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Newsletter 1-22-2021

Colin Powers
Colin Powers

Hi everyone. Thanks for subscribing. If you have the means, please consider becoming a paying member. If you have the inclination, please pass this newsletter around to others who might enjoy the read. Now, onto this week's special edition of No Craic, Mad Craic, and Great Craic.

No Craic

(1) Animated by the same economic frustrations that powered the intifada of 2011, protests have broken out across Tunisia once again.

Levels of disaffection and alienation have been building in the country throughout the past decade. With her policy space boxed in by the demands of foreign creditors and much of the political class bamboozled by the prophets and orthodoxies of the main international financial institutions (principally, the World Bank, IMF, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), democracy has delivered scarce few material improvements for the vast majority. Sprinting down the same FDI-fetishizing dead ends that had brought about the demise of Ben Ali in the first instance, Tunisia's elected governments have wound up condemning huge percentages of aspirational new labor market entrants--educated and non-educated alike--to wallow in the informal sector. Dangerous from the start, this spread of precarity and lumpenproletarianism became a tinder box once travel restrictions brought on by Covid devastated the tourism and retail service sector, closing the wage circuits through which so many families were then sustaining themselves. With remittance flows from Europe slowing too, social strife was made even worse. The table set thusly, emergences of popular mobilization such as what we are now seeing became something of an inevitability.

Where they shall lead is as yet uncertain. The coercive countermoves initiated by the state in response street actions taking place throughout each governorate have clearly introduced new dynamics, though. To the extent that financial inflows from western governments obsessed by the bogeymen and chimera of terrorism have sponsored the expansion and upgrading of Tunisia's security sector--an expansion, mind you, that has transpired amidst the state's retreat from welfarist functions--it seems plausible that the Ministry of Interior's deployment of aggressive tactics may be sufficient in snuffing out the spontaneous kinds of outbursts that are pulsing at the moment. Regardless of any immediate successes, however, the causal properties driving these events will remain in place, and with them, a future sure to revisit the same conflicts.

(2) DC's think tanks continue to cover themselves in glory.

This time, it was the Atlantic Council, whose Middle East division has, at the behest of one of its principal patrons, agreed not "to publish any articles that concern Saudi affairs." Such a curious editorial decision follows after the Council previously allowed UAE Ambassador to DC Yousef al-Otaiba to directly edit an analysis it subsequently published concerning the future of US policy toward Iran.

As these wee anecdotes suggest, beltway systems of knowledge production are as corrupted as ever. When once considers that it is these systems which shape how issues are conceptualized and understood by the state's cognoscenti, America's corrosively irrational foreign policy becomes far more legible.

(3) Speaking of the UAE, Le Monde has just reported that the Gulf monarchy is colluding with Israel in an effort to eliminate the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA).

Established in 1949, UNRWA is responsible for the care of Palestinian refugee communities living across the occupied territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Under the Trump Administration's watch, the agency was starved of funding, as the United States, previously its largest donor, first reduced and then ceased all contributions as of 2019.

The shuttering that Israel and the UAE are now angling for is thought to be a key institutional step in foreclosing the Palestinian right of return. With a $23 billion purchase of F-35 fighter planes and MQ-19 Reaper Drones currently hanging in the balance in the American Congress, a crass sort of transactionalism likely informs the Emirates' willingness to go along with this particular Israeli plot. In exchange for yet another betrayal of the Palestinian people, Israel will see to it that its lobbyists and spinmen build a protective wall around Abu Dhabi in Washington--and that they persist in clearing a path for the aforementioned weapons sale.

As concerns the Biden administration's outlook on the land of milk and honey, it has thus far offered hollow incantations toward the two-state solution while confirming that the United States will keep its Embassy in occupied Jerusalem. Advisors close to the President have also indicated that Biden intends to push forward with the Kushner/Pompeo/Trump strategy of bribing and/or extorting Muslim-majority countries into normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel.  

(4) Ravaged by a decade of political violence and starved for public revenues, Libya looks set to sell off much of its oil infrastructure to foreign interests. With perverse irony, Gulf and European-based firms stand most likely to benefit from the country's desperate state, a state they are largely responsible for bringing about. One of the UAE's largest firms, the Al Ghurair Group, has long retained (and actually just re-upped) a major stake in the Ras Lanuf oil field, and may look to buy up more assets/drilling rights on the cheap. Italy's Eni has partnerships with Libya's National Oil Corporation stretching back to 1959 and already holds mining licenses encompassing both on-shore and off-shore areas; I'd suspect they'll do some nice business as well.

(5) Nearly sixty years ago this week, the Congo's first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was murdered. CIA had attempted to poison him on a number of occasions, though it wasn't until the Agency enlisted a handful of Belgian military officers and Army leader Joseph Mobutu to first stir up a domestic revolt and later kidnap Lumumba that he met his demise.

One of the great figures (and contemporary icons) of the early post-colonial period, Lumumba was but thirty-six years old at the time of his death, and had spent a mere seven months in office. Sean Jacobs has written a nice piece on his legacy at Africa is a Country.

(6) Lizzie Presser over at ProPublica has published a remarkable investigation into an epidemic of amputations down in the Mississippi Delta, and one cardiologist's (Foluso Fakorede) attempt to address it. In diving into Fakorede's efforts and the causes driving the spread of diabetes and vascular disease amongst poor black communities in the region--black patients lose limbs at triple the rate of non-blacks--Presser unveils a tragic and compelling history that goes to the heart of the American experience. Certainly worth a read.    

Mad Craic

(7) Last week, the government of Mark Rutte in the Netherlands resigned due to public uproar over findings revealed through an investigation into the tax authorities.

Perfectly inverting how things would have played out in this country, Rutte's center-right government was foisted on the petard of an overly aggressive search for tax fraud amongst the country's poor, and its willingness to use clerical errors and such to extract money from vulnerable people. In contrast to their American cousins, the Dutch citizenry seems to be nonplussed by the cultural dangers posed by welfare queens, and unconvinced of the progressive merits of means-testing. More research is needed in order to get traction on these paradoxes.

(8) A Democratic President has been elected and all of a sudden the petite bourgeois of the country have again remembered that taxes represent the problem most imperiling their businesses:

For those who have held onto an austerely materialist understanding of politics, data points such as this one suggest one's faith may be misplaced. The potency of tribalist partisan dynamics and the effect that cleavages around identity exert upon both the cognitions and behaviors of the American populace are undeniably profound. Minimally, it can be said that such variables mediate how social conditions are activated politically.

Great Craic

(9) Brendan O'Connor has just published a wonderful book on American nativism, border politics, eco-fascism, and the far-right. Entitled Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right, his work affords a fascinating and sprawling look into a political tendency likely to long outlive the person of Donald Trump.

Over at Protean Magazine, you can read an interview with Brendan, where he surveys many of the arguments developed in his book.  

(10) The United States have a new President and regardless of his flaws, that is a very good thing. Much remains to be seen on the new administration's legislative agenda, though the executive orders from day one give some reason for optimism.

Relatedly, here you can see the photos from that time the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City allowed penguins from the Kansas City zoo to peruse its collections unbothered by human traffic.

Have a great weekend.    


Colin Powers

Colin received his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2020. He is a two-time Fulbright Fellow.