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Letters

Vol. 31 No. 7 · 9 April 2009

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The Power of Pardon

Tom Bingham, in his illuminating piece on the use of executive pardons here and in the US, suggests that, while the process is alive and kicking in the US, it has become either regularised by law or disused here (LRB, 26 March).

I hope he is right. But there was disturbing evidence of its continued use and potential abuse in the Carl Bridgewater murder case in the 1980s. When the Home Secretary first referred the case back to the Court of Appeal, the court ordered production of the prison file of a professional conman who had testified that one of the accused had confessed to him while in prison on remand. The file contained a royal pardon (the original document, signed by the Queen) which had been granted to him as his reward for giving evidence.

The court accepted the man’s evidence and upheld the convictions. When the case was referred back a second time the Crown’s case collapsed and the accused were set free. It became evident that the conman had secured a royal pardon in return for lying.

It would be interesting to know if the practice of granting royal pardons to prisoners who testify against other prisoners continues. If it does, it would also be helpful to know how the practice differs from the criminal offence of paying for evidence.

Stephen Sedley
Royal Courts of Justice, London WC2

Italy’s Invertebrate Left

I learn so much from Perry Anderson’s great jeremiads, and they have anyone who cares for the life of Latin in the English language eating out of his hand (LRB, 12 March). No one can deploy an adverb more in the manner of a Roman master of contempt. But the essays on Italy leave me with a question – the Berlusconi question, essentially. All political power is contingent, and I have no wish to make out Berlusconi’s hegemony as necessary and invulnerable. Yet Anderson’s command of, and relish for, the political war of position in Italy strikes me as leaving the reader with a picture of Berlusconi, finally, as nothing, or nothing much: a presence made possible by the emptiness and folly of a political class, and particularly of the left. I am sure this is part of the story. But Anderson himself sees the tragi-comedy of the PCI as deriving most deeply from ‘its failure to react in time to intervene in the massification of popular culture’ and ‘its inability to respond in time to the fragmentation of postmodern labour’. My question would be this (Anderson poses it briefly, but I would like to hear him return to it): have we a notion, or an example, of a left succeeding in framing a response to these two new realities? Or even, in the case of the first, recognising the nature of the new terrain? (We could talk of Blair and Sarkozy as exploiters of the terrain, but this does not mean they understand its dynamics or have the least wish for a war of manoeuvre within it.) Is not the nothing we call Berlusconi truly the form of politics – the political formation – that corresponds to the erosion of social identities and differences produced by a wholesale change in the technics and relations of production? At times Anderson seems to me to be almost comforting himself (again in a Roman way) with the vacuity and self-protectiveness of Berlusconi’s political programme. But Blair and Sarkozy return to mind, and the comfort seems faint. Nor does it improve matters that Berlusconi’s retinue of media outlets and ‘civil society’ shell companies regularly fails to enlist support for his actual policies, such as they are. For policies do not count in the long run, or in the long/short run that is the time of the state as we presently know it: the relentless reduction of politics to imagery and scandal is enough. Hasn’t it proved sufficient, over two decades now, to turn a fragile electoral dominance into a real mutation of the means of social control?

T.J. Clark
University of California, Berkeley

What is sorely missing or distorted in Perry Anderson’s account is the very real scale of mass opposition in Italy. This is a nation where general strikes are as common as the changing of the seasons, where activists in the South stopped the dumping of nuclear waste a few years ago, and in the North protesters near Turin have so far stopped the environmental destruction of their valley. Only last October, the leader of the equivalent of the Labour Party, the PD, spoke to a mass rally of perhaps over two million people organised by his party. A mass student movement swept the country for the last two or three months of 2008, and has recently resurfaced.

This activism is largely overlooked. To an extent this is understandable: the activism hasn’t stopped Berlusconi from forming his third government, which is even stronger than the previous two. If activism was the answer, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. The key problem is one that Anderson spends a lot of time debating: parliamentarianism, or the obsession with parliamentary representation and elections. The intensity of this obsession is hard to overstate. Indeed Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Communist Refoundation, was not ‘rewarded’ with the post of speaker of the lower chamber in the centre-left government of Romano Prodi in 2006 as Anderson says: he demanded it. Otherwise his party would have withdrawn from government.

Indeed what has happened to Communist Refoundation over the last year illustrates how parliamentarianism can cripple an organisation that once claimed over 100,000 members. Having MPs meant getting state financing, and within a few years the party came to depend on public money – so much so that the whole party has now been thrown into economic crisis, and its daily paper virtually closed. Worse, the leadership has split, according to most observers over the question of whether they could win back institutional positions through a different electoral alliance.

Bizarrely, it is almost as if a ‘communist’ party cannot function unless it has representatives in parliament, as if protest without parliamentary representation is a waste of time. In practice, this means that parties on the left are virtually incapable of campaigning.

For example, in the Tuscan town of Villafranca, the local mayor, a member of New Socialist Party – part of the Berlusconi coalition government – recently decided to erect a plaque commemorating a visit to the area by Mussolini in 1945. In mid-March there was a demonstration of 600 people, organised by the ex-partisans’ association and a local association dedicated to defending the values of the Resistance. There were several banners from Communist Refoundation and the PD on the march and at the rally, but there was no follow-up. No left party has proposed doing the obvious: campaigning through a local referendum to get the offending item removed.

Experience shows that mass parliamentary representation comes through mass struggle. In 1919 the Socialist Party became the largest party in parliament in the midst of the ‘biennio rosso’. The Communist leadership of the Resistance movement of 1943-45 saw the party become a mass social and electoral force immediately after the end of the war. Anderson’s downplaying of activism only reinforces his pessimism, and reminds me of the need to remember yet again the most famous phrase attributed to Gramsci.

Tom Behan
University of Kent

I wonder whether Perry Anderson places too much emphasis on the magistrates’ Clean Hands campaign against corruption. It was never going to lead to a progressive political outcome. In the 1970s, the left fought against terrible repression to get its voice heard, but in the end it failed to gain enough popular support to win power because of its own shortcomings. The left hoped that the Clean Hands campaign would do what they had failed to do: defeat the Christian Democrats. But that was a fatal error: they placed their hopes on a campaign that took popular disgust at politics itself as its starting point.

Perry Anderson asks what Berlusconi’s antecedents were, and of course you could say that he was the heir of the Christian Democrats, or as Anderson argues, Craxi. But in truth it was the Clean Hands operation itself that paved the way to Berlusconi’s government. Forza Italia was a populist appropriation of the anti-political climate created by Clean Hands.

Anti-corruption drives rarely help radical and progressive politics. On the contrary, they stir demotic and atavistic forces. In Britain, the attack on Tory corruption gave New Labour a way to attack the right without having to frame a positive political alternative, and the result was a technocratic government without principles (not unlike Mr Prodi’s). And anti-corruption drives can just as easily consume those who seek to use them, because they are against the nature of democratic politics, giving power to investigators, magistrates, judges, ombudsmen and other unelected officials.

James Heartfield
London N19

Perry Anderson’s wholesale dismissal of Italian cinema after the early 1960s is jarring. Anderson has a right to his opinion of Nanni Moretti’s work, but writing off a tradition that includes Pasolini, Bertolucci and Wertmüller, to name just the three most obviously innovative directors on the left after neo-realism, is harder to understand. This dismissal may be symptomatic of a larger problem with Anderson’s highly literary and PCI-focused analysis of the Italian left, a problem also suggested by his characterisation of the Brigate Rosse as ‘tiny’. The period from 1968 to 1977 saw the country’s greatest revolutionary upsurge since the partisan era, as young workers formed factory committees (CUBi) and mass parties (Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaia, PDUP) in opposition to the PCI and CGIL. Christian Democracy, Mafia and fascist-infested, allied with the Vatican and awash in CIA money, responded to this militancy with violence. The police and squadristi were used to beat up and kill leftists; ultimately thousands of leftists were imprisoned. The PCI leaders were complicit in this repression. Only in this context can the support among former partisans and many workers for the desperate actions of the Brigate Rosse be understood. At least they were doing something in response to the outrageous government violence, it was said. But while the kidnapping of Aldo Moro cannot be ignored, the actions of ordinary workers during the events of the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, and their subsequent attempts to break out of the bureaucratic conservatism of the Stalinist PCI to create a party deserving of their Communist aspirations, are by far the main thing.

Richard Bucci
New York

Choruses, Ancient and Modern

Reading that in the ancient Roman play Octavia, ‘unusually, there are two chorus groups, one pro-Octavia and the other pro-Poppaea,’ I was immediately reminded of a remarkable broadcast I saw recently on Italian television (LRB, 26 February). I was in a hotel in Venice at the time, trawling through the 57 channels in search of some coverage of the Milan soccer derby. It transpired that Italian football, just like its English counterpart, has been sold down the river to Sky; since my hotel did not subscribe, live coverage was unavailable.

I did, however, stumble across a channel that was attempting to give the best possible live coverage without actually showing any of the action. They had a camera at the stadium, but it was trained away from the pitch, on two commentators who were describing the play. The point of it was that one man was an Inter fan, and the other supported AC; as each team gained possession of the ball, their man picked up the commentary (and the other was supposed to stop, though he rarely did). My first thought was that this had to be the lamest and most desperate attempt to cover the game imaginable. I was about to turn the thing off and head out into the night, but something stayed my finger. It turned out to be the best piece of entertainment I’ve seen for years. I realised later that it was drawing on an ancient Italian dramatic tradition. If the two choruses in Octavia came even close to the hilarious interplay the two commentators produced when AC Milan scored, only for the goal to be disallowed, then I think the play is definitely worth reviving.

Robert Heath
Bangkok

China in Recession

Joshua Kurlantzick isn’t quite right when he says in his review of Yasheng Huang and Leslie Chang’s books on China that the Chinese middle classes aren’t willing to spend (LRB, 26 March). Surprisingly, data for late last year and early this year, including the crucial Spring Festival period in late January and early February, show that consumers in China spent over 20 per cent more than in the same period a year earlier. This despite the fact that according to every other indicator (exports, unemployment, growth rates), China was heading into recession with the rest of the world. The problem is that, spend as much as they might, the Chinese middle classes cannot, on their own, plug the gap left by disappearing export markets. This reliance on exports is something the Chinese government foresaw: but like everyone else, it has been taken aback by the sheer speed with which the global economy has deteriorated. They had a plan B, and have put it into action; but they really needed a Plan C, which would tell them what to do when their export markets abroad disappeared not in a matter of years, but in just a few months.

Kurlantzick mentions the figure of 20 million unemployed in China this year. This isn’t as terrifying as he implies. In the late 1990s, during the period of state-owned enterprise reform (a period Huang himself in his book refers to with some contempt as showing the victory of pro-urban, anti-rural growth), China lost a staggering 60 million jobs. That set a benchmark that leaves it well prepared for what might be happening now. And the fabled 8 per cent growth rate he refers to will certainly be achieved by the Chinese economy this year, which is why China has been so confident in proclaiming it. Unlike other economies, China calculates this growth taking the massive $600 billion stimulus package into account, and so with that alone, it is almost at its target. One thing that is particularly disturbing about the impact of the global recession in China is how far it will knock back the government from its long-term targets. From now on, short-term economic growth will reign supreme – the government will almost certainly be able to fix the short-term problems: stimulate spending, create jobs and manage any unrest – but longer-term targets of any sort (of which energy efficiency, environmental and political reform are the most striking) will be kicked into the distant future.

Kerry Brown
Chatham House, London SW1

All Too Human

Phil Poole inquires about my use of the word ‘fescue’, noting that it is a type of grass (Letters, 26 February). In the article which prompts his query, I had in mind Milton’s cri de coeur in Areopagitica: ‘We have only escaped the ferula to come under the fescue of an Imprimatur.’ In Animadversions Milton also uses it as a verb, meaning ‘to chastise’. Citing the Areopagitica passage, the OED identifies the word with ‘ferula’ in the sense that Kay Nicholson also notes: ‘an instrument used by schoolmasters to correct their scholars’ (Letters, 26 March). As Mr Poole implies, it seems unlikely that even 17th-century teachers punished their charges with grass. Nowadays, of course, pupils are less likely to be punished with it than for smoking it.

Glen Newey
University of Helsinki

High Stakes in Highgate

Paul Myerscough writes of the other players in a poker game he’d just been busted out of: ‘They’d forgotten me already’ (LRB, 29 January). He might not be altogether correct. I’m a reformed player. In the 1960s and 1970s we had a rolling high-stakes game in London, mainly Fleet Street guys (no women, heaven forfend) and such types. At one particular game in Highgate I lost a pot-full of money to an American magazine editor, Dick Adler. Broke my nerve it did.

A few years later, while I was strolling through a network news division office in LA, a huge voice bawled out: ‘There goes Clancy Sigal! My treys bluffed out his kings!’ It was of course Adler. The most humiliating moment of my life. They don’t forget. So now I play poker with my son, an obsessive cheater.

Clancy Sigal
Los Angeles

A Preying Misery, a Gnawing Ache

Tony Wood’s phrasing might give some readers the impression that he thinks the Italian word for ‘nostalgia’ is nostalghia (Letters, 26 March). Of course, it isn’t: it’s nostalgia. The spelling of the title of Tarkovsky’s movie Nostalghia is an approximation of the Russian pronunciation using Italian orthography.

John Merriweather
Venice

Wasn’t Tarkovsky’s insertion of the ‘h’ – reminiscent of the aching sound ‘ah’, ‘oh’, used in many languages to denote the sense of longing for things/places past – intended simply as the graphic rendering of an absence?

Alfio Bernabei
London NW3

It isn’t the winning that counts

Tariq Ali puts his finger on what makes Twenty20 cricket successful (LRB, 12 March). It is in tune with the age, while surely approximating more to the original form of the game. On the other hand, test cricket – sport as art, as C.L.R. James understood it – is surely the only game in which time is not a factor for the first two-thirds, and there is as much glory in avoiding losing as there is in winning. Therein lies the greatness – which has dwindling appeal nowadays.

David Mason
Waiheke Island, New Zealand

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