline for delivery of the remaining sections of his Phenomenology of Spirit, which hitherto had allowed Hegel a steady cash flow of 21 florins per page.

Accordingly, two days before the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt began, Hegel had entrusted the manuscript to a mounted courier, instructing him to pass south through French lines to Bamberg.


For the most part, Hegel did not exhibit a giddy Schwärmerei for the person of Napeleon, the military genius.

He warned a student against ‘marvelling speechless at events like brutes  or, with a greater show of cleverness, from attributing them to the accidents of the moment or talents of an individual, thus making the fate of empires depend on the occupation or non-occupation of a hill.’

Rather, Hegel welcomed Napoleon as the ’emanation’, the ‘outward diffusion’ of the French Revolution to the rest of Europe:

Thanks to the bath of her Revolution, the French nation has freed herself of many institutions which the human spirit had outgrown like the shoes of a child. These institutions accordingly once oppressed her, and they now continue to oppress other nations as so many fetters devoid of spirit…

This is what gives this Nation the great power she displays against others. She weighs down upon the impassiveness and dullness of these other nations, which, finally forced to give up their indolence in order to step out into actuality, will perhaps  seeing that inwardness preserves itself in externality — surpass their teachers.

Years later, in his Philosophy of History, Hegel would include Napoleon alongside Caesar and Alexander the Great as ‘World-Historical persons, whose vocation it was to be the agents of the World-Spirit’:

[Thinking] men, who had an insight into the requirements of the time  what was ripe for development.

This was the very Truth for their age, for their world; the species next in order, so to speak, and which was already formed in the womb of time. It was theirs to know this nascent principle; the necessary, directly sequent step in progress, which their world was to take; to make this their aim, and to expend their energy in promoting it.

World-historical men  the Heroes of an epoch  must, therefore, be recognized as its clear-sighted ones; their deeds, their words are the best of that time.

What was Napoleon’s world-historical mission, according to Hegel?

It was to act as a pawn or tool of Reason, spreading abroad by military conquest the achievements of France’s bourgeois revolution.

After its defeat at Jena, the agrarian mainstays of Prussian absolutism had been reinvigorated, rather than overturned, by Stein and Hardenberg’s reforms.

The Bauernlegen (Enclosure movement) seized yet larger manorial estates for the wealthiest members of the Junker class. Consolidation via land sales was especially pronounced east of the Elbe.

Nonetheless, in Vienna Metternich could sniff that the Prussians were ‘German Jacobins’, their military ranks infested with a ‘Jacobin spirit.’

Commons and Smallholder losses under land reforms

Prussian farm structure

Even decades later, writing in the dark European night of the Holy Alliance, having renounced his youthful opinions and reached a philosophical accommodation with the Prussian state, Hegel would recall the great French Revolution as a ‘glorious mental dawn’:

All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world, as if the reconciliation between the Divine and the Secular was now first accomplished.


Objective or Real Freedom: to this category belong Freedom of Property and Freedom of Person. Those relics of that condition of servitude which the feudal relation had introduced are hereby swept away, and all those fiscal ordinances which were the bequest of the feudal law  its tithes and dues, are abrogated.

Real [practical] Liberty requires moreover freedom in regard to trades and professions  the permission to every one to use his abilities without restriction  and the free admission to all offices of State…

Germany was traversed by the victorious French hosts, but German nationality delivered it from this yoke. One of the leading features in the political condition of Germany is that code of Rights which was certainly occasioned by French oppression, since this was the especial means of bringing to light the deficiencies of the old system. The fiction of an Empire has utterly vanished. It is broken up into sovereign states. Feudal obligations are abolished, for freedom of property and of person have been recognized as fundamental principles. Offices of State are open to every citizen, talent and adaptation being of course the necessary conditions.

In 1807, Hegel had written in tremulous anticipation about the Confederation of the Rhine and introduction of the Code Napoléon:

Everyone here awaits the great reorganization soon to break in upon us. I have reported in my newspaper that the land is to be divided into prefectures. There is, moreover, talk of a great assembly of princes and magistrates of the Empire. The crucial decision will surely come from Paris.

Already the crowd of little princes who have remained in northern Germany makes a stronger tie necessary. The German professors of constitutional law have not stopped spewing forth masses of writing on the concept of sovereignty and the meaning of the Acts of Confederation.

The great professor of constitutional law sits in Paris…

Napoleon will have to organize all this.

Thus Hegel’s effusions did occasionally lapse into a certain awestruck fascination with Napoleon.

Tilsit treaties

Later he counselled tranquility in the face of the Restoration, judging its reversals to be transient and minor, with the Prussian reforms largely intact:

I adhere to the view that the world spirit has given the age marching orders. These orders are being obeyed.

The world spirit, this essential [power], proceeds irresistibly like a closely drawn armoured phalanx advancing with imperceptible movement, much as the sun through thick and thin. Innumerable light troops flank it on all sides, throwing themselves into the balance for or against its progress, though most of them are entirely ignorant of what is at stake and merely take head blows as from an invisible hand.

Yet no lingering lies or make-believe strokes in the air can achieve anything against it. They can perhaps reach the shoelaces of this colossus, and smear on a bit of boot wax or mud, but they cannot untie the laces. Much less can they remove these shoes of gods… once the colossus pulls them on.

Surely the safest thing to do both externally and internally is to keep one’s gaze fixed on the advancing giant. To edify the entire bustling zealous assemblage, one can even stand there and help daub on the cobbler’s wax that is supposed to bring the giant to a standstill. For one’s own amusement, one can even lend a hand to the enterprise that is being taken so seriously.

I have anticipated the Reaction of which we presently hear so much…

The Reaction is still far removed from genuine resistance, for it already stands entirely within the sphere over against which resistance stands as something external. Even if it intends to do the opposite, the will of the Reaction is chiefly restricted to matters of vanity. It wishes to place its own stamp on the events it thinks it most vehemently hates, so as to read upon them: “This have we done!”

The essential content remains unaltered. The addition or subtraction of a few small ribbons or garlands changes matters as little as actual injury that is no sooner suffered than healed. For when such injury pretends to a more significant relation to the whole substance than it is capable of having, it proves ephemeral.

Thus  if we largely ignore all the fuss and paltry paper successes of human ants, fleas, and bugs — has this most fearsome Reaction against Bonaparte in essence changed so much, whether for good or evil?

We shall allow these ant, flea, and bug personalities to appear to us just as the good Creator has destined: that is, chiefly as a subject for jokes, sarcasm, and malicious pleasure. If need be, what we can do, in light of this provident design, is to help these poor vermin along to their destiny.

What then happened, amid the conservative post-Napoleonic scene, to this confident vision of the ‘world-historical individual,’ after the established order of dynastic regimes had been reinstated at Vienna and the ageing Hegel was succeeded by his many squabbling legatees?

The philosopher himself was haunted by ‘confused fantasies’ that his work was ‘mere irrelevancies, mere packaging.’ Upon waking from such torrid dreams, ‘it seemed difficult to me to have to go to class and lecture on law.’

Meanwhile nineteenth-century European capitalism, safe beneath the clerical shield of the Holy Alliance, devoted itself to the tame, tawdry, internally pacific business of enrichissez-vous.

Nobody mistook Gladstone, Guizot or Cavour for the World-Soul.

Europe 1815

There matters stood until the mid-twentieth century.

Then, in 1930s Paris, Alexander Kojève appealed to Hegel’s scriptural authority to anoint Stalin, in place of Robespierre-Napoleon, as leader of a ‘universal and homogeneous state’ (enthusiasm he later transferred to the European Economic Community).

Hegel’s sequence of social forms had culminated in Kremlin tyranny, beyond which, for Kojève, no systemic progress was possible: ‘the vanguard of humanity virtually attained the limit and the aim, that is, the end, of Man’s historical evolution.’

In the person of Stalin, once again ‘politics is a tributary of philosophy’, the Georgian seminarian having learnt at the feet of Marx, himself an inheritor of Hegel:

[The] statesman who actualized the first effective step had been educated by a disciple at the second remove from the theoretical initiator… The tyrant who here inaugurated the real political movement consciously followed the instruction of the intellectual who deliberately transformed the idea of the philosopher so that it might cease to be a “utopian” ideal… and become instead a political theory on the basis of which one could give concrete advice to tyrants, advice which they could follow.

Thus, while recognizing that the tyrant has “falsified” the philosophical idea, we know that he has done so only in order to “transpose it from the realm of abstraction into that of reality.”

In 1989, in turn, Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘End of History’, with liberal capitalism now the ne plus ultra of political-economic arrangements. Following the collapse of European Stalinism, all ‘viable systematic alternatives’ to the status quo were henceforth eliminated from the scene.

Benjamin’s ‘storm blowing from Paradise’ turned out to have been but a passing squall. The Angel of History now idled limply in the doldrums, its job complete.

Fukuyama’s conjecture attracted little open assent, smacking too brassily of State Department hubris, if not misguided complacency.

Yet, whether embraced or not, Fukuyama’s dismissal of alternative futures today haunts our Restoration epoch, its tacit assumption so universal that it needn’t be spoken aloud. All the wisdom of the age shares a resigned certainty that socialism was tried once and failed prohibitively, leaving its chastened, disabused epigones with no possibility of progress beyond our existing world of private ownership and paid employment.

In 1977, as French intellectuals underwent full-blown de-Marxification, Jean-François Lyotard had famously announced the death of ‘le grand récit marxiste. From Hegel’s Phenomenology to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag there ran a clear path.

By 1990, tucked in Fukuyama’s slipstream, Lyotard was registering his own reactions to the Persian Gulf crisis and collapse of European Stalinism:

The fall of the [Berlin] wall… provides evidence that the more open the system, the more efficient it is; while on the other hand it shows that closed and isolated systems are doomed to disappear, either by competition or merely by entropy (Brezhnev should have studied thermodynamics a bit).

‘When the Berlin Wall fell,’ it became clear that all competitors to liberal capitalism had ‘failed definitively’:

The bourgeois discourse of emancipation and the communal organization connected with it, that is, liberal “late” capitalism, now look like the only survivors and winners after two centuries of struggle that sought to impose another way of reading and leading human history. This system has good reasons to claim to be the true supporter of human rights and freedom.

In this ‘present historical situation,’ Lyotard felt entitled to indulge in an imaginative exercise, ‘a postmodern fable… the unavowed dream that the postmodern world dreams about itself:’

[It] happened that systems called liberal democracies came to be recognized as the most appropriate for the task of controlling events in whatever field they might occur. By leaving the programs of control open to debate and by providing free access to the decision-making roles, they maximized the amount of human energy available to the system.

The effectiveness of this realistic flexibility has shown itself to be superior to the exclusively ideological (linguistic) mobilization of forces that rigidly regulated the closed totalitarian systems.

In liberal democratic systems, everybody could believe what they liked, that is, could organize language according to whatever system they liked, provided that they contributed to the system as energetically as they could.

Given the increased self-control of the open system, it was likely that it would be the winner in the competition among the systems all over Earth.

Nothing seemed able to stop the development of this system except the Sun and the unavoidable collapse of the whole star system. In order to meet this predictable challenge, the system was already in the process of developing the prosthesis that would enable it to survive after the solar sources of energy, which had contributed to the genesis and maintenance of the living systems, were wiped out…

The natural sciences were ‘thus preparing for the first exodus of the negentropic system far from Earth with no return.’

Why was this demented cosmic fantasy not a grand narrative, and therefore, on Lyotard’s own terms, suspect?

Because, he explained, it did not describe a ‘promised emancipation.’ It was not a ‘narrative of a promise to be kept… an emergence from an initially alienated condition toward the horizon of the enjoyment of selfhood or freedom.’

Rather, in it ‘the contemporary world’ had been liberated from the ‘horizon of history or historicity in which emancipation was a promise.’

Here, in Lyotard’s ad hoc refinement to his theory, arrived a new intellectual prohibition. Hope for an improved world or better society was now the unacceptable element in any philosophy of history.

Henceforth all that remained was the ‘tangible emancipation’ provided for by capitalism itself: ‘programs that improve what already exists are inscribed in its very mode of functioning.’

Emancipation lay not in an alternative social order, but was ‘an ideal that the system itself endeavors to actualize in most of the areas it covers, such as work, taxes, marketplace, family, sex, race, school, culture, communication.’

Time September 1977 - Nouveaux Philosophes

Thus for contemporary opinion, academic and journalistic, the idea of history as a unique linear ordering has fallen out of favour, convicted of assorted lapses and defects.

The four-stage theory, which grew out of the Scottish Enlightenment, held that:

There are four distinct states which mankind pass thro:—1st, the Age of Hunters; 2dly, the Age of Shepherds; 3dly, the Age of Agriculture; and 4thly, the Age of Commerce.

This schema was carried over wholesale by a certain kind of Marxism (though the latter’s view of history was, for the most part, traduced by Cold War enemies like Popper).

Popper, for his part, promoted the explanatory power of unintended consequences and spontaneous order over what he mistakenly saw as Marxism’s belief in ‘inexorable laws of social development’.

This preference for fortuitous cosmos over purposive taxis upheld, thought Popper, his favoured political programme of ‘piecemeal’ tinkering and meliorist reform. It gainsaid, on the other hand, any Promethean, ‘totalitarian’ ambitions to social planning, which relied on accurate prophecy of the future.

Yet  however apt these strictures against historicism and the latter’s presumptuous claims to forecast the future from past evidence  Popper’s arraignment misfired wildly, letting its intended target off the hook. The ‘fundamental idea that it should be possible to predict revolutions just as it is possible to predict solar eclipses’ was no maxim of Marxism, but largely a figment of the Viennese philosopher.

And, as is well known, Hegel’s ‘ruse of Reason’ was itself drawn from the unintended outcome or ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith and the Scots.

To be sure, Hegel’s pre-scientific world of German idealism is separated from our own by a Big Ditch of cognitive style. If ‘every philosophical baby that is born alive is either a little positivist or a little Hegelian’, then sex ratios are increasingly skewed. Hegel’s account of Spirit evolving through successive transitions in the ‘ethical life of a nation’ was indeed, as Popper declared, ‘sheer historicist superstition.’

Yet its commonsense rejection today is, whatever the theoretical rights and wrongs, a symptom of blocked historical imagination, of lowered horizons and world-weary renunciation, an inability to imagine a society fundamentally different from our own perpetual present.

Does such despondency rest  as today is claimed from Paris-Nanterre and the LSE to the US State Department  on a more realistic, hard-headed appraisal of historical possibilities?

Historical reversals are plainly possible: restorations have followed regicide, and chastened ‘post-capitalist’ societies have trudged back to capitalism. Thus disproved is any view of history as a consecutive, strictly ascending sequence, ‘from rudeness to civilization.’ Societies need not progress from the Age of Hunting to the Age of Commerce.

That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t secular evolution, or a preferential path of development, which imparts a bias to history, appearing retrospectively as ‘progress’.

For there to be a secular evolution of modes of production such that mode of production B tends to supersede A (say B = capitalism and A = feudalism), it must merely be the case that the transition probability Pr (A → B) exceeds the reverse transition probability Pr (B → A), and that the latter tends to falls over time.

In the table below, the rows and columns measure the probability per unit of time of a transition from each initial state to each end state. Each state is accessible from any other, but the transition probabilities are asymmetric (i.e. reversions from capitalism to feudalism are unlikely) and non-constant over time, as a system consolidates or undermines itself (e.g. by moulding technology, political or juridical arrangements to fit its purposes).

Transition matrix - modes of production

An eerie stability (juste équilibre européen) prevailed throughout Hegel’s Concert of Powers during the age of Metternich, Talleyrand and Castlereagh, granted ‘perfect security against the revolutionary embers more or less existing in every State of Europe.’ The stultifying continental peace was broken only by the independence of Greece and Belgium, and later the stillborn revolutions of 1848. Outside Europe, imperial bellicosity proceeded unchecked.

Today, following Gorbachev’s Mediterranean conversion to ‘democratic values’, we are similarly stuck without apparent breath or motion on a flat sea, stupefied as capital blares, noisily and garishly, its hour of triumph. A bellum Americanum contra omnes rampages unchallenged. Respectable opinion agrees that development of social institutions and mutations in property rights is forever over.

Political events and social skirmishes would continue to occur, said Fukuyama. But in the advanced capitalist countries there would be no more structural ruptures or capsizals of the sort that transformed society’s basic institutions.

Such illusions in the status quo’s stability are certain to be punctured.

When the July Revolution broke out one year before his death from cholera, Hegel met it as ‘a crisis in which everything that was formerly valid appears to be made problematic… [These are] anxious times in which everything that previously was taken to be solid and secure appears to totter.’

At the victory banquet

November 9, 2014 by

George Steiner in 1959 on the bureaucratic degeneration of language in Adenauer’s Federal Republic, breeding ‘a profound deadness of spirit, such an inescapable sense of triviality and dissimulation’:

The thing that has gone dead is the German language. Open the daily papers, the magazines, the flood of popular and learned books pouring off the new printing presses; go to hear a new German play; listen to the language as it is spoken over the radio or in the Bundestag.

It is no longer the language of Goethe, Heine and Nietzsche. It is not even that of Thomas Mann.

Something immensely destructive has happened to it. It makes noise. It even communicates, but it creates no sense of communion…

[Languages] can decay and they can die…

Actions of the mind that were once spontaneous become mechanical; frozen habits (dead metaphors, stock similes, slogans). Words grow longer and more ambiguous. Instead of style, there is rhetoric. Instead of precise common usage, there is jargon…

All these technical failures accumulate to the essential failure: the language no longer sharpens thought but blurs it.


Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness (George Orwell showed how English is doing so today).

But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it.

Make of words what Hitler and Goebbels and the hundred thousand Untersturmführer made: conveyors of terror and falsehood. Something will happen to the words. Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language.

The Axel Springer tabloid, though newly sober in tone and respectful of NATO and Tel Aviv, was no less ‘ossified with cliché, unexamined definitions, and leftover words.’

Bild inaugural

Indeed the mannered, inhibited civility of postwar German politics, its well-stocked armoury of polite euphemisms and vacuous consensus — a bland unanimity given philosophical respectability by Jürgen Habermas — was unmatched.

Conventional opinion, official as well as media and scholarly, had acquired a chronic slackness, a ceremonious refusal of straightforwardness, which couldn’t easily be shaken off.

Thus the term used by contemporary German newspapers to describe privatization of state assets (a common story since 1990) is abwickeln (‘wind up’ or ‘settle’), a task accomplished after reunification by the Treuhand (‘trust’).

Political speech, ‘like that used to sell a new detergent, was intended neither to communicate the critical truths of national life nor to quicken the mind of the hearer. It was designed to evade or gloss over the demands of meaning.’

Meanwhile the ‘arrogant obscurities of German philosophic speech’ (a reference to Heidegger) damaged the mind, impairing ‘its ability to think or speak clearly.’

The linguistic rot began, said Steiner, when Bismark’s new state usurped the German language from Goethe, Schiller, Heine and Kleist: ‘citizens of Europe’ who had been alien to the narrow ’emotions of nationalism.’

Henceforth the property of provincial Junkers and Wilhelmine functionaries, the German tongue spoken by ‘university, officialdom, army and court’ after 1871 would become a byword for ponderous and evasive.

After collapse of the Hohenzollern Empire there intervened ‘a brilliant, mutinous period’:

Brecht gave back to German prose its Lutheran simplicity and Thomas Mann brought into his style the supple, luminous elegance of the classical and Mediterranean traditions. These years, 1920-30, were the anni mirabiles of the modern German spirit.

This was followed by the long fascist era, its depredations and barbarisms recorded by Victor Klemperer, in which German became ‘half nebulous jargon, half obscenity.’

Their language threatened by Hitler’s mix of atavism and bureaucratic leadenness, its literary custodians preserved the contents of the German cultural ark by fleeing into exile.

The most capable of them, far from being deracinated, were artistically renewed. Thomas Mann was ‘a citizen of the world, receptive to the genius of other languages and cultures.’ Brecht, ‘being a Marxist, felt himself a citizen of a community larger than Germany and a participant in the forward march of history.’

In the postwar Bundesrepublik, however, no anti-fascist lustration occurred:

On the court benches sit some of the judges who meted out Hitler’s blood laws. On many professorial chairs sit scholars who were first promoted when their Jewish or Socialist teachers had been done to death. In a number of German and Austrian universities, the bullies swagger again with their caps, ribbons, duelling scars, and “pure Germanic” ideals.

The consequences for language, said Steiner, were dire:

[The] major part of what is published as serious literature is flat and shoddy. It has in it no flame of life. Compare the best of current journalism with an average number of the Frankfurter Zeitung of pre-Hitler days; it is at times difficult to believe that both are written in German…

And so far, in history, it is language that has been the vessel of human grace and the prime carrier of civilization.

Until 1989 the preeminent West German writers evaded this narrow philistinism and provincial mediocrity of the Bonn republic by living in West Berlin or, like Peter Weiss, remained abroad.

After the DDR’s collapse and annexation, Günter Grass would compare the unification of 1990 to that of 1871. The contemporary Anschluss, he said, promised little more than the first for German cultural heritage.

As the Ode to Joy played, this scandalous attempt to discredit the festivities prompted a literary critic to tear up Grass’s novel on TV:

Apparently I had disturbed the victors at their victory banquet. According to the official reports then flickering throughout the land, German unification had been a rousing success, one for the history books (despite minor flaws)…

Where is the bright side in all this? Indeed, where? Should I count off the billions that have flowed from West to East and, on balance, trickled back to the West with interest?… Were you expecting an encomium on Dresden’s brilliantly restored Baroque façades?…

The disaster of German unification has been accepted without dissent, however blatantly social injustice divides this country again…

Telegenic twaddle has won the day.


In 1997, with Kohl’s decrepit corruption yet to give way to the vigorous SPD-Greens government of Schröder, the federal capital still unmoved from Bonn, Grass could detect diffidence and hesitation in the German ruling elite:

[These] victors of history have no idea what to do with their putative victory. They’re already a little embarrassed about holding it up like a trophy while the cameras are rolling. They’ve been left sitting on their victory as though it were a slow-selling product — a “white elephant,” as the expression has it…

If you hold your hand up to your ear, you can hear the triumphant ideologies of capitalism rasping their demands into a vacuum, wagering now on globalization. They crave an echo…

I picture the victorious capitalist of just yesterday — in most un-Marxist fashion — as a person abandoned by fate, an individual: a middle-aged gentleman, properly attired, except that he just can’t seem to get his tie straight. So there he stands — no, he’s stuck to a stool — the lonely, lonesome capitalist.

He is still feared, it’s true, and probably hated as well, yet no one ever talks back to him.

Whatever comes out of his mouth is considered sacrosanct — be it the most fatuous nonsense, such as that mantra of his: “the market takes care of everything.” He has acquired, in spite of himself, an odour of infallibility, like the Pope.

Poor guy, I say to myself, without pity, and begin to make literary capital out of him.

Few writers besides Grass have since bothered to make much of the old DDR’s destruction, though Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower has just been published in English.

It is striking that the dissolution of European Stalinism, so often compared heroically to the revolutions of 1848, was for German literature a comparative dead letter. Whereas the original featured Heine, Manzoni, Petöfi and Mickiewicz in starring roles, its pastiche summoned only the Scorpions, David Hasselhoff and David Bowie. Rudolf Bahro had contributed the opus of the DDR dissidents in the late 1970s, before retreating into mysticism by the early 1980s.

Contemplating all this, and yesterday’s tawdry revelries at the Brandenburg Gate, brings to mind Fredric Jameson’s remarks on the historical novels of Peter Weiss:

Such a confrontation with the past must also necessarily include the resistance to it and disgust with which West German readers today greet the older political literature of the West German Gruppe 47 writers, as well as that which postmodern readers in general bring to the now dead past of the interwar years and of World War II — a boredom sometimes mingled with curious stabs of nostalgia, and strengthened by consumerist habits for which the outmoded and old-fashioned are somehow more intolerable than the palpable shoddiness of much of what is truly contemporary.

In today’s Restoration Germany, the population flow has reversed direction: carpetbaggers, tourists and real-estate developers flood into unified Berlin.

The local propertied classes, too, have recovered their composure and sense of mission. At officially consecrated ceremonies of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, state officials are no longer so gun-shy as in days past.

Yesterday Angela Merkel, herself an ornament to the Stalinist bureaucracy’s deft assimilation to the capitalist West, delivered a solemn, canting speech in Berlin.

Collapse of the DDR, in which the Chancellor began her political rise, was saluted as evidence that ‘dreams can come true’:

Nothing has to stay the way it is, however big the hurdles are. We can change things for the better.

This is the message… especially for the people in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and in many, many other regions of the world where liberty and human rights are threatened or being trampled.

It is a message of confidence in our ability to tear down walls today and in future, walls of dictatorship, violence, ideology and hostility…

We have the power to create, we can turn things to the good: That is the message of the fall of the wall.

German public language is now approaching the semantic nullity of its US counterpart. It is as portentous as it is substantively empty. Like ‘change we can believe in,’ its sleekness is born of the abstract rule of capital: profit and private property unencumbered by cultural tradition or institutional barrier, heedless of logic or meaning.

Such language, rudimentary and therefore infinitely capacious, is perfectly suited to statecraft by a newly ambitious and forthright imperial power. It may be directed at once towards two audiences, listeners at home and abroad, articulating domestic concerns in their own idiom, while being palatable to international audiences, catering to the needs of international diplomacy and power-projection.

Delivered with the appropriate sombreness at one of the country’s many architectural Denkmäler, memorial sites and museums, the televisual effect is striking.

Note that foregrounding 1989 in such a fashion allows Germans to celebrate themselves as historical authors of their own liberal redemption, wresting some of that honour from the United States and other Western Allies (the role of the Red Army in creating conditions for the postwar Rechtsstaat is naturally best ignored). Washington’s ownership since 1945 of the symbol ‘Bringer of salvation from Hitler’ has been a useful useful ideological tool of US hegemony.

The chance to present a similarly feelgood popular symbol of Berlin’s own — German good triumphing over Russified evil, bleached of any political content — is most welcome in the Foreign Office.

Its price — a further debauching of German language, public discourse and historical knowledge — is, for those tendering the currency, well worth it.

A frightening abyss

October 21, 2014 by

Political funerals are naturally light on candour and heavy on encomium, a polite sponge applied to the deceased’s public record.

Such prettification, in an Australian Labor setting, typically does without much elevated language  the latter being beyond whichever dim leading lights of today, and fossilized contemporaries of yesteryear, have been selected from among the assembled personages.

Bureaucratic droning is the standard official tribute.

Honest political testament, and quivering oratory, is best sought elsewhere.

In October 1975, Clyde Cameron, a senior member of the Whitlam Cabinet and back-room powerbroker for the ALP Left, delivered a remarkably frank, unvarnished speech in the House of Representatives.

With explicitness born of desperation, he described the role of the Australian Labor Party and trade unions in preserving the existing institutional order from those who would menace it.

Cameron beseeched the conservative Opposition (and the propertied classes) to see reason, explaining that removal of the Labor government threatened ‘total collapse of the parliamentary system of government’ and victory for the unruly, repugnant ‘mob’:

The people are many; the moguls are few. Yet it is the representation of those privileged few who have brought us to this very brink of mob rule. A frightening abyss is certainly before us now…

Without parliamentary democracy what is there? Why should the masses tolerate this mockery of democracy? What will prevent the masses from becoming a mob and what will then stand between the classes of privilege and the mob once the institution of parliament is destroyed? Who will then man the powerhouses, the oil refineries and the transport systems? Who then will man the ships, mine the coal and man the wharves? The Opposition cannot do that with guns and bayonets. It cannot do that with its wealthy racketeer friends. Revolution does not ever happen until some spark ignites the dynamite. The steps which the Opposition has now taken could be the spark that will bring down all the institutions in this country.


Parliament does not derive its strength, its authority, its respect and power from the shell of masonry that carries the name of Parliament House. Nor does it derive its power and respect from the people who sit in its chambers; it derives its power, respect and authority from the fact that people identify Parliament with a whole wide range of ancient traditions, conventions and principles without which it can no longer act as the barrier between our present way of life and the mob which would seek to change it. And yet, it is they, the privileged sections of the community and the Press barons, who have most to lose from the destruction of the present system. They, the Press barons, the mining magnates, the foreign-owned multinational corporations, the ruling classes generally, the barons of business and the privileged classes are now urging the Opposition to embark upon the course of action which will destroy the only bastion which stands between them and the mob.


Once working people see that their chosen governments are not to be allowed to govern, what is it that will stop them from responding to those memorable lines of Percy Shelley who, in conditions very much like those which will apply when the collapse of the parliamentary system occurs, made this clarion call to the men of England:

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you-

Ye are many they are few.

This Parliament stands between the rule of the mob, the law of the streets and society as we know it and have enjoyed it throughout our country.

Thereafter, dumped from power despite its importuning, the Australian Labor Party would play its perennial role, as sturdy protector of ‘the institution of parliament’ and ‘society as we know it.’

Very late in life, Cameron joined Socialist Alliance.

His trembling evocation of the mob, given rare expression in Canberra (an urban environment designed to exclude the popular citizenry), was common in nineteenth-century literature. The riot scenes of Dickens and Zola record the physical terror inspired by dense populations of workers and artisans unleashed from authority.

Today, however, the imagery of stormed palaces has become somewhat tattered and remote — and the toppled statue is now a kitsch trademark of US-engineered regime change. Nonetheless, fear and contempt for the ‘masses’ endures, finding an outlet in supercilious journalistic sneering about moral panics and ‘populism.’

Yet isn’t such demophobia pointless, after three decades of relative domestic social peace, if not outright quiescence, in the advanced economies?


Why has the governing elite of this country recently invested so heavily in the machinery of repression (administrative detention, ‘control orders’, military call-out powers, engorgement of police and intelligence agencies)? Why erect such bastions and barriers between ‘our present way of life and the mob which would seek to change it’, when the latter are so disorganized, discredited and demoralized, and in any case no longer possess in any great numbers a coherent vision of an alternative society?

Some clue to this development is found here, where I describe Steven Pinker’s fondness for state violence, the latter approved as a queller of rowdy passions from below:

Mounting a consistent and effective defence of property rights nowadays compels the honest ideologue to adopt such a position [pragmatic authoritarianism].

For if ‘gentle commerce’ transforms ‘zero-sum warfare into positive-sum mutual profit’, this same growth of productivity and cooperative non-rivalry (i.e. the necessity for team production by co-workers in factories and offices) also raises the costs of excluding non-owners from access to resources and enforcing private claims to wealth.

In today’s Garrison USA, it takes more than one-quarter of the labour force (up from 6% in 1890 and 7% in 1929) to maintain order and to enforce the existing allocation of ownership claims over economic resources. A colossal number of citizen-soldiers now work as supervisors with the authority to discipline, sanction and fire, or as prison guards, private security personnel, employees of the military, lawyers, etc.

This is what mainstream economics calls the ‘technology of conflict’, in which resources are devoted to enforcing, adjudicating, seizing or redistributing private claims to social wealth.

At the heart of US society beats a massive disciplinary apparatus, public and private.

Hasbara through the ages

August 5, 2014 by

Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, in a July 1914 telegram to the Reich’s ambassador in Vienna, counsels tact in the practice of Weltpolitik.

Trumping up a plausible pretext for war requires both finesse and patience; at the last moment, a headlong rush may be thwarted:

As we have already rejected one British proposal for a conference, it is not possible for us to refuse this suggestion also a limine.

If we rejected every attempt at mediation the whole world would hold us responsible for the conflagration and represent us as the real warmongers. That would also make our position impossible here in Germany, where we have got to appear as though the war had been forced on us.

Our position is the more difficult because Serbia seems to have given way very extensively. We cannot therefore reject the role of mediator; we have to pass on the British proposal to Vienna for consideration, especially since London and Paris are continuously using their influence on Petersburg.


The Imperial government is thus put into the extraordinarily difficult position of being exposed during the intervening period to the other Powers’ proposals for mediation and conferences, and if it continues to maintain its previous reserve towards such proposals, the odium of having provoked a world war will in the end recoil on it, even in the eyes of the German people.

But a successful war on three fronts (viz., in Serbia, Russia and France) cannot be initiated and carried on on such a basis.

It is imperative that the responsibility for any extension of the conflict to Powers not directly concerned should under all circumstances fall on Russia alone.

Twenty-five years later, Hitler fears similar delays and obstructions:

All these fortunate circumstances will no longer prevail in two to three years. No one knows how long I shall live. Therefore conflict better now…

I am only afraid that at the last minute some Schweinehund will make a proposal for mediation.

The useful art

July 31, 2014 by

Speaking at a 2012 literary festival, Jonathan Franzen expertly flattered his audience, sweeping them, himself and the US president into gratifying communion:

One of the reasons I love Barack Obama as much as I do is that we finally have a real reader in the White House. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s one of us running the US.

‘real writer type’, too: the young Obama, his early promise detected, was offered, and duly inked, a publishing contract to write his memoirs while still at college.

Released just before an electoral campaign for the Illinois Senate, that book presented the candidate in his now accustomed role: embodiment of triumph over racial prejudice, personification of national healing.

Jonathan Franzen June 2012 Artists and Writers for Obama

The breadth of presidential interests is, of course, not exhausted by the written word. Its scope encompasses all varieties of Blue State cultural output, visual as well as verbal.

Thus Obama may loyally have read Franzen at Martha’s Vineyard, but he is also a fan and sponsor of the cinematic blockbuster.

The contours of this aesthetic ecumenicism — a broad-minded taste for Hollywood dross as well as Champaign-Urbana middlebrow — adhere closely to the map of industries granted favourable copyright, patent and intellectual-property protection — now of unprecedented extent and duration — during recent decades.

The Motion Picture Association and the Association of American Publishers both have a friend, attuned to their needs and sensibilities, in the White House.

Its current occupant, following Clinton’s efforts to secure the TRIPS Agreement, is the first to establish a domestic office of Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator.

The cultural pretensions of Democratic presidents, along with their financial contributors and electoral base, have accordingly changed since 1946, when Harry Truman could rail against ‘the “Artists” with a capital A, the parlour pinks and the soprano-voiced men.’

Today press, academy and the well-educated flock to the Democrats.

Amid this reconfiguration — postwar rise of the media and entertainment industries, verbal culture displaced by the visual, fortification of IP as a massive source of royalties and licence revenue — the very role of the writer has been transformed.

Professional distinctions between journalist, writer and scholar have been blurred, publicity pursued and cultural authority lost.

Franzen’s attempt to edify a self-conceived intelligentsia might therefore, at least, prompt one question.

How, examined in the longue durée, has production and reproduction of books and the written word altered the social position of authors? How have the writer’s esteem, prerogatives and benefices altered with his or her workaday techniques, tools of the trade, property rights and proximity to power?

The topic is vast, but some remarks can be made.

To organize any society’s division of labour, a ruling class always depends on technologies of information transmission and storage (e.g. written culture, number systems, monetary tokens, aides memoire).

Thus, in the temple economy of ancient Sumer, writing, numerical notation and arithmetic developed to record and tally units of sheep, wheat, fish, etc. on clay tablets.

Herodotus explained how geometry arose from the Egyptian state’s need to survey and measure land boundaries for apportionment to tenants:

Egypt was cut up; and they said that this king distributed the land to all the Egyptians, giving an equal square portion to each man, and from this he made his revenue, having appointed them to pay a certain rent every year: and if the river should take away anything from any man’s portion, he would come to the king and declare that which had happened, and the king used to send men to examine and to find out by measurement how much less the piece of land had become, in order that for the future the man might pay less, in proportion to the rent appointed: and I think that thus the art of geometry was found out and afterwards came into Hellas also. For as touching the sun-dial and the gnomon and the twelve divisions of the day, they were learnt by the Hellenes from the Babylonians.

Literate societies, which allow information to be more readily stored externally and transmitted horizontally (e.g. by telegraph) as well as vertically across generations (e.g. training manuals), can deploy a more complex labour process than non-literate ones.


Through the movement of symbols — coins, written messages, titles to deed — separate production units can be coordinated.

Or large-scale collaborative projects, such as architectural or construction works, can be undertaken, with many producers working in parallel under the same roof.

Thanks to writing and other methods of storing information, technological specialties can accrete and be taught to new generations, and society’s labour resources allocated to different concrete tasks.

The ‘disembodied word,’ wrote Ernest Gellner, ‘can be identically present in many, many places.’

The scale of productive labour commanded, and thus the capacity to extract and appropriate a surplus product (e.g. tax-raising or rent), is thereby increased by a system of extendible records such as writing.

The sovereign rulers or elite of such a territory are able to mobilize greater resources (military service, armaments, requisitioned food, etc.) to squander on war or the threat of war, or to administer in peacetime.

Thus the rulers of a literate society will be more likely to succeed in military conflict with external rivals and internal challengers.

Tokens Iran 4th millenium BC

Suppose this rudimentary level of literacy reached, as in agrarian societies.

How then has the manner in which manuscripts were copied and books printed influenced matters?

Charlemagne’s Frankish military machine, the most effective in post-Roman Western Europe, and the most ecclesiastically based, was also the first to effectively promote book copying and literary education as part of an official recovery of the classical past and its cultural treasures.

Stung by the humiliations inflicted upon the Merovingians by the tax-raising Umayyad state, the Carolingian court in Aachen — its own fiscal resources modest — opted to undertake an ambitious administrative and education policy.

Late in the eighth century Charlemagne addressed a famous letter to the abbot Baugaulf of Fulda, instructing him to forward copies to every monastery in Francia:

[The] bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favour of Christ to our control, in addition to inculcating the culture of letters, also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observation of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly…

For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct.

Therefore, each one ought to study what he desires to accomplish, so that so much the more fully the mind may know what ought to be done, as the tongue hastens in the praises of omnipotent God without the hindrances of errors. For since errors should be shunned by all men, so much the more ought they to be avoided as far as possible by those who are chosen for this very purpose alone, so that they ought to be the especial servants of truth.

For when in the years just passed letters were often written to us from several monasteries in which it was stated that the brethren who dwelt there offered up in our behalf sacred and pious prayers, we have recognized in most of these letters both correct thoughts and uncouth expressions; because what pious devotion dictated faithfully to the mind, the tongue, uneducated on account of the neglect of study, was not able to express in the letter without error…

Therefore, we exhort you not only not to neglect the study of letters, but also with most humble mind, pleasing to God, to study earnestly in order that you may be able more easily and more correctly to penetrate the mysteries of the divine Scriptures.

Since, moreover, images, tropes and similar figures are found in the sacred pages, no one doubts that each one in reading these will understand the spiritual sense more quickly if previously he shall have been fully instructed in the mastery of letters…

Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne describes how the king himself, though barely able to write, joined in the Frankish elite’s recovery of Latin classics and early Christian authorities:

The plan that he adopted for his children’s education was, first of all, to have both boys and girls instructed in the liberal arts, to which he also turned his own attention…

Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence.

He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them.

He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning.

The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny.

He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.

Alcuin’s letters describe that scholar’s mission, recruited to Aachen as Charlemagne’s ‘restorer of letters’.

There he would salvage and transcribe lost manuscripts, with copying accuracy improved by development of the standardized script known as Carolingian miniscule.

Alcuin would also establish and amass a library of books (Virgil, Augustine, Jerome, etc.), administer abbeys, and teach ‘liberal studies and the holy word’ to the Frankish aristocracy, court officials and clergy.

A common elite culture was thereby transmitted at the Palace School, instructions issued in a language and Church ideology that all ecclesiastic authorities could understand and apply.

Aachen palace

Van Zanden - West European monasteries

Through the serial copying of texts by scribes and notaries, and the teaching of students, this ‘culture of letters’ gradually diffused outward throughout the cathedral schools of the Frankish realm.

Common institutions (incorporated towns, monastery and cathedral schools, Catholic orders) spread from the Rhine-Meuse heartland of the Carolingian lands across Europe.

Latin Christendom’s conquest to the south, in Acquitane, northern Spain and Italy, and to the east in Saxony and the Slavic lands, created social and legal replicas rather than dependencies.

European book production, initially concentrated in the Italian peninsula, took off continent-wide.

Van Zanden - European manuscript production

A poem by the Archbishop of Mainz conveys some idea of the enthusiasm for scribes, and the written word, among the Carolingian elite:

As God’s kingly law rules in absolute majesty over the wide world
It is an exceedingly holy task to copy the law of God.
This activity is a pious one, unequalled in merit
By any other which men’s hands can perform.
For the fingers rejoice in writing, the eyes in seeing,
And the mind at examining the meaning of God’s mystical words.
No work sees the light which hoary old age
Does not destroy or wicked time overturn:
Only letters are immortal and ward off death
Only letters in books bring the past to life.
Indeed God’s hand carved letters on the rock
That pleased him when he gave his laws to the people,
And these letters reveal everything in the world that is
Has been, or may chance to come in the future.

An ingratiating manner was thus adopted towards the specialist corps of scholars, writers and clerics. Political authority, while chiefly engaged in the sordid business of territorial aggrandizement, relied for its perpetuation and its sense of mission upon scriptural authority, and its codification in writing.

The word was repository of wisdom and legitimating truth. Its custodians should be indulged.

Carolingian manuscript

Europe’s urban and commercial efflorescence of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries marked another development of book production.

The Pecia system, using multiple scribes, reduced the time required to reproduce a manuscript by allowing parallel copying of many fragment of the text, rather than a single serial process.

This technique was developed in medieval universities that had sprung up, the first under Imerius at Bologna, to recover and interpret the Roman civil code.

This medieval revival of Roman jurisprudence, making available classical precepts of ownership and contract, was propitious for the growth of West European commodity production, trade and urbanization.

In the more coherently developed Byzantine Empire, centuries earlier, revival of the Justinian Code by Basil I had been accompanied by renewed appreciation for Virgil, Homer and Augustine. The Macedonian Renaissance, with Photius and his famous library, presented a pinnacle then unreachable in backwards Francia. Byzantine state officials were trained in Graeco-Roman classics: Leo the Mathematician taught Aristotelian logic at the Magnaura school.

In the West, however, until the Renaissance the Church served as a ‘special vessel’ that preserved the cultural heritage of classical antiquity, ‘escaping the general wreckage to transmit the mysterious messages of the past to the less advanced future… the indispensable bridge between two epochs.’


Van Zanden - Book production and monasteries

In our own day, the practice of copying information has become more important to social production.

First lauded by Daniel Bell in the 1970s, the ‘information economy’ was the subject of more sustained and thoroughgoing ideological celebration in the 1990s, with industrial capitalism receiving bouquets for having overcome its material constraints and resource limits.

Of course, as with much else, the economic contribution made by copying information was identified long ago by Charles Babbage.

Replacement of the scribe (a serial process of copying) by the printing press and moveable type brought rapid increase in the productivity of information copying:

Printing from moveable types… is the most important in its influence of all the arts of copying.

It possesses a singular peculiarity, in the immense subdivision of the parts that form the pattern. After that pattern has furnished thousands of copies, the same individual elements may be arranged again and again in other forms, and thus supply multitudes of originals, from each of which thousands of their copied impressions may flow.

This set the scene for generalized literacy among the educated workforce required by industrial capitalism. And it ensured, for a time, the supremacy of verbal culture.

Outside the printing industry itself, mass production using interchangeable parts has, since the mid-19th century, depended on replication of standardized products made to precise tolerances. (This, in turn, makes possible the development of numerical-control machine tools, replacing jigs and fixtures.)

Copying technology in manufacturing has more recently been refined by optical and UV lithography.

Today’s books, images, recorded music and software are transmitted rapidly and in parallel using Unicode and ASCII.

Information (e.g. a sequence of words) is liberated from its dependence on any particular medium or embodiment in a specific material artifact (e.g. typeset document). Written text may be duplicated at will.

Any such item of text, able to be reproduced at low cost, must therefore become copyright if it is to be remain property and yield monetary reward.

This raises the question of the author as independent producer.

When does the writer retain property rights to his or her product?

Especially since the 1970s, copyright law has decreed that employees, or those contractors working for hire, waive ownership rights over their creative work to the commissioning or employing entity (publisher, studio, ad agency).

Staff journalists or advertising writers, for example, have no property claims in their published works, which belong instead to the periodical or agency that employs or contracts them (some exceptions apply).

Freelance writers, too, while nominally independent contractors and thus entitled to copyright, are in bargaining terms at the mercy of publishers: ‘if [writers] do not capitulate and assign rights to such conglomerates they risk being blacklisted.’

This divestment of authorship has accomplished a sharp change in the social position of writers, who had hitherto, in some measure, been independent producers: owning their own tools of the trade, working under their own direction rather than that of supervisors, preserving rights to their output and whatever fruits it might yield.

‘The author isn’t dead’, wrote Catherine Fisk, reaching for a clever epigram and duly finding it: ‘he just got a job.’

Unfortunately, as if in a company-man dystopia, he has been subsumed into the identity of his corporate employer. His disappearance is by now almost complete. Although he has gone on writing, the corporation has become the author of his oeuvre…

[Modern] creativity is exercised in an employment setting where salaried creators sign away their rights in their work as a condition of hire — sign away, in effect, their very status as authors.

In this ‘corporatization of creativity’, there is an echo of the fate of the salaried engineer, brought into a collective work team by growth of the patent system.

David Noble describes emergence of the ‘corporation as inventor’ at the in-house research laboratories (General Electric, AT&T, Bayer, BASF) of the late nineteenth century:

The frustration of independent invention led the majority of inventors into the research laboratories of the large corporations; in the process, invention itself was transformed…

Inventors became employees in corporations to spare themselves the hardship of going in alone. Their patents were thereby handled by corporation-paid patent lawyers and their inventions were made commercially viable at corporate expense. Corporate employment thus eliminated the problem of lawsuits, and in addition provided well-equipped laboratories, libraries and technical assistance for research. The nature of their actual work, however, had changed…

By employing the technical experts capable of producing inventions, the corporations were also obtaining the legally necessary vehicles for the accumulation of corporate patents…

In time… employees became required to assign all patent rights to their employer, as part of their employment contracts, in return for their salaries.

The writer’s reduced circumstances in the world have been accompanied by a marked decline in the quality of authorial output.

Little published in the decades following the Second World War stands comparison with the tightly bunched sequence of totems released after the First: works by Proust, Joyce, Mann, Kafka, Musil, Rilke, Valéry, Mayakovsky all appearing within a few years of each other.

Fredric Jameson notes the social mutations behind this post-1945 fall-off in novelistic standards — a decline everywhere grudgingly conceded but rarely dwelt upon.

The great modernist seers, not least in their own self-mythology, were independent producers, retaining an artisanal autonomy of routine, if not hieratic ritual. Pen and paper offered a self-sufficient cloister from the industrial economy of plastics, electronics and chemical factories.

These droits de l’auteur were usurped as their literary successors, obliged to do paid journalism or media work in whatever measure, have been drawn into capitalist social relations:

[There] is a deeper reason for the disappearance of the Great Writer under postmodernism, and it is simply this, sometimes called “uneven development”: in an age of monopolies (and trade unions), of increasing institutionalized collectivization, there is always a lag. Some parts of the economy are still archaic, handicraft enclaves; some are more modern and futuristic than the future itself.

Modern art, in this respect, drew its power and its possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.

Aesthetic production then offered the Utopian vision of a more human production generally; and in the world of the monopoly stage of capitalism it exercised a fascination by way of the image it offered of a Utopian transformation of human life.

Joyce in his rooms in Paris singlehandedly produces a whole world, all by himself and beholden to no one; but the human beings in the streets outside those rooms have no comparable sense of power and control, of human productivity; none of the feeling of freedom and autonomy that comes when, like Joyce, you can make or at least share in making your own decisions.

As a form of production, then, modernism (including the Great Artists and producers) gives off a message that has little to do with the content of the individual works: it is the aesthetic as sheer autonomy, as the satisfactions of handicraft transfigured.

Modernism must thus be seen as uniquely corresponding to an uneven moment of social development, or to what Ernst Bloch called the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen): the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history  handicrafts alongside the great cartels, peasant fields with the Krupp factories or the Ford plant in the distance.

The history of early twentieth-century avant-gardes in the visual arts easel painting stretching the limits of handicraft creativity in response to the new commercial technologies of photography, cinema and television seems to confirm this diagnosis.

But the written word has been cheaply reproducible for centuries. The printing press was invented long before sound recording or disc pressing.

Why then should authors have suddenly submitted to the depredations and indignity of the employment relationship? Why relinquish a purely commercial transaction for a relationship of command and subordination?

The background to this loss of social esteem can be plotted briefly.

The writer of ‘independent means’ — beneficiary of family fortunes and legacies, of a gebildet European bourgeoisie happy to subsidize the artistic careers of its wayward sons — had dwindled in number by the mid-twentieth century, cancelled along with the aristocracy whose ‘high culture’ the business classes were trying to ape.

In a 1946 radio broadcast, E.M. Forster described the workings of this vanished world of Mann, Gide, Proust, Zweig and himself: ‘In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts.’

He surmised, correctly, its obsolescence.

Suddenly needing to earn a salary, many writers were drawn into journalism, academia and marketing by the postwar expansion of higher education, entertainment media and advertising industries.

Creative-writing programmes, residencies, fellowships and institutional grants provided new homes in the academy, and birthed the postwar genre of campus novel. (Prescribed syllabuses meanwhile supplied a market for books that, lacking sufficient buyers, might otherwise have gone unpublished.)

State bureaucracies, massively swelled by warfare and welfare state, absorbed others into officialdom and public administration. (Proust had recommended a comfortable, undemanding sinecure as the ideal occupation for an author.)

The result today is that all writers, even the most exalted, must resort to journalism or occasional teaching. Journalists are therefore tempted to suppose themselves writers — indeed the more successful, receiving grants from university, foundation or think tank, as interim scholars.

For writers, this coming down in the world reaches its culmination with the insistence, courtesy of a copyright lawyer at Google, that the notion of sole creative authorship has always been a myth. The ‘romantic’ notion of the author disguises the reality of artistic collaboration, bricolage and cheerful plagiarism.

Bleating about usurpation of the author’s property rights, he declares, is little more than moral panic.

(Of course, Patry rather misses the point: in commercial terms, appellation of authorship is akin to indication of geographical origin, e.g. of wine or cheese, an identifying badge which is recognized under the TRIPS Agreement as similar to trademark or certification.)

Today the ‘creative industries’ — so named by their publicists — are presented as a smart new engine of economic growth, the swelling revenue of Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast and Time Warner an example of twenty-first century conditions favouring the intelligent over the dim.

The ‘creative economy’ and ‘cultural industries’ are now topics of urgent reports by UNCTAD and UNESCO, not to mention a cottage industry of scholarship, popular publications and municipal boosterism.

In reality, the high incomes of media, software and pharmaceutical firms are a form of rent based on access denial and control. This is a business model familiar from the land enclosures of the British agricultural revolution.

Patent royalties, copyright fees, licence revenue, etc. — not to mention the income earned by lawyers and agents securing such arrangements — derive not from any new productive powers or technological innovations, but from asserting exclusive property rights, and thereby securing claim over a revenue stream.

The grotesquely concentrated market of book publishing — Pearson, Bertelsmann, Lagardère and a handful of other giant houses commanding the global scene — is exemplary.

Proletarianization of the author, as with the academic scholar, therefore signals not an explosion of knowledge, but its seizure and sequestration.

Along with prolonged copyright and trademark protection, the other half of the ‘creative industry’ business model is contributed by network externalities. Low costs of reproduction, and uniformity of customer tastes, allow multiplication of copies to any number of users.

The presence of more buyers raises the value of the original copy. With greater scale comes increasing returns.

A handful of market-cornering ‘superstars’ prosper; the eager but unloved proliferate.

‘Content’ production and transmission are therefore encouraged only to the extent they can be subdued and corralled by publishing platforms and distributors. The volume of writing solicited is unprecedented (e.g. content farms), but the channel clogged with noise (recycled articles, duplicated material). The proportion of people reading books of any type has declined.

Amid this scene, the pose struck by Franzen — himself as Voltaire or Maupertuis at Frederick the Great’s Prussian court — provides buffoonish relief.

Franzen and Safran Foer - Artists and Writers for Obama

What, finally, of Franzen’s panegyric of Obama as literary patron and cultural custodian?

One of the cherished fantasy-images of postmodern politics is that of an intelligentsia, hitherto a marginalized and downtrodden caste, restored to social prominence and installing one of its own in the chancellery.

Havel in Prague provides a euphoric example, as does the short-lived spectacle of ‘civil society’, journalists and economists in Poland and post-Soviet Russia, celebrating their own professional guild-values as foundations for a new society.

The ur-reference of these contemporary fantasies is 1848, when the poets and novelists of European romanticism — Manzoni, Petöfi, Mickiewicz — played starring roles for national movements in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Belgium and Italy. For mid-nineteenth century romantic nationalism, language was the bearer of heritage, providing a cultural basis for political unity.

Such rhetoric, now hopelessly archaic but guaranteeing a prominent role for the national bard (e..g Milan Kundera), was revived with the breakup of the Soviet Union and other multi-ethnic states, the return of private ownership dressed up as a Springtime of Peoples.

In the 1990s such visions spread outwards from the newly capitalist countries, an elixir to replenish the threadbare ideological cupboards of the old. Their compensatory function is obvious for European and North American intellectuals suffering the aesthetic degradation and social indignities of globalized advanced capitalism, as described above.

Reality is, of course, unkind to this daydream of a renewed social alliance between belles-lettres and state authority.

As with his peers abroad — the parvenu crassness of Sarkozy springs to mind — today’s US president, educated at a private prep school worth over $300 million, is instead anxious to flaunt his social kinship with ‘savvy businessmen.’

In such a scene, letters today barely sustain even a vestigial role as elite decoration or philanthropic point d’honneur.

Literature has, of course, rarely drawn the attention of wealthy patrons. It lacks the monumentality and civic resplendence of architecture; cannot offer the networking opportunities and social prestige of the opera house or gallery board of directors; easily duplicated, it does not yield the returns on investment of the one-of-a-kind painting.

Yet if sponsors have always been scarce, membership of the propertied classes has, in previous epochs, meant an obligatory amount of taste, learning, connoisseurship, and reverence towards literary matters.

Books were favoured as a luxury appurtenance, patronized and consumed for ornamentation and exhibitions of status, to be sure — but also were a matter of elite self-conception, recruitment and social functioning.

In 1808 Napoleon — his Grande Armée having brought emancipation of the Prussian peasantry, state certification of teachers and foundation of Berlin University — took time out from the Congress of Erfurt to grant a breakfast-time audience with Goethe.

Goethe recounted this episode in a conversation with Eckermann:

“But,” continued he, gaily, “pay your respects. What book do you think Napoleon carried in his field library? — My Werther!”

“We may see by his levee at Erfurt,” said I, “that he had studied it well.”

“He had studied it as a criminal judge does his documents,” said Goethe, “and in this spirit talked with me about it. In Bourrienne’s work there is a list of the books which Napoleon took to Egypt, among which is Werther. But what is worth noticing in this list, is the manner in which the books are classed under different rubrics. Under the head Politique, for instance, we find the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran; by which we see from what point of view Napoleon regarded religious matters.”

The three versions of this meeting (recorded by Talleyrand, Friedrich von Müller and Goethe himself) were recorded by Luise Mühlbach in her historical novel Napoleon and the Queen of Prussia:

Napoleon, continuing to eat, beckoned Goethe, with a careless wave of his hand, to approach.

He complied, and stood in front of the table, opposite the emperor, who looked up, and, turning with an expression of surprise to Talleyrand, pointed to Goethe, and exclaimed, “Ah, that is a man!” An imperceptible smile overspread the poet’s countenance, and he bowed in silence.

“How old are you, M. von Goethe?” asked Napoleon.

“Sire, I am in my sixtieth year.”

“In your sixtieth year, and yet you have the appearance of a youth! Ah, it is evident that perpetual intercourse with the muses has imparted external youth to you.”

“Sire,” said Daru, “M. von Goethe has also translated Voltaire’s Mahomet.”

“That is not a good tragedy,” said Napoleon. “Voltaire has sinned against history and the human heart. He has prostituted the character of Mohammed by petty intrigues. He makes a man, who revolutionized the world, act like an infamous criminal deserving the gallows. Let us rather speak of Goethe’s own work—of the Sorrows of Young Werther. I have read it many times, and it has always afforded me the highest enjoyment; it accompanied me to Egypt, and during my campaigns in Italy, and it is therefore but just that I should return thanks to the poet for the many pleasant hours he has afforded me.”

Goethe and Napoleon at Erfurt

During the late Roman empire, Symmachus had declared in a letter that his senatorial elite were the ‘better part of the human race.’ Though idle and landed, Roman aristocrats had to be familiar with Virgil and Juvenal.

Such, indeed, was the cultural pedigree later drawn upon by bourgeois revolutionaries, for whom such distant treasures of the past remained legible, banners and elevated slogans to be salvaged from history, then used to embellish contemporary campaigns.

Dutch republicans sought to vindicate their revolt against Philip II’s Spanish yoke with arguments from Aristotle, Roman thinkers and the Bible. The English Revolution drew its language from the Bible.

In France, said Marx, ‘the Revolution of 1789–1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire’:

Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time — that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society — in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases…

Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism — the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.

But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy.

Postmodern culture, of course, famously knows its own share of dress-up, pastiche and nostalgic revival.

Franzen’s grotesque embrace of Karl Kraus shows this: an example of nostalgia for the aesthetic, and of commercial culture’s wish to salvage from unprofitable ‘obscurity’ a peculiarly stringent and unassimilable modernism.

But — appropriately for a Restoration era that denies any future prospect of change — this decorative relationship to the past is enfeebling rather than stimulating. If it is to be drawn upon, any historical item must first be converted into a fashion plate, suitable for collection and ornamentation, the merest patina and embellishment.

Thus in literary necromancy, too, yesterday’s priests are replaced by today’s cheap hucksters.

The ‘past brought to life’ can involve little genuine connection to a shared cultural heritage, the latter now hopelessly remote and irrelevant. It follows instead the relentless, rhythmic turnover of the fashion cycle.

Display of rectitude as a war of attrition

July 25, 2014 by

It is as foil to his brutal, sport-mad, loutish classmates that Stephen Dedalus is thrown into relief as a quiet, sensitive young artist-to-be.

In the schoolyard, delicate and wheezing, Stephen is not like other boys:

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries.

The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.

He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of players and his eyes were weak and watery…

He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing legs and muddy boots, bent down to look through the legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping.

Then Jack Lawton’s yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after. He ran after them a little way and then stopped. It was useless to run on…

It would be better to be in the study hall than out there in the cold.

To such extravagant lack of athletic ability, add a record of conversational misfires and a tendency to lapses in classroom etiquette.

This experience of youthful difference is disagreeable. Stephen the aesthete must find a more suitable habitat in which to fit himself — if not a different, less provincial country entirely.

Theophile Gautier

Yet revealing one’s type in this fashion  sticking out from the plodding, lowing herd of peers and contemporaries  is not all bad.

It is through such outward and visible signs of inward distinction that the sheep are separated from the goats, the philosopher from the street-porter, and those with a special destiny from the ordinary run of people.

And how do you distinguish yourself from the crowd when, having progressed to a better school, all your peers are of similarly thoughtful and bookish temperament?

The pale gleaming purity of the ‘model youth’ is readily perceived against a background of ‘undistinguished dullards.’ But what to do on those nights when all the cows, like you, are black?

In David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, readers are introduced to the grad student Molly Notkin, ‘as of yesterday enjoying ABD pre-doctoral status in Film & Film-Cartridge Theory at MIT’.

Molly’s pious, high-minded ex-boyfriend is described:

[An] erotically circumscribed G.W. Pabst scholar at New York University tortured by the neurotic compulsion that there are only a finite number of erections possible in the world at any one time and that his tumescence means e.g. the detumescence of some perhaps more deserving or tortured Third World sorghum farmer or something, so that whenever he tumefies he’ll suffer the same order of guilt that your less eccentrically tortured Ph.D.-type person will suffer at the idea of, say, wearing baby-seal fur.

Here is a kind of arms race of sanctimony, the pursuit of holding the most exacting and conspicuously austere standards of conduct within one’s reference group (i.e. of grad students in the liberal arts).

The Pabst scholar is engaged with his peers in a bidding tournament to exhibit the most delicacy and unremitting sensitivity, the most guilt for his lapses into the profane:

Molly still takes the high-speed rail down to visit him every couple weeks, to be there for him in case by some selfish mischance he happens to harden, prompting in him black waves of self-disgust and an extreme neediness for understanding and nonjudgmental love.

In The World of Odysseus, Moses Finley portrayed Homeric contests for esteem as a kind of zero-sum tournament of social climbing:

It is in the nature of honour that it must be exclusive, or at least hierarchic. When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone. Of necessity, therefore, the world of Odysseus was fiercely competitive, as each hero strove to outdo the others…

In the final analysis, how can prepotence be determined except by repeated demonstrations of success? And the one indisputable measure of success is a trophy.

The prestige gained by the ‘winner’ was a kind of positional good. The value of honour depended on its being unequally distributed: having it entailed that some other people didn’t have it.

This encouraged a competitive rat race of escalating heroism, a tournament or bidding war in which ever more resources — time, effort, spilt blood — were expended.

It resembled what Veblen would later describe, in Gilded Age Chicago, as a treadmill of ‘pecuniary emulation… a restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this average standard.’

For abiding by an obligatory norm wasn’t enough to distinguish the Homeric warrior (or the ‘tortured PhD type’) as a hero or elicit the approbation of others. One had to go beyond the call of duty.

Admiration was reserved for supererogatory acts: those that surpassed the norm.

Veblen on keeping up with the Joneses:

As fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one’s self as compared with one’s neighbours.

One-upmanship is typical when this kind of (indivisible, positional) prize is at stake.

We’re all familiar with social contests (e.g. pursuit of prestige through conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, arms races in education leading to ‘credential inflation’, litigation battles with massive legal expenses incurred by both parties, R&D races, competitive giving in potlatch, etc.) that generate escalating and wasteful consumption of resources.

Each participant knows that the prize in these tournaments will be awarded to whoever is willing to match others’ bids and commit that extra epsilon of costly resources, refusing to drop out.

The rents accrued, in the end, by the winner are often matched or surpassed by the resources squandered during the contest.

When new standards are successively established and function henceforth as a baseline or default, we have a kind of ascending-bid auction.

The latter is an auction where everyone submits bids, with successively higher iterations, and the prize winner is the one who can afford the most costly investment.

Sensitivity, insofar as it confers prestige while bringing expense of time and effort, may be one such contest.

How does the tournament proceed: in what manner are competitors pruned and a prize allotted?

The needs of some individuals are easier to satisfy than the needs of others: society must, for example, expend more of its limited resources to supply electricity to a resident of a remote farming region than it does to provide the same good to an urban dweller.

A person (e.g. someone with restricted mobility who must amend the design of their house or workplace to be capable of getting around) may have ‘expensive tastes’ even without voluntarily cultivating the latter.

Some societies (and some agents i.e. governments, firms, individuals) can afford to spend resources satisfying such costly needs. Others cannot.

A large corporation may be able to afford diversity and inclusion programmes or sensitivity training for its employees, and can modify office facilities to allow access by disabled workers and visitors, etc.

A small proprietor may be unable to afford either investment, or may have to choose between them.

Regularly maintaining and upgrading manuals of approved usage or conduct is a costly task, as is employing compliance officers, or monitoring the speech and behaviour of oneself and others.

It will only be undertaken by those with resources to spare.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the inclination to undertake such costly benevolence. Willingness rather than capacity may be the decisive factor.

Yet such enlightened attitudes must themselves be cultivated or acquired through training, reflection or experience. Thus their possession  like table manners, personal decorum or the ability to play a musical instrument  itself requires expense that not all can sustain.

BAE Systems diversity and inclusion matrix

Displays of sensitivity therefore function as a discriminating signal. They are, in certain contexts, a screening device that sorts insiders (the initiated) from outsiders.

A display of rectitude is only valuable as a screening service if it reliably distinguishes the ‘good’ from the ‘bad.’ If some display is easy to emulate (i.e. relatively cheap) then it is not credible as a status symbol.

Self-punishment, as exhibited by the sexually tortured film student, satisfies the handicap principle. It is not for everyone, being costly to maintain. Only the earnest need apply. The elaborate tartufferie of the big corporation, for different reasons, is also expensive to fake.

How much sensitivity, or guilt in the case of the film student, can one sustain?

This challenge triggering an arms race and squandering of resources — is the currency or subtext of many social interactions where, for lack of anything else to do, jockeying for prestige is the object: online discussion, for example, in which participants compete to parade the most costly investment (in knowing the currently approved or most esoteric terms, etc.).

But similar contests of one-upmanship pervade the bien-pensant circles of the professional and managerial classes, and their social satellites, as described in a recent post.

Genteelisms, as is well known, aim to provide a signal of distinguished taste and courtesy, as reliable as any good food and stylish furnishings. (Kojève, observing the survival of now-meaningless archaisms like tea ceremonies in postwar Japan, called this ‘snobbism’). They are a chief method for regulating in-group membership.

Yet, rapidly outdated, or too widely dispersed to work as shibboleths, they provoke a ceaseless euphemism treadmill.

The standard of circumlocution now set higher, an escalating level of resources must be devoted to mutual monitoring to detect infringements, and to lexical ingenuity to repel attacks, in order to come out ahead of the pack.

In general, the class of behaviour involves acquiring redundant goods or credentials, or undertaking some costly investment of time or effort, in order to maintain one’s position relative to competitors for some prize.

Such contests, as Finley and Veblen described, are a high-wire act of ‘restless straining.’

Hypocrisy, said Maugham, was ‘the most difficult and nerve-wracking vice that men can pursue’, demanding constant vigilance. It could not be practised in spare moments, but was a ‘whole-time job.’

So, too, the exhausting battles for prestige, and enforcement of correct conduct and usage, among those with a deep regard for social status and the esteem of peers and colleagues.

Submitting to this regimen is not so easy as Alexander Cockburn imagined in his article on the ‘Conscience Industry’:

Today, at the level of symbolic action, a person of progressive temperament can live in a bubble bath of moral self-satisfaction from dawn to dusk… For every decision in the liberal day, there’s a certificate of good behaviour being flaunted by some of the most disgusting corporations on Earth.

Every decision, all day? Less a warm bath than an exhausting workout. The reader of the Nation cannot relax if she is to keep up with her peer-competitors in the field of uprightness and decorum.

The dinner party as rat race.