tony wood

The Reforging of Russian Society


he winter of 2011–12 produced a paradoxical combination of the inevitable and the unexpected in Russia.1 The return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency was never in doubt; his crushing margin of victory in the March 2012 elections— officially, he scored 64 per cent, almost 50 percentage points more than the second-placed Communist Party candidate, Gennadii Zyuganov— gained him a third term in the Kremlin without the need for a further round of voting. However, the months prior to this democratic coronation brought a series of demonstrations of a scale not seen in these lands since the last days of perestroika. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in dozens of cities, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad—the largest gathering, on 24 December, drawing as many as 100,000 people to Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue—to protest first against the fraudulent results of the December 2011 parliamentary elections, and then against the impending reinstallation of Putin as president. On the one hand, then, seeming confirmation of the ruling elite’s unhindered control over the political system; on the other, signs of a growing rejection of that system by a substantial part of the population. The recent wave of protests has been seen, both in Russia and in the West, as evidence of a new awakening of Russian ‘civil society’, roused from its long post-Soviet slumber by the corruption of Putin and his associates, and their brazen contempt for the popular will. The mobilizations displayed a striking ideological breadth, running the gamut from Orthodox chauvinists to neoliberals, socialists to environmental activists, anti-corruption campaigners to anarchists; attendance also spanned the generations, from pensioners to teenagers. But, as the Western new left review 74 mar apr 2012 5


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press noted approvingly, the most vocal and visible component of the oppositional marches was ‘a sophisticated urban middle class’, with consumption habits and expectations not unlike those of their Western counterparts. During the years of oil-fuelled economic growth after 2000, this layer had apparently ‘grown in size and become sufficiently affluent to assert its yearning for more accountability and less corruption’. Despite its failure to prevent Putin from garnering a majority of the vote, the arrival of this seemingly new actor on Russia’s political stage marked the start of a period of uncertainty; indeed, in some quarters its assertiveness was taken to portend the ‘beginning of the end of the Putin era’.2 Such auguries rely, of course, on a Whig history refurbished for neoliberal times, in which the advance of Western consumption patterns and rising gdp per capita are the measures of progress towards the liberaldemocratic norm; if needed, further proof can be found in increases in car-ownership, internet usage, foreign travel, or perhaps the quantity of ikea stores in a given country.3 Crass metrics of this kind have become a staple of the mainstream Western press, especially when discussing states outside the advanced capitalist core. With regard to Russia, as elsewhere, they reveal a generalized absence of knowledge about the society in question: how is it actually structured in class terms, what is the balance of forces between its components, how are class interests articulated and advanced in both the material and ideological realms? The social historian Moshe Lewin famously described the ussr of the 1920s and 30s as ‘the quicksand society’; given the depth of ignorance about what lies beneath the country’s unchanging political surface, contemporary Russia might be described as ‘the iceberg society’. Indeed, the social landscape of post-Soviet Russia is in many ways more opaque to outsiders than was that of the ussr. In the West, this is partly
An earlier draft of this article was presented at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University, Stockholm, 3 October 2011. My thanks to Sven Hort and Mark Bassin for organizing it, to Zhanna Kravchenko for her perceptive response, and to the other participants for their many helpful comments. 2 Luke Harding, ‘Putin has six more years to draw level with Brezhnev’, Guardian, 4 March 2012; Cliff Kupchan, ‘Putin’s New Constraints’, New York Times, 13 March 2012; Gideon Rachman, ‘The ice is cracking under Putin’, ft, 6 February 2012; ‘The reawakening of Russian politics’, ft, 4 March 2012; ‘The beginning of the end of Putin’, Economist, 3 March 2012. 3 See the charts accompanying ‘Putin’s Russia: Call back yesterday’, Economist, 3 March 2012.

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due to a general shift in research patterns after the Cold War, which had generated an enormous need for knowledge about the opposing system that, after 1991, seemed surplus to requirements. Wider changes in the discipline of sociology itself also played a role—away from synthetic overviews of a society, towards questions of ethnic, religious or subcultural identity, for example, or in favour of closer, anthropological investigations of everyday experience. A third factor applies across much of the world: with the weakening of previous forms of class identification has come a diminishing sense that society itself can be grasped by the categories of class analysis. Moreover, the convulsive character of events in Russia itself after 1991 made it difficult for analysts fully to comprehend the effects of the upheaval on society as a whole. What follows is a preliminary attempt to map the changing shape of Russian society in the last two decades, the better to understand its present condition, and its likely future trajectories. One of the fundamental enigmas this essay will seek to explain is why a society that has suffered so dramatic a series of reversals has nonetheless remained relatively stable. It will be argued that, although the fall of the ussr brought profound dislocations, many aspects of the country’s previous social structures are still in place, resulting in a form of ‘uneven development’ in which two social orders co-exist. Moreover, contrary to the conventional wisdom of liberal ‘transitology’, which blames Soviet legacies for the deformities of Russian capitalism today, it is precisely the persistence of the old that has underwritten the stability of the new. In order to obtain a clearer picture of the ways in which Russia has been remade since 1991, however, we will need to begin by sketching out the main lines of its development in the Soviet era.

i. soviet transformations
Three interrelated processes dominated the twentieth century in what became the Soviet Union: urbanization, the shift from an agrarian to an industrial base, and the system-wide installation of non-capitalist socio-economic relations. These processes unfolded very rapidly, bringing the creation of new social groups, the destruction of old ones and the expansion or metamorphosis of existing categories. Looking over a 70-year span—see Figure 1, overleaf—we can see in broad outline what the main social outcomes in the ussr were, according to the official view


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Figure 1. Social composition of Russian Empire/ussr

(on which more shortly). Firstly, and most strikingly, there is the long, steady dwindling of the peasantry—for centuries the unmoving foundation of the Tsarist social order. In the Soviet period the peasant world was dismantled not only by urbanization and industrialization, but also by the heavy hand of repression, with the collectivization programme of 1929–32. Despite the return of some private plots thereafter, what was left of the peasantry had by mid-century been transformed into a rural proletariat. To be sure, alongside these pressures came a system of positive incentives: education, more rights for women, improved housing, sanitation, health care, and so on. But the main impact of the Soviet order on the peasantry was to destroy, for good and for ill, the traditions

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and life-world of this rural class—an outcome at stark variance with, for example, the fate of China’s peasant masses.4 Second, there is the obviously more rapid disappearance of the propertied class after 1917. The aristocracy and landed elite was erased from the social landscape by the Revolution and Civil War; thereafter, apart from an outburst of entrepreneurialism under the New Economic Policy in the 1920s, there was nothing one could designate a bourgeoisie or even a mercantile class. Third, the rise of the category of ‘workers’. Although the October Revolution had been carried out in the name of the proletariat, industrial workers formed a relatively small proportion of the population in 1917, and shrank still further during the devastating Civil War that followed. The launching of forced-pace industrialization in 1928 brought a dramatic shift, however: between 1928 and 1937, industrial workers more than doubled in number, from 3.8 to 10.1 million; thereafter, their numbers continued to rise to the point where they dominated the ussr demographically.5 This was not merely a process of quantitative growth—it was a qualitative transformation too: the Party actively sponsored the ‘making’ of an industrial working class, in the way it organized and incorporated labour, in everyday life and culture, in the realm of language and iconography.6 Finally, we can also see the emergence of a layer of white-collar workers—‘sluzhashchie’ is the official term, essentially designating administrative personnel. This category also expanded rapidly after the advent of the fully planned economy, and eventually formed more than a quarter of the population. On top of breakneck industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture, this population would face the full force of the Wehrmacht. War, famine and, to a lesser extent, political repression brought catastrophic population losses, with long-term demographic consequences. Between 25 and 30 million Soviet citizens died in World War Two, including 40
The severance of newly urbanized Russians from the lived history of peasant revolt may be a longer-term explanation for the country’s relative stability in recent decades; by contrast, contemporary upsurges of unrest in rural areas of the prc clearly draw on deep traditions of rebellion. 5 Figures from David Lane, The End of Social Inequality?, London 1982, p. 14. 6 There is an extensive literature on this subject; see for example Lewis Siegelbaum and Ronald Suny, eds, Making Workers Soviet, Ithaca, ny 1994; Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain, Berkeley 1995; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism, Oxford 1999; and Victoria Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin, Berkeley 1997, ch. 1.


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per cent of men aged 20–49, and 15 per cent of women of the same age group. The drop in the birth-rate that ensued would have its ‘demographic echo’ in the late 60s, as the missing children of the war years were not able to make their reproductive contribution as adults.7 The echo would appear again in the 90s, this time reinforced by the hardships of the post-Soviet period, which would also see sharp falls in life expectancy. The mid-century scything was probably broadly proportional across classes, though falling disproportionately on the west of the country; but it should be taken into account as a concomitant social factor in the discussion that follows.

Social differentiations
The Party line was that, with the triumph of the Revolution and the construction of socialism, class antagonisms as such had disappeared. In the well-known phrase Stalin used in 1936, Soviet society consisted of ‘two friendly classes and a layer’—workers, peasants and the intelligentsia respectively. Yet these did not constitute cohesive groups to which such labels could be applied. Within the broad commonalities in their relation to the means of production, Soviet citizens were differentiated according to a number of criteria: income, skill-level, education, sex, ethnicity, economic sector, access to political power, position within the informal ‘economy of favours’ known as blat. The existence of these gradations, and the insufficiency of the official ‘2 + 1’ formula to describe them, encouraged Soviet sociologists to turn increasingly to stratification-based approaches as of the 1960s.8 This methodological preference strongly inflected the empirical data that were gathered in the late Soviet era, and is still visible today. It may therefore be of heuristic value to adopt the classificatory schemas used in the ussr and post-Soviet Russia, to track the development of these categories over time; with the proviso that this does not constitute an endorsement of their theoretical foundations. Social differentiation unfolded very unevenly not only between but also within distinct segments of the population. A further factor in the subdivision of the population, beyond those enumerated above, was
For a full statistical accounting see Anatolii Vishnevskii et al, Demograficheskaia modernizatsiia Rossii, 1900–2000, Moscow 2006, chs 19 and 21; the ‘demographic echo’ of the war is discussed on pp. 490–1. 8 See the discussion in Ovsei Shkaratan, ed., Sotsialno-ekonomicheskoe neravenstvo i ego vosproizvodstvo v sovremennoi Rossii, Moscow 2009, pp. 75–83.

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the cellular organization of Soviet society. For as Simon Clarke has observed, its ‘primary unit’ was the enterprise, which not only incorporated workers into the labour force, but was also the source of housing, welfare, healthcare, education and other benefits.9 There were gradations within each enterprise, of course; there was also a great deal of variation between enterprises, both according to economic sector and by region. The combined effects of cellular organization and other social distinctions generated patterns that are difficult to summarize; here we will examine the general picture, taking the main forms of differentiation noted above in turn—but bearing in mind at all times the range of particularities lurking beneath it. After the Revolution, there was an initial period of social levelling: large estates were redistributed to the peasantry, housing in cities was reallocated according to class criteria, and so on. Incomes also evened out, as the technical and administrative personnel of the old regime saw their salaries reduced and underwent a process of déclassement. But these tendencies were subsequently reversed: the nep period brought a certain degree of inequality in income and wealth, and in the 1930s wage differentiation became a matter of policy, amid official campaigns against uravnilovka—‘equality-mongering’—which was seen as a leftist deviation. Workers were now provided with material incentives to boost productivity; by the mid-1950s, the average wages of the top decile of earners were just over 8 times higher than those of the bottom decile. Under Khrushchev, wage differentials narrowed again—the ratio of top to bottom deciles by wages dropped to 5.1 by 1968, and to 4.1 by 1975.10 Wages varied significantly by economic sector. Thus coal miners earned twice as much as textile workers, and significantly more than engineering-technical personnel in a wide range of sectors.11 Table 1, overleaf, showing data from machine-building plants in Leningrad in 1965, indicates a typical spread of wages earned by different socio-occupational groups.

Simon Clarke, ‘Privatization and the Development of Capitalism in Russia’, nlr

1/196, Nov–Dec 1992.
Figures from Murray Yanowitch, Social and Economic Inequality in the Soviet Union, White Plains, ny 1977, pp. 24–5, Table 2.1. 11 In 1969, the average monthly wage of a coal miner was 210 roubles, compared to 105 for a textile worker; engineering-technical personnel in the coal sector earned 281 roubles a month, but those in machine-building earned 165 and those in light industry 148 roubles a month. Data from Yanowitch, Social and Economic Inequality, p. 32, Table 2.3.


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Table 1. Socio-occupational data from Leningrad machine-building plants
Monthly wages (roubles) Years of education Party membership (%)

Managerial personnel Highly skilled scientific and technical personnel Personnel in skilled mental work Highly skilled workers Skilled manual workers Skilled workers on machines Middle-level non-manual personnel Unskilled manual workers

173 127 110 129 120 108 84 98

14 14 13 9 8 8 9 7

61 40 43 38 38 40 27 14

Source: Yanowitch, Social and Economic Inequality in the Soviet Union, p. 34, Table 2.4.

These data also allow us to see several other important features of the Soviet social structure, notably with regard to skill-level and education. Though many scholars felt that the Soviet bloc and the West were converging within a paradigm common to all industrial societies,12 there were important distinctions. Firstly, in the ordering of the occupational strata: in the ussr, the status and incomes of skilled manual workers were in many cases higher than those of unskilled non-manual ones. Thus, as can be seen in Table 1, the positions of skilled manual workers and unskilled non-manual workers (both italicized) are reversed relative to their usual positions in the West. This will have important consequences further down the line. A second feature is the weights of the different strata within the population—and in particular of unskilled workers. Historically, these had been dominant within the workforce, accounting for as much as 65 per cent of it in 1940; Moshe Lewin used the neologism rabsila (from rabochaia sila, ‘work force’) to designate these workers, many of them recently emerged from the ranks of the peasantry. They were ‘cheap
Alex Inkeles and Peter Rossi, for example, asserted that there was a ‘relatively invariable hierarchy of prestige associated with the industrial system’; see ‘National Comparisons of Occupational Prestige’, American Journal of Sociology, lxi, January 1956, pp. 329–39.

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and formless’ labour, ‘a crude labour force, rather than a working class’, which could be thrown en masse from one gargantuan industrial or infrastructural project to another; the lurching, collective demiurge of the Great Breakthrough.13 The processes of urbanization and expanding education reduced the unskilled component in the post-war era, but even in the 1980s, Lewin estimated the unskilled labour force at 35 per cent of the population. The bulk of this late-Soviet rabsila came from the southern tier of the Union, from Central Asia and the Caucasus, where rural worlds had fractured yet not given way to industrial urbanism; Georgi Derluguian, borrowing terminology Pierre Bourdieu developed with regard to Algeria, has designated this ‘inchoate, residual’ group a ‘subproletariat’.14 In the late Soviet era this population took part in massive, regular labour migrations known as the shabashka; after the fall of the ussr, many of these people suddenly ceased being internal migrants and became ‘foreigners’, to whom the term Gastarbeiter began to be applied. Looking at the second column of figures in Table 1, we can see that highly skilled workers earned more than technical specialists, despite having less education. This is a third distinctive feature of the ussr: neither skill-level nor education had the determining effect on either income or position in the status hierarchy. This emerges clearly from the data in the upper panel of Table 2, overleaf: the proportions of Soviet men in the various wage brackets, while certainly not equal, were nonetheless not dramatically uneven across most of the different educational levels. However, as the data in the lower panel show, the same was emphatically not true of women. Soviet women were clearly clustered towards the lower end of the wage hierarchy, at all levels of education with the partial exception of those with higher qualifications. The degree of women’s participation in the labour force was a very striking characteristic of Soviet society: at 84 per cent in 1989, one of the highest in the world; much higher than, say, the uk (43 per cent) or West Germany (35 per cent); and this is not including another 7 per cent in full-time education. By the 1970s, they outnumbered men in the workforce, 52 per cent to 48.15 This
Moshe Lewin, Russia/ussr/Russia: The Drive and Drift of a Superstate, New York 1995, p. 139. 14 Georgi Derluguian, Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus, Chicago 2005, pp. 136, 150–4. 15 Figures from Bertram Silverman and Murray Yanowitch, New Rich, New Poor, New Russia, Armonk, ny 1997, p. 57; Lane, End of Social Inequality?, p. 76.


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Table 2. Distribution (%) of workers and employees by wage level, 1989
A. Male
Wage level in roubles Less than 100 101 to 160 161 to 200 201 to 250 251 to 350 Above 351 Higher Secondary specialized 5 19 21 20 22 14 Secondary Incomplete secondary 7 20 20 19 21 12 Primary

1 12 19 22 28 17

7 20 19 19 21 13

11 24 21 18 17 8

B. Female
Wage level in roubles Less than 100 101 to 160 161 to 200 201 to 250 251 to 350 Above 351 Higher Secondary specialized 15 43 20 12 8 3 Secondary Incomplete secondary 24 34 17 13 10 3 Primary

4 28 26 20 17 6

23 38 17 12 9 3

34 33 14 9 7 2

Source: Silverman and Yanowitch, New Rich, New Poor, New Russia, p. 63, Table 4.3; citing Goskomstat sssr 1989 data.

is all the more remarkable when one considers that Soviet women still had to bear the main burden of housework and child-rearing. Women also tended to be clustered in particular occupations or sectors. As of the 1950s, they formed the majority of workers in a number of white-collar posts; according to the 1970 census, women constituted 75 per cent of teachers, doctors and dentists, 95 per cent of librarians, 63 per cent of staff in governmental and economic administration. What Gail Lapidus described as a ‘polarization’ between ‘male-dominated and femaledominated sectors’ formed the basis on which the new unevennesses of the gender landscape in post-Soviet Russia were built.16

Gail Lapidus, Women in Soviet Society, Berkeley 1978, pp. 171–5.

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New class or category?
Returning to Table 1 once more, we can see one variable that does correlate with place in the status and income hierarchy: Party membership. The Party–state elite notably did not feature in Stalin’s ‘two classes plus a layer’ formula; yet for some critics of the Soviet system the nomenklatura constituted a class in itself—as in the title of Milovan Djilas’s 1957 book The New Class. But what kind of class could this be? According to Olga Kryshtanovskaia, the leading contemporary Russian sociologist of the elite, the highest echelons in the ussr numbered between 800 and 1,800 people, but if one includes the various Party committees and subcommittees at republic, region and local levels, the full size of the nomenklatura was 400,000 people.17 This nomenklatura was of course only a fraction of the much larger Party membership, which in the mid60s stood at around 12 million, and by the mid-80s reached almost 20 million. These members were in turn drawn from across society: in 1968, for example, 39 per cent of cpsu members were manual workers, 45 per cent non-manual workers and 16 per cent collective-farm peasants; by 1981, the share of manual workers had risen to 44 per cent, that of non-manual workers slid to 44 and collective-farm peasants dropped to 13 per cent.18 Thus while the Party membership did not accurately reflect Soviet society as a whole—non-manual workers were over- and the peasantry under-represented—it was not a closed, elite organization either. Pace Djilas, the nomenklatura was correspondingly not a separate ruling caste that floated above the cpsu membership, since its cadres were recruited from the Party’s mass base. Rather than seeing the Party as a separate ‘new class’, then, it may make more sense to deploy other concepts. Nicos Poulantzas put forward the term ‘social category’ to describe ‘an ensemble of agents’, drawn from various classes, ‘whose principal role is its functioning in the state apparatuses and in ideology’; he gives the administrative bureaucracy and the intelligentsia as examples.19 Such categories ‘do not in themselves constitute classes’. Yet they can ‘present a unity of their own’, and ‘in their political functioning, they can present a relative autonomy vis-à-vis the classes to which their members belong.’ In the case of the cpsu, the
Olga Kryshtanovskaia, Anatomiia rossiiskoi elity, Moscow 2004, p. 17. Figures from Lane, End of Social Inequality, p. 117. 19 Nicos Poulantzas, ‘On Social Classes’, nlr i/78, Mar–Apr 1973, p. 40.
17 18


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Party as social category was not only able to gain a degree of autonomy from its base; its monopoly on political representation enabled it to prevent the articulation of interests separate from its own. With its combination of social heterogeneity and domination of the political sphere, the Party was in a sense a powerful antibody against the formulation of distinct class interests in Soviet society. But while the cpsu as a ‘category’ drew its members from various classes, it did not do so equally. If we examine the degree of Party ‘saturation’ at various levels of the organizational ladder, for example, we see that in the late 1960s, 99 per cent of factory directors were Party members, as were 51 per cent of sub-directors, 38 per cent of foremen and junior supervisors, compared to only 18 per cent of workers.20 The hierarchies in the realm of production were thus interwoven with—both reinforcing and reinforced by—differentiations rooted in the political sphere. As we have seen, in the ussr hierarchies of income, skill, education and so on were relatively flat compared with Western states. In the absence of a possessing class that would be distinguished by its ownership of the means of production, proximity to the Party–state apparatus became a key criterion of differentiation. Varying degrees of political pull sharply marked out Soviet citizens from one another: membership in or connections with the Party shaped the life-chances of parents and children, giving some of them access to scarce goods and opportunities, as well as affording them an extensive network of formal and informal privileges. Borrowing from Bourdieu, we might term this ‘political capital’, possessed in different volumes by distinct groups of social actors.21 The relatively higher prestige of manual workers in Soviet society was, in a sense, a form of congealed political capital, a legacy of the ideological preferences of the October Revolution. The political capital of the nomenklatura was to prove crucial in the post-Soviet period, as the foundation for a powerful new wave of social differentiation.

ii. consequences
Tatiana Tolstaya’s 2000 novel The Slynx unfolds in a post-apocalyptic Russia that has somehow returned to a medieval condition in the
Figures from Lane, End of Social Inequality?, p. 118. Discussed in Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The “Soviet” Variant and Political Capital’, in Practical Reason, Cambridge 1998, p. 16.
20 21

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aftermath of an unspecified disaster known simply as The Blast. The mysterious catastrophe has not only wiped away nearly all traces of the preceding civilization, it has inflicted strange mutations on everyone, known in the book as Consequences. Not all Consequences are the same: one person has gills, another has a tail, a third has the ability to breathe fire; each is alone in their deformity or new capability. This is a powerful metaphor for the post-Soviet experience, capturing the worldhistorical bewilderment and dislocation that followed the collapse of the ussr—the proliferation of unfamiliar figures in the social landscape, from millionaires to vagrants, as well as the atomization of collective identities into disparate, individual destinies. But in one crucial sense it is misleading: the new, post-Soviet Russia was not built on a tabula rasa, it emerged from within the carapace of the ussr—inheriting many of the preceding order’s peculiarities, transforming them or exaggerating them into new shapes. This prolonged reforging of Russian society could be divided into three phases, the first running from 1991 to the rouble crisis of 1998; the second from 1998 to 2009; and the third setting in when the effects of the global economic and financial crisis began to be felt in Russia.

Birth of an elite
Within the tumult of the 1990s, an unambiguous process of class formation was taking place, from the top down. The principal mechanism that drove it was the programme of privatization carried out by the Yeltsin government, under tutelage from imf officials and us advisors, which effected a massive transfer of state assets into private hands. As of 1987, a ‘latent’ privatization had been taking place in the ussr, centred in the realm of finance and led by the Party’s youth wing, the Komsomol.22 But the private fortunes that began to be amassed during perestroika were still eminently dependent on political connections—a provisional wealth accorded by the state, rather than a form of patrimony that could be guaranteed beyond any individual’s life-span. The transition to capitalism offered the Soviet elite the opportunity to convert power into property— and so to become a bona fide possessing class. The emergence and consolidation of this elite could not have taken place without the decisive intervention of the state. Yeltsin’s project of capitalist
The process is described in detail by Kryshtanovskaia in ch. 5 of Anatomiia rossiiskoi elity.


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transformation was initially based on legislation passed by the elected parliament; but when the legislature offered resistance, Yeltsin brought tanks onto the streets to resolve the deadlock, bombing the Supreme Soviet into submission in October 1993. Two months later, he rammed through a hyper-presidentialist constitution, approved by a referendum marked by widespread electoral fraud; United Russia’s recent efforts pale by comparison with this rigging of the entire juridical basis for the Russian state. Constitutional and democratic norms were evidently secondary considerations for the Yeltsin administration; the primary one was the creation of a stratum of private property-owners. The initial stage in this project was the mass privatization drive of December 1992 to June 1994, in which some 16,500 enterprises, employing two-thirds of the industrial workforce, were sold off through ‘voucher auctions’. The majority of these nominally transferred half the shares to the workers, but the dominant position of industrial directors meant that in practice, the auctions ‘allowed factory managers to privatize their enterprises without losing control over them’.23 In agriculture, supply and procurement were privatized, but farm directors obstructed Yeltsin’s plans for full privatization of land—announced three weeks after the shelling of parliament—since these would generally involve breaking up large farms into smaller ones. Though achieved by opposite means, the outcome in agriculture was similar to that in industry: managerial control was strengthened, and turned into de facto or even de jure ownership of the land. Privatization of the retail sector also proceeded apace as of 1992, creating tens of thousands of small business owners; but it moved more slowly in housing, since it was not the federal centre, but regional governments or enterprises that held title to buildings. Here the pace depended largely on the fate of local industry and the configuration of local politics, leaving the housing market as a whole fragmented and poorly developed for many years. Despite its seemingly broad scale, the privatization wave of 1992–94 ‘specifically left most of the valuable property in the country to be privatized through channels that could be closed to most Russians’.24 Notably, the enterprises formerly run by the Soviet fuel and energy ministries— including such behemoths as Gazprom—were sold off or turned into
Andrew Barnes, Owning Russia: The Struggle Over Factories, Farms and Power, Ithaca, ny 2006, p. 94; the brief account that follows owes much to this lucid work. 24 Barnes, Owning Russia, p. 84.

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‘joint-stock companies’ by presidential decree as of mid-1992. These opaque transactions made the fortunes of a handful of oligarchs in the energy sector; a pool of magnates effectively created by state fiat, away from democratic scrutiny. Something similar was taking place, more unevenly and on a smaller scale, at the regional level, as local governors— appointed by Yeltsin until elections were introduced in 1996—disposed of state assets under their purview. The picture across the 80-plus federal components of Russia was highly complex, embracing a range of scenarios from enthusiastic free-market reform to the installation of personalized patrimonialism. But here too, there was a top-down process of elite creation: ‘the governor in effect “formed the elite” by overseeing the privatization process, serving as a midwife to the creation of financialindustrial groups, selecting new owners and managers’.25 Further state assets were put on the block in 1994–97; but perhaps the dominant features of this second stage were an intensifying struggle over already privatized assets, and the creation of private enterprises by state functionaries in the realms for which they were responsible— pod sebia, ‘under oneself’. At the regional level, second-tier industrial groups with close ties to local governments—often of a nepotistic kind— began to consolidate themselves into conglomerates. On the national plane, the oligarchs who had emerged in the preceding years extended their reach—notably through the infamous ‘loans-for-shares’ deals of November–December 1995, in which the Yeltsin government held rigged auctions for stakes in several oil and metals companies: yukos, Sibneft, lukoil, Surgutneftegaz, Norilsk Nickel, Mechel. These were acquired for a fraction of their value by figures such as Vladimir Potanin, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Mikhail Prokhorov; the first two entered the cabinet after Yeltsin won re-election in 1996, suggesting the government too had been partly privatized. By the mid-1990s, then, Russia visibly possessed an elite marked by fabulous extremes of wealth, which had acquired not only prized sections of the Soviet industrial base, but also assets in banking, transport, construction, as well as developing media empires that would forward their interests in the realm of ideology. The richest of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs were relatively heterogeneous in their social origins—the sons of engineers, academics and teachers as well as of Party functionaries.26
25 26

Thomas Remington, The Politics of Inequality in Russia, Cambridge 2011, p. 107. For biographical details, see Aleksei Mukhin, Oligarkhi, Moscow 2006.


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Mostly not Muscovites, many of them laid the bases for their fortunes through cooperatives formed in the late 80s, while others made use of Komsomol connections. Looking beyond the oligarchs to the new class of post-Soviet owners as a whole, however, the continuities with the Soviet-era political and managerial elite were far stronger—as with the post-Communist political class, the bulk of which was drawn from the ranks of the cpsu. Kryshtanovskaia distinguishes between a political elite and what she terms a biznes-elite; in 2001, 77 per cent of the former, and 41 per cent of the latter, came from the nomenklatura.27 It is worth noting that these two groups combined are considerably smaller than the old nomenklatura. Kryshtanovskaia numbers the upper echelons of Party and state at the close of the Soviet era at 2,500 people, whereas the 1993 Yeltsin cohort numbered only 778 people; that is, the ranks of the political and economic elite, already far from inclusive, narrowed considerably after 1991, while their material advantages over the rest of the population rose vertiginously.28

The Centrifuge
Alongside the creation of a new elite, a process of mass pauperization unfolded—as if the country’s population were being separated out by centrifuge. The context in which Yeltsin’s privatization programme was conducted was one of economic catastrophe and social crisis for the vast majority of the population: gdp contracted by 34 per cent from 1991 to 1995—a greater decline than in the us during the Great Depression— while over the same period, average real wages dropped by more than half and employment was significantly reduced, in some sectors by as much as 20 per cent. The crime and murder rates doubled in the early 90s, and public health deteriorated with incredible speed: male life expectancy, for example, shortened by five years between 1991 and 1994.29 The poverty rate, already rising as the ussr neared collapse, soared after the freeing of prices in January 1992: an ilo study from that year claimed that as much as 85 per cent of Russia’s population now found themselves below the poverty line. The answer to this problem was not, of course, to change the policies responsible, but to alter the
Kryshtanovskaia, Anatomiia rossiiskoi elity, p. 318. Kryshtanovskaia, Anatomiia rossiiskoi elity, p. 21, Table 3. 29 David Stuckler, Lawrence King, Martin McKee, ‘Mass privatization and the postcommunist mortality crisis: a cross-national analysis’, The Lancet, 15 January 2009.
27 28

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measure of poverty. Once a new definition was devised, the poverty rate was immediately reduced to around 36 per cent.30 The depth of the social crisis was amplified by the dissolution of the Soviet system of provision. Some benefits—housing, childcare— continued to be provided through the workplace, though this depended greatly on the fate of the enterprise itself, and on the inclinations of the new managers and owners. But the central government effectively abdicated responsibility for the welfare, education and health-care systems, increasingly delegating their provision to the local level; by the mid-90s, ‘85 per cent of social spending came from regional and local budgets’.31 The result was to consolidate and deepen existing disparities between regions, adding a marked geographical component to the process of socio-economic separation of the population. Moscow and St Petersburg, along with regions possessing resource endowments or access to export markets, could afford to maintain a semblance of social provision that was beyond the reach of depressed industrial regions or the poor, nonethnic Russian fringes of the country—for example the North Caucasus, or the republics of Tuva and Buryatia on Siberia’s southern edge. It is against this backdrop of social crisis and accelerating spatial differentiation that huge inequalities in income rapidly emerged. According to World Bank data, in 1988 Russia had a Gini coefficient of 0.24, which would place it in the company of, say, Sweden; by 1993, the figure stood at 0.48, putting it on a par with Peru or the Philippines. These numbers are for officially declared income, and so surely understate the reality by some distance. The existing wage gap between socio-occupational groups widened: by 1994, top managers on average earned five times as much as skilled urban workers, and ten times as much as unskilled rural ones. This socio-occupational dispersion, however, leaves aside the dramatic differentiation taking place ‘not between but within occupations’, according to economic sector.32 Relative to the average wage in the economy as a whole, workers in the oil and gas sectors made significant gains between 1991 and 1994, whereas those in agriculture, education, culture and above all science lost out (see Table 3, overleaf).
Silverman and Yanowitch, New Rich, New Poor, New Russia, p. 46. Remington, Politics of Inequality, p. 51. 32 Silverman and Yanowitch, New Rich, New Poor, New Russia, p. 92, Table 5.5; Simon Clarke, ‘Market and Institutional Determinants of Wage Differentiation in Russia’, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, vol. 55, no. 4, July 2002, pp. 628–48.
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Table 3. Average monthly wages by sector, 1991 and 1994*
1991 1994 Differential, 94–91

Gas Oil extracting Oil refining Banking Education Culture and art Industry Chemical and petrochemical Science Agriculture

206 202 121 180 71 67 111 108 94 84

448 262 207 209 69 62 104 94 78 51

242 60 86 29 -2 -5 -7 -14 -16 -33

* as % of average wage for economy as whole; source: Silverman and Yanowitch, New Rich, New Poor, New Russia, pp. 88–9, Table 5.4; citing Goskomstat data.

The process of ‘transition’ also amplified existing gender imbalances. This was in part because those sectors and occupational strata dominated by women were among the worst affected by cuts in employment, drops in real wages or serial non-payment of wages. Moreover, while women had been under-represented in the upper echelons of the Party and industrial management, the elimination of Soviet-era quotas sharply reduced their presence—from 30 per cent to 8 per cent, for example, in the case of the legislative apparatus.33 The new world of biznes was even more strongly male than the Soviet nomenklatura. But perhaps most striking was the mass withdrawal of Russian women from the labour force: two million women left employment between 1991 and 1995, accounting for an estimated 50 per cent of the labour ‘shed’ in this short period. Though some opted to retire, on the whole the choice was not freely made, but was rather ‘a reflection of declining economic opportunities and available child-care services’.34 Moreover many women, already bearing the main burden in the home, were now pushed into becoming the main breadwinners by engaging in petty trade.
Kryshtanovskaia, Anatomiia rossiiskoi elity, p. 339. Kryshtanovskaia has since improved the gender balance of the political elite, joining United Russia in 2009. 34 Silverman and Yanowitch, New Rich, New Poor, New Russia, p. 74.

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Indeed, petty traders were among the most visible of the new social categories that emerged in the 1990s. There was a sudden proliferation of street-vendors, from roadside kiosks to pensioners standing in sub-zero temperatures to sell cigarettes or their veteran’s medals; and there were shuttle-traders or chelnoki, who would travel long distances to buy goods and then resell them locally. Petty trade was a crucial source of income for many people—not only due to widespread unemployment, but also because so many went unpaid in their ‘main’ job, as the Yeltsin government implemented an imf-decreed tight monetary policy that starved the economy of cash. By the autumn of 1996, according to one measurement, some 60 per cent of employees were owed back wages; with payment arrears sometimes reaching six months, many people were obliged to hold two or more ‘jobs’.35 Yet most ‘second’ jobs did not provide sufficient income or security to justify abandoning one’s primary employment; thus many of the new categories overlapped with existing ones. However, one expanding category that was clearly demarcated from the old ones was that of the ‘dispossessed’, which included the unemployed, ethnic Russian refugees from other ex-Soviet republics, demobbed soldiers, the disabled, vagrants, the homeless, among others.36 Pensioners were perhaps the most visible, and piteous, of the new poor in Russia: veterans of war and industry reduced to penury by the combination of spiralling prices and tight state spending produced by ‘shock therapy’. By the end of 1992, 40 per cent of pensioners were receiving monthly payments less than half the declared subsistence level.37 In addition to the differentiations noted above, a chronological fractioning of the population was taking place, as the elderly generations were written off by the country’s new rulers. It is hard not to feel the chill emanating from the words of Boris Nemtsov, then first deputy prime minister, who stated in the spring of 1997 that ‘Russia must enter the twenty-first century only with young people’.38 The creation of new social groups unfolded in parallel with a sweeping process of ‘unmaking’ of the Soviet world. This applied especially to the
Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey; cf. Remington, Politics of Inequality, p. 58. See Caroline Humphrey, The Unmaking of Soviet Life, Ithaca, ny 2002, ch. 2. 37 Remington, Politics of Inequality, p. 47. 38 Izvestiia, 23 April 1997, cited in Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski, The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms, Washington, dc 2001, p. 632.
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industrial workforce, who experienced a speeded-up version of the deindustrialization that has engulfed rustbelt areas across much of the globe. The Soviet variant of this process was distinguished not only by its speed, however, but by the specific character of the Soviet system, in which, as noted earlier, the enterprise was the ‘primary unit’ of society. The loss of work thus not only involved a loss of income, but also of the whole web of connections that bound one to a community and, equally or more importantly, secured one’s housing and access to social services. The quiescence of Russian labour has long puzzled outside observers: why this relative passivity from workers who had only a short time before—notably the coal miners in 1989–91—played such a prominent and active role?39 The dissolution of the material bases of their collective existence clearly played a decisive role—unemployment and atrophying industry undoing the web of the old relations of production. The worldhistorical disorientation occasioned by the Soviet collapse was surely another crucial factor: the disintegration of a state that represented, however nominally, the interests of the workers as against those of global capital would have been a severe blow to the self-confidence of the class as a whole. Another, less immediately apparent part of the answer might also lie in the specific mode of labour’s integration into the Soviet system—the paternalistic, cellular structure centred around the enterprise. Amid the turbulence of market reform, workers and management alike found common cause in preserving the enterprise, and hence maintaining production. The trade unions, which generally continued to operate as under the Soviet system—focusing on the smooth running of production rather than on representing the workers per se—played a key role here, since they retained a large degree of control over access to housing, childcare and other benefits. Most workers could not possibly forego these essentials, and hence were willing to accept a reduction in hours or salary if it would preserve their place in the labour collective. Rather than laying them off, many firms instead kept workers on the books, part-time or merely nominally. The result was that unemployment levels in Russia in the 1990s, though high compared with the past, were
Two outstanding works on the fate of labour in post-Soviet Russia are Karine Clément’s Les ouvriers russes dans la tourmente du marché, Paris 2000, and Sarah Ashwin, Russian Workers: The Anatomy of Patience, Manchester 1999.

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low compared to other East European countries: 9 per cent in 1995, as against figures of 15 per cent for Poland or 17 per cent for Lithuania. Underemployment, hidden forms of unemployment and the dual work patterns noted earlier became very widespread, and protest was subsumed by the imperatives of survival. If the end of Communism served to atomize and demoralize the Soviet working class, its impact on the intelligentsia was no less profound. The bulk of the country’s intellectual and artistic elite had been prominent supporters first of Gorbachev’s perestroika, as presaging a liberation from the dead weight of cpsu orthodoxy, then of Yeltsin’s shock therapy— including his assault on the parliament in 1993—as necessary steps on the road to ‘democracy’ and ‘civilization’.40 These commitments ensured Yeltsin a degree of support at striking variance with the harsh 1990s experience of the intelligentsia as a whole, which, defined more broadly to include the vast Soviet scientific and technical apparatus, suffered a dramatic form of déclassement under the new capitalist dispensation. The strategic-military purposes underpinning many scientific institutes and programmes evaporated with the end of the Cold War, and basic funding for research in all fields dried up, in many cases disappearing altogether. Thousands of academics and technical personnel were thrown into unemployment, or else continued their work on minimal or non-existent resources, moonlighting as taxi drivers or shuttle traders to make ends meet. The downward lurch after 1991 was in that sense especially strong for this layer, both objectively and subjectively: having helped to turn an agrarian empire into a global superpower—complete with nuclear arsenal, space programme, advances in astrophysics and cybernetics— they found themselves marking time amid its ruins. The cultural sphere is often able to function on meagre means and spring back from crisis quickly, as the dynamism of Russian art and literature of the 1920s proved. The experience of the 1990s, however, showed that scientific and technical foundations built over generations can be eroded with dramatic speed. Russia’s losses in this realm seem thus far to have
Two days after the storming, forty-two writers signed an open letter demanding the government take further ‘decisive measures’, including the banning of Communist and nationalist parties and closure of their newspapers: Izvestiia, 5 October 1993. Thanks to Irina Sandomirskaia for alerting me to this document.


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proved irrecoverable, despite the economic rebound that set in at the turn of the new century.

iii. stabilization?
The rouble crisis of 1998 was a significant inflexion point in Russia’s post-Soviet trajectory. It by no means halted the production of inequalities. But it did shift the centre of gravity of the economy, away from the financial sector that had nourished capital flight and stoked exchangerate pressures in the run-up to the crisis, towards the country’s resource-extraction and industrial base. Domestic production received a strong boost from the fourfold devaluation of the rouble; agriculture too began to stage something of a recovery, after a surge of imports in the 1990s had rendered much of it unprofitable. The crisis thus laid the groundwork for the economic boom that followed the sharp rise in oil prices after 2000. These auspicious conditions, in which the incomes of many ordinary Russians rose markedly, provided a lasting popular basis for Vladimir Putin’s programme of neo-authoritarian recentralization. After the turmoil of the 1990s, Russia seemed to many to have entered a phase of stability. It is perhaps indicative that in 2003, an annual sociological conference held since 1994 with the title ‘Where Is Russia Going?’ changed its name to ‘Where Has Russia Arrived?’ There is a large degree of truth to this view: in 2004, Russia’s gdp finally surpassed its 1991 level, and by this time the country had clearly regained some of the ground lost on several other indicators—health, crime, life expectancy, and so on.41 The pace with which inequality was advancing also seemed to drop: whereas the Gini coefficient was 0.48 in 1996, by 1999 it had dropped to 0.37, and to 0.36 by 2002. However, the coefficient began to climb again thereafter, reaching 0.44 in 2007. Again, it should be stressed that these figures cover only declared income, not wealth or capital gains, and thus considerably understate the actual inequalities that obtain in Russia. The share of income held by the bottom decile remained miserly: it rose from a mere 1.5 per cent in 1993 to 2.4 per cent in 1999, peaking at 2.7 in 2002 before dropping to 2.2 again in 2007. There was a noticeable decline in the official poverty rate, from 29 per cent in 2000 to 15 in 2006; but even then, this meant 21 million
For a systematic overview, see Vladimir Popov, ‘Russia Redux’, nlr 44, Mar–Apr 2007.

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Russians were officially living in poverty, and the real number was probably significantly higher than this.42 The stabilization observed after 1998, then, did not bring any deeper rebalancing of Russian society. Rather, it might best be described as a consolidation—a solidification of the formation that had emerged in the tumultuous preceding phase, preserving and in many cases deepening the disparities that were already present. This was especially apparent with regard to the country’s uneven economic geography, as rising prices for natural resources fed a boom in some areas while others continued to stagnate. The geographer Vladimir Kaganskii has referred to the role played by the military-industrial complex in linking the spaces of the Soviet Union; post-Soviet Russia, he claims, is bound together by the pipelines and infrastructure of the ‘fuel-energy complex’.43 But if anything, the opposite seems to be true: the skewed allocation of hydrocarbon revenues has propelled select parts of Russia—above all Moscow and the oil-producing areas of West Siberia—into hyper-modernity, while large swathes of the country are not only excluded from the circulation of goods and cash, but still lack access to running water and gas lines. In 2002, for example, 30 million out of Siberia’s population of 32 million were not provided with gas, which was of course being exported to the West in large quantities.44 Much of the country remains seemingly stuck in a pre-modern infrastructural condition, while the capital and a few other cities bathe in the ether of wireless internet, to the sound of passing Mercedes and bmws. The widening of geographical disparities coincided with continuing sectoral differentiation of the population by income. Table 4, overleaf, shows average wages by sector across the economy, and indicates that agriculture, textiles and education fell further behind the average than they had been in the early 1990s, while banking, oil and gas remained far above it. These are average figures for each sector; within each sector, evergreater differentiation was taking place according to the employment hierarchy. Table 5, also overleaf, shows wages according to occupational
Income and inequality figures from World Bank database; poverty figures from Rosstat website. 43 Vladimir Kaganskii, ‘Preodolenie sovetskogo prostranstva’, 2004, available on website. 44 See Leslie Dienes, ‘Reflections on a Geographic Dichotomy: Archipelago Russia’, Eurasian Geography and Economics, vol. 43, no. 6, 2002, p. 447.


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Table 4. Average monthly wages by sector, 2006*
% Banking Oil and gas extraction Real estate Metallurgical production Chemicals Construction Healthcare and social services Education Textiles Agriculture 262 260 120 113 109 102 76 66 47 43

* % of average wage for economy as whole; source: Rosstat, Rossiiskii statisticheskii ezhegodnik 2007.

categories which map fairly closely onto those used in Table 1 for the Leningrad machine-building plants. Whereas in the 1960s management earned only 1.7 times as much as unskilled workers did, by 2007 that multiple had risen to 3.9. Note also that many of these categories of workers earn not just less than the average, but significantly less—under half, in the case of unskilled workers. Official statistics do not capture the considerable numbers of undocumented migrant workers, predominantly from Central Asia, who make up a much larger pool of unskilled labour; thousands of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and others toil on construction sites or clean the streets of Russian cities for abysmal wages—or even no payment at all, since foremen often tip off migration officials to ensure workers are expelled once projects are completed. Alongside this growing ethnic segmentation of the workforce, the gulf between the incomes of men and women was also maintained, or even widened. By 2009, female unskilled workers as a whole earned only 58 per cent of the average wage, and in some sectors unskilled women earned far less than this—34 per cent in education, 41 per cent in healthcare; though unskilled men in these sectors were also underpaid. The largest differentials between men’s and women’s earnings are at the top end of the occupational hierarchy: whereas male managers on average

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Table 5. Average wages by occupational category, 2007*
% Managers Highly skilled specialists Specialists with intermediate qualifications Skilled clerical workers Workers in services, housing, trade Skilled workers in industry, construction, transport, communications, geology Skilled workers on machines Unskilled workers 176 109 84 65 65 107 109 46

* % of average wage for economy as whole; source: Rosstat database.

earned 220 per cent of the average wage, female managers earned 150 per cent—a gap of 70 per cent.45 Again, socio-occupational wage differentials were accentuated still further by sectoral variations. The figures cited above for managerial earnings are averages which scarcely reflect the sums raked in at the upper end of this layer: in 2010, board members of Gazprombank earned $2.9 million on average and those of Sberbank $2.4 million—400 and 325 times the national median wage respectively.46 The processes of elite super-enrichment that marked the 1990s continued unabated in the 2000s. Indeed, by the end of the decade, according to the Forbes Rich List, the country had produced a hundred billionaires, and Moscow had more than any other city in the world. The complexion of this elite had altered somewhat since the heyday of the oligarchs, many of whom had been brought to heel or chased from the country by Putin after 2000. The financial sector, badly damaged by the rouble crisis, lost ground as mineral resources came to predominate, especially with the increases in global commodity prices spurred by China’s rise. Figures such as Berezovskii and banker Vladimir Gusinskii departed the scene, replaced by the likes of aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska; Aleksei Mordashov, owner of
Data from Rosstat. Andrei Skholin, Marina Zateichuk, Aleksandra Ivaniushkina, ‘Zarplaty gosudarstvennykh top-menedzherov’,, 22 September 2011.
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steelmaker Severstal; and Alisher Usmanov, owner of iron, steel and telecoms companies as well as the business daily Kommersant.47 In parallel with this recomposition of the elite came a reconfiguration of relations between state and business. The economic rebound after 1998 had laid the basis for a recovery of state capacity, which after 2000 enabled a much strengthened executive to forge a consensus with the elite on its own terms. The ranks of biznes and political elites were increasingly interwoven, at national and regional levels, in a compact that underwrote the political stability of Putin’s first two mandates. The war in Chechnya and curbing of regional governors’ powers were territorial expressions of his project of restoring the ‘vertical of power’. In other spheres, the return of state authority meant a resumption and extension of Yeltsin’s programme of liberalization—for example in the tax reform of 2000, which imposed a highly regressive flat income tax of 13 per cent, and lowered the ‘social tax’ on employers. These boons to business were complemented by moves to liberalize the labour market—a new Labour Code was adopted in 2001—and later by reforms to housing services and the system of in-kind benefits (l’goty). The latter measure, adopted in early 2005, prompted widespread resistance, as pensioners, former military personnel and others marched in dozens of cities to protest the monetization of transport, medication and other benefits. The surprising scale and geographical extent of the mobilizations prompted the government to increase the compensation offered. Though the protests tailed off, this was the first time since the 1990s that popular discontent had spilled onto the streets in large-scale, collective form; an early sign of a possible renewal of Russian society’s potential for contestation.

Middle or majority?
The period of ‘stabilization’ after 2000 brought a recurrent emphasis on the emergence of a ‘middle class’—seen both as the inevitable product of better economic times and as a reliable yardstick of progress towards the norms of the advanced capitalist world. Western reporters noted the spread of sushi restaurants and home-furnishing stores, and counted
The Putin levy of oligarchs, more numerous than the Yeltsin cohort, differed from it in social origins as well as sectoral basis: Soviet-era managers and Komsomol members had a stronger presence than before, coming from a wider spread of regions. See Mukhin, Oligarkhi and Mukhin, ed., Federalnaia i regionalnaia elita Rossii 2005–06, Moscow 2006.

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the number of imported cars parked at the foot of Moscow’s apartment buildings, signs of the existence of the class that would form the bedrock of liberal democracy. More recently, as noted earlier, this emergent middle class has been hailed as the animating force behind the antiPutin demonstrations. But is there a sociological reality behind these ideological mirages? The empirical evidence is puzzling, to say the least. A number of Russian sociologists have sought to gauge the size of the middle class, according to a variety of overlapping measures: income and material well-being; levels of education and occupational status; and the purely subjective criterion of self-identification. The results vary extraordinarily. Tatiana Maleva gives the size of the middle class as 21 per cent, if we look at material well-being; 40 per cent according to selfidentification; 22 per cent by level of education; but only 7 per cent if we require all three criteria to overlap.48 Natalia Tikhonova uses similar criteria and combines them to find a middle class that comprises 20 per cent of the population. Olesia Yudina gives figures of 29 per cent according to educational and occupational criteria, 29 per cent by quality of housing, 80 per cent by self-identification, but only 9 per cent if all three criteria are applied. Liudmila Khakhulina similarly finds that 80 per cent of the population consider themselves to be middle class.49 Depending on the criteria, then, Russia has a middle class that consists of somewhere between 7 and 80 per cent of the population. What is going on? Several factors seem to be in play here. First there is the concept of the ‘middle class’ itself. In Keywords, Raymond Williams noted a distinction between notions of class as social rank and as the expression of an economic relationship; ‘middle class’ originally referring to a location within the social hierarchy of pre-Industrial Britain, whereas the concept of a ‘working class’ emerged during the Industrial Revolution to describe those who lived from their labour.50 This distinction has often been blurred, but it sheds light on the dwindling of class identification in recent decades. For the main form of identification that has been waning is that of the working class, as the economic relationships that marked it out from the rest of society have been dissolved or reconfigured. The same processes have been underway in Russia, and their impact has
Tatiana Maleva, ‘Sotsialnaia politika i sotsialnye straty v sovremennoi Rossii’, in Kuda prishla Rossiia?, Moscow 2003, pp. 102–13. 49 I am indebted to Thomas Remington’s overview of this literature, in ‘The Russian Middle Class as Policy Objective’, Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 27, no. 2, 2011, pp. 98–9. 50 Raymond Williams, Keywords, London 1983, rev. edn, pp. 60–9.


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been all the greater because industry was such a dominant part of the Soviet economy. The material downgrading of the working class has been accompanied by an ideological assault which has brought what Karine Clément has called a ‘desubjectivation’ of workers, who have internalized the opprobrium heaped on the system that had so promoted the image of the worker.51 In these circumstances, many have sought to identify themselves with what is clearly the ‘leading class’ according to the new ideology. It is noteworthy that many definitions make it relatively easy to ‘join’ the middle class: the state insurance company, Rosgosstrakh, has defined it as consisting of those able to buy their own car.52 This leads us to a second consideration: the nature of Russian consumption. For as a visit to the spalnye raiony—the ‘sleep regions’ or suburbs—of any major city will tell you, consumption here often focuses on conspicuous items such as cars or phones rather than, say, investment in a better apartment. This is partly dictated by the general degradation of the housing stock and the relative scarcity of mortgage financing, putting new apartments beyond the reach of most. But it is also related to a need to prove membership in a community of consumption. Indeed, for many it is consumption itself that seems to define middle-classness in Russia today. Returning to Williams’s distinction, we might say that ‘middle class’ denotes a broad stratum of consumers within the country’s socio-economic hierarchy, rather than any actual class identity. A third factor also needs to be borne in mind. For alongside the new social categories and distinctions that have emerged in Russia, remnants of the previous social order have survived. This is true both in the realm of consciousness and in material reality: pensioners bearing portraits of Stalin co-exist with teenagers wielding iPhones; beyond the skyscrapers and designer boutiques of Moscow lies a land strewn with Soviet industrial enterprises. This is what might be termed ‘combined and uneven social development’: the coexistence and interpenetration of different socio-economic systems, and therefore of multiple schemas of social identity and forms of lived experience. One of the effects of this overlapping of two social orders may have been to expand the size of the potential ‘middle class’, by enabling whole sectors of Russian society to interpret their position within the new capitalist system according to the
51 52

See Clément, Les ouvriers russes, pp. 120–2. Cited in Remington, ‘Russian Middle Class’, p. 98.

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categories of the Soviet one. Skilled workers, for example, would have been located somewhere in the middle of the Soviet status hierarchy; but in the new hierarchy established after 1991, the status of manual work is increasingly downgraded (with sectoral exceptions for oil and gas). However, the lingering residues of the Soviet social framework, and the persistence in many areas of its physical realities, have partly obscured these shifts in standing, allowing many to continue to perceive themselves according to the old schema. In other words, to see themselves as ‘middle class’ when they are in fact part of the majority excluded from that ‘class’ by most empirical measures. This overlapping of social structures is among the keys to explaining why post-Soviet Russia has been so relatively stable. The closure of the political system and the need for many people to focus on mere survival were obviously crucial, as was the overall quiescence of an atomized industrial labour force. But alongside these factors we should also weigh the coexistence of the two social structures, which has served to mitigate the force of what would otherwise have been a still more traumatic process in which one simply displaced the other. In that sense, we need to invert the arguments often made by free-market liberals that Russia’s ‘transition’ has been hampered by holdovers of the Soviet past.53 Rather, it was the residual social forms of the ussr that enabled its capitalist successors to consolidate their rule, providing them with an invaluable social ‘subsidy’. In his first and second presidencies, Putin benefited from a long run of high oil prices. He was also fortunate in a deeper historical sense, taking the helm in a context of dramatic polarization, but where the coexistence of old and new social structures allowed some of the consequences of this polarization to be blurred. How long would this world-historical luck last?

iv. third phase
A new phase of Russia’s post-1991 social development began with the global economic crisis, which clouded the scene just as President Medvedev, Putin’s hand-picked successor, took office. As in the West, the initial shock came in the realm of finance, with the onset of the credit crunch: in the six months to October 2008, the rts stock market

See for example Anders Åslund, How Capitalism Was Built, Cambridge 2007.


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lost almost three-quarters of its $1.4 trillion capitalization.54 Tightening credit conditions and overstretched corporate balance sheets were then compounded by the slump in global demand, which brought sharp drops in output, especially in metallurgy and manufacturing—the latter experiencing a 25 per cent fall in the year to Spring 2009. Automobile production was among the worst affected: output dropped by 60 per cent in 2009.55 Given that hydrocarbons may account for as much as 30 per cent of the country’s gdp, it is not surprising that the vertiginous decline of oil prices—from $130 a barrel in July 2008 to $40 that December—also had a severe impact. Overall, Russia experienced the steepest contraction in the G20, going from a growth rate of 8 per cent in 2008 to a contraction of 8 per cent in 2009. The drastic downturn brought a wave of factory closures and unemployment, which hit 10 per cent by April 2009, the same rate as after the 1998 rouble crash. But it also saw the return of crisis phenomena from the 1990s: barter transactions, under-the-table cash payments, shortened hours and unpaid leave, as well as non-payment of wages; by May 2009, an estimated 38 per cent of the population was affected by wage arrears. By the first quarter of 2009, 17 per cent of the population had incomes below the official subsistence level, a 25 per cent increase on the previous year. Poverty was principally concentrated in small towns and rural areas: according to official figures, in 2010, the latter accounted for 40 per cent of those living below the subsistence minimum, while 25 per cent lived in towns with populations under 50,000.56 The government’s response involved some increases in social spending, pensions and unemployment benefits. There was also, notably, a 30 per cent wage hike for employees of the government or of state-affiliated companies; known colloquially as biudzhetniki, these by now comprised some 25 per cent of the workforce—a sizeable pool of supporters whom the Medvedev administration was keen to insulate from the worst of the crisis. The bulk of the government’s efforts, however, were directed to easing the cares of business: $200 billion was spent bailing out banks and leading Russian companies—notably those owned by favoured oligarchs, whose hard currency loans had been recalled. Meanwhile as much as a third of Russia’s accumulated currency reserves was used to
‘Russian stocks shed over $1 trillion in crisis’, Reuters, 13 November 2008. On the downturn’s initial impact, see Remington, Politics of Inequality, pp. 206–12. 56 Figures from Remington, Politics of Inequality, pp. 207–8; and Rosstat website.
54 55

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defend the value of the rouble. All told, the Kremlin spent the equivalent of 13 per cent of gdp shoring up the economy—in proportional terms, a bailout twice the size of Obama’s.57 In late 2008 and early 2009, there were demonstrations attacking the government’s handling of the crisis—small-scale, short-lived and geographically dispersed, but notable in the new severity of their criticisms of Putin and Medvedev. There were also wildcat actions: in the spring of 2009, the population of Pikalevo in Leningrad region blocked the highway between St Petersburg and Moscow to protest unpaid wages at the aluminium plant; Putin intervened personally to force its owner, metals oligarch Deripaska, to pay the arrears. Elsewhere, plant closures would also mean the death of entire towns: Russia contains as many as 400 ‘monocities’, where a single enterprise accounts directly or indirectly for most employment. The largest is Togliatti, with a population of 700,000, where the government moved swiftly to bail out the stricken car-maker Avtovaz in March 2009; many other monocities have not received such aid, and limp on by whatever means they can. As in the 1990s, both government and enterprises have sought to minimize overt unemployment, in order to stave off a still greater socio-economic breakdown. It was in this context of spreading deprivation and continuing stagnation that the country entered its latest electoral cycle. Discontent with the corruption of the United Russia party, dubbed the ‘Party of Crooks and Thieves’, now came into the open amid a spreading disillusionment with the reigning system brought on by the economic downturn. There was also frustration in some quarters at the regime’s evident incapacity to implement any kind of ‘modernization’—a set of basic necessities that became the empty slogan of Medvedev, himself a token president. Putin’s announcement that he would run for the post again in 2012 effectively promised at best a decade of stasis—a prospect that was enough to galvanize a broad array of groups and currents of opinion.

‘You can’t even imagine us’
The demonstrations that followed the Duma elections of December 2011 were surprising in their size, geographical spread and ideological span. If their immediate trigger—electoral violations—brought echoes of the
Padma Desai, ‘Russia’s Financial Crisis’, Columbia Journal of International Affairs, vol. 63, no. 2, Spring/Summer 2010.


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2003–05 ‘Colour Revolutions’ in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, their inclusivity and style of organizing had more recent precedents, in the Occupy movements and Europe’s indignado protests. A banner held by anarchists in St Petersburg seemed to encapsulate the ironic tone of the protests as well as the discrepancy between the regime and the society it ruled: Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaete, meaning both ‘You don’t even represent us’ and ‘You can’t even imagine us’. But beyond the ideological diversity, what has been the social make-up of the protests? Despite an overall sense of social heterogeneity, the main weight of the movements seems to have been urban, educated and broadly liberal. A survey of the miting on Sakharov Avenue on 24 December, for example, found that 62 per cent had a higher education degree, 46 per cent gave their occupation as ‘specialist’, and 31 per cent described their political affiliation as liberal.58 This profile is comparable to that of the perestroika-era mass intelligentsia; indeed, those attending the recent marches may be the continuation of that cohort as much as their successors: 45 per cent of those surveyed at the rally were over the age of 40. The personal circumstances of the marchers, too, reflect the long-term reduction in means of this layer: 21 per cent said they could afford essentials, but not more expensive items such as a tv or a fridge; 40 per cent said they could not afford a car—thus, according to one yardstick noted above, debarring them from membership of the ‘middle class’ whom so many Western analysts saw as the mainspring of the movement. However, the oppositional mobilizations thus far seem not to have possessed a broader mass base. The counter-rallies organized by the Kremlin in support of its candidate—notably a mass gathering on 23 February in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium—may well have been facilitated by threats or payments to attendees; but the sociological distinction between those who gathered here and at the anti-Putin rallies is unmistakable. One account described a ‘grey, irritable crowd’ consisting of ‘workers—men in leather jackets with simple, reddish faces, and women in cheap fur coats’; whether employees of state enterprises or ‘poor biudzhetniki’, they represented that ‘downtrodden group of people, shorn of their dignity, who used to be called the “working class”.’59 However appealing the opposition’s slogan of ‘honest elections’ might be in the abstract, the increased vulnerability of these social groups during the crisis—
58 59

‘Opros na prospekte Sakharova 24 dekabria’, Levada Tsentr, 26 December 2011. Ilya Budraitskis, ‘Chelovek iz “Luzhnikov”’,, 24 February 2012.

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and their memories of the suffering that the 1990s turbulence brought them—may have made the certainty seemingly offered by Putin preferable to any upheaval. A further reason why the opposition was unable to attract broader mass support may have been the fact that it could not offer a positive alternative programme—only the hopeful negation of a ‘Russia without Putin’. In concrete political terms, the immediate goal was still more modest: to prevent Putin winning a majority in the first round. According to the official results, the only place where this happened was in Moscow, where he scored 47 per cent. Even allowing for a considerable margin of fraud, he would still have secured a return to the Kremlin in a hypothetical second round. The opposition that so recently began to coalesce has thus already met with one resounding defeat. With Putin reinstalled as president for the next six years at least—and with the existing political structures seemingly impervious to its demands—the question inevitably arises of where the opposition should now focus its attentions. So far the emphasis of the mobilizations has fallen overwhelmingly on the political form of the regime, and on Putin himself as its figurehead. Criticisms of its social substance—dizzying inequalities, deep deprivation and exploitation, ongoing degradation of public services—have been much less prominent, which is surely a factor in the movement’s inability thus far to obtain fuller resonance. One potential path towards acquiring this would be for the anti-Putin opposition to connect their formal demands about the democratic process to the injustices built into the broader social landscape. In view of the sociological make-up of the protests to date, this seems a doubtful prospect. Yet it is on this terrain that the struggle for Russia’s future may unfold: the present crisis conditions seem likely to bring the further spread of unemployment and ever greater inequalities, spurring discontent in a variety of social sectors and geographical areas. Amid a global economic slowdown, in which reduced oil revenues and earlier spending on anti-crisis measures have placed increased strains on the government budget, Russia’s rulers will be confronted by a widening range of social problems that the system in its current incarnation is not built to even address, much less resolve. Putin’s second spell in office begins in very different circumstances— political, economic, historical—from his first. The good fortune of high commodity prices and post-1998 rebound has evaporated, and the


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system of ‘managed democracy’ over which he presides seems increasingly inadequate to the tasks of governing such a large and diverse country, with such large and diverse problems. The regime has survived its most recent scare, and may yet escape from others. But there is one outcome it will not be able to evade, and which may pose a greater peril to it in the long run. The parallelism of social structures noted earlier, which has underwritten the relative stability of post-Soviet Russia, cannot hold indefinitely. The ‘subsidy’ to the present from the Soviet past depends on the continued presence of people who remember the ussr, and who can still to some extent inhabit its realities. As the years pass, their numbers will dwindle until they no can longer provide an inertial social basis for stability; and as their weight within the population declines, so the prominence will increase of those whose lives have been shaped entirely by the new capitalist order. This is, of course, exactly what the liberal reformers of the 1990s wished for—a cohort of New Russians untainted by Sovietness, entirely socialized within the market. But there could be a historical irony lurking here: as the social consciousness of the Communist era fades, the succeeding generations may search out other forms of commonality rooted in their experience of contemporary capitalism. The very success of the implantation of the market, indeed, will provide the basis for new forms of collective defiance. Signs of this began to emerge in a variety of realms after 2005, as many Russians sought to resist deepening marketization and ecological depredation: there have been local struggles over housing and communal services, in the wake of their liberalization in 2005; actions over environmental issues, including attempts to block a proposed motorway through Khimki forest outside Moscow in 2010; and not least new forms of labour activism, with the spread of independent trade unions in foreign-owned car plants since the mid-2000s.60 It is perhaps within this variegated, plural realm that possibilities for another sequence of historical transformation in Russia will ultimately lie.

Some of these struggles are detailed in Karine Clément, Olga Miriasova and Andrei Demidov, Ot obyvatelei k aktivistam, Moscow 2010, ch. 3.

nancy fraser

Lessons from Plato, Rawls and Ishiguro


ustice occupies a special place in the pantheon of virtues. For the ancients, it was often conceived as the master virtue, the one that orders all the others. For Plato, justice had exactly this overarching status. A just individual, he tells us in The Republic, is one in whom the three parts of the soul—reason, spirit, appetite—and the three virtues associated with them—wisdom, courage, moderation—stand in the right relation to one another. Justice in the city is precisely analogous. In the just city, each class exercises its own distinctive virtue by performing the task suitable for its nature, and none interferes with the others. The wise and rational part does the ruling, the brave and spirited part does the soldiering, and the rest, those lacking special spirit or intelligence but capable of moderation, do the farming and the manual labouring. Justice is the harmonious balance among these constituent elements.1

Most modern philosophers have rejected the specifics of Plato’s view. Almost no one today believes that the just city is one that is rigidly stratified with a permanent ruling class, a permanent military class and a permanent working class, whose lives differ from one another in major respects. Yet many philosophers have retained Plato’s idea that justice is not simply one virtue among others, but enjoys a special status as the master or meta virtue. A version of this conception informed John Rawls’s celebrated book, A Theory of Justice, in which he claimed that ‘Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought’.2 By this he did not mean that justice is the highest virtue, but rather that it is the fundamental one, the one that secures the basis for developing all of the rest. In principle, social arrangements can display new left review 74 mar apr 2012 41


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any number of virtues—for example, they might be efficient, orderly, harmonious, caring or ennobling. But the realization of those possibilities depends on a prior, enabling condition, namely, that the social arrangements in question be just. Thus, justice is the first virtue in the following sense: it is only by overcoming institutionalized injustice that we can create the ground on which other virtues, both societal and individual, can flourish. If Rawls is right on this point, as I think he is, then when evaluating social arrangements, the first question we should ask is: are they just? To answer, we might build on another of his insights: ‘the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society’. This statement orients our attention from the great variety of immediately accessible features of social life to the deep grammar underlying them, to the institutionalized ground rules which set the basic terms of social interaction. It is only when they are justly ordered that other, more directly experienced aspects of life can also be just. Certainly, Rawls’s specific views of justice—like those of Plato—are problematic: the idea that justice can be judged exclusively in distributive terms is too restrictive, as is the construction device of the ‘original position’. But for the purposes of this essay, I will endorse his idea that the focus of reflection on justice should be the basic structure of society. To explore this approach, and convey its power, I will examine Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go.3 The story follows three friends, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, who inhabit a peculiar social order. When we first meet them, they are children living at what appears to be a privileged English boarding school called Hailsham. As the novel unfolds, however, we discover that the children are actually clones. They have been created to provide vital organs for non-clones, whom I shall refer to as ‘originals’. In the second part of the novel, the protagonists have left Hailsham and are living at the Cottages, a forlorn transitional residence, where they await ‘training’. Now adolescents, they are preparing to begin their life’s work of ‘donation’, which will culminate after a maximum of four surgeries in ‘completion’. In the third part, the protagonists are young adults. Tommy and Ruth have become ‘donors’, while Kathy has become a ‘carer’, a clone who tends to
This essay was delivered as a lecture in a series on ‘the virtues’ at the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, 13 February 2012. 2 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, ma 1971, p. 3. 3 Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, London 2005.

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others recovering from organ-removal surgery. After Tommy and Ruth ‘complete’, Kathy feels she cannot continue in her role. The book ends as she prepares to submit to ‘donation’ herself. Never Let Me Go is a powerful work, which left me overcome with sadness when I first read it. Actually, that is an understatement—by the time I reached the end of the book I was sobbing uncontrollably. Some reviewers have interpreted it as a work of dystopian science fiction about the perils of genetic engineering; others have read it as a Bildungsroman in which young people with outsized hopes and little understanding of what is truly important in life acquire the wisdom to value relationships and accept the world as it is. Neither interpretation is wholly wrong, in my view; each captures a strand of the work. But both miss what I take to be the book’s vital core. As I read it, Never Let Me Go is a meditation on justice—a searing vision of an unjust world and of the profound suffering inflicted on its inhabitants.

Spare parts
What insights does the book offer us? First and foremost, it invites us to think about justice through negation. Unlike Plato, Ishiguro makes no attempt to represent a just social order, but instead offers a chilling picture of one that the reader comes to view as deeply unjust. This already makes a profound point: justice is never actually experienced directly. By contrast, we do experience injustice, and it is only through this that we form an idea of justice. Only by pondering the character of what we consider unjust do we begin to get a sense of what would count as an alternative. Only when we contemplate what it would take to overcome injustice does our otherwise abstract concept of justice acquire any content. Thus, the answer to Socrates’s question, ‘What is justice?’ can only be this: justice is the overcoming of injustice. How, then, do we recognize injustice? If we examine the social order portrayed in Never Let Me Go and ask why and in what respects it is unjust, we are struck by an obvious answer: this social order is unjust because it is exploitative. The clones are created and maintained for the sake of the originals. They are sources of organs, walking stores of spare parts, which will be cut out of their bodies and transplanted into the bodies of originals, when needed. They live, suffer and eventually die so that the originals can live longer, healthier lives. Treated as mere means to


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the originals’ ends, they are accorded no intrinsic value. Their needs and interests are nullified or at best subordinated to those of the originals. The clones, in other words, do not count as subjects of justice. Excluded from consideration and respect, they are not recognized as belonging to the same moral universe as the originals. Here Ishiguro makes an acute observation, which concerns exclusion, identity and alterity. The clones can be exempted from moral consideration because they are seen as categorically different from the originals. It is this allegedly basic, ontological otherness that justifies their exploitation and their lifelong segregation from the originals. Their relegation to special places like Hailsham, where they live in a self-enclosed world with no outside contact, interacting only with one another and their teachers—whom Ishiguro calls, in a gesture to Plato, ‘guardians’—serves a functional purpose. Barring direct acquaintance between clones and originals precludes experiences of similarity or affinity between them, which would contradict the assumption of ontological difference. That assumption is paradoxical, to be sure. The clones are in fact exact genetic replicas of the originals. Their utility to the latter consists precisely in the fact that they are biologically indistinguishable from them. Granted, their subjectivity differs, as the clones have experiences and memories of their own. But genetically, the two groups stand in a relation of absolute identity, a proximity so extreme as to be uncanny, even unbearable. We can speculate that this might provoke severe anxiety; if so, it would explain the originals’ need to insist at all costs that their own ontological status is fundamentally different, and thus to legitimize the exclusion of clones from the universe of moral concern. Nevertheless, as Ishiguro shows us, the clones in fact participate in the same scheme of social cooperation as the originals. They are subject to the same basic structure of society, in Rawls’s sense. The two groups operate jointly under a common set of ground rules, which dictate that the life substance of the one be placed at the disposal of the other, that it be made available for the originals’ benefit, irrespective of the harm inflicted on the clones. Thus the two groups participate in a single, shared bio-economy, a common biopolitical matrix of life and death. The originals rely on the clones for their own survival; yet they deny them the standing of partners in interaction.

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To us, the readers, this situation is unjust. We recognize a mismatch between the restricted circle of those who count as subjects of justice— originals only—and the larger circle of those who are jointly subject to that society’s basic structure—originals plus clones. And we deem this incongruity to be morally wrong. For us, accordingly, justice requires that all who are governed by a common set of ground rules be recognized as counting, in the sense of belonging to the same moral universe. Some participants should not be instrumentalized for the sake of others. All of them deserve equal concern. For this reason alone, the social order portrayed in Never Let Me Go is deeply disturbing.

Terrible knowledge
What makes the world portrayed in the book truly horrifying, however, is something else: its protagonists do not perceive it as we do. The clones do not see their situation as unjust. They were created for, and socialized into, this highly exploitative order. Because it is the only society they know, its terms appear natural and normal to them. Granted, one of them, Tommy, is often angry. As a child living at Hailsham, he is prone to outbursts of temper for no apparent reason. But the others, including his closest friend Kathy, treat his rage as a personal problem. No one, including Tommy himself, ever considers the possibility that he has good reason to be angry. All encourage him in various ways to calm down; and so he does. When we meet Tommy later, as an adolescent living at the Cottages, he has mastered his rage. All that remains is a trace of sadness—a brooding quality which suggests some inaccessible and uncomprehended inner depths. Here Ishiguro conveys another profound intuition. Clearly, injustice is a matter of objective victimization, a structural relation in which some exploit others and deny them moral standing as subjects of justice. But the harm is compounded when the exploited lack the means to interpret their situation as unjust. This can happen by deliberate manipulation— when, for example, the exploiters fully understand the injustice, but hide it from those they exploit. However it can also happen in a more subtle way—when, for example, the public sphere in a seemingly democratic society is dominated by individualizing, victim-blaming discourses, while structural perspectives are absent or marginalized. Or when anodyne, euphemistic and vaguely elevating terms are routinely used to


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refer to murderous realities—as, for example, when forcible surgical removal of bodily organs is called ‘donation’ and the associated killing is called ‘completion’. In such cases, the dominant interpretative schemas reflect the experience and serve the interests of the exploiters. Conversely, the exploited have few if any words that can adequately voice their experience and even fewer ways effectively to articulate their interests as a class. The result is yet another aspect or level of injustice: the society’s means of interpretation and communication do not serve all its members equally well. Under these conditions, the victims lack an essential condition for responding appropriately to their situation. The fitting response to injustice, we assume, is indignation. However, that response is possible only where the exploited have access to interpretative schemas that permit them to categorize their situation not simply as unfortunate, but as unjust. Failing that, they tend to blame themselves. Convinced that their inferior status is deserved, they bury their legitimate anger and tie themselves in emotional knots. Thus, an injustice in the social organization of discourse produces psychological fallout. Never Let Me Go works through some of these repercussions. At first, during most of their years at Hailsham, the protagonists do not know they are clones. Ignorant of the terms of the social order into which they are being inducted, they do not know that they are being raised to supply body parts for an überclass. Much of the drama of the novel’s first section inheres in a series of incidents in which the characters encounter anomalies in their situation, hints of another, darker reality underlying their relatively carefree schooldays. Meanwhile, the reader, who is herself initially naive, comes to understand the truth—and waits anxiously for the clones to grasp it too. However, our hopes for a cathartic revelation remain unfulfilled. We watch with growing consternation as the protagonists repeatedly verge on uncovering the truth, only to pull back from the brink again and again. Unable or unwilling to entertain such terrible knowledge, they ignore the hints, explain away the anomalies, and concoct increasingly convoluted rationales in order to shield themselves from a disastrous truth. Certainly, the staff at Hailsham encourage the children’s ignorance. One teacher, momentarily overcome with sympathy for her charges, who do not after all seem so different from her, blurts out the truth

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and is summarily fired. She has violated the institution’s policy, which is to let the truth emerge gradually, in small doses, telling the clones only as much as they are deemed able to handle at a given moment. This technique is like that in the famous anecdote of the frog which, when thrown into a pot of boiling water, immediately jumps out. If, however, it is placed into a pot of cold water that is warmed gradually, the frog remains calmly inside as it boils to death. The Hailsham policy of titrating knowledge keeps the child-clones in the pot.

Personhood and power
Eventually, they do learn the truth. But by that point, they are not disposed to feel indignation. Responding with sorrow instead of anger, the adolescent clones find their situation unfortunate, but they do not judge it—or the basic structure that underlies it—to be unjust. Nor do they contemplate collective protest or revolution. On the contrary, they latch onto the promise of escape for a lucky few. Specifically, they become obsessed with the possibility of ‘deferrals’—another interesting choice of term, reminiscent of exemptions from the draft for university students in the us during the Vietnam War. In Never Let Me Go, word spreads amongst the clones that it is possible, under special circumstances, to postpone the start of one’s organ removal surgeries for three years. To qualify for a deferral, so the rumour goes, a clone couple must demonstrate that they are truly and deeply in love. The notion that being in love could constitute a basis for postponing forcible surgical dismemberment is ingenious on Ishiguro’s part. This particular urban legend posits a link between affective individuality and intrinsic value. The premise is that a being heretofore deemed to possess only extrinsic value, and thus to be a mere means to others’ ends, can nevertheless be elevated in status, at least temporarily, into a being that is valuable and deserving of consideration in its own right. The further premise is that what enables this transmutation is the interiority and individuality of that being, as embodied in the affective experience of romantic love. What confers value, then, is personal subjectivity. The young-adult clones invest all their hopes in this idea. It offers them considerably more than the promise of three more years of relative bodily integrity: it allows them to see themselves as something more than walking collections of spare body parts. It tells them instead that they are


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unique individuals, irreplaceable persons, each with a singular inner life. And where did the clones get this idea? At Hailsham, which we learn had been founded as a progressive alternative to the squalid hostels where clones had been previously stored. Squeamish about the conditions under which their biological duplicates were warehoused, sentimental liberal reformers had conceived of a special institution where clones would be educated and shown to have a soul. The school emphasized creative self-expression, encouraging the clones to produce artworks; the best, they were told, would be exhibited in an off-campus gallery. Later, when Tommy, as a young man, seeks to secure a ‘deferral’, he decides to make his case through the production of art. He will prove the depth of his love by displaying his paintings. Again, Ishiguro’s insight into (in)justice is penetrating: namely, individuality is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is the mark of personhood and intrinsic value, the admission ticket for moral consideration. On the other hand, it is easily made into a ruse of power, an instrument of domination. When divorced from a structural understanding of an exploitative social order, individuality can become a cult object, a substitute for critical thinking and an impediment to overcoming injustice. In ‘democratic’ mass-consumption societies individuality is the dominant form of ideology, the chief way in which subjects are interpellated. It is as ‘individuals’ that we are exhorted to assume responsibility over our own lives, encouraged to fulfill our deepest longings by purchasing and owning commodities, and steered away from collective action toward ‘personal solutions’—invited to seek deferrals for our own precious, irreplaceable selves. Ishiguro provides a masterful account of this paradox of individuality. What is most cruel and perverse about the world he portrays is that the protagonists are sold a bill of goods. Socialized to think of themselves as individuals, they cannot get past the idea, even when the truth becomes clear: they are actually bags of spare parts, created to be cannibalized. What set me sobbing were the book’s closing lines, narrated by Kathy, now in her early 30s. As a ‘carer’, she has spent the last ten years nursing her fellow clones, including Tommy and Ruth. She has tended their frail, depleted bodies, successively dispossessed of one vital organ after another. She has kept them alive and available for additional ‘donations’, providing what solace she could, as if to rebut Ruth’s despairing claim that their kind were modelled from

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human ‘trash’. Now with both friends gone, Kathy can no longer bear to continue her work. Having decided to start ‘donations’ of her own, she anticipates ‘completion’ and looks back on the course of her life: ‘The memories I value most, I don’t see them ever fading. I lost Ruth, then I lost Tommy, but I won’t lose my memories of them.’ Though she tries not to go searching for remnants of the past, Kathy recalls:
The only indulgent thing I did, just once, was a couple of weeks after I heard Tommy had completed. I drove up to Norfolk, even though I had no real need to. I wasn’t after anything in particular . . . Maybe I just felt like looking at all those flat fields of nothing and the huge grey skies. At one stage I found myself on a road I’d never been on, and for about half an hour I didn’t know where I was and didn’t care . . . I found I was standing before acres of ploughed earth. There was a fence keeping me from stepping into the field, with two lines of barbed wire, and I could see how this fence and the cluster of three or four trees above me were the only things breaking the wind for miles. All along the fence, especially along the lower line of wire, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. It was like the debris you get on a sea-shore: the wind must have carried some of it for miles and miles before finally coming up against these trees and these two lines of wire. Up in the branches of the trees, too, I could see, flapping about, torn plastic sheeting and bits of old carrier bags. That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing . . . I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that—I didn’t let it—and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.4

Kathy speaks here for all those whom our social order simultaneously interpellates as individuals and treats as spare parts—as sweatshop labour, as breeders, as disposable workers; as providers of organs, babies and sex; as performers of menial service, as cleaners and disposers of waste; as raw material to be used up, ground down and spat out, when the system has got from them all that it wants. In another era, they were christened ‘the wretched of the earth’. Today, however, they are too

Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, pp. 281–2.


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omnipresent, and too close to home, for that designation. We might view them instead as a substantial fraction of ‘the 99 per cent’. Kathy speaks for all these people, but she does not issue a call to arms. Rather, she expresses all the hurt, confusion, self-deception, betrayed hopes and longing that have coursed through her short, tragic life. Above all, she makes a stubborn claim to a measure of dignity in the face of a social order that disrespects her at every turn. She persists, too, in the effort to make meaning, even when the basic structure of her society has granted her nothing from which to fashion it except debris. It is this heart-rending mix of all-too-human emotions that makes the words of this doomed clone so moving.

From fiction to practice
But let us now leave the world of Never Let Me Go, put aside its pathos and think in a hard-headed way about what it has taught us. How might Ishiguro’s many insights be applied to our social world? First, the strategy of approaching justice negatively, through injustice, is powerful and productive. Pace Plato, we do not need to know what justice is in order to know when something is wrong. What we need, rather, is to sharpen our sense of injustice, to cut through obfuscation and ideology. Focusing on the wrong, we need to determine why it is so and how it could be made right. Only through such a process of negative thinking can we activate the concept of justice, redeem it from the realm of abstraction, concretize it, enrich it and make it fruitful for this world. Second, and again contra Plato, we should beware constructions of essential difference; distrust attempts to draw lines between guardians and workers, insiders and outsiders, citizens and aliens, Europeans and others. We should also suspect ontologized differences invoked to legitimize a dual social order, with one set of rights for ‘us’ and another for ‘them’. Often masking anxieties of identification, such attempts misframe justice. They license the wrongful expulsion of some from the universe of those who ‘count’. Third, instead of concentrating on otherness, we should follow Rawls (and Marx!) and look to ‘the basic structure’. To see who deserves moral consideration, we should determine who is jointly subjected to a common set of ground rules which define the terms of social cooperation. If the ground rules institute one group’s exploitative dependence on another group—for such vital necessities as body parts, labour power, babies, sex, domestic work, child-care,

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elder-care, cleaning, waste disposal—then together they are subject to the same basic structure. Members of both inhabit the same moral universe and deserve equal consideration in matters of justice. Fourth, we should be wary of approaches that misframe justice, wrongly excluding some from moral standing; and be on the alert for cases in which the circle of those accorded that status does not match the circle of those subject to the same basic structure. Contra Rawls, therefore, we should challenge those who treat formal citizenship as the principal determinant of who counts, as they necessarily misframe justice in a transnational, even global, social order. Fifth, we should question the tendency to redefine structural inequities as personal problems; scrutinize interpretations that attribute people’s unfavourable circumstances to their own failings; and resist efforts to dismiss bellwether emotions, like anger, which possess diagnostic value. Thus, we should look beyond trait-based explanations to the broader patterns of stratification, the causal mechanisms which produce hierarchy and the ideological strategies, such as personalization, that obscure them. Sixth, we should not assume that the absence of explicit critique or overt protest means that injustice does not exist. We should understand, rather, that organized opposition to injustice depends on the availability of discursive resources and interpretative schemas that permit its articulation and open expression. We should examine the public sphere for biases that impede equal access to political voice, and figure out how to overcome them, by broadening the terms available for naming social problems and disputing their causes. Seventh, we should distrust onesided paeans to individuality; and beware societies that fetishize love, interiority and private life, while systematically denying the vast majority the material conditions for their realization. We should reconnect subjectivity and objectivity. Finally, we should appreciate the creativity of the oppressed; validate the longing for a better life and the drive to make meaning, even in the most unfavourable circumstances; and cultivate social indignation and political imagination. Let us make justice the master virtue—not only in theory, but also in practice.

t. j. clark

How deceiving are the contradictions of language! In this land without time the dialect was richer in words with which to measure time than any other language; beyond the motionless and everlasting crai [meaning ‘tomorrow’ but also ‘never’] every day in the future had a name of its own . . . The day after tomorrow was prescrai and the day after that pescrille; then came pescruflo, maruflo, maruflone; the seventh day was maruflicchio. But these precise terms had an undertone of irony. They were used less often to indicate this or that day than they were said all together in a string, one after another; their very sound was grotesque and they were like a reflection of the futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai. Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli1 I hope sincerely it will be all the age does not want . . . I have omitted nothing I could think of to obstruct the onward march of the world . . . I have done all I can to impede progress . . . having put my hand to the plough I invariably look back. Edward Burne-Jones on the Kelmscott Chaucer2


eft intellectuals, like most intellectuals, are not good at politics; especially if we mean by the latter, as I shall be arguing we should, the everyday detail, drudgery and charm of performance. Intellectuals get the fingering wrong. Up on stage they play too many wrong notes. But one thing they may be good for: sticking to the concert-hall analogy, they are sometimes the bassists in the back row whose groaning establishes the key of politics for a moment, and even points to a possible new one. And it can happen, though occasionally, that the survival of a tradition of thought and action

new left review 74 mar apr 2012



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depends on this—on politics being transposed to a new key. This seems to me true of the left in our time. These notes are addressed essentially (regrettably) to the left in the old capitalist heartland—the left in Europe.3 Perhaps they will resonate elsewhere. They have nothing to say about capitalism’s long-term invulnerability, and pass no judgement—what fool would try to in present circumstances?—on the sureness of its management of its global dependencies, or the effectiveness of its military humanism. The only verdict presupposed in what follows is a negative one on the capacity of the left—the actually existing left, as we used to say—to offer a perspective in which capitalism’s failures, and its own, might make sense. By ‘perspective’ I mean a rhetoric, a tonality, an imagery, an argument, and a temporality. By ‘left’ I mean a root-and-branch opposition to capitalism. But such an opposition has nothing to gain, I shall argue, from a series of overweening and fantastical predictions about capitalism’s coming to an end. Roots and branches are things in the present. The deeper a political movement’s spadework, the more complete its focus on the here and now. No doubt there is an alternative to the present order of things. Yet nothing follows from this—nothing deserving the name political. Left politics is immobilized, it seems to me, at the level of theory and therefore of practice, by the idea that it should spend its time turning over the entrails of the present for signs of catastrophe and salvation. Better an infinite irony at prescrai and maruflicchio—a peasant irony, with an earned contempt for futurity—than a politics premised, yet again, on some terracotta multitude waiting to march out of the emperor’s tomb.

Is this pessimism? Well, yes. But what other tonality seems possible in the face of the past ten years? How are we meant to understand the
Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli [1945], London 1982, pp. 200, 178. Letter from December 1895, quoted in William Peterson, The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris’s Typographical Adventure, Oxford 1991, p. 252. 3 My thanks to Iain Boal, who asked me for a first version of this essay for his conference, ‘The Luddites, without Condescension’ at Birkbeck, May 2011; and to audiences there and at subsequent readings of this paper. I draw occasionally on material used previously, and apologize to readers who come across things they already know.
1 2

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arrival of real ruination in the order of global finance (‘This sucker could go down’, as George Bush told his cabinet in September 2008) and the almost complete failure of left responses to it to resonate beyond the ranks of the faithful? Or to put the question another way: if the past decade is not proof that there are no circumstances capable of reviving the left in its nineteenth and twentieth-century form, then what would proof be like? It is a bitter moment. Politics, in much of the old previously immovable centre, seems to be taking on a more and more ‘total’ form—an all-or-nothing character for those living through it—with each successive month. And in reality (as opposed to the fantasy world of Marxist conferences) this is as unnerving for left politics as for any other kind. The left is just as unprepared for it. The silence of the left in Greece, for example—its inability to present a programme outlining an actual, persuasive default economic policy, a year-by-year vision of what would be involved in taking ‘the Argentine road’—is indicative. And in no way is this meant as a sneer. When and if a national economy enters into crisis in the present interlocking global order, what has anyone to say—in any non-laughable detail—about ‘socialism in one country’ or even ‘partly detached pseudo-nation-state non-finance-capital-driven capitalism’? (Is the left going to join the Eurosceptics on their long march? Or put its faith in the proletariat of Guangdong?) The question of capitalism—precisely because the system itself is once again posing (agonizing over) the question, and therefore its true enormity emerges from behind the shadow play of parties—has to be bracketed. It cannot be made political. The left should turn its attention to what can.

It is difficult to think historically about the present crisis, even in general terms—comparisons with 1929 seem not to help—and therefore to get the measure of its mixture of chaos and rappel à l’ordre. Tear gas refreshes the army of bondholders; the Greek for General Strike is on everyone’s lips; Goldman Sachs rules the world. Maybe the years since 1989 could be likened to the moment after Waterloo in Europe—the moment of Restoration and Holy Alliance, of apparent world-historical immobility (though vigorous reconstellation of the productive forces) in


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the interim between 1815 and 1848. In terms of a thinking of the project of Enlightenment—my subject remains the response of political thought to wholesale change in circumstances—this was a moment between paradigms. The long arc of rational and philosophical critique—the arc from Hobbes to Descartes to Diderot to Jefferson to Kant—had ended. Looking with hindsight, we can see that beneath the polished surface of Restoration the elements of a new vision of history were assembling: peculiar mutations of utilitarianism and political economy, the speculations of Saint-Simon, Fourier’s counterfactuals, the intellectual energies of the Young Hegelians. But it was, at the time (in the shadow of Metternich, Ingres, the later Coleridge), extremely difficult to see these elements for what they were, let alone as capable of coalescing into a form of opposition—a fresh conception of what it was that had to be opposed, and an intuition of a new standpoint from which opposition might go forward. This is the way Castlereagh’s Europe resembles our own: in its sense that a previous language and set of presuppositions for emancipation have run into the sand, and its realistic uncertainty as to whether the elements of a different language are to be found at all in the general spectacle of frozen politics, ruthless economy and enthusiasm (as always) for the latest dim gadget.

The question for the left at present, in other words, is how deep does its reconstruction of the project of Enlightenment have to go? ‘How far down?’ Some of us think, ‘Seven levels of the world’. The book we need to be reading—in preference to The Coming Insurrection, I feel—is Christopher Hill’s The Experience of Defeat. That is: the various unlikely and no doubt dangerous voices I find myself drawing on in these notes— Nietzsche in spite of everything, Bradley on tragedy, Burkert’s terrifying Homo Necans, Hazlitt and Bruegel at their most implacable, Moses Wall in the darkness of 1659, Benjamin in 1940—come up as resources for the left only at a moment of true historical failure. We read them only when events oblige us to ask ourselves what it was, in our previous stagings of transfiguration, that led to the present debacle. The word ‘left’ in my usage refers, of course, to a tradition of politics hardly represented any longer in the governments and oppositions we have. (It seems quaint now to dwell on the kinds of difference within that tradition once pointed to by the prefix ‘ultra’. After sundown all cats

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The “Little” Tower of Babel’, c. 1565. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Model of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, c. 1919–20.

look grey.) Left, then, is a term denoting an absence; and this near nonexistence ought to be explicit in a new thinking of politics. But it does not follow that the left should go on exalting its marginality, in the way it is constantly tempted to—exulting in the glamour of the great refusal, and consigning to outer darkness the rest of an unregenerate world. That way literariness lies. The only left politics worth the name is, as always, the one that looks its insignificance in the face, but whose whole interest is in what it might be that could turn the vestige, slowly or suddenly, into the beginning of a ‘movement’. Many and bitter will be the things sacrificed—the big ideas, the revolutionary stylistics—in the process.

This leads me to two kinds of question, which structure the rest of these notes. First, what would it be like for left politics not to look forward— to be truly present-centred, non-prophetic, disenchanted, continually ‘mocking its own presage’? Leaving behind, that is, in the whole grain and frame of its self-conception, the last afterthoughts and images of the avant-garde. And a second, connected question: could left politics be transposed into a tragic key? Is a tragic sense of life possible for the left—for a politics that remains recognizably in touch with the tradition of Marx, Raspail, Morris, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Platonov, Sorel,


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Pasolini? Isn’t that tradition rightly—indelibly—unwilling to dwell on the experience of defeat?

What do I mean, then, by tragedy, or the tragic conception of life? The idea applied to politics is strange, maybe unwelcome, and therefore my treatment of it will be plain; which need not, in this instance, mean banal. Bradley is a tremendous late-Victorian guide; better, I think, because more political, than all the great theorists and classicists who followed; and I choose him partly because he is such a good example of the kind of middle wisdom—the rejected high style—that the left will have to rediscover in its bourgeois past. He addresses his students (colonial servants in the making) mainly about Shakespeare, but almost everything in his general presentation of the subject resonates with politics more widely. Tragedy, we know, is pessimistic about the human condition. Its subject is suffering and calamity, the constant presence of violence in human affairs, the extraordinary difficulty of reconciling that violence with a rule of law or a pattern of agreed social sanction. It turns on failure and self-misunderstanding, and above all on a fall from a great height—a fall that frightens and awes those who witness it because it seems to speak to a powerlessness in man, and a general subjection to a Force or Totality derived from the very character of things. Tragedy is about greatness come to nothing. But that is why it is not depressing. ‘[Man] may be wretched and he may be awful’, says Bradley, ‘but he is not small. His lot may be heart-rending and mysterious, but it is not contemptible’. ‘It is necessary that [the tragic project] should have so much of greatness that in its error and fall we may be vividly conscious of the possibilities of human nature’.4 Those last two words have traditionally made the left wince, and I understand why. But they may be reclaimable: notice that for Bradley nature and possibility go together.

Bradley has a great passage on ‘what [he] ventures to describe as the centre of the tragic impression’. I quote it in full:

A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy [1904], New York 1968, pp. 28–9.

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This central feeling is the impression of waste. With Shakespeare, at any rate, the pity and fear which are stirred by the tragic story seem to unite with, and even merge in, a profound sense of sadness and mystery, which is due to this impression of waste . . . We seem to have before us a type of the mystery of the whole world, the tragic fact which extends far beyond the limits of tragedy. Everywhere, from the crushed rocks beneath our feet to the soul of man, we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end. Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery, because that greatness of soul which it exhibits oppressed, conflicting and destroyed, is the highest existence in our view. It forces the mystery upon us, and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity.5

One thing to be said in passing about this paragraph—but I mean it as more than an aside—is that it can serve as a model of the tone of politics in a tragic key. The tone is grown up. And maybe that is why it inevitably will register as remote, even a trifle outlandish, in a political culture as devoted as ours to a ventriloquism of ‘youth’. The present language of politics, left and right, participates fully in the general infantilization of human needs and purposes that has proved integral to consumer capitalism. (There is a wonderful counter-factual desperation to the phenomenon. For consumer society is, by nature—by reason of its real improvement in ‘living standards’—grey-haired. The older the average age of its population, we might say, the more slavishly is its cultural apparatus geared to the wishes of sixteen-year-olds.) And this too the left must escape from. Gone are the days when ‘infantile disorder’ was a slur—an insult from Lenin, no less—that one part of the left could hope to reclaim and transfigure. A tragic voice is obliged to put adolescence behind it. No more Rimbaud, in other words—no more apodictic insideout, no more elated denunciation.

Here again is Bradley. ‘The tragic world is a world of action’, he tells us,
and action is the translation of thought into reality. We see men and women confidently attempting it. They strike into the existing order of things in pursuance of their ideas. But what they achieve is not what they intended;

Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 29.


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it is terribly unlike it. They understand nothing, we say to ourselves, of the world on which they operate. They fight blindly in the dark, and the power that works through them makes them the instrument of a design that is not theirs. They act freely, and yet their action binds them hand and foot. And it makes no difference whether they meant well or ill.6

Politics in a tragic key, then, will operate always with a sense of the horror and danger built into human affairs. ‘And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves’. This is a mystery. But (again quoting Bradley, this time pushing him specifically in our direction) ‘tragedy is the . . . form of this mystery [that best allows us to think politically], because the greatness of soul which it exhibits oppressed, conflicting and destroyed, is the highest existence in our view. It forces the mystery upon us’. And it localizes the mystery, it stops it from being an immobilizing phantom—it has any one politics (for instance, our own) be carried on in the shadow of a specific political catastrophe.

Our catastrophe—our Thebes—is the seventy years from 1914 to 1989. And of course to say that the central decades of the twentieth century, at least as lived out in Europe and its empires, were a kind of charnel house is to do no more than repeat common wisdom. Anyone casting an eye over a serious historical treatment of the period—the one I never seem to recover from is Mark Mazower’s terrible conspectus, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (1998)—is likely to settle for much the same terms. ‘The Century of Violence’, I remember an old textbook calling it.7 The time of human smoke. The political question is this, however. Did the century’s horrors have a shape? Did they obey a logic or follow from a central determination— however much the contingencies of history (Hitler’s charisma, Lenin’s surviving the anarchist’s bullet, the psychology of Bomber Harris) intervened? Here is where the tragic perspective helps. It allows us not
6 7

Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 32. The actual title is David Thomson, ed., The Era of Violence 1898–1945, Cambridge 1960. The overall editors of The New Cambridge Modern History, in which Thomson’s volume appeared, quickly ordered a revised edition called The Shifting Balance of World Forces.

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Collectivization campaign, ussr circa 1930 (‘We kolkhozniks are liquidating the kulaks as a class, on the basis of complete collectivization’).

to see a shape or logic—a development from past to future—to the last hundred years. It opens us, I think rightly, to a vision of the period as catastrophe in the strict sense: unfolding pell-mell from Sarajevo on, certainly until the 1950s (and if we widen our focus to Mao’s appalling ‘Proletarian Cultural Revolution’—in a sense the last paroxysm of a European fantasy of politics—well on into the 1970s): a false future entwined with a past, both come suddenly from nowhere, overtaking the certainties of Edwardian London and Vienna; a chaos formed from an unstoppable, unmappable criss-cross of forces: the imagined communities of nationalism, the pseudo-religions of class and race, the dream of an ultimate subject of History, the new technologies of mass destruction, the death-throes of the ‘white man’s burden’, the dismal realities of inflation and unemployment, the haphazard (but then accelerating) construction of mass parties, mass entertainments, mass gadgets and accessories, standardized everyday life. The list is familiar. And I suppose that anyone trying to write the history that goes with it is bound to opt, consciously or by default, for one among the various forces at work as predominant. There must be a heart of the matter.


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Which leads to the question of Marxism. Marxism, it now comes clear, was most productively a theory—a set of descriptions—of bourgeois society and the way it would come to grief. It had many other aspects and ambitions, but this was the one that ended up least vitiated by chiliasm or scientism, the diseases of the cultural formation Marxism came out of. At its best (in Marx himself, in Lukács during the 1920s, in Gramsci, in Benjamin and Adorno, in Brecht, in Bakhtin, in Attila József, in the Sartre of ‘La conscience de classe chez Flaubert’) Marxism went deeper into the texture of bourgeois beliefs and practices than any other description save the novel. But about bourgeois society’s ending it was notoriously wrong. It believed that the great positivity of the nineteenth-century order would end in revolution—meaning a final acceleration (but also disintegration) of capitalism’s productive powers, the recalibration of economics and politics, and breakthrough to an achieved modernity. This was not to be. Certainly bourgeois society—the cultural world that Malevich and Gramsci took for granted—fell into dissolution. But it was destroyed, so it transpired, not by a fusion and fission of the long-assembled potentials of capitalist industry and the emergence of a transfigured class community, but by the vilest imaginable parody of both. Socialism became National Socialism, Communism became Stalinism, modernity morphed into crisis and crash, new religions of Volk and Gemeinschaft took advantage of the technics of mass slaughter. Franco, Dzerzhinsky, Earl Haig, Eichmann, Von Braun, Mussolini, Teller and Oppenheimer, Jiang Qing, Kissinger, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Ayman al-Zawahiri. This is the past that our politics has as its matrix. It is our Thebes. But again, be careful. Tragedy is a mystery not a chamber of horrors. It is ordinary and endemic. Thebes is not something we can put behind us. No one looking in the eyes of the poor peasants in the 1930 photograph, lined up with their rakes and Stalinist catch-phrases, off to bludgeon a few kulaks down by the railway station—looking in the eyes of these dupes and murderers, dogs fighting over a bone, and remembering, perhaps with Platonov’s help, the long desperation the camera does not see—no one who takes a look at the real history of the twentieth century, in other words, can fail to experience the ‘sense of sadness and mystery’ Bradley points to, ‘which is due to the impression of waste . . . And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves . . . as though they came into being for no other end’.

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However we may disagree about the detail of the history the kolkhozniks in the photo are living, at least let us do them the justice not to pretend it was epic. ‘Historical materialism must renounce the epic element in history. It blasts the epoch [it studies] out of the reified “movement of history”. But it also explodes the epoch’s homogeneity, and intersperses it with ruins—that is, with the present’.8 The shed on the right in the photo might as well be a Lager, and the banner read Arbeit macht frei.

‘The world is now very dark and barren; and if a little light should break forth, it would mightily refresh it. But alas: man would be lifted up above himself and distempered by it at present, and afterwards he would die again and become more miserable’: this is the Puritan revolutionary Isaac Penington in 1654, confronting the decline of the Kingdom of Saints.9 Penington thinks of the situation in terms of the Fall, naturally, but his attitude to humanity can be sustained, and I think ought to be, without the theological background. His speaking to the future remains relevant. And it can coexist fully with the most modest, most moderate, of materialisms—the kind we need. Here for example is Moses Wall, writing to John Milton in 1659—when the days of the English republic were numbered:
You complain of the Non-progressency of the Nation, and of its retrograde motion of late, in liberty and spiritual truths. It is much to be bewailed; but yet let us pity human frailty. When those who made deep protestations of their zeal for our Liberty, being instated in power, shall betray the good thing committed to them, and lead us back to Egypt, and by that force which we gave them to win us Liberty, hold us fast in chains; what can poor people do? You know who they were that watched our Saviour’s Sepulchre to keep him from rising.

(Wall means soldiers. He knows about standing armies.)
Besides, whilst people are not free but straitened in accommodations for life, their Spirits will be dejected and servile: and conducing to [reverse


Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge, ma 1999, p. 474, Convolute N9a, 6. Isaac Penington, Divine Essays, London 1654, quoted in Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat, New York 1984, p. 120.


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this], there should be an improving of our native commodities, as our Manufactures, our Fishery, our Fens, Forests, and Commons, and our Trade at Sea, &c. which would give the body of the nation a comfortable Subsistence . . . 10

Still a maximalist programme.

A tragic perspective on politics is inevitably linked, as Wall’s letter suggests, to the question of war and its place in the history of the species. Or perhaps we should say: to the interleaved questions of armed conflict, organized annihilation, human psychology and sociality, the city- and then the nation-state, and the particular form in which that something we call ‘the economy’ came into being. I take seriously the idea of the ancient historians that the key element in the transition to a monetized economy may not have been so much the generalization of trade between cultures (where kinds of barter went on functioning adequately) as the spread of endemic warfare, the rise of large professional armies, and the need for transportable, believable, on-the-spot payment for same.11 And with money and mass killing came a social imaginary—a picture of human nature—to match. ‘When, in a battle between cities’, says Nietzsche,
the victor, according to the rights of war, puts the whole male population to the sword and sells all the women and children into slavery, we see, in the sanctioning of such a right, that the Greek regarded a full release of his hatred as a serious necessity; at such moments pent-up, swollen sensation found relief: the tiger charged out, wanton cruelty flickering in its terrible eyes. Why did the Greek sculptor again and again have to represent war and battles, endlessly repeated, human bodies stretched out, their sinews taut Moses Wall, letter to Milton, 25 May 1659, quoted in David Masson, Life of Milton, London 1858–80, vol. 5, pp. 602–3; quoted in part and discussed in Hill, Experience of Defeat, pp. 53, 280–1, 327–8. Masson’s great Life is a good companion to Bradley. 11 On a deeper level, Jean-Pierre Vernant’s argument for a connection between the rise of ‘de-individualized’ hoplite warfare, the generalizing of a culture of competitiveness (agon), the move towards a conception of social ‘equality’ or isonomia (for the citizen few), and the drive towards a numerical valuation of more and more aspects of social life, remains fundamental. See Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought [1962], Ithaca 1982.

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Baldwin Spencer, ‘Men quarreling after accusations over disobedience of social laws’, Alice Springs, 9 May 1901; in The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer, Carlton vic 2005, plate 36.

with hatred or the arrogance of triumph, the wounded doubled up in pain, the dying in agony? Why did the whole Greek world exult in the pictures of fighting in the Iliad? I fear we do not understand these things in enough of a Greek fashion . . . and we would shudder if we did . . . 12

Nietzsche is vehement; some would say exultant. But much the same point can be made with proper ethnological drabness.
Many prehistoric bone fractures resulted from violence; many forearms appear to have been broken deflecting blows from clubs. Most parrying fractures are on the left forearm held up to block blows to the left side of the body from a right-hander. Parrying fractures were detected on 10 per cent of desert men and 19 per cent of east-coast women; for both groups they were the most common type of upper-limb fractures . . . Fractured skulls were twice to four times as common among women as men. The fractures are typically oval, thumb-sized depressions caused by blows with a blunt instrument. Most are on the left side of the head, suggesting frontal attack

Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Homer’s Contest’ (unpublished fragment from circa 1872), in Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe, Cambridge 2007, pp. 174–5.


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by a right-hander. Most head injuries are thus the result of interpersonal violence, probably inflicted by men on women.13

Do not think, by the way, that dwelling in this way on man’s ferocity leads necessarily in a Nietzschean direction. Listen to Hazlitt, speaking from the ironic heart of the English radical tradition:
Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men. The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible; so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud. Is it pride? Is it envy? Is it the force of contrast? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after evil in the human mind . . . Protestants and Papists do not now burn one another at the stake: but we subscribe to new editions of Fox’s Book of Martyrs [a contemporary equivalent might be The Gulag Archipelago]; and the secret of the success of the Scotch Novels is much the same—they carry us back to the feuds, the heart-burnings, the havoc, the dismay, the wrongs and the revenge of a barbarous age and people—to the rooted prejudices and deadly animosities of sects and parties in politics and religion, and of contending chiefs and clans in war and intrigue. We feel the full force of the spirit of hatred with all of them in turn . . . The wild beast resumes its sway within us, we feel like huntinganimals, and as the hound starts in its sleep and rushes on the chase in fancy, the heart rouses itself in its native lair, and utters a wild cry of joy . . . 14

This has more to say about Homs and Abbottabad, or Anders Breivik and Geert Wilders, than most things written since.

It is a logical error of the left, this is the point, to assume that a full recognition of the human propensity to violence—to blood-soaked conformity—closes off the idea of a radical reworking of politics. The
13 Josephine Flood, The Original Australians: Story of the Aboriginal People, Crows Nest nsw 2007, pp. 122–3, following Stephen Webb, Palaeopathology of Aboriginal Australians: Health and Disease across a Hunter-Gatherer Continent, Cambridge 1995, pp. 188–216. 14 William Hazlitt, ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’ (1823), in Hazlitt, Selected Writings, Harmondsworth 1970, pp. 397–8.

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question is: what root is it we need to get down to? And even a Hazlitttype honesty about ‘a hankering after evil in the human mind’ can perfectly well coexist (as it did in Hazlitt’s post-Augustan generation) with a ‘By our own spirits are we deified’. Human capacities may well be infinite; they have certainly been hardly explored, hardly been given their chance of flowering; but the tragic sense starts from an acknowledgment that the infinity (the unplumbable) is for bad as much as good. It likewise is wrong to assume that moderacy in politics, if we mean by this a politics of small steps, bleak wisdom, concrete proposals, disdain for grand promises, a sense of the hardness of even the least ‘improvement’, is not revolutionary—assuming this last word has any descriptive force left. It depends on what the small steps are aimed at changing. It depends on the picture of human possibility in the case. A politics actually directed, step by step, failure by failure, to preventing the tiger from charging out would be the most moderate and revolutionary there has ever been. Nietzsche again is our (Janus-faced) guide, in a famous glimpse of the future in The Will to Power. As a view of what the politics of catastrophe might actually be like it remains unique. He begins with an overall diagnosis that will be familiar to anyone who has read him; but then, less typically, he moves on. The diagnosis first:
To put it briefly . . . What will never again be built any more, cannot be built any more, is—a society, in the old sense of that word; to build such, everything is lacking, above all the material. All of us [Nietzsche means us ‘moderns’] are no longer material for a society; this is a truth for which the time has come!15

We moderns no longer provide the stuff from which a society might be constructed; and in the sense that Enlightenment was premised on, perhaps we never did. The political unfolding of this reversal of the ‘social’ will be long and horrific, Nietzsche believes, and his vision of the century to come is characteristically venomous (which does not mean inaccurate): the passage just quoted devolves into a sneer at ‘good socialists’ and their dream of a free society built from wooden iron—or maybe, Nietzsche prophesies, from just iron on its own. After ‘socialism’ of this

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science [1882], trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York 1974, p. 304 (trans. slightly modified). I opt for the Gay Science‘s formulation of a thought repeated constantly, but never so economically, in The Will to Power.


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sort will come chaos, necessarily, but out of the chaos a new form of politics may still emerge. ‘A crisis that . . . purifies, that . . . pushes together related elements to perish of each other, that . . . assigns common tasks to men who have opposite ways of thinking . . . Of course, outside every existing social order’. And the upshot is as follows:
Who will prove to be the strongest in the course of this? The most moderate; those who do not require any extreme articles of faith; those who not only concede but actually love a fair amount of contingency and nonsense; those who can think of man with a considerable reduction of his value without becoming small and weak themselves on that account . . . human beings who are sure of their power and who represent, with conscious pride, the strength that humanity has [actually] achieved.16

Of course I am not inviting assent to the detail (such as it is) of Nietzsche’s post-socialism. His thought on the subject is entangled with a series of naive, not to say nauseating, remarks on ‘rank order’ as the most precious fruit of the new movement. But as a sketch of what moderation might mean to revolutionaries, his note goes on resonating.

Utopianism, on the other hand—that invention of early modern civil servants—is what the landlords have time for. It is everything Carlo Levi’s peasants have learnt to distrust. Bruegel spells this out. His Cockaigne is above all a de-sublimation of the idea of Heaven—an un-Divine Comedy, which only fully makes sense in relation to all the other offers of otherworldliness (ordinary and fabulous, instituted and heretical) circulating as Christendom fell apart. What the painting most deeply makes fun of is the religious impulse, or one main form that impulse takes (all the more strongly once the hold of religion on the detail of life is lost): the wish for escape from mortal existence, the dream of immortality, the idea of Time to Come. ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’. What Bruegel says back to the Book of Revelation—and surely his voice was that of peasant culture itself, in one of its ineradicable modes—is that all visions of escape and perfectibility are haunted by the worldly

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power [1901], trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, New York 1967, section 55, pp. 38–9 (trans. slightly modified).

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Land of Cockaigne’, 1567. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

realities they pretend to transfigure. Every Eden is the here and now intensified; immortality is mortality continuing; every vision of bliss is bodily and appetitive, heavy and ordinary and present-centred. The man emerging from the mountain of gruel in the background is the ‘modern’ personified. He has eaten his way through to the community of saints. The young man on the ground at right, with the pens at his belt and the bible by his side, we might see as none other than St Thomas More, awake but comatose in his creation. And the lad gone to sleep on top of his flail? Who but Ned Ludd himself?

Utopias reassure modernity as to its infinite potential. But why? It should learn—be taught—to look failure in the face.

About modernity in general—about what it is that has made us moderns no longer stuff for the social—I doubt there is anything new to say. The topic, like the thing itself, is exhausted: not over (never over),


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Baldwin Spencer, ‘Final burial ceremonies’, Tennant Creek, 23 August 1901; in Photographs of Baldwin Spencer, plate 75.

just tired to death. All that needs restating here—and Baldwin Spencer’s great photos of the longest continuing human culture are the proper accompaniment—is that the arrival of societies oriented toward the future, as opposed to a past of origins, heroisms, established ways, is a fact of history not nature, happening in one place and time, with complex, contingent causes. Personal religion (that strange mutation) and double-entry book-keeping being two of them. And by modernity is meant very much more than a set of techniques or a pattern of residence and consumption: the word intends an ethos, a habitus, a way of being a human subject. I go back to the sketch I gave in a previous book:
‘Modernity’ means contingency. It points to a social order which has turned from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future—of goods, pleasures, freedoms, forms of control over nature, new worlds of information. The process was accompanied by a terrible emptying and sanitizing of the imagination. For without the anchorage of tradition, without the imagined and vivid intricacies of kinship, without the past living on (most often monstrously) in the detail of everyday life, meaning became a scarce social commodity—if by ‘meaning’ we have in mind agreed-on and instituted forms of value and understanding, orders

clark: No Future


implicit in things, stories and images in which a culture is able to crystallize its sense of the struggle with the realm of necessity and the realities of pain and death. The phrase Max Weber borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world’—gloomy yet in my view exultant, with its promise of a disabused dwelling in the world as it is—still sums up this side of modernity best . . . ‘Secularization’ is a nice technical word for this blankness. It means specialization and abstraction, as part of the texture of ordinary doings; social life driven by a calculus of large-scale statistical chances, with everyone accepting or resenting a high level of risk; time and space turned into variables in that same calculus, both of them saturated by ‘information’ and played with endlessly, monotonously, on nets and screens; the de-skilling of everyday life (deference to experts and technicians in more and more of the microstructure of the self); available, invasive, haunting expertise; the chronic revision of everything in the light of ‘studies’.17

This does no more than block in the outlines: descriptively, there would be many things to add. But from the present point of view only two motifs need developing. First, that the essence of modernity, from the scripture-reading spice-merchant to the Harvard iPod banker sweating in the gym, is a new kind of isolate obedient ‘individual’ with technical support to match. The printed book, the spiritual exercise, coffee and Le Figaro, Time Out, Twitter, tobacco (or its renunciation), the heaven of infinite apps. Second, that all this apparatus is a kind or extension of clockwork. Individuality is held together by a fiction of full existence to come. Time Out is always just round the corner. And while the deepest function of this new chronology is to do work on what used to be called ‘subject positions’—keeping the citizen-subject in a state of perpetual anticipation (and thus accepting the pittance of subjectivity actually on offer)—it is at the level of politics that the Great Look Forward is most a given.

What, in the trajectory of Enlightenment—from Hobbes to Nietzsche, say, or De Maistre to Kojève—were the distinctive strengths of the right? A disabused view of human potential—no doubt always on the verge of tipping over into a rehearsal of original sin. And (deriving from the first) an abstention from futurity. Nietzsche as usual is the possible exception

Clark, Farewell to an Idea, New Haven and London 1999, p. 7 (changed slightly).


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here, but the interest of his occasional glimpses of a politics to come is, as I have said, precisely their ironic moderacy. Does the right still possess these strengths? I think not. It dare not propose a view of human nature any longer (or if it does, it is merely Augustinian, betraying the legacy of Hume, Vico, even Freud and Heidegger); and slowly, inexorably, it too has given in to the great modern instruction not to be backward-looking. The right has vacated the places, or tonalities, that previously allowed it—to the left’s shame—to monopolize the real description and critique of modernity, and find language for the proximity of nothing. The left has no option but to try to take the empty seats.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will? Not any more: because optimism is now a political tonality indissociable from the promises of consumption. ‘Future’ exists only in the stock-exchange plural. Hope is no longer given us for the sake of the hopeless: it has mutated into an endless political and economic Micawberism.

The tragic key makes many things possible and impossible. But perhaps what is central for the left is that tragedy does not expect something— something transfiguring—to turn up. The modern infantilization of politics goes along with, and perhaps depends on, a constant orientation of politics towards the future. Of course the orientation has become weak and formulaic, and the patter of programmers and gene-splicers more inane. Walter Benjamin would recoil in horror at the form his ‘weak messianism’ actually took once the strong messiahs of the twentieth century went away. The Twitter utopia joins hands with the Tea Party. But the direction of politics resists anything the reality of economics—even outright immiseration making a comeback—can throw at it. Politics, in the form we have it, is nothing without a modernity constantly in the offing, at last about to realize itself: it has no other telos, no other way to imagine things otherwise. The task of the left is to provide one.

clark: No Future ‘Presence of mind as a political category’, says Benjamin,


comes magnificently to life in these words of Turgot: ‘Before we have learned to deal with things in a given state, they have already changed several times. Thus, we always find out too late about what has happened. And therefore it can be said that politics is obliged to foresee the present’.18

You may ask me, finally, what is the difference between the kind of antiutopian politics I am advocating and ‘reformism’ pure and simple. The label does not scare me. The trouble with the great reformists within the Internationals was that they shared with the revolutionaries a belief in the essentially progressive, purgative, reconstructive destiny of the forces of production. They thought the economy had it in it to remake the phenotype. Therefore they thought ‘reform’ was a modest proposal, a pragmatic one. They were wrong. (The essential and noblest form of socialist reformism—Bernstein’s—came juddering to a halt in 1914, as the cycle of twentieth-century atavisms began. As a socialist project, it proved unrevivable.) Reform, it transpires, is a revolutionary demand. To move even the least distance out of the cycle of horror and failure—to leave the kolkhozniks and water-boarders just a little way behind—will entail a piece-by-piece, assumption-by-assumption dismantling of the politics we have.

To end by rephrasing the question posed earlier: the left in the capitalist heartland has still to confront the fact that the astonishing—statistically unprecedented, mind-boggling—great leap forward in all measures of raw social and economic inequality over the past forty years has led most polities, especially lately, to the right. The present form of the politics of ressentiment—the egalitarianism of our time—is the Tea Party. In what framework, then, could inequality and injustice be made again the object of a politics? This is a question that, seriously posed, brings on vertigo. Maybe the beginning of an answer is to think of inequality and injustice, as Moses Wall seemed to, as epiphenomena above all of permanent

Benjamin, Arcades Project, pp. 477–8, Convolute N12a, 1.


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warfare—of the permanent warfare state. And to frame a politics that says, unequivocally: ‘Peace will never happen’. It is not in the nature of (human) things that it should. But that recognition, for the left, only makes it the more essential—the more revolutionary a programme— that the focal point, the always recurring centre of politics, should be to contain the effects and extent of warfare, and to try (the deepest revolutionary demand) to prize aggressivity and territoriality apart from their nation-state form. Piece by piece; against the tide; interminably. In the same spirit as a left which might focus again on the problem of poverty— for of course there is no left without such a prime commitment—all the more fiercely for having Jesus’s words about its permanence ringing in their ears.

The question of reformism versus revolution, to take that up again, seems to me to have died the death as a genuine political question, as opposed to a rhetorical flourish. To adapt Randolph Bourne’s great dictum, extremisms—the extremisms we have—are now the health of the state. The important fact in the core territories of capitalism at present (and this at least applies to Asia and Latin America just as much as Europe) is that no established political party or movement any longer even pretends to offer a programme of ‘reform’. Reforming capitalism is tacitly assumed to be impossible; what politicians agree on instead is revival, resuscitation. Re-regulating the banks, in other words—returning, if we are lucky, to the age of Nixon and Jean Monnet. It surely goes without saying that a movement of opposition of the kind I have been advocating, the moment it began to register even limited successes, would call down the full crude fury of the state on its head. The boundaries between political organizing and armed resistance would dissolve—not of the left’s choosing, but as a simple matter of self-defence. Imagine if a movement really began to put the question of permanent war economy back on the table—in however limited a way, with however symbolic a set of victories. Be assured that the brutality of the ‘kettle’ would be generalized. The public-order helicopters would be on their way back from Bahrain. Jean Charles de Menezes would have many brothers. But the question that follows seems to me this: what are

clark: No Future


the circumstances in which the predictable to-and-fro of state repression and left response could begin, however tentatively, to de-legitimize the state’s preponderance of armed force? Not, for sure, when the state can show itself collecting severed and shattered body parts from the wreckage of Tube trains. Extremism, to repeat, is the state’s ticket to ride.

There will be no future, I am saying finally, without war, poverty, Malthusian panic, tyranny, cruelty, classes, dead time, and all the ills the flesh is heir to, because there will be no future; only a present in which the left (always embattled and marginalized, always—proudly—a thing of the past) struggles to assemble the ‘material for a society’ Nietzsche thought had vanished from the earth. And this is a recipe for politics, not quietism—a left that can look the world in the face.

susan watkins

A Reply to T. J. Clark


n ‘for a Left with No Future’, published above, T. J. Clark sets out a series of challenges for a new radical opposition. His starting-point is the existing left’s failure to produce a programmatic alternative to the ruling order in the West, despite the onset of a deep financial crisis. The re-emergence of street protest across the stricken regions, he argues, has not generated the fundamental re-thinking that this point in history requires: a perspective that will fathom, morally and socially, the depths of humanity’s impasse, given that the 20th century’s attempts at socialist revolution led to a deadend, with many of the worst defeats self-inflicted. Clark’s contribution to the necessary renewal draws upon the image-world of Bruegel, the private correspondence of 17th-century English revolutionaries, the passionate disaffection of Hazlitt, the tragic theory of the Edwardian age and the mythicized prophecies of late Nietzsche—not to speak of the proud punk nihilism of ‘No Future’s’ title. The lessons the left needs to learn from the 1914–89 century of catastrophe, Clark thinks, concern the innate human propensity to violence and the corrosive effects of modernity upon social relations. They demand a politics of ‘small steps’, to promote sustainable economic development and curb the scourge of war, within a perspective fixed firmly on the present, banishing all thoughts of a future non-capitalist order. Clark’s world outlook, as an art historian and a revolutionary, was forged in the furnace of the Situationist International, concurrent with deep research into the 1848 Revolution and its art in Paris, in the 1960s. His loyalty to the principles of Situationism was admirably unshaken by excommunication in 1966 from Debord’s si. If there were differences new left review 74 mar apr 2012 77


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of emphasis between them—Debord’s loftier view of the Soviet bureaucracy, compared to Clark’s fierce hatred of Bolshevism, for example—both would continue to affirm that, as Clark summarized, ‘the realm of the image was increasingly the social location in which and against which a possible future “politics” would have to be framed’.1 Clark’s art writings have been proof in themselves of Situationism’s explanatory power and intellectual vitality. Historically, the culture of the left, from Marx to Trotsky, Lukács to Sartre, focused overwhelmingly on literature, with far less to say about the visual arts, let alone painting. Clark has brought to it a body of work to match anything in the literary tradition. The Absolute Bourgeois and Image of the People, both published in 1973, are superlative historical interpretations, reconstructing the patterns of experience that informed the artistic strategies of Delacroix, Daumier, Millet, Meissonier and Courbet, in face of the popular upheavals of their time. The Painting of Modern Life (1985) extended the enquiry into the Second Empire, analysing representations of Haussmann’s Paris in the work of Manet and his followers. Farewell to an Idea (1999) examined the practices of a strategically selected set of artists—Pissarro, Cézanne, the Cubists, El Lissitzky, Pollock—as they tested the limits of what painting could do. Integral to these investigations is the act of writing itself, as a process of articulated thought. The mode is generally interrogative, pressing painted marks to yield their social or—especially in the more recent work, The Sight of Death (2006) and lrb essays—their formal meanings. The characteristic tense is the present continuous, with its rhetorical insistency; the conjugation is first person: ‘I’ or ‘we’. The drive—the polemical energy—is ethical and political as much as aesthetic: ‘it matters’, Clark repeatedly writes. Side by side with these works of art history, Clark has authored or co-authored a series of fiery political statements, part polemic, part manifesto, which have appeared every seven years or so. In 1990, a pamphlet put out with Iain Boal and others addressed the meaning of the West’s Cold War victory under the title, ‘All Quiet on the Eastern Front’. In 1997, ‘Why Art Can’t Kill the Situationist International’, published in October, was an impassioned defence of the theoretical practice of the late si as a basis for art, largely framed as an anathematization of the non-Situationist left. In 2004, ‘Afflicted Powers’ ran in nlr 27, and was expanded into a Verso book the following year. Co-written

‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, nlr 2, March–April 2000, p. 89.

watkins: Reply to Clark


with the Retort collective, the text mobilized Debordian concepts—the society of the spectacle, the colonization of everyday life—to grapple with the meaning of the Twin Towers attack, the better to equip the anti-war movement. It is in the context of these political writings that ‘No Future’ needs to be set. Any response will firstly have to register the originality of its form: a multi-layered counter-manifesto that mobilizes ideas and images across cultures and centuries, to stage an intricate interplay of themes—ferocity, tragedy, moderacy, temporality. ‘No Future’ opens with the Mussoliniera Mezzogiorno, an English Pre-Raphaelite, the wry metaphor of a discordant orchestra; it ends with police action on our city streets. Premodern worlds are strikingly present here: the rituals of the Arrernte and Warumungu peoples, Bruegel’s dreamers, the Puritan Kingdom of the Saints. Ned Ludd and Platonov, Rimbaud, Morris and Jean Charles de Menezes are among the many who people its pages. Rather than retrace Clark’s vaulting arguments step by step, however, what follows will explore ‘No Future’s’ explanations for the current impasse of the left; discuss the resources it would draw upon and the rhetorical strategies it deploys, before suggesting some alternatives. This is a preliminary and personal reply; no doubt there will be many others.

i. the ‘century of catastrophe’
‘This is the past that our politics has as its matrix’, Clark notes, rightly insisting that an understanding of socialism’s fortunes in the 20th century should be fundamental for its perspectives in the 21st. ‘No Future’ offers three overlapping interpretations of what went wrong. In the first, the years from 1914 to 1989 are seen as an inexplicable catastrophe, without shape or logic, ‘unfolding pell-mell from Sarajevo on’. In the second, they are the outcome of an innate human propensity to violence, to ‘blood-soaked conformity’. In the third, ‘modernity’ has produced a new kind of isolate, obedient individual, no longer fit material for a society. The causal or structuring relations between the three explanations are not spelled out in ‘No Future’, so it may be simplest to discuss each in turn. To begin, then, with the notion of the ‘century of catastrophe’ as ‘come suddenly from nowhere’, an ‘unstoppable, unmappable’ chaos. In this


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reading, Clark would seem to be installing irrationalism tout court as his presiding epistemological system and perhaps recommending it for a left to come. Irrationalism is a bad starting-point for any political perspective; for one that aims to leave catastrophe and salvation behind, it would be perverse. Not only are the origins of the First World War amenable to rational investigation and analysis, but these are imposed as an intellectual duty by the history that followed. The Great War and its settlement provided the preconditions for the Nazi ascendancy, the Second World War and the Hitlerian extermination programme, as well as setting the stage for the Bolshevik Revolution and helping to shape its course. Patently, the conflict that erupted in 1914 did not ‘come out of nowhere’. It was inscribed in the disparity between the existing allocation of empires, favouring first-comers Britain and France, and the greater economic and military dynamism of the late-comers, Germany, Japan, the us, once the world had been fully partitioned between a handful of great powers. From the late 1890s, clashes between the rival imperialisms over monopoly access to raw materials, markets and capital-investment projects in the semi-sovereign states—China, Turkey, Persia—and reapportioning of colonial possessions started to overspill the bounds of 19th-century diplomacy. Imperialist coalitions began to destabilize the European alliance system; international crises were increasingly settled by brinkmanship; military and naval expansion kept step with economic growth; Berlin’s decision to back Vienna against Serbia in June 1914 was taken with an eye to St Petersburg’s re-armament programme. The only force that could have stopped the conflagration at that point was determined anti-war action from below. The role played in this history by Eduard Bernstein’s ‘noblest form of social reformism’, as Clark calls it, hardly needs recalling here. Bernstein first gave his support to an expansionary colonial policy in 1896, nearly twenty years before the spd Reichstag deputies’ vote for war credits in August 1914. His self-styled ‘revisionist’ intervention of 1898—the goal of socialism was nothing, the movement was all—argued that to oppose Rhodes’s brutal suppression of the Matabele uprising was to stand against ‘the spread of civilization and the widening of world markets’. As socialism was approached ‘piecemeal’, through the steady extension of state regulation of the economy, the enfranchised working class would itself acquire an interest in the expansion of colonial markets. ‘If there is nothing wrong with enjoying the produce of tropical plantations, there can be nothing wrong with cultivating such plantations ourselves’, he

watkins: Reply to Clark


wrote the following year, in Preconditions of Socialism. And in 1900: ‘the higher culture always has the greater right on its side over the lower; if necessary it has the historical right, yea, the duty, to subjugate it’—‘every strong race and every strong economy strives for expansion’. Social Democracy could approve the Reich’s invasion of Kiaochow with a clear conscience, as the German people needed a decisive say in determining the Celestial Empire’s trade policy. Nor should socialists overlook the question of race, the competition between civilized peoples and ‘the Mongol peril’.2 The historic capitulation of 1914 was the logical outcome of a consistent social-imperialist strategy, learnt from the Fabians; its epigones are to be found in nato’s centre lefts, as they shoulder the white man’s burden.

Man as wolf to man
Clark’s second explanation for the ‘century of catastrophe’ lies in man’s innate ferocity; equally evident, he suggests, in the shouts of spear-carrying Aborigines and the eyes of aproned peasants. A natural propensity could not, of course, account for the periodization, 1914–89—for why then did the catastrophe not begin with the industrial-scale arms production of the 1860s; and how could it have come to an end, 75 years later, with the Revolution in Military Affairs still in full swing? Instead, Clark wants to advance two rather different arguments. The first concerns human nature, man’s ‘infinite’ capacity for bad; the second, violence as the driving force in history. Claims for perpetual evil in human nature have long been matched by counter-claims—Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature is only the latest, in a line stretching back to Condorcet—that humanity is getting continually nicer. By contrast, the Marxian tradition has advanced a conception of human nature as a combination of needs and capacities, none of which is ‘infinite’, and as ontologically social, moral, reproductive.3 This approach has the advantage of theorizing plurality within commonality, as an acceptable account of human nature surely must. The incidence of warfare has varied widely in human history; economic and ecological pressures offer more plausible explanations for
Eduard Bernstein, ‘Zusammenbruchstheorie und Colonialpolitik’, Neue Zeit, 19 January 1898; Preconditions of Socialism (1899), Cambridge 1993, p. 169; ‘Der Socialismus und die Colonialfrage’, Sozialistische Monatshefte, 4, 1900. 3 Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature, London 1983.


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its eruption than a timeless urge. The archaeological evidence suggests that pre-historic massacres can nearly always be correlated with environmental disaster, usually droughts or floods. Thus the earliest example of ‘pre-historic genocide’, a Late Paleolithic site in the Nile Valley, occurred during a period of catastrophic flooding in the region. The mid 14thcentury Crow Creek massacre in the northern Great Plains took place during a major drought; water shortages are thought to explain the spike in osteological evidence for violent death in native graveyards at that time. By contrast, ‘warfare’ in pre-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa was often driven by labour shortages and conducted for the sake of captives, not corpses. Similarly, many Native American groups sought hostages as demographic replacements after the disastrous epidemics of the 16th and early 17th centuries. Within more developed socio-economic orders, successive phases of pax imperialis have broadly achieved the goal of restricting warfare to (brutal enough) policing operations on the periphery, down to the present day. Clark subscribes to the old story of war as the motor of civilization; in its banalized version, the History of Kings and Queens. The creation of professional armies, ‘No Future’ argues, produced the invention of coinage. But monetized exchange had had a millennia-long pre-history in external trade, using goods such as skins or metals that combined use-value and exchange-value. Its preconditions included the development of agriculture, high-level handicraft industry and written records. Trade networks preceded the proto-state’s extension of military and political power. The stamped bronze or silver bars that operated as quasi-coinage in the Near East between 1100 and 600 bc depended on the forging of iron tools that could cut and stamp other metals with precision. They signalled the existence of a state capable of a high degree of prior accumulation, through taxes and tribute. Their disbursement to commanders on the frontiers presupposed the existence of traders there who would accept the stamped metal in exchange for rations, footwear, cloaks and belts. Such would seem to have been the case when coins first appeared, in the 7th-century bc Lydian kingdom, on the borders of the Persian empire. In 575 bc when Athens, a city-state answerable to its farmer-soldiers, became the first fully monetized economy, with small coins as well as high-value pieces, it was responding to the inter-related needs of a rich agricultural hinterland and thriving maritime trade, as well as its hoplite contingents. It is not to downplay the use of military force to say that its

watkins: Reply to Clark


role in historical development is secondary; at most a precipitate, acting in the context of broader economic determinants. Gunships may open the way for trade; but what did it take to build the gunships in the first place? Another way to pose this would be to ask what the women were doing, while Clark and the Australian photographer Baldwin Spencer are watching the men shake their spears.4

Ach, modernity
The third explanation for the catastrophic matrix that has disabled the left falls under the capacious heading, ‘modernity’. The term did not figure in the original editions of Clark’s great works on 19th-century French painting; it makes its first appearance in his Farewell to an Idea, in the late 1990s. This was around the time when Third Way sociologists were updating the notion to describe the culture best adapted to the globalized free market and endowing it with a strongly positive valence. A few years later, as Chinese and Indian growth rates soared, the notion of ‘alternate modernities’ was coined, to signal that, as Fredric Jameson put it, ‘whatever you don’t like about the hegemonic Anglo-Saxon model, including the subaltern position it leaves you in, can be effaced by the reassuring notion that you can fashion your own modernity’: there could be a Latin American, Indian, African, even a Confucian kind.5 Sociologists and cultural critics have famously fallen into two camps in their attitudes to the life-worlds and artistic possibilities of capitalist society. For one line, from Weber to Eliot to Adorno, the vision is unremittingly bleak: an iron cage, a wasteland; for another,
Baldwin Spencer’s notes on the Arrernte people are in stark contrast to the conclusions Clark would draw from his photographs. Spencer explained the fact that no tribe had ever attempted to encroach upon another’s territory by reference to the Arrernte’s belief that a man must stay in the region where the spirits of his ancestors dwelled. Not only was that country ‘indubitably his by right of inheritance’, but ‘it would be of no use to anyone else, nor would any other people’s country be good for him.’ The ‘quarrel’ with the visiting group, used by Clark to illustrate primordial human violence, was highly ritualized: there was much shouting and ‘brandishing of boomerangs’, but no one got killed. In Spencer’s view, the greatest risk to the Arrernte was tuberculosis, caught from cast-off European clothing. Photographs of Baldwin Spencer, Philip Batty et al., eds, Carlton, vic 2005, pp. 5, 56, 44. 5 Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity, London 2002, p. 12. Jameson proposes a series of delimitations that would help to define a more modest yet substantial concept. In the meantime, he suggests the therapeutic exercise of substituting the term ‘capitalism’ wherever ‘modernity’ appears—just to see what happens.


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from Marinetti to Hall to Giddens, it represents new opportunities for self-making. (A third approach, it has been argued, attempts to capture both aspects at once.6) To Clark’s credit, he has had no truck with the celebratory effusions; modernity in his work is endowed with truly Weberian grimness— which is not to say that it has acquired conceptual coherence. Lacking any satisfactory definition, or agreement over its sphere of application (culture, ethos, social order), causes (Protestantism, capitalism, consumerism) or periodization (end of feudalism, Enlightenment, 1850, 1905), modernity has come to function as a pseudo-concept, a placeholder that averts the need for deeper enquiry; or a way of speaking about capitalism without mentioning the term. Presenting the notion for the first time in Farewell, Clark explains that ‘the word “modernity” will be used in a free and easy way, in hopes that most readers will know it when they see it’. Yet the disparate ‘cluster of features’ by which he identifies it—reiterated and expanded in ‘No Future’: ‘an ethos, a habitus, a way of being human’—only renders ‘modernity’ more diffuse. The result is an unstable amalgam of incompatible Weberian and Marxian approaches. From Weber, Clark retains the ideas of rationalization and disenchantment, the loss of a vaguely indicated (pre-Reformation?) prior world of shared values and understandings. From Marx, he wants to argue that the ‘cluster of features’ which constitutes modernity is ‘propelled by one central process: the accumulation of capital’.7 But for Weber, rationalization was a slow process of sedimentation, its origins traceable to mediaeval monasteries’ timetables, fully crystallized in the organization of the firm and the bureaucracy. The determining instance was ethical: the Protestant spirit propelled the accumulation of capital. Marxism, for its part, has never posited a uniform social experience of capitalism, uninflected by class, generation or gender; for Marx himself, the development of each capitalist economy was uniquely overdetermined by national cultural and environmental coordinates. Since his day, the processes of capitalist accumulation have driven the mode of production through successive phases, punctuated by wars, crises and depressions: monopoly capitalism, the second industrial revolution and the emergence of Fordism; the welfare-state capitalism of the Cold War, and the developmentalisms, both import-substitute and
6 7

Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air, New York 1982, pp. 15–18. Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 7.

watkins: Reply to Clark


export-led, of the periphery; the era of finance capital, neoliberal globalization and the rise of China as workshop of the world; and the next stage, to which we are now unmistakably in the process of transition. No uniform ethos, habitus or particular way of being human is discernible across this varied landscape. Indeed Clark himself seems to be tiring of modernity now, introducing it only to hammer home the lesson of its fatal fixation on the future. Several rather different arguments are being advanced here. One is that, under capitalism (or rather, ‘modernity’) the future serves only to dupe ‘isolate obedient individuals’ with the ‘fiction of a full existence to come’. Secondly, modernity stands in for a modernism—perpetually focused, according to its 1950s New York theorists, on the new. Clark’s juxtaposition of Nimrod’s tower and the monument to the Third International suggests that Tatlin’s model should be struck down by a wrathful Jehovah. But Tatlin and the Constructivists are really a proxy for any visions of transformation, or ‘stagings of transfiguration’, which in Clark’s view are what has led ‘to the present debacle’. Again, it is not easy to untwine the arguments. Is Clark referring to the left’s failure to mount a coherent alternative to the Geithner and Bernanke ‘solution’? If so, wouldn’t such an alternative necessarily involve at least some vision of transformation? Or is he speaking more world-historically, echoing the message of Radio Liberty: socialism = messianism = gulag? All of the above, no doubt; and Clark will have anticipated many of the objections. Ontologically, the idea of a politics without a future would seem a non-starter, if we accept that futurity is a constitutive dimension of human experience, as our habits of procreation—indeed all cultural creation—suggest we should; while any effective action embodies in itself a difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’. The present itself, as a political moment, can only be grasped through periodization; a process of differentiation that necessarily posits a future as well as a past. Sociologically, the ‘Great Look Forward’ was not a matter of messianic belief but a rational response to the experience of accelerating social and economic change. Analytically, the history of capitalism teaches us that this will continue; conditions will alter, even if relations remain the same. Ideologically, however—and this is what makes Clark’s iconoclastic stance puzzling—‘no future’ would already appear to be established as the postmodern order of the day: a changeless now, from horizon to


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horizon, and a presentist politics reduced to the mindless repetition of the words, ‘Yes, we can’.

2. resources
What of the fragments that Clark would shore against our ruins— Bruegel’s Land of Cockaigne, Wall’s economic programme, Hazlitt’s ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’, Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, Nietzsche’s Will to Power, Benjamin’s notes for ‘The Concept of History’? The rollcall criss-crosses times and disciplines, from the Habsburg Netherlands to the Nazi Occupation of Paris. To assess the contributions they might make to a new perspective for the left, it may be useful to resituate these voices and visions in their contexts, to help clarify what they were saying about utopias, economic development, human nature, tragic theory, political strategy and time.

A Flemish materialist
The Land of Cockaigne pulls us up short, as Bruegel always does; even in nlr’s black-and-white reproduction (page 69, above), a negative reminder of how important colour was in Bruegel’s work: the pink silk trousers and fox-fur cloak of the proto state intellectual; the dark-brown tree trunk, turning itself into a table, casting an ominous autumnal shadow over the brow of the hill; the silvery gleam of the sea; the russets and tans of the puddings that tile the lean-to roof in the topleft corner, from which a famished Habsburg soldier peers out at the sprawling trio. The viewer, too, seems to be gazing down from a mound of buckwheat; Bruegel places us in a position to which we must have eaten our way through. For the present purpose, the painting’s possible relation to a renewed left perspective, the world outside the Brussels workshop needs to be borne in mind. Cockaigne was painted in 1567, when Habsburg forces under the Duke of Alba were terrorizing the Netherlands’ towns, re-imposing the writ of the Inquisition during a period of economic crisis, after the iconoclastic riots of the year before. There were mass executions in the Grand Place, thousands of arrests; rebels’ lands were seized. The seeds were being planted for the landing of the Sea Beggars and eruption of the Great Revolt, which would establish the Dutch Republic, a beacon for the 17th-century enlightenment, after Bruegel’s death. His Massacre of the Innocents (1568) appears

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to be a direct reflection on Alba’s terror: a snow-covered Flemish village, women pleading with red-tabarded officers to spare the children’s lives, menacing black-armoured troops observing the scene. Cockaigne is the negation of that. Without knowing who commissioned it—some of Bruegel’s patrons were high-ups in the Habsburg administration—its motives remain mysterious. Clark offers a compelling interpretation of the painting as an earthly satire of other-worldliness, one which insists that every vision of bliss is ‘heavy and ordinary and present-centred’. But in the context of those bitter times, might it not equally be read as damning criticism of the illusion of an endless present, oblivious to historical developments taking place outside?

A Leveller conscience
Written nearly a century later, the letter that Clark cites from Moses Wall to Milton is a haunting historical document: a voice of striking sobriety and intelligence, from whom nothing else survives. The text itself exists only in a later copy; Milton’s letters to Wall—he may have sent him the Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes—have vanished. The only other trace of Moses Wall is as a student at Cambridge between 1627 and 1635 (Milton was there from 1625 to 1632). Wall writes from Caversham, Surrey, in late May 1659. The dual-power deadlock between the Army Command and the City and gentry’s interests was fracturing, in the latter’s favour. Monck’s army would soon be marching on London to restore a royalist Parliament. Clark commends Wall’s letter for its ‘most modest, most moderate, of materialisms’, but the economic proposals it contains need to be treated with care. This is a Leveller, not a Digger, programme. Wall’s most radical demands are for the abolition of tithes—the 10 per cent tax levied on parishioners to support the Church of England clergy— and secure tenure for small farmers, as opposed to ‘copyhold’ tenancies ‘under a Lord (or rather Tyrant) of a Manor’, which held them ‘far more enslaved to the Lord of the Manor than the rest of the nation is to a King or supreme Magistrate!’8 But Wall’s second suggestion, improving ‘fens, forests and commons’, generally involved enclosures, fiercely opposed by the landless rural labourers who depended on the remaining open lands for grazing and trapping, who gathered firewood in the
8 Complete Prose Works of John Milton, New Haven and London 1980, vol. vii, 1659– 1660, pp. 510–13.


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forests or fished in the undrained fens, as their only supplement to the pennies that could be earned by wage labour. Forests provided a refuge for homeless wanderers, the Diggers’ leader Gerrard Winstanley argued, ‘out of sight or out of slavery’.9 Wall’s other recommendations, meanwhile—improving manufactures, fishery and English trade at sea—had been at the heart of government economic policy under both Commonwealth and Protectorate. Manufacturers benefited from the lifting of monopoly restrictions and slackening of apprenticeship rules. Secretary Thurloe’s Post Office and the highway-building programme improved communications. Rapid expansion of the Navy under Cromwell, funded by expropriated Irish lands, helped to force concessions from the Netherlands, Sweden and Portugal, to the benefit of English trade; Jamaica was seized from Spain and its slave labour force dramatically expanded; the Navy also brought protection from piracy and safeguarded the English fishing fleets. This was the early-capitalist modernization project for which Parliament, the City of London and the Atlantic merchants had fought the Civil War. Clark rightly insists that the formulation of adequate economic demands, whether maximalist or transitional, is a central issue for a renewed left; but the various elements of the Leveller programme need to be examined on their own terms. What was Wall’s strategic perspective for it? ‘We have waited for Liberty, but it must be God’s work and not man’s’, he wrote to Milton. ‘God will carry on that blessed work in spite of all opposites, and to their ruin if they persist therein.’ Clark suggests that we can brush aside the theological assumptions of the Puritan revolutionaries, their perception of their situation in terms of the Fall and the Kingdom of the Saints. But as Christopher Hill noted, this religious grounding proved particularly disabling when it came to dealing with reversals: for those who believed they had been fighting for God’s cause, the total defeat that the Restoration implied was a ‘shattering blow’—‘those who had been the instruments of the omnipotent God in 1648–49 were now revealed as impotent mortals.’ After 1660, God presided over the new court of Charles ii. Unlike the secular philosophies of the Enlightenment, religion can be made to serve any social purpose, Hill argued, thanks to the ambiguity of its basic texts.10 The advance represented by bringing secular political reason and


Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, London 1961, rev. edn 1980, p. 41. Christopher Hill, ‘God and the English Revolution’, History Workshop Journal, Spring 1984.

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popular practice into correspondence with each other should be registered as a vital legacy of the left, not dismissed.

A Restoration radical
William Hazlitt was writing nearly 170 years later, in the shadow of another historic defeat. Hazlitt can be read as an English equivalent of those other great haters of the French Restoration era, Pushkin, Heine and Stendhal; he and Beyle were acquainted, and freely plundered from each other’s works. Operating under less severe censorship, Hazlitt was the most directly political of the four (though his virtual silence over the Peterloo massacre has been attributed to government gagging orders). From a more modest background, he taught himself to write to earn his keep; the wild growth of the English periodical press in the early 1800s allowed him to range across art, literature, the theatre, political thought; and to lambast the renegacies of Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth. Clark wants to enlist him as a witness for the innate human propensity to violence, arguing that he has much to tell us about ‘Homs and Abbottabad’—entirely distinct situations, neither of which can be explained by ancient bloodlusts. Plucking a paragraph from its context in ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’—written in 1823, a disastrous period in Hazlitt’s personal life, when he nevertheless had to sparkle on the page to pay the rent—Clark misses the essay’s ironies. Hazlitt is not aiming at anthropological insight but cultural and existential critique. He starts with a reflection about being too squeamish to kill a spider and concludes: ‘We hate old friends; we hate old books; we hate old opinions; and at the last we come to hate ourselves.’ His friend Leigh Hunt, reviewing the essay when it was published in The Plain Speaker, wished that Hazlitt had ‘showed himself as unbribable by his own spleen and impatience, as he is by what made his Lake friends apostates.’11 The relation between passion and reason was a central theme for Hazlitt, explored from many different angles; as with Stendhal, at top speed his prose can begin to generate ideas by free association and it is possible to cite him taking a number of different positions. But Hazlitt never reduced human passions to the propensity for violence. Writing on the

William Hazlitt, ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’, in The Fight and Other Writings, London 2000, p. 438; James Leigh Hunt, writing in the Companion, March 1828, cited in Duncan Wu, ed., Selected Writings of William Hazlitt: Volume 8, London 1998, p. xv.


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relation between feeling and intellect in politics, in ‘What is the People?’, he argued that the people’s will was guided ‘first, by popular feeling, as arising out of the immediate wants and wishes of the great mass of the people’, and second, ‘by public opinion, as arising out of the impartial reason and enlightened intellect of the community’; there could be no better criterion of national grievances, or the proper remedies for them. If the left is to take lessons from Hazlitt on hating, it would be preferable for them to be political ones:
To be a good Jacobin, a man must be a good hater, but this is the most difficult and least amiable of all the virtues: the most trying and thankless of all tasks . . . The true Jacobin hates the enemies of liberty as they hate liberty, with all his strength and with all his might. His memory is as long, and his will as strong as theirs, though his hands are shorter. He never forgets or forgives an injury done to the people, for tyrants never forget or forgive one done to themselves.12

An Edwardian tragedist
Eighty years on, at the start of the 20th century, A. C. Bradley was operating in another medium again: lectures on Shakespeare’s tragedies to Oxford undergraduates, published in what would become a primer for generations of English students. Clark wants to conjoin Bradley’s view of tragedy to his own, as a theory of ‘the constant presence of violence in human affairs’. But this was not Bradley’s position. He was a Hegelian and adhered to the theory of tragedy laid out in the Lectures on Aesthetics. For Bradley, as for Hegel, tragedy arises not from violence or suffering itself, nor the fear and pity this may evoke; the essence of the tragic conflict is ‘the war of good with good’:
The family claims what the state refuses, love requires what honour forbids. The competing forces are both in themselves rightful, and the claim of each is equally justified; but the right of each is pushed into a wrong, because it ignores the right of the other, and demands that absolute sway which belongs to neither alone, but to the whole of which each is but a part.13

In this view, tragedy ends with a resolution of the conflict, even if the action of reconciliation must proceed through the catastrophe of the hero’s death: the ethical substance of the rightful powers is affirmed;
‘What is the People?’ in Hazlitt, The Fight and Other Writings, pp. 373–4; 361. Bradley, ‘Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy’, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909), London 1965, pp. 71–2.
12 13

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what is negated is the exclusive assertion of their right. Bradley differed from Hegel principally on the question of whether modern tragedy—Calderón, Schiller, Shakespeare—in which the conflict is characteristically internal to the hero, represented a decline from the canon of Classical Greece. Distancing himself from Hegel’s ‘hostility to the individualism and the un-political character of Christian morality’ in the Lectures on Aesthetics, Bradley attempted to ‘strengthen’ Hegel’s theory by demonstrating that tragic conflict in Shakespeare, too, could be read as the war of good with good. He illustrated his thesis by the ‘hard case’ of Macbeth, in whom he found courage, imagination, a vivid conscience and determination to press forward, even when earth and heaven and hell are leagued against him: ‘Are not these things in themselves good, and gloriously good?’ The Hegel–Bradley theory of tragedy cannot therefore be applied to the terrible ‘human smoke’ of the Nazi extermination camps, for that would be to impute some good to the perpetrators, some ‘ethical substance’ to their deeds. Auschwitz was not Thebes. Clark’s second reason for turning to Bradley’s view of tragedy is that he is ‘more political than all the great theorists’ that followed. What were Bradley’s politics? Born in Cheltenham in 1851, he was the youngest son of the evangelical preacher Charles Bradley (1789–1871), who was said to have had twenty-two children and bullied them all. In reaction, perhaps, the younger Bradley was drawn to revolutionary Romanticism: Shelley in poetry, Mazzini in politics. Much later he would describe to his close friend Gilbert Murray, the Australian-born classicist and canonical translator of Aeschylus and Sophocles, how, as a student at Balliol in 1872, he had sat in tears half the night after learning of Mazzini’s death. An ardent Idealist, he exulted at Germany’s unification. Come August 1914, this liberal internationalism foundered. Bradley wrote to Murray that he was glad England had declared war—‘I was in mortal terror that we might stand aside.’14 He contributed a respectful preface to a book of lectures, Germany and England, by his friend J. A. Cramb, which expounded on the glories of both imperialisms, while deeming conflict between them inevitable.15 In keeping with this, Bradley argued in a 1915 lecture on ‘International Morality’ that the war might justly be
14 Letters to Gilbert Murray of 27 February 1913 and August 1914, in Katharine Cooke, A. C. Bradley and his Influence in Twentieth-Century Shakespeare Criticism, Oxford 1972, pp. 25, 44. 15 J. A. Cramb, Germany and England, London 1914.


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compared with tragedy: ‘If the disappearance of either meant the disappearance, or even a lowering, of those noble and glorious energies of the soul which appear in both, the life of perpetual peace would be a poor thing—superficially less terrible perhaps than the present life, but much less great and good.’16

A prophet of irrationalism
Had he lived to see it, Nietzsche no less than Bradley would have welcomed the Great War. ‘You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I tell you: it is the good war that hallows any cause’, he wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra; a specially printed waterproof edition of the book, in a run of 150,000, was distributed to the ‘more literate’ German soldiers as they left for the Front.17 Nietzsche and Bradley were near contemporaries, the former born just six years earlier. But while Bradley was writing, in the early 1900s, from the middle ranks of an intelligentsia solidly entrenched in an imperial order which held sway over much of the world, Nietzsche was operating in a more febrile situation: a more ambitious philosophical tradition, forced to grapple with the sudden advent of the Reich’s great-power status and the simultaneous challenge of a powerful working-class movement. In his penetrating characterization, Lukács suggested that Nietzsche’s greatest gift was his ‘anticipatory sensitivity’ for what the disaffected intelligentsia of the imperial era would require; his dazzling aphorisms and wide cultural range would ‘satisfy its frustrated, sometimes rebellious instincts with gestures that appeared fascinating and hyper-revolutionary’. The social function of Nietzsche’s writing was to rescue dissatisfied intellectuals who might be drawn to the alternative of the workers’ movement; on the basis of his philosophy, ‘one could go on as before—with fewer inhibitions and a clearer conscience—and feel oneself to be much more revolutionary than the socialists’. Though Nietzsche rejected the idea of a system, Lukács argued with notable cogency that hostility to equality, democracy and socialism were the organizing principles of his entire œuvre: ‘to make the idea of human equality intellectually contemptible and to wipe it out: that was his basic aim throughout his career’.18 Nietzsche’s
Bradley, ‘International Morality’, The International Crisis in its Ethical and Psychological Aspects, London 1915, pp. 64–5. 17 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, Cambridge 2006, pp. 33, x. 18 Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (1962), London 1980, pp. 315–7, 358, 366.

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anti-Christian polemics were aimed not at the princes of the Church, but at an ideology of succour for the lowliest. From a very different standpoint, the problems of equality, and therefore of value, are also central to Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche. As distinct both from those who would select and interpret Nietzsche’s writing, in the fashion of a host of post-war admirers, Deleuze and Foucault at their head, and those who would simply take him at his word as a messianic elitist, as right-wing fans and left-wing critics have done, Bull’s project is to conceive what the full—moral, aesthetic, social, ecological— anti-Nietzsche case would be. In a style of calm limpidity that is the antithesis of Nietzschean pyrotechnics, and with unfailing courtesy towards the concepts of others, Bull traces the unfolding logics of value’s negation and equality’s expansion, in a discussion that sets the history of ideas in conversation with the history of societies, practices and beliefs. The upshot, radical as it is, would so far seem to be unanswerable.19 Clark has been a late convert to Nietzsche. ‘Socialism should have realized from the start that sources like these were poisoned’ he wrote, in 1999:
There was an idea abroad in the early 1890s that Nietzsche and all other prophets of irrationalism could simply be plundered and used for their hatred of positivism. The movement of the future would take care of their other, more deeply embedded, hatred of the masses . . . If only it had proved true.20

Eight years later, Clark was describing himself as a ‘left-Nietzschean’.21 ‘No Future’ sheds no light on his change of mind, and plainly neither 1989 nor 2008 can account for this radical reversal. Yet Nietzsche’s influence within the text goes beyond the three passages it cites. The first, from the 1872 fragment ‘Homer on Competition’, is used to establish Clark’s view of human nature as exulting in pain and violence. Nietzsche, though, spent a good deal more time lamenting his contemporaries’ weakness and physical degeneracy, and his point in this text is about cultures, not human nature: if only we could be as keen on
Malcolm Bull, Anti-Nietzsche, London and New York 2011. Clark, Farewell to an Idea, pp. 95–6. 21 Clark, ‘My Unknown Friends: A Response to Malcolm Bull’, paper given in December 2007 at the Townsend Center, uc Berkeley; published in Nietzsche’s Negative Ecologies, Townsend Papers in the Humanities, no. 1, 2009.
19 20


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combat and competition as the Hellenes. The second passage—‘we are not material for a society’—may be more central for Clark. Nietzsche’s vehemence in The Gay Science was directed, of course, against the socialists: ‘one reads their slogan for the future “free society” on all tables and walls’, despite the Reich’s draconian Anti-Socialist Law. The aphorism contrasts the era of mediaeval guilds and prescribed professions, which produced the ‘broad-based social pyramids’ of the Middle Ages, with the new, ‘American’ belief that the individual is ‘up to playing any role’, and everyone improvises and experiments with himself; what is dying out is ‘the basic faith that man has worth and sense only in so far as he is a stone in a great edifice’.22 Yet far from being extra-social, the self-made men he deplores are exactly the bourgeois types that constitute, and are constituted by, a fast-expanding capitalist society. As it stands, Clark’s thesis that ‘we are not material for a society’ remains an unfounded assertion. Empirically, human nature has produced, and reproduced itself within, a staggeringly wide range of social forms; the historical record does not suggest that a more equitable system of ownership and distribution is beyond the species’ capability. Sociologically, the claim founders on ‘No Future’s’ ambiguity as to whether we are, in fact, insatiable warriors or ‘isolate, obedient individuals’, who have repressed or done away with our inner tigers. The third passage, on ‘moderacy’, is perhaps the most important for ‘No Future’. Clark prudently bowdlerizes the unacceptable elements from the 10 June 1887 Will to Power fragment, leaving his citation of it a mass of dots. Restored to its full meaning and context, it is clear that Nietzsche was speaking about the moderacy of the victors, as they emerge from the purifying crisis that ‘brings to light the weaker and less secure’ and ‘thus promotes an order of rank according to strength, from the point of view of health: those who command are recognized as those who command, those who obey as those who obey.’ It is in this context that die Mässigsten, the most moderate—‘men who are sure of their power and represent the attained strength of man with conscious pride’—will prove die Stärksten, the strongest ones.23 More generally, Nietzsche’s usage of
22 Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Cambridge 2001, 356; emphasis in the original. Citations from Nietzsche’s works are by section number unless otherwise specified. 23 In an earlier version, Clark mused about a left-Nietzschean reading of ‘rank’ as ‘leadership’, understood as ‘having to do with mastery of specific skills’: ‘I presume we would agree that the left has suffered centrally from the lack of a theory and a political practice of leadership so conceived.’ ‘My Unknown Friends’, p. 87.

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the term mässig and its cognates seems to be either in an openly counterrevolutionary spirit, or to denote everything that the Übermensch rightly despises and rages against. An example of the first is the aphorism, ‘A delusion in the doctrine of revolution’, in Human, All Too Human, commending Voltaire’s ‘moderate’ (maassvolle) nature the better to denounce Rousseau’s ‘passionate follies and half-lies that have roused the optimistic spirit of revolution, against which I cry, Ecrasez l’infâme!’ The aphorism that follows, ‘Moderation’, warns against ‘the uselessness and danger of all sudden changes’.24 A representative sample of the second usage is Nietzsche’s paean in Beyond Good and Evil to ‘the beast of prey and the man of prey (for instance, Cesare Borgia)’, as ‘the healthiest of all tropical monsters’, held up against ‘men of moderation’, therefore of ‘mediocrity’. Later in the same work Nietzsche writes: ‘Das Maass ist uns fremd’—‘Moderacy is alien to us, let us confess it to ourselves; our itching is really the itching for the infinite, the immeasurable. Like the rider on his forward panting horse’, etc. 25 Nietzsche’s presence in ‘No Future’ is perhaps more pervasive than this. It would be possible to read the other thinkers on whom Clark draws as cladding for those places where Nietzsche’s thought must be omitted or adapted to meet present needs. Nietzschean tragic theory is too positive and interventionist for Clark’s purposes—‘It is the heroic spirits who say Yes to themselves in tragic cruelty’26—while Bradley’s can provide a negative valence for the inner tiger, to which the author of ‘Homer on Competition’ allocated a more creative role. Via Hazlitt and Spencer, the eternal human propensity to violence is pressed into service, in lieu of Nietzsche’s implacable division of humanity into rulers and ruled. In the cadences of Clark’s insistence on the unchanging present—there will be no future without war, poverty, etc., because there will be no future—one can almost hear Zarathustra: ‘existence just as it is, without meaning or goal, but inevitably returning into nothingness without a finale: eternal recurrence.’
Human, All Too Human, 463, 464. Beyond Good and Evil, 197, 224. For the moderacy of Nietzsche’s personal politics, see the notes of 1888 anticipating the publication of his Antichrist: ‘One would do well to found associations everywhere, to secure for me, at the proper moment in time, several million followers. I foremost value having the officer corps and the Jewish bankers on my side.’ Cited in Mazzino Montinari, Reading Nietzsche, Urbana, il 2003, p. 121. 26 Will to Power, 852.
24 25


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Benjamin saw things differently. ‘Eternal recurrence is the punishment of being held back in school, projected onto the cosmic sphere: humanity has to copy out its text in endless repetitions’, he wrote in 1940, alluding to Eluard. When Nietzsche took up the idea, he became ‘the bearer of mythic doom’.27 The dynamic concept of now-time that Benjamin evoked in the beautiful lines from Turgot which Clark cites—‘politics is obliged to foresee the present’—runs wholly counter to the logic of eternal return. As Benjamin put it: ‘The existence of the classless society cannot be thought at the same time that the struggle for it is thought. But the concept of the present, in its binding sense for the historian, is necessarily defined by these two temporal orders.’28 The attempt to graft the two thinkers together will not take.

3. on style
‘No Future’ promises ‘a rhetoric, a tonality, an imagery’; what does this involve? Clark is one of the left’s most gifted writers, a master of the resources of prose, of affect and meaning. Yet the reader here may sometimes feel coerced as much as persuaded. One form this takes is asyndeton, lists in which (for example) Franco, Pol Pot, Ayman alZawahiri are made to march in step, without so much as a conjunction between them; making one wonder whether Clark thinks historical causality has any role to play. Elsewhere, confident claims are made that would seem, at face value, flatly to contradict established facts. ‘Socialism became National Socialism’—in fact, it mainly became social democracy. ‘The Greek left has been silent’—on the contrary, debate has raged there about the different forms of default. ‘Marx’, ‘Luxemburg’, ‘Gramsci’ were ‘unwilling to dwell on the experience of defeat’—yet the two central subjects of Marx’s political writings were the advent of the Second Empire and the crushing of the Paris Commune; Gramsci was the theorist of restoration as passive revolution; it was Luxemburg who wrote, in the spring of 1915, ‘And in the midst of this orgy a world tragedy has occurred: the capitulation of the Social Democracy.’ Of course, Clark knows this; so he must be using the words to mean something else— perhaps to indicate that he does not wish to dwell on social democracy,
27 Walter Benjamin, ‘Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History”’, Selected Works, vol. 4, Cambridge, ma 2003, pp. 403–4. 28 Benjamin, ‘Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History”’, p. 407.

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Greece or historical materialism’s discussions of defeat. But in that case, why not say so? The European left, to which ‘No Future’ is addressed, is an early casualty of this rhetorical force majeure: ruthlessly caricatured as exulting in its marginality, fixated by catastrophe and salvation. No doubt there are those to whom one or other of Clark’s labels might apply, and perhaps even some poor demented soul, trapped in a nightmare flashback to Kiel or Barcelona, who answers to them all. But as a collective portrait of the small, scattered forces of today’s intellectual and activist lefts, it is unconvincing. It is striking that ‘No Future’ offers no real analysis of what these forces are—the journals (say, Le Monde diplomatique, Il Manifesto, Das Argument) and publishing houses; the fragile electoral formations, anti-war and anti-austerity, garnering between 3 and 10 per cent of the vote; the overlapping generations of (partial and inadequate) political forms: left breakaways from social democracy and euro-communism, vestiges of the Marxist groups, tamed trade unions, untamed environmentalists, horizontalist protests reborn after 2008, following their first appearance in the alter-globalization movements. In Afflicted Powers, Clark and his co-authors offered a more measured evaluation of a left that ‘speaks from a moment of historical defeat’, that ‘knows its own powerlessness’.29 This seems more accurate. As late as 2000, the insistence by an nlr editor on a lucid registration of a political—not a moral or intellectual—defeat, was met by outrage; today it is largely common sense.30

4. alternatives
Moderacy of the victors; a peace-keeping programme that would weaken or disarm territorial state sovereignty; is this where ‘For a Left with No Future’ is tending? There are grounds for thinking not. Clark’s avowed reformism does not aim to endorse or prettify the us–un order. His challenge to think through the project of the left to a depth of ‘seven levels’ is welcome and timely. One can admire the imaginative intensity of the perspective he explores while still registering the limitations of
Retort, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, London and New York 2005, p. 14. 30 Perry Anderson, ‘Renewals’, nlr 1, Jan–Feb 2000.


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the thinkers he draws upon for a left that, contra Bradley and Nietzsche, would oppose the logic of imperialism and base itself on principles of social equality and philosophical reason. To what alternative resources might it turn?

Action and disorder
Where tragedy is concerned, the broader historical-materialist tradition might be the best place to start. In his Modern Tragedy, Raymond Williams outlined a positive perspective that would overcome ‘the usual separation of social thinking and tragic thinking’. The son of a railwayman, Williams’s aim was to understand how the limits of successive tragic theories had been formulated, such that the shattering life experiences of the mass of the people were systematically excluded from them. Moving between conceptions derived from drama and patterns of social praxis, he argued that, while bourgeois culture had extended the scope of tragic experience—the tragedy of a citizen could be as real as the tragedy of a prince—it had at the same time drastically limited the nature of tragic experience. In earlier forms, the fall of the tragic protagonist was of social consequence, entailing the fall of his house or kingdom; by contrast, bourgeois tragedy was concerned with the fate of the individual, generally pitted against an unmoved public. At the same time, human suffering that was social in origin—a mining disaster, say—was defined as non-tragic, ‘in the proper sense of the word’: lacking in general meaning; ‘accidental’.31 Willams accepted that a distinction needed to be formulated between ‘tragic’ and ‘accidental’ suffering. He retained from Hegel and Bradley the defining notions of human agency, ethical substance—the relation of the characters’ trajectories to general meanings—order and disorder, as constituted by the tragic action. But the ‘aristocratic’ Hegel–Bradley theory entailed the exclusion of a whole class of human suffering: it was bankrupt, Williams argued, to say that the sufferings caused by work, famine, poverty were devoid of ethical substance, human agency or connection to general meanings. A new conception was needed, ‘substantial enough to be embodied in action’, to connect with actual contemporary suffering. Williams grounded his contribution towards this in distinctive conceptions of death—as a widely varied experience, not necessarily

Raymond Williams, Modern Tragedy (1966), rev. edn, London 1979, pp. 63ff.

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solitary—and of evil. He was prepared to accept that particular actions or situations could be described as ‘evil’, perhaps on the basis of his own experiences as a tank commander in World War Two,32 while adamantly opposing the abstraction of evil as an absolute condition. But if the social had been excluded from tragic thinking, tragedy had equally been kept out of social thought. Within left traditions that stressed man’s ability to change his situation, the tragic vision was seen as defeatist: social transformation could put an end to the suffering, which tragedy seemed ideologically to ratify. Williams was sharply critical of attempts to downplay the degree of ‘violence, dislocation and extended suffering’ that was the lived reality of revolutionary upheaval, however ‘epic’ it might be made to appear in retrospect. Equally misleading was the inevitable partisanship in face of an ongoing revolutionary situation: suffering was projected as the responsibility of one party or the other, until its very description became a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary act. Reduced to an abstraction, the ‘misery of millions’ could be seen as mere raw material; such a reduction suppressed the decisive connection between present and future, means and ends, resulting—Williams had the Soviet Union in mind—in a revolutionary regime that had turned to arrest the revolution itself. ‘The more general and abstract the process of human liberation is conceived to be, the less any actual suffering really counts, until even death is a paper currency’.33 Yet the same was true on an even greater scale of the vast disorder that constituted international capitalism: the fear, degradation and brutalization of billions—waiting interminably to be ‘lifted out of poverty’, in the unctuous-contemptuous jargon of today—was reduced by that system to mere statistics. The institutions that embodied and systematized that disorder could appear settled and innocent, a bulwark against which the very protests of the injured and oppressed could seem the source of disturbance. The 20th century had induced in post-war Europe ‘a kind of inert pacifism, too often self-regarding and dangerous’: upheavals elsewhere were seen as a threat to peace, to be suppressed by ‘police action’ or smothered by ‘peacemaking’, through which the underlying disorder was simply reproduced. For Williams, the aim was to resolve the underlying tragic disorder, not to cover it up. Resolution would entail a society’s incorporation of all its people, as whole human beings—therefore ‘with
32 33

See Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with nlr, London 1979, pp. 57–8. Modern Tragedy, pp. 64–5, 75.


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the capacity to direct the society by active mutual responsibility and cooperation, on a basis of full social equality’.34 In a 1979 Afterword, Williams noted that a further ‘tragic dimension’ had appeared since the 1960s: the widespread sense of a loss of the future. He was writing at a time when ‘the capitalist economic order is in the process of defaulting on its most recent contract: to provide full employment, extended credit and high social expenditure as conditions for political support’, and when the coming costs of that default were clear: ‘millions will be thrown out of work; lives built in the old areas of industrial exploitation will be left exposed and helpless, as capital and calculation move away; the stresses of forced competitive routines are likely to increase.’ But this was not the first time that a foreseen future had been falsified; defeat did not cancel the validity of the impulse to struggle, nor diminish the value of the fight. A properly social, properly tragic perspective would need to face, at the necessary depth, all the forces, conditions and contradictions that blocked the way to other, practicable futures; to do so would involve, once again, conceiving tragic action as a whole.35 Objections can be raised to Williams’s account; the key term, ‘action’, may not transpose so easily from drama to the complexities of social praxis. Yet if the left requires a tragic perspective that comprehends both the human cost of the prevailing order and the difficulty—the impossibility, perhaps, from where we stand—of resolving it, Williams’s seems more adequate for its purposes than Bradley’s, not least because it takes social equality as non-negotiable.

The components of the perspective Clark proposes in ‘For a Left with No Future’—a rhetoric, a tonality, an imagery, an argument, a temporality—comprise, respectively, three parts art, one part politics, one part philosophy. For this journal, the sources of an alternative perspective would be political-economic analysis—there is no avoiding the laws of motion of contemporary capitalism; philosophy—a self-critical rationalism and a balanced materialism; and political strategy—aiming to grasp the operations of the enemy, its strengths and weaknesses. Such a perspective would begin by re-admitting all that ‘No Future’ explicitly excluded from its view: the young generation, the Arab revolutions, the
34 35

Modern Tragedy, pp. 64, 80–1, 76–7. Modern Tragedy, pp. 208, 210, 218–9; and Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 63.

watkins: Reply to Clark


remaking of China, the recession-struck superpower, the world beyond the Eurozone or Anglophone left. To do so would be to recognize not a flat, homogeneous present but a range of uneven temporalities at work within the same chronological time: the prc, still in the early decades of capitalist expansion; Arab republics, only now beginning to dismantle Soviet-era states; Brazil, eternal land of the future, pioneering a postmodern credit bubble in the tin-roofed favelas; the us, adjusting its engines mid-flight for another half-century of global hegemony, faced with a fractious population bereft of the American dream. Such a world requires a perspective that is internationalist, but also irreducibly pluralist: not one tonality, but many. Aristotle was right to recognize, however grudgingly, the place of comedy alongside tragedy, with its contrary values: multiplicity as well as tragic unity; coupling and procreation as well as death; what his Poetics called ‘the inferior people’, always so numerous, and their mockery of rulers, in place of pity and awe. For all his insistence on present-centredness, Clark has little to say about our times. He is impatient that no more coherent left opposition has emerged, nearly four years into the Great Recession. But one thing Bernstein got right was that economic crisis does not automatically lead to the collapse of capitalism and an uprising from below. The Wall Street–Treasury–Federal Reserve strategy of multi-trillion-dollar bailouts and money-printing has shored up the indebted banking sector, so it can now lend money back to the indebted governments it borrowed it from. Massive intervention has staunched the global contraction at around 4 per cent, though China could deepen it further. The world economy has entered an era of uncertainty—further recession, crises, crashes, faltering recoveries—characteristic of a transitional phase. What underlying pressures are shaping its course? About bourgeois society’s ending, Clark rightly notes, Marxism was notoriously wrong. The revolution of Capital was derailed in 1914. Engels had thought the German workers would rather turn their guns on their officers than on their comrades in the International; tragically, they did not. The ‘revolutions against Capital’ on the periphery of the world economy were accompanied by a historic expansion of the pettybourgeois and white-collar middle classes at its core. By the 1970s—the neutralization of the 1974 Portuguese Revolution, largely at the hands of German social democracy, was a turning point—a ‘universal’ middle class seemed to offer perpetual support for bourgeois rule. But at more


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or less the same moment, advancing industrialization was starting to produce the over-supply of manufacturing capacity and labour-power, and relative deficiency of demand, that would assume crisis proportions with the entry of the former Communist world into the global economy. Since the 1970s, median wages in the core have been stagnant; only successive credit bubbles have produced a wealth effect. The question now posed is of a long-term reversal, a half-century re-immiseration of the median layers, which has already advanced several steps in the course of the current crisis. This would bring not a return to early 20th-century conditions, but the emergence of new class configurations and social inequalities. The empire’s seers have been asking whether representative democracy will be able to survive without a functionally articulated middle class.36 This is not to underestimate capital’s creative powers: its limits cannot have been reached when hundreds of millions of peasants remain outside the nets of the world market; ever-vaster credit bubbles may dominate the decades ahead. In these conditions, to jettison the intellectual legacy of historical materialism would be no advance. Rather, it needs to be critically and historically updated and developed; its rationalism renewed, not scanted. Insights gleaned from dreamworlds and intuitions may be precious, but a politics led by them would be heading for disaster. The balance of power remains overwhelmingly with the ruling order. Obama’s Homeland Security could shut down the 2011 occupations in the blink of an eye. But no one, Homeland Security included, thinks that the protests against the new impoverishment are over. Defeats and victories are in any case complex processes, as the Arab revolutions have shown. We contribute as best we can, in the conditions in which we find ourselves, and attempt to explain the reasons for our actions an die Nachgeborenen, to those who will follow. If Clark, meanwhile, is applying to Nietzsche for a revolutionary passport that will take him across the border into Bernsteinian moderacy, the journey will be a long one; and many hands will be tugging at his coat, slowing his way.

36 Francis Fukuyama, ‘The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?’, Foreign Affairs, Jan–Feb 2012.

ying qian

China’s Independent Documentary Movement


ince its emergence in the late 1980s, independent documentary cinema has become one of the most vibrant spheres of artistic expression in the prc, and a central forum for registering social change and critically depicting current realities. With its aesthetics of spontaneity, immediacy and on-the-spot realism, it marks a distinct departure from documentaries of the past in formal as well as epistemological terms: instead of letting ideology lead the camera, contemporary filmmakers prefer to face the world with minimal a priori knowledge, allowing the lens to wander and observe what unfolds. In what follows, I will chart the development of this movement over the past two decades through several key films, examining their relation to the prc’s Socialist past, and their efforts to reinvent realism, investigate state power and organize politically. First, however, it is important to register the legacies of China’s cinematic tradition; today’s documentary practitioners follow in the wake of a long history of socially and politically important filmmaking. Starting in 1896, when it made its first appearance in the country in Shanghai, cinema enchanted audiences seeking entertainment in urban China. Social reformers and revolutionaries were also quick to harness its historiographical, educational and mobilizing powers in response to the turbulent first decades of the twentieth century.1 ‘Actualities’ were made as early as 1911 showing the uprisings which overthrew the last imperial dynasty. Over the next two decades, individuals, private firms and the Nationalist army made newsreels and educational documentaries to instruct the new citizens of the Republic, as well as to capture historical moments.2 While Hollywood’s influence was the dominant one new left review 74 mar apr 2012 105


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in the period before 1949, the theories and practices of Soviet directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigorii Alexandrov—as well as Lenin’s dictum that out of all the arts, cinema was the most important—were introduced to China in the late 1920s and early 30s.3 The entrance of leftist writers and dramatists into Shanghai’s major studios marked a watershed in film culture. Socialrealist features—such as Bu Wancang’s Sange modeng nüxing (Three Modern Women, 1933), Cai Chusheng’s Yu guang qu (The Fishermen’s Song, 1934) and Yuan Muzhi’s Malu tianshi (Street Angel, 1937)—were instant hits in the major cities. Seldom experimental, such films used existing genres, such as melodrama, to propagate revolutionary ideas. In 1938, the Chinese Communist Party set up its first film unit in their base area of Yanan, with equipment donated by the Soviet Union as well as the international Left: the influential Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens sent his own camera.4 While cinema’s function as entertainment never diminished, these developments, followed by its conscription for mobilization and propaganda purposes during the Sino-Japanese (1937–45) and Civil (1945–49) wars—on both the Kuomintang and ccp sides— formed a tradition in which the value of cinema was bound to its social meaning and political role. After its founding in 1949, the prc devoted many resources to film production and exhibition across the country, heeding Lenin’s enthusiasm for cinema and Stalin’s regard for it as the marker of socialist
See Laikwan Pang, Building a New China in Cinema: The Chinese Left-wing Cinema Movement, 1932–37, Lanham, md 2002. To date there are no published monographs on early Chinese documentary; but one useful source is Matthew Johnson, International and Wartime Origins of the Propaganda State: The Motion Picture in China, 1897–1955, PhD thesis, University of California, San Diego 2008. 2 As early as 1918 the Commercial Press in Shanghai branched out into documentaries. In 1927, the same year as Esfir Shub’s Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Li Minwei of Hong Kong made a tribute to Sun Yat-sen and the Nationalist Revolution. 3 The playwright Hong Shen translated the collective statement on sound cinema by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Alexandrov and Vertov, for the December 1928 issue of Dianying yuebao (Film Monthly). In 1930, the dramatist Tian Han edited a special issue on Soviet cinema for Nanguo Monthly, introducing Lenin’s idea on the place of cinema as well as Anatoly Lunacharsky’s writings. See Liu Yuqing, Zhongguo dianying de lishi shensi yu dangxia guancha (Historical Reflections and Contemporary Observations on Chinese Cinema), Beijing 2009, p. 63. 4 The Yanan Film Troupe mostly made short documentaries on communal life. Its major production Yanan yu balujun (Yanan and the Eighth Route Army), by Yuan Muzhi, was lost in post-production in Moscow, due to the Nazi invasion of the ussr.

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development in a country.5 The number of movie theatres grew rapidly in cities, and mobile projection units travelled extensively in the countryside; films were screened regularly in factories, barracks, schools, workers’ clubs and open-air village squares. The total number of such units increased from 648 in 1949 to 9,965 in 1957 to 115,948 in 1978. Tickets were cheap and often distributed for free through people’s work collectives: attendance expanded from 47 million in 1949 to 822 million in 1954, then to 2.8 billion just four years later.6 The prevalence of film, as an experience of socialist modernity, cultivated a cinephilia shared by a broad cross-section of the population. The popular base and political importance of cinema ensured that it would continue to play a key role in the national culture: in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, for example, it was melodramas and elegiac documentaries that provided catharsis for a population in need of mourning, reconciliation and new visions of the country’s past and future. Socialist-realist principles were consolidated as the guiding canons of cinema in the 1950s, after bitter political struggles over film syntax and meaning.7 However, the state’s tight control over cinema contributed to an increasing lack of authenticity and spontaneity. Characters became one-sided, ambiguity became suspect, and Socialist tragedy by definition was non-existent. Film became a tool to illustrate ideology and visualize a model proletariat, and ceased to express authentic lived experience. The visible world in front of the camera was considered too chaotic, accidental and mundane to convey the essential realities of this new society. Documentaries, in particular, became dramaturgical, soliciting highly choreographed, symbolic performances from its subjects. The late 1970s and early 1980s brought a reorientation, as filmmakers began to grapple with the questions of how to represent ‘reality’ and engage with the ‘people’. Theories and practices from world cinema contributed to the shift, with Chinese intellectuals eagerly learning from the West in the 1980s, following the announcement of the open-door policy. Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo (1972) had been
The views of Soviet leaders and state directives on the film industry were translated in Danglun dianying (The Party on Cinema, 1951), a translation of the 1938 Russian collection Lenin, Stalin, Partiia o kino, edited by N. A. Lebedev. 6 Chris Berry, Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China, New York 2004, p. 32. 7 See Paul Clark, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949, Cambridge 1987, pp. 43–55, on the 1951 campaign against The Life of Wu Xun, dir. Sun Yu, 1950.


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denounced as anti-Chinese and counter-revolutionary in 1974, but a decade later its neorealist aesthetics and tender depiction of unrehearsed street scenes became a source of inspiration for documentary makers associated with Chinese Central Television. The ideas of André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer spurred much discussion of cinema’s relation to reality.8 Bazin’s endorsement of Italian neorealism’s phenomenological approach—against any a priori point of view—resonated in China, as did Kracauer’s emphasis on the camera’s redemptive capacity to investigate and bear witness to the physical realities of everyday life. Rather than relying on ideologically pre-determined categories, filmmakers hoped to break the state’s monopoly on interpretation of the physical and social world and return that right to ordinary people, who could perceive and judge reality with their own senses. Filmmakers in the 1980s also sought to return a sense of humanity and plurality to the official concept of the People. Much had been done in their name, yet people’s actual bodies and speech were instrumentalized in performances of loyalty, moral righteousness and transparency as evidence of the truth of Maoism. Documentary filmmakers, like other artists and writers, saw the necessity of moving away from iconography towards the depiction of varied, everyday experiences. The opening sequence of the cctv documentary series Tiananmen—production had begun in 1988 but was aborted in the summer of 1989—offered an excellent visualization of this switch in focus: the giant portrait of Mao Zedong on the wall of the Tiananmen Rostrum is taken down and replaced with an exact copy. Carried out every few years to keep the painting clean, this routine is normally kept out of public view; the scene thus destabilizes the potent symbol of Mao and exposes its artificiality. Next, the camera pans away from the Forbidden City to the living quarters of those outside the palace, zooming onto the bustling street life.

Down and out in Beijing
Considered the first of China’s new documentaries, Wu Wenguang’s Liulang Beijing (Bumming in Beijing, 1990) is a video portrait of five
The critic Li Tuo and filmmaker Zhang Nuanxin brought Bazin into the debate in ‘The Modernization of Film Language’, Beijing Film Art, no. 3, 1979. Articles by Bazin appeared in World Cinema soon after its relaunch in 1980. Established in 1952 by the Chinese Filmmakers’ Association, the journal had been suspended during the Cultural Revolution. A translation of Kracauer’s Theory of Film appeared in 1981.

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free-floating artists seeking survival and autonomy in the city. Composed of informal interviews and observational footage from a hand-held camcorder, it represented an unconventional cohort of young people previously never seen on screen in China. Having refused to accept their assignments in the provinces and chosen to stay in Beijing without jobs or residential permits, these restless and idealistic young people confide in Wu without reserve, discussing their beliefs, aspirations, difficulties and sorrows. Shunning voice-overs—on which most documentaries in the prc at the time relied—Wu’s empathetic camera registered the protagonists’ intimate confessions and observed their loneliness, confusion and breakdowns as they struggled to get by and make sense of their lives. Filming was interrupted for a few months at the time of the Tiananmen protests of April–June 1989. Immediately after the crackdown, four of the five protagonists emigrated; only the dramatist Mou Sen remained in the capital, whose solitude and forlornness Wu was able to capture after returning to Beijing and resuming production. It is unlikely that today’s viewers would find Bumming in Beijing daring, yet it was an important beginning for Chinese independent documentary. Very much a work of its time, it grew out of a decade-long cultural reorientation, and benefited from the close connections between state television and avant-garde literary and artistic circles, at a moment when the boundary between the official and unofficial spheres was unclear and shifting. Like other state-run organizations such as newspapers, magazines and theatres, tv networks enjoyed more freedom of expression and autonomy in the 1980s, even though the political atmosphere experienced phases of relaxation and tightened control. cctv underwent significant reform at the end of the decade, instituting a new system that gave producers greater decision-making power in the creation of programmes. As a university student in the early 1980s, Wu had been deeply influenced by the humanist revival, and was active in the cultural circles of Yunnan, his home province. After graduation, he worked for Yunnan Television until one of his close associates became a producer at cctv in Beijing and invited him to work on a show. Upon arrival, Wu immediately plugged into the city’s avant-garde. Shot with cctv equipment, Bumming in Beijing was originally meant to be an episode in the series People of China, on new types of artists. It had features in common with a number of cctv productions of the late 1980s, including Tiananmen; these were developed by young, newly empowered


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producers who favoured hand-held cameras, capturing ordinary life and unscripted interviews in everyday language. But despite these commonalities, Bumming in Beijing undoubtedly went much further in comparison. In the late 1980s, an unstable and ambiguous political atmosphere often resulted in promising programmes being launched and then cancelled. Yet when this happened to Wu, he did what others had not: he turned the film into an independent, personal project, which allowed him uninhibitedly to pursue an intimate home-movie quality and unpolished, amateur visual style. Meanwhile, Wu’s persistence in completing and distributing the film in samizdat fashion also allowed him to test the reach of the informal community around him in Beijing. The finished piece circulated hand to hand on cassettes. In 1991 the Hong Kong critic and producer Shu Kei passed it on to the Hong Kong Film Festival. From there, it went on to France’s Cinéma du Réel, Japan’s Yamagata Documentary Film Festival and many others. Before Bumming in Beijing, documentaries had only been seen on tv or in cinemas, both controlled by the state and subject to censorship. Bumming in Beijing demonstrated that independent production could be viable if filmmakers attracted audiences and funding at international festivals. Once an aspiring poet, Wu put his literary talents to work, writing excitedly about international practices and the works of Ogawa Shinsuke and Frederick Wiseman, which he had discovered at Yamagata in 1991. Wu also edited a journal called Documentary Handbook that printed selections of articles from overseas. This fresh input was particularly inspiring in the early 1990s when state control and censorship became stronger in the wake of Tiananmen, and the space for creative, autonomous expression within the official system shrank significantly. The examples offered by Wu showed Chinese filmmakers that independence was possible, and that documentary cinema could have its own auteurs and masterpieces.

Scrutinizing state power
In the 1980s, filmmakers worked to substantiate the hollowed-out notion of the People with pluralistic and concrete human experiences. These concerns continued into the next decade, but were joined by additional ones. A realignment of political powers had followed the violent

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suppression of the Tiananmen protests; deepening market reform also resulted in a shift of economic powers. Under such circumstances, in the early 90s some Chinese filmmakers began to explore the state’s operations in everyday life. The ‘direct cinema’ of Frederick Wiseman, whose films Wu Wenguang had brought back from Yamagata on videocassette, provided a documentary strategy Chinese filmmakers could bring to bear on the altered situation. Since the mid-60s, Wiseman has spent decades making observational documentaries on us institutional life in welfare offices, schools, prisons and hospitals. The premise of his work has been to minimize any directorial interference, prompting or interaction with the profilmic subject, but instead to observe the spontaneous flow of events, which would yield insights into the complexities of social life and experience.9 Wiseman’s approach was particularly attractive to Chinese filmmakers in the years immediately after 1989, not only because passive observation was politically safer, but also because, as a product of the artistic and political upheavals of the American 60s, it offered a critical standpoint from which to regard the workings of power after the failure of passionate political engagement and a mass movement. One of the earliest Wiseman-inspired films was Zhang Yuan and Duan Jinchuan’s Guangchang (The Square, 1994). Duan had been a documentary maker at state-run Tibetan television, while Zhang had already made two features by the time he co-directed The Square. Just as Wu’s Bumming in Beijing pointed to close connections with the Beijing avant-garde, Zhang’s entry into the field demonstrated the symbiotic relationship between documentary and feature filmmakers. The same community that gave rise to independent documentary fashioned the realist style of the so-called Sixth Generation. Its leading members, Zhang Yuan and Jia Zhangke, have worked in both forms; and it was at a 1992 gathering in Zhang’s Beijing home—which Wu also attended—that the concept of a New Documentary Movement was first mentioned and the possibility of an independent stance discussed. Shot on 35mm black-and-white film, The Square studies the operation of state power in Tiananmen Square, China’s most important political space. Zhang and Duan earned the chance to film there by accompanying

See Barry K. Grant, Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman, Urbana,

il 1992, p. 9. Wiseman’s films include High School (1968), Hospital (1970) and
Missile (1987); Central Park (1989) and Zoo (1993) had a particularly important influence on Chinese documentarists in the 1990s.


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an approved cctv crew, an arrangement made through Duan’s connections. Mistaken for official cameramen, the duo were allowed to shoot freely and used the opportunity to look closely at the police unit maintaining order and at the cctv team staging interviews.10 The film shows that while the former kept the place under surveillance, the latter were more powerful: they micro-managed people’s behaviour, soliciting politically correct answers and performances. Under the gaze of the cctv team’s camera, policemen, tourists and children alike automatically acted according to prescriptions often derived from state media. In one scene on top of the Tiananmen Rostrum, the cctv filmmaker asks a group of school children to act out in unison Mao Zedong’s announcement of the establishment of the prc in 1949. That founding moment, replayed frequently on cctv, and now reenacted in front of yet another cctv camera, exposed the endless loop of cinematic reproduction in real life and the artificiality of official cinema. With this, The Square negatively defined the critical viewpoint independent documentary was to take. After The Square, Duan Jinchuan went on to make a number of films in the same direct-cinema style. He had spent several months in 1994 observing the daily routines of the neighbourhood committee in central Lhasa, the address of which gave the title to No. 16 Barkhor South Street (1996). The film examines meetings of the neighbourhood committee with residents, clergy and security guards to brief them on measures to maintain stability during religious holidays; and it shows the various ways the cadres managed disputes within the community, whether between family members or ethnic groups. This rich and nuanced visual account quietly scrutinizes state power at its most intimate: how the Tibetan cadres’ body language, acts of cultural translation and embedment in the local context humanized and perpetuated an otherwise hollow notion of ethnic unity or bureaucratic tasks like fee collection, accounting and registration. After winning the 1997 grand prize at Cinéma du Réel for this film, Duan continued his ethnography of state power at the grassroots with Linqi dashetou (The Secret of My Success, 2002), a sobering portrayal of a village official coldly but whole-heartedly dedicated to implementing the birth-control policy.

Yingjin Zhang, Cinema, Space and Polylocality in a Globalizing China, Honolulu 2010, p. 55. The film was inspired by Frederick Wiseman’s Central Park (1989), according to Yomi Braester, Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract, Durham, nc 2010, p. 182.

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Following Duan’s lead, a number of other directors began to train their cameras on various state apparatuses and institutions of coercion. Exemplary films include Zhang Yiqing’s You er yuan (Kindergarten, 2004), on the socialization and disciplining of children, and Zhao Liang’s Zui yu fa (Crime and Punishment, 2007), on the daily operations—sometimes mundane and amusing, at other times violent—of a police station at the Sino-North Korean border. These filmmakers do not necessarily harbour illusions about the camera’s objectivity; its manipulative capacity was already tackled in The Square. Refraining from visible interventions and remaining passive observers in the Chinese context have, rather, been survival tactics, as well as part of a strategy to cultivate a critical audience which does not passively absorb messages but observes power in society itself—thus garnering the power to witness. This capacity would prove crucial to the rise of political documentaries in the mid-2000s, to which I will return.

Intimacy and solidarity
Between 1989 and 1996, most documentaries, even independent ones, were made in some connection to television. Film and editing equipment were too expensive for most individuals, who were unlikely to get past neighbourhood patrols or the police carrying cumbersome and conspicuous cameras without official permission. Aspiring filmmakers either had jobs in television and made films after hours, or used connections to borrow gear and acquire permits. In this period, independent documentaries mostly circulated at international film festivals. Domestically they passed from hand to hand within a small artistic community but had no way of reaching a wider audience. The situation was to change dramatically around 1997, however, with the increasing availability of digital technology in China. The growing popularity of internet portals led to numerous online forums for a general public interested in cinema. With these new platforms to disseminate movie listings, unofficial screening venues began to spring up in galleries and cafes throughout big cities such as Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai. Despite occasional police raids, these spaces managed to bring independent films to a bigger audience. Meanwhile, as digital videocameras and editing software became more widely available, more amateur filmmakers began to take on much broader topics, in varied styles.


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If in the early 1990s filmmakers tended to concentrate on the nature of state power, a decade later—as China’s market reforms, commercialization and privatization became entrenched—they began to ask a new set of questions centred on emotion, desire and the basis of solidarity between people. Commenting in 2001 on Wang Fen’s digital video Bu kuaile de buzhi yige (Those Who Are Unhappy Are Not Alone, 2000), an emotionally charged film composed of interviews with her own estranged parents on the cause of their divorce, Wu Wenguang observed that the new technology had helped more women to make independent films on their own, and that their participation brought a new focus on personal and emotional life:
It is good news for Chinese documentary that a very ‘private’ female vision is entering documentary; it sabotages the world under men’s management and control. The big camera and the film crew of the past may not have been easy for women to handle; now that small dv cameras have arrived . . . women can film with one hand, and carry a baby in the other . . . With their own image-making, they can tell all the men, who had been telling them what to do, to shut up forever.11

Although Wu relies on overly simplistic gender stereotypes, his observation that a number of women filmmakers led the ‘personal’ turn in the 1990s is accurate. In 1994, when Zhang and Duan took to Tiananmen Square, Li Hong—a female filmmaker associated with cctv—moved into a congested dormitory room in Beijing with four young women to record their experiences in Huidao fenghuangqiao (Out of Phoenix Bridge, 1997). Like other migrants from rural China, these women worked as maids and food vendors. They sent most of their income home to the village of Phoenix Bridge in Anhui Province to support their families, and would move back when of marriageable age. Narrating in her own voice, Li speaks about her privilege as an urban filmmaker and how she gradually built trust with her protagonists. Despite their unequal social positions, after a month of living together, they begin to refer to her as ‘big sister’. Then one of the young women, Xiazi, starts to open up to Li and her camera. Xiazi describes her stepfather’s abuse of her mother, the sorrowful ending of her first love due to parental disapproval, and the suicide attempt that followed. She also talks about the lack of real choices open to her

Wu Wenguang, Jingtou xiang zijide yanjing yiyang (The Lens Is like One’s Own Eyes), Shanghai 2011, p. 196.

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in life, the continuing practice of arranged marriage in her village, and her unwillingness to repeat her mother’s tragic fate. As Xiazi works long hours during the day, the only time Li can have conversations with her is at night. Because the room is so crowded with nowhere to sit, most of the interviews are conducted when both interviewer and interviewee are lying in bed, with the camera placed on a pillow or blanket. As the film progresses, the filmmaker and her camera become Xiazi’s close friends: accompanying her on the journey home, comforting her when she is rejected by a potential suitor and listening to her as she starts a lowpaying job in a nearby factory. Li’s subjective camera and aesthetic of intimacy, although different from Zhang and Duan’s viewing position of objective and passive observer in The Square, addressed complementary concerns. By seeking connections on all levels—between filmmakers and protagonists, between issues of labour and gender, and between Beijing and Phoenix Bridge— Li attempts to reconstruct the wholeness of personal experience and show how it is defined by broader social, political and economic conditions. Out of Phoenix Bridge was the first of a series of films by women that explored intimate relationships as starting points for reflection on inter-personal bonds in general and the possibility of love and solidarity. Combining behavioural art, video confessions and video diaries, Tang Danhong’s three-hour-long Yeying bushi weiyide gehou (Nightingale, Not the Only Voice, 1999) spends about half of the screen time on the filmmaker’s depression and insecurity due to a dysfunctional family, and her friendship with painter Cui Ying, who suffers from deep mutual misunderstandings with her own family. Filmmaking becomes her therapy: Tang uses the camera both as receptacle for disclosures and tool to probe failures of emotional connection within the family and between friends. These encounters are tender and cruel at the same time, and their significance goes beyond the personal realm. Some illustrate how political trauma persists over generations: under interrogation, Tang’s angry father attributed the strife in her childhood to his own troubles during the Cultural Revolution. In other cases, they give testimony to the experiences of alienation, isolation and meaninglessness in post1989 China where the public space for association and connection had narrowed considerably.12
Ghostly images from American filmmaker Carma Hinton’s The Gate of Heavenly Peace, on the Tiananmen protests, flicker on a small tv set at the film’s opening, and seem to frame Tang’s documentary.


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The interest in reclaiming meaningful subjective experiences and bringing them into the public realm also fostered the production of films exploring relationships in the queer community, such as Ying Weiwei’s Hezi (The Box, 2001). Ying documents the cohabitation and emotional dynamics of Little A and Little B, whom she found online by posting a notice for lesbian couples willing to ‘confront the camera’. Initiated by female filmmakers, these works move between the personal and political, the private and public, demonstrating the imbrications of these polarized concepts. In examining the various social, economic, political and psychological barriers to genuine intimacy and solidarity, they express the longing to overcome these hurdles through the cinematic medium.

Documenting demolition
Starting from the late 1990s, the rapid growth of China’s economy led to immense transformations of its physical and social landscapes. As unprofitable state-owned enterprises were restructured, privatized or shut down, millions of state-employed workers were made redundant each year. Massive construction projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam, led to the destruction of thousands of homes and entire cities. Meanwhile, in a frenzy of urbanization and land-grabs, real-estate developers turned large areas of old residential districts, industrial compounds and farmlands into urban space. This resulted in widespread conflict and protest during the demolition and the relocation of the original residents, and even larger waves of rural populations entering cities to find jobs. As most people’s social locations and identities were defined by families, workplaces and neighbourhoods, these swift and simultaneous changes meant that individuals could lose their moorings within a short period of time. The disruption of the former social and economic order has given rise to the significant accumulation of wealth and rise of a middle class, but has also resulted in the subalternization of certain groups. While the mainstream media valorize China’s spectacular economic performance, independent documentary filmmakers have taken on the difficult task of registering the experiences hidden behind the facade. Wang Bing’s 9-hour saga, Tiexi District (also known as West of the Tracks, 2003), on the liquidation of heavy industry and its vast labour force in the country’s Northeast, has earned wide critical acclaim and scholarly attention.13 A pillar of Soviet-style industrialization in the Mao era, the

See Lu Xinyu, ‘Ruins of the Future’, nlr 31, Jan–Feb 2005.

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factory complex in the Tiexi District of the city of Shenyang still employed around one million workers and housed their families until the early 1980s. Arriving there with a dv camera in 1999, Wang recorded the gradual decline and final abandonment of the factories over the next eighteen months. He also witnessed the material and emotional bankruptcy of those who not only lost their job, home and community, but also their formerly prized proletarian identity. A powerful working class, giant machinery and burning furnaces used to stand for the promise of socialist modernity. Yet the disastrous failures of Maoist policies broke not only workers’ over-worked and chemical-poisoned bodies, but also their hopes for the future. Wang shunned any extra-diegetic sound or lighting, stayed within the limits of the time and space of the present, and employed long takes, tracking shots and slow panning to capture a life-world disappearing in front of his camera. The resulting epic was Wang’s answer to the question of how something so monumental should be recorded in cinematic form before vanishing. Wang’s second documentary, He Fengming (2006), continued to deal with the remnants of China’s Socialist past. The three-hour-long film was almost entirely composed of monologues by a woman in her seventies, as she sits in her apartment and speaks to the camera about her family’s tragic experiences during the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957 and the subsequent years of the Great Famine (1959–61). He Fengming and her husband were both branded rightists and sent to separate labour camps. Her husband starved to death under internment during the famine. After the Cultural Revolution, He Fengming and her son went to look for his burial place. They were told that on top of each grave had been put a stone with the name of the dead written underneath. Yet years had passed, the ink had faded and the names were no longer recognizable. He Fengming and her son turned over every stone, but still could not find her husband’s grave. If in Tiexi District, he responded to the physical ruins of a monumental past, in He Fengming Wang entered the twilight of memory and the dark recesses of trauma—ruinous realms opaque to vision. As the camera rolls on, afternoon turns into dusk and the natural light in He Fengming’s apartment fades to soften the contours of the old woman’s face. Gradually she is enveloped in darkness, to the extent that we can only make out her glasses, as the last beams from the window reflect off them. However, she continues to speak, with a voice as clear as ever.


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Filming continues for a long while, until the director finally asks He Fengming to turn on the overhead light. Among Chinese documentary makers, Wang Bing is among the few who are philosophically interested in cinema and willing to test its limits. With its stubbornly immobile camera and images whose visibility gradually worsens, He Fengming conveys the tedium and opacity of memory—and the obstinate human will to remember and illuminate a past of nameless graves. The processes of demolition and emigration taking place around the Three Gorges area were also strongly represented in a number of documentaries, including Yan Yu and Li Yifan’s Yanmo (Before the Flood, 2005), Jia Zhangke’s Dong (2006) and Feng Yan’s Bing Ai (2007). The last of these is an admiring portrait of a woman who lived in a village by the Yangtze River with her husband and two children. They were among the million-plus residents who had to relocate due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. The dilemmas facing the family illuminated the hidden costs of mass emigration: disruption of existing communities and support mechanisms, unfairness and corruption in the bureaucratic process of resettlement, and the bleak prospects afterwards for farmers with limited skills and education. In the end, with neighbours gone, Bing Ai’s family has no option but to sign a relocation agreement and move to unlevelled land without electricity or water, far away from the agricultural plot assigned to them. The product of eight years of friendship between Feng and Bing Ai’s family, the film was a tender tribute to a disappearing rural way of life and its moral universe, exemplified by the protagonist’s diligence, love for her family and sense of justice. It was also a despairing testimony to the costs of development and the vastly unequal positions held by the state machinery and a rural household. The futility and nobility of Bing Ai’s struggle endowed the film with a pathos, harking back to a long tradition in Chinese cinema of representing social issues through virtuous female figures.14 Curiously missing from Feng’s documentary, however, was the village as a community and the possibility of politicization: Bing Ai’s negotiation and struggle with the government took place in isolation, with little support from fellow villagers. The breakdown of communal cohesion is more explicitly dealt with in Yan Yu and Li Yifan’s Before the Flood. Following the tradition of direct cinema, the film observes the social process of
14 Examples include Shen nü (Goddess, 1934) and Yijiang chunshui xiangdong liu (A Spring River Flows East, 1947).

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relocation policies. It exposes not only bureaucratic mismanagement but also the difficulty of collective action, as families turn against each other in order to compete for better options. As the state’s ongoing social-engineering projects break apart traditional communities, people are brought together by their placelessness. In Jia Zhangke’s Dong, the artist Liu Xiaodong travels to paint migrant demolition workers in the Three Gorges area and then young women sex-workers in Bangkok. His brushstrokes recreate their individual expressions and collective formations in group portraits on large canvases. Liu contemplates the powerlessness of an artist facing marginalized and homeless people. Both the landscape and floating populations are equally vulnerable to submersion and dispersion. According to him, the best response is to preserve their traces, to prevent oblivion. This idea of redemptive testimony is widely shared among Chinese artists and filmmakers, but so too is a despairing sense of impotence: in a system where social memory does not translate into political change, the power of film seems insignificant. A question arises that is apt to breed cynicism: perhaps independent documentaries simply offer victimized images of China to the world? After all, it is international festivals where they are screened the most, when wide domestic distribution is forbidden. These doubts prompted a search for political relevance that has gained momentum in recent years.

Digital activism
Before the mid 2000s, documentary filmmakers had adopted a noninterventionist perspective. They studied the workings of power at the micro-level, inter-personal relationships, processes of social transformation and served as persistent eyewitnesses to suffering; yet they did not see themselves as activists ushering in social or political change. This was partly out of a desire to avoid using art to mobilize the masses, as in China’s high socialist era, instead attempting to communicate complex experiences. At the same time, their stance also indicated the extent of society’s fragmentation and political incapacitation under a market capitalism led by an authoritarian state. Independent documentary had expanded in the late 1990s with the availability of dv, but remained largely on the social margins, with little influence on public opinion. The situation began to change thanks to the internet. Video downloading allowed independently made documentaries to reach a wider audience.


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Meanwhile, activist groups and new social organizations began to form around the citizen-rights movement as of 2003. As more connections were made between filmmakers, public intellectuals and grassroots activists, a new political cinema—with a distinct activist subjectivity and aesthetics—began to emerge. No longer satisfied with passive observation or sympathetic portrayals of victimized individuals, these works rest on an active, interventionist agency and an investigative attitude on the part of the filmmaker, who seeks out the realities beneath the visible surface. Instead of the international-festival circuit, they largely circulate through activist networks as well as online. In China, new beginnings often reside in moments of retrospection. The origin of activist documentary can arguably be located in Hu Jie’s Xunzhao Lin Zhao de Linghun (Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, 2004), a three-hour film on a former Beijing University student condemned in the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957. A gifted writer and courageous thinker, Lin Zhao never rescinded her criticism of the Party’s intolerance and despotism. Deprived of pen and paper, she wrote hundreds of thousands of words in her own blood with hairpins on scraps of paper, bed sheets and the prison walls before her execution in April 1968, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Hu spent four years on the project, collecting testimonies from Lin Zhao’s family, teachers and classmates to reconstruct a courageous heroic figure standing up against systematic violence done in the name of revolution. The depiction of Lin Zhao’s uncompromising conscience, her youth, innocence and beauty touched audiences, and spurred heated debate amongst film critics and practitioners. Some warned of a lack of objectivity, while others argues that Hu’s passionate and emotional portrayal glorified martyrdom, going against independent documentary’s pledge to record ordinary people dealing with life’s ambiguities and compromises. In her endorsement of Hu’s film, the scholar Cui Weiping began to formulate the social and aesthetic stance of an activist cinema. Cui observed that the abandonment of heroism in the 1990s was an over-correction. Behind the new motto ‘heroes are just human beings’ lurked a conservative ideology of the ‘average person’, and an impoverished understanding of what they can achieve. Likening it to orally transmitted epic poetry praising heroic figures, Cui argued that the film was true ‘people’s cinema’, based on collective testimonies and aspirations, and should serve as a moral resource for today’s China.15

Cui Weiping, ‘Yong jilupian chuanchang yingxiong de gushi’ (Singing the Story of the Hero with Documentary), in Nanfengchuang, 1 March 2004.

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Reading aloud in his own voice Lin Zhao’s words written more than forty years ago, Hu Jie excavates a potent fragment from a contentious and largely unspoken history of the prc, and endows it with contemporary relevance. Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul was the first independent documentary to feature a dissident as a new kind of hero and seriously push political boundaries: even screening the film became a dangerous act. Lu Xuesong, a young lecturer at the Jilin Institute of Art in northeastern China, lost her teaching position after playing the film to her class. Inspired by Lin Zhao’s courageous example, Lu wrote an open letter to the institute’s president which went viral on the internet in 2005. In it she criticizes society for its ‘fetishization of order and unity, while fearing life in its vitality and freedom’, and argues for a teacher’s responsibility to help young people grow into unalienated human beings capable of authenticity, empathy and social responsibility.16

Testimony and action
Hu Jie’s film and its public controversy inspired another outspoken intellectual—Ai Xiaoming, a professor of comparative literature, who took up the camera herself and has become a prolific filmmaker, both on her own and in partnership with Hu. Their first collaboration was on the 2004 staging of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, where Ai teaches. Since then, she has completed a series of investigative and politically incisive documentaries, including Taishi Cun (Taishi Village, 2005), on the locals’ decision to impeach the village head and their resistance to a police crackdown; Zhongyuan jishi (Epic of the Central Plain, 2006), on the hiv/aids crisis in rural China; and Women de wawa (Our Children, 2009) and Gongmin diaocha (Citizens’ Investigation, 2009), on the collapse of school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake and the grassroots campaign to seek justice.17 One very striking feature of Ai’s work is the way in which the activist stance is embodied in the aesthetic and narrative strategy of the films. In Epic of the Central Plain, for example, the camera records the various ways in which history can be remembered and passed on by a community itself. Villagers show snapshots of their deceased friends
Lu Xuesong, ‘Wo mengxiang zaori huidao wo re’ai de jiangtai’ (I dream of returning quickly to my beloved teaching podium), originally posted on the Shiji Xuetang website, now shut down; a copy can be found on 17 See the interview with Ai, ‘The Citizen Camera’, nlr 72, Nov–Dec 2011.


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and neighbours, and tell the story of each photograph. They take the filmmakers to where they sold blood years before and pull out files that expose how local authorities misused funds for aids medicine. Here the filmmakers did not appear as sole eyewitnesses to suffering; they were rather some among the many—local activists, villagers and so on—who preserved grassroots experience for the public record. Similarly, more than half of Our Children is comprised of photographs and videos taken by people from the earthquake region. Racing against the government’s efforts to guard, conceal and clear the debris as quickly as possible, parents took close-up shots of the destroyed buildings to collect evidence of their substandard quality. They also made news clippings, recorded meetings with the authorities and their demonstrations, creating in their digital cameras a visual history of struggle. In one memorable scene, a mother holds up her digital camera to point out on its lcd screen the police forces which had stopped protestors from marching to the provincial capital to petition the government. After a few button-presses, she shows her child buried in the wreckage, suffocated to death. Ai’s camera captures the mother’s hands holding the small screen, as if to protect the frame of her testimony. Theoretical debates on digital video in the English-speaking world often stress the loss of indexicality in the medium, but in China dv maintains an almost ‘excessive indexicality’, according to film scholar Luke Robinson. Capturing unexpected and fleeting phenomena, this new technology can help us establish an honest relationship with our surroundings and tear apart the ideological layers obscuring reality.18 Making use of the witnessing and testifying capacities of the camera as used by ordinary people, Ai Xiaoming and Hu Jie’s films bring documentary cinema closer to activism and grassroots journalism. Aesthetically, their films are characterized by a highly mobile camera and montage that inter-cuts freely across time and space, juxtaposing images to generate critical meaning. Early documentary filmmakers, influenced by André Bazin, deemed montage ideologically manipulative. China’s Sixth Generation directors as well as its documentary filmmakers likewise tended to favour the long
Luke Robinson, ‘Video Nasties: Violence, Liveness and Chinese Digital Documentary’, Documentary Now! Conference, London, 15 January 2010. Also see Wang Yiman, ‘The Amateur’s Lightning Rod: dv Documentary in Postsocialist China’, Film Quarterly, Summer 2005, vol. 58, no. 4, pp. 16–26.

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take for its respect of real time and space, and its refusal to fragment the world as it came into contact with the camera. However, this naturalistic and objective stance also curtails the development of a strong subjective standpoint. The return to montage in Ai Xiaoming and Hu Jie’s films is part of their activist aesthetic. It provides a means of connecting isolated experiences, breaking temporal and spatial confines, that is crucial for social mobilization. In other words, the rise of political documentary in China has been accompanied by a re-evaluation of cinematic naturalism and re-assertion of an engaged position, echoing the ideas of Third Cinema and earlier left critiques.19 Chinese independent documentary has flourished in the past two decades. The survey offered here cannot fully encompass its diversity—the multiple aesthetics, practices and themes it has developed to respond to the social transformations taking place in the country. While it relied on international festivals for exhibition in its initial phase, a network for domestic circulation has emerged since the late 1990s. Self-organized and maintained by film lovers and cultural activists with much tenacity and creativity—through informal screenings, independent film festivals in Beijing, Nanjing, Chongqing and Yunnan, and internet downloads and streaming—this internal circulation has allowed documentaries to push the limits of state control, and to offer representations of Chinese society that diverge sharply from the official versions of the state-run media. Moreover, these films provide an alternative source of observation, testimony, mobilization and solidarity—glimpses of a different horizon from which social change and a reconfigured public sphere could be envisioned.


See Mike Wayne, Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema, London 2001, p. 35, discussing the work of Georg Lukács and Julio García Espinosa. Both believed that naturalistic cinema could at best describe a world already finished and unalterable, while true political cinema must aspire to reveal the dynamic, often invisible processes underlying the present state of things, and the means to change it.

julian stallabrass

On Mute and the Cultural Politics of the Net


ow do new media technologies affect politics and culture? Views about those effects, always deeply divided, have been further polarized by the financial crisis and the opposition it has engendered. At the extremes, social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, are seen as at least necessary conditions for the Occupy protests and the revolutions of the Arab Spring; alternatively, those same technologies are viewed as the agents of intrusive commodification and dumbing-down, deployed against people’s deepest subjectivities, which they have been duped into displaying in a privatized space where everyone’s every move is spied upon. Mute magazine, based in London, has been examining the interconnections between new technologies, politics and culture since 1994—that is, from the moment when the internet was revolutionized by the introduction of web browsers that unified its interface, and rapidly brought large numbers of users online. It was founded by two art-school graduates, Simon Worthington (who had studied at the Slade) and Pauline van Mourik Broekman (Central St Martins), who took up the name from a periodical published through the Slade between 1989–92. The formation of Mute’s founding editors not only ensured that art was discussed on equal terms, and in its complex relations, with technology and politics, but also that the magazine had a strong design, conceived as a visual object with a conceptual dimension as well as a set of ideas.1 A large collection of Mute’s articles has been gathered into a book, exploring the magazine’s confluence of major themes: the ideologies of the net and social media; online art and its precursors; cyborg realities and fantasies; privatization and the commons; the relations, new left review 74 mar apr 2012 125


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sympathetic and antagonistic, between art and business; city, slum and gentrification; class and immaterial labour, among others.2 Though Mute’s general position is on the far left, it has no fixed party line, encouraging debate and often throwing opposing views together. When its editorials are not merely jokey, they seek to explore the interactions of culture, politics and technology in its rapidly evolving complexity, while steering clear of broad-brush utopian and dystopian views alike. Proud to be Flesh contains a distinctive mix of topical articles, witness reports, skits and sustained analytical pieces; it is organized in thematic chapters, which has the great advantage of allowing the reader to track the magazine’s sustained engagement with particular issues across its run, although at the cost of suppressing much clear sense of Mute’s chronological development. In its first incarnation, Mute was printed in broadsheet form on the Financial Times’ presses, using their famous pink paper. It later moved to a more conventional magazine format, with the aspiration to carry advertising from major companies, and to emulate the look—albeit with a large dash of irony—of a lifestyle rag, on the model of Wired or more pertinently Adbusters. The staid design of the book, with its illustrations largely corralled into a few sections of colour plates, gives little idea of the striking visual character of the magazine. Its bold, often garish graphics decorated a strange mix of hip theory, radical politics, technology news and fashion shoots; the latter protected from too much critical interrogation with a thick layer of camp. Later still, from 2005 on, Mute prioritized online publication, and moved to a print-on-demand magazine, which contained a selection of pieces from its website. Funding from Arts Council England (ace) permitted this change in which all its content was offered without charge.3 Why did Mute ever print its content? After all, discussion groups such as Nettime have covered much of the same ground with email exchanges, and their debates are lively, fractious, well informed and timely. Mute printed on paper for reasons of access, quality control, volume, design
1 The editors published a book on the subject: Simon Worthington et al, Mute Magazine: Graphic Design, London 2008. 2 Josephine Berry Slater and Pauline van Mourik Broekman, eds, Proud to be Flesh: A Mute Magazine Anthology of Cultural Politics After the Net, London 2009; hereafter pf. 3 Mute’s online content can be found at

stallabrass: Mute


and comfort: in the 1990s, of course, access to the internet was much less ubiquitous than it is now, and far harder and more expensive to obtain on the move. Nettime was moderated but not edited, and so presented its readers with dozens of daily emails which they had to filter according to their own interests, while working out what some obscurity or oddity of English might mean; many people printed out Nettime emails to read in comfort (remember, too, the quality of 1990s screens), and few people had the fast data-connections necessary to view designheavy webpages. Nettime, indeed, found it worthwhile to print its own anthology.4 So Mute’s editorial selection and look made sense on paper, though those advantages were eroded as online technology became faster, cheaper and more widely available. Mute contains a good deal of news comment, and the long—in newmedia terms, positively epic—temporal scope of the collection reminds us that current concerns about new technology, activism and consumer culture have been discussed for many years. The claims made about technology and the Arab Spring, for example, were also made about the revolutions against the dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc. The Argentine anti-neoliberal revolt of 2001–02, like the current Occupy protests, had a highly decentralized character, and its most prominent demand was negative: that the corrupt political class should go.5 David Garcia, one of the original theorists of Tactical Media (on which, more later), commented on the role that new forms of communication played in the collapse of the ex-Soviet regimes:
It was as if the Samizdat spirit, extended and intensified by the proliferation of do-it-yourself media, had rendered the centralized, statist tyrannies of the Soviet Union untenable. Some of us allowed ourselves to believe that it would only be a matter of time before the same forces would challenge our own tired and tarnished oligarchies . . . it came to be believed that top-down power had lost its edge.6

Garcia was sounding a note of caution against such wishful thinking. One of the prevailing characteristics of Mute has been its informed scepticism about a series of influential utopian waves that have swept
Josephine Bosma et al, eds., Readme! Filtered by Nettime: ascii Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge, New York 1999. 5 Horatio Tarcus, ‘Get Rid of the Lot of Them! Argentinean Society Stands Against Politics’ (2002), pf, pp. 249–50. 6 David Garcia, ‘Learning the Right Lessons’ (2006), pf, p. 338.


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through the discourse of new-media technologies—both those imagined and sustained by marketers trying to sell people things, and by theorists seeing a quick and bloodless route to radical social change. Among the targets of that scepticism was postmodern theory which, it gradually became clear, was being challenged by the breakneck pace of modernization set in train by networked computer technology. Mute launched critiques of cyberfeminism as offering an essentialized view of women, who were seen as naturally emergent machines, being nothing and everything, nowhere and everywhere at once.7 Mute also argued against the wilder notions advanced as theoretical support for high-tech, networked art. The prominent new-media theorists it published, including Matthew Fuller and Geert Lovink, were among the first to test post-structuralist thought against new-media environments, and find it wanting. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, to take the most pervasive of these models, had been a highly popular way to theorize the internet in the years before many people used it, and by doing so understood it. While it plausibly described the decentred principle of the web, the rhizome was useless to describe its hierarchies and actual structure, let alone the rapid commercialization to which it was soon subjected. Although some Mute contributors use Deleuzian terminology, the magazine published a sustained assault on digital Deleuzianism by Richard Barbrook, questioning whether deterritorialization would produce direct democracy and gift economies, and would be capable of undercutting centralized power. In supporting his case, Barbrook gave an account of the failure of Guattari’s involvement with a Paris-based community radio project as a pre-web experiment in these very ideas.8 Barbrook, along with many other Mute contributors, also raises questions about theoretical claims made for Free and Open Source software as a radical alternative to the closed, proprietary platforms of Microsoft and Apple: if it is really an ‘anarcho-communist’ alternative, how do we explain the concerted involvement of major corporations? In the liberal press, such a sceptical, materialist account of Continental theory may have led to an ironic attitude of disempowerment and cynical reason, but in Mute it was the groundwork for an exploration of activism.
7 8

Caroline Bassett, ‘With a Little Help from our (New) Friends’ (1997), pf, p. 133. Richard Barbrook, ‘The Holy Fools’ (1998), pf, pp. 223–36.

stallabrass: Mute


It was not alone in this, as postmodern resignation was eroded by the manifest opportunities offered by new communication technologies; these sat in obvious tension with tv-induced postmodernism. Suddenly, it seemed, following the rise of the browser, there was a dynamic technological, cultural and social scene, subject to dizzying change, and open to social and political manipulation.

Immaterial labour
Autonomist thinking about immaterial labour, particularly the writings of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, were also regularly discussed and criticized—and unsurprisingly so, since this debate was connected with the great project to define the emergent class that would replace the proletariat in the information age. Negri’s analysis of the immeasurability of labour time in the new economy—which can thus no longer serve as the basis for value, leaving capital to rule by domination and command alone—struck a note with digital workers for whom the time of labour and leisure had become blurred to the point of identity. Steve Wright pointed to the advantages to capital in its attempt to externalize costs by getting labour done unpaid—by eliding the boundaries between work and leisure through the use of technical devices to ensure that employees can always be called upon, and by getting consumers to do a business’s administration for it (by filling in forms online, or scanning goods bought in a shop).9 While Marx’s Grundrisse ‘Fragment on Machines’ was often invoked in Mute’s pages, the idea that immaterial and affective labour would bind the hi-tech entrepreneur and the care-home worker in solidarity was questioned, as was the prevalence and novelty of the new era of labour. Steve Wright’s 2005 article, tellingly entitled ‘Reality Check’, offered a contrast between high-end work which may be cooperative and allow employees some autonomy, and the low-end ‘affective’ labour of the service industries. He asked: ‘does the obligation to ask, “Do you want fries with that?” really represent a break with Fordist work regimes?’ Wright also noted the remarkable paucity of evidence Hardt and Negri offer in Multitude to support the idea that immaterial labour has become hegemonic. If Continental theory, as lazily applied to new media, fared poorly, Mute also contained a severe—and often entertaining—critique of us-centred

Steve Wright, ‘Reality Check: Are We Living in an Immaterial World?’ (2005), pf, p. 477.


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libertarian techno-fantasies. In an influential polemic, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron skewered what they called the ‘Californian Ideology’ which allied futurology and libertarian Republicanism, and which still forms the worldview of a majority of Silicon Valley billionaires.10 Wired magazine is a core repository for such visions in which new technology must be liberated from any state interference, so that the genius of the free market can propel its full and unfettered creativity, producing untold riches and benefits, at least for the cyber-elect—even to the point of immortality in the virtual realm. Against these fantasies, Mute not only pointed to the vast state subsidies that lay behind most technical innovation (including, of course, the internet) but also expressed an insistence on the bodies that labour over screen, keyboard and mouse— on the material and bodily aspects of ‘immaterial labour’. Hence the magazine’s long-lived strapline and the title of the anthology: Proud to be Flesh.11 Indeed, Mute shifted from an examination of the ‘virtual class’ to a greater exploration of the underclass including call-centre workers, university students engaged in casual work, and precarious labour more generally. Mute may in many ways be seen as Wired’s antithesis: leftist, not libertarian; more interested in communal action than in individualist competition; asking critical questions about the effects of new technology rather than celebrating it with a reflex technophilia; and being a magazine of dialogue rather than consumer marketing. The contrast was also formed by the magazines’ different geographical bases. Wired is published from San Francisco, with Silicon Valley hard by, and it is marked by a fascination with the vast spending and bizarre projects of by far the most technologically advanced military machine on the planet. Mute is based in London which, dominated by the City, with its weak local government and run-down infrastructure, offered fertile opportunities for the symbiosis between high-tech cultural workers, finance capital and speculation in real estate. The association with the Financial Times thus made a certain ironic sense. Indeed, one of the magazine’s abiding themes is the effect of speculative ‘development’ on the uk’s cities, in which public-spending cuts on welfare and infrastructure are meant to be compensated for by cultural
10 11

Barbrook and Andy Cameron, ‘The Californian Ideology’ (1995), pf, p. 29. Introduction to Chapter 8, pf, p. 427.

stallabrass: Mute


projects in privatized urban spaces. In 1998, Simon Pope mocked the symbiosis between London’s cultural workers and property speculators in a parodic portrait of East End ‘culturepreneurs’.12 Five years later, the development of a ‘creative quarter’ in Hackney Town Hall Square— dubbed ‘hth2’—was the subject of an acid analysis which made explicit this noxious compact. Benedict Seymour and David Panos described the sale of council properties to a private finance consortium as part of a wider project for the ‘spatial sterilization’ of the area, a form of ‘social cleansing’.13 Mute was no less attentive to the material realities of work in Britain. John Barker’s essay on undocumented migrants revealed ‘the dirty secret of the uk’s economic success under New Labour’—a largely Asian workforce recruited to maintain low-cost production in new ‘flexibile’ plants, while the country’s traditional manufacturing centres atrophied.14

Art and social networking
Mute was also founded at the time when ‘young British art’ was an unavoidable media phenomenon. The magazine ignored that trend, aside from the occasional piece of mockery, and offered its implicit alternative: what was (for many) a dauntingly smart mix of new technology and cultural politics. In the mid 1990s, technologically aware artists/ activists with a knowledge of the historical avant-garde alongside Marxist and post-Marxist theory were pretty rare—if, in retrospect, emergent. Mute was, naturally, one of the main places to read about, the art of the web browser that rapidly explored the avant-garde possibilities of the new technological form. Its historical affinities with conceptual art, especially the idea that the activation of the viewer would complete the work, were ably explored by Saul Albert.15 At the same time, the magazine was hostile to hi-tech art that was used to showcase and market gadgetry, and adopted as one of its main aims the criticism of such practices using avant-garde theory. Scepticism about technophile art was
Simon Pope, ‘The Futile Style of London’ (1998), pf, pp. 435–8. The term was coined by Antony Davies and Simon Ford in ‘Art Capital’, Art Monthly, no. 213, February 1998. Davies also has an essay in pf, ‘Take Me I’m Yours: Neoliberalizing the Cultural Institution’ (2007), pp. 494–501. The establishment of new technology companies in the Hoxton ‘Silicon Roundabout’ was still far in the future. 13 Benedict Seymour and David Panos, ‘Fear Death by Water: The Regeneration Siege in Central Hackney’ (2003), pf, pp. 358–64. 14 John Barker, ‘Cheap Chinese’ (2005), pf, p. 375. 15 Saul Albert, ‘Artware’ (1999), pf, p. 89.


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conveyed through essays that examined previous examples of art’s deep complicity with consumer and military technology: Simon Ford’s essay on the auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger, who had long offered just such a critique; and Michael Corris’s account of the entanglement of conceptual art and cybernetics.16 Mute was also suspicious of the art museum’s strident interest in, which coincided with and did not outlive the boom. One of its pioneer thinkers, Josephine Bosma, put the matter clearly by citing curator Benjamin Weil, who claimed that, in its digital incarnation, art could approach business not for charity but as an ‘asset’.17 In a typical and ideal Mute combination, two insightful, funny, ironic and brief essays set out the reasons why the art world loves and hates digital art. Matthew Fuller wrote on love, citing the need for the art world to hold in reserve abstruse minority interests in the event of a legitimation crisis, as well as the attraction of digital art’s cheapness and built-in distribution systems; on the side of hate, Ewan Morrison parroted the art-world position on digital art destroying distance: ‘without objective distance, there is no contemplation; without contemplation, there is no metaphysics. Virtuality and interactivity are the death not only of art but also of culture itself.’18 This was followed with complaints about digital art claiming authenticity for simulation, and being stuck in the infantile stage of creating rather than deconstructing its language. This was an accurate account of the standard art-world objections, spelt out with enough clarity to render their ideology explicit and absurd. It also parodied the reactions of those postmodern art types who found themselves aghast at History and modernity’s renewed lease of life. A later wave of hype, this time about so-called ‘Web 2.0’ or social networking, in which user-generated content is framed by sites that offer
Simon Ford, ‘Technological Kindergarten: Gustav Metzger and Early Computer Art’ (2003), pf, pp. 114–20; Michael Corris, ‘Systems Upgrade: Conceptual Art and the Recoding of Information, Knowledge and Technology’ (2001), pf, pp. 107–13. The complicity of artists in the technological war machine is discussed in Pamela M. Lee, ‘Aesthetic Strategist: Albert Wohlstetter, the Cold War and a Theory of MidCentury Modernism’, October, no. 138, Fall 2011, pp. 15–36. 17 Josephine Bosma, ‘Is it a Commercial? Nooo . . . Is it Spam? Nooo . . . It’s Net Art!’ (1998), pf, p. 79. 18 Matthew Fuller, ‘Ten Reasons Why the Art World Loves Digital Art’ (1998), pf, pp. 86–8; Ewan Morrison, ‘Ten Reasons Why the Art World Hates Digital Art’ (1998), pf, p. 85.

stallabrass: Mute


an easy way of uploading and sharing material, was also the subject of sustained critique, particularly in a detailed essay by Dmytri Kleiner and Brian Wyrick. Large organizations, using expensive proprietary software on closed systems, had long been able to share information in a protoWeb 2.0 manner, so the technology was not new but had simply been made cheaper and more accessible.19 The critique could be offered in part because Mute writers—and many of its readers—had experience of its more radical precursors, particularly peer-to-peer systems, which had allowed users control of the frame as well as the content, and which had offered efficiency, privacy and lack of censorship. Tools such as Usenet, for example, had allowed for the sharing of journalism and photography among activists without central control and ownership. Web 2.0, then, was seen as an enclosure of what had been a commons— for example, on YouTube: ‘Private appropriation of community-created value is a betrayal of the promise of sharing technology and free cooperation.’ In another externalization of costs, people offered their unpaid labour to populate the sites of vast corporations (and here, in connecting people, economy of scale is all). Worse, peer-to-peer systems were actively attacked under the new business model through asynchronous broadband connections that allow much faster downloading than uploading, and through contracts offering online services that explicitly forbid people to run their own servers. Kleiner and Wyrick offered a vision of ‘a “landless” information proletariat ready to provide alienated content-creating labour for the new info landlords of Web 2.0’. The Mute anthology offers little to balance this informed but mordant view: users may be alienated from the frame and the rules of social-networking sites, as controversies over Facebook privacy policies attest, but it is less clear that they are alienated from the content. The extraordinary effects of this vast expansion in the numbers of cultural producers remain largely unexplored.

Necessary contradictions
Mute contains a sustained engagement with anti-capitalist activism and protest—both online and in bodily form. As Berry Slater writes:
While, for many, the November 1999 demonstration against the wto in Seattle marks the consolidation of the ‘anti-globalization’ movement, the

Dmytri Kleiner and Brian Wyrick, ‘Info-Enclosure 2.0’ (2007), pf, p. 66.


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Carnival Against Capitalism in the City of London the previous June marked its spectacular beginning, at least for Mute’s editors. At that time, our office was located in Shoreditch, a few minutes’ walk from the demo’s meeting point in Liverpool St Station and I think it’s fair to say that the infamous ‘starburst’ of activists from multiple station exits, heading for the financial district beyond, is a force that propelled our editorial in a new direction, and one that increasingly came to dominate the focus of the magazine.20

Examples of this engagement in Proud to be Flesh include a potted history of the Italian ‘White Overalls’ movement, so prominent at the time of the Genoa protests, but now struggling to ‘maintain abrasive contestation, autonomous from the party system, without being relegated to the margins, where the only dividend is unceasing police attention’.21 In the post-9.11 context of imperial warfare and ramped-up surveillance, the magazine attacked liberal myths about information technology, most notably the idea that the availability of data in and of itself will set the recipient free. In one essay, Anustup Basu described how the information and media field was used to propagate lies, repeated until believed, about the links between the Iraqi regime and the attacks of September 11, and also invoked the darkest precedent: fascism as a product of ‘the electrification of the public sphere’ through radio and cinema.22 Mute took a generally anti-war stance during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, publishing a piece by Retort, as well as a brief text on the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ in which military assets, including soldiers, are strictly monetized and ‘collateral’ damage discounted; another analysis underscored the continuities in the suppression of working-class activism under the Baath Party and the Occupation.23 In all of this, the magazine took no consistent line on the war, any more than it had done on any other issue, and in an editorial, it laid out the claim that what had evolved, in many quarters, was not a singular antiwar movement but rather a rich variety of critiques from many angles, to which the magazine would contribute.24
Berry Slater, ‘Disgruntled Addicts: Mute Magazine and its History’, pf, pp. 17–18. Hydrarchist, ‘Disobbedienti, Ciao’ (2005), pf, p. 266. 22 Anustup Basu, ‘Bombs and Bytes’ (2004), pf, p. 59. 23 J. J. King, ‘War’s Exciting New Features: The Revolution in Military Affairs’, Mute, Summer/Autumn 2003; Ewa Jasiewicz, ‘Internal Intifada: Workers’ Struggle in Occupied Iraq’, Mute, Summer/Autumn 2004. 24 Van Mourik Broekman, ‘Weapons of Choice’, Mute, Summer/Autumn 2003.
20 21

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The magazine was prepared to countenance illegality in opposition to enclosure, offering the pirating of proprietary software as a realistic alternative to the use of Open Source software, and publishing a sympathetic interview with Pirate Bay’s Palle Torson on the social bases of the movement, political moves against it, and the extension of piracy from music and film to textbooks for students.25 Critical Art Ensemble (cae), the artist, theorist and activist collective, were also interviewed, arguing that while anti-capitalist pranking and spectacle are fine in themselves, they represent no real challenge to power. That can only be achieved through undermining data communications and slowing the velocity of information. Such activity is criminal and must hide itself:
Any institution that was struck by this action would never go public about it for reasons I am sure you can deduce. And, if cae did know of any examples, we certainly wouldn’t speak about them! This kind of activism is real political action and not the politics of spectacle, so it has no public forum. Only the theory can appear; the activity is underground.26

The fbi later took the criminality of one cae member, Steve Kurtz, seriously enough to arrest him on bioterrorism charges in 2004. In what became a notorious case, Kurtz was eventually charged with mail and wire fraud, although these charges were eventually judged to be without foundation after four years of legal struggle. The engagement with activism was pursued in a fine essay by David Garcia charting changes in Tactical Media—a ‘movement which occupied a “no man’s land” on the borders of experimental media art, journalism and political activism’. This radical tendency was founded on the rejection of objectivity in journalism, of the discipline and instrumentalism of conventional political movements, and of the myths and personality cults of the art world. It placed emphasis instead on ‘fast, ephemeral, improvised collaborations’.27 As such activism developed, many came to realize that speed and ephemerality were not core values in themselves, and that micropolitics could be built into larger assemblages; that duration and sustained engagement were often necessary, and that new media actions could work with physical ones, including street protest. J. J.
‘Copy that Floppy!’, Palle Torson interviewed by Anthony Iles (2005), pf, pp. 197–200. 26 ‘Vector Block on Telecom Avenue’: Critical Art Ensemble interviewed by Mark Dery (1998), pf, p. 283. 27 Garcia, ‘Learning’, p. 334.


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King, meanwhile, exposed the tendency of anti-capitalist movements to focus on the form of organization rather than political content, with the effect of playing down or even masking political divisions.28 Openness was too much prized as leading automatically to radicalism, in an alliance of Free and Open Source software models and political organizing. In fact, King argued, this apparent openness often conceals hierarchies and movements that are dominated by a small number of active individuals. Such an arrangement may be necessary, given the climate in which protest operates, since true openness would require an already radical socio-political field. Once again, Mute’s line of questioning was acute and valuable, but perhaps it underplayed the dialectical process by which the open procedures of direct democracy in the protest movements begin to radicalize an environment, which in turn contributes to greater openness in a process of mutual reinforcement. Among the pranking and spectacle were art works that echoed corporate forms. Josephine Berry examined the case of etoy, an online art collective that took on a corporate structure (in part for legal protection) and engaged in a victorious tussle with a huge online toy company, eToys, which had attempted to force the artists to close their site. The etoy collective organized denial-of-service attacks on eToys’ servers which coincided with a crash in the company’s share price. Berry argued that the etoy strategy, in which the market and corporate model becomes not merely the subject of art but the art itself, just as modernist painting collapsed the separation between canvas and subject matter, poses a risk to art’s autonomy by moving from pastiche to market manipulation.29 Her concerns were shared by Paul Helliwell in an essay on the close connection between enterprises selling film and music, as the commodity basis of those media is challenged, and the art world move to ‘relational aesthetics’, in which social interactions are taken as artworks.30 Helliwell’s essay put the problem sharply because art and business have been emulating each other closely, and the gap is shrinking from both ends. Protest, too, apes business, as a number of Mute contributors point out. Berry Slater again:
King, ‘The Packet Gang: Openness and its Discontents’ (2004), pf, pp. 255–65. Josephine Berry, ‘Do As They Do, Not As They Do: etoy and the Art of Simulacral Warfare’ (2000), pf, p. 292. 30 Paul Helliwell, ‘Zombie Nation’ (2007), pf, pp. 537–45.
28 29

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The ‘movement of movements’ shared many of the same organizational forms and techniques as the companies being restructured to suit the needs of capital and post-Fordist managerial thinking. Flat networks, hollow organizations, alliances—capitalism and anti-capitalism were mirroring each other, as solid companies and once-unified political parties dematerialized into flexible, virtual and dynamic structures.31

The case may be overstated for rhetorical effect: corporations do, of course, retain marked hierarchies, all the more sharply delineated by the rise in pay differentials that has accompanied neoliberalism. ‘Flexibility’ is foisted on those who are most powerless to resist it, as other essays in the anthology show. Nevertheless, part of the task that Tactical Media and groups like Critical Art Ensemble set themselves was to attack corporate structures using corporate techniques. Mute sometimes offered a challenge to such tactics—one of the section introductions in the anthology quotes the artists’ collective, Inventory: ‘Ironic mimesis is not critique, it is the mentality of the slave!’32—but it also exemplified them. The art school trains super-individualists and inculcates in them the ethos of flexible business, and Mute found itself offering simultaneous ‘criticism and support’. The initial copying of the look of the Financial Times was again a register of this very tension. In the attempt to sustain a lifestyle magazine of radical activism, there is an acute form of the dilemma found in any left project: the necessary and contradictory task of marketing communism.

Autarky and autonomy
One consequence of the financial crisis and the election of the uk’s Coalition government was a round of Arts Council England funding cuts. Announced in March 2011, these were unevenly applied to reward some groups and punish others. Mute Publishing, with its array of activities which included producing the magazine, had their funding withdrawn entirely. In response, Pauline van Mourik Broekman wrote an extraordinary account of the decision and the system of competitive funding:
We regard the process of being placed in competition with other arts organizations as poisonous and distracting . . . We recognize it as a familiar part of the divide-and-rule principle that has long marked the operations
31 Berry, ‘Disgruntled Addicts’, p. 18. See also Anthony Davies, ‘J18 and All That’ (1999), pf, p. 239. 32 Introduction to Chapter 6, pf, p. 271.


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of support agencies like ace, where a chronic reliance on the parent body for the basic apparatus of organizational reproduction nurtures fear among the ‘dependents’—slowly but surely stripping them of all sense they can do anything for themselves, let alone together . . . The spectacle of slavish gratitude for the spoils of public funds, in which even organizations cut or killed felt compelled to reiterate the basic tenets of ace’s funding paradigm (excellence, innovation, global leadership and creativity), were truly depressing in this regard—not one voice standing out for offering a different vision or lexicon of practice.33

There were, indeed, few dissenting voices, at least in public, against the artificial competition into which arts organizations are put (along with schools, universities, hospitals and medical practices), or of its socially corrosive effects. Van Mourik Broekman continued by criticizing ace’s claim that it rewarded risk-taking; in fact, it demanded conformity:
To be a ‘winner’ in the arts variant of this competition . . . several kinds of compliance are required. Firstly, a near religious belief in the power of art to ‘deliver’ personal transformation. Second, a normative and by now entirely standardized model of art-organizational development, where success is measured via the ability to diversify funding sources (via trading activities, rights management, sponsorship, philanthropy and a variety of non-public sources), have ‘reach and impact’ (loose catch-alls combining audiences, media reception, influence), and offer ‘engagement’.

This corporatized version of art that flattens diversity and antagonism, and discourages critique, is ‘one of the great untold stories of mainstream contemporary culture’. As already mentioned, the ace subsidy had allowed Mute to offer its content free online. Web readership grew but demand for paid services, including the print edition of the magazine, slumped. Is Mute better off without ace funding and the managerialism and audit culture that come with it? The instrumentality of culture is ever more keenly felt, as arts organizations are caught between the demands of states and corporations, and autonomy becomes less of an ideal than an ideological mask that conceals the control of culture. Mute has had its final ace cheque. The magazine’s survival, or otherwise, will in itself be a test of the powers of cooperation and immaterial labour, about which it has raised such

Pauline van Mourik Broekman, ‘Mute’s 100 per cent cut by ace—A Personal Consideration of Mute’s Defunding’, at

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searching questions. At the beginning of 2012 the Mute website carried this message:
Mute would like to publicly thank all those reader-supporters who, since the announcement of our funding cut, have made donations. We’d also like to thank those writers who have waived their fee in solidarity. Without readers and writers there would be no Mute and we hope, with your continuing support, to maintain the heterogeneous and critical voice that assembles itself as Mute.

Cooperation and gift-giving are indeed essential to any such web venture, and running such an outfit needs less capital than setting up a steel mill; but can enough revenue be raised to sustain its workers and their dependents, and keep the servers running? Can this courageous and inconvenient voice be maintained?

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