Nigeria: Screwing the nation

Nigeria has seen the first successful blow struck against neoliberalism in the New Year. After a week of massive nationwide protests met the removal of a key fuel subsidy for consumers, President Goodluck Jonathan backed down — a bit.  He reinstated the subsidy partially. That, together with reportedly massive payoffs to union leaders, persuaded labor to cancel the strike.

Lagarde in Abuja, with President Jonathan (L) and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (R)

The compromise was far from perfect. Dropping the subsidy initially more than doubled the price of gasoline, from (US) $0.40 to 0.88 per liter; now the price is teetering at around $0.66. The settlement outraged considerable parts of the protest coalition, including students, who remain committed to opposing neoliberal policies.  There’s considerable suspicion in Nigeria that the IMF and World Bank were behind the attempt to scrap the subsidy; IMF head Christine Lagarde visited Abuja in December, allegedly to congratulate Jonathan on his “reform” and anti-corruption initiatives, but more likely to set the terms for allegedly-indigenous structural adjustment efforts. Few believe the government’s retreat means the proposal is in permanent abeyance. Still, a half-victory is a victory. Jonathan, who announced the subsidy removal in a speech declaring, “Let me seize this opportunity to assure all Nigerians that I feel the pains that you all feel,” was made to feel rather more pain than he had banked on.  And even the Financial Times acknowledged that for the subsidy’s “removal to be tolerated” in future, “poverty must be alleviated in other ways.”

Attention immediately shifted to the horrific violence inflicted by the Islamist group Boko Haram on northern Nigeria, including coordinated bombings and shootings in Kano on January 20 that killed almost 200 people in one day. Zach Warner, in ThinkAfrica Press, has a fascinating analysis of the group’s rise. He admits that “Communal violence has been a constant for the last three decades, while the mobilisation of faith-based political identities has been a defining feature of Northern Nigeria for centuries.”  But in recent decades, Nigeria’s central government has eviscerated traditional Islamic hierarchies and power structures in the North, thinking it was eliminating a base for separatism. At the same time, a shift from Northern-based military leadership to democratically elected governments with their roots in the South has starved the region of resource allocation. The result has been spreading poverty, particularly among the young:

Thus, by the time of … the restoration of civilian rule, centuries-old social and political hierarchies of Islamic power had been completely smashed. Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as the only viable leader of the Fourth Republic, engendering a massive power shift to the south after decades of predominantly northern military rule. Elite Muslims were sent reeling; the Sultan [of Sokoto, still the ostensible religious leader of Nigeria’s Muslims] could hardly show his face throughout the region.

Amid such social confusion, young Muslim men again tried to assume their place at the helm of the north. From late 1999 to 2002, twelve states expanded Sharia (Islamic law). Reacting to what they perceived as endemic corruption and moral decay, this crop of younger politicians enunciated a wish to return to Islamic governance outside the strict confines of the emirate structures which they felt were complicit in failed governments and national decline. As John Paden wrote in 2002, the sum effect was a split in Islamic solidarity and “significant confrontations between anti-establishment groups and northern Muslim elites, which in turn, [sic] are causing these elites to reconsider how to strengthen their own politico-religious credentials”.

The resulting alienation is fertile ground for insurgencies.

John Campbell (a former US ambassador) argues that, religion aside, Boko Haram bears conspicuous similarities to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which sponsored campaigns of kidnapping and bombing that kept the country’s oil-producing areas on edge from 2006 to 2010.   Both are symptoms of a disintegrating rentier state, which lives off the oil revenues it appropriates from a single region of the country, but has never tried to redistribute them evenly or fairly—either among the country’s geographic divisions, or among its social classes.  The subsidy protests and the Kano bombings reveal the same rot.

The massive unrest has drawn the public’s eye away from the “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill,” a sweeping proposal that would criminalize most aspects of lesbian and gay people’s lives.   At some point soon, though, Goodluck Jonathan will have to decide whether to sign it.  The recent tumult reveals the underlying motives behind the law—a classic distraction, to unify fissiparous sects and interests around a common bogeyman, and turn disputes away from raw social reality toward imaginary demons.

Seun Anikulapo-Kuti: Don't fuck with the Nation

LGBT rights activists joined the popular protests to retain the fuel subsidy.  They took heart from reports that Seun Kuti (popular musician and son of afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti)  shouted at a Lagos rally against the move:  “When two men fuck each other, it is better than one man fucking the Nation as a whole.”  It’s hard for political commentary to top that (as it were).   However, I also like the remark of my friend Dorothy Aken’Ova, of the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, INCRESE: “Nigerians now know what is [really] evil.” One can hope.

Davos, occupied

The World Economic Forum is taking place in Davos, Switzerland. CNN is full of Important People being interviewed in front of snow-hung pines; at first I thought it was the Winter Olympics, which I suppose it kind of is.   Over at that notorious nest of economic radicalism, the New Republic, even Timothy Noah is moved to remark:

The Wall Street Journal reports that there are 70 billionaires among the 2,500 attendees. That makes Davos the only place on earth where a billionaire, for a few days anyway, can bust out of the top 1 percent (not to mention the top 0.01 percent). When billionaires represent roughly 3 percent of WEF attendees, that means, arithmetically, that about two-thirds of those billionaires get to slum it for a few days in the bottom 99 percent. What a lark!

He also notes that in all its history, Davos seems to have held only one panel on global inequality.  There’s none this year; obviously there are more significant things going on. Anyway, with the 70 billionaires compelled to share seating with around 2,400 non-billionaires, they probably figure that’s equal enough.

Human Rights Watch, my old employer, which was in love with power, used to love boasting about the senior staff it sent to Davos. Part of the frisson was lobbying those in possession of power; part of it was meeting the billionaires. By contrast, it never sent anybody of importance to the World Social Forum, which is full of the unwashed and uninfluential 99% who comprise most human rights movements around the world. This always seemed to me an unfortunate expression of priorities.

This year, however, and happily, there is an Occupy WEF, and they have set up an igloo encampment near the main deliberations. Its website says,

Every year, self-proclaimed «global leaders» allegedly committed to improving the state of the world meet up for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss mountains to propagate their own businesses and network amongst the so-called global economic elite. This year, we will not let them exclude us, the 99%!

Nothing, of course, would draw the billionaires into conversation with the (real) ice-dwelling 99%, unless they run out of icecubes for their cocktails. But maybe the human rightsters can wander over there for a talk.   It might be interesting.

 

 

Culture, class, and Newt’s sex life

In the end, all those marriages didn’t matter. Conservatives have become remarkably kind, forgiving people.  Just under fifty years ago, in 1964 a rabid right-wing crowd at the Republican Convention drowned out Nelson Rockefeller with shouts of “You dirty lover!”—because he had divorced his wife.  But through their devoted love for Ronald Reagan (the first divorced US president), the Republican Party was clearly purged of all desire to pass judgment.  Despite all the evidence of Newt Gingrich’s polyamory, on Saturday he won a landslide in South Carolina anyway.

You’ll remember Dr. Keith Ablow, the Fox News psychologist who warned last year that Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars would cause the world’s children to doubt their gender identities. This weekend, he reappeared to reassure us that Newt Gingrich’s infidelities would actually make him a stronger president. Although “the media can’t seem to help itself from trying to castrate candidates” (wait: wouldn’t that be an end to all the sellable, sexy stories? and what were they doing to Michelle Bachmann?), he says:

I will tell you what Mr. Gingrich’s personal history actually means for those of us who want to right the economy, see our neighbors and friends go back to work, promote freedom here and abroad and defeat the growing threat posed by Iran and other evil regimes. …

1) Three women have met Mr. Gingrich and been so moved by his emotional energy and intellect that they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with him.

2) Two of these women felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married.

3 ) One of them felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married for the second time, was not exactly her equal in the looks department and had a wife (Marianne) who wanted to make his life without her as painful as possible.

Conclusion: When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.

4) Two women—Mr. Gingrich’s first two wives—have sat down with him while he delivered to them incredibly painful truths …

Conclusion: I can only hope Mr. Gingrich will be as direct and unsparing with the Congress, the American people and our allies.

There are, to be sure, some flaws in this argument. For one thing, the brutal verities Newt spoke to his successive wives weren’t on the order of “You’re spending more than you’re investing!  Medicare is doomed!  You need to do something about the trade imbalance with China!”  They were more like, “I’m leaving you for someone prettier.”   By this analogy, Americans may not get the chance to beg him for a third term.   Midway through the first, he’s likely to run off and become president of a younger, blonder country with bigger breasts: Ukraine? or Estonia?

Gingrich, with spouses no. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ...

I also wonder about Dr. A’s comparison of the sinewy, masculine American Republic to a series of easily bamboozleable women.  Isn’t this even more likely to cause gender confusion in children than Chaz Bono?  And what about our heroic men in the Fighting Forces, who by his argument will wake up after the Inauguration to find that not only can they ask and tell, but they are metaphorically married to Newt Gingrich?   The one silver lining for the right wing is that this prospect makes even me want to ban same-sex marriage anywhere and everywhere, lest I rouse myself some morning after a drunken binge to discover I am on a Niagara honeymoon with my Big Newton.

The real reason Newt won in South Carolina, though, was clearly that he took up a weapon little deployed by his party: class struggle. It wasn’t simply that he accused Mitt Romney, accurately enough, of being a corporate equivalent of Sigourney Weaver’s sci-fi foe: moving from company to company, world to world, infecting — or investing — with his virus and then squeezing the place of jobs and life to turn a profit. It was that he made Mitt look for once like what he is. He is a stiff, ambitious, extremely rich man with no fixed beliefs, who for the last ten years has planned to buy the Presidency: the politician as shopper.

Nixon in '68: Whiter, please, whiter

South Carolina’s a strange, strange universe. It’s the birthplace of today’s Republican Party. Old Strom Thurmond, its segregationist eternal Senator, switched from Democrat to Republican in the 60’s, and taught Richard Nixon his “Southern Strategy,” how to lure white racists into the GOP and change the political temper of the whole region. It has a long tradition of elite, autocratic politics. (It was the last state in the Union to permit its population to vote for US President, instead preserving for more than a century the tradition of letting the state legislature choose electors.)  Its establishment, however, is always wary of populist earthquakes: that particularly Southern form of populism in which rich whites watch the poor whites roused to anger, and try desperately — and usually successfully — to channel their rage toward anybody but themselves. Newt, adept at the tradition, got the masses’ mouths foaming at the news media, at black people (the “food stamp president”) … and at Mitt Romney.

The Washington Post points out today that Newt makes a strange populist.

That’s weird: … the candidate who has been in Washington the longest, who has spent the most time on the Sunday shows, who has the deepest rolodex of New York media elites, who has been third-in-line for the presidency, is running as some kind of insurgent.

But that misses the point of his real disaffection, which is intellectual, and rooted in his past. Newt is part of a thoroughly lumpen class, the professorial proletariat.

Gingrich, of course, is sure that he’s one of the great minds of all time. He famously scribbled during a meeting:

Gingrich — primary mission
Advocate of civilization
Definer of civilization
Teacher of the Rules of Civilization
Arouser of those who Fan Civilization
Organizer of the pro-civilization activists
Leader (Possibly) of the civilizing forces

Who else could claim that? Prospero? Kurtz?  And of course, almost everybody makes fun of this. Joan Didion, in a brilliant essay, detected in his maundering “not the future but the past, the drone of the small-town autodidact, the garrulous bore in the courthouse square.”

But you have to consider where that mind of his came from. He got his B.A. from Emory, his Ph.D. from Tulane, both respectable schools. He finished a dissertation on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960,” and spent some time in Brussels (but not Congo) researching it.  (Belgian education policy in the Congo, of course, was not to educate any Congolese.) One regards the dissertation as a potential source of horror –the horror! — given his subsequent comments about our Mau-Mau in Chief:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?”

Historian Adam Hochschild read the dissertation, and found it dull rather than appalling. But he does suggest that Gingrich never tried to comprehend resistance to colonialism: “He cites interviews with one American and seven Belgians — but not a single Congolese, though there were hundreds living in Europe and the United States he could have talked to.” There’s a basic lack of intellectual curiosity there.

I am the Definer of Civilization, and your paper is due Friday

Which was punished. On finishing the magnum opus, Newt found himself teaching history and geography at West Georgia College, in Carrollton, the former Fourth District Agricultural and Mechanical School. As a recovered academic, I am sure this is an estimable institution. But for the young Ph.D., it is exile. For the aspiring genius, it is Dickens toiling in the blacking factory. For an ambitious assistant prof, it’s Ovid in Tomis, Dreyfus on Devil’s Island; it’s running seminars in Kafka’s Penal Colony, and writing syllabi on one’s own lacerated flesh. Nor did Newt do well even there, in the Sahara of the geistlichen Wissenschaften. In 1978, they denied him tenure.  If he hadn’t got himself elected to Congress the same year, God knows what would have become of him.

These days, Newt is an real live author, who’s published 23 books, many of them arguably in English. When he talks about rebellion against the “elites,” though, it’s not hard to hear which ones he means most vividly, which enemies are nearest his heart. They’re the PhDs who went on to the good schools, the Dukes and Vanderbilts, the Harvards and Yales: the ones who got the great jobs, the ones whose dissertations made their way into print and praise, the ones for whom tenure waited patiently like a blond, young, buxom-chested Estonian bride. The ones who succeeded!

Hochschild notes that if Newt were elected, he’s be the first President with a Ph.D. since Woodrow Wilson.   Well, yes. But he’d also be one of a small company of modern Presidents who never supped up knowledge at an Ivy League school.  Since Herbert Hoover, only Truman, Nixon, and Carter have failed to attend upon such a holy place; and Nixon went to Duke Law School, which is almost as tony. (He was accepted at Harvard, but had to decline because of family illness, adding another to the pyramid of chips on his shoulder.)   In fact, all the rest except Eisenhower completed part of their education at either Harvard or Yale. (I include Eisenhower, though he was a simple barefoot general from Kansas, because he actually served as President of Columbia University before he took on the leadership of the whole enchilada.)

Before FDR, there was Wilson (President of Princeton), and Teddy Roosevelt (Harvard boy); but before then it’s mostly a long procession of the self- and ill-educated, knowing no history and unknown to it now. The US Presidency was simply not very important before the second Roosevelt. Back then, it was a ceremonial job concerned with overseeing Cabinet meetings,  certifying ambassadors, and cutting ribbons.

All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening solemnly to bores and quacks. … Anon there comes a day of public ceremonial, and a chance to make a speech. Alas, it must be made at the annual banquet of some organization that is discovered, at the last minute, to be made up of gentlemen under indictment, or at the tomb of some statesman who escaped impeachment by a hair. Twenty million voters with IQ’s below 60 have their ears glued to the radio; it takes four days’ hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere. Four Senators get drunk and try to neck a lady politician built like an overloaded tramp steamer. The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.

The elites who ruled the country cared very little about vetting the office’s occupants. Only the vast extension of state power in the New Deal made the Presidency truly vital. When that happened, suddenly it became crucial that its holders bear an Ivy imprimatur, proof that they were loyal to the System, having passed through its intestinal tests and come out the kind of guys who brown-nosed, worshipped the Institution, and rallied for the Team.

And Newt isn’t. He doesn’t carry the certificate or wear the proof. That’s the measure of his outsiderness: the intellectual resentment of a toiling academic who never won the kudos, never made good.

But he’s enough of an intellectual to know what “culture” is. And that’s his devastating potential at this juncture in the life of the Republican party, and possibly the United States.

Conservative populism is a strange thing (like South Carolina). Its great secret, both strength and weakness,is this: Its exponents cannot talk about class for very long. They have to change the subject to something else.

Statue of Tillman, on the S.C. Capitol grounds

Modern conservatism, after all — the post-1848, bourgeois kind — developed not in order to affirm the aristocracy (the task of the old variety) but to suppress and conquer labor.   Its whole birth and formation was a vast change of the subject, away from the reality of class, production, exploitation, and toward ideals of social stability. For a long time in the United States, right-wing populists had a ready theme to switch to, when the switching time came: Race.   White populists in the South performed the explicit service of keeping the white poor’s anger focused on the black poor, not on their rich white oppressors.  “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the longtime Senator from South Carolina at the last century’s sharp turn, got his start in politics by massacring black freedmen in an 1876 riot. He called this “having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them [guess who] as was justifiable.” The stress was not just on the killing, but the superiority. The whites with their miserable, dirt-poor lives needed to believe in something, and Tillman gave the racial myth to sustain them.

This doesn’t work as openly anymore, though Gingrich can certainly dabble in it when Juan Williams, or some other anti-colonial interlocutor, is at hand. But “culture” is the new distraction from class, the new change of subject.

“New” is perhaps not the right word: the right has invoked “culture” at least since the ’60s, not just in the US but in country after country worldwide, to replace a discourse of injustice and justice with one of invasion versus belonging. “Distraction” is perhaps not the right word, either. “Culture” is a translation of class division, into a different register where the enemies’ identities can be shifted, and the revolutionary options of reappropriation or redistribution blunted or annealed. Those of us who work in the field of sexuality know this register all too well. It’s the hue and cry that something alien is intruding, that you‘re not part of our culture, that whatever rights you claim to represent don’t belong. It’s been used to change the subject from Ghana to Singapore.

Gingrich is the perfect mouth for this language, the perfect voice for this version of ressentiment. Because, of course, he is an intellectual, in the American sense. He has drunk up the deep desire and tendency of American academia — equally the mark of the old humanism and the new postmodernism — to see history in terms of the cloudy abstractions of culture, and not the material realities of money, conflict, and class.  He knows how to dig a ditch and channel this seething magma out there, all the stuff of lost jobs and foreclosed houses and folks living in mobile homes, into a fiery onslaught on the “cultural elites.”

He did it when he won South Carolina.  “The American elite media Is trying to force us to quit being Americans.” “The elites in Washington and New York,” Obama’s “extremist left wing friends in San Francisco,” the “growing anti-religious bigotry of our elites” — it was all there. He’s as good at this as Mugabe going after Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson!

His ability to meld class attack with the language of culture makes him a particularly potent demagogue right now.  The man and the hour have met, and both of them have set out to screw Mitt Romney. I am certainly not predicting that Romney — who has about ten million dollars in his pocket for every book Gingrich ever wrote — is going down to defeat.  If the day comes when money doesn’t matter in the Republican party, it’ll be a strange day indeed. But since the 2008 crash, we’ve been waiting in apprehension, breaths bated, for the true right-wing demagogue inevitably to emerge, in the way one attends on American Idol to cough up the semester’s fated celebrity. It suddenly makes sense that Newt the Definer of Civilization, far more than Sarah Palin, would be the one to play the role.

Where did the debt come from? Understanding the austerity disaster

The new capitalism: What's Mayan is yours

Oh, sweet Jesus, this is going to be one hell of a year.

Maybe you’re one of those people who’ve stopped reading the paper because it’s too depressing. Is that why you’re so quiet? Maybe you eschew any headline that holds the word “Crisis,” or “Euro,” or (God forbid!) both together, because those augur something incomprehensible, and no knowledge is good news. Maybe you’re counting your dwindling cents and thinking things can’t get worse. Well, it would be hard for things to get worse, but the reality of our economies at this moment is that they’re drawn toward disaster like a gawker passing a massive car crash — and while he puts on the brakes to look, the cars behind him pile up too, till the wreckage stretches down the freeway for miles. Reading the business pages used to be like listening to the traffic reports, telling you what roads to avoid in the morning. Now it’s like tuning in to the Emergency Broadcast System’s slow, terrible whine, and realizing you should have figured out where the nearest fallout shelter was years ago.

But hiding won’t help. I can promise you the only way through the year ahead is to be radical: I mean, to be unflinching in looking at the tangled roots of this mess, to try against all our instincts to see things as they are.  There is a reasonable chance we will have to rebuild the world in our lifetimes. If that happens, we had better be armed with knowledge about how the one we have went wrong.

So let me share the little bit I know these days. You surely saw Friday that Standard & Poor’s went after Europe with a machete.  The ratings agency downgraded the credit of nine countries in the Eurozone.  Austria and France lost their triple-A status. Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia also came down one notch.   Italy, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus lost two; the last two countries now join Greece as issuers of junk bonds. It’s a comprehensive declaration of disbelief in Europe’s ability to save itself.

Into the abyss

This happened the same day that talks broke down between Greece and the commercial banks it owes money.  You remember that last year, the European Union promised to write off 100 billion euros of Greek debt if bondholders –that is, the banks — would agree to take a 50 percent loss on their Greek lendings. This is Angela Merkel’s idea, a way of forcing the banks that made the dumb loans, not just European taxpayers (read: not just Germans, since they’re the only ones in Europe with any money) to take a hit. The dumb banks are not happy. Their representative said, ““Discussions with Greece and the official sector are paused for reflection on the benefits of a voluntary approach.” The New York Times explains that this might (might!)

be a not-so-subtle message that if Europe pushed too hard on this point, then the creditors could no longer accept the agreement as a voluntary one. That is crucial, because an involuntary debt revamping would be seen by creditors as a default — a step Greece and Europe are trying hard to avoid.

If Greece defaults, it could set off the activation of credit default swaps — a type of financial insurance. [Basically, the banks have bought insurance against the possibility that debtor countries default.] If the issuers of that insurance have to start paying up, many analysts fear the same sort of falling dominoes of i.o.u.’s that cascaded through the financial industry after the subprime mortgage market collapsed in the United States in 2007 and 2008.

What can you say? To quote Rick Perry: oops?

All this follows a month when Europe seemed to be looking up a little. Italian bond sales were doing reasonably well. (If you asked me a year ago whether I’d ever care about Italian bond sales, I would have said basta! assurdo!)  In November,when Berlusconi resigned, the interest rate on Italy’s bonds climbed to almost 7.5%, a point that means the markets expect default: “even higher yields aren’t enough to attract buyers. That kind of panic is self-fueling, and once it starts it can destroy its target within days.”  Yet Italy clawed its way back, thanks to reassuring infusions of money from the European Central Bank. Friday its three-year bonds were selling  at an average rate of 4.83 %, not great but the lowest, most manageable rate they’d seen in four months. The Standard & Poor’s blow, however, means the markets still don’t trust Italy as far as they can throw it. Try throwing Italy. It’s heavy.

Greek gross domestic product (GDP) collapsing: Atlas died, consumption shrugged

Here’s the problem. The markets insisted on austerity plans so that governments could repay their debts. But now the markets see that the austerity plans are keeping the economies — Greece, Italy, Spain, and many others — from growing, perhaps for more than a decade to come. And without economic growth, there’s little long-term prospect for repaying debt. Hence the markets are losing confidence in the governments anyway, pushing them toward increasingly likely default.

Take the Greek case. The Washington Post notes that after two years of austerity,

increasingly, critics of the quick-cuts theory are pointing to the worsening recession [in the country] as evidence that the medicine is killing the patient, with the nation’s sharp, sustained decline leading some economists to suggest that the country has entered a more serious depression.

“Suggest”? Stathis Kouvelakis lays out the details:

Workers and the retired alike have lost around a third of their incomes. Wage arrears in the private sector have now reached three months on average, while public-sector pensions—around €500 to €700 a month—are in many cases not being paid at all. Public services are in a state of collapse: schools are without textbooks, bringing teaching to a virtual halt, while hospital patients are being told to buy their own medication from pharmacies. The suicide rate, traditionally one of the lowest in Europe, has increased by 40 per cent in just one year, and the health of the population is deteriorating dramatically.

And here’s the kicker, killer, whatever:

The actual unemployment rate is said to be around 25 per cent (the official rate is 18.5 per cent), with the figure twice as high among 15-to-24-year-olds, while GDP [gross domestic product] has declined by at least 12 per cent since the start of the crisis, a proportional drop comparable to the effect of the 1930s Depression.

Greece has suffered, he says, “one of the most drastic drops in living standards that postwar Europe has seen.” It’s akin to what happened in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s — and we know how well that turned out.  Putin, here we come! It’s even more like the effects of structural adjustment on Latin American economies in the ’80s, and on Africa in the ’90s. “The Mediterranean economies are being sentenced to years of rot and hyper-unemployment,” Mike Davis writes. The policies the industrial West inflicted on the developing world for thirty years are coming home to roost.

From the bankers’ perspective, though, the problem is that you can squeeze such a collapsed economy until the pips squeak, and you can’t get repayments out of it. Hence the crisis that last week’s events represent.

Meanwhile, in order to enforce austerity, governments are becoming less democratic — since their people don’t want the plans their leaders are compelled to pursue.  The unelected “expert” governments installed in Greece and Italy augur things to come.  In the London Review of Books, David Runciman channels Carl Schmitt and the theorists of “emergency.” Democracy has a “crucial advantage,” he says, because it can undo itself: it’s

more politically flexible than the alternatives. That is, in a crisis democracies can experiment with autocracy but autocracies can’t experiment with democracy, not even in small doses. They daren’t, for fear of losing control.

But the present experiment in technocratic rule may not be enough to get things done. We may need a full-fledged turn to dictatorship, as spread across Europe in the late ’20s and ’30s:

[The] turn to technocracy looks like a diversion. It served its purpose in allowing the Greeks and Italians to ditch busted governments without holding elections. But if the technocrats are meant to sort out the mess, instead of simply providing a bit of breathing space before elected politicians get another crack at it, then they will need some autocratic powers. They will have to be able to force their nasty medicine down the throats of kicking and screaming populations.  … The hard truth is that democracies do not save themselves by flirting with technocracy. They have to flirt with something nastier.

Democracies have survived worse crises than the present one because their previous experiments with non-democratic methods have always been time-limited. In war, for instance, democratic governments have often had to resort to emergency powers, but when the war is over, those powers get given back. That won’t work this time. The present crisis is not a war, and it’s not going to be easy to tell when it is over.

In short: the endless War on Terror has not so much ended as it’s been forgotten. The War on the Poor is bidding to succeed it.

We are in Stage II of the massive crisis that began in 2007. In Stage I, the world’s banks threatened to collapse under the weight of unpaid debts owed to them.   Governments everywhere bailed them out — which meant assuming their debts. But now, as Michael Lewis writes,

The financial crisis of 2008 was suspended only because investors believed that governments could borrow whatever they needed to rescue their banks. What happened when the governments themselves ceased to be credible?

Where did all this debt come from?

There are as many answers as economists. Strikingly, though two recent books — the late Chris Harman’s Zombie Capitalism and David McNally’s Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance — both turn back to one of Marx’s core but most controversial ideas.

It’s called, in that peculiar Marxian manner of legislating, the Law of the Falling Rate of Profit. The gist is this: Capitalists want to increase the amount of productivity they can extract from labor every hour. They can Taylorize — make work time more efficient; they can cut wages; but after those means are exhausted, the best route is to invest in new labor-saving technologies. The first businessmen to introduce these machines and tools will get a short-term boost: they can produce more cheaply than their competitors, but sell at comparable prices. That means their profits will rise.

However, the ultimate source of value for Marx is labor. If investment grows more rapidly than the labor force, it is also growing faster than new value is being created. (Moreover, as investment grows faster than wages, it grows faster than the money available to workers to buy the goods and keep the economy going.) “When productivity rises, profits fall. The more ‘capital-intensive’ is a business, the less profit is made in proportion to the amount of money invested.” As businesses continue to invest, then, the profits they can make — the value they can extract, above what they’re spending on both technology and labor — will inevitably start to spiral down.

Although versions of this theory date back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, it wasn’t popular in the 20th century. Mainstream economists hated it because it suggested that the recurrent crises of capitalism couldn’t be fixed: the system itself contained a cancerous paradox, a spore of decline. “At a certain stage,” Marx wrote, capitalism “conflicts with its own further development.” Revolutionary Marxists of all stripes disliked it because they expected the system to fall through their indispensable action, not some internal contradiction: the workers, led of course by the vanguard Party, would rebel against exploitation and install Utopia. These pages of Marx, read literally, suggested that capitalism could consume itself regardless of what the workers did.

However, the Law provides a very good description of the major cycles of capitalism since the 1920s. Each was a period distinguished by new technologies and new investment that created soaring rates of profit — which gradually declined till the system couldn’t sustain itself, and a major crisis set in.

All those commodities! Don't forget the bombs, though.

Consider the period after the Second World War, with the planet recovering from slaughter and a Great Depression. The French, much catchier than Marx, call the thirty years from roughly 1945-1974 les trente glorieuses. It was an age of almost unbroken growth across the whole industrialized world, Europe and North America alike. So-called “Fordist” production methods, chiefly the glory days of the unified factory assembly line, helped sustain it, as did growth in consumer goods like cars and helpful household machinery.  However, massive military spending by the US (and arms industries all over Europe), along with the technologies military research produced, was its mainstay.

It all crashed starting in the early ’70s. It used to be customary to blame this on the oil price shocks of the period, in 1973 (post-Yom Kippur War) and 1979 (post-Iranian revolution).   Suddenly the one critical commodity that powered economies quintupled in cost. Obviously this devastated profits, but it’s clear that profit rales were already falling precipitately since the late 1960s.

Price shock: Crude reality

The strange response of business to the crisis proved its unusual severity. Businessmen across the developed world both cut wages (and jobs) and raised prices.   Slashing prices as wages and employment decline (that is, when you fire people) is usually the logical thing to do.  When there is less money to spend in the economy, prices should go down, along with demand. The strange phenomenon of “stagflation” instead dominated the 1970s: unemployment and economic stagnation came coupled with galloping inflation, prices jumping steadily higher. This wasn’t just the result of oil prices driving production costs upward. Rather, it’s hard not to interpret it as a campaign to break the back of labor, and the rights (and wages) it had won during the trente glorieuses. Capital wanted to destroy labor’s will to resist by squeezing workers from both ends: shrinking the money they had to spend, while raising the pricetag on the things they had to buy.

What brought developed economies out of the crisis of the 70s, however, was first of all a side-effect of the 1973 oil price shock. A huge amount of money went into the hands of oil-rich states. They deposited most of it back in Western banks, which had to do something with it, and found few investment opportunities amid a recession.  However, a great many Third World states, especially in Latin America and Africa, also found their economies wrecked by the oil roller-coaster; they needed money. The banks happily, joyfully lent to them, to put that money to use! Wonderful, until the second oil shock in 1979 wrecked the Third World’s economies again — along with the so-called “Volcker shock” at the same time, when the head of the US central bank raised interest rates sky-high, causing a worldwide downturn, and making loans almost impossible to repay.

“Structural adjustment” was the result. As countries confessed inabillity to cover their debts, international institutions — the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — stepped in to oversee structured payment plans. Invariably these involved mandated economic “reforms”: privatization (selling off factories and resources, usually to the West), drastic cutbacks in state services (so the savings could go to debt servicing), reorienting whole economies from manufacture to shipping raw materials off to the developed world.

One critic writes:

According to UNICEF, over 500,000 children under the age of five died each year in Africa and Latin America in the late 1980s as a direct result of the debt crisis and its management under the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs. These programs required the abolition of price supports on essential food-stuffs, steep reductions in spending on health, education, and other social services, and increases in taxes. … Extrapolating from the UNICEF data, as many as 5,000,000 children and vulnerable adults may have lost their lives in this blighted continent as a result of the debt crunch.

Destructive across two continents, structural adjustment sent windfalls of money to rejuvenate the European and North American economies. Jubilee 2000 estimates that by the 1990s, debt servicing alone was moving $300 billion per year from the South to the North. As J. W. Smith says, the debt crisis beginning in the ’80s produced “the greatest peacetime transfer of wealth from the periphery to the imperial center in history.”

Structural adjustment: The medicine that makes the malady worse

Debt-related transfers helped power the economic revival of the 1980s and 1990s in the developed world.  New modes of production also boosted profits– breaking up factories and moving whole segments of the production process to cheap-labor areas — along with new technologies, especially the computer explosion. Still, Chris Harman estimates that the rate of profit in the period never reached much more than half its stellar heights of the trente glorieuses.  There were also sporadic but sharp recessions, far more frequent than anything the postwar boom had seen — not only the 1979-82 downturn, but sequels in 1991 and 2001.   These suggest the profit rate was undergoing an irregular but inexorable decline. The second trente glorieuses was turning out pretty ingloriously.

Here is where the debt comes in.

1975 – 2005: that’s thirty years, an entire generation, of slashing wages across the developed world, while spending more and more money on new technologies.  That’s a recipe for a crisis of demand. Who, under those conditions, has money left to buy things? Of course, if you’ve cut wages at home, you can try to resolve the problem of popular spending power by finding new markets abroad.  With structural adjustment plans still leaving much of the world’s population reeling, though, new markets on many continents were limited to the small elites surfing on the flow and froth of global capital. Mass markets for anything more than cheap exports were getting hard to find. Moreover, even in the age of globalization, when money runs around giddily from point to point like hamsters in a maze, some goods can’t be exported. Housing is a prime (or sub-prime) example. You can take all the jobs in Flint, Michigan, and export them to Guam or Guadelajara; but the houses people lived in will stubbornly remain behind, where nobody has cash to buy them. They can’t be packed up or moved to some Shanghai or Kobe where folks can afford them.

Debt was the answer. Debt re-entered the picture like a third-act deus ex machina. If debt in the developing world had powered Northern economies’ initial revival, debt in the developed countries fueled the frenzy of spending that postponed, then precipitated, the end. If people’s spending power was shrinking, you could always give them fictitious money to spend. And housing, the paradigmatic commodity that couldn’t be moved where the real money was, was the perfect place to encourage them to spend it.

Credit ballooned. Capitalism in the last phase of the period was turbo-powered by a huge wave of fake money.   Mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, and other kinds of credit became incredibly easy to obtain. The housing bubble that resulted in the US —  housing prices driven up by demand, and an enormous number of people indebted to buy houses they couldn’t in the end afford — started to collapse first, in 2006. But the tidal wave of loans, of spending fueled by nonexistent money, had surged around the developed world. Whole countries were swept up in it. John Lanchester cites symptoms of the mania. Spain and France ran up debts that totalled ten times their annual revenues.  Meanwhile, though, “Iceland’s stock market went up ninefold; … in Ireland, a developer paid €412 million in 2006 for a city dump that is now, because of cleanup costs, valued at negative €30 million.”

Most people with a special interest in the events of the credit crunch and the Great Recession that followed it have a private benchmark for the excesses that led up to the crash … phenomena that at the time seemed normal but that in retrospect were a brightly flashing warning light. I came across mine in Iceland, talking to a waitress in a café in the summer of 2009, about eight months after the króna collapsed and the whole country effectively went bankrupt under the debts incurred by its overextended banks. I asked her what had changed about her life since the crash.

“Well,” she said, “if I’m going to spend some time with friends at the weekend we go camping in the countryside.”

“How is that different from what you did before?” I asked.

“We used to take a plane to Milan and go shopping on the via Linate.”

Since that conversation, I’ve privately graded transparently absurd pre-crunch phenomena on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being complete financial prudence, and 10 being a Reykjavik waitress thinking it normal to be able to afford weekend shopping trips to Milan.

There’s a tendency these days to treat these people as morally weak for succumbing to temptation. Michael Lewis sees all of Greece as a study in “total moral collapse”:  “a nation of people looking for anyone to blame but themselves.”  But what were they supposed to do?  Fold their hands demurely and stay poor, while everybody else was getting rich? After all, the easy credit was being pushed on them by banks who seemed to know what they were doing.  Of course, we all know now what turned the banks into playground money pushers. They had found ways of repackaging debt into mathematically incomprehensible financial securities, and then selling it to someone else. The sale and resale of debt itself became a fantastically profitable industry, with the securities layered and combined so that nobody could tell how much of what they were buying (or selling) was solid debt, and how much was subprime stuff careening for default. The whole world economy was running on funny money. It ran for a while, and then fell apart.

And that leads us to where we are now. The banks, burdened by bad debt they’d lent or bought, by customers right and left defaulting, tottered on the verge of failure. The governments bailed them out –first the US and the UK, then other countries from Portugal to Greece to Ireland. All that bad debt the banks owned on their balance sheets suddenly became the property of you, the taxpayer, pretty much wherever you are. I’ll let Robin Blackburn summarize the story:

The Great Credit Crunch of 2007 has developed into a contraction of wider scope and great tenacity, centred in the main OECD countries. Governments acted to avert collapse, but in doing so themselves became a target. Bail-out measures adopted during the early phase of the crisis between 2007–09 saw the US, UK, and eurozone authorities increase public indebtedness by 20–40 per cent of GDP … The transfer of debt from private to public hands was carried out in the name of averting systemic failure, but in some ways it aggravated the debt problem since bank failure, however disruptive, is actually less devastating than state failure. Before long, the bond markets were demanding plans to cut these deficits by slashing public spending and shrinking social protection.

And this gets us back to my starting point. The markets wanted austerity; but austerity cannot give them economic growth, and some degree of growth is needed for governments to pay off this mountain of bank-debt-become-public debt — as well as to care for the minimal needs of populations pushed to the margins of endurance.  There is no easy way out, no simple formula for starting the business cycle up again. Capitalism is trapped in this contradiction, feeling blindly for the exit, and coming up against bland, impassive, smooth-featured walls.

What’s coming? What does the New Year hold? I can’t say — like you, I barely want to imagine it. The threat is not only to our livelihoods; it’s to democracy. Already, in Greece and Italy, the markets have shown themselves more powerful than the publics.  Governments responsible to no party, transcending the voters’ will, were set up at the beck of bondholders, who form a Higher Electorate against whom mere citizens are simply beggars.

Moreover, the post-austerity state, stripped of its capacity to provide for public welfare and of many of its other powers, has little to legitimate itself except its willingness to repress and kill. Recently the New Yorker profiled Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s tiny president presiding over an increasingly tiny state, its authority whittled away not only by the European Union (which the article, like most French people, tends to blame) but by the pressure to slim down to Thatcherite or Reaganite dimensions.  The profile tries to explain Sarkozy’s ferocious rhetoric against immigrants, criminals, Muslims, Gypsies.

“People need to understand why the President puts so much stress on the question of security,” one adviser told me. “It’s precisely because it’s something which is entirely in your hands.” When it came to crime in the streets, he said, “there is no Europe here.”

The same logic leads to governments that massacre the poor in Jamaica and Nigeria in the name of vindicating their withered existence, to the tear gas staining the air of New York and Oakland. The welfare state turns into the security state. Many have perished; more will.

Austerity, we’re told, is the answer. But austerity makes the problem worse. Is there any comfort to be found?  Livy wrote, of the last years of the Roman Republic: “They had reached that final point when the difficulties they faced were less terrible than their solutions.”  We seem, to the unjaundiced eye, to be inching there.   “Another world is possible,” they chant in the demonstrations. Possible? It’s urgent.

Poverty, repression, resistance: Nigeria to Hungary

Romanian demonstrator: The world has mouths to feed

The first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution comes in ten days.   Cairo is suffering an inexplicable gas shortage: perhaps to turn the screws before the expected demonstrations, perhaps just a random thrombosis in a sclerotic economy up to one third of which may be in the greedy hands of  the generals who now run the country.

But you think the Egyptians have it bad? Yesterday, the world economy suffered another shock, with the credit ratings of nine European nations slashed and Greece pushed closer to default.

Even as austerity spreads and militarized police clamp down, though, resistance continues. Here are few scenes from around a still-rebellious world.

In Nigeria, nationwide strikes are due to resume tomorrow in protest against the removal of a key oil subsidy.

Tens of thousands took to the streets for strikes over five successive days last week in protest against the sudden removal of a fuel subsidy on Jan. 1 that more than doubled the pump price of petrol to 150 naira ($0.93) per litre from 65 naira.

“We are suffering,” shouted Paul Edem, after queueing for 12 hours to buy petrol at the new higher price in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. The only alternative to queueing is to buy at three times the new price from touts selling from jerry cans.

Socialist Worker adds:

For decades, the program has helped control the price of transportation and electricity in a country where two-thirds of the population–or about 104 million people–live on less than $1.25 per day. ..

The end of the fuel subsidy will increase the cost of nearly every aspect of life in Nigeria. Communal transport fares have already increased, and the price of food and other basic necessities is expected to soon rise, too. One Nigerian writer pointed out that a sachet of drinkable water, a product many Nigerians rely on, has already doubled in price where he lives.

The subsidy’s removal, absurd on the face of it in the world’s sixth largest oil producer, is part of a “privatization and austerity” plan promoted by President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. The austerity plan’s essence is to reserve more Nigerian commodities for foreign markets.

During the past decade, both the Bush and Obama administrations have funded and supported the increasing militarization of Nigeria. American companies and the U.S. government have a massive stake in Nigeria–44 percent of the oil extracted from the country goes to the U.S.. The U.S. imports more oil from Africa than from the Middle East, and Nigeria alone supplies 8 percent of the crude oil imported into the U.S.

And the combined result of export dependence and militarization is murder:

In multiple Nigerian cities, security forces responded to the protests with violence. In Kano, police shot more than a dozen people on Monday. At least three protesters in Kano and Lagos died from either gunshot wounds or tear gas on the first day of the strike, prompting unions to call off public demonstrations in Kano on Tuesday, while maintaining the strike call.

Bucharest protester: "Down with Băsescu's dictatorship"Romania saw its fourth day of violent protests against government austerity plans, with 1000 demonstrators clashing with police and blocking a boulevard. They started Thursday, after a health ministry official resigned to protest government cutbacks in health care. President Traian Băsescu retracted the cuts the following day, but the rage only mounted. The protests, says the AP,

are the result of frustration against public wage cuts, slashed benefits, higher taxes, cronyism in state institutions and widespread corruption.

Protesters yelled “The Mafioso government stole everything we had!” and “Get out you miserable dog!” — a popular expression of contempt used to refer to Băsescu. Protesters roamed through the center of the capital, and Mayor Sorin Oprescu called on them to refrain from acts of violence. Antena 3 TV reported that shops in the vicinity of the protest were vandalized.

“We are here to protest, we cannot face it any more, we have no money to survive, our pensions are so small, the expenses are more than we can afford. It’s no way to live,” said a protester who would only identify himself as Sorin. Thirteen people needed medical treatment, said Bogdan Opriţa, who heads emergency services in Bucharest.

Saudi Arabia has seen a revival of protest in the perennially disadvantaged and policed Eastern Province — where a large population of disenfranchised Shi’a sit atop the kingdom’s oil. Open Democracy says,

While western powers have been happy to use Saudi Arabia as an ally to ratchet up the pressure on Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, [they have] not caught a whiff of the silent crackdown occurring within the kingdom. …

Today, while attention was focused on the Strait of Hormuz, on Syria, and on the rising tensions in Bahrain, Saudi security forces launched an assault on the city of Awamiyah killing at least one and wounding half a dozen more. Eye witnesses have stated that soldiers on trucks opened fire on demonstrators, hitting many as they fled. The attack bears all the hallmarks of a planned operation with electricity being cut to the area prior to the assault. The area at the time of writing is apparently still under military lock-down and reflects a state of siege with clashes continuing to occur and gunfire being heard.

This attack was almost certainly condoned by the royal family and comes on the heels of a series of indictments against demonstrators and high profile invectives against the protest movement. Despite this attack and others like it, the rumblings and tremors of protest and crackdown show no sign of abatement. Indeed in the past few months they have once again reared their head in the south west in Najran and Jazan, compounded with protests over women’s rights in Riyadh and Buraydah.

But the resistance to the resistance, the defense of the awfulness of things as they are, is immensely powerful. There is one excellent, dangerously exemplary instance of counter-revolutionary success. Hungary’s ruling party, the ever more far-right and more authoritarian Fidesz, steadily manipulates chauvinism and racism to keep a critical mass of its public distracted from a struggling economy.

He paid youths to attend his speech and clap. He championed laws to silence critical journalists. He rammed through a constitution aimed at remaking Hungary on conservative Christian values. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who made his name protesting Hungary’s communist dictatorship, is now confronting protesters chanting “Viktator!’’

I can barely stomach Bernard-Henri Lévy — every time someone calls him a “philosopher,” Socrates’ mouldering bones must grope for more hemlock — but he writes about Orbán’s loathing of democracy in terms that, for once, seem hardly overblown:

Among its nations, Europe is banishing Greece for failing — it’s true, big time — to fulfill the rules of good economic and financial governance. …

Well, today there exists in the heart of Europe a country whose government gags the media, is dismantling the health and social protection systems, challenges rights once considered acquired, such as that to an abortion, and criminalizes the poor.

There is a country that has revived the most obtuse chauvinism, the most worn-out populism, and the hatred of Tsiganes [sic] and Jews, transforming the latter in an increasingly open manner into scapegoats for any and all misfortune, much as they were in the darkest hours of the history of the continent.

Lévy  concludes, ominously:

In the Internet age, under the new regime where, for better or for worse, “social network” politics reign supreme, in this hour in which everyone communicates with everyone and where a Marine Le Pen can be linked, by a taut thread, to an extremist leader in Thuringia, Flanders, Northern Italy or, thus, to a Viktor Orban, it is not inconceivable that an increasing number of individuals in Europe perceive in this Hungarian laboratory the actualization of their less and less secret plan: undo Europe, get rid of it and, at the same time, get rid of a corset of democratic rules judged, as during the 1930s, unsuitable in times of crisis.

More thoughts on aid conditionality: And an apology to Paul Canning, III

My masculinity, sprouting

Blogger Paul Canning calls me a “b*tch,” undoubtedly meaning “butch,” and all too sadly that is true. Thirty years of wearing this macho mustache, half Marlboro Man and half John Bolton, have made my inner fem dwindle to a shrunken Munchkin, curtseying to Dorothy over the witch’s corpse while pathetically throwing myself at the he-men in the Lollipop Guild.

My femininity, what’s left of it

Still, I’m not nearly as much of a he-man as Paul is. In fact, Paul’s affirmations of his own manhood have gone over the top lately – judging from his comments here,  on my own little blog.   I take a holiday vacation from things, and what do I find when I return?  Paul positively daring me to test-drive my testes, and prove I’m not “chicken”:

Am hard noting your ignoring Gay Kenya’s statement and use of *150*, say it agin,*150* activists as a battering ram. Let’s see you fisk the Kenyan statement. Or are you chicken? I think we can guess.

I’ll try to explain what Paul means in a little bit, but just note how noting things makes him hard.  Also, observe the elegant phallic metaphor – the “battering ram”! Apparently it takes 150 activists to make one phallus. Then there’s this gem, a few days later:

But I wonder why you have not responded to my chicken call to respond to the Kenyan activist David Kuria on aid conditionality? I search in vain for such a response. Is it here? No! Is it there? No! Where could it be? Could it be, perchance, be that, for once, an African activist has shut you the fuck up? Has the wisdom fount dried up? It CANNOT BE!?!

And again:

Not publishing my comment on my previous mention eh Scott? Why would that be I wonder. Legal reasons? Defamation? Something else?

One of the things you notice about the guys in the Peter Tatchell crowd, who have been cheerfully harassing me for years, is not just that they’re all guys, but they’re terribly, terribly macho.   Of course, as you would expect from such a diverse crew of highly white people, their testosterone infestations take different forms. For Tatchell himself, a Dickens character if there ever was one, the display of male authority means a transit from his usual Uriah Heep sanctimony – notifying you over and over again ‘ow ‘umble he is, truly ‘umble, very ‘umble– to a loud, Mr. Chadband style of oratory undoubtedly influenced by his Evangelical origins, a booming and all-silencing sermonizing that tells you he is about to tell the Terewth.  (The Terewth, alas, never gets told.)  For Doug Ireland, the literate one of the crew, it takes the shape of a terrible onslaught of intimidating adjectives whenever  his competence is  called into question, on the apparent assumption that mere feminine types like his opponents, however deep their throats, cannot possibly wrap their mouths around the assemblage of misused polysyllables at his disposal.   For Michael Petrelis, Tatchell intimate and convicted stalker, it takes the form of yelling, which he can do as well on e-mail as in person.   (I once compared Petrelis’ communication style to Divine starring in La Voix Humaine, and he took umbrage, thinking this a reference to his weight. However, I meant vocal, not physical, volume.) But ¿Quien es mas macho?  Surely Canning outdoes the whole gang. I haven’t been faced by anyone calling me “chicken” since the fourth grade. Arguing with Paul brings one back in memory to those halcyon days of boys comparing organ length in the school bathroom, innocently ignorant of what puberty had in store for those peculiar appendages, or what exactly, besides urination, they were meant to do. Paul is similarly unaware what the notions he hawks will lead to, or what causes they further in the real world. But he knows they’re bigger than mine, and that’s all that counts.

Ascending scale of manhood: Peter Tatchell, Michael Petrelis, Paul Canning

So you’re wondering, what the hell is this all about?  Well, if you’ll remember, back in October David Cameron, boy prime minister of Britain, created a furor by declaring the UK would tie overseas aid to LGBT rights.  This made aid conditionality a subject of vigorous debate. 86 African social justice activists  and 53 organizations (hence the figure 150 in Paul’s battering ram, above) signed an open letter opposing aid conditionality.  It struck me that Paul’s slanted all-embracing blog, which claims to give you all the international queer news you need to know, overlooked the letter completely.  And I realized speculated that Paul’s own opinions were again might  possibly be affecting his definition of news. Paul indeed ignored the letter — but he doesn’t ignore me.   While I spent my December prone under Neil Patrick Harris in a drugged, drunken stupor, Paul busily honed his demand that I deal with what he obviously regarded as a conclusive refutation: statements on aid confidentiality by Gay Kenya and my friend the Kenyan activist and politician David Kuria.

Believe me, I would shave my mustache before I let anyone call me “chicken” three times! More to the point: I have no problem with arguments that run counter to my own, especially when they come from activists  who are on the front lines.  My issue with Paul himself has never been that he thinks aid conditionality is a Good Idea, which is perfectly legitimate.  It’s that, running a news source with a fairly wide readership in the US and UK, he treats the opposing opinions of a whole phallus phalanx of African activists as unworthily irrelevant to his own agenda.

So let me address a few key points in David Kuria’s column.

First: Kuria points out that there’s no unanimity among Africans on the subject of conditioning aid.   He’s right, obviously. A recent Canadian news article interviewed Malawian LGBT leaders who favor such ties (as well as a Jamaican who’s generally against them). I do disagree with the way David frames the divisions:

On the one hand, an elite group of African activists feel insulted by the presumed neo-colonial undertones of Western powers using aid to set priorities for the African movement without as much as consulting the activists. These activists are vocal, well connected or have lived in Western countries. Their animus may as much be about the desire to show they are in are in charge as it may also be about a genuine fear of backlash.

On the other hand are the ordinary gay or lesbian on the street – for some reason gay/lesbian on the street does not translate well from “man on the street.” For him or her, a threat of aid withdrawal was received with great jubilation – finally the ray of hope they had for so long waited!  These are unsophisticated, have either been victims of homophobic violence or live with an ever present threat of attack, and the only thing keeping them alive are the ever thinning walls of their closets.

Looking at the signatories to the African activists’ statement, I’m not persuaded that they’re more “elite” or cosmopolitan than those who didn’t sign.   Nor do I think that the fear of backlash can be reduced completely to a strategy of control.   The fact is that, since the early 1990s, almost every first glint of public visibility for LGBT people, or for sexual orientation and gender identity issues, in any country between the Limpopo and the Atlas Mountains has produced an intense and menacing public backlash. In Zimbabwe, a gay and lesbian group rents a stall at a book fair; the President condemns them, and years of political incitements to homophobic violence ensue. In Zambia, one gay man, tired of the closet, walks into the country’s largest newspaper and offers an interview; after the article appears, all of public life from university professors to the President is consumed by a wildfire of condemnation, and for the next three months hardly a Zambian can talk of anything else.   In Nigeria, a few men stage an LGBT-rights protest at an international AIDS conference; two months later, the President’s office cites the affront in justifying a draconian bill to silence virtually any mention of homosexuality. One could go on and on, but the point is that a generation of African politicians, starting in the crisis years of structural adjustment,have learned very clearly how to link popular anxieties around sexuality to other, more immediate or salient fears — xenophobia among them — and drum up support in the process. You can argue about whether, or how, such a backlash could be avoided — and Kuria proceeds to do that. But the record of its recurrences makes considering it not only inevitable but, I should think, necessary in debating decriminalization strategies and the uses of aid.

Second, David observes:

Instead of assuming that we can have a “pan-africanist” approach, we should instead query what challenges and opportunities it presents to us as a country. Gay Kenya’s statement on aid, noted that each country has had a different aid narrative, and could thus not talk of an “African” but a contextualized Kenyan response. In Kenya’s case aid conditionality had proved effective in compelling reforms to an unwilling government. …

I see a group of villagers who once visited my dad, a Central banker asking him if [authoritarian former President Daniel Arap] Moi’s government would collapse at the back of donor conditions compelling political reform. As I recall it, they were very disappointed, and even thought of my dad as a Moi sympathiser when he told them government collects billions in taxes, and the only people who would be affected would be the poor.

The aim of withdrawing aid was to make the masses so angry that they would force Moi out of power he told them. It took time, but change did finally come, and the poor sung for Moi “yote yawezekana bila Moi” [Everything is possible without Moi] at Uhuru Park as a parting shot.

With the bulk of what David says here, I altogether agree. Any approach that elides national borders and differences in political history and culture is going to cause disaster. The more African activists speak up to assert the divergent narratives that demand disparate strategies, the better — the less likely some foreign government will take the whole continent as the convenient product of a cookie-cutter, and start to incinerate it accordingly. A history of aid conditionality producing democratic change may well make a population more disposed to suffer it in the name of something they can regard as progress. The one distinction I would point out is that back in the 90’s, when (some) Western governments were pushing for democratization in Africa, privations attending aid cuts could be justified as promoting a general good, something everybody — or nearly everybody –wanted. Joy Mdivo, in a recent blog post, remembers:

it is difficult to miss the happiness, the euphoria, the joy at common folk finally bringing down the Tyrant and winning Freedom.  We had our own “jubilation” in 2003 when Kibaki came into power and we saw the back of Moi.  People were literally drunk with happiness and giddy with anticipation of a better Kenya without Moi.

The queers may dance in the streets if Kenya’s sodomy law goes, but I doubt the general population will gather round the disco ball.   Instead, if the aid conditions — or cuts — have aimed at broad development initiatives, people are likely to feel the public welfare has been risked or sacrificed to get a particular group its rights. Or, as the churches are likely to say, its perverted privileges.

Now, this kind of antinomization of rights protections — their rights, not ours — is made possible by the minoritization of sexuality: the prevailing idea that homosexual desire is the property of a small minority, not the potential of a larger number, and that only that bounded group will be affected by its liberation or persecution. Such thinking clearly is one import from the West that the present structure of “assistance” to ensure rights promotes and confirms. It dominates the help promised by foreign governments (Clinton’s and Cameron’s bruited initiatives exclusively talk the language of LGBT, not that of sexual rights for all), as well as the intrusions of NGOs (from Human Rights Watch on down, all the major human rights players have “LGBT Rights Programs,” and “sexual rights” is only mentioned in a whisper).

Gay Kenya has recently developed a “business case” to consolidate economically as well as politically based arguments for scrapping the old sodomy law. This document, Breaking the Wall of Criminalization — which I think deserves wide study — seems partly meant to counteract the minoritizing discourse.  The essence is that getting rid of the repressive law will benefit broad strata of the population; the specific case revolves around how outreach and openness help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.   My guess is that arguments like this are the best if not only route to abrogating the laws across much of Africa. If so, everyone has a stake in extending them beyond economics and health to contend that decriminalization is a benefit to democracy itself. And that case would require engaging with a lot of existing critical thought about nation-building, the African state, patriarchy, and the politics of development. Some of this is already moving forward in the work of thinkers like Sylvia Tamale; the Kenyan document can contribute. The “business case” is noncommittal on the question of aid conditionality, though — precisely, I suspect, because the idea that (what are still seen as) “special rights” can have a general benefit hasn’t begun to catch on.

The politics of donor funding and sanctioning to induce the desired political response, especially in the area of human rights, is often characterised by a complex matrix of competing interests. … [S]hould aid be conditional to removal of structural barriers that we know lead to inefficient use of resources and negatively impact efforts to reduce HIV infections? This is not an easy question to resolve, partly because African leadership can engage in dangerous brinkmanship over HIV funding …

The “brinksmanship” is enabled — despite the years everybody spent ritually affirming the mainly heterosexual epidemiology of African AIDS — by the persisting belief that the pandemic primarily affects the marginalized, and that these inhabit the margin because they are immoral.  Governments don’t think they’re playing va banque with public health in general when they put their AIDS budgets in the poker pot. In their piggybank heart of hearts, they still consider this a concern of homosexuals, drug addicts, and prostitutes, and of course women, who aren’t really part of the general public either. In this light, the “business case” makes  an obvious point, but one still worth making. The less any aid cut affects the general population, the more closely it is targeted toward the issues engaged by conditionality, the more the same people you are trying to help will be hurt. It’s the marginal who will pay:

In the case of HIV … [w]ere aid to be withdrawn, it is the vulnerable, especially those on treatment, who would suffer the most and that would not only be punitive but also unethical.

Third, David observes that the aid conditionality question should have been argued yesterday, or last week. And in this he may be right. He writes:

I have bad news both for the elite African activists and the gay/lesbian on the street. To the Elite, quit whining, the genie has already left the bottle. When the U.K. statement on conditioning aid to gay rights, became public we should have known scapegoating and blame-shifting was to follow. … You can take this to the bank, any misunderstanding between an African state and any Western power on anything under the sun will from now on be blamed on gays.

It’s true, Cameron’s inept initiative, and Clinton’s more thought-through one, burst into daylight without any particular consultation with the people who would be, for worse or better, most affected. And what David and Hillary said and did will inflect all the backlashes to come.

Treatment Action Campaign T-shirt, South Africa

Still, it’s not hard to hear in this some of the despair of a continent that is used to having not just its resources colonized but its voices ventriloquized, its needs spoken for and its aspirations represented and decided by others outside. For the queers confronting their impeccable and indifferent benefactors, this is as ineluctable a fact as for any other Africans.   Yet I can’t believe it’s either universal or permanent.   In the realm of HIV, treatment activists, many of them in countries across Africa, have shaped and redirected the global discourse about who’s responsible for the pandemic and what to do about it. They’ve accomplished this with an uncompromisingly confrontational assault on the received verities of globalization, one grounded equally in history and politics.   Now that debate has begun in the UK and the US about what exactly these new, ill-formed initiatives mean, there’s no reason LGBT activists in Africa — either country by country, or finding commonalities across regions or the continent — can’t try to do the same.

I have no dog in this fight, no vested interest in either side of the question, though I have a fairly visceral distrust of whether aid conditionality will accomplish what it sets out to to do.  What I can do is pose  questions about how the manipulation of aid –or, for that matter, other kinds of foreign support for LGBT people’s rights — would work. Some questions are:

a)     How can you prevent backlash; how, in particular, to avoid the appearance of elevating queers as somehow superior to other citizens, subjects, and “victims”?

b)    What’s the history that will shape how Western influence will be regarded, and answered? Rahul Rao lays out persuasive reasons why British interventions in the Commonwealth are especially problematic:

 [T]o call on Britain to play an advocacy role in the struggle against these laws invites a contemporary rerun of the civilising mission: the spectre of the erstwhile imperial power and its white dominions berating the black and brown Commonwealth for its backwardness is not one that is likely to engender the sort of change that its proponents wish for. Moreover, the demand for an apology for the sodomy law, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, late Victorian holocausts, dependency, slavery or all of the other phenomena typically grouped under the sign of ‘colonialism’ (except when Niall Ferguson is telling the story), seems tantamount to charging a rapist with minor misdemeanours.

In addition to history, there’s also the ally’s present stance, including its funding on other issues. The new US embrace of LGBT rights has not altered one whit its Puritanism where other kinds of sex are concerned.    It still enforces, for instance, a gag order banning money for any NGO abroad that won’t sign an oath to support criminal penalties for prostitution.  It’s easy to imagine this situation:  the US threatens to cut aid to a government that endorses criminalizing homosexual conduct — while defunding an advocacy group in the same country that endorses decriminalizing prostitution.  How can activists negotiate these thickets of contradiction? How can they oppose a supportive government’s other, offensive policies?

c)   Who will be affected by any conditions on or cuts in aid? Will women (who tend to be the targets of many aid programs, if not necessarily the recipients of actual aid) suffer in order to secure gay men’s rights?

d) Development is notoroiously a depoliticizing business; it turns rights claimants into supplicants. Drawing LGBT communities deeper into development discourse risks turning advocacy for political change into lobbying for resource allocation, and replacing rights campaigns with service provision.  Indian feminist scholar Nivedita Menon describes how

The Indian population recognizes itself quite easily as the target of development policies of the state … The depoliticization (and feminization) of development discourse into ‘devel- opment altruism’ is noted by a study from Kerala …. Their interviews with women presidents of panchayats (village councils) show that these women identify as ‘development agents’ rather than as ‘politicians’. This is consistent with the discourse of the Left Front government’s Peoples’ Planning Campaign (1995–6), in which … ‘the panchayat was consistently projected as a space of ‘‘development’’ beyond divisive politics’. This allows the panchayat ‘to be projected as a non-political space, the space of development altruism.’

Assuming this space “beyond divisive politics” is recognized as fake, and its effects as deleterious, how can the pitfalls of “developmentizing” LGBT issues be circumvented?

e)    Finally, where do the core problems, and the main target for change, lie? Are they in law and policy, or in hearts and minds?  An obstreperous and oppressive law regularly enforced, or the promise of new and repressive provisions, would be one kind of threat. A pervasive atmosphere of prejudice, tending to eruptions of moral panic and collective rage, is another. It’s not that they don’t intertwine often and reinforce one another. It’s not, moreover, as though changing a law can’t be one road to changing people’s attitudes. But there are plenty of situations where a loudly foreign-enabled campaign against a particular law can make prejudice worse, and perhaps provide the spark that sets a full-scale popular panic going. My own pragmatic guess is that any threats involving aid would work best — indeed, may only work  — where a specific law or a specific case is the clear target, or where, as in Uganda or Nigeria, a new law proposal requires urgent opposing action.  If the goal is, instead, to alter attitudes and prejudices, even if as a precondition for law reform, aid conditionality (and many other kinds of overt foreign pressure) risks reinforcing hate and making reform impossible.

Soekarno said, in his famous speech at the Bandung conference in 1955, one of the early high points of tiers-mondialisme: “What harm is in diversity, when there is unity in desire?” The trajectory of the Third World since, as of the other two, has tended to reinforce not only the impossibility of the latter, but the importance of thinking of the former, so far as feasible, not as potential harm but as actual strength. But a conversation about desire — and especially, now, about what is wanted and what unwanted about Western support — can still help LGBT activists in Africa and elsewhere to shape what their allies do, and decide what can and can’t be done.

Me, in future

I feel I have failed Paul. He expected fireworks and battering rams, and he has got something less loud and conspicuous. So again, as so often before, I am constrained to offer him an apology. I can do nothing to redeem my masculinity but to grow my mustache. As of today, I break my razor as Prospero did his staff; and I shall not reapply it until my manhood stands proud on my upper lip like 150 activists, or a grove of Sequoias. Meanwhile, among African activists, the conversation should carry on.  I hope folks like Paul will start to report it.

p.s. CORRECTION. We are sticklers for accuracy here at A Paper Bird. I just uploaded December’s photographs to my hard, hard drive from my tiny, feminine camera. On examining them closely, I don’t think that was Neil Patrick Harris at all.

The Republic of Heliopolis

the anti-Salafis

On the last day of the Egyptian revolution proper in February, hours before the announcement that Mubarak was stepping down, some revolutionaries from Midan Tahrir marched on the Presidential palace, located in the far-off, tony Cairo district of Heliopolis. Some Heliopolitans were already in front of the compound trying to protest, and I, who was following this minute-by-minute on Twitter, remember lots of pissy tweets from the hardened dissident arrivals about what bad demonstrators the bourgeoisie made. They didn’t know how to wave a banner; they didn’t know how to chant; they basically milled around waiting for their servants to do it for them. Fortunately the dictator had already decided to leave; otherwise, the neighborhood opposition might in the end have invited him out for tea. As Mao said, a revolution is not a dinner party, not least because you have to serve yourself.

In keeping with US supporters of John Kerry, who after the 2004 disaster proposed joining Canada, liberals in Heliopolis now want to secede from Egypt altogether. ” If you’re not a resident of Republic of Heliopolis, you will need a visa. Residents of Zamalek, Maadi (the posh part of Maadi), Katamiyah and Garden City are exempted.”

Naturally, although it’s not strictly within their borders, they are laying claim to City Stars, Cairo’s biggest shopping mall. (Visit the mall’s website, and check that music.) The Salafis wouldn’t want it, but the Muslim Brotherhood, to whom consumerism is not entirely alien, might put up a fight. The mall could become the Mosul or the Vukovar of Egypt’s civil war.

remember Jesusland?

From Egypt: The class impasse

So this is what violence in Cairo is like now: the city has grown inured to it. You can stroll down a sidewalk in perfect serenity, and ignore the fact that a few blocks away lies what the foreign journalists call a “war zone.”  Tuesday night — the end of the first round of the parliamentary elections — I was wandering Mahmoud Bassiouny Street downtown. I reached street’s end and a tangle of highways by the Egyptian Museum, and suddenly there were people rushing across the pavement and screaming, and bright crashing flashes that I recognized as Molotov cocktails. Behind me, abruptly, aggressive young guys in leather jackets had built a makeshift barricade across the street and were diverting traffic, and waving large knives. Among their shouts, I could distinguish “Eid wahda” — “One hand.”  A few shopkeepers motioned me to get the hell away. For months crowds have targeted foreigners amid gathering xenophobia, reviling them as spies. There was, however, no obvious place to run. I walked as calmly as I could back past the barricade and the multiplying mob, and it was only at Talaat Harb Street, as the usual bustle of the city settled in, that I checked Twitter and called my friends and realized I’d been in the middle of the latest installment of the Battle of Tahrir. By night’s end, around sixty people, democratic protestors attacked by their opponents, were in the hospital. At midnight, I watched demonstrators carrying their comrades, swathed in bandages, across the square.

I’ll say more later about exactly what was going on.  First, though, the elections.

The returns have been dribbling in for two days. This was the first round of three: a third of Egypt’s governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, cast ballots. The sweep of the Islamic parties’ victory surprised everyone, including some wings of the Islamists themselves.

Salafist campaign workers in Cairo's Shobra district: from @mmbilal on Twitter

Freedom and Justice (FJP), dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, carried about 40% of the vote. More shockingly, el-Nour, the main Salafist party — representing literal, puritan, right-wing Islamists — won about a quarter of the ballots to come in second overall. The Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of liberal and largely secular parties, placed third, slightly behind it.  The next election rounds will largely be held in more conservative parts of the country. Unless the Coptic vote in Upper Egypt shows unexpected strength, Freedom and Justice will hold close to a majority of seats; with el-Nour, they could control the new parliament completely.

Most people expected the Brotherhood to win, though by a lesser margin. At a polling place downtown I visited on Monday, Freedom and Justice organizers swarmed everywhere, flush with leaflets and paraphernalia, while the other parties were pretty much invisible. Several observers heard the same comment over and over from FJP activists: “We’re confident because we’ve been organizing for this moment for 80 years.”  Certainly, for at least two decades the Brotherhood have been the only opposition force with a real grassroots presence. This time, they had the chance to try it out in a fair election. On the other hand, the Salafists’ success seems to have shocked even the Freedom and Justice Party. Mubarak jailed and tortured the ultraconservative Islamists with still more fervor than he devoted to repressing the Brotherhood; driven underground, they had few of the Brothers’ opportunities to organize in cities or villages. Their ability to pull millions of votes out of a hat this time shocked many across Egypt.

In the US, naturally, neoconservatives bray that Egypt is the new Iran, making up in population for what it lacks in plutonium: “Egypt’s turn toward Islamic revolution would be catastrophic. As the largest country in the Arab world, it has influence that Iran could never hope to achieve.”

I spent most of the last week talking to “liberals” in Egypt — a catch-all term defined quite differently than in the West. It includes Communists of various sorts, socialists, social democrats, anarchists, and free-market liberals, most but not all secular, united by a commitment to democracy, divided by disparate beliefs in what it means — some wedded to the parliamentary process, some dreaming of direct self-governance. Few, though, had an apocalyptic sense about the Islamists’ victory. They talk about three key things. First, as democrats they can’t reject out of hand the outcome of a democratic election. Second, the parliament will have little power in a government still run by a military junta. And third, the junta remains the real enemy.

One bloody hand: Junta head Tantawi

The generals are killing people. I spoke last night to two gay friends who have been committed revolutionaries since January. Both were in Midan Tahrir the week of November 20, and their rage against SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) was palpable. That week, the junta reacted to a renewed sit-in in the square with brute force. They sent Central Security police down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, leading from the Ministry of the Interior, to beat and abuse protesters. The protesters fought back, blocking the street and throwing stones at the police. The police in turn soaked the street in tear gas, till mushroom clouds of it loomed above the city; they fired at the demonstrators with rubber bullets and birdshots — aiming, it’s clear, at the eyes to blind them. The square these days is full of people with bandaged sockets, bandaged faces; friends of my friends lost their eyes. One police marksman, Sobhi Mahmoud Shenawy, became known as “the eye sniper.” Forty-three dissidents died. “This was a deeply personal fight,” Ahmad told me. “You could see they would kill you in a minute.”  And Khaled added, “You felt that such people, who would fire to blind you, didn’t deserve to rule a city block, much less a country.”

Wounded protesters, Nov. 20: from @NadimX on Twitter

As gay men, my friends don’t much fear the Brotherhood or the Salafis. They remember that the worst persecution of gays in Egypt’s history, probably the worst anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world, happened under the secular Mubarak regime, from 2001-2004.  The FJP could hardly augur anything worse.

To be sure, the Brotherhood, always opportunists, sold out in the last weeks, giving their support to SCAF.   But the new Prime Minister whom SCAF plans to puppeteer, Kamal el-Ganzouri, is a Mubarak veteran who presided over mass torture of Islamists during his last term as premier in the 1990s. The Islamists have long memories; they will not forgive him. Already, the FJP has announced it expects a government responsible to the parliament. SCAF quickly warned them the new cabinet will answer to the generals alone. “The Brotherhood can mobilize a million people in the street if they want,” my friends told me. “If it comes to a face-off with SCAF, they’re almost the only political force with a chance to win.”

Still, liberals — and feminists, and gays, and Egypt’s large Coptic minority, and many others — hardly trust the Brotherhood. And the Islamists’ triumph raises serious questions about where the revolution is going.

Back to last Tuesday night’s violence — because it illuminates those questions. How did the fighting start? On Tuesday morning, the revolutionaries in Tahrir decided to expel some of the vendors who populated the place. The square has become a market; in addition to tea, juice, food, and fruit, hawkers pitch T-shirts, flags, and souvenirs. The vendors have a bad reputation; they’ve been accused of peddling drugs; the dissidents thought they might besmirch the image of the revolution. Out with them!

This has happened before, once over the summer; back then the vendors got violent, and they did this time as well. In the evening, they counterattacked, assaulting the square with stones and Molotov cocktails. Or somebody counterattacked. The men I saw blocking traffic didn’t look like vendors; it’s possible SCAF took advantage of the situation to send in its own provocateurs. (Their battle cry, “One hand,” was SCAF’s own slogan: “The army and the people are one hand.”) What matters, though, is that the revolutionaries decided to turn on Egyptians who were using the revolution to scrape by. A protester I met in Tahrir two nights ago said plaintively: “We fought the revolution for the poor. And why should we throw them out of here so shamelessly? Just so we would look more clean?”

Khaled, one of my gay friends, last night told me, “On the front lines at Mohamed Mahmoud, it was mostly poor people. They were fighting bare-handed, bare-chested; they couldn’t even afford gas masks on their faces.” And Ahmad added,

“They’re the ones exposed to daily insults from police officers more than anybody else. And I don’t think they take values as relative, they way we usually do as part of the middle class. Sacrificing your life — we calculate about it: is this the time, today? Maybe this battle isn’t worth a life. But they have more absolute values of sacrifice and courage. For them, being on the front lines was a matter of human dignity.”

But the revolution has failed to do full justice to their dignity. The poor may be at the forefront of the battles, but the revolution’s leaders are overwhelmingly middle-class. The front lines of democracy and the front lines of class are not the same. And the bourgeois leaders have failed to reach across Egypt’s yawning class divide.

Some of the failure has been programmatic. Over the summer, as revolutionary groups struggled to agree on a list of demands, they found consensus on democracy and civil liberties easy — but their concession to addressing economic issues dwindled to an anodyne promise to raise the minimum wage. Strikers from factories to public services who had put their bodies and jobs on the line for Mubarak’s overthrow felt ignored.

But some of the failure was more physical. The revolutionaries failed to leave Tahrir, failed to go into the neighborhoods and towns and villages, to talk to workers and peasants, to organize. The Salafists, despite years underground, didn’t make that mistake. They spent the summer recruiting a third of a million active members for el-Nour. The revolutionaries waited for the masses to come to them. The result is written in the election returns. Even Zamalek, the liberal island of the haute-bourgeoisie in mid-Nile, went for the Brotherhood. The doormen and maids and porters who slave for the wealthy live in Zamalek too,  shunted to cellars and rooftop shacks — but they emerged, and they voted for the FJP.

The encampment in Tahrir is an ideal and almost a fetish for many leftist Egyptians. You can see why if you’ve been there: it’s an Arab Woodstock and Brook Farm, an alternative space to a corrupt society and state, a place where diverse identities can meet and share, where unities grow out of differences and one can imagine a new way of life, a new world. It’s beautiful. But too much time, many feel, was wasted this summer and fall defending Tahrir against the military, and too little speaking to the rest of society. An alternative community may represent the dream of comprehensive change, but does little to realize it. The hard work of talking across class boundaries and building solidarities to encompass the rest of Egypt fell by the wayside.

There’s still time to recuperate the revolution. But it will take time and sweat. It will take dialogue. It will take renewed respect for the multiple meanings of dignity.

Over the summer, revolutionaries tried to stage a march on the Ministry of Defense in Cairo’s Abbasiyya district. Together with an Egyptian friend, I got there late; the marchers had been stopped several blocks short of the ministry, surrounded on three sides by massed troops and tanks. We tried to go through the surrounding neighborhood, and get into the demonstration from the fourth side. The rundown, impoverished streets teemed with tense, angry citizens — enraged at the marchers, whom they regarded as invaders. And at one point we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of a river of running people, men and women pouring out of buildings, armed with big knives that glinted in the light of Ramadan lanterns strung above. They were shouting: “They’re attacking us!  Strike back! Defend yourselves!”  They could easily have turned on us, but somehow they raced past us unseeing. They engulfed the protest, and beat and brutalized many demonstrators. We couldn’t break through to join our friends; shaken, we limped home.

It was a fine example of false consciousness, you could say: the poor enlisted to defend an arrogant and indifferent regime. But the protesters too had their arrogance. When they first met the residents of the neighborhood, who blocked the way and demanded why these outsiders were marching through, some called back, “It’s a public street! We have the right to pass here.” That claim of possession is not what you say to Cairo’s poor, whose back streets and close communities are all they have. The revolutionaries are learning about dignity the hard way.

“Take your choice!”: When men’s lips meet

Benetton’s ads are causing an uproar, which of course is the idea. The Italian firm has perfected the art of advertising not products but itself. It’s also mastered the divine skill of selling things by making people angry, in the apparent confidence that a surge of outraged adrenalin directly stimulates the consumer organs. In this, they seem to have paved the way for the longtime success of Silvio Berlusconi, whose successive assaults upon the public’s patience only made him a more desired and demanded commodity — as if he were his own antidote. But with the high panjandrum of being-hated-into-office now turned to a defeated dud, the field is clear for the sweatshop owners.

This ad, showing Benedict XVI osculating the Sheikh of Al-Azhar in Cairo — the Clinch of Civilizations — pushed the Vatican too far: “This shows a grave lack of respect for the Pope, an offence to the feelings of believers, a clear demonstration of how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect for people,” said the Holy Father’s spokesman.

Photoshopping Obama’s lips against Hu Jintao’s prompted US ire: “The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president’s name and likeness for commercial purposes,” said spokesman Eric Schultz.

Now, one interesting thing is how many of these provocative images are of two men. There is indeed a strikingly chaste portrayal of Angela Merkel giving Nicolas Sarkozy a sauerkraut-faced smack:

They both look as though they have been forced into a medical experiment. Even the most ardent agitators against German dominance of the European Central Bank, however, aren’t likely to take offense at that. The aim to upset is far more effectively fulfilled by Netanyahu forcing his affections onto Mahmoud Abbas, with the ardor of a whole shtetl of settlers unleashed upon the land:

There’s interesting stuff for reflection here, on how homoeroticism between men still awakens unease. And it’s a particular kind of unease, in that all kinds of other relations –of political amity and civilizational conflict, of submission and overwhelmingly of power — offer themselves up to be read into that unmuted tonguing. A man kissing a woman is pretty much just that, banal from overexposure, symbolizing nothing much more than (the possibility of) sex. Looking at Merkel and Sarkozy, it’s hard to infuse much meaning into their liplock beyond a suspicion that one or the other has bad breath. But set the Vicar of Rome and an imam mouth to mouth, and every kind of association from the Battle of Poitiers to Le Pen, from Saladin to Samuel Huntington, comes crowding around like a band of paparazzi watching Madonna do a public strip-tease.

In other words, homosexuality is still in the unenviable position of meaning more than itself. It’s never just there, sufficient on its own; it keeps getting enlisted into other agendas, serving other programs, speaking in other voices, living in other rooms. One might remember Art Spiegelman’s famous New Yorker cover, which appeared in early 1993 a couple of years after rioting in Crown Heights between Hasidic Jews and African-Americans had shattered the city’s tenuous racial peace. It caused a stir at the time, but the sheer heterosexuality of it gave the feeling of alarm nothing tangible to hang onto. So what if the rabbi is laying it onto Queen Latifah?  Their kids will grow up to be doctors and play basketball. The frisson died down quickly for lack of ambiguity. But compare it to this photograph, taken for a story on lesbian and gay firefighters and police in New York after 9/11 (the photographer, Dirk Anschütz, acknowledges the debt):

It’s … different. It’s just different, somehow. Look at it for a while, and you start wondering things like: Why is the cop holding the fireman’s lapels that weird way? Is he attracted to him, or arresting him? Whatever happened to Abner Louima, anyway?  Why isn’t there a fire hose (nervous titter)? Why is that skyscraper there? Is a plane going to hit it? Isn’t this the kind of thing that is just destined to provoke another terrorist attack? They hate us for our freedoms, for God’s sake!  Can’t you be less free for once?  And who is that brown man siting across the aisle from me? Stewardess!  IS THERE AN AIR MARSHAL ON THIS PLANE?

In this light, I have to point to an obvious antecedent of the Benetton onslaught. Sandip Roy, in a charming essay on the Benetton campaign, has already observed the passing of the once-hegemonic Red Kiss:

Communist iron men were prone to these smooches unlike their more cowboy counterparts on the other side of the Cold War. They were secure enough in their masculinity — all those pogroms and tanks rolling into town squares surely helped.

But I think he misses the complexity of how those kisses were used. Here, for instance, was a famous one. Brezhnev, signing the SALT II treaty with Carter in 1979, decided, in what may have been an Alzheimerish impulse born of plaque on the cranial arteries, to treat the US President like a fraternal leader of a minor People’s Republic:

The moment, which was followed not long after by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, came up relentlessly in the next year’s presidential campaign, used to chip away at Carter’s masculinity. Reagan unveiled an election poster:

Rarely has a presidential candidate, and a conservative one too, invited American voters to identify themselves explicitly with a Soviet dictator. I submit: it’s the wildly multiplying and contradictory meanings — of power, submission, fear, attraction, contempt — that homoeroticism opens up which gave space (a kind of semiotic space, let’s let the academic in me say) for the Reagan campaign to make the leap. It worked. Carter, derided as a wimp too terrified to take on swimming rabbits, much less the Evil Empire, lost.

In 1990, when Hungary had its first free elections, the then-youth party Fidesz — which barred membership to seniors over 35, and was represented by a group of long-haired, rock-star student politicians seemingly straight off MTV — produced this famous campaign poster.

The top image shows Brezhnev planting a kiss on Erich Honecker, the iron boss of the GDR. The bottom one shows a happy young hetero couple rapt in springtime love on a park bench. The contrast the youth movement was trying to draw is obvious. The slogan is Tessék választani, which is a pun of sorts: It can mean “Take your choice!” (and as such was the title of a national Hungarian pop festival from the 60s on); it can also be, “Please vote.”

I remember discussing it with my gay friends in Budapest back then. We all felt a little ambivalent. Of course you were supposed to like the straight couple, so glowing and pretty and bold. (Kiissing outdoors was a bit daring and suggested rebellious freedom, even for heteros, back in those still-Puritan days.) And of course who wanted to imagine the caresses of those bureaucratic dinosaurs, like Yertle the Turtle mating? On the other hand, in the insistently heterosexual environment of 1990 Hungary, any image of male-male affection had a certain resonance for us. I even indulged in a bit of sympathy for the old guys, probably too worn out in that pre-Viagra era to get it up. I recognized, as my friends did, the inner ambiguity of the outcast: How should we choose? Which side were we on?

The Fidesz party logo was an orange, and that too was a pop culture reference: to a famous 1969 movie, A tanú (“The Witness”), a comic paysage moralisé through the absurdities of a Communist society. Everybody in the country knew its most famous lines. In one, the hero has been assigned to a laboratory to develop the first orange tree ever in Hungary. He succeeds, but on the morning before its unveiling, a kid steals in the lab and eats the fruit. To cover it up, the hapless fellow tapes a painted lemon onto the tree instead. At the ceremony, a party boss triumphantly takes the orange, peels it, and bites down. His face scrunches up like Angela Merkel’s. Then, puzzled but needing to claim success, he announces: “The Hungarian orange. It is small, it’s bitter — but it’s ours.”

It’s true, so true. All the ambiguity and all the freedom have now been leached out of that hopeful image, and nobody likes to sample the shrivelled, sour realities that remain. Fidesz, once a harbinger of vitality in politics, has turned into a middle-aged, far-rightist party that now leads the government and is trying desperately to restrict and roll back Hungary’s democracy. I’m older too, and I feel a bit like lumbering Brezhnev forced by cruel history to stare down his own unpopularity as I try to market myself online.

Phnom Penh 2010

Only Benetton rolls on, ageless as corporations are, evergreen in its ability to give out mixed signals, to get our attention. It’s a wonderful, sempiternal game, and it still manages to distract us from what’s behind the billboard. Homoeroticism conceals as easily as it reveals; it engrosses attention, engorges and agitates the mind, but keeps us from looking at what we’re not supposed to see. In Kasserine, the town where the Tunisian revolution started,  “Girls can work in the sweatshops producing for Benetton, where they earn less than 100 Euro per month.” In Cambodia last year, “Riot police used electric shock batons to beat women sweatshop workers when they stopped producing fashion labels for the UK and other Western nations.”  Benetton was one of the buyers of the striking workers’ products; the women earned just over a dollar a day. Unhate.