Post-Western films and the violence of capital

There has been an interesting trend in Hollywood in recent years around a new kind of Western. I’ve been calling them “post-Western”. Films in this category are set in the modern Western hinterlands, in the small towns and back-countries of states like Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming, and feature similar plots and themes as the old Westerns, like anti-heroes, lawlessness, individual valor, isolation, revenge, etc.

The main difference between the traditional Western and the post-Western is not in the actual time period (1800s vs. modern times), but rather, the portrayal of the changing position of the Western landscape within global capitalism. Westerns portrayed an area that was the dynamic edge of capital, with white settlers clearing the way for industrialization and development by chopping through Native Americans and Mexicans. It was a celebration of a civilization conquering fresh and promising new lands, sparsely inhabited by barbarians and rabble. Post-Westerns, on the other hand, examine this same region it its contemporary phase: stagnant, exploited, and decaying, whatever promises and romances the area once conjured up now revealed as a sick joke.

[Discussion/spoilers ahead for: Hell or High Water, Sicario, Wind River, No Country For Old Men, and Logan] 

Hell or High Water (2016) captures the post-Western perfectly. This film centers around two middle-aged brothers who are robbing banks across small-town Texas, in order to pay for their recently deceased mother’s mortgage — owned by the same bank they are robbing. The film also features two Texas Rangers, one white and one Native American, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, respectively. A conversation the two partners have during a stake-out of a bank sums up the socio-economic trajectory of the West:

Hamilton: Just relax, and enjoy this little town.

Parker: You wanna live here? There’s an old hardware store that charges twice what Home Depot does; one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress; and how’s anybody supposed to make a living here?

Hamilton: People have made a living here for 150 years.

Parker: People lived in caves for 150,000 years, and they don’t do that no more.

Hamilton: Well, maybe your people did…

Parker: Psh, your people did too. Long time ago, your ancestors was the Indians. ‘Till someone came along and killed them, broke them down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday. ‘Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now its been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. Its those sons of bitches right there. [points at the bank]

This discussion reveals one of the cruel ironies of the West today: that the denizens of the rural and small-town West find themselves being cut down and devoured by the very same forces that their ancestors once served. It is this cannibalism by capital that infuses the background of Post-Westerns.

texas_bank

Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, and his other scripts also fit the Post-Western genre. Sicario (2015) showcases the US-Mexico borderlands and the reach of the underground drug economy, as well as the nature of the modern national security state. In the traditional Western, lawlessness and vigilantism are shown as the consequence of the young and untamed nature of the frontier. In Sicario, we are confronted with a powerful and mature institution that is absorbing and co-opting the very criminality it is supposed to suppress, a mutation of the armed wing of the state in an opportunistic and self-serving feedback loop — which shouldn’t be surprising, given the traditional relations between American empire, various reactionary paramilitary formations, and the drug economy (see: Colombia).

Another of Sheridan’s films, Wind River (2017), is set in the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, home to the remnants of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes (and unfortunately and inexplicably, still has two white actors as the leads). The film turns the lens back to original victims of America’s western expansion, and shows that even if capital is now crushing those whose ancestors aided in its expansion, this doesn’t mean that the crushing of Native Americans has ceased in the meantime. The film revolves around the rape and murder of a Native girl, which is ultimately tied back to white oil workers stationed at a nearby extraction site. This, of course, points to how the conquest of native territory was always about seizing control of some kind of natural resource, from fertile farming lands to mineral deposits to fossil fuels. The pillaging of the land, and the accompanying human violence, has remained a constant presence across the West since the appearance of the first white settlers.

Since it is the specter of capital lurking around the background that defines the Post-Western, it is a bit tricky to lump No Country For Old Men (2007) under the label. Despite aesthetically being some kind of Western, the overall setting doesn’t really have the same kind of characterization that it does in Sheridan’s trilogy; there isn’t much sense of history or change in the motels, ranches, and small-town stores that the actual characters move through. However, perhaps the specter of capital here is actually directly personified in the demonic antagonist, Anton Chigurh, whose philosophical nihilism is only matched by his ruthless violence against anybody who stands in the way of his mission — even those who hired him in the first place. Chigurh’s inexorable march toward victory, and the bodies he leaves behind, echoes the way the ceaseless operations of capital explicitly liquidate the small town and back-country backgrounds of Sheridan’s films.

And just what is the end-point of capital’s inexorable, ceaseless processes? For this answer, we could turn to an unlikely candidate: Logan (2017), the final installation of Marvel’s Wolverine franchise, starring Hugh Jackman. This film fits the category of post-Western, as much as it does superhero, science-fiction, and/or dystopian. Corporate paramilitary groups appear to hold dominance not just in the US-Mexico borderlands, but across the US entirely. The degenerating national security state that we saw in Sicario is either completely absent, or has mutated into something totally unrecognizable. Mutants have been wiped out, and those who are left are seen as a resource to be enslaved and harvested for bio-genetic and military R&D. Capital, left to run amok, has uprooted and disintegrated everything that may have been good in this world.

It is a deeply grim picture; and yet, the goofiest aspect of the movie is also the one that may have the most to say about the Western landscape and its past and future. Logan’s ultimate enemy in the film ends up being a cloned version of himself, young, healthy, and strong, and stripped of all the moral trappings the real Logan has gained over the years. This confrontation can reveal an allegory of the Western genres. The real Logan, like the post-Western setting, is old, ragged, and full of self-doubt. The cloned Logan, like the traditional Western setting, is young, enthusiastically violent, and completely unquestioning of its mission and purpose. The real Logan is the West at its decaying end; the cloned Logan is the West in its blood-soaked beginning.

Despite the odds, of course, real Logan — with the help of his clone-daughter and other young fugitive mutants — defeats the clone Logan, and then promptly dies, allowing the torch to be passed on to the next generation. It is here that some hope can be found, among all the bleakness and nihilism that has thus far defined the post-Western and what it shows about the dying Western hinterlands and the ever-present specter of capital. Despite its bloody, imperial origins, the modern West can still harbor resistance and rebellion, even among those whose ancestors partook in its original savagery. The key is to not look backward, toward a mythical golden era that never existed, but indeed to bury this mythology and look forward to what may still be created, against and outside of capitalism.

Why are revolutionaries so obsessed with the Russian Revolution?

This is a silly question, on the face of it; of course revolutionaries are obsessed with the first successful communist revolution in history (regardless of how the revolutionary state evolved or devolved afterwards). And I don’t think I have to go out of my way to prove that most of the socialist movement in the US looks to the Russian Revolution and the works of Lenin as the basis for their thinking about revolutionary strategy. But the real question is: why just the Russian Revolution? Why doesn’t the Chinese Revolution and the works of Mao figure in just as importantly? And what about revolutionary movements closer to home: the Black Panther Party, or more recently, the Zapatistas in Mexico, or the socialist movement in Venezuela?

The main reason is probably that it is a consequence of historical momentum. The Russian Revolution had a massive impact on global politics, and the communist government made a lot of effort to export its ideas and practices abroad. The rise of Stalin and the exile of Trotsky contributed to this, with the latter’s followers working hard to spread their interpretation of the Russian Revolution, the USSR, and Marxism, in competition with the official line of the CPUSA. Despite the fact that the Chinese Revolution happened a full half-century later than the Russian Revolution, the Chinese communists didn’t prioritize exporting their model (an observation noted in Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che), and so relative to Trotskyism, Maoism has remained more marginal.

Eurocentrism is also probably a big factor. Russia is generally imagined to be “white”, “Western”, and/or “European”, and thus for Western socialists its easier to imagine and relate with narratives about the Russian Revolution, than more recent struggles in the darker nations. This is despite the fact that, in terms of what the social and material context of the different revolutions were, there doesn’t seem to have been much difference between Russia in the 1910s and China in the 1940s: both nations were largely agricultural, with a marginal industrial base, and totally wracked by war. Indeed, it is arguable that both of these cases are pretty damn far off from what the current conditions of struggle are in the industrialized West!

This is why, aside from when I need to tickle my fancy for history, I am generally not interested in studying the details of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. It seems far more important to examine case studies much more relevant to the current situation. The Black Panther Party is one such case, since they were arguably the most important revolutionary group on US soil in the post-WW2 era. Also important are the more recent radical movements in the rest of the Americas: the Zapatistas in Chiapas, various militant social movements in Brazil, and the socialist movements in Venezuela and Bolivia. The Venezuelan case is particularly noteworthy, given that they seized state power in a largely urban country, through participation in the country’s democratic institutions, while also maintaining and even expanding autonomous spaces for grassroots experimentation and mobilization. Of course, things there have been spiraling out of the control for a couple of years now; but regardless, the Venezuelan Revolution is a much more worthy example to obsess over, than one on a different continent that happened a hundred years ago.

Netscape and the rise of technocapitalism

Only ’90s kids will remember Netscape, the original browser of the Internet before the era of Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome. But what we didn’t realize was the impact Netscape had on capitalism, and the way it symbolized and perhaps even initiated a recomposition of political economy. I have a hypothetical periodization of capitalism that I’ve been trying to work out, involving a distinction between industrial capitalism, finance capitalism, and technocapitalism, based on what industries are dominating the economy and directing the flow of capital, and studying the Netscape era yields some very useful information.

Netscape was the first real “unicorn”, a tech start-up that becomes valued in the billions of dollars by big investors. It was the brainchild of Jim Clark, an eccentric entrepreneur in the likes of Steve Jobs, whose impact on Silicon Valley has been documented in Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing (1999). Clark had already made a small fortune during the 1980s from his first start-up, Silicon Graphics, which had revolutionized graphic cards and 3-D rendering and paved the way for graphic user interfaces and the personal computer. But as the company grew, it was essentially taken over by Wall St. investors, who pushed out Clark and took control of the the profits.

Bankers taking control of up-and-coming companies wasn’t exactly a novel thing; it was how things were in the 1980s. But with Netscape, Clark was determined to not lose control and money to the bankers again. The new company, and its core product — an Internet browser — suddenly made the Internet more accessible to the average person by many orders of magnitude, and thus also meant a massive, massive market opportunity.

Its not clear exactly what kind of bargaining power Clark had against Wall St. Part of it was probably just a case of information asymmetry, and the bankers having severe FOMO. But in any case, he and his team played hard and fast against selling out the company too early, or for too few shares or seats on the board, and the result was that Netscape was the first tech firm that had engineers and programmers at the top, controlling the lion’s share of capital and the flow of profit. Wall St. made money too, of course, but they were simply following along in the wake. When the company launched its IPO in 1995, it turned the engineers and programmers into millionaires, and the co-founders into billionaires, and forever changed the game for Silicon Valley. Even though the company would be very quickly run off the road by Microsoft and Internet Explorer, the nature of its rise created a new standard for the ambitions and strategies of its entrepreneurs, and flipped the balance of power between tech capital and finance capital.

However, the Netscape era was only the beginning of a larger recomposition and re-balancing of global capitalism. The rise of technocapitalism rode on the Dot-com bubble, which burst in 2000 and eviscerated the industry. The survivors would kneel once again before finance capital — until the latter had its own reckoning in the 2008 financial crisis, after the housing bubble burst. Once the smoke cleared, tech would once again be in the vanguard of capitalism, based on the foundations built by companies like Netscape years earlier.

“Business as usual” during the Holocaust and the climate crisis

I’m reading Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology [PDF], a polemic against pacifism and non-violence as a moral-political code. The rather grim and harsh section analyzing the Holocaust stood out to me. Ward unpacks what he sees as a general pattern of non-resistance among most German and European Jews against the Nazi’s steady escalation from discrimination to genocide. He argues that a key factor in this was that local Jewish leadership at the time was largely pushing a pacifist strategy, where resistance was seen as potentially inviting more repression and violence against Jews, than simply going along with Nazi oppression and hoping not to anger them more. Much of this was about sticking to “business as usual”.

Bettelheim describes this inertia, which he considers the basis for Jewish passivity in the face of genocide, as being grounded in a profound desire for “business as usual,” the following of rules, the need to not accept reality or to act upon it. Manifested in the irrational belief that in remaining “reasonable and responsible,” unobtrusively resisting by continuing “normal” day-to-day activities proscribed by the nazis through the Nuremberg Laws and other infamous legislation, and “not alienating anyone,” this attitude implied that a more-or-less humane Jewish policy might be morally imposed upon the nazi state by Jewish pacifism itself. (p36)

Now, I haven’t done much reading on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, beyond the basics, so I have no idea how accurate this narrative is here about whether Jews were that passive, or what the politics of the German Jewish leadership was like, etc. Nonetheless, this idea — that even in the face of tremendous and escalating evil and violence, people still clung to the idea that perhaps if they just kept their head down and obeyed, things would go back to normal — really struck home, mainly in the context of thinking about the ongoing collapse of Earth’s biosphere.

This collapse may very well turn into a sort of Holocaust, if current trends of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and political non-action continue. And despite this, much of the organizing against the climate crisis does not seem to match the reality of the situation; it is generally legal, non-disruptive, and not a significant threat to “business as usual”. There are some notable exceptions, of course, mainly in indigenous struggles like the Standing Rock standoff. But mainstream environmental movements are simply not acting with the seriousness and anger that their rhetoric would seem to demand. Its all generally very respectable and reasonable, fully rooted in normal day-to-day activities; at most, they wheel out the same dusty and tired tactics of performing street theater and perhaps some symbolic arrest rituals coordinated with the police. Meanwhile even The Economist is acknowledging that things are going pretty badly, with fossil fuel companies cheerfully continuing to expand their operations; Exxon Mobil is apparently planning to increase oil production by 25% by 2025.

Likewise, mainstream politics still continues to marginalize any serious discussion about climate change; it was barely mentioned in the 2016 US presidential elections (except for maybe that one time Bernie Sanders brought it up in response to a question about national security) and so far none of the presidential candidates for 2020 have made climate change even close to a central campaign plank. The recent hullabaloo about the Green New Deal is a welcome change to this trend, although it remains to be seen whether it’ll fade away the next time Trump says something stupid and scandalous. It would be fair to hypothesize that Democratic politicians are secretly climate change deniers, given how little action they actually take despite rhetorically upholding the grim scientific consensus.

Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs has written more eloquently about all of this. In “The Climate Change Problem“, he points out the huge gap between rhetoric and action about climate change, and how it could be a factor in why many people don’t take it seriously or think its a hoax. More recently, in “The Choice We Face“, he goes to town on the zoo of dipshit centrists who are scoffing at the Green New Deal without providing even a hint of an alternative — which again, betrays the fact that they are, functionally, climate change deniers, albeit more subtle and quiet about their denial than their brash Republican counterparts.

To tie it back, a lot of this most definitely has to do with the fixation on maintaining “business as usual” — not just in terms of capital accumulation, although that is central, but in terms of keeping with the inertia of one’s day-to-day routines, the general safety of normalcy, and the comforts of remaining an obedient citizen. Robinson suggests that those who really believe in climate change should be spending all their time trying to move their fellow humans toward action — but of course, nobody wants to be that guy, the loudmouth who gets invited to fewer and fewer parties and hangouts, because he won’t shut up about the trees and the bees. And climate change is certainly a much more abstract crisis than Nazism and the Holocaust — the latter was most definitely present in your day-to-day life, an undeniable force to take into account, even if this was done passively. But if people for the most part really did not resist their own extermination then, what exactly are we to do today to actually halt our collective civilizational dismemberment?

I’m really not sure. But there are a few things we can start doing, mainly in the realm of ideas. For one thing, while we should try not to annoy people, since that is self-defeating, we should definitely bring up climate change more in conversation, especially with folks who aren’t that political and/or have a long-term dream of quiet suburban family living. A more fun suggestion is that in terms of proposed actions, we ought to up our rhetoric; enough with the mundane bullshit about calling your representative or recycling or whatever, let’s talk about climate vengeance. Lets work toward normalizing the idea of ruthless property expropriation and punitive measures against the capitalists and politicians responsible for the crisis. Name names, call them out as the real eco-terrorists, and talk about seizing all their assets and locking them up. Fire and brimstone sort of stuff. Lastly, pacifist ideology needs to be countered within the environmental movement, and there needs to be a larger strategic discussion about how to actually push the large-scale system change needed to reverse the collapse of the biosphere. The movement absolutely has to get more aggressive, more disruptive, and yes, more violent. No more with unquestioned  self-confinement to the rules of the non-profit industrial complex and the broken legal system. Climate change is already a large scale act of ongoing violence, potentially unprecedented in scope and depth; fighting back is a question of self-defense.

Finance capitalism vs. industrial capitalism

What marked the beginning of the modern era of finance capitalism, and what differentiates it from the earlier era of industrial capitalism? There is some good information and arguments on this in David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), and in Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy’s Capital Resurgent: Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution (2004) (which is cited extensively by Harvey).

By most measures, finance capitalism arose out of the crisis of the 1970s, and its hegemony has lasted at least until the 2008 crash. There were several factors in why finance capital started becoming so structurally dominant:

  • The collapse of the Bretton Woods system (which regulated international monetary policies and tied the US dollar to a gold standard), thus making most currencies free-floating, and loosening the ability of capital to flow across national boundaries
  • The oil shocks of the 1970s, caused first by the 1973 OPEC embargo and then by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, drastically increased the profits of oil-producing nations, who subsequently invested these super-profits into Western banks
  • The political turn toward financial deregulation in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, which was both a consequence and a cause of the increasing economic power of finance capital
  • The Volcker Shock, which spiked interest rates in 1979 and ushered in an era of high real interest rates through the 1980s and 1990s; this drastically increased the flow of capital toward creditors (financial institutions), and as companies or even whole governments defaulted, sold off assets, and restructured, finance gained more and more direct control over the global economy

One major qualitative change in the era of finance capitalism seems to be the commodification of consumption. This might be a strange way of putting it; after all, isn’t consumption always about consuming commodities? But what I mean here is that under finance capitalism, the very act of consuming — the purchasing goods and services — itself becomes a commodity, to be bought and sold on the market, in the form of various types of consumer debt.

Another major qualitative change was in the nature of corporate governance and the control of profits. After the 1970s, industrial production was increasingly controlled according to the dictates of finance. More and more profits were sucked up into finance companies and to shareholders, rather than reinvested back into production, as was the general trend during industrial capitalism; and on the flip side, many industrial corporations increasingly branched out into finance themselves.

Capital Resurgent, p111

Another way we can describe this periodization is by pinpointing where the center of dynamism was in the economy during different eras. In the era of industrial capitalism, the cutting edge of profit-making was in creating new industrial goods: automobiles, household appliances, houses, gadgets and widgets and doohickeys and whatnot. In the era of finance capitalism, the cutting edge of profit-making shifted toward the creation of new types of debt and other avenues for extracting surplus value from the circulation of capital, rather than just in production and distribution.

I’m not sure quite how accurate all of this is; there are some good graphs in Capital Resurgent clearly demonstrating how finance companies become very powerful in the 1980s and 1990s, if you judge by metrics like market cap or rate of profit. However, other metrics — i.e. consumer debt in the US — don’t as strong or clear of a trend. It’d be useful to find some more raw data-sets on such things, to get a stronger quantitative understanding of the transition.

But the real purpose of thinking through this potential framework of industrial capitalism vs. finance capitalism is to consider whether there has been yet another shift, toward an era of technocapitalism, where the cutting edge of profit-making is in the commodification of data. After all, data has been declared to be the new oil, and tech companies are generally understood to be at the top of contemporary capitalism’s pyramid. This also raises the question of how useful the term “neoliberal” actually is, and whether it is specific to finance capitalism and whether we need a more nuanced understanding for technocapitalism. But more on this another day.

California’s new fifth season

The Fifth Season is the name of the first book of the Broken Earth series, a critically-acclaimed science-fiction/fantasty trilogy that is set on an alternative Earth that is far more geologically active, to the point where climate catastrophes are routine, civilizations are in a constant state of imminent collapse, and the specter of a sudden and horrific increase in resource scarcity is always looming.  An era of a climate catastrophe is called a “Fifth Season”, and usually lasts years or even decades, and is usually marked by volcanic ash and smoke choking up the atmosphere and blocking out the sun.

It seems likely now that Northern California will be having its own “fifth season” of wildfires and smoke, between fall and winter.  Last year, in October, firestorms wrecked havoc across Northern California, and dumped smoke into the rest of the Bay Area for several weeks.  44 people were killed, and $14.5 billion in damage was done.  It was the first time I can remember that the Bay Area was severely affected by wildfire smoke from the northern regions.

Post-fire wreckage of what was once a suburban neighborhood in Santa Rosa, CA 

Now, its happening for the second year in a row, with devastating fires in Butte County creating even more unprecedented smoke conditions in the Bay Area.  The Camp Fire is already the most destructive in Californian history, with 63 confirmed dead so far and entire towns burned to the ground.  The smoke around Sacramento and the Bay Area has oscillated between “unhealthy” (AQI > 200) and “hazardous” (AQI > 300) levels.  As of right now, the Bay Area appears to have the worst air quality in the world.

Before and after pictures of smoke in Oakland, CA   

This interview from Inside Climate News with a Californian climate scientist sheds some light on how climate change is exacerbating California’s wildfires.  The main points:

  • The usual reminder that climate change doesn’t cause natural disasters, but does exacerbate things
  • California’s fire season has typically been in the summer and especially in the fall, and ends when the first rains hit; but climate change has been disrupting the typical rain patterns and it has been raining later and later in the year, extending the wildfire season into November
  • The warming climate means that trees and other plant matter lose moisture more quickly, making them much more combustible

Another relevant factor is the massive amount of dead trees in California — around 100 – 130 million — which are an excellent fuel source for wildfires.  The dead trees are a result of both the ongoing drought, which is made worse due to climate change, and bark beetles, which have spread from Central America and up the West Coast, all the way into Canada, and have found easy prey in the drought-weakened trees of California.  The warming climate also helps the beetles, by helping them survive the winters.

What will be the result of California’s new fifth season?  Like in the Broken Earth trilogy, it will certainly not help with resource scarcity, especially housing, and put more and more strain on government budgets.  And it will definitely reshape our behaviors and the way we will plan out our cities and our lives; there are serious questions that ought to be raised, such as whether there is a right to protective equipment, when a municipality ought to declare a state of emergency, how to be proactive about smoke damage to at-risk populations, and how to enforce safety standards onto the multitude of corporations that will be sure to drag their workers into the toxic air regardless of what prevailing medical advice is.

It is worth emphasizing that natural disasters are ultimately bounded by what kind of socio-economic system they encounter.  In addition to battling against fossil capital, what we need to do is develop “disaster communism” (see as described by Commune, Libcom, and Verso) as a counter to disaster capitalism, and take advantage of climate chaos in whatever ways we can, both for survival as well as revolutionary class struggle.  

Yemen’s elite factions

I recently read through Yemen Endures: Civil War, Saudi Adventurism, and the Future of Arabia (2017), an excellent journalistic and historical account of Yemeni politics in the last two decades, written by Ginny Hill, who appears to be one of the few Western/English-speaking journalists who have spent a significant amount of time in the country.  The book does much to unveil complex elite networks, and the rivalries and conflicts that have been bubbling under the surface in Yemen, which exploded into full view after the rupture of the Arab Spring and have now drawn in regional and international powers in what may end up being the most catastrophic war in decades, with tens of millions of people at risk.

Perhaps the most interest part of the book is the unpacking of the three factions that were holding together the Yemeni state prior to the 2011 Arab Spring protests.  You had Ali Abdullah Saleh, the regime leader with a vast patronage network, built over decades of rule.  Then you had Ali Mohsin, a major military figure under Saleh who had his own relatively independent support base, and much closer ties with Islah, a Islamist political party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.  And finally, you had Sheikh Abdullah — speaker of the parliament — and his son Hamid — a powerful businessman with his fingers in every part of the economy — both of whom lead the Hashid tribal confederacy and also had ties with Islah.

The patronage network that held the regime coalition together was largely fueled by oil profits.  This worked, for a time — but Yemen’s crude oil production peaked in early 2001, meaning that as the decade dragged on, the regime elites were facing a zero-sum game over a shrinking pie.  This also seems to have been underpinned by different factions cultivating ties with various international actors.  Saleh managed to get closer to the US military apparatus after the start of the War on Terror by playing up the presence of al-Qaeda in the country, even as he played a double game and diverted funds and training to boost up his own loyalist wing of the military, the Republican Guard.  Meanwhile, Hamid’s powerful holding company, the al-Ahmar group, cultivated increasing ties with regional and international capital and steadily increased control over various parts of the Yemeni economy.

Meanwhile, Ali Mohsin was at the head of the 1st Armored Division.  The growing rivalry between Mohsin and Saleh lead to a rather chaotic situation during the Houthi insurgency in the later 2000s.  The 1st Armored Division was tasked with leading the fight against the Houthis, but kept being cut off by peace deals negotiated unilaterally by Saleh.  At some points there were even violent clashes around the northern city of Saada between the Republican Guard and the 1st Armored Division, as these intra-regime tensions began to increasingly boil over.  The Houthis, for their part, generally held their own militarily, and even successfully fought back some tepid Saudi attempts at military intervention at the northern borders.  This is some of the more recent historical context of the current war, that saw Saleh and his loyalists join forces with the Houthis to fight a full-on civil war against the post-Arab Spring regime, supported by Mohsin and Hamid and Islah.

And of course, always lurking above Yemen, is the US empire, who has in recent years stepped up their increasingly confused military actions, which appear to be carried out with little to no understanding of Yemeni politics, and yet can reverberate and shake up the entire country.  This was seen in a most dramatic fashion in May 2010, when a drone strike killed a deputy governor and powerful tribal leader, during a meeting where he was trying to negotiate a settlement between the regime and al-Qaeda.  The al-Shabwan tribe attacked oil pipelines in revenge, which lead to a shortage of fuel in the capital city of Sana’a.  To deal with the shortage, Saleh diverted fuel from the south, which lead to blackouts and fuel shortages in the southern city of Aden, provoking riots and further contributions to southern separatist sentiments.

Today, it seems that the old regime factions are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and getting picked apart by the Houthis, the Southern Movement, and al-Qaeda — movements that have an actual mass base, rather than consisting of self-interested opportunists bought off via bribes and subsidies.  Saleh is dead, killed by the Houthis after he attempted to switch sides again and make his own deal with the House of Saud.  Mohsin’s forces were humiliated by the Southern Movement as they finally began flexing their armed wing.  Much of Hamid’s business empire has been expropriated by the Houthis, and the Hashid confederacy has disintegrated.  The fate of the country is up in the air, but the one sure thing is that the old elites of Yemen are withering away into history.