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Introducing Contraventions: Editorials from New Left Review

NLR’s editorials provide radical antidotes to the self-serving accounts of the Anglophone press.

Susan Watkins31 October 2023

Introducing Contraventions: Editorials from New Left Review

It was only with the launch of NLR’s second series in January 2000, repositioning the Review within the drastically altered conditions of the post–Cold War era, that the journal decided to institute the editorial as a regular form. The context was sketched in Anderson’s ‘Renewals’, the manifesto that launched the new series. In contrast to the clash of systems and ideologies that had marked the 1960s and ’70s, the intellectual landscape of the early 2000s was governed by a self-proclaimed pensée unique, a sole presiding world outlook: confidently social-liberal in political cast, hawkishly liberal-imperial in foreign policy, militantly neoliberal in economics. In an unguarded moment, a DC think-tanker dubbed this the Washington Consensus. Its proponents preferred to call it the doctrine of the ‘international community’, supposedly overseeing and, where necessary, steering world affairs according to the principle of the rule of law.

At the level of ideas, the officialdom of the new world order was—and is—backed by a vast liberal-imperial orchestra of many different sections and players: academic institutions, quasi-official think tanks, print and broadcast media. Prominent among them, and perhaps the most dynamic in generating daily and weekly interpretations of events, are the flagships of the Manhattan media, the New York Times and (trailing somewhat) the New Yorker, flanked from London by the Financial Times and Economist, still aspiring to advise the American governing class, and the more provincial Guardian. The conservative press—in the US: the WSJ, National Interest, American Standard, American Affairs—may be no less dynamic in generating ideas, but it is far less prominent, speaking to a distinct minority within the overwhelmingly liberal American intelligentsia, grounded in a sprawling university system. However bitterly fought their cultural battles, on international questions there is a general continuum between liberal and conservative Anglophone thought. In disseminating, as opposed to generating, political interpretations of events, the Anglophone mediasphere is still massively dominated by the major US TV networks and the BBC, strongholds of liberal opinion. With the partial exception of YouTube’s long-form videos, social media largely serve to cheer or boo ideas produced elsewhere. 

The new lefts of the post–Cold War era have reacted in different ways to this formidable body of liberal meaning-production. On world-political questions, a common-sense response among what Americans call ‘progressives’ and English ‘the soft left’ was to constitute a left-wing ginger group within the mainstream consensus—to press the governments of the West to be more humane in their global interventions, to show more compassion for the downtrodden, more respect for the poor and weak. Another approach, more alterglobalist, saw nation-states as a thing of the past and put its faith in the solvent power of movements and multitudes. The academic left, meanwhile, was largely concerned with cultural and theoretical work, and often quite comfortable with the reign of Clinton and Blair. 

The militant young lefts that sprang up after the financial crisis were passionate about resisting sectoral oppression and combating the resurgent far rights. For the new or newly radicalized Anglophone journals of the 2010s—Jacobin, Dissent, the New Republic, Tribune—the question of the political was largely confined to thinking about the left itself; with the mid-decade rise of loyalist Sandernista and Corbynista currents, trenchant criticism of the party or constitutional system was anyway out of bounds. Instead, they provided often excellent work on economic policy, culture in the broadest sense—meanings and makings of race and gender—environmental questions and labour struggles. It was rare to find systematic criticism in their pages of the operations and ideological justifications of the governing blocs. 

This is what NLR’s editorials have tried to do. In the 140-odd numbers of the Review published since 2000, there have been some thirty-five—not one in every issue, as announced in ‘Renewals’, but around one in every four—written either by the editor or by a member of the editorial committee. Like other radical journals, NLR immediately found itself reworking the editorial form. These interventions bear the signatures of their authors, indicating individual position-taking; although discussed and debated by members of the Review’s editorial committee, they do not entail collective agreement on every point. Their length can vary widely: the shortest are around ten pages; the longest to date—Tony Wood’s case for Chechnya’s independence, with its indispensable historical account of the formation of Russia’s southern empire and anatomization of the Yeltsin–Putin wars—was triple that. Typically, these editorials tackle the claims of Western officialdom and the apologetics of the mainstream media, drawing freely on the conceptual resources of both Marxian and classical political thought. They treat modes of power and their institutions historically, as the outcomes of specific social struggles, cementing the interests of the rulers over the needs of 
the ruled. They aim to take their opponents’ ideas seriously, seeking to tackle their arguments in their strongest form. 

In substance, these pieces reject the conventional wisdom of the West from the standpoint of a genuine internationalism, in solidarity with the oppressed and exploited of all countries, that is both realist in its analysis of the balance of forces and principled in its conviction that a better order is worth the fight. Aiming at a cool appraisal of the situation of the left, they take a critical distance from the ‘lesser evil’ arguments for supporting the Democrats or Labour, the official ‘left face’ of the two-party system, as, whatever else—however venal the party’s record at home or murderous abroad—preferable to its right-wing rival. These lesser-evil protestations come in several familiar forms. First, the party’s record could be better but is not all bad—handouts are listed—and, in any case, this was the best they could do in the circumstances (balance of payments, Senate majority, fear of electoral backlash, et cetera). Second, this happens to be a particularly key moment for the left to unite in pushing Labour or the Democrats in a more radical direction, not abandoning the party to its pro-capitalist leaders. Third, the rival party is a real threat: racism and xenophobia will rise, authoritarian measures will be pushed through, fascism itself could be on the agenda.

Examining the actual record of their spells in power reveals remarkably little difference between centre-left and centre-right, however—and what there is, not always favourable to the former. This is not to dismiss even the smallest compensatory moves by the Clinton–Obama–Biden or Blair–Brown (perhaps soon, Starmer) governments, where these have a measurable redistributive, democratizing, greening or socially reparative effect; ten dollars a week is ten dollars a week. But crumbs should be judged in proportion to the rest of the loaf. Clinton’s domestic record—Crime Bill, Workfare, repeal of Glass–Steagall—was harsher on the poor and more lenient to capital than Bush Jr’s tax cuts and extension of Medicare. Obama continued the Bush Administration’s Wall Street bailout, funnelling the recovery’s gains to the top 1 per cent, leaving underlying stagnation untouched, and squandered his congressional majority on an expansion of health insurance which left its inequities intact. Biden continued Trump’s policies on Covid cheques, China, immigration and infrastructure, with a welcome hand-out for decarbonizing companies, alongside more fracked gas. Foreign policy has been largely bipartisan, Congress often unanimous. In Britain, New Labour openly proclaimed itself the heir of Thatcherism, while Cameron modelled his government on Blair’s. Starmer has vowed to make Brexit work, toughen immigration law and crack down on strikes. Lesser-evil arguments generally rest upon a false assumption: that there can be any principled strategic basis for socialist attachment to a 
neoliberal party. As Tony Wood writes, there is no reason for voters to be more sentimental about a party than it has been about them.

Mystifications of foreign policy are liable to be more potent, covering faraway operations, appealing to loftier values and generally immune to the disillusioning tests of daily experience that domestic politics must undergo. After the American victory in the Cold War, the existing friend/enemy distinction—portrayed as ‘the free world’ versus ‘totalitarianism’, not capitalism versus state socialism—was reformulated under Clinton and Blair. The ideology of the New World Order thematized an ‘international community’—Washington and its loyal allies—which would judge the worthiness of other states by its own high standards, arrogating to itself the right to overthrow by military means any targeted government that fell short. To the Cold War principles of freedom—that is, free markets—and democracy, meaning the existence of formal parliamentary institutions, were joined the new concepts of the international rule of law, albeit unwritten by any international legislature, and humanitarianism, backed by the US war machine, which could now operate unchallenged on a planetary scale. In this portrayal, while the ‘international community’ kept the peace by waging war from 30,000 feet, market forces could be freed to spread prosperity to industrious citizens below, offering aspirational hope to billions formerly trapped by ‘labour rigidities’ (unions) or protectionist red tape (national law).

NLR’s critique of this construct was elaborated in real time, during the New World Order’s buildout from the 1990s on. In the same spirit that it applied to the domestic sphere, the journal argued that a demystification of international politics should start from an analysis of the actual operations, goals and strategies of the world’s most powerful state. What this revealed, Tariq Ali argued, was a selective vigilantism, masquerading as the international ‘rule of law’—its unspoken maxim: ‘We will punish the crimes of our enemies and reward the crimes of our friends.’ Drawing on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, with its fine calibrations of persuasion and coercion, Anderson’s ‘Force and Consent’ analysed the dual character of American hegemonic rule, forged through the Second World War and the anti-Communist crusade: on the one hand, its goal was to ensure uncontested US primacy within a liberal-capitalist world order; on the other, to defend that order against a metastasizing communist threat. After the defeat of the Soviet Bloc, the first goal, ascendancy over capitalist rivals, could become paramount, in a world made flat by US-led globalization. The explanation for the ‘unilateralism’ deplored by Washington’s European satellites lay here, in the very secret of its rule.

Yet capitalism’s restless and uneven dynamics constantly threaten to destabilize the forms of any prevailing geopolitical system. The pursuit of cheap outsourced labour for US companies led within a few decades to the rise of China as workshop of the world, under the firmly ensconced—and, increasingly, ideologically resistant—rule of the CCP, and trillions of dollars in Chinese earnings invested in US assets. Following the 2008 financial crisis, powerful second-rank states—Turkey, Russia, India, Iran and China—discerned, perhaps wishfully, an eastward shift in the planet’s centre of gravity. Against this, the US has girded for a repolarization of the world, even at the price of de-globalization; nationalist primacy in geopolitics now trumping the liberal economy it set out to make.

— An adapted excerpt from Contraventions: Editorials from New Left Review, Edited by New Left Review and Susan Watkins.


From 9/11 to the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, the eurozone crisis to the Brexit vote, the Great Recession to the Arab Spring, the rise of China to the annexation of Crimea, the passage from O...

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