Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade

An edited version of this post was published on the CBC.

“Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade”

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With the election of former paratrooper Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency, the far right has taken power in Latin America’s largest and most populous country, with one of the world’s largest economies. How, if at all, should Canada and Canadian business react? A recent report for CBC News charted economic opportunities with this new regime, noting that “a Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.” But diving in for the sake of short-term financial profit would be ethically irresponsible and politically catastrophic. Bolsonaro unashamedly praises the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for twenty years, from 1964 to 1985. If we proceed as though it were business as usual, we would normalize his breach of a long-standing democratic consensus.

Every economic transaction is always also a political transaction, and this is nowhere more true than in the realm of international trade and foreign investment. Governments have long combined commercial deals with strategic objectives: from the nineteenth-century opium wars, in which the Royal Navy fought to open China to British merchants, to the recent renegotiation of NAFTA, politics and economics go hand in hand. But at least since the Second World War, a sense of politics as more than simply national self-interest has also been part of the discourse around trade. For instance, US post-war economic assistance to Western Europe (the Marshall Plan) was designed to reinforce liberal democracy by ensuring economic recovery and removing the temptation of more radical solutions, i.e. to ward off the Communist threat. This Cold War logic framed international trade for forty years: the Soviet Union provided economic and military assistance to its satellites, while the United States did deals with dictators and other unsavory regimes (in Guatemala, Iran, the Philippinnes…) where it considered it necessary for the broader narrative of protecting the “Free World.”

With the end of the Cold War, the narratives were modified but didn’t disappear. Ethical as well as political considerations came to the fore in arguments either for or against economic engagement. Both Left and Right would sometimes argue that sanctions and embargoes would better effect political transformation (in apartheid South Africa or Communist Cuba) and sometimes claim that integration into international norms was better served by the exchange of ideas and attitudes that accompanies the traffic in goods and services. In the Clinton era, preferential trade relations with China (“most favoured nation” status) were justified, despite concerns over human rights abuses, on the grounds that engagement encouraged openness and increasing liberalization, sidelining hardliners within the regime. Similar arguments have, until very recently, sought to justify economic contracts with middle-eastern states such as Saudi Arabia. Of course, sometimes–often, even–such justifications would be denounced as a cover for economic interests. Few, for example, believe that the Gulf War of 1990/91 was really about freedom for Kuwaitis rather than oil for the US and its coalition partners. But the point is that, however paper-thin they were, those justifications had to be in place. Trade and military intervention alike demanded a broader story of progress or development that went beyond naked self-interest.

The private sector started telling similar tales. Most notably, the tech entrepreneurs and start-ups of Silicon Valley, at the same time as they amassed unheralded fortunes (and showed a marked disinclination to pay corporate taxes), marketed their activites in terms of social change: Apple adverts featured images of figures such as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King alongside the slogan ‘Think Different”; Google’s slogan was “Don’t be Evil”; and Facebook tells us that its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” In the face of evidence of the effects of their rampant destruction of environments and livelihoods on vulnerable populations and an ever more vulnerable planet, even behemoths of an industry such as resource extraction have followed suit: British Petroleum adopted a green and yellow logo suggestive more of horticulture than oil wells; mining giants everywhere spoke of community benefits and their need to secure a “social license to operate.”

All this is now changing. Countries and corporations increasingly dispense with such exculpatory formulas. The key figure is doubtless Donald Trump, who more than anyone has reinforced the centrality of trade to politics, whether domestic or international, but no longer in the service of any narrative of liberal progress. His mantra “Make America Great Again” inverts the age-old adage of “private vice, public virtue” to assert that the only political rationale necessary is self-interest. It is in this context that Brazil’s lurch to the right can be welcomed as an investment opportunity, and its environmental and political consequences be cast to the wind. The sense that some broader narrative or political justification is required has faded.

In much of Latin America, the overarching political narrative of the past thirty years has been “Never Again.” Just as post-war European politics has been marked by the collective decision never to return to the internecine conflict (and horrors such as the Holocaust) of the First and Second World Wars, likewise the ground of political debate and policy in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Brazil) and elsewhere has been a social consensus, shared by all parties and sectors, that a return to the authoritarian regimes of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s should be unthinkable. “Never Again” (“Nunca Más” in Spanish; “Nunca Mais” in Portuguese) was the title of the reports on human rights abuses published in Argentina and Brazil. But with his open praise of the dictatorship, and in dedicating his vote in favor of impeaching his elected predecessor, Dilma Roussef, to a colonel convicted of human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearances, new president Jair Bolsonaro is dramatically breaking that pact in favour of democracy. In the absence of any other narrative, then, Canadian engagement (political or economic) that takes advantage of his election for short-term gain inevitably becomes complicit in this broader story of democracy’s decline.

The Problem with Silver Linings

An edited version of this post was published in The Tyee.

“The Problem with Silver Linings: The CBC and Jair Bolsonaro”

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How should Canada respond to this week’s election in Brazil? How should our media report it? An article (and tweets) on CBC, seeking good news for Canada on what many agree is a dark day for Brazil, has sparked fierce criticism. And rightly so. It was parochial, insensitive, and cynical, portraying a troubling break in Latin America’s democratic consensus as though it were business as normal.

The election was one of the most momentous in Brazil’s history: a reversal of the previous election (of 2014), which had brought the country’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, to power at the head of the left-wing Worker’s Party. In her youth, Rousseff had been active in armed resistance to the military dictatorship in place from 1964 to 1985. In 1970, aged 23, she was captured, detained, and repeatedly tortured over a three-year period. Now, four years later, Brazil has a president, Jair Bolsonaro, who openly supports torture, praises the dictatorship, and promises to go back to throwing leftists in jail. Not to mention his racism, sexism, and self-described homophobia. Even the Economist (hardly a journal of the Left) describes Bolsonaro as “a threat to democracy”.

The CBC knows all this. Bolsonaro has made no secret of his views. Yet alongside reporting the Canadian government’s clear disdain for this turn of events, our national broadcaster decided to put a positive spin on things: Canadian business might benefit! Senior Writer Chris Arsenault tells us: “A Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.” The CBC liked this analysis so much that it highlighted it (repeatedly) on Twitter: “Critics have lambasted the former paratrooper for his homophobic, racist and misogynist statements, but his government could open new investment opportunities”.

The CBC has since apologized (sort of), for presenting what should have been tagged as “analysis” as “news.” For his part, Arsenault has suggested that his article was a kind of satire: ” The purpose of the report is that markets are amoral”, he tells us. But not many, if any, of his readers saw this. Reaction to his article and (perhaps especially) to the tweets has been outraged: “Have you lost your minds?”; “Wtf”; “a shame”; “a journalism fail”; “irresponsible”; “gross”; “nauseating”; “awful”. A friend of mine said he was “hoping the account has been hacked”.

But let’s take Arsenault’s article at face value. What’s the problem? Doesn’t every cloud have a silver lining? Even the most monstrous regimes have their benefits: trains run on time, and so on. And why not respect the democratic will of the Brazilian people, recognize that Bolsonaro won, and “get over it”? Canada happily trades with plenty of countries (Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, China…) accused of human rights abuses and/or anti-democratic practices. Isn’t economic engagement better than sanctions or isolationism?

Here’s the problem. First, the article and tweets demonstrate a stunning parochialism. They remind me of the apocryphal headline said to have run in a Scottish newspaper following one of the twentieth century’s most famous disasters: “Titanic Sinks! Dundee Man Feared Lost!” Whatever one thinks of Bolsonaro, this narrow-minded Canadian take on the impending transformation of Latin America’s largest country likewise spectacularly misses the real story, which is not really about us at all. If we want to think in hemispheric terms (and we should), it would be better to consider the broader narrative of the region’s mixed response to a history of state violence and the now imperilled fortunes of its more recent efforts to redistribute wealth and opportunity.

Second, the focus on advantages to be gained by select Canadian businesses (above all, in resource extraction) shows a worrying insensitivity. Brazil has 210 million inhabitants. Arsenault’s parochial preoccupation with Canadian economic profit leads him to disregard the impact the new regime will have on this diverse mass of humanity, not least women, the poor, and the 100 million who have some African ancestry (and make Brazil also the world’s second-largest African country). All these are merely collateral damage, as are, perhaps more worryingly still, the country’s vast and priceless ecological riches, upon which global climate and biodiversity depend. Arsenault signs off breezily that “losses for the Amazon rainforest under Bolsonaro could spell big gains for Canadian investors.”

Third, the article and the CBC’s Twitter feed indicate breath-taking cynicism (even if Arsenault is now disclaiming it). They make no attempt to defend Bolsonaro from his critics. They take for granted that he is everything they say: “homophobic, racist, and misogynist”; a threat to indigenous people and the environment; a leader who will increase repression as he seeks to “hew closer to Latin America’s past military leaders.” When we trade with other countries whose political vices we claim to denounce, we usually resort to the argument (justified or not) that these are societies that are misunderstood; that they are moving in the right direction; that international engagement encourages moderates and liberalizers, while embargoes embolden hardliners. With Bolsonaro, these claims don’t work, as Brazil is clearly becoming less moderate and less liberal. Scandalously, the CBC doesn’t care.

Fourth, the CBC is here not merely reporting events. This is not even “analysis.” It is actively making the news. Not only because this article has entered public discussion, becoming an object of understandable incredulity. An article like this also normalizes a state of exception. The long-standing consensus in Latin American countries such as Brazil (or Argentina, Chile, Uruguay) that emerged from authoritarian rule in the 1980s and 1990s has been that there is no turning back: left or right, no mainstream politician would countenance breaking that democratic pact. But we now see a president willing to praise dictatorship. That would have been unthinkable just two years ago; no self-respecting news outlet should pretend that it is no big deal. No journalist should encourage us to tolerate cynicism. Doing so makes the CBC complicit in the erosion of democracy.

But is there a silver lining in the mini-catastrophe that is the CBC’s bungling of this story? The mythical Scottish newspaper headline told us more about Scotland than about the Titanic. Similarly, however unhelpful Arsenault’s article is about Brazil, it does give Brazilians (and the world) insight into Canada. We like to think we hold ourselves and our media to higher standards. This can lead others to call us smug. But we are smug no more. Canadian elites expose their brutal cynicism by dispensing with ideology, jettisoning the pretence that our international relations and trade policies stem from any desire to improve the world. This is another nail in the coffin of Canadian exceptionalism. From Toronto to São Paulo, Recife to Winnipeg, we are all in the same boat now, and that’s as good a basis for solidarity as any.

The Politics of Rage

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Searching for a precedent for Donald Trump’s surprising success in last year’s US presidential primaries, many people looked back almost fifty years to George Wallace. Writing for the Daily Beast, for instance, Laurence Leamer called Trump Wallace’s ”cynical heir”.

Who was Wallace? He was the die-hard segregationist Governor of Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. (It was he who oversaw the infamous incident of state troopers beating up marchers who were trying to cross a bridge at Selma in 1965.) Disparaged as a holdover from a Jim Crow South in full retreat, Wallace came to national attention and caused consternation to Republicans and Democrats alike when, running as a third-party candidate, he managed to win six states (and 46 electoral votes) in the 1968 Presidential Election. More unexpectedly still, Wallace also proved able to win support outside his regional base: running as a Democrat in 1972, he won primaries in Florida and Michigan, as well as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland. He did this in part, like Trump, by casting himself as a straight-talking outsider fed up with the impositions of an unrepresentative Washington elite. Or in Jamelle Bouie’s words, “Wallace harnessed the fear and anger of millions of Americans with a pledge, in a sense, to take back their country.” His success, Bouie continues, came by “appealing to his followers in a base, almost visceral way.” Bouie cites Dan Carter’s biography of Wallace, The Politics of Rage, and his observation that the Alabamian appropriated his audiences’ affect, “probing [their] deepest fears and passions and articulating those emotions in a language and style they could understand.”

However attractive they may be, the comparisons between Trump and Wallace seem to have dried up, perhaps because of the one important difference between the two: Leamer and Bouie wrote assuming that, like Wallace, Trump ultimately had no chance; how wrong they (and we all) were. So where Wallace’s significance ultimately lies in the reactions that he coaxed out of others as (in Carter’s words) “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics” (474), now that Trump has actually won the presidency he much more directly has the chance to set the political agenda.

Moreover, where Trump famously has no real experience in politics, Wallace had little to none outside of it. As Carter notes, from his teenage years onwards Wallace had few if any other interests: of his time as an undergraduate he tells us that “in later life [Wallace] never mentioned one book, one course, or one professor who had shaped his intellectual development at the university. What he could remember was the precise vote on each of the half-dozen student offices he had sought” (49). Carter also makes it clear that Wallace forever effectively abandoned his wife and family for the chance to hobnob with fellow politicos or embark on yet another campaign. And when he himself was banned (by the state constitution) from running for a second successive term as governor, rather than quietly tend his garden he pushed his wife, Lurleen, into the spotlight to stand as a surrogate in his name: at what were nominally her campaign events, she would read the briefest of speeches before “the crowd roared as George Wallace bounced across the state, gave his wife a quick hug as she retreated to her seat, and launched into a fifty-minute” peroration of his own (282). He had to keep running, keep playing the political game. What’s more, “on the few occasions,” Carter tells us, “when he sat around the dinner table” with his children, he would tell them that “the only thing that counts [. . .] is money and power.” But Wallace himself, whatever the corruption of those around him, “never cared about money” (323). Power was everything.

As a result, though, politics as we usually understand it tended to fade away. For instance, Wallace had very little interest in actual governance: Carter’s conclusion is that for all the iron grip he had over state politics for so long, ultimately Wallace’s impact was minimal; he never really implemented any of his much-heralded programs for his white working-class and lower-middle class base. If anything his “one clear accomplishment,” we are told, came only during his last term in office, in the mid-1980s, when he “promised black supporters that they would be an integral of his administration, and he lived up to that pledge, appointing African-Americans to all levels of state government” (465). Indeed, in the long run the attention that Wallace had paid to national politics and his presidential ambitions over the previous fifteen years had made him something of an absentee landlord in his home state: Alabama continued to languish near the bottom of the rankings for education, public health, job growth, and per capita income. Wallace liked power, but he didn’t want to do much with it.

What is more, Wallace was barely interested in ideology–which perhaps makes his apparent apostasy from trenchant segregationist to penitent integrationist at the end of his life less of a shock. For instance, a Washington Poster reporter covering his 1968 campaign was surprised to find an “innocent–almost totally non-political–atmosphere” in the candidate’s entourage (340). He had little interest in intellectual expertise or prolonged discussion; he argued that experts had got the country into its current pickle in the first place and suggested instead that “maybe a fellow just ought to advise himself from the seat of his pants” (425). Not that this put anyone much off. Indeed, it was all part of his appeal: as Carter notes, “his rise to national prominence coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government” (472), and one might add in all governments as a whole. He could, then, like Trump portray himself as an outsider because what he offered was not politics as usual; in fact, it was not politics at all.

What Wallace offered instead, Carter tells us, was something closer to faith than rational conviction or considered calculation. His campaign rallies were “more like a revival than a political appearance,” observed the Associated Press during his 1972 run for office, featuring among other things a “foot-stomping rendition of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’” (424). But Carter adds that a Wallace speech mixed as much of the profane with the sacred. Above all, he gave his supporters a performance that touched their very soul as he (in words also quoted by Bouie) “prob[ed] his audiences’ deepest fears and passions and articulat[ed] those emotions in a language and style they could understand.” But perhaps to say he “articulat[ed]” these affects is to overstate the case, in that “on paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious. But Wallace’s followers reveled in the performance; they never tired of hearing the same lines again and again” (346). He was as much a rock star–perhaps better, country music star–as a priest: “the energy flowed back and forth between Wallace and his audience in a performance molding rage, laughter, and sheer sexual energy into an emotional catharsis” (346).

What’s less clear, then, is whether Wallace was really a harbinger of the future (as the comparisons with Trump suggest) or a throwback to the past. On this point, Carter equivocates. His book’s overall thesis is, after all, that Wallace’s surprising success on the national stage led to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the transformation of the Democratic Party, Reagan’s populist appeal to the disaffected working class, and ultimately (by extension) to what we see now with Trump: he was “the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution” (12). But equally Carter’s documentation of Wallace’s failures tells another story: that the Alabamian hitched his wagon to a social sector in deep long-term decline; that he was Dixie’s last hurrah; that he was indeed the end of the line for a style of politics that depended on barn-storming rallies and the cultivation of extensive personal contacts.

Interestingly, how you answer this question of whether Wallace incarnated an emergent or a residual force in American culture depends in large part in how you assess the role of television in his political trajectory. On the one hand it was his surprisingly congenial presence on major network shows such as “Meet the Press” that made him a national figure in the first place; on the other, he was “one of the last grandmasters of the kind of foot-stomping public speaking that characterized American politics, particularly southern politics, in the age before television” (345) and in fact TV was too often his downfall, not least because (as when footage of the brutality at Selma was rushed to broadcast on that same day’s evening news) it demanded forms of transparency that were anathema to his good-old-boys style.

But much the same questions could be asked of Trump. After all, Donald is a reality TV star whose relationship with the medium is at best vexed, if not outright antagonistic, and whose own campaign was very nearly brought down by unguarded comments made when he’d forgotten or not realized that its cameras and microphones were recording. Trump seems not to like television all that much, however much he is apparently addicted to it, which is perhaps why he took the unusual step for a sitting president of holding a campaign-style rally last week in Florida. More broadly, even now many of us find it hard to imagine that the future will be Trump, which is why there is so much talk of impeachment or possible resignation, and therefore associated anxiety about the figures who sit in the president’s penumbra (and could one day take over) such as Mike Pence or Steve Bannon.

It would be nice to think that by looking at history and studying a figure like George Wallace (or whatever other precedent we imagine set the scene for the present) we might get answers to the question of what happens next. Sadly, the worthy goal of “learning from history” is never so simple: the past is always as full of uncertainty as the future.

Desborde subterráneo

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For those whose vision of Peruvian music goes no further than pan pipes, or perhaps at best the Afro-Peruvian chanteuse Susana Baca, Fabiola Bazo’s Desborde subterráneo: 1983-1992 will come as something of a shock. For it documents Lima’s punk and post-punk scene in the 1980s, featuring myriad mostly short-lived bands that reveled in names such as Narcosis and Psicosis, Eutanasia (Euthanasia) and Ataque Frontal (Frontal Attack), not to mention Kaos General (General Chaos) and Sociedad de Mierda (Shitty Society). “El Condor Pasa” this is not. Nor is it exactly the “world music” beloved of Peter Gabriel, Luaka Bop, or Starbucks.

But the frantic, frenetic explosion of musical energy captured by Bazo’s book, richly illustrated with grainy photographs and fading handbills, emerged less from some autochthonous folk tradition (despite the proto-punk of Lima’s pathbreaking garage-rock band Los Saicos in the 1960s) than from disaffected Peruvian youth turning to the world at large in search of ways to express their anger at the constraints imposed by a traditional society suddenly thrown into crisis. For the 1980s in Peru were years of insurgency and repression, civil war and car bombs, blackouts and curfews, as the Maoist “Shining Path” guerrilla fought a “prolonged people’s war” to bring down a state that reacted with increasing authoritarianism and almost random brutality.

It was in this context that adolescents in Lima searched out precious imported records and tapes, soon pirated and exchanged in the flourishing informal market of street traders and hawkers, then begged, borrowed, or stole musical instruments to play and record their own frustrations and anxieties, with lyrics written in Spanish and specific to the local context. In turn, then, they passed around demos and cassettes, or organized impromptu concerts and gigs in nightclubs and private houses, to pogo to songs such as “Toque de Queda” (“Curfew”), “Sucio Policía” (“Dirty Cop”), “¿Dónde está la libertad?” (“Where’s the Freedom?”), or “Ya no formo parte de esto” (“I’m No Longer Part of This”). And though this music started as something hidden or underground, as Bazo’s title (“Subterranean Outpouring”) indicates, it soon overflowed and, however fleetingly, caught the mood of a significant section of young people across the city, from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and social classes.

At least briefly, it seemed that if there was one thing that all Peruvians under the age of (say) twenty-five could agree on, it was that society was shit, and that the armed forces and government were as bad as the so-called terrorists. Economic crisis and hyper-inflation only added to the feeling that there was really “no future” for the country. For the most part, the subterraneans or “subtes” disdained politics, as the political system was manifestly broken across the spectrum from Left to Right. In Bazo’s words, “They had no political agenda or plan of action. Their songs denounced the burdens of a decaying society. In reality theirs were cries of impotence and very individualistic personal alienation” (52)

The irony, however, as Bazo makes clear, is that the punk rejection or refusal of established norms was largely a reflection of new social realities that were rapidly transforming Peru. As such, the “subtes” hardly offered an alternative to the broader movements around them; if anything, they were rather mainstream.

In some ways, the punks of Peru’s capital had much in common with the militants of Shining Path, though their backgrounds were usually different–urban rather than rural, for instance; skeptics rather than believers in Peru’s potential for modernization and radical renovation. Bazo strenuously resists the comparison, but Shining Path likewise looked overseas, in their case to a strange combination of Chinese Communism and their leader Abimael Guzmán’s idiosyncratic reading of Kant, for forms of expression suited to local frustrations and deep disappointment at the historic failures of the Peruvian state. Moreover, motivated as much by affect as by reason, the Maoists and the punks alike were often drawn to a mythology of violence as a purgative force, a remedy of both first and last resort: as the Eutanasia song “Ratas Callejeras” (“Street Rats”) puts it, “Anger says it’s time to start [. . .] a whole army of rats will march through this dying city’s shit” (178).

On the other hand, Bazo does argue that, if only in their most utopian moments, the “subtes” were equally like Peru’s mid-1980s populist president Alan García in their effort to put forward a “multi-class message” that might transcend the deep divisions between Lima’s rich and poor (28). The book laments that the punks had no more success in this than did the ill-fated García. Indeed, the second half of Desborde subterráneo focuses on the protracted disintegration of the punk scene, torn apart by hostilities that followed the lines of class (and implicitly also racial) difference and inequality. Bazo seems to have more sympathy with the so-called “pitupunks” or “posh punks” than with what she portrays as the rather more violent, unpredictable, and ultimately self-consciously political second-wave of punk bands that came from Lima’s marginal neighbourhoods. But she has to admit that one of the latter’s representatives, Sociedad de Mierda’s Pedro “Tóxico,” has a point or two in a fanzine article in which he writes: “I don’t know, but I think I hate the pitupunks. That’s why I don’t believe anything they say, because what I do know for sure is that one day, sooner or later, I’ll be working for one of them: because that’s what they’ll be: BOSSES. My bosses, my exploiters” (165).

But the book ultimately suggests that the “subte” scene’s social role is best understood in terms of the guiding metaphor of a subterranean “outpouring” or overflow. This image is in turn taken from Peruvian anthropologist José Matos Mar, whose book Desborde popular y crisis del estado depicts an emergent unofficial economic circuit of (Bazo quotes him saying) “unregistered businesses and activities, that operate outside of the legal system or on its borders, often [. . .] creatively developing their own rules of the game” (12). This, of course, is precisely the murky world of street-trading and semi-clandestine pirate reproduction through which punk spread and on which it fed in Lima. It is also the selfsame informal sector that right-wing economist Hernando de Soto praised in his book El otro sendero as an atomized but efficient collection of do-it-yourself entrepreneurs. And perhaps this is how the overtly individualistic “subte” scene was most mainstream of all: it was carried along in a broader flux of uprooted people who were simultaneously abandoned and celebrated in the neoliberal transformation of the welfare state into security apparatus. The punk (at least, pitupunk) disdain for politics should then be understood in the context of a Peru that voted in an outsider president such as Alberto Fujimori (a sort of proto-Trump) and then applauded as he dissolved Congress and assumed authoritarian powers in order to defeat “terrorism.”

Myself, I wonder if it is really true that there was never any hope for an alternative, even in all the chaos and carnage of the time. Bazo, however, seems to think so when she boldly declares that, when the dust finally settled, “the system [had] shown, once again, that it couldn’t be destroyed” (167). On the contrary, one could very well argue that Peru’s postcolonial creole republic was destroyed, just not in the ways that anyone had expected or desired.

Yet finally, if I am stressing the politics (and sociology) of the punk and post-punk scene that this book depicts, it is because that is what Bazo likewise does. Perhaps surprisingly, she seems rather uninterested in the music itself, preferring to focus on either broad labels (punk, hardcore, metal, and so on) or specific lyrics, which she often quotes at length. We get very little sense of the sound of the subtes. Now maybe this is because, as she tells us, “the important thing [was] the attitude” (148). But surely something can be said about the music, not least because (deluded or otherwise) so many of the informants quoted here consistently tell us that it’s the music that matters. What was the panorama of sounds, rhythms, beats, resonance and noise that energized so many so completely at least for a short time? How did it change and develop, and how much if at all did it end up diverging from its “world music” (Anglo-American or Spanish) models?

Similarly, it is a little odd that a book published by an art gallery (Lima’s Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, which organized a show to accompany it) should have so little to say about the visual components of the scene it is describing. For all the copious illustrations of comics, fanzines, photographs, handbills, posters, and so on, these generally go unanalyzed, unremarked. Hence the paradox that a book about a phenomenon that it hesitates to call a movement, precisely because of its obstreperous refusal of any political claims or demands, in the end views this same phenomenon almost entirely through political categories that the punk scene manifestly overflows or exceeds.

Fortunately, however, this marvelous book overflows too, goes beyond the boundaries that it itself sets: it overwhelms us with its visual charge, and it makes us ache to hear the music much like Lima’s “subtes” ached to hear it themselves. Enough of pan pipes! Desborde subterráneo inspires us to rethink and re-hear (or hear for the very first time) Peru’s music, and perhaps the soundscape of Latin America as a whole.

Alt-Right Affect

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On Milo Yiannopoulos:

As anyone who watched him dance venomous circles around Channel 4’s Cathy Newman–or insinuate his way into Bill Maher’s affections through a shared disdain for trans women–might conclude, Yiannopoulos understands that political communication is less about rationality and deliberation than it is about rhetoric, identification and emotion. The weapons of reason alone are blunt against him.

[. . .]

His obsessions have remained similar: hatred of women, especially women in the public sphere; admiration for the powerful and contempt for the weak; vitriolic antipathy to the Left. These are not pretended beliefs, but permanent features of his position; they are the same obsessions chronicled in Klaus Theweleit’s examination of the fantasy lives of proto-fascist Freikorps men in 1930s Germany. (James Butler, “Milo’s Stumble”. London Review of Books [February 22, 2017])

The Underdogs

It’s a familiar story: the Revolution starts with high ideals and good intentions, but soon goes sour; it takes on a logic of its own, of interminable infighting and violence for the sake of violence. Those who originally railed against corruption become corrupt themselves; things end up as bad if not worse than they were at first. At the end we’re left doubting that so much sacrifice and pain was worth it. It’s the story told, of the Russian Revolution, in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which ultimately “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

On the one hand, this is the revolution as senseless expenditure, as upset without outcome. In the words of Jacques Mallet du Pan: “la révolution dévore ses enfants,” the Revolution devours its children. On the other hand, this is equally the revolution as return, as full circle of the wheel of history. In the words of The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” This from a song with the title “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Yet for some reason the impulse to revolt lives on–the Arab Spring might be just the latest example–despite the fact that so many revolutions seem to take a wrong turn somewhere.

The Underdogs

Hence the dilemma for a book such as Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (Los de abajo), which provides this narrative for the Mexican Revolution, focusing on the Northern front in the years 1913 to 1915. It has to account for the revolution’s causes, the reasons why people might have believed that only violence could transform their circumstances, as well as its effects, a world in which all sense of cause or effect has disappeared, in which violence has become its own raison d’être. As one character puts it near the end of the novel, considering which side to choose among the various warring factions: “Villa? Obregón? Carranza? X . . . Y . . . Z! What do I care? I love the revolution like I love an erupting volcano! I love the volcano because it is a volcano and the revolution because it is the revolution!” (124).

One answer to this problem is to point out that, ultimately, revolutions perhaps have very little to do with politics. At least, they have little to do with politics if we conceive of the political in terms of the making of decisions, of choosing between options. Demetrio Macías, the main character of The Underdogs, a man who the book portrays rising through the ranks of the revolutionary forces, actively refuses the right to decide when he, too, is asked “on which side are you going to fight?” His response is to “[bury] his hands in his hair, [scratch] his head” and reply “Don’t ask me questions like that [. . .]. All ya have to do is say: ‘Demetrio, you do such and such,’ and I’ll do it, end of story!” (116). So it is not that the revolution is (to adapt a phrase from Carl von Clausewitz) “the continuation of politics by other means.” If anything, the revolution is actively anti-political, the expression of a dissatisfaction with the limits of the political.

It is not that politics is absent from The Underdogs. It figures primarily through the novel’s other main character, Luis Cervantes, a deserter from the federalist side who attaches himself to Macías’s gang early on, in large part (we are told) for lofty reasons: “the suffering and misery of the dispossessed,” whose cause he sees “as the sublime cause of an oppressed people demanding justice, pure justice” (22). Throughout the novel he seeks to translate the revolutionary violence into lofty sentiment. For instance, as he puts it to Macías: “You do not yet understand your true, your high, your most noble mission. [. . .] You have risen up against the cacique system itself, the system that is devastating the entire nation. We are constitutive pieces of a great social movement that will lead to the exaltation of our motherland.” To which Macías himself responds: “Go on, bring us two more beers” (42).

So politics is disdained and seen as almost entirely irrelevant. Ultimately, Cervantes abandons the revolutionaries, leaving behind only a note encouraging one of them to come north of the border, open a Mexican restaurant, “and in a very short time we can be rich” (120). Yes, he opts out of the corruption and the ceaseless violence. Yes, as a result, he’s the only one to survive to the novel’s final pages. But that’s precisely because, however much he tries to articulate the spirit of the revolution, it is clear at every moment that he misses it entirely. The revolution forever escapes its political articulation. And perhaps that goes as much for its hackneyed narrativization in The Underdogs itself.

Revolution

Russell Brand, Revolution

Russell Brand is probably best known as an actor, comedian, and radio host. He is also a “celebrity” in all the modern senses: working-class boy made good, with a back-story of deprivation and addiction; larger than life personality and idiosyncratic sense of fashion; high-profile romances (Katy Perry, Jemima Khan); scandalous and out-spoken. He goes out of his way to attract attention, as he half-shamefacedly admits in Revolution, his most sustained incursion into political thought: “I, like a lot of people who come from somewhere glum, was trying to be something spectacular” (104). As such, his turn in recent years to political activism–to expressing the voice of the disenfranchised, of those too alienated from the system to vote–could cynically be seen as part and parcel of the same celebrity syndrome. Again, he practically admits as such: “You know me, when I started this book I really thought I might be able to write my version of, I dunno [. . .] Das Kapital, that I’d contrive some brilliant manifesto where I would, on a wave of raring adulation, be carried from celebrity to political office” (250).

And indeed, Brand gives us plenty of reasons to be cynical, even though (or because) he then subverts them with a burst of the candor that is equally part of his schtick (“You know me”). His narrative is the hardly original tale of rags to riches to spiritual rags as he discovers that fame and fortune are no panacea for whatever psychological damage his Essex upbringing may have left him with (“I loved my mother, was uncomfortable around my stepfather, and adored my absent dad” [17]). He turns therefore to spirituality, to everything from kundalini yoga to Transcendental Meditation, via a brief excursion through African Pentecostalism, to end up pronouncing that we are all but “manifestations of one sublime vibration” (199), “a temporary expression of a subtler and connected electromagnetic realm unknowable on our bandwidth of consciousness” (253). It’s all about love (the book’s final word), as the cover image, with the “love” highlighted in rEVOLution, also emphasizes. Again, however, Brand pre-empts criticism by admitting that much of what he has to offer is a “New Age hippie ramble.” But as he points out, there are worse things than that: “Don’t look under the bed. The horrors that lurk there will dwarf this eastern liberalism” (210).

Taking both his own social mobility and his experience as a recovering addict (plus a smorgasbord of opinions from people such as Dave Graeber and Noam Chomsky, mixed in with some pretty hasty research that mostly goes no farther than Wikipedia), Brand embraces the notion that personal change is the basis for social change, without quite succumbing to the prevalent New Age substitution of the personal for the social as a whole. In other words, he never forgets that the personal is indeed political, and he makes a decent effort at translating, for instance, the keystones of the twelve-step program into a social agenda that would entail dismantling corporations, decentralizing power, and enhancing participation in communal processes of self-actualization. He wants to free us from “our addiction to a corrupt and corrosive system” (275). It’s self-help on a grand scale, but with an awareness that the self is also the product of a particular social regime.

The book makes me fairly fond of Brand, and there’s plenty of good sense (common sense) in the mix. He provides welcome bullshit-free arguments against stigmatizing the homeless or immigrants for instance: “Me, I don’t see immigration as a real issue; for me an immigrant is just someone who used to be somewhere else” (281). And yet as he points out, his hometown of Grays, Essex, is a place where people who share his background (and much of his alienation) have repeatedly voted for anti-immigration and not-so-covertly racist parties such as Ukip. If this is a wake-up call against the kinds of prejudices to which all the mainstream parties have been pandering (and not just in Britain), then the book has some worth. What’s most annoying about it is its style. I understand that it might be aimed at the “ADHD Generation,” but even so was frustrated by the fact that it is (almost literally) all over the place: Brand jumps back and forth from topic to topic, delighting in digression and following his distracted thoughts wherever they may lead. This may work for stand-up, but on the page it grates, and what is worse is decidedly unfunny. In fact, the purported jokes end up less matey and demotic than simply tiresome: telling us Guy Debord was “a clever old stick and as French as adultery” (137) or calling Chomsky variously “Chompers,” “Chomskers,” and “Chomskerooney” (260, 261). Brand is at pains to tell us that Revolution need not be boring. But I’m not sure he sets such a good example.