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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: europe

Building Norway: a critique of Slavoj Žižek

Most of us are now grimly aware of the pernicious hydraulic metaphor for migration – the tendency in newspapers or opinion columns for movements of people to be described in ominously fluid terms: a flood, a wave, a stream, a tide, an influx, a rising body of stinking brown water that can only threaten any settled population. This language isn’t just monstrously deindividuating and dehumanising: when hundreds of migrants are dying at sea, it helps to suture up any ethical laceration before it can fully open itself. Water to water, dust to dust. Vast numbers of people – children included – can sink beneath the waves without anyone feeling any need to do anything about it; it’s only once bodies wash up on beaches that there’s an imperative to act. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that The Non-Existence of Norway, Slavoj Žižek’s essay on migration in the London Review of Books, starts in these familiar terms: ‘The flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Western Europe…’ What comes next is even more unsettling: Žižek compares the European response to the crisis to Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, and so on. Not just any grief, though – Europe is displaying ‘a set of reactions strikingly similar to those we display on learning we have a terminal illness.’ Migrants aren’t just a flood; Žižek resurrects a far more nakedly racist metaphor. The internal other is a parasite, a pathogen, or a cancer, a corrosive and polluting agent that brings death for the (healthy, homogeneous and homoeostatic) body it infects. Of course, this is on the level of the European reaction; he’s not himself making the comparison; it’s something that could be very plausibly dismissed as a little rhetorical pirouette. But it doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

There are no great old Soviet jokes in this essay, no references to Hitchcock or Kung Fu Panda, and only a brief, perfunctory mention of Stalin. Crucially, there’s no Freud, Lacan, or Hegel; not even (surprisingly, given that the question of migration is ultimately one of hospitality) any citation of Derrida. Above all, there’s nothing that could be considered as Marxism. Which raises the question of what theory is actually for. Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something that’s actually essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and différances, and start dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, I’d like to believe that the latter is true. Clearly Žižek doesn’t agree: what The Non-Existence of Norway gives us is an unadulterated and unmediated opinion piece, one normal man’s take, something that would be equally at home in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or on the blog of a self-confessed political junkie.

Žižek’s argument is convoluted and contradictory, but it could be briefly summarised like this. The migration ‘crisis’ currently afflicting Europe is (correctly) identified as the inevitable result of successive Western interventions in the Middle East and north Africa, along with neocolonial relations across the global South. At the same time, migrants display an ‘enigmatically utopian’ demand: they don’t just want to arrive somewhere safe in Europe, away from bombs and guns. The thousands heroically marching across Hungary are scrambling for Austria and Germany, those forced to camp in squalid conditions in Calais are ‘not satisfied with France’ and demand Britain instead, people risking their lives on rubber dinghies across the Aegean want to build a good life for themselves and their children in Norway – but, Žižek insists, ‘there is no Norway, not even in Norway.’ Life isn’t fair, folks. Migrants are everywhere met with reactionary violence, claiming to defend the pre-existing European way of life from the invaders, but the ‘standard left-liberal line on this is an arrogant moralism’ – to insist that human dignity outweighs any concerns over social disruption is ‘merely the obverse of anti-immigrant brutality,’ because it accepts that the defence of one’s way of life is in contradiction with ‘ethical universalism.’ But rather than demonstrating that this is a false opposition, however, Žižek seemingly out of nowhere starts valorising the (nonsensical) view that migration threatens some posited European way of life. ‘Should we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their children’s marriages; who discriminate against homosexuals?’ After indulging in this airily speculative rhetoricising for a few paragraphs, Žižek finally gets down to some serious prescriptivism. Europe must ‘reassert its commitment’ to the dignified treatment of refugees. (Does this mean that such a commitment already exists?) At the same time, it ‘must impose clear rules and regulations,’ through a strengthened central European authority. Migrants will be allocated a destination in Europe, and they must remain there. They must not commit any acts of sexist, racist, or religious violence, as such foreign types are apparently wont to do. This is because they are in Europe now, and are no longer free to indulge in the barbarisms endemic and unique to those parts of the world that produce migration. ‘Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality.’ And they must be backed up by brutal state violence.

There is a lot that’s deeply wrong here, even beyond the obvious. The idea that the primary problem is the ‘flow’ of migrants into Europe, that Europe is experiencing a migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are experiencing a European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops. The baffling notion that a lack of sexist, racist, or religious violence is somehow a fundamental part of European life, that these things only exist in the global South, and will be carried, plague-like, by its former inhabitants. The sudden and unexplained invocation of the Islamic veil as the master-signifier of non-European otherness: when hundreds are drowning in the Mediterranean, and thousands more are imprisoned in dehumanising refugee camps, is their expression of religiosity really the most pressing issue? Žižek’s essay seems to be as uninformed by bare facts as it is by theory: a vast portion of the migrants reaching Europe are Syrian, from a middle-income country with a long history of secularism and communal co-existence; the takfiri ideology that is currently running rampage in the region is a foreign import, as are most of the takfiri fighters themselves. Many of the refugees that can afford to make it to Europe are from the Syrian petit-bourgeoisie; if we really do believe that class is a more crucial determining factor than nationality, we should at least be open to the idea that their ‘values’ and ways of life will not be too different from those of bourgeois Europe.

It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Žižek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also – isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding ‘freedom of movement for all.’ Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented – but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Žižek can only articulate the European ‘way of life’ in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe.

This is, however, a line of argument that Žižek has deployed himself – see his discussion of the Haitian Revolution in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; the moment when invading French soldiers were met by revolutionary slaves singing the Marseillaise. (Of course, even if all this weren’t the case – so what? Must anyone who doesn’t embody a certain universalism be left to drown?) So why not now? Is it because the Haitian Revolution is safely ensconced in the past, while the migrants’ crisis is happening now? Is it because of the uncomfortable element of Islam (although, as Susan Buck-Morss demonstrates, that was far from absent in Haiti)? Why, especially, does Žižek perform this total abandonment of theory? His ‘straightforward’ approach results in some highly uncomfortable formulations – take, for instance, the line that ‘refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely.’ Not an overtly objectionable statement, but for the juxtaposition of ‘price’ with ‘economy.’ A price is an exchange-value, something that can only exist within a certain economy. An economy itself cannot have a price without being itself situated within some greater and more general economy – one that, under conditions of capitalist totality, can only ever replicate it. Rather than trying to form any critique of economy as such, Žižek surrenders his analysis over to it. Human life must be calculated in terms of cost and benefit, price rather than value; not just the presence of refugees but their existence itself is figured as an unconscionable squandering of resources. Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and resist, lines such as these.

Some of these questions might be answered by taking another perspective on Žižek’s essay. A properly Marxist critique doesn’t just look at what a text says, but what it does, and to whom it’s speaking. Žižek makes generous use of the first person plural pronoun throughout, but who is this ‘we’? Only and always the settled Europeans. It’s never once considered that a migrant could be educated, that they could speak English, that they could be reading the London Review of Books. When Žižek uses the vocative case, when he directly apostrophises the reader and makes prescriptions for what they should do, it’s even more obvious who he’s talking to. He invokes, but never encourages, a commonality of struggle between Europeans and migrants, or the kind of displays of spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent. Instead, he directly addresses the European ruling classes, instructing them to impose rules and regulations, to form administrative networks, to introduce repressive measures. This is, to put it mildly, strange behaviour for a self-described communist. The Non-Existence of Norway isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on ‘radical economic change,’ this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Žižek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.

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Voting is magic!

UKIP election leaflet, 2014

Most societies have, buried in their vast cultural storehouses, some kind of apotropaic rite: one carried out to ward off the evil forces that constantly lay siege to ordinary social life. In ancient Egypt, crocodiles were thrown into blacksmiths’ furnaces. In medieval and early modern England, travelling troupes would perform comic ‘mummers plays’; a similar tradition among the Lakota and Sioux involves the temporary reign of sacred clowns. The Aztec priests tore out the hearts from millions of (often willing) victims to ensure that the world made it from one 52-year cycle to the next without collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity. These rituals have varying levels of success. At no point prior to 1521 did the Sun ever fail to rise in the morning – but even though the Earth’s rotation has slowed slightly since the forced abolition of tlamictiliztli, it’s yet to stop entirely. On the other hand, there are no records of anyone having been kidnapped by the Devil after spilling salt, so long as they take the wise precaution of chucking some over their shoulder. Still none of these rituals are as destructive as the mode of apotropaic magic endemic to the contemporary West, in which  the priesthood demands that we make a mark next to the printed name of someone we don’t like and then put it in a box. This strange and stupid ritual, which any rigorous analysis will show to produce far fewer positive results than a simple rain-dance or burnt-offering, is nonetheless imposed by force on much of the world, in fear of the great evil that will arise if it’s not performed properly. The result is that, with a brutal calendar regularity, hundreds of people are massacred every year for making the marks incorrectly.

Electoral representation in the post-ideological age has far more in common with apotropy than politics. Very few people vote to choose their leaders; instead they vote to prevent the other guy from winning. The genealogy of voting follows a very different path from that of democracy. In classical Athens, which is to a greater or lesser extent to blame for both practices, governmental positions were usually determined by lots, to counteract the advantages enjoyed by rich citizens and great orators. If, as a fifth-century Athenian citizen, you were actually voting for a politician, chances are you were casting an ostrakon: voting for them to be exiled from the city and its civic life. Voting is an apotropaic act. Little has changed. In this week’s European elections, millions of people will vote for the individuals they want to be torn from their homes and families and sent away to the godforsaken marshy swamplands of Brussels.

In the United Kingdom, these elections are expected to be a devastating victory for UKIP, the Boko Haram of East Anglia. UKIP are standing on a political platform that appears to champion clean fridges as an antidote to sexual promiscuity, an end to costly environmental protection for African forest ungulates, giving due weight to the erotogenic model of climate change, and the systematic demonisation of the most exploited and vulnerable members of society. All their blunders, and the concerted attempt by the mainstream parties to brand them as racists, haven’t put much of a dent in their poll figures – and why would it? They represent a peculiarly British kind of fascism. We’ve already conquered the world and slaughtered millions with ruthless industrial precision; why would we want to do it again? It’s a bumbling, Dad’s Army, lovable underdog fascism; efficient precisely because of its shambolic inefficiency. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the bien pensant pissants of the three major parties fear UKIP so much not because of any real concern for migrant populations (after all, this scapegoating is a monster they themselves made) but because of their refusal to conform to the unwritten rule of the ritual: above all else, be boring.

For those of us on the left, the way to perform the ritual properly is to vote for the Labour party. Newspapers are full of deeply concerning reports of their shrinking poll lead: only with our vote do they have the power to banish the forces of evil and chaos from the land. We owe them this vote, in the same way that humans owe the gods of the Aztec pantheon their lives, in restitution for a primordial sacrifice. If the cycle of immaterial debt isn’t maintained the world will fall apart. Vote Labour, or the sun won’t rise and the soil will turn to ash. I voted for Labour once, for all the good it did anyone, in the full throes of apotropaic ecstasy that came with 2009’s general election. It took twenty showers before I could properly wash the smell of it off my skin, a stench like unto mouldering constituency offices and cheap air freshener and tortured Iraqi prisoners, the abject sensation of having one of Gordon Brown’s oily hairs stuck somewhere in my mouth. To ward off the nasty party of cuts and class oppression, we’re to vote for the nice party of cuts and class oppression; to ward off the nasty party of anti-immigrant rhetoric and British global chauvinism, we’re to vote for the nice party of anti-immigrant rhetoric and British global chauvinism. It’s all extremely dull.

In 2012, as massive street protests were challenging the legitimacy of the Syrian government, it responded by approving a new constitution that ended nearly half a decade of Ba’ath one-party rule. In accordance with the new constitution, presidential elections will take place next month. The incumbent, one Bashar al-Assad, is basing his campaign on lukewarm national unity, 80s nostalgia, and feeble puns on his professional background in ophthalmology. Of his opponents, Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri of the National Initiative for Administration and Change is promising to end corruption and oversee the return of the squeezed middle class, while Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar of the People’s Will party vows to bolster a strong centralised state. Meanwhile cities lie in ruins, fanatics rule the countryside, thousands suffocate on poison gas. The election is being denounced as a sham by Western governments, which of course it is; but that doesn’t do much to distinguish it from many others. It’d be far more illuminating if the psephologists treated the Syrian election exactly as they do one of ours: reprinting hilarious Twitter reactions to Assad’s latest gaffe, breathlessly speculating on how the opening of Syrian embassies in Jordan and Lebanon to refugee voters will affect the result, sternly condemning rebel efforts to disrupt the poll in Aleppo, and, as Judgement Day nears, sounding the trumpets and rolling out the all-knowing swingometer. None of the imperialist politicians condemning the Syrian election are genuinely disappointed that it’s not being held in accordance with international democratic standards; the worry is that it works all too well as a satire of our own mystical procedures. An apotropaic rite, in which talking about the economy and corruption and foreign investment is used to ward off the lingering shadow of war.

These rituals always involve a symbolic element: the Egyptians slaughtered crocodiles as symbols of Seth; the mummers plays introduced cosmic themes of death and resurrection into the bawdy context of a punch-and-judy carnival. To challenge the election on the grounds that it’s a symbolic farce rather than an actual democratic procedure isn’t likely to get you very far; everyone already knows. Standing up in the middle of a mummers play and loudly insisting that it isn’t real and the figures swordfighting are only actors won’t earn you the awestruck gratitude of the audience. We have these rites for a reason; simply refusing to play the game is no less boring and pointless than getting swept up in its magic and voting for Labour. When a particular piece of magic doesn’t work the task isn’t to loudly declare the whole thing over, but to help its internal contradictions demonstrate precisely why that is the case. The election-rite only maintains its power through the pretence that everyone is in fact voting for the party they like the most, and that’s exactly what we should do.

Personally, I plan to vote for the Communities United Party. All their campaign material is wonderful: the gloriously confused national imagery of a bald eagle glaring proudly in front of a British flag; the creepy slogan ‘Strength in Unity’; the paunchy glum face of leader Kamran Malik, who once mistakenly identified himself as a communist in a typo-ridden press release. Their manifesto admits no particular ideology, moving directly from a grand pledge to return integrity and justice to politics to whining about parking fees. If they’re not to your taste there are others, some of them not even made up, all based on the same pathetic useless hope that’s so essential to the British economy. The National Liberals are dedicated to bringing independence to Kurdistan and Punjab by gaining seats on various local councils. The Wessex Democrats want to restore the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. The New Levellers Initiative demand a written constitution primarily so it can outlaw all roadbumps. Perhaps the best of all is the We Demand A Referendum Now party, formed in a split from UKIP. It campaigns on the sole issue of a referendum on EU membership, and according to a YouGov poll one third of all British adults intend to lend it their votes, despite its only fielding candidates in the West Midlands. It is the duty of all those who believe in real democracy against the representative mysticism of the present system to ensure that they have a Westminster majority next year.

Future Europe – Ahmet Weshke and the mystery of the falling man

Recently I came across this piece in the Wall Street Journal by the litigation-happy racist Niall Ferguson, a man with a face like an undercooked Jeremy Clarkson and opinions to match. Writing in 2011, he takes it upon himself to paint a picture of how Europe will look in ten years time. It’s an awful article. Sometimes the sheer stupidity of his predictions is gobsmacking: war between Jordan and Israel – really? The reintroduction of Austrian nobiliary particles – really? George Osborne, the ‘Iron Chancellor’ – really? Of course it all plays into his ideological agenda, but that could be forgiveable if he’d simply done it better. Ferguson’s worst error is one of genre. True to form, he takes a smugly objective overview of the political developments over the course of his decade, without ever stopping to think how life in Future Europe might actually be lived. It’s inherently inaccurate. The Europe of the mid-21st Century won’t look a thing like Ferguson’s prediction. It won’t be a calm appraisal. It’ll be pulp fiction.

Ahmet Weschke woke up in a bare room stinking of liquor fumes and the prostitute’s perfume. His Interface was still hissing silently in one corner of the room. Onscreen, the face of a newsreader drifted like a spectre above a roiling sea of static. He chucked a shoe at it; the image stabilised. Ahmet dressed himself hurriedly and wolfed down a breakfast consisting of three slices of bleached-white bread as he watched the morning headlines. It was the same old shit. A bunch of fanatics had declared another Islamic Emirate in a valley somewhere in the massif central. This was happening every couple of months now. Some dumb kids straight out of a banlieue madrassa would drive into a rural region and burst into the farmhouse of some rotund Gallic swine-farmer; they’d shoot him and maybe a couple of the local villagers they found enjoying charcuterie or dressing immodestly, then raise the black flag of jihad and wait for the European Army paratroopers to come and dispatch them as quickly as possible to Paradise. It made sense, really; better a nice little burst of rape and plunder followed by a swift death than decades tramping around a gloomy concrete suburb. The other items were just as predictable: more pictures of emaciated English refugees milling around the Scottish border, more helicopter footage of the interminable riots that were destroying Los Angeles as comprehensively as an earthquake, more grim reports of mounting Chinese casualties in Kazakhstan, more dull analysis of the land deal with the Saudi Empire as it collapsed into an acrimonious squabble. Enough.

As he hurried down Holzwegstrasse to the S-Bahn station, Ahmet tried several times to adjust his tie before giving up and stuffing it in his pocket. The train was packed with perspiring commuters; the air inside was humid with sweat and spittle. More people clung to the handles on the sides and the roof – doing so wasn’t strictly legal, of course, but after the number of bodies on the lines had started to seriously impact the network’s efficiency the corporation running the transit system had decided to put handles on anyway. Everyone on the train was Goggled; their irises were pale, their gazes immobile. The only people who didn’t wear Goggles were the religious fanatics, the most impoverished of the guest workers, and the police. Officers of the European Department of Civil Order were forbidden from using AR: only the police still believed in the real world.

Commissioner Traugott was waiting at his desk when Ahmet arrived.
“You’re late,” she said. “And you smell of booze.”
“I didn’t have time to shower. You’d rather I was even later?”
“If you want to look like a slob, it’s up to you. We’ve got a case. Bankenviertel. Apparent suicide. Suspicious.”
“What, has Denmark gone bust again? Come on, Angela. I’m a good detective. I don’t need another fucking depressed banker.”
“It’s not quite that. You’ll see.”

The body was naked and twisted, dashed with fragments of concrete, one knee bent backwards, one elbow embedded in a shattered paving stone. From one side of its head a tongue lapped against the pavement. The other side had exploded into a constellation of blood, brain and skull. The index finger of his left hand had been cut off. A clean straight wound. Above the body rose the sheer glass infinity of the EuroBank Tower, painfully reflecting the sun’s fury. Somewhere up near the eightieth floor, one window-pane was broken. Ahmet was in a foul mood. He’d expected his EDCO card to get him whisked straight through the checkpoint into Bankenviertel; instead the Israeli private security guards had made him wait for ten minutes by the reinforced wall that surrounded the business district while they checked his credentials. At least the civilians in line had been able to entertain themselves with their Goggles. Ahmet had counted concrete slabs instead.
“Let me guess,” he said. “Cleaner? Fell in the middle of the night?”
Officer Hans, looking slightly ridiculous in his blue-and-gold uniform, gaped at him. “Just because he’s black doesn’t mean he’s a menial worker,” he said.
“It’s not because he’s black,” said Ahmet. “Look at his teeth. Discoloured, one premolar missing. This guy isn’t a banker. And the scar across his thigh, there. Looks like barbed wire. So, probably a refugee, possibly an illegal. And the inflammations, over… there. Venereal disease. Am I right?”
“He’s not a banker. We did biometrics. He’s registered. Joseph Kutenge. Came over in ’31 with all the rest. You know, when the Congo basin went dry… but here’s the thing.”
“What?”
“OK, first of all, he wasn’t wearing Goggles.”
“So what? Not everyone uses augmented reality.”
“But it’s unusual, isn’t it? Shit, even my mother wears them, and she remembers the DDR.”
Ahmet wondered how many years Hans’ mother had before she’d have to enter the euthanasia process. Maybe she’d been saving up and could afford the monthly life-extension payments. He hoped so. He liked the kid, even if he’d never let him know it. “What else?” he said.
“Kutenge works in a warehouse outside of Offenbach. Menial labour, like you said. There’s no way he’d have a Bankenviertel pass.”
Ahmet glanced at the high concrete wall rising above some of the lower buildings near the edge of the business district, shimmering in the day’s heat. “Then how the fuck did he get in?”
Hans shrugged. “That’s the question.”

~

Kutenge’s body was being loaded into the police van, draped in an antiseptic-looking white sheet. The forensics team had been and gone, sweeping their Portals over the corpse, crouched over the dead man like a flock of vultures. Back at HQ, a computerised visualisation of the crime scene would be built and pored over: impact velocity would be calculated, a crowd of skinny analysts would try to determine whether Kutenge had fallen from the window or been pushed. Ahmet didn’t trust the analysts: they got results, but it wasn’t real police work.
He drew Hans to one side. “I want you to go to this guy’s house,” he said. “Talk to his wife. Give me more to work with than Brussels statistics. I’ll have a look round the EuroBank Tower.”
“Are you kidding? I can’t go down there, boss.”
“Why not?”
“Kutenge lived in the Offenbach Camp. Look at me. I look like a fucking Hitlerjugend. In uniform, as well. I wouldn’t last five minutes.”
This was true. Police never investigated any crimes in the refugee camps. If the militants there grew too rowdy, or if there was a particularly shocking massacre, a European Army unit would storm in and dispense some crude justice; enough to shut the liberal bloggers up for a couple of weeks, at least.
“Anyway,” Hans continued, “Traugott said she wants Detective Haufman to talk to the people inside.”
“She fucking didn’t. Why’d she do that?”
Hans flinched. “Look at how you’re dressed, boss.”
Ahmet grunted. “OK,” he said. “I’ll go to Offenbach. You stay here. And if that fucker Haufman tries to enter that building, shoot him.”

Ahmet left his jacket in the car. He undid the top three buttons from his shirt and slicked his hair back a little with spit.
“How Turkish do I look?” he said to the driver.
“You not been in the camps before, sir?”
“When I was younger. And thinner.”
Past the sterile zone of barbed wire and tarmac that surrounded it, Offenbach Camp was a mess. Washing lines hung between plastic tents and corrugated-iron shacks. Suspicious eyes glanced out from dark alleyways, sometimes accompanied by the oily gleam of gunmetal. Women stirred oil-drums filled with soup behind signs in French or Arabic or English. Ahmet tried not to peer too ostentatiously at the map in his hand. If he could wear Goggles this would have been so much easier; as it was he had to navigate the camp by instinct. Kutenge’s house was near the centre, a tiny bungalow built from exposed cinderblocks with glassless windows. Ahmet recognised the symbol of the United Nations stamped onto one of the concrete pillars: this place was old. He knocked on the door.
It was opened by a tall woman in a faded Vietnam World Cup 2030 t-shirt and grubby shorts. “Que voulez-vous?” she said.
“Mrs Kutenge? My name’s Ahmet Weschke. I’m with the police. Do you think I could come in?”
She frowned. “Is this about Joseph? I already know.”
“I just want to ask some questions about him. So we can find out what happened.”
She looked puzzled, but let him in. Inside there was a mattress on the floor, a plastic table with some rickety chairs, and a stove. A muted Interface was propped up against one wall; onscreen a minister paced up and down a stage, yelling silent hosannas. “There is nothing to ask. Joseph worked in the warehouse. He went to work every day and then he came home. He went to church. He did not drink. He did not gamble. There is nothing to ask.”
Ahmet thought of the sores around the dead man’s genitals, but he didn’t say anything. “Do you know what he was doing in Frankfurt? How he got in?”
“No. He didn’t come home last night. And then today I am told he is dead.”
“You don’t seem very upset.”
“Last year my two daughters were shot here. In the camp. I have cried enough. I have cried all my tears.” Her expression soured. “And where were you when my children were killed? When a child dies in the camp you are nowhere. But when someone dies so that rich men have to look at his body, then you care about him. It is sick. It is sick!” She stamped her foot, but her anger seemed somehow feigned. The woman’s irises were a misty grey. Who else could be looking out through those eyes?

~

Somehow, Ahmet found himself at the back of the room as Haufman explained his team’s findings. A hologram of Kutenge’s body spun slowly above his desk. “The lack of injuries associated with glass impact is consistent with our working hypothesis,” Haufman said. “It appears Kutenge first broke the window, then jumped through. We consider it statistically unlikely that he was pushed. Motivations are unclear. A political statement, perhaps.”
Traugott tapped her fingers on the table. “But how did he get in?”
“The Bankenviertel Group have kindly agreed to release their CCTV records, which we’re still analysing. But Kutenge was a refugee. He arrived here at Marseilles. He certainly has plenty of experience in climbing barriers.”
“Whose window was it?” said Ahmed.
“I’m sorry?”
“Whose window was it?”
Haufman sighed. “The office belonged to Jeremy Smythe-Braistwick.”
“The CFO? The one who’s trying to sell half of Europe to the Arabs?”
“Yes, the CFO of EuroBank. Herr Smythe-Braistwick is co-operating fully with the investigation, and he’s asked us to pass on his sincere condolences to Kutenge’s survivors.”
Afterwards, Ahmet was approached by Officer Hans. “You think Smythe-Braistwick killed him, don’t you?”
“I don’t think anything, Hans. I collect all the facts I can, until I know.”
“Sure, boss. But you think he killed him, don’t you?”
“I think someone was leaning on Kutenge’s wife. When I spoke to her she was Goggled. And I know there’s no way he could have climbed that wall. Thousands of people got out of the camps in Marseilles, they were falling apart. Nobody gets into Bankenviertel if they’re not invited. Frankfurt could be nuked and the people in there would be selling short on radioactive debris the next day.”
“So someone brought him in?”
“I’m not saying it was Smythe-Braistwick. Not necessarily. But everyone knows the bankers get up to some pretty kinky shit after office hours. So let’s say there’s a couple of them, high-level board members, cruising round Offenbach as the warehouse closes. They see some poor black refugee they like the look of. They drive him into Bankenviertel, bring him up the tower, do whatever the fuck they do, then credit him a couple of Euros and send him back to the camp. They do this a couple of times, maybe. But this time something goes wrong. They push him too far, they get too sadistic. That missing finger… So he complains, or resists, and in the struggle, he gets flung out the window…”
“Haufman said the window was broken first.”
“Haufman’s a moron. OK. I’m going to take a shower, and then I’m going to call on Herr Smythe-Braistwick. I want you to go through the CCTV from Offenbach. See what Kutenge did when he left work. See if he got into any cars.”

The elevator in the EuroBank Tower was bigger than Ahmet’s apartment. He stared at himself in the mirror and flicked a yellow particle from the corner of his eye. Kutenge and Smythe-Braistwick, Smythe-Braistwick and Kutenge. Both refugees, in a sense, except Kutenge had to trek across a continent, riding in some warlord’s pickup across the Sahara and launching himself into the toxic seas of the Mediterranean; he had to escape the Marseilles refugee camp before the Army liquidated it, he had to cross minefields and hide under bushes from drones. Smythe-Braistwick probably just jumped in his helicopter and touched down in Frankfurt while London was still burning.
Ahmet was received in Smythe-Braistwick’s office, a huge, tastefully empty space. The broken window had already been replaced. Smythe-Braistwick – tall and thin with fashionably long hair and an artificial-looking tautness to his face – greeted him from behind his desk. “I must say, Mr – Weschke, is it? I’m a little perplexed by your appearance here. I’ve already spoken to your colleague, not three hours ago.”
“If you’ll permit,” growled Ahmet, “I’d like to follow up on Detective Haufman’s enquiries.”
“By all means. Can I interest you in a drink?”
It was an effort, but Ahmet ignored him. “Have you ever been to Offenbach, Herr Smythe-Braistwick?”
“Jeremy, please. And occasionally. But of course I don’t like to go too near to the camp.”
“So if I were to search the cameras there for your numberplate, or your face, over the last week, I wouldn’t find anything?”
“I highly doubt that. Why do you ask?”
“You weren’t in Offenbach at any point yesterday.”
“Yesterday, Mr Weschke, I was in here until ten in the evening, meeting with my associates in Riyadh. At ten o’clock I was driven to my home in Bad Homburg. My car passed the Hessenring checkpoint at about, oh, ten forty-five. Please do check. You’ll find everything I say to be true.”
“And you locked your office after you left?”
“The door here has biometric security. It can only be opened by myself or my secretary.”
“Then how did Kutenge get in?”
“I don’t know, Mr Weschke. I presumed that answering that question was your job rather than mine.”
“Mr Kutenge was Congolese. You have something of a history with that part of the world, don’t you, Jeremy?”
“I assume you’re talking about ’28. It’s so tiresome. I didn’t cause the famine. Failed government policies caused the famine. Kleptocrats and demagogues caused the famine. I traded commodity futures. At the same time I was selling short on Icelandic wheat. There was no famine in Iceland in 2028.”
“A lot of people still blame you, though.”
“And I’m sure they have every right to think what they want. As I told your colleague, I believe Mr Kutenge’s suicide was a kind of political protest. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to attend to.”

Hans was beaming when Ahmet returned. “You were right, boss,” he said. “OK. Firstly, Kutenge was credited four hundred thousand Euros yesterday. Anonymous transfer, so we’d need a subpoena. But then I looked at the footage. Kutenge left the warehouse at six thirty last night. The other workers all take the bus back to the camp. Not Kutenge. He walks up Seibenstrasse, stands on a corner – then look.” He pulled up an Interface. “A black Mercedes pulls up. Kutenge gets in.” Onscreen, the car pulled away, past the rows of low corrugated-iron buildings. Its windows were tinted.
“Where’s it going?” said Ahmet.
“I followed it until it crossed the river. Then after Kaiserstrasse the cameras cut out. Power failure, apparently. When they come back on again the car’s gone. I don’t like this, boss. It goes deep.”
“Did you run a trace on the car?”
“Of course I did. But you don’t need me to tell you who it belonged to.”

He was waiting when Smythe-Braistwick came out. The man was striding on his spindly legs out from the glass canopy of the EuroBank Tower, his long coat flapping around him in the night wind, looking like a Victorian vampire who’d discovered cocaine and exfoliating skin cream. Ahmet wanted to pounce on him, beat his skull into the concrete. He wanted to kill the fucker for having the nerve to think that he could murder someone, even a resident of the camps, and get away with it. Instead he walked out in front of him and presented his EDCO card, all proper and correct, before slipping on the handcuffs and making the famous announcement enforced by the European Court of Individual Rights.
“Herr Smythe-Braistwick,” he said. “Under paragraph eight, subsection fourteen of the protocol on the accused, I hereby inform you that you are suspended of those rights delineated in lines thirteen to eighty-four inclusive and line one hundred and twenty-eight in chapter seven of the declaration of the rights of the citizen; also that you are hereby included under the definition of an ‘arestee’ as delineated under paragraph three of the European Department of Civil Order working charter, with your legal responsibilities being given in paragraphs four through nine…”

~

“You’re off the case, Weschke,” said Commissioner Traugott as Smythe-Braistwick left the building. “In fact, as of now, you’re suspended. We know exactly where he was all last night. You arrested him without filing a report or consulting me, without a shred of actionable evidence. What on Earth did you think you were doing?”
“My job,” said Ahmet.
“Well, it’s not your job any longer. Herr Smythe-Braistwick’s people were kind enough to send us their own dossier on you. Whores, Ahmet? In your position? It’s unconscionable.”
“You’re not giving the case to Haufman.”
“As it happens, no. A communiqué from Brussels came in. The Kutenge case will be handled by the internal banking regulator.”
“You’re fucking kidding.”
“Bankenviertel is their jurisdiction. Go home, Ahmet. Leave your gun. The tribunal’s convening next week.”

There was nothing to do, except to buy a bottle of whiskey and hope that when he woke up again his gun would once again be on his bedside table, his EDCO card would still be valid, and the Kutenge case would recede into a bad dream. The Interface was still running when Ahmet returned to his apartment, still tuned to the rolling news stream. A row of EA troopers were standing in front of an angry crowd throwing rocks and hoisting placards. Nous sommes tous Joseph Kutenge. Another camp, another mob; this one didn’t even seem to be in Germany. They’d built an effigy of Smythe-Braistwick and were busy tearing it apart. Burning European flags coughed black smoke into the sky. The soldiers were grinning. They’d love nothing more than to be able to empty a clip into that ungrateful mob, and soon enough, they’d get the order. There’d be another massacre, and it was his fault. Ahmet switched to an entertainment stream. A new gameshow: minor celebrities tried to have sex on stage while the audience shouted antaphrodisiac words at them. “Brezhnev and Honecker kissing!” shouted one. “Unemployment is at sixty percent in Portugal!” yelled another. A woman stood up. “Joseph Kutenge!” That got a round of applause.

Ahmet was woken the next morning by a knock on his door. He shambled over. It was Haufman.
“The fuck do you want?” he said. “Come to gloat?”
“No,” said Haufman. “I’ve come to help.”
“You can help by fucking off.”
“Listen to me, Ahmet. I know we’ve had our differences, but you need to listen. You were right. You were right about Smythe-Braistwick. He knew Kutenge.”
“Have you told Traugott?”
“You’re not getting reinstated. She’s right, you shouldn’t have arrested him. But now you’re off the case you can help me find out the truth.”
“I thought it’d been turned over to the internal regulators.”
“It has. Can I come in?”
Ahmet let Haufman in and flopped down on his bed. “Talk,” he said.
“Hans showed me the footage from the warehouse near Offenbach. Kutenge’s been getting in that black Mercedes, every other week, for six months now. But the night he died, the data’s gone haywire, the cameras keep cutting out. Someone’s been trying to mask his movements. Not very well, by the looks of it. So I looked at the records for Smythe-Braistwick, and it’s a mess. He was negotiating the Saudi land deal in his office and attending a board meeting and taking a piss all at the same time.”
“What does any of this have to with me?”
“You’re off the force, aren’t you? I can’t do anything now. None of us can. But you’re just a private citizen. You can fly out and confront him about it.”
“Fly out?”
“Smythe-Braistwick left Frankfurt this morning. He’s gone to Athens.”
“You want me to go to Greece? Unarmed? Are you crazy?”
“I’ve already booked your flight. You want to solve this case, don’t you? You want your job back, don’t you?”
He did. More than anything in the world.

~

Bullet-holes still ran along the walls of Athens International Airport. Outside, the complex was surrounded by three lines of European Army tanks. From his seat in the plane, Ahmet had seen the deep scars running through the city where all the buildings under the flight lines had been razed. Ever since the Acropolis had been dynamited, Athens was only useful for its airport, ferrying tourists in armoured cars to one of the privately-owned Greek islands. Those islands still above sea level were meant to be nice: little rustic havens, full of charming goat-herders smiling for the Chinese tourists. Ahmet had never been, of course.
Haufman had given him an itinerary. Ahmet squinted at it through his hangover. Flying had never agreed with him. Right about now Smythe-Braithwick would be lunching with Prince Faisal in the green zone around Syntagma Square, near the parliament building where what remained of the Greek government tried to pretend that their entire country wasn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of EuroBank.
A bus pulled up in front of the concourse. “Zone one!” the driver shouted. The machine-gunner on the roof stared into the middle distance.
As they drove along the fortified expressway the odd Molotov cocktail would smash against the reinforced windows. Then the machine-gunner would fire a few quick bursts into the buildings on either side. Ahmet had planned to sleep on the journey; that clearly wouldn’t be happening.

He caught Smythe-Braistewick just as his lunch was finishing. The banker had shaken hands with a man in a keffiyeh outside the restaurant. Prince Faisal stepped into a waiting car and was sped off. As soon as Smythe-Braistwick was starting to take his loping walk back to the Hotel Grande Bretagne, Ahmet leapt at him, pinning him against a wall. “Tell me what happened,” he said.
His victim squirmed. “Mr Weschke? I was assured you’d been relieved of your duties.”
“I have. I’m just a private citizen here, same as you. And you’re going to tell me everything.”
“This is absurd. Commissioner Traugott will hear of this, I can assure you.”
“Look around you, Jeremy. You’re not in Frankfurt any more. It might be pretty quiet here, but I reckon I could march you just down the road and see how you fare outside the green zone. Have you ever had to fight? I have. I’ll admit, I was never top of my class in combat exercises, but I reckon I could hold my own. How about you? You’d better start talking. You’d better start telling me the truth.”
Smythe-Braistwick gulped. “The truth?”
“I know you killed Kutenge.”
“I didn’t kill him! You idiot. You want the truth? I loved him.”
The words almost knocked Ahmet off his feet. “You what?”
“I loved him. Oh, but he had his wife, I don’t know how he felt, I don’t… but he was so strong. He was so unlike anyone I’d ever met. I’d never hurt him. Never.”
“You loved him? You loved him and you let him live in the camp?”
“I tried to reason with him, I did. I offered him an apartment in Frankfurt. He refused. He told me he wasn’t a prostitute. He was so proud…”
“You lied to us.”
“Of course I did. As you said, he lived in the camps. He lived behind his concrete walls, and I lived behind mine. You think I could just say that I was in love with a refugee? I’d be ruined. We’re not supposed to cross those walls, Mr Weschke.”
“You gave him the key to your office.”
“I registered his fingerprints. And he killed himself. I know there are… cultural differences around our kind of love, but I never expected…” Smythe-Braistwick looked as if he was about to cry. Ahmet stepped back from him. The man’s face flushed red. “And don’t you think I’ve had quite enough hurt without you following me across Europe to say that I murdered him? Are you satisfied now?”

Ahmet’s flight back to Frankfurt wasn’t until the next morning. He took a room in an anonymously boxy hotel in the airport complex. All the hotel Interfaces were in use, so he bought a set of disposable Goggles and took them up to his room. Well, he wasn’t governed by EDCO rules now. As he slipped them over his eyeballs the little discs started to vibrate; it wasn’t painful, but not particularly pleasant either. As they did so everything around him started to change. Objects grew outlines. Colours were brighter, richer, more saturated. A gauzy glow settled over the hotel room. As he looked out of the window, a carpet of grass unfurled over the wasteland of rocky scrub and demolished buildings that surrounded the airport. There were wildflowers dancing in the breeze; here and there a rabbit would leap out of the dewy pasture. This was how most people saw the world: looking at the dead earth and seeing a meadow.
A series of icons faded into view, hanging over the horizon. Ahmet called Haufman in Frankfurt. “Smythe-Braistwick didn’t kill Kutenge,” he told him.
“That can’t be,” said Haufman. “We know he did. We have evidence.”
“We were wrong. They were in love.”
“And lovers never quarrel? You were on the beat once, weren’t you? You’ve seen what people in love can do to each other. Listen. The camps are getting out of hand and the regulators aren’t doing a thing. We need to solve this. And soon.”
“You’re a fucking cretin, Haufman. Don’t you get the feeling someone’s being set up?” Ahmet rubbed his hands in his eyes. One of the Goggles fell out. “Fuck,” he said. As he bent down to retrieve it, a bullet smashed the window above him and buried himself in the hotel wall.
There was a brief silence. “What was that?” said Haufman.
“The fuck do you think? I’m being shot at!”
“OK. Ahmet. I need you to be very calm here.”
“I’m a fucking Buddhist.”
“Did you see who fired at you?”
“Of course not.”
“I need you to look.”
“You’re kidding.”
“I’m receiving your visual feed now. Just glance at him. Just for a second.”
Ahmet slowly raised his head above the broken window. A dark figure, shimmering in the heat, was standing on the roof of another glass building across from the hotel. Through the Goggles he was outlined in white, a rainbow arcing around him. Another shot raised a cloud of feathers from the bed.
“Did you get him?” said Ahmet.
“Hang on. Well, he’s not Athenian. Military rifle. Israeli merc, by the looks of it.”
Two more shots broke the mirror behind him. “So what do I do? I’m not armed, for fuck’s sake.”
“Sit tight, of course. You’re in one of the most heavily guarded places in Europe. He’s got another thirty seconds, then he’ll have to get out of there.”
From behind the hotel came the sounds of helicopter drones.

Ahmet was moved to a high-security room, but he still didn’t get much sleep. He pulled his duvet onto the floor and lay down there, watching pornography on his Goggles. In the airport the next morning he bought a succession of four hundred-Euro coffees while he waited out his flight’s six-hour delay. He cleared Greek airspace as the sun set, twitching, wired as hell.
Just as they were coming in to Frankfurt a pair of Air Force jets descended upon the plane. Suddenly all Goggles were turned off; people craned towards the window to see what was going on. Throughout the city the lights were dead; only the Bankenviertel still glittered behind its concrete cage. The Maim reflected a sea of fire. Across the river, Offenbach was burning. A few fires cracked from the north bank, and explosions rose like budding tulips in the middle of the inferno. The refugees had broken their chains: Joseph Kutenge was being avenged.

~

Ahmet’s flight was diverted to Brussels. He liked it there, and decided to stay for a few days while the fires were put out. Some of the area around the European Quarter was still scarred from the nationalist bombings, but the new complex was pleasant, if you ignored the biometric cameras and remote-controlled guns on every balcony. There were even a few new parks around the Place du Luxembourg. There was no refugee camp in Brussels. Brussels was safe.

Ahmet knew who had killed Joseph Kutenge.
The window had been broken before he’d been thrown out. The CCTV data had been messily scrambled. It was all a trick: a murder expertly disguised as a murder sloppily disguised as a suicide. The footage from Offenbach the night Kutenge died hadn’t been partially redacted: the whole sequence had been slotted in. Someone had picked up Joseph Kutenge that day, but they weren’t in Smythe-Braistwick’s car. Someone much more powerful than any petty European banker.
It was a matter of waiting for them to find him. There wouldn’t be any mercenary snipers in Brussels; the automatic guns were everywhere. So he waited. That took three days. In the meantime, he wandered about the city: he drank whiskey on a bench by the pond in the Parc Léopold, he ate fufu for six hundred Euros in Ixelles, he watched the news. The Kutenge revolt that had broken out across Europe had been put down. Smythe-Braistwick had stepped down, citing personal reasons. The Chinese were announcing a new offensive in Central Asia. The world kept turning.
On the third day a black car pulled up suddenly alongside him and he was bundled in. Sitting across from him was the man he had been waiting for: dark-haired and stern-faced, with a sculpted beard and an antique cane resting across his lap.
“You’re not a hard man to find, Mr Weschke,” he said.
“Nobody is, these days.” Ahmet leant forwards. “It was you, wasn’t it? You killed Kutenge.”
“I suppose I did. If it helps, he was dead long before we threw him from the window. We are not barbaric.”
“You tried to frame Smythe-Braistwick. He was obstructing you. He wouldn’t make concessions.”
“He was very disruptive to the arrangement, yes. But there was one thing I hadn’t counted on.”
“Yeah. Me.”
“That’s correct, in a way. Never did I expect that the EDCO would send someone as staggeringly incompetent as you. You didn’t inform your commissioner before arresting him. You didn’t even wait until the full extent of our interference with the security systems had been uncovered. And your personal… degeneracy even managed to leave the investigation in the hands of a gang of sympathetic banking cronies. You very nearly ruined the entire plan.”
Ahmet didn’t say anything.
Prince Faisal al-Saud laughed. “It doesn’t matter, though. Smythe-Braistwick is out of the picture now, and the land deal can go ahead. On our terms… Nothing to say to that, I see?”
“One thing,” said Ahmet. “Look into my eyes.”
“As I thought.”
“Look into my eyes.”
Faisal stared.
“I know what you think. The police don’t wear Goggles, do they? But I’m not a policeman. Prince Faisal, say hello to Commissioner Traugott of the European Department of Civil Order. Prince Faisal, say hello to the world.”
The prince stared into Ahmet Weschke’s grey eyes and saw, hovering above his own reflection, the glint of cold metal.

~

Two years later, after a lengthy enquiry, the Saudi land deal was ratified. From the Atlantic to the Urals, ancient forests and vineyards were torn up to become vast square fields of wheat and soy. Villages were flattened. Lakes were filled in. The sprawling cities of the Middle Eastern desert would be fed. Europe had finally found its purpose in the world.

That same day, Ahmet Weschke was found dead in his cell. A brief investigation concluded that he had committed suicide. Detective Hans Keller dissented from the official verdict, insisting that his former mentor had been murdered. The case was not re-opened.

The refugee camps continued to grow. The Kutenge revolt and its brutal suppression were not forgotten. Millions remained, waiting for the day when they would sweep the cities with all the terrible justice of a tidal wave; waiting to claim the world.

Italian election: the opera

OVERTURE: A symphony in three movements for orchestra, piano, articulated lorry, stock ticker, and tear gas canister.

ACT ONE

SCENE ONE: We are in Venice, at the start of the eighteenth century. Doge MARIO MONTI (tenor) sings the aria Siamo tutti fottuti from the balcony of his palace, in which he explains to the people of the city that a strange beast called il Mercato is stalking the streets and canals of the city at night, killing animals and destroying produce. The beast, which has ‘eyes that dance with the spark of lightning and claws with the chill of ice,’ has been sent to punish the Venetians for their profligacy and excess. Monti reveals that only he has the power to rein in the beast’s destruction, and claims that its wrath may be stilled if one child is drowned in the Grand Canal every week. He then announces that despite the beast’s reign of terror, the annual masquerade carnival will go ahead as planned. Inside his palace, Monti sings a duet with his lover, Donna ANGELA MERKEL (soprano). He assures her that their plan will succeed; she complains that his skin feels like old parchment and his breath smells like a cauliflower fart in a crypt, and notes with alarm that he sometimes licks his eyes like a lizard when he thinks she’s not watching.

SCENE TWO: The disgraced nobleman DON BERLUSCONI (baritone), our hero, reclines in the Palazzo Bunga-Bunga surrounded by North African prostitutes. He sings the aria Io scopare tutto ciò che si muove, lamenting his fall from power at the hands of Merkel and the court case brought against him by Monti. He vows to his manservant, ROBERTO MARONI (bass), that he will have his revenge against those who wronged him. Maroni suggests that they try to embarrass the Doge at the masquerade. He then sings Quest’uomo è un idiota, a mournful reflection on the frailty of man.

SCENE THREE: In a town square, DON BERSANI (countertenor) sings Il centrosinistra è politicamente praticabile, but nobody cares, and the audience is distracted by a juggler who comes onto the stage and performs a few basic tricks. The famous drunk BEPPE GRILLO (baritone) criticises Monti’s decision to start drowning children and vows to overthrow him. A CHORUS of citizens sing their support. Don Berlusconi watches from a window, and reflects that he could use Grillo’s popularity to engineer his revenge.

INTERLUDE: Twenty fascist football hooligans beat the shit out of an oboe.

ACT TWO

SCENE ONE: The day of the masquerade has dawned and Grillo is addressing a crowd. Watching him from a window, Don Berlusconi realises that he has fallen in love. He sings the aria Seriamente, qualsiasi cosa con le tette, in which he recounts his past romantic conquests and reminisces fondly over his simple past ‘when I had nothing but a media empire, an advertising company, and a construction firm.’ Across the street, Don Bersani has also fallen in love with Grillo. He and Don Berlusconi sing a duet in which each tries to prove his worthiness as a suitor, unaware that the object of their affections already left some time ago.

SCENE TWO: In a nearby tavern, Grillo reveals his plan to overthrow the Doge. He will attend the masquerade disguised as Don Bersani, who will not be attending because ‘that baldie loser hates parties.’ To prevent the suspicion Grillo’s absence would arouse, one of his followers will go dressed as him. As Monti must mingle without his bodyguards during the masquerade, he will then take the opportunity to challenge him to a duel. In the same tavern, Don Berlusconi discusses his plan to reclaim power and win Grillo’s heart, telling Meroni that he will do this by going to the masquerade dressed as a sexy nurse.

SCENE THREE: The masquerade begins. Doge Monti inaugurates the ball by singing the aria Più soldi più problemi and then by slow-dancing with Donna Merkel, to the disgust of all present. A visibly coked-up Don Berlusconi tries to seduce the man disguised as Grillo by singing Sono un ragazzo divertente, vero? to him; however, he is rejected. He then sees Grillo, dressed as Don Bersani, conferring with his follower. Assuming that his rival is making a similar attempt, he becomes inflamed with jealousy and draws his sword. The two fight. In the panic that follows, Don Berlusconi is killed by Grillo, who is dressed as Don Bersani; Grillo is killed by Maroni; and Doge Monti is killed by Don Bersani, who has attended the masquerade after all and is dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants. After the tumult of battle has cleared, only one man remains.

INTERLUDE: An old woman complains about how there’s never anything good on TV.

ACT THREE

SCENE ONE: The only survivor of the masquerade, still in his mask, proclaims himself Doge. He explains that the beast il Mercato was invented by Monti to control the people and that the citizens of the city are finally safe. Near the end of his aria E ‘tempo di formare una coalizione ragionevole, just as he prepares to reveal his identity, the monster bursts onto the stage, kills him, eats half the audience, privatises the opera house, and sells it to a real-estate developer to be turned into a branch of Pizza Hut.

Let’s Voting! Super Democracy 2012 Roundup Edition Go!

Since I last mouthed off about electoral politics, there have been a couple of democracy-related happenings around the world. Here are some opinions.

~

First of all, there were the UK local elections in early May. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not really been paying as much attention to political events back home as I should. It’s difficult, though, living in California – land of sunshine and palm trees and semi-legal weed and brilliantly insane politicians and generalised ludicrousness – to give much of a shit upon finding out that back in dreary old Britain there has been a major political controversy centring on Cornish pasties. It’s hard to care all that much about Ed Miliband, who looks like a blob of Vaseline with an awkward grin, or about the fact that people are actually paying money to endure dinner with David Cameron, or about the Liberal Democrats in general. The completion of the UK’s transformation into a dystopian panopticon, with aircraft carriers on the Thames and missile batteries on the roofs of council estates cleared of all undesirable occupants, was so inevitable that its arrival doesn’t really provoke that much excitement. Even the Leveson Inquiry, which has seen some of the most thoroughly despicable people in the country revealed for the soulless, venal, power-hungry monsters that they are, seems to be plodding on interminably. They should just give Murdoch and his cronies the chair and be done with it, preferably in Trafalgar Square or somewhere suitably public, so the TV cameras can get the whole thing in high definition and the paparazzi can scramble to catch a shot of a charred eyeball as it’s flung from its wrinkled leathery socket. That’s real justice.

That said, the results in the local elections were pretty arresting: the BNP lost every seat contested, the Tories took a severe beating, the Lib Dems (bless ’em) had half their councillors wiped out, and Labour surged to glory with over 800 new seats. As nice as it is to see the Tories suffer, I don’t think the Labour victory is really anything to celebrate. Their mantra throughout the wholesale dismantling of the British welfare state is that the Tories have been cutting ‘too far, too fast.’ That really speaks to the absolute poverty of any real political thought in the contemporary Labour party: as the Tories dynamite the ship of state, Labour are disputing their choice of explosive. They’ve not proposed any real alternative to austerity, they just grumble: that, and the utter revulsion in which the other two parties are held, accounts for their success. It can’t last. As much as we love to moan, if conditions continue going down their current trajectory, moaning will give way to something more productive. There’s an enormous wellspring of popular dissatisfaction in Britain. New Labour, with its carefully cultivated business-friendly image, is unlikely to take much advantage of it. It remains to be seen who will.

The one anomaly in the mass Tory retreat was the London mayoral election, in which a genuine working-class socialist (not without his faults, but still) lost to a man whose middle name is de Pfeffel. Boris’s victory can be traced to his success with a very particular portion of the London electorate: quibbling middle-class liberals who felt that Ken was too outdated, to eighties, too right-on, who were made nervous by his solidarity with ethnic minorities and appalled by his refusal to bow and scrape before the Jewish community for having dared to oppose Israeli ethnic cleansing, people who thought that Boris was one of them, a bit of a laugh, a Tory, yes, but one of the Good Ones. To these people I can only say: fuck you. In ten years’ time we’ll all be under the iron heel of the Bozzocracy, and it’ll all be your fault.

~

There’s slightly better news out of France, where Sarkozy, the snivelling rat-faced little prick, has finally been kicked back into the gutter from whence he came. No more platform shoes, no more racially charged rhetoric, no more shameless pandering to the rich, no more slightly icky parading of Carla Bruni through various world capitals, no more nauseating Merkozy mutual back-rubbing. What a relief. As for Hollande, his heart’s in the right place, kinda, his plans for gender equality and immigrant rights are long overdue, and it’s good that there’ll be some dissent within the Franco-German bloc regarding the austerity fever sweeping across Europe, but frankly the French Socialists are as sorry a bunch of post-political reformists as the British Labour party. Like Miliband, he’s not really provided a thorough alternative to the current regime of cuts and liberalisation, and he may well cave in to market pressure to enact basically the same policies as his predecessor. If he does do that, though, at least it’ll be without that stomach-churning Sarkozian smirk. A cosmetic improvement? Sure, but an improvement nonetheless.

Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s 11.1% showing in the first round was kinda disappointing, considering the promise of his campaign; still, it’s a sign that the far left is once again making itself a force to be reckoned with in French politics. Given that the current fiscal crisis is showing no signs of abating, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them start to erode away at the Socialist base. Then, of course, there are the fascists. Under the leadership of replicant Überfrau Marine Le Pen, the National Front achieved a historic 18.6% of the vote, exceeding the 17% won by her paunchy red-faced arse of a father in 2002. It sounds like an apoligia for their bigotry to point out that the FN’s economic policies are far more in line with the left than Sarkozy’s UMP, but it’s still true: a large portion of Le Pen’s vote came from people opposed to austerity but also unwilling to vote for the Socialists and put off by the large Muslim contingent within the Left Front. That they should hold such attitudes is obviously highly problematic, but it would perhaps be better to see this as a case of false consciousness rather than as a rise in support for fascist ideology. The FN isn’t the real problem: the real problem comes when, as in this election, ‘mainstream’ politicians adopt their language. As Badiou points out in Le Monde, the focus on the FN’s racism obfuscates the far worse problem of systemic discrimination against minorities in France.

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The really interesting results have come out of Greece, where the euro-gimp leftish Pasok and the euro-gimp rightish New Democracy have both been comprehensively kicked in the balls by Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, who have done exactly what the Left Front failed to do (for the time being) in France. The country is now left without a clear majority party, and with the failure of various coalition talks, another round of elections are in the works, in which Syriza are expected to do even better. It’s a sure sign of how terrified the capital class is by the prospect of further elections that they’ve now taken to issuing stern warnings about what will happen if the country abandons its IMF-imposed programme of austerity. I don’t pretend to know all that much about how the global financial system actually operates. It’s obvious that a Greek default will result in a fair share of hardship – capital flight, monetary instability, the opening of the seventh seal, and so on. The forces of international capital are loath to see their will defied, and they will do everything in their power to punish Greece for its disobedience. But Greeks are suffering anyway: aside from austerity and the shutdown of government services, aside from the skyrocketing rates in unemployment and homelessness and suicide, tens of thousands of Greeks are now having to accept ‘negative salaries’: they’re being expected to pay their employers for the privilege of keeping their jobs. There seems to be no end to the humiliation Greece is expected to endure. And despite the nonsense about southern European profligacy being bandied about, the Greeks are for the most part innocent victims. Rich nations like Germany offered enormous loans to Greece, which the Greeks then spent on goods from abroad: German imports to Greece exceeded $11bn in 2008. Greeks helped cobble the boot that’s now stamping down on them. It’s an absurd situation, and something has to change.

Syriza seem to be doing everything right. They’re not just relying on electoral methods: the strikes and protests in Greece are continuing unabated. They’re showing excellent strength of political will by refusing to go into coalition with any pro-austerity parties, which bodes well for the future. It’s strange to see them denounced as unbending ideologues – surely in an age where politicians routinely prostrate themselves before the wandering hordes of the Market, unbending ideologues are exactly what we need.

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Back in the good ol’ USA, a lot of people are refusing to see Barack Obama’s recent statement in support of gay marriage for the cynical election ploy that it is. It’s curious timing, this: just as the Republican base is finding itself shackled to a candidate who is not only a Mormon but a former governor of Massachusetts who knows at least three words of French, the Democratic president comes out in favour of the dastardly homosexual agenda to introduce anilingus into the elementary school curriculum. Meanwhile, those on the left previously disaffected by the Obama administration’s abject failure to do anything about anything are being galvanised into action by the Republican decision to make an election issue out of contraception, of all fucking things. It’s not that gay civil rights aren’t important, but – idealist that I am – I like to think that politics should be about something more than what people do with their genitals. I’m also not saying that there’s a shadowy bipartisan conspiracy to perpetuate the two-party system indefinitely – actually, screw that, that’s exactly what I’m saying. The only shocking thing is how brazen they are about it.

Acropolis Now

Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks – Karl Marx

Successive attempts to rescue the Greek economy fail to have any effect. European leaders explain to Papandreou in no uncertain terms that the birthplace of democracy is no place in which to implement it. Forbes magazine hilariously calls for a military coup. The legions of the undead begin to stir… Now the EU casts aside its humanitarian mask to reveal itself for the monster of imperialism it has always been, its neck ringed with the skulls of defeated institutions, its fangs dripping with viscous liquidity. The spectral sallow-cheeked armies of finance capital make circles around the Peloponnese, howling with savage hunger at the juicy public sector, gesturing menacingly with the grim weapons of austerity, their eyes gleaming with blood-lust. A hundred gold coins marked with the stamp of a skull and bearing an ancient curse fall from the bloated fist of Jin Liqun. On the streets of Athens, anarchists fight hand-to-hand with the fire-wraiths of the Elliniki Astynomia. Gibbering poltergeists brandishing court orders pour through cracks in the masonry of family homes and drive out their inhabitants. In a vaulted chamber miles below Strasbourg, decorated with sacred carvings in which Merkel and Sarkozy are depicted in a variety of grotesque sexual positions, the secret haunt of withered seers who divine the will of the Market through the flows of the telluric currents, a thousand hooded forms look on approvingly as Papademos signs their infernal contract in the blood of his people. His hand hesitates over the parchment!… Uproar ensues, dark curses are flung, lightning cracks in the dank air. There is no other option left. Twenty thousand grim-faced German soldiers march in lock-step formation as planes ready their engines for the final assault on Greece: ein Union, ein Währung, ein Zentralbank! Peace and democracy are fine things, but investments are at stake.

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