Glad to see my Naples getting the attention and affection it deserves

11 Jul

“A city of glorious but tattered beauty, known for its vibrancy and, yes, a frisson of menace…”

merlin_157299393_133ec6e6-8536-4eac-8cb6-09e65fd6cf07-superJumboCreditCreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

merlin_157301781_b27b5258-8b81-480b-b095-3428670eb1cb-jumboCreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Good Russia news?

8 Jul

From Al Jazeera:

Change is coming to Russia, but very slowly

Putin is losing popularity, but why has the opposition failed to gain much ground?

by

The approval rating of Russian President Vladimir Putin has slumped to 66 percent and that of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to 36 percent  [File: Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina]
The approval rating of Russian President Vladimir Putin has slumped to 66 percent and that of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to 36 percent [File: Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina]

In 2014-2015, the occupation of Crimea sent Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s approval ratings soaring to as much as 86 percent and kept them high for a few years. Over the past few months, however, his popularity has steadily declined and reached 66 percent – roughly as much as it was back in 2012-2013, when he was facing mass protests.

This trend is related to the decline in people’s real incomes after Russia’s recent economic crisis. One event, in particular, contributed greatly to Putin’s rising unpopularity: the 2018 decision to raise the retirement age.

The optics get worse when citizens are polled on major political institutions; roughly two-thirds of Russians disapprove of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his government, while a solid majority hold negative views on the State Duma and local governors.

In Moscow, traditionally a hotbed of discontent, the ruling United Russia party, formally headed by Medvedev, has become so unpopular that its candidates have been forced to run as independents in the city council elections, due in September.

The low popularity of those in power, however, has not really translated yet to major gains for the Russian opposition, which has struggled to mobilise its own support base for a variety of reasons.

First, various legal and bureaucratic barriers the Kremlin has put in place over the past few years to prevent popular mobilisation and free electoral competition are working. Opposition candidates are disqualified from running for office on a regular basis either on flimsy “technical” grounds or simply for failing to fulfil a variety of impossible requirements.

The upcoming Moscow council elections are a case in point. Opposition politicians are forced to run as independents because they have not been allowed to register a party. The main opposition leader Alexei Navalny has made nine attempts since 2012, but each time his party’s application has been rejected.

By law, independent candidates have to collect three percent of the number of voters in their districts in order to register for the race.

But as Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s strategist, has argued, this is an almost impossible task. When you do the math – ie from the available voters, you subtract those who have left on their summer holiday and cross out those who would not even open the door to a campaigner, then take off all those suspicious of signing official documents, then again remove those reluctant to hand over their ID details and finally eliminate those who are not even registered to vote in the district they live in – you might indeed get close to three percent.

In practice, it would be a miracle to get this number for a few other reasons, including thugs who intimidate and attack signature collectors and mistakes that might have been made when personal data was copied or that might be imagined by electoral commission officials eager to disqualify the opposition and please their superiors. That is unless you are a pro-Kremlin candidate, in which case, the needed signatures just emerge miraculously from the ether.

Thus, while opposition candidates, like Ilya Yashin, are quite popular among their constituents and have good chances of winning in a fair election, many might not even make on the ballot.

But all these legal and technical barriers are by far not the greatest challenge the opposition is facing. Rather, it is the political apathy of the Russian population and its general aversion to political change.

Unlike the late 1980s, when there was a huge and self-evident gulf in the standard of living in the USSR and Western countries, which politicised the general population, today most Russian citizens enjoy much better economic prospects, even with the recent recession.

More importantly, Russia is in much better shape economically than many of the former Soviet states currently supported by the West through subsidies and the promise of integration into NATO and the EU.

Economically speaking, the Putin years have been by far the best in living memory for all current generations of Russians. Economic growth has improved mobility – both socioeconomic and geographic – for most citizens. Today, many have economic opportunities that allow them to achieve a better standard of living, are able to move and live wherever they want within the country or abroad, which was not allowed in Soviet times, and have the means to travel, which most Soviet citizens could only dream of.

Indeed, the economic prosperity has come at a political price, but Russia, compared with some of its neighbours, is mildly authoritarian and repression cannot be compared with what it was at the height of totalitarianism.

In other words, neither the economy, nor the political violence is bad enough to cause mass politicisation and mobilisation to match those of the late 1980s. But perhaps the greatest deterrent for anti-government activity in Russia is Ukraine.

The Ukrainian example has remained the dominant theme in Kremlin propaganda over the last five years. By effectively outsourcing his domestic political conflict to another country, Putin killed two birds with one stone.

On the one hand, he sowed fear by showing Russians the level of violence they may face should they choose to revolt. On the other, the failure of the Maidan Revolution to upend a ruling oligarchy and change the rules of the political and economic game has turned Ukraine into a scarecrow for millions of potentially sympathetic Russians, instead of the blueprint for social change that it might have been.

It is against the backdrop of these challenges that the opposition is struggling to reignite the democratic process. It is indeed an uphill battle, and to some it might look like a Sisyphean task, but opposition leaders are also not giving up. In the past, their efforts have been rewarded with small victories. Two years ago, opposition candidates won 17 municipal districts, mostly in the city centre, thereby almost surrounding the Kremlin with rebel-held territories. 

In this upcoming elections, at least five opposition candidates could run; they have all collected enough signatures and will await approval of their registration.

Whether they manage to repeat the success at the 2017 Moscow local election will depend on their stamina and on how the Kremlin’s political technologists evaluate the pros and cons of allowing them to run. But regardless of what happens on September 9, one thing is for sure: Political change in Russia will be painfully slow.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

From NYRB: India

7 Jul

A Long & Undeclared Emergency

Indira Gandhi inspecting troops, Calcutta
Santosh Basak/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Indira Gandhi inspecting troops during the Emergency, Calcutta, March 1976

Speaking on November 25, 1949, just as India became a democratic republic, B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian constitution, exhorted his countrymen to maintain “democracy not merely in form, but also in fact.” Ambedkar, born in a low, formerly untouchable Hindu caste (Dalits), had ensured a progressive character to the constitution. It promulgated universal adult franchise in an overwhelmingly illiterate population; conferred citizenship without reference to race, caste, religion, or creed; proclaimed secularism in a deeply religious country; and upheld equality in a society marked by entrenched inequalities. The constitution made Indian democracy seem another milestone on humankind’s journey to freedom and dignity.

Ambedkar, however—as Gyan Prakash writes in Emergency Chronicles, his acute analysis of the sudden collapse of democracy in India in the mid-1970s—was “convinced that Indian society lacked democratic values.” India’s new ruling elite “had not broken from the hold of the privileged landed classes and upper castes.” Inheriting power from the country’s departing British rulers in 1947, they presided over a “passive” revolution from above rather than a radical socioeconomic transformation from below. This is why Ambedkar felt that in a society riven by caste and class, where neither equality nor fraternity was established as a principle, “political democracy” urgently needed to be supplemented by broad social transformations—the end, for instance, of cruel discrimination against low-caste Hindus.

A socialist by conviction, Ambedkar had plenty of reason to be worried in 1949 about some dangerous “contradictions” in his project of emancipation. As he explained:

In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.

The calamitous explosion Ambedkar feared finally occurred in India in 2014, with the election of Narendra Modi, a Hindu supremacist, as India’s prime minister, ending decades of government by political parties that at least paid lip service to secularism. Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right organization founded by upper-caste Hindus and inspired by European fascists, which was briefly banned in India in 1948 after one of its former members assassinated Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi for allegedly pampering Muslims and preventing the creation of a proud Hindu nation. Modi, accused of complicity in a pogrom in 2002 that killed hundreds of Muslims and displaced tens of thousands, was barred for almost a decade from travel to the US, the UK, and other parts of the European Union.

Yet as Indians erupted in the early 2010s in protests against the Congress Party—the party that had led the independence movement and then governed for much of India’s existence—Modi managed to persuade many of the “left-behinds” that the choicest fruits of capitalism in India were being stolen by an arrogant and deceptive elite that promised meritocracy but perpetuated dynastic rule and, furthermore, coddled traitorous minorities. He pledged rapid and equitable economic growth and an end to corruption, and he vowed to create new jobs for the 10 to 12 million young Indians entering the work force every year.

During his five years in power, Modi has failed to realize any of these promises, which had also won his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a rare majority in the Indian parliament in 2014. Unsurprisingly, he did not mention them during his triumphant reelection campaign this spring. Instead, he launched a culture war. He played up his humble origins as the son of a tea-seller and loudly scorned India’s English-speaking metropolitan elites for their hereditary privileges, conveniently embodied by his opponent Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party, whose father, grandmother, and great-grandfather were India’s prime ministers for decades.

Modi also accused the Congress Party, which had promised in its election manifesto to repeal repressive laws in Kashmir and elsewhere, of treasonously acting as Pakistan’s agent. He fielded a candidate for parliament, Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, who is awaiting trial for involvement in a series of bomb attacks in 2008 that killed six Muslims, and who regards the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi as her hero. Winning her seat in a landslide against a veteran Indian leader, this terrorist-turned-legislator seems a fitting symbol of an irrevocably Hindu-nationalized India this year, the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.

Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton, approaches India’s grim present by visiting an earlier episode in its long history of authoritarianism. It began on the night of June 25, 1975, when Indira Gandhi, then prime minister and leader of the Congress Party, responded to huge street protests against her and labor strikes across the country by declaring a state of emergency and suspending constitutional rights. By the mid-1970s, with inflation and unemployment at record highs, the consensus forged by an upper-caste Hindu bourgeoisie during the uninterrupted rule of the Congress Party was rapidly unraveling. Mrs. Gandhi was trying to resolve a crisis stemming from the unfulfilled promises of Indian democracy and a growing public hatred of a “corrupt and amoral politics under parliamentary democracy.”

She acted out of desperation: earlier that June, a state high court had disqualified her as a member of parliament for election irregularities and forbidden her from holding any elected post for six years. In the first twenty-four hours after Mrs. Gandhi’s proclamation, her enforcers arrested hundreds of opposition leaders and activists and shut off the power supply to the offices of major newspapers. She and her cronies spent the next twenty-one months—a period known as the Emergency—detaining and torturing her political opponents, razing slums in the name of “beautification,” imposing compulsory sterilization on the poor, and censoring the press and television.

Modi’s government is not as heavy-handed as Mrs. Gandhi’s. Today, Prakash writes, “there is no formal declaration of Emergency, no press censorship, no lawful suspension of the law.” Yet India for the last five years has been in a state of internal siege. The radicalization of its public sphere has barely been noticed in the West. Indeed, Barack Obama, writing about Modi in 2015 for Time’s list of the world’s hundred most influential people, claimed that he “reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise” and that he is “determined to help more Indians follow in his path.”

Many of the Indians who follow in Modi’s path have seemed more like a lynch mob, hunting in both real and virtual worlds for various enemies of the people. The scapegoats for Modi’s economic failures can include Muslims suspected of eating or storing beef, writers and journalists critical of the regime, and anyone deemed insufficiently patriotic. Threats of rape against women on social media by Hindu supremacist trolls have become commonplace during Modi’s rule. Television anchors never cease to clamor for retributive violence against Pakistan and Kashmiri Muslims. Their war cries grew louder following a terrorist attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir in February, prompting Modi to launch an unprecedented air attack on Pakistan.

Ambedkar’s warning about the vicious consequences of rampant inequality can be verified even in the older and more established liberal democracies of the West. Such a global breakdown calls for a more substantive definition of democracy and an acknowledgment that, as Prakash writes, “democracy is not just a matter of electing governments and holding elections” and that it is, as Ambedkar believed, “not just procedures but a value, a daily exercise of equality of human beings.” Much mainstream analysis, however, strives to change the subject, describing figures like Modi and Donald Trump as demonic arsonists of a long-standing “liberal order” and indulging in a nostalgia for ruling elites that never were.

A more rigorous reckoning with the old establishment’s iniquities and failures would reveal the deeper roots of the crisis today: that, for instance, it was the professedly “secular” Congress Party that first summoned, long before Modi’s advent, the ghosts of Hindu supremacism. Its leaders presided over the massacre of more than three thousand Sikhs in 1984 after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Modi has intensified India’s military occupation of the valley of Kashmir, but Indian security forces there began decades ago to fill up mass graves with political dissenters and to gang-rape and torture with impunity. The draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act—which grants security forces broad-ranging powers to arrest, shoot to kill, and occupy or destroy property without fear of legal challenge and has underpinned de facto military rule in Kashmir and northeastern states—was introduced in 1958 by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s aristocratic first prime minister and Indira Gandhi’s father, who is remembered by many of Modi’s opponents today with nostalgia for the good old days of liberal democracy.

Ambedkar saw democracy in India as “only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Nevertheless, India derived much international prestige during the cold war from its status as a noncommunist democracy in a sea of Asian and African despotisms. The rise of authoritarian and Communist-ruled China in the 2000s made India’s increasingly pro-business and pro-American governments look even more admirable to many in the West. India’s own writers and intellectuals, often upper-caste expatriates in the West, became prone, as the intellectual historian Perry Anderson wrote in The Indian Ideology (2012), to “fall over themselves in tributes to their native land.” Much was made of the “idea of India,” according to which the country was an exemplar to the world with its noble and unprecedented experiment in secular and multicultural democracy. In The Argumentative Indian (2005), Amartya Sen’s account of a distinctively Indian liberalism, he depicted a long tradition of critical thinking and civil public debate that he believed underpinned and guaranteed India’s modern democracy.

These notions about India’s deep-rooted genius for democracy seem as convincing, after Modi, as the old stereotype of innately spiritual and pacific Indians. India’s leaders have freely deployed the harsh tools they inherited from the British-created colonial state, often unleashing the power of the police and army on political opponents, especially those belonging to ethnic and religious minorities. A roll call of some Indian laws that sanction the use of coercion relates a story barely mentioned in fulsome tributes to the world’s largest democracy: the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (1967), the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act (1971), the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (1971), the National Security Act (1980), the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (1985), and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2002).

Indian governments have routinely used anti-terror laws to detain people they regard as politically dangerous: for example, indigenous peoples protesting their dispossession by mining corporations, or Dalits demonstrating against discrimination. British-era sedition laws have been invoked against the novelist Arundhati Roy as well as a politician who in a Facebook post praised Pakistan for its tradition of hospitality. In its recent election campaign, the BJP promised to make such laws even harsher. Several reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have revealed how torture, deaths in custody, and extrajudicial executions of suspects are some of the quotidian realities of Indian democracy.

Accordingly, Prakash is skeptical of conventional accounts of the Emergency, which focus on Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay—her paranoia and megalomania, and his arrogance and recklessness—and which also blame her political opponents for intoxicating the masses with fantasies of an unachievable revolution. India, in this view, was released from a nightmare, and Indian democracy was vindicated, when Mrs. Gandhi lost the general elections in 1977.

Prakash offers a more disquieting analysis, linking the Emergency to both India’s supposedly pathbreaking constitution and its present state of moral and political debility. Fascinated by the fact that the Emergency was carefully “cloaked in a constitutional dress,” he goes back to examine the making of the constitution, and the fear of “anarchy” that made its Hindu, largely upper-caste authors—Ambedkar was an exception—vest the state with coercive authority over society. He describes how the constitution of free India preserved provisions of British-ruled India that had previously incited the freedom movement, such as preventive detention (which, as a United Nations report documented last year, is now used even against children in Indian-ruled Kashmir). Furthermore, as Prakash points out, the Indian constitution allowed the prime minister as sovereign authority to legally impose a state of emergency.

At the same time, it deprived the courts of their authority to check the prime minister’s power. In Prakash’s resonant judgment, the Emergency was a “lawful suspension of the law.” Mrs. Gandhi’s power-grab was validated by the parliament, which barred “judicial review of the emergency proclamations and ordinances suspending fundamental rights.” Many of Mrs. Gandhi’s arbitrarily detained victims had filed habeas corpus petitions under Article 226 of the constitution, claiming their fundamental rights, and nine high courts across the country had ruled in their favor. But the Supreme Court notoriously upheld the government’s position by a vote of 4–1.

Prakash doesn’t mention that the lone dissenting judge, who was in line to become chief justice but was later vengefully denied that position by Mrs. Gandhi, quoted from Wolfgang Friedmann’s Law in a Changing Society (1959): “In a purely formal sense, any system of norms based on a hierarchy of orders, even the organised mass murders of Nazi regime, qualify as law.” In other words, the Emergency, however abominable, was not illegal. Nor was it seen as such by the craven Indian media, which, as one politician imprisoned by Mrs. Gandhi famously charged, “was asked to bend…and…chose to crawl.”

Narendra Modi at a rally after winning reelection as prime minister, 2019
Atul Loke/Getty Images

Narendra Modi at a rally after winning reelection as prime minister, Ahmedabad, May 26, 2019

Prakash goes on to establish that other much-denounced features of the Emergency were not aberrations. For instance, the compulsory sterilization drive of the mid-1970s, the signature program of Sanjay Gandhi, had its origins in a program of population control aggressively promoted in the 1960s by the Ford Foundation, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund; the Ford Foundation gave grants to the Indian government, provided consultants, and prescribed policies. The Indian government’s coercive modernization schemes were on display well before they were sped up during the Emergency, when more than six million men were sterilized in India in a year. As Mara Hvistendahl documented in Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (2011), “Widespread sterilization was an idea that had been introduced to India by Western advisers, but Sanjay Gandhi ratcheted it up to an unprecedented scale.” His demands were so extreme that “local officials could meet them only by dragging men to the operating room—typically a makeshift camp that had sprung up practically overnight.” Hundreds of men died as a result of botched operations.

Visiting a terrorized India in 1976, the World Bank’s president, Robert McNamara, hailed the Gandhis’ “disciplined, realistic approach” to family planning and the general junking of “socialist ideologies.” Prakash demonstrates that the demolition of slums, another exercise of arbitrary power blamed on Indira and Sanjay Gandhi, was also an aspect of “the state’s modernization project from above.” In escalating that project “with wanton force, Indira, with Sanjay and his coterie, sought to accomplish what they could not achieve ‘normally.’”

Similar improvisations by a panicky ruling class were underway in many postcolonial countries. In neighboring Pakistan, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto moved from promoting a populist variant of socialism to appeasing Islamic fundamentalists, inadvertently setting the stage for the military despot who executed him and inaugurated breakneck Islamization. Indira Gandhi herself followed this trajectory of the failed third-world modernizer when, after her triumphant return to power in 1980, she began to stoke Hindu nationalism, enabling Modi’s Hindu-supremacist party to move from the fringes of Indian political life to the center. Modi also derives political legitimacy from his oft-proclaimed mission of national modernization but seeks, more explicitly than his predecessors, Prakash writes, “to resolve the crisis of governance by building a Hindu nation with a ressentiment-driven majoritarian politics that reduces the minorities to second-class citizens.”

The afterlife of the Emergency has turned out to be long and rich. There have been nine non–Congress Party governments in Delhi in the forty-two years since the Emergency ended. Yet antiquated laws on sedition and preventive detention are still on the books and are frequently deployed. A prime minister can still easily impose “a state of exception” through the “sovereign” exercise of “extraordinary constitutional powers.”

Prakash could have argued his case about the unexceptional nature of the Emergency with more detailed examples of how representative democracy in India always enjoyed an apparatus of perfectly legal oppression. For instance, politicians in power in New Delhi frequently—forty times by 1977—were equipped by the constitution to get rid of state governments they did not like. In 1959 Indira Gandhi, then freshly appointed to the presidency of the Congress Party, stoked protests against the progressive reforms of the Communist government in the state of Kerala—the first elected Communist government anywhere in the world—and persuaded Nehru, her father and then prime minister, to dismiss the Communists and impose central rule.

Nehru had some practice in this regard in Kashmir, where he first abandoned his 1947 promise to organize a referendum to decide the contested region’s political status and then, in 1953, deposed a popular Kashmiri politician and imprisoned him. The valley erupted in a militant insurgency in 1989, which the Indian government met with a ferocious counterinsurgency, flooding the region with more than half a million soldiers. Nearly 80,000 people have died in a place that remains the most dangerous on earth, an eternal flashpoint, as events of late February reminded us, for a war between two nuclear-armed nations.

At the same time, India’s military occupation of Kashmir has also profoundly corrupted Indian institutions—the legal system as well as the security forces, the media, and the larger public sphere. In 2013, the year before Modi came to power, the Supreme Court dispatched a Kashmiri to the gallows on flimsy circumstantial evidence, arguing that the terrorist attack in 2001 on the Indian parliament that he had allegedly been involved with had shaken the entire nation and that he had to be hanged in order to satisfy the “collective conscience of its society.”

If the situation in India seems bleaker today than it was during the Emergency, it is because, as Prakash points out, “the social and political crises that it unsuccessfully sought to resolve with shadow laws and authority” have intensified. India’s rapid but highly uneven economic growth in recent decades always seemed politically as well as environmentally unsustainable. It was predictable that disappointed business leaders, together with frustrated masses, would abandon the Congress Party’s corrupt and inefficient ancien régime and lift Hindu nationalists to power.1

Prakash is alert to the social and historical setting in which democracy lives—or grows infirm, and quietly dies:

In today’s India, as in many other places, power and money define the context. Those who enjoy social and economic privileges, and can summon powerful political influence, play by different rules. Vast quantities of unregulated capital let loose by the neoliberal economy slosh around to twist the machinery of laws and administration. An army of fixers and middlemen operate at every level to distort and corrupt the everyday experience of democracy, turning it into “a feast of vultures.”

Modi promised a clean and impartial administration, but under him the “influence-peddlers” first introduced into Indian politics by Sanjay Gandhi have burrowed deep into the country’s major institutions, including the Supreme Court. In an unprecedented move last year, four senior judges held a press conference to warn that democracy in general as well as the integrity of the country’s highest court was in peril. Modi commands a committed ideological cadre of Hindu nationalists that is rapidly taking over the military and the bureaucracy, the universities, and the media. And Modi himself looms as large in India as Indira did. “His photographs, slogans, and programs appear everywhere as hers once did,” Prakash writes. “He does not hold press conferences and subject himself to questioning; he prefers to speak directly to the people with his weekly radio address and, like Donald Trump, frequent tweets.”

The expectations generated by consumer capitalism among a predominantly young population have raced far ahead of any actual material progress achieved by India. This is why Modi, reinventing himself as a rapid-fire “modernizer,” has found a bigger and more fervent constituency than Indira Gandhi for his fantasy of private wealth and national power. Buoyed by his supporters’ resolute faith in him, he has easily overcome failures that would have doomed any other politician: for instance, his abrupt withdrawal in November 2016 of nearly 90 percent of currency notes from circulation. Presented as a surgical strike on India’s venal rich, this tactic of demonetization radically disrupted the Indian economy and caused much suffering, especially in poor, rural areas but, remarkably, inflicted no political damage on Modi himself. His party actually increased its share of total votes cast from 31.3 percent to 37.4 percent in the recent elections, and Modi became the first Indian leader in five decades to win two successive majorities in parliament.

It is also true that he has enjoyed a kind of support unavailable to Mrs. Gandhi: “a largely compliant and corporatized electronic media, which did not exist in 1975–77,” as Prakash notes. Jingoistic television anchors on channels owned by corporate supporters of Modi drum up mob frenzy, which is then amplified through Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook by senior politicians, businessmen, former army generals, and Bollywood stars.

Their synchronized bellicosity was on garish display during India’s military standoff with Pakistan in February, and gave a great boost, it turned out, to Modi’s electoral prospects. Fake news about how Modi’s air strikes killed hundreds of Pakistanis (when they actually only damaged some trees), and how he intimidated Pakistan into returning a captured Indian pilot, suddenly made Modi seem strong and decisive rather than erratic and clueless. His patently false claim—one among many he made during his election campaign—that he sent pictures from a digital camera via e-mail as early as 1988 did not undermine his credibility. Nor did the revelation that administrators and economists have massaged statistics in order to show more rapid economic growth. Writing the day after Modi’s victory, Ram Madhav, the chief ideologue of Hindu nationalists, bluntly explained it by quoting Napoleon: “What counts is what the people think is true.”

A people’s mandate secured through bluff and bluster has now empowered Modi to fulfill the dream cherished by such Hindu fanatics as Gandhi’s assassin: the transformation of India from a secular democracy into a Hindu nation. He is very likely to bring about this revolution lawfully, using his large majority to rewrite the Indian constitution. But long before Modi came to preside over an undeclared emergency, India had demonstrated the severe limits of its formal democracy—one narrowly defined by norms and procedures and celebrated too complacently by its upper-caste beneficiaries, as well as cold warriors and neoliberals in the West.

Prakash’s book is the latest to clarify that many of India’s political and social pathologies preceded and enabled Modi and appear set to outlast him.2 The only likely antidote to them would be a democratic revolution from below, rather than one promulgated from above by a self-serving elite, be it secular or Hindu nationalist. But no mass movements for civil rights exist in India, and, unlike those of the United States, its socialist traditions show no sign of revival. Progressive hopes are in dismally short supply today in India, as an aggrieved citizenry renews its Faustian pact with a suspected mass murderer.

  1. 1I have argued in these pages that Indian democracy would be a casualty, and Hindu nationalists the main beneficiary, of India’s structurally uneven economic growth. See my “Impasse in India,” June 28, 2007, and “Which India Matters?,” November 21, 2013. 
  2. 2For a comprehensive account of India from the late 1990s to the present, see Arundhati Roy’s new book of essays, My Seditious Heart: Collected Nonfiction (Haymarket, 2019). 

Hong Kong: had told you so,as back as 2015

7 Jul

Simon Tisdall in The Guardian today:

The Hong Kong “two systems” crisis reflects a broader, global clash not of civilisations but of ideologies, crudely defined – a contest between liberal, democratic laws-based governance and authoritarian, nationalist-populist “strongman” rule. It is the defining struggle of our age. Which is why Hong Kong’s protesters deserve whole-hearted support – and Xi must not be allowed to crush them.

And me from a 2015 post with an added preface from last week:

I hope the democracy movement in Hong Kong continues to be such a thorn in China’s side that it wants to spit it out and hand it back to the UK again.  I don’t think China really understood what a virus it was taking into its system when it accepted Hong Kong.  Mark my words: Hong Kong is going to be the factor that’s going to change China forever.  It’ll be a model and example to other Chinese that it’s ok to resist; it’ll break that fear.

Watch out for this story.

3500ChineseProtesters wave anti-extradition placards during the march to West Kowloon railway station. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

P.S. Yugoslavia money quote

4 Jul

Yugoslavia’s divergence from the Iron Curtain’s architectural culture was remarked on by Harrison Salisbury, a former Moscow bureau chief for the Times who was on a temporary stint in the Balkans, in 1957. “To a visitor from eastern Europe a stroll in Belgrade is like walking out of a grim barracks of ferro-concrete into a light and imaginative world of pastel buildings, ‘flying saucers’ and Italianate patios,” he wrote. “Nowhere is Yugoslavia’s break with the drab monotony and tasteless gingerbread of ‘socialist realism’ more dramatic than in the graceful office buildings, apartment houses and public structures that have replaced the rubble of World War II.”

See my: “Belgrade: Random notes from July 2014” — a little off-topic, but…

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

From NYer: Yugoslavia, “…the idea that political alternatives can exist, however briefly.”

4 Jul

The Unrepeatable Architectural Moment of Yugoslavia’s “Concrete Utopia”

At the back of the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, is a café called Tito. Inside, a bronze bust of the man himself, Josip Broz Tito, presides over a red room bedecked with Second World War-era military paraphernalia. The lampshades are made from soldiers’ helmets. It’s a fun but rather kitsch place to be located in the city’s finest, and most zealous, modernist building. Formerly known as the Museum of the Revolution, the building consists of a blind marble slab that appears to float above a glazed ground floor. Completed in 1963, it was designed by Boris Magaš, with Edo Šmidihen and Radovan Horvat, in the International Style.

Today, the building is far from its serene best. That marble façade is like a smile full of chipped teeth. On seeing that the building makes a minor appearance in the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980,” my first thought was that perhaps the powers that be in Sarajevo will finally consider it for renovation. That would be a happy outcome, but there are higher stakes here. For the curators, the aim is for Yugoslavian modernism to find its place in the architectural canon (which, after all, MoMA has done more than any museum to create). While there is no doubt that the extraordinary output of socialist Yugoslavia deserves that place, there is also a risk that the architecture’s true significance is not fully absorbed.

Reading the broadly positive reviews, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the exhibition’s timeliness is linked to the fact that we are in the midst of a full-blown Brutalist revival. And it’s true that nostalgia for the raw concrete surfaces of the nineteen-sixties and seventies has seeped into the aquifer and is gushing out in Instagram feeds, coffee-table books, and music videos. The exhibition itself plays this up with a series of newly commissioned photographs by Valentin Jeck that luxuriate in stained concrete and gunmetal skies. (Never mind that we are in southern Europe here, lapped by the Adriatic.) What one misses by seeing this exhibition as stylistically fashionable is the political content. If Brutalism is loved once more today for its heft and material honesty, it is also so closely associated with social democracy that to be nostalgic for one is to be nostalgic for the other. In the case of Yugoslavia, there is just as much cause to interrogate our newfound interest, because the architecture expressed one of the great political experiments of the modern era.

Yugoslavia was defined by its in-betweenness. Established after the Second World War, the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia may have begun life as a Communist state in the Soviet mold, but, in 1948, Tito broke with Stalin and began to reshape the country along less statist lines. What emerged was a political entity that was neither totalitarian communism nor a capitalist democracy but something in the middle—one might call it market socialism. The linchpin of this “third way” socialism was “worker self-management.” Tito was the anti-Stalin, a liberal decentralizer who believed in the “withering of the state.” Self-management meant devolving a certain amount of power to worker collectives—not just in the factories but in any enterprise, even the architecture practices. It may have been a one-party state, but it was also the most sustained effort yet to achieve popular self-governance.

And so Yugoslavia was this strange communist state with shopping centers, decent living standards, relative ease of travel, and British comedy on the TV. That is not to say that it was a utopia—it would eventually collapse under the weight of its contradictions and endemic ethnic divisions—but it was not what your average American thinks of as “communism.” That this “third way” socialism survived into the nineteen-eighties probably had something to do with the fact that it was widely embraced, rather than imposed by the Soviets, as it was elsewhere in Eastern Europe, in part because the Yugoslav Partisans had managed to liberate the country from the Nazis without much need for the Red Army.

That military achievement, at the cost of a million dead, is also one of the reasons that Yugoslavian architecture has started to attract wider attention. In 2013, photographs of spomenici—memorials, mostly commemorating the struggle against Fascism—started to spread like wildfire across the architecture-loving Internet. These abstract, boldly expressive monuments, thousands of which once dotted the Yugoslavian countryside, were received with wide eyes, as if a lost civilization had suddenly yielded a new architectural language. And it is true that many of the country’s great talents, including the artist Vojin Bakić and the architect Bogdan Bogdanović, were engrossed in creating these extraordinary landscape works. No wonder they were exoticized. But they were also explicitly an iconography of nation-building, points of collective pride and solidarity. More instructive to today’s situation—when architecture has been thoroughly privatized—is the architecture of self-management.

In the words of Edvard Kardelj, the chief theorist of self-management, the system offered a “profound cultural and ethical revolution . . . a transformation of the complete consciousness of the working man.” Bearing in mind that Yugoslavia had been an undeveloped, largely agrarian economy before the war, the task of rebuilding and modernizing was not just physical but mental. One could not rely on the workers to self-manage without educating them. And so one of the key strands of the rebuilding effort was schools, from kindergartens to so-called worker universities. By 1959, there were a hundred and twenty-nine such universities, the finest of which was in the heart of New Zagreb, in the Croatian capital. Designed by Radovan Nikšić and Ninoslav Kučan, it was a paragon of modernist style. But, more than that, it provided a dense set of activities in flexible spaces with fluid circulation—there was nothing rigid or dogmatic about it. Tito was sufficiently impressed that, in 1963, once relations with the U.S.S.R. had eased a little, he took Khrushchev there to show off the achievements of his non-Soviet socialism. (The Russian was impervious: “The workers should stay at the factory bench,” he countered.)

 

This push toward education included cultural centers and museums. Some of these were brilliantly original interpretations of these building types, such as the wonderful Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, designed by Ivan Antić and Ivanka Raspopović. Composed of a grid of crystalline forms with angular skylights, it was a striking symbol of the country’s belief in modern art and architecture. Early on, and especially after Yugoslavia’s expulsion from Cominform, in 1948, the authorities had rejected the socialist realism espoused in the U.S.S.R. as unfit to represent a progressive society. The current of European and American modernism ran deep, and Yugoslavian architects, many of whom were trained in the West, proved that they could make an original contribution to that discourse. In 1958, Vjenceslav Richter flaunted this unique brand of modernism on the world stage with his design for the Yugoslav Pavilion, at the Brussels World’s Fair. This intricate structure was an exercise in elegance and clarity (and is still in use today, as a college in a small Belgian town).

Yugoslavia’s divergence from the Iron Curtain’s architectural culture was remarked on by Harrison Salisbury, a former Moscow bureau chief for the Times who was on a temporary stint in the Balkans, in 1957. “To a visitor from eastern Europe a stroll in Belgrade is like walking out of a grim barracks of ferro-concrete into a light and imaginative world of pastel buildings, ‘flying saucers’ and Italianate patios,” he wrote. “Nowhere is Yugoslavia’s break with the drab monotony and tasteless gingerbread of ‘socialist realism’ more dramatic than in the graceful office buildings, apartment houses and public structures that have replaced the rubble of World War II.”

 

Indeed, it was in Belgrade, nearly ten years ago, that it first dawned on me that socialist Yugoslavia’s architectural project was in a category of its own. Strolling the avenues of New Belgrade, with its ranks of concrete tower blocks, it was not the architecture that drew my attention at first. It was my sense of comfort—the prevailing air of normality. In most of the mass-housing projects I have visited, whether in Europe, South America, New York, or Moscow, one is likely to be aware of one of two things: class or neglect (and often both). There were no class distinctions in New Belgrade because this was not social housing; it was just housing. Many of the heroic housing projects in the West became ghettoized, or were left to deteriorate—some classics have been demolished. At the same time, these were not the repetitive, mass-produced housing blocks of Russia’s microrayon suburbs. They were more socially idealistic than the West, more architecturally inventive than the East.

In Yugoslavia, the right to housing was enshrined in law. And yet two factors distinguished its effort in building mass housing from those in other socialist countries. The first was that this was not just centralized, state-built housing. In fact, following new legislation, in 1960, the housing boom was driven by competitive house-building firms (self-managed, naturally) aiming at a market of institutions seeking homes for their employees. These were subsidized by the state but there was no state-owned property; it was “social property.” Second, Yugoslavian housing was not standardized. There were certainly prefabricated systems in use, but these were highly flexible and encouraged the diversity of housing types. (This was a far cry from the Khrushchyovkas, in Russia—the standardized blocks of Khrushchev’s great house-building drive—which left the architects nothing to do except arrange them in the landscape.)

Most of the housing in Yugoslavia—in fact, most major buildings in general—were the result of architectural competitions, which was another reason that the output was so diverse. As a Slovenian architect told me recently, such levels of bespoke design without mass production should not really have been feasible, but, somehow, it happened. There was also a great deal of thought put into the apartments. Rather than uniformity, individualism was encouraged. Open, flexible layouts were highly popular, with movable partition walls and multipurpose rooms—all ideas that remain current. The quality of these apartments was one of the high points of Yugoslavian self-management. And it resulted in modernism being baked into the national psyche. I’ll always remember the mother of a friend from Sarajevo visiting her daughter in London and being relieved to find her living in a social-housing tower block, and not one of those poky Victorian houses—the exact inverse of London snobbery.

If New Belgrade followed a classic Corbusian model of towers set in parkland, then a more novel approach to urban planning was developed in the Croatian city of Split. The modern part of the city, known as Split 3, was built in the nineteen-seventies to house fifty thousand people. Here, a number of different architects contributed a dense layout of imposing housing blocks. One set in particular, by Ivo Radić, looks like something out of “Blade Runner,” with its plate armor of sunscreens. And, yet, what is striking about Split 3 is how the whole scheme is woven together by gracious, pedestrian streets lined with gardens and local Dalmatian stone.

What is now the Croatian coastline (most of the former Yugoslav republics barely get a sniff of the Adriatic) was also the place where the Venn diagram of East and West overlapped—on the beach. As Life magazine put it, in 1966, “Long the political maverick of the Communist world, Yugoslavia has plunged into competitive western-style tourism on a scale that is positively heretical.” That year, it was expecting three million tourists, including a hundred thousand Americans. This certainly made it unique in the “Communist world,” but, again, the social approach to the new hotels and resorts being built marked them out as the expression of a political philosophy. Resorts were designed to be open and free-flowing, to encourage inclusivity and participation—far from the “exclusive” havens of today’s tourism. Even at the high-end Haludovo Hotel complex, designed by Boris Magaš (with an investment from the Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione), on the island of Krk, locals could mingle with international celebrities.

The great achievement of Yugoslavia was in being able to keep collectivism and individualism in some kind of balance. Self-management was far from perfect—it was bureaucratic, and tended to reward Party apparatchiks more than the rest—but still it delivered growth and a progressive society with disposable incomes and access to consumer goods. If MoMA’s exhibition is timely, it is because we have lost any sense of what the balance between the social and the individual might look like. We have also forgotten that alternative political systems are possible. To those interested in forms of direct democracy or the commons, Yugoslavia remains an interesting outlier. Above all, the exhibition reminds us that design can be a tool of social progress.

Perhaps the reason that the architecture of self-management has taken so long to be recognized is because it is difficult to categorize. There is no overriding style. Modernism was arguably a useful device for gelling Yugoslavia, a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces, together. But the approaches were wonderfully diverse. Heavily influenced by the International Style (exported via touring exhibitions from, yes, MoMA) and, later, Brutalism, the local inflections were relatively unique. There was also a strong sense of regionalism. Juraj Neidhardt, a disciple of Le Corbusier, designed a largely unbuilt master plan for Sarajevo that drew on the city’s historical architecture. He argued, with his fellow-architect Dušan Grabrijan, in their 1957 book “Architecture of Bosnia and the Way to Modernity,” that the traditional Ottoman architecture of Bosnia preëmpted many of the tenets of modernism.

Alas, Neidhardt’s building for the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo was shelled during the siege of 1992-96, and its tower was subsequently resurfaced in blue-green glass. As I began by saying, the modernist heritage in the city has not been well attended to. And today the city’s new landmarks are either shopping malls or oversized mosques paid for by Gulf states. It is more than enough to make one nostalgic.

In the nineteen-eighties, on the Yugoslavian comedy show “Top Lista Nadrealista” (roughly, The Surrealist Hits Chart), there was a sketch about a guy who goes to a local market to buy architectural blueprints. A vender behind a counter offers him rolls of drawings by the kilo, like so much stewing beef. (“Try this one, it’s fresh!”) It was prescient about what has happened to Sarajevo and other ex-Yugoslav cities in the past decade. It is entirely possible to be nostalgic for a place and a time one never knew—ask the twentysomethings in thrall to Brutalism. In the case of Yugoslavian modernism, and the progressive ideals that underpinned it, mine is nostalgia for an unrepeatable moment. For the idea that political alternatives can exist, however briefly. As the critic and artist Svetlana Boym once wrote, “New utopias are neither political nor artistic, but rather technological and economic. As for politics and philosophy, they play a minor role in the imagination of the future.”

Why hasn’t Wong Kar-Wai said anything?

2 Jul

No more archetypal a Hong Kong artist than him — the type that needs to start speaking up.

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See:Hong Kong: surprised at protestors’ ballsiness and persistence; and “Ten Years”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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