Itching powder for the Left

7 December 2011
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Blätter warns of a Schmittian turn in European politics; Soundings speaks for socialist England; Merkur signs off the end of an editorial era; Osteuropa seeks reasons for Russia’s retarded democracy; Samtiden asks what if Breivik had been an Arab; Syn og Segn talks to Yoko Ono about the importance of an empty mind; L’Espill scrutinizes Spain’s new far-Right; and Host celebrates Czech balladeer Karel Jaromir Erben.

“Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception.” Citing German arch anti-liberal Carl Schmitt, Albrecht von Lucke makes quite clear the tradition in which he places contemporary European politics. The extent of the losses suffered by democratic sovereignty during the euro crisis – a phenomenon von Lucke calls the “putsch of the financial markets” – is illustrated by the unelected “expert governments” of Italy and Greece:

In political theory – and in real history, in this case Roman history – there is a well-known example: the commissarial dictatorship. This suspends the effective constitution together with all its democratic rules for a limited period of time, however precisely with the aim of protecting its basic substance. This form of dictatorship is closely coupled with the state of exception as necessary prerequisite. It is present when the existence or the basic function of a state is seen by the highest authority as being acutely endangered. This is precisely what has happened in Greece and Italy: the highest authority, namely the financial markets, has effectively disempowered both states together with their elected governments. The problem here is: what comes after the transition? What, with the help of an emergency government, is supposed to lead to an economic sanitation of the state could also become a permanent quasi-dictatorial government.

Last exit Durban? The financial crisis has knocked climate change off the political agenda, writes Claus Leggewie, who calls for a “green coalition of the willing”:

In it cooperate not only governments but also green businesses, parts of civil society and systems of experts. The most obvious partners are the PIGS states in the EU itself, those southern European states that find themselves deeply caught up in the crisis, whose debt one can hardly work off through unimaginative and futile austerity policies but more through a kind of Marshall Plan based on renewable energy and a climate-friendly infrastructure and industry policy.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 12/2011

In Soundings, Stewart Lansley argues that the “thirty-year long experiment in market capitalism” in the UK and US, repeated to a lesser extent in Europe, has failed to unleash a “new era of enterprise, entrepreneurialism and dynamism”. Examining key areas in which the market model was supposed to deliver – growth, unemployment, productivity and stability – he finds that, on almost every count, post-war “managed capitalism” outperformed it successor.

Even on the basis of its own goals, the economic strategy of the last thirty years can claim only one success, the taming of inflation. On all other goals, it has failed. Instead, the most marked legacy of the market experiment has been a persistent rise in inequality, one so sharp that it has sent the wealth and income gap in the United Kingdom and the United States back to levels last seen in the inter-war years. Far from being a mechanism for delivering economic success, the primary function of the Anglo-Saxon economic model, it seems, has been to hand power to a new generation of business executives and financiers who have used it to enrich themselves, irrespective of the consequences for the economy and the workforce.

Regionalism: Reconnecting with regional traditions of socialism is a crucial way of renewing left politics in Britain, argues Paul Salveson. “The decentralist tradition has its origins in the Painite radicalism of the late eighteenth century, and runs through Chartism, radical Liberalism, anarchism and the Co-operative movement; it has always sat uneasily within the Labour Party, but today it represents its best chance of re-emerging as a popular democratic force.”

Salveson describes late-nineteenth century “northern socialism” thus: “It was strongly ‘values’ based, stressing community and fairness, opposition to child labour, a hatred of war, gender equality, socialisation of industry, and a love and respect for the countryside. It had a strong vein of working-class individualism, cultivated in the weaving communities of the Pennines, with their strong tradition of independence and self-help. It was community-based, but at the same time, internationalist. It was common for socialists in parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire to name their children after international heroes; Colne Valley ILP had an activist who rejoiced in the name of ‘Kossuth Pogson’!”

The full table of contents of Soundings 49 (2011)

“When this text appears, you’ll be able to read it on the web but won’t be able to comment on it. You can complain to me about it and I’ll say: ‘That’s just how it is with Merkur, I’d also like to change it.’ But that’s a lie. Secretly I think it’s a really good thing.” Journalist and writer Kathrin Passig explains why most journalists and writers always find better or worse excuses for not using social media to interact with their readers. Above all, she claims, making contact with readers jeopardizes illusions that are crucial to the journalistic self-image: for example that readers are very different to editors, and to what journalists imagine them to be.

“They don’t want what the author thinks they should want. They behave differently to how the author assumes; very possibly they aren’t even the people you thought they were until now. You’d rather not even know precisely: ‘Traditionally journalists have been somewhat dismissive of audiences and most concerned with co-worker and management approval’ it says in a very interesting study by the media sociologists Wilson Lowrey and William Anderson.”

Ends of eras: After more than 25 years, Merkur editors Karl Heinz Bohrer and Kurt Scheel bid farewell to the journal. They both individually recall the various eras the journal has passed through under their supervision: the “aesthetic Eighties”, “the political Nineties”, “the decade after 11 September 2001” – all of them, as Bohrer puts it, spent in “splendid isolation, both objectively and subjectively”. Here is Kurt Scheel’s conception of the journal:
Merkur was not supposed to be a journal that catered to a clientele of some kind, that stood for an in-house ideology or even the views of its editors, but rather as a court before which the public and its cultual transformations, the intellectual life of the Republic, appeared month after month. […] Merkur was intended, as a small but high-quality, widely respected journal, to be the mouthpiece for free spirits, untouched by commercial interests or political loyalties, obliged to no elites, neither the protestant cultural mafia nor the liberal-left dominated feuilletons, but rather to follow the motto, ‘an annoyance to the Right and an itching powder for the Left’.” In that they have certainly succeeded. Bravo! Scratch!

The full table of contents of Merkur 12/2011

Russia’s retarded democracy has its origins in the modernization processes of the nineteenth century and the subordination of the emergent nationalisms of the peoples of the Tsarist empire to Russian nationalism, writes the historian Dmitri Furman (1943-2011) in an article first published in NZ 5/2010.

Though disdained by the multi-ethnic Tsarist elites, Russian nationalism was seen by them as a means to preserve imperial hegemony. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, accommodated demands for national autonomy on condition of support for the Communist Party. But fading hopes of world revolution brought increasing Russification of the Soviet republics, without the Russian Soviet Republic obtaining independent status, explains Furman. After WWII, Russians’ absence of rights was compensated for by the fact that the Russian Soviet controlled a territory vaster than the Tsarist empire.

Towards the end of the USSR, Russian nationalism was forced into a schizophrenic position: though anti-Marxist, nationalists nevertheless remained loyal to the Communist Party and its official Marxist-Leninist ideology as sole guarantee of the coherence of the Soviet empire. With the collapse of the USSR, the transformation of Russia into an independent state was the only way Yeltsin and the democrats could retain power. “The Russian people fought for an ‘independence’ they did not want,” comments Furman.

Today, like in Soviet Russia, the state is held together through a repressive power vertical. “Like in the USSR, however, this integration remains largely formal,” writes Furman. Political systems “without alternatives” mirroring the one at the centre are developing in the republics. “These are the basis for a future secession of the national republics of Russia. The vertical of power does not do away with chaos, but rather forces it inwards. It remains concealed beneath a calm, monolithic surface. But the moment awaits when it will break out onto the outside.”

Polish lessons: Martin Pollack describes his lifelong intellectual preoccupation with Poland and the “lessons” he has learned along the way. Recalling his sojourn in Poland as a student in the mid-sixties, he writes: “As far as Katyn and everything the name stood for was concerned, my convictions were soon shaken by doubt. […] In other questions, things were easier, for example the expulsion of the Germans. For a long time I only used the word ‘expulsion’ in quotation marks. That things weren’t quite so simple only slowly became clear to me.”

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 10/2011

In an issue dedicated to Anders Breivik’s terror attacks in Oslo and on Utøya and their aftermath, Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg notes that the “bestiality” is still too close in time – and so massive – that it is impossible to say how it will change Norwegian society. One can compare the events to WWII, he writes. “Seventy years on, new books provide new information, deepening and in some cases changing the historical narrative. That’s how it will be with 22 July as well.”

Stoltenberg has been universally praised for the way he handled the situation after the attacks. He admits that he was somewhat surprised by the impact of his speeches – “a renaissance of the public address” – and recalls how he and his team arrived at the already famous line that “the Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation”.

Would his take have been different had the perpetrator been an Arab and a Muslim? His answer is an unreserved “No”. In fact, when the first speech was being written it wasn’t yet clear who was behind the attacks.

However, whether the subsequent debate would have been different is another, more complicated question. “Would we have filled the streets with roses, or would rage have overridden the tears? You can fear the answer to those questions, but more important is to learn. Each and every one of us can think about it. How would you have reacted if al-Qaeda had been behind the attacks and not a blond Norwegian from western Oslo? The sum of our honest answers to that question will be an essential lesson for the future.”

Also: Lawyer and writer Catherine Grøndal self-critically reviews her work as one of 157 lawyers representing the victims of the attacks (“we don’t allow them to leave the role of victim”) and Åsne Seierstad, war correspondent and author of the bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul describes the challenge of writing on violence in her own country (“the conflict between insight and distance is the problem of foreign reporting – and its asset”).

The full table of contents of Samtiden 4/2011

Yoko Ono is one of those who have been impressed by how Norwegian society has reacted to Breivik’s attacks. “Norwegians have always been wise,” she tells Bjørn Hatterud in Reykavik, on the occasion of the lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower. “Even under Nazi rule Norwegians behaved well…” (A statement one should probably take with at least a couple of grains of salt.)

More interesting, but not really surprising, is that that the almost 80 year-old Yoko Ono is a big fan of social media. She has more than 1.7 million followers on twitter and constantly refers to her tweets: “The other day someone asked me on Twitter: ‘How can one become creative? Can you tell me the secret?’ You know what? I simply answered that first you need to keep your mind empty, then all these things just come. People say that you can’t keep your mind empty, but you can! […] You see, this is what we all have to do, not fight it! If we are to achieve a world in peace it will be because no one fights!”

Writing the Holocaust: Syn og Segn has also translated Steve Sem-Sandberg‘s notable essay on the many dos and above all don’ts surrounding literature about the Holocaust:

I believe, with Kértesz, that it is time to lift the aesthetic state of emergency that has surrounded witness literature for so long. The important thing is not who does the writing, nor even what their motives are. The important thing is the literary efficiency of the texts. How far do they succeed in giving people back the contours of their own existence, or as Kértesz puts it: giving the individual his life, his fate? Literature can either be steered by a genuine will to open up new access points to, and broaden our view of, the reality that is portrayed. Or it does its best to shut away reality by making it a museum object, rendering the past inviolable (and thus intangible), or by making the case for some form of atonement that is in fact little more than a veiled desire to embellish, and by embellishing simply to set amnesia to work by other ways. We choose for ourselves the sort of literature we want.

The full table of contents of Syn og Segn 4/2011

After the Franco period, the Spanish far-Right, with its bellicose, imperialist and Roman Catholic ideology, neither constituted an effective party nor channeled the multiple tendencies within it, and hence became marginal, writes Xavier Casals in Catalan journal L’Espill. Populism was the sole preserve of rightwing tycoons like Jesús Gil, whose main interest in politics was as cover for their corrupt business activities.

But in 2002, the Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC) came on the scene, winning a handful of seats in Catalan city councils, which it has since kept. PxC’s xenophobic discourse exploits underlying negative stereotypes in society and the growing disaffection towards mainstream parties. Unlike its predecessors, writes Casals, it avoids anti-Catalanism and appeals to an electorate from both Left and Right through calls for “welfare state for native Spaniards first” and attacks on identity-threatening immigration and “Islam’s conquest of Europe”. A local curiosity with an expiry date or a new candidate for parliament? Casals leaves the question open.

Regionalism: Once described as “the unarmed army of Catalonia”, F.C. Barcelona has gone from local identity icon to a global brand name. As regional attachments grow at the expense of national or European feeling, football allows locals to ritualize their sense of community while welcoming newcomers, writes Miquel de Moragas.

“In the case of Barça, this identification has two crucial aspects: the substitutive national identity (Barça/Catalonia) and the local-integrating identity. New citizens, excluded from so many institutions, find in Barça a device for quick integration. This process is behind the growth of the big European clubs in the twentieth century such as Manchester United, Milan or Bayern München.” Barça’s Japanese supporters, on the other hand, are enthused for very different reasons: “They support Barça because they identify with values based not on great principles but on very general connotations: integration from the periphery to the centre of globality, sporting mythology, even Barcelona’s tourist imagery.”

The full table of contents of L’Espill 38 (2011)

The bicentenary of Karel Jaromir Erben, the Czech historian, poet and writer best known for his collection of folk poetry-inspired ballads Kytice (The Bouquet) is the focus of the new issue of Host. In his introduction, literary historian Dalibor Dobiás writes: “Behind the apparent simplicity of Erben’s collection, programmatically inspired by the disappearing Czech oral poetry and addressed to a wide range of patriotic readers, there also lurks a once unique and disturbing contemporary of K.H. Mácha [the most famous Czech Romantic poet].”

Dobiás summarizes the roundtable discussion he hosted earlier this year, in which Czech, German, Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian scholars discussed innovation in Erben’s ballads and the place of The Bouquet in the wider context of European literature. Reinhard Ibler believes that, although a comprehensive study of Erben’s work is not yet available, the most illuminating comparison may be with Mickiewicz’s Ballads and Romances, considered a great European ballad cycle. A dearth of translations into other languages makes discussion of Erben’s reception difficult: the first Hungarian and Bulgarian translation appeared only in the 1970s and 1990s respectively, while the Poles have treated Erben with condescension. Dalibor Turecek believes the greatest achievement of Erben’s dynamic and multi-faceted work consists not in crowning or conserving the ballad genre but rather in subverting and modifying it. “The Bouquet is one of the few texts of nineteenth century Czech literature that is repeatedly and spontaneously read by generation after generation of readers,” writes Turecek, highlighting the collection’s virtuosic form, its appealing narrative motives and its elements of suspense and horror.

Comics: Tomás Prokupek’s writes about the comic book versions of Erben’s most famous work, which began to appear in the 1960s and again after 1989. A complete set of Erben’s ballads in comic book form was published in 2006 by Garamond and since been much reprinted. Prokupek believes the most interesting comic book versions of The Bouquet are on the same wavelength as world music “and we can hope they are a harbinger of similar, more complex projects that will breathe new life into the old stories, just as Erben did in his day”.

Also: Pavel Portl reviews a new memoir by Pavel Kohout, who “has written perhaps the most ridiculed poetry in the history of Czech literature, as well as one of our best twentieth century novels, My Life with Hitler, Stalin and Havel.”

The full table of contents of Host 9/2011

Published 7 December 2011

Original in English
First published in

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