what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

European perspectives

Brits are famed for their “pragmatism” - which basically means their inability to take the world (or ideas) very seriously. Our easy-going flexibility does, however, mean that we are out of our comfort zone when we face unreasonable people and/or cataclysmic events such as the current financial crisis and the political pygmies who pass for world leaders. Two articles in one of this year’s issues of New Left Review have brought home to me our insularity – first is a wonderful interview – Words from Budapest - with a Transylvanian Romanian - GM Tamas – born in 1948 After a stint as an assistant editor of a literary weekly in his native Transylvania, he got into political difficulties with the authorities of the time and emigrated to Hungary in the late 1970s where he taught at the University of Budapest. Sacked for political reasons again, he became known as a dissident intellectual and published only in the underground or abroad. In the late 1980s he supported and was a founding member of the Liberal Party in Hungary, and was elected to parliament as a liberal member of the Hungarian Parliament in 1989.
He quit professional politics in 1994; became an acadenic again; was sacked (?)... and is now...... a revolutionary socialist (!!). What a life! Someone I would very much like to meet......
The interview covers these very different phases of his incredible life - and his honesty in admitting his blindness to what was going on around him after the collapse of communism-
I was born in 1948, in what Hungarians call Kolozsvár and Romanians, Cluj. The principal city of Transylvania, it had been transferred from Hungary to Romania in 1920 by the Treaty of Trianon, awarded back to Horthy’s Hungary by Hitler in 1940, and was under direct Nazi occupation from early 1944 until the arrival of Soviet forces, when it was incorporated into Romania again. Both my parents were Communists. They had come back from the War broken and bitter. My father, a Hungarian writer, was dispatched from prison to the front, where he was seriously wounded—he walked on crutches, later with a sturdy walking-stick, which I still have—by those whom he considered his comrades: the Red Army. My mother, ironically, escaped being deported to Auschwitz because she was in jail as a seditious Bolshevik. But her mother and her favourite elder brother were killed. My father’s family belonged to the petty nobility, or rather yeomanry, in the mountainous Szekler region of East Transylvania; his father was a tailor in a small town. The movement—they never spoke of the Party—meant mostly suffering and persecution: arrest, prison, beatings.
Later, when my father was thoroughly disenchanted with the system, I asked him why he still called himself a Communist. He showed me a little plastic—well, I suppose, bakelite—cube, with six little photos glued on its sides: the portraits of some of the best friends of his youth, tortured to death by the royal Hungarian and Romanian secret services, or by the Gestapo in that awful year, 1944. ‘Because I cannot explain it to them’, he said. It was the perfect Christian idea: bearing witness, martyrdom as the theological guarantee of truth. They were justified by heroic death, and so was the cause. He could not escape it. Keeping faith in the teeth of adverse political experience, the rotting away of the movement, was the only course. Anything else would have been treason. Duplex veritas also: he never denied that ‘state socialism’ was a failure. His identity and his principles were at loggerheads. Some of his comrades, back from the concentration camps, had been rearrested by the Communist authorities, ‘disappeared’ without a sound. This destroyed him as an intellectual.
In the absence of revolution, he suddenly found himself with time on his hands, so he had the leisure to be a wonderful parent. He showed me historical Transylvania, limping on mountain paths, propped on his stick before some redoubt or castle, or another ruined medieval church. There aren’t many intellectuals today who have working-class friends, but we did. Some of our family were peasants, in the poorest regions of Europe. I was taught, without great success, to do things in the fields and the garden. 
Then two harrowing experiences of communist harassment and dissidence; one highly-charged political phase as a liberal member of parliament and then, in past 20 years.... 
......... I decided to throw out my whole so-called oeuvre, break with my entire life so far, and go to school again. This has of course liberated my passionate repudiation of the state of affairs we wrought, my sympathy and compassion for people impoverished and made illiterate again by the market turn. I was obliged to recognize that our naive liberalism had delivered a nascent democracy into the hands of irresponsible and hate-filled right-wing politicos, and contributed to the re-establishment of a provincial, deferential and resentful social world, harking back to before 1945. The break was naturally quite painful, as it excluded me from the circle of people I was associated with for decades—the dissidents—so that my friends at the moment are mostly generations younger than I am; wonderful people, but without the shared memories so necessary for true friendships. At the same time, young Romanian leftists made it possible for me to have a consoling shadow existence in Transylvania, and to get rid finally of the feeling that poisoned my youth—the sense that ethnic conflict was irremediable. After a thirty-year absence, for the first time in my life when I give talks and sometimes write for journals in Romanian, I am made to feel welcome in my own land: a source of great delight and maybe undeserved justification.
The second article (in the same issue of NLR) is a tour de force from one of Francois Mitterand’s eminence gris - Regis Debray – entitled Decline of the West? - of which this is a typical excerpt -
The West guarantees and shapes the formation of international elites through its universities, business schools, financial institutions, officer-training colleges, commercial organizations, philanthropic foundations and major corporations. No empire has ever ruled by force alone. It needs relays among native ruling circles, and this centrifugal incubator produces a global class of managers who incorporate its language, its references and revulsions, its organizational models (rule of law and ‘good governance’) and economic norms (Washington Consensus). It is this moulding of managerial cadres from an already globalized middle class that transforms domination into hegemony, dependence into acceptance. Beyond the internships for young leaders—3,000 per year, organized by American embassies—this digital brain drain engenders a shared collective unconscious. China’s ‘red princes’ send their boys to be educated in the US, whence they return well-equipped for the pursuit of wealth. In Europe, the young find it not just natural but indispensable to obtain a qualification from one of these ‘centres of excellence’.
There is no far-flung land, minority or sect that does not have its suction pump of more or less well-implanted representatives in the US, with their connections in Congress and in the Administration, whose best-placed elements can, if they wish, return to their country of origin, making it their second home. They are the Afghano-ricans, Albano-ricans, Mexico-ricans, Afro-ricans (the Jean Monnet-style Gallo-rican was merely a prototype). This planetary HR department can pull a Karzai out of its pocket in an instant. A Palestinian from the World Bank, an Italian from Goldman Sachs, a re-cast Libyan or Georgian: the ease with which America is able to install a captain at every helm is the reward for its generous embrace of foreigners, an opening of national identity that the British Empire never risked, but which has earned its successor hundreds of thousands of adoptive children, of every nationality—and the possibility of filling its ambassadorships with people originating from their countries of residence.
China, India, Egypt, even little states like Israel or Armenia, benefit from loyal diasporas as channels of influence. The function of the 30 million Chinese expatriates in Southeast Asia is well known. America, which is no more a land of emigration than are the Nordic countries, does better: it has 42 million immigrants at home, the diasporas from every continent—Hispanics, Asians, Africans. Only the Western states—and the US first and foremost—have so many gangways to distant countries. We might periodize as follows: from 1850–1950, the West sweats the natives, inoculates, opens schools. From 1950–2000, the natives who have survived and learned the language come as immigrants to the West. From 2000–2050, the West educates the most talented and sends them back to top jobs in their country of origin, to propagate the West’s ideas and defend its interests. Win–win?
 Whatever we think of French intellectuals, they can always be relied upon to stick it to the Americans! Please read the whole article – it is a real thought-provoker

I’ve always had a soft spot for the New Left Review which first appeared as I was starting University in 1960 and trying to make sense of the world. On its 50th anniversary, it received the following glowing tribute from an observer -
When so much of even the so-called "serious" media is given over to celebrity-fuelled ephemera and the recycling of press releases and in-house gossip; and when the academic world is struggling to mitigate the worst effects of careerist modishness; and when national and international politics seem to consist of bowing to the imperatives of "the market" while avoiding public relations gaffes; then we need more than ever a "forum" like NLR. It is up to date without being merely journalistic; it is scholarly but unscarred by citation-compulsion; and it is analytical about the long-term forces at work in politics rather than obsessed by the spume of the latest wavelet of manoeuvring and posturing. Despite its self-description in its guidelines for contributors, the journal is not in any obvious sense "lively". It is downright difficult (but none the worse for that), because what it tries to analyse is complex and its preferred intellectual tools are often conceptually sophisticated. It is difficult where being easy would be no virtue, difficult where aiming to be "accessible" would mean patronising its readers, difficult where ideas need to be chewed rather than simply swallowed. That's what I admire above all about NLR: its intellectual seriousness – its magnificently strenuous attempt to understand, to analyse, to theorise.
I am grateful to Wikipedia for its entry which runs as follows -
New Left Review was launched in January 1960 when the editors of The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review merged their boards. The founders of the new journal hoped that it would provide the motive force for a new round of political organisation in Britain, inspiring the creation of "New Left Clubs" and helping to reinvent socialism as a viable force in British politics.
From 1962, with Perry Anderson as editor, it has had a book-like format with long articles, footnotes, and more than 100 pages per issue.
The NLR — as it came to be known — drew on debates within Western Marxism. It published work by Walter BenjaminJacques LacanEl LissitskyHans Magnus EnzensbergerHerbert MarcuseTheodor AdornoAntonio Gramsci, and Louis Althusser, and interviewed Jean-Paul SartreGeorg Lukács, and Lucio Colletti.
A distinctive feature of the journal was a series of 'country studies' with Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn supplying an account of the peculiar formation of capitalism and the state in Britain. The journal has also specialized in sweeping global surveys. In 1966 the journal published Juliet Mitchell's essay 'Women, the Longest Revolution', a founding text of second wave feminism. Nearly every issue from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s carried an account by a worker of their experience at work.
Texts of the aesthetic avant-garde were published and a series of articles on film by Peter Wollen. The journal covered third world anti-imperial movements. It reflected the concerns of the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s and documented the crises of the Communist regimes in Russia and eastern Europe. Isaac DeutscherRaymond WilliamsRaphael Samuel, and Ralph Miliband published in the journal and their work gave rise to important exchanges.
In the 1970s and 1980s a debate between Ernest MandelAlec Nove and Diane Elson focussed on the respective weight of plan, market and worker or community control in socialist economics.
In the 1990s and after the journal published major studies of the growing evidence of global capitalist disorder by Robert BrennerGiovanni ArrighiDavid HarveyPeter Gowan and Andrew GlynBenedict AndersonMike DavisFredric JamesonTerry EagletonEllen WoodTariq Ali and Nancy Fraser published some of their most important texts in the review. Notable studies included Robert Brenner on the origins of capitalism, Erik Olin Wright on class, Göran Therborn on the advent of democracy
The implications of the Soviet collapse were extensively covered. Post-modernism, post-Marxism, the fate of feminism and the real configurations of the "New World Order" were plotted and assessed. In every decade since the mid-1970s the journal has wrestled with the historical meaning of nationalism with essays by Tom NairnEric HobsbawmMiroslav HrochBenedict AndersonStuart HallErnest Gellner,Ronald SunyRégis DebrayMichael Lowy, and Gopal Balakrishnan.
In its new form, NLR has led with controversial editorials on the direction of world politics and major articles on the United StatesJapanTurkeyEurope, Britain, CubaIraqMexicoIndia and Palestine. It has published work by Alain BadiouSlavoj ŽižekDavid Graeber and Michael Hardt and featured analysis of global imbalances, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the credit crunch, the Egyptian Revolution and Arab Spring, prospects for nuclear disarmament, the scope of anti-corporate activism, the prospect of a "planet of slums," and discussions of world literature and cinema, cultural criticism and the continuing exploits of the avant-garde.

Since 2008, the Review has followed the economic crisis as well as its global political repercussions, with in-depth country studies of Iceland, Ireland, Spain and Greece, an ongoing debate on US-China economic imbalances (and their political consequences), as well as on the crisis's toll on California and the US health-care debate. An essay by Wolfgang Streeck in NLR 71 was called "most powerful description of what has gone wrong in western societies" by the Financial Times's columnist Christopher Caldwell

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