An American enounter with nuclear war

A few weeks ago in a second-hand bookshop (yes, they still exist!) I stumbled on the 1946 first edition of a remarkable book.  I’d heard of it, but never read it until now.  A small, somewhat battered paperback in the old Penguin livery, with a grey cover, and pages already yellow from the bad paper of wartime shortages.
The author, John Hersey, was a well-known American war correspondent during the Big Two, among other things reporting on the terrible fighting in the Solomon Islands.
After the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945, the U.S. government and its occupation regime in Japan kept a tight lid on information about the new weapon and its actual effects.
In the following May, The New Yorker sent Hersey to Japan to report on what had happened.  The editors printed his story, occupying a whole issue of the magazine, just over a year after the bombs exploded.  The report created a sensation, was broadcast on radio, serialized in fifty different newspapers across the United States, and turned into a book, called simply Hiroshima.  Penguin bought the British rights, and despite the paper rationing, immediately printed a quarter of a million copies.  I now have one of them.
6 August 1945, from the ground
It’s written in a deliberately flat voice; Hersey rightly judged that what he had to say needed no flourishes of style. He tells the destruction of Hiroshima by weaving together the stories of six people who were in the city the quiet morning when the bomb was dropped.  The book narrates what each of them did, hour by hour and day by day, and what they saw, felt, and heard as other people died in the ruins.  And what happened to the six as they got sick, in the weeks and months afterwards.
They weren’t a representative group in any sense.  This isn’t ethnography, it’s journalism; Hersey wasn’t actually in the city very long. They were six whom he could talk to, who had survived the blast, escaped from the ruins, had radiation sickness, survived that (at least in the short term), come back to the city, and tried to pick up their lives.  
I’m not going to reproduce any details.  In this time when authoritarian nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise around the world, I’d encourage everyone to read the original.  It’s brief, and intensely readable.  You will find the New Yorker text here:
There are at least 10 000 nuclear warheads in the world today.

Rogue Oligarchs: Background to Trump

Donald Trump's success in the 2016 Republican Party primaries has mostly been interpreted by speculating about his local appeal.  He’s speaking to disaffected white men – capitalising on American racism – catching the fear and alienation of the American working class – and so on.  There’s doubtless truth there.  But something more is going on, and it’s not just a local issue.  
What is Donald Trump, after all, if not a billionaire who broke free of the usual organizational bases of conservative politics?  Trump’s media career already pointed in that direction.
Normally in liberal-capitalist regimes, there’s a clear specialization between the business and the political leadership.  Family or personal wealth can help a politician to rise in a party (David Cameron and Malcolm Turnbull show that), but it’s not essential.  What is essential is the network that links the business leadership to the political leadership.  That is a very complex tangle of connections – going far beyond official funding committees - through which conservative party machines and campaigns are funded, short-term deals are done and long-term strategies evolved.
That was the structure behind Menzies, Eisenhower, Thatcher, Fraser, and Reagan.  We got glimpses of it from time to time in corruption scandals, for instance when some of Nixon’s funding network came to light.  Most of the time the connection worked without publicity.  From the business leadership’s point of view, a grey anonymity was best.  The political and social stance too was normally ultra-conventional. 
Something in the neoliberal era has shaken this pattern.  Trump is definitely not the first owner of a large fortune to use it in a personal bid for power.  In 1992 the billionaire Ross Perot ran for president of the United States, campaigned against the Washington establishment, and was actually leading in the polls until his political naivety derailed his campaign.  In the early 2000s the oil company oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky seemed to be launching an independent political project in post-communist Russia, until he was crushed by Putin.
Australia launched a variation on this story. Rupert Murdoch started out in the conventional way, using a media fortune to back professional politicians.  But he took a different turn post-Reagan.  Especially through Fox Channel, the Murdoch empire became a stridently right-wing mobilizing force in its own right.  
Birds of a feather...
The most spectacular example of the rogue oligarch, however, is Silvio Berlusconi.  Starting as a property developer, becoming quickly rich as a media magnate, Berlusconi moved into electoral politics in the early 1990s.  At that moment, the established parties in Italy were massively discredited by corruption.  Berlusconi improvised a new party on the basis of his company, named it after a football slogan, and managed, through spectacular ups and downs, to be the centre of Italian politics for more than a decade.
In these careers, anonymity and conventionality have gone by the board.  Publicity is the breath of life to their campaigns (notice the connection with electronic media).  Being a bit shocking is one way to get attention; Trump plays this card repeatedly.  The Big Man image is important, so trophy wives can be expected; in Berlusconi’s case the display of virility went beyond this.
There’s an absence of detailed or coherent policy – of course!  That would be a hindrance.  There’s a good dose of nationalism and xenophobia (Berlusconi called his party “Forza Italia”, i.e. “Go, Italy!”; Perot became a noted opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement).  Trump seems to have gone farthest towards racism and and is certainly using sexism.  This feeds the diagnosis of an appeal to anxious white working-class men.  No rogue oligarch, however, supports unionism, or any other effective form of working-class organizing.
Two background conditions seem important for this kind of politics.  One is the collapse of unionism, and mass party membership, since the 1970s - the latter has affected the political right as well as the left.  Mass organizations once provided political education as well as policies and campaign workers.  Now the parliamentary and presidential parties are suspended over a void.  Mobilizations like Obama’s internet campaign in 2008 can work electorally, but they don’t remain as a presence in working-class life.
The second condition is the corrosive effect of neoliberalism on the ruling class itself.  It’s significant that Trump displays no solidarity with the institutional system that made him very rich.  The outsider image matters.  Social solidarity at the elite level has badly frayed in the era of neoliberal globalization.  The old ruling class held together by conventional religion, dynastic marriages (you don’t get that with trophy wives), bourgeois high culture, establishment charities. Neighbourhood networks in Belgravia or the Upper East Side are not what they were!
The first of these conditions makes a Trump-style campaign possible.  The second suggests that even if this one crashes and burns, we are likely to get more Trumps in future.

Gender & Power - On a World Scale

Gender and globalization – there’s been a lot of discussion.  We have learnt how global markets and financialization change the lives of women and men locally; how global media spread sexist images and stereotypes; how local gender imaginaries are hybridized with global capitalist culture.

The gender of Empire...

The gender of globalization – there’s less discussion of that.  But it’s important to recognize that globalization itself is a gendered process.  We know that was true of its ancestor, imperialism – carried out by masculinized forces, creating gender-divided colonial economies, and spreading missionary patriarchies.

The gender of empire
Consider now the massive concentrations of men at the top levels of corporate business, state power and military force.  Consider why the huge private fortunes (currently putting US politics in crisis) are sometimes inherited, but never assembled, by women.  Think of the gender-divided workforces of the industries that lead the process of “globalization” – bulk transport, light manufacturing, finance, ICT.

This isn’t the old patriarchy.  But it certainly isn’t the new post-feminist, gender-free utopia!

I’ve written an essay about gender, and especially masculinities, in key centres of global power: the transnational managers, the state elites of the global North, the rulers of authoritarian states, and the oligarchs who control personal fortunes.
...and of Globalization

It's called "100 Million Kalashnikovs: Gendered Power on a World Scale".

It’s published in the first issue of the new series of the famous Mexican journal Debate Feminista, now edited by the Gender Studies Programme at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM-PUEG).

You will find it OPEN ACCESS on the Debate Feminista website here, and on the "Science Direct" site here. 

If you can’t get it from those sites, please send me an email and I’ll send you a copy.  This is in English; a Spanish translation will be online soon.

I love and hate

I’ve been reading the poetry of Catullus, for the first time reading the whole collection, and it’s been an amazing trip.
Catullus was a younger contemporary of Julius Caesar – whom he lacerated in some of the most brutal political satire I’ve seen.  He died young, probably a few years before Caesar, though probably not from the same disease.
His poetry has extraordinary range: from obscene abuse to gentle lyrics, social satire, translations, literary polemic, broad humour, laments for the dead, poems agonizing over his intermittent lover Lesbia, and marriage hymns mixed with seriously weird re-tellings of mythological stories about gods and heroes.
Conservative in many attitudes; privileged though not in the political elite; sexist it goes without saying; possessive in the extreme: Catullus doesn’t cut a pretty figure.  But he’s his own most savage critic.
His most famous poem is an affectionate joke, where he sings his jealousy of Lesbia’s pet sparrow, which is allowed to nestle between her breasts.
His most famous phrase, in a very short poem presumably also addressed to Lesbia, is Odi et amo – I love and hate [at the same time] - and feel crucified.  Catullus discovered ambivalence two thousand years before Freud did.
It’s a miracle that these poems survived, given their eroticism, political anger, and general subversiveness.  It seems that just one manuscript survived into the European middle ages, from which all modern versions have descended.
My half-forgotten high-school Latin isn’t up to the task of construing this, so I’ve been reading in a bilingual edition with copious scholarly notes.  Trying to follow the all-important rhythm of the Latin text – Catullus apparently was a virtuoso technically.  Not exactly skipping through it! 
Given the fog of language and interpretation, I’m astonished at the power this poetry has - to speak to someone on the other side of the world and twenty centuries later, and still make the words ring.

But then - there's another side of the story.  What did Lesbia think about Catullus? I've tried to imagine what an aristocratic, educated and highly independent woman of her generation would have made of this upwardly mobile boy from the provinces.


Give me a break, Catullus!  Show some spine!
   Yes, we had one good screw, I admit it;
Thank me with flattery in verse, that's fine,
   But this moaning on and on: just quit it!

You get on my nerves, young man. Go off,
   Fight the barbarians with your little bow and arrow,
Do what men do - steal, quarrel, act the toff -
   By all the gods, I care more for this sparrow!
Back to Top