Reactionary Reflexivity: Sealing the Iron Dome on Media Coverage of Gaza, Part One
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:49

Reactionary Reflexivity: Sealing the Iron Dome on Media Coverage of Gaza, Part One

Part One of two articles on the modern media, by Dennis Broe. Image above: The New York Times: Is Any of Their News Fit to Print? 

There was a time, before postmodernism had atrophied and before it simply became a formal textual strategy for ignoring what is going on in the world, when one of the early postmodern bywords “reflexivity” connoted a kind of fun and carefree field of play with a satirical overtone that made all kinds of intertextual relations possible.

In today’s media field, however, reflexivity is a trick used to seal the discussion and make sure that the limited media boundaries of discourse are never breached. In literature there is the rise of narcissism in autofiction (Karl Ove Knausgård’s A Death in the Family) or of an infinite play of incestuous signifiers in metafiction (Mark Haddon’s The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night).

In film and television, the earlier exposure of the wires of the cinematic apparatus has given way to complexification as a trope that conceals the fact that there is no actual referent outside the apparatus. Thus, Marvel’s Loki maps the possibilities of the online world of diverging timelines which do nothing but reify and promote Facebook’s virtual and now failing (as is the Marvel formula) Meta World.

Loki serie

Loki and Meta World - limited, not infinite 

This predilection though is most overwhelmingly dominant in the mainstream corporate media’s coverage of what is happening in Gaza. The New York Times continually uses the trick of linking as an assertion of proof to stories by… The New York Times. A recent article purported to be perplexed at, despite the supposed groundswell and its attendant pressure, why the Writer’s Guild had not condemned the October 7 uprising. However, the “groundswell” and the pressure was mainly coming from…The New York Times. The media bubble validates itself and makes it seem that it is part of an overall movement when in fact the stories originate from the same source or sources, all behind a hermetically sealed bubble.

Reflexivity, no longer a playful and potentially satirical device, has hardened into simply a means of a minority maintaining power and acting like they are the majority, as now most of the people in the U.S., from no matter what party, favour a ceasefire in Gaza. That fact is seldom acknowledged in the corporate media bubble, as CNN initially forbid the word “genocide” from ever being emitted on its soundstages, and as the New York Times in a memo to its staff equally forbade “genocide” as well as “ethnic cleansing” and “occupied territory.”

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The News Not Fit to Print 

Those words were only then adopted and in a limited and “italicized” format when it became clear that most of the American public, the media audience, was resisting the one-way coverage. The boundary around which “civilized” media discussion is permitted is sometimes called ‘The Overton Window’.

The window may shift depending on public opinion but there are narrow limits beyond which corporate media will not allow. To suggest for example that October 7 was not a terrorist attack but rather, as George Galloway described it on YouTube, “a prison breakout”; or to point out that Joe Biden soiled himself as he used D-Day to campaign for more war; or that Biden’s emergency aid port in Gaza was used by the Israelis in a mass slaughter in Gaza, where the Israelis besides killing and wounding over 1000 people freed 4 hostages but killed 3 others, all these are outside the window.

If they do make their way into corporate media coverage they do so as an aside dropped in in the middle of a discourse that rationalizes the other actions: i.e., D-Day where the Germans, the cause of the invasion, are invited and the Russians, who largely rid Europe of the Nazis, are not, is a glorious event; that Biden’s port is a humanitarian endeavor; and that the “daring” Israeli raid was a courageous act akin to the Mossad’s freeing of the hostages at Entebbe instead of a war crime.

The Times will often backtrack, as they did on the Israeli attack on the Palestinian camp in the hostage release story and the next day ‘reassess” what actually went on, but the impression is formed in the first 24-hour news cycle. If, as in this case, the media files an assessment the next day, it is then countered, as was this story, a day later in a return to the “heroic” tale, most likely after the outlet has been chastised by its State Department masters. The Overton Window in the case of coverage of Gaza is an Israeli Iron Dome through which little alternative coverage penetrates.

The Perversion of Reflexivity

The coalescing of self-referential trends in postmodern thought was outlined in Robert Stam’s Reflexivity in Film and Literature in 1985. Stam’s work, describing what he termed this “other tradition,” drawing on literary texts including Rabelais, Lawrence Sterne and his “ur text” Cervantes’ Don Quixote, focused attention on the process of “the construction of the fictive ‘world’ through writing [and no longer] through consciousness.

Besides the playful aspect of these references, Stam argued that the political thrust of this tradition, carried forward most notably by Brecht and which in film and literature has continued to expand, is that by “drawing attention to the process of the construction of the fictive world,” these works “lay bare the material construction of the text.” By pointing to their own textual constructs, they “break with art as enchantment.”

The argument is that reflexive examples – and in cinema Stam’s ur texts are by Jean-Luc Godard – “interrupt the flow of narrative in order to foreground the specific means of literary and filmic production through such methods as “narrative discontinuities, authorial intrusions, essayistic digressions, stylistic virtuosities.” The accumulation of these strategies is “playful, parodic and disruptive” demystifying “our naïve faith in fictions while opening new vistas for literary and cinematic expression as a whole in a double movement of “celebratory fabulation and demystifying critique.”

Stam’s argument is highly nuanced, acknowledging that there is a perennial tension between illusionism, though here presented negatively as “substantiated fact,” and reflexivity which “points to its own mask and invites the public to examine its design and texture.” Aware also of the fact that “the reflexivity of a certain avant-garde is eminently co-optable and easily reappropriated by the hegemonic culture” and that forms of television reflexivity including commercials and that employed by the direct address of the audience by TV news “rather than trigger alienation effects” “often simply alienate.”

The book’s appearance in the mid-80s was at the time when these techniques were passing over into the mainstream, being employed on network TV for example in the constant debunking of the staid devices of late-night talk shows by NBC’s David Letterman and Showtime’s meta series It’s Gary Shandling’s Show about a comedian named Gary Shandling who lived in Sherman Oaks with actual friends and neighbors such as Tom Petty popping in to say hello.

The trend toward reflexivity though has hardened. Instead of a progressive deconstructive device, the movement of “the process made visible,” now part of its own genre termed metafiction, is often seen, instead of expansionary, as “a symptom of literary exhaustion.” And not creativity but narcissism is the description now most often levelled at this hardening of literary reflexivity.

It was, as one critic put it, as if the novel had no more territory to develop and so it turned inward on itself in a kind of “spectre of infinite regress.” This is a frenzy of a style whose most salient characteristic is not its exposure of the means of literary production but rather its construction of an interior world hermetically sealed from the actual one.

What is driving this regress and retreat is a failure to confront the triple dangers of an ever more rapid escalation toward nuclear war, unheeded climate catastrophe, and ever increasing inequality, marked by an attack on the working and middle classes under the claim of fighting inflation and the creation of more low paying jobs in a condition now called “in work poverty.”

Trump and Biden

No wonder that (bourgeois) artists are now “committed only to endless, self-indulgent textual play,” which in the end is a mirror of the sealed-off quality of the Western, imperialist, settler-colonial world that is even now being surpassed and isolated by the Global South in forms such as the BRICS alliance. In a sense metafiction, sometimes seen as a harbinger of the end of the novel, is, as is the candidacy of the geriatric defenders of an ever more oligarchic “Free World” Trump and Biden, also a harbinger of the end or exhaustion of the West and in particular of Western bourgeois democracy.

This aesthetic practice, in an era of increasing financialization and ever more rapid deindustrialization, has its “reflexive” echo in the economic practice of stock buybacks where companies instead of productive investment pump up the value of their own stock to further reward already wealthy shareholders.

These parallels also help to explain why literary and cinematic metafiction has broken through to enter the privileged mainstream of a public consciousness now imbued with these values.

Whereas for Stam, “A socially strategic reflexivity…can lay bare the devices of art while exposing the mechanisms of society,” that moment may have passed into simple reaffirming of a closed world.

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David Letterman, before and after

Take the aforementioned examples of David Letterman and Gary Shandling. Letterman’s rabid critique and exposing of the money-grubbing, penny-pinching methods of General Electric’s ownership of NBC was bounded by his not getting The Tonight Show host job. When he then was awarded the CBS equivalent, the satirical exposing element of the reflexivity disappeared and hardened, as in metafiction, into complicated games playing.

It must be noted that Shandling, who never got a job as a late-night host, went on to create one of the most vicious exposés of the vacuousness and backbiting of late night entertainment culture in The Larry Sanders Show, but here the reflexive elements of his previous series receded and the more overt satirical elements came to the fore.

In series TV production, the element of reflexivity has combined with a hardening of generic conventions to produce, with mixed results, series which reflect on their own generic construction, seen in the continual film noir clips viewed by the movie-loving detective in Sugar and the meta-references and sometimes deconstruction of cinematic depiction of the Vietnam War in the spy series about the end of that war, The Sympathizer.

While the reflexive elements harden, actual attempts to overturn the generic codes are instead discarded. Take the example of the BBC’s Channel 4 2004 series NY-LON, a romcom where in the end none of the three couplings are successful and the main romance flounders on the opposition of the bohemian female to the lifestyle of a banker. That rewriting of the genre was never pursued and the romcom promptly returned to happily ever after.

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The Curse, orbiting the earth and leaving critique behind 

Perhaps the most vacuous use of the meta-reflexive trend was in the final episode of The Curse, (23) a series about the greed and hypocrisy of gentrifying land developers which instead of driving home that critique becomes simply an epic and literal flight of fancy and manages to nearly abolish what had gone before. Needless to say that bastion of bourgeois reflexivity The New York Times hailed the episode as a series breakthrough.

Conclusion: Toppling Another Postmodern Icon

There is another pillar of postmodern thought that is equally in danger of collapsing, and that is “post-colonialism.” The discipline came to the fore in the two decades of the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, a time of US unipolar dominance. Post-colonialism itself, whose founding tenet is that there is no separating the imbrication of the colonizer and the colonized, is a kind of compromise formation. The push of Global South scholars for equality was met by a pushback by Anglo and Western scholars fearful that this area of study would leave no place for Western intellectuals. So was born, in the wake of and, partially as a reaction to, 40 years of revolutionary activity, an imperative to put studies of the colonial center back at the heart of the debate.

What is happening though is similar to what Freud claimed with Dora: reality is intervening and curing the neurosis. The emergence of BRICS and the resistance of the Global South, first to being enlisted in the Ukraine war and then in general to being made a part of three global wars against Russia, China and Iran that would decimate the world and halt the drive for development of those in the majority of the world, is hastening a questioning of whether in key ways the Global South may go its own way and throw off the yoke of colonial “imbrication,” with the new key word being “sovereignty,” the ability of each of these countries to pursue their own path to development.

New anti-colonial movements in eg Niger and New Caledonia are calling “imbrication” into question as these areas demand control of their own resources, uranium in the former and nickel in the latter. As they do the Western media responds by disingenuously attacking these movements as “undemocratic.”

The New York Times following Le Monde lauded an amendment proposed by New Caledonia’s colonial overlord Emmanuel Macron to allow more French citizens in the territory to vote, which the Times described, “a move toward full democracy.” What the story leaves out is that the move is a trick to extend the franchise to more French voters in order to shut out the demands of the Kanaks, the indigenous movement, for independence and keep the nickel, crucial for future development of batteries, under French control.

Here media reflexivity and post-colonialism go hand in hand, with both operating to sustain Western power as that power is rapidly decaying and becoming increasingly irrelevant in ever more expanding economic regions and intellectual spheres of the world.

“When I make a movie, all I think about is the profit”: Alec Baldwin's Magic Bullet
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:49

“When I make a movie, all I think about is the profit”: Alec Baldwin's Magic Bullet

Published in Films

Dennis Broe explains how profit-making has cut corners in movie-making, especially since the pandemic. Image above: Grizzled outlaw Alec Baldwin 

One of the more hilarious moments of the Warren Commission’s likely cover-up of the Kennedy assassination occurred when Commission member and Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter presented what became known as the 'Magic Bullet Theory'.

Specter claimed – and the Commission agreed – that the same bullet had caused a total of seven wounds to both President Kennedy and Texas Senator Connelly, exiting Kennedy’s neck in the back of the limousine, moving downward then reversing trajectory to move upward and cause multiple wounds to Connelly. The bullet finally ended up in pristine shape on a stretcher at the hospital where they were both taken. All this to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Most scholars of the assassination have put the Magic Bullet Theory to rest but now we have a new Magic Bullet Theory, propounded by the actor and producer Alec Baldwin, who claims that a bullet in a chamber of a gun he did not fire mysteriously exited the chamber and killed the director of photography on a Western, Rust, he was filming at the time.

Unbelievable? A New Mexico grand jury thought so and Baldwin has recently been reindicted for involuntary manslaughter, after an initial charge was dropped, for his role in the death of the film’s cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. The indictment accuses him of two felony counts, one springing from his role as producer, charging him on the set with “total disregard or indifference for the safety of others”, and the other charging him with firing the weapon. Unfortunately he can only be convicted of one of the counts.


Baldwin in better but maybe more honest days in Saturday Night Live as penny-pinching fraudster Donald Trump 

Two problems are being exposed here. The first is the contempt of the entertainment and political elite for everyone else. Baldwin, staunch stalwart of the Democratic Party and its corporate wing the Democratic National Committee, founded in the Bill Clinton era, has laid out a defence – “Someone is responsible for what happened, and I can’t say who it is, but I know it’s not me” – that is as implausible as Clinton’s claim, caught in fellatio delicto with Monica Lewinsky, that he didn’t have sex in the Oval office because oral sex is not sex.

Baldwin’s high-priced legal team got the first indictment thrown out on procedural grounds but a new forensic report claiming that he “must have pulled the trigger” has him back in the docks again.

His team then bought off the victim’s husband, trading his silence and refusal to proceed with a civil suit to make him a co-producer on the film. The height of arrogance though may be Baldwin’s claim that the producers have bravely charged ahead and completed the film “as a tribute to Ms. Hutchins.”

Using the death of a promising camerawoman as an excuse to publicize the film is about as cynical a publicity campaign as has ever been waged. What is the family supposed to think when they watch the shots their loved one engineered and then the shots her replacement filmed?

Baldwin appeared in a “surprise cameo” on Saturday Night Live as the evidence was being presented to the grand jury to remind them that he was not too big to fail but too important to indict. Of course if Saturday Night Live, a supposedly satirical revue that gave up that ghost a long time ago, was doing its job, he would have been the subject of spoofing and ridicule rather than the beneficiary of a public appearance designed to sway a jury.

The contempt for ordinary people is similar to Hilary Clinton’s branding of working-class Americans as “deplorables” in a campaign, waged almost solely on the East and West coasts, where she boasted that she was “flying over America.” Baldwin, who plays a grizzled outlaw in the film Rust, and who is beginning to resemble one off camera, was famous on that show for his Donald Trump imitation where he satirized the lawlessness of that public persona, a characteristic he is now flaunting himself.

The second charge, disregard for the safety of others, is in some ways worse and more revealing about the nature of this corner of capitalist production.

Baldwin as producer was at least partly responsible for a set that, because of skimping on a sparse budget and rushing into production, was a maze of tensions and a tempest ready to burst. The armourer, that is the gun handler, a crucial job on a Western, was Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who is now up on manslaughter charges. She was hired at 24 to do a job that required a far more experienced person, because due to a surge in production in New Mexico there was a lack of capable personnel to do that job.

She was also hired as Props Master, a demanding job that is usually handled by a separate person. As an armourer, the inexperienced Gutierrez-Reed had previously worked on a Nicholas Cage film The Old Way where there were two accidental gun discharges and calls for her dismissal.

Armourer was not her first choice of job on a set. Rather than doing either job, she said she wanted to be in front of the camera as a model, which she described as a “burning passion,” which she was “yearn[ing] to turn…into a career,” indicating her mind may have been elsewhere.

 In addition props, which includes weapons, usually has two weeks preparation time before shooting, but because the film was already behind budget, this inexperienced team, which also included a 24-year old equally inexperienced props assistant, was only given one week. The harried Gutierrez-Reed was seen on the set several times, according to one observer, running with guns, a sight he had never seen before.

The shooting that killed the camerawoman and wounded the director Joel Souza was not the first misfire on a troubled set. Another had occurred a few days before, and just hours before the shooting six members of the camera crew walked off the set complaining of long hours, long commutes and not being paid on time. One worker described “3 accidental discharges” and noted the set was “super unsafe.” Another noted that “Corners were being cut” and that the production had brought in non-union workers in order to keep shooting.

shipyard workers v2

Shipbuilding workers exposed to asbestos in World War II

This kind of under-supervised dangerous work setting, due to penny-pinching in order not to go over budget, where the workers pay the price for a rush to produce product and maximize profits, is nothing new. In If He Hollers Let Him Go Chester Himes brilliantly describes the chaos and danger in the hastily assembled World War II shipbuilding industry in Los Angeles, center of wartime production:

The decks were low, and with the tools and equipment of the workers, the thousand and one lines of the welders, the chippers, the blowers, the burners, the light lines, the wooden staging, combined with the equipment of the ship, the shapes and plates, the ventilation trunks and ducts, reducers, dividers, transformers, the machines, lathes, mills, and such, half yet to be installed, the place looked like a littered madhouse. I had to pick every step to find a foot-size clearance of deck space, and at the same time to keep looking up so I wouldn't tear off an ear or knock out an eye against some overhanging shape. Every two or three steps I'd bump into another worker. The only time anybody ever apologized was when they knocked you down.

This kind of danger is ever present in capitalist factories and carries over to assembly-like Hollywood film production.

The background to all of this is that after Covid, production companies were rushing to get the cameras rolling to provide streamers who were suffering from a lack of product with new films and series. Added to that desire to crank out product quickly were the particularities of New Mexico, site of numerous Westerns, where unionised film workers were stretched trying to cover this surge.

The pressure on Baldwin resulting in this corner-cutting was also coming from the film’s investors. One of them, Streamline Global, was famous for exploiting a provision in the U.S. tax code that allows investors to write off the first 15 to 20 million dollars and is designed to “ease wealthy individuals tax burdens through film investment.”

The provision has accounted for a good deal of fraud as film and television budgets are inflated to create a loss and open up investors for bigger tax cuts. The procedure was described by one observer as “playing ‘the audit lottery,’” meaning investors are hoping in the end they can cheat the government and not get caught taking unwarranted tax credits. 


Gary Cooper in Loeb’s capitalist and empire fairy tale Fountainhead 

Streamline Global, the name itself boasting of its cost-cutting, is run by Emily Hunter Salveson whose great uncle Gerald Loeb helped found E.F. Hutton which in the ’80s pleaded guilty to 2,000 counts of mail fraud and had the low investor grade of “D.” Loeb produced that pean to capitalism and American empire, The Fountainhead.

The bottom line of the whole enterprise though may be summed up by a saying conveyed to Baldwin, playing an indie filmmaker in 2013’s Seduced and Abandoned, by an investor: “When I make a movie, all I think about is the profit.” It’s a line he may have unfortunately taken too much to heart.

An Enemy of the People
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:49

An Enemy of the People

Published in Theatre

Anthony Squiers reviews an astonishingly relevant production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, performed on Zoom by the J.T. and Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts School of Theatre & Dance, Texas Tech University

An Enemy of the People is one of Ibsen’s most famous works and one of the 19th century's most enduring pieces of political theatre. This new adaptation by Brad Birch performed at Texas Tech University under the directorship of Bill Gelber, a seasoned director and Brecht scholar, couldn’t have made its continued relevance clearer.

It is the story of Dr. Tom Stockmann (Steven Weatherbee) a man who attempts to use science and empirical evidence to prevent a potential public health disaster by reporting contaminated waters at the local spa baths. These efforts, however, are impeded by his brother, the mayor (Caleb Ranger Lowery) whose political and economic interests are threatened by this truth.

The public health crisis in the U.S. 

The fact that this particular story is presented exactly at a time when the United States is suffering perhaps its worst public health crisis in history, and that this crisis is fueled by political interests who deny empirical evidence and scientific reasoning for their own benefit is an infuriating, grotesquely tragic amplifier of the play’s central themes, and served as an organizing principle of the production.

Recorded and then streamed via Zoom, the actors performed from separate locations at disparate times to maintain social distance, and appeared on screen individually, in their own windowpanes. Scenic cohesion was maintained through identical backdrops in each staging area and at times matching tables which created the appearance that they were in the same location. Indeed, the cast and technical team should be lauded for their efforts here. With only minor exceptions the players responded to each other with perfect timing and with exacting emotional intensity, reveal and gestures. Ranger Lowery and Laureen Karichu who played Hovstad, a journalist who tried to help Dr. Stockman make his findings public, were especially authentic in this regar,d rendering strong performances in a technically difficult situation. The result was an unorthodox theatre production which was nevertheless surprisingly easy to watch.

EOP 9 resized

Furthermore, the show in some ways benefited from this pandemic-driven delivery method. While confronting the technical challenges of trying to present the appearance of scenic continuity while working with separate spaces, scene designer/prop master Grace Wohlschlegel opted for an exceedingly minimal aesthetic that had what might be termed a digital black box feel because of its simplicity — a desk or table, a typewriter, a handheld prop here and there, but little else. This was a remarkable level of humbleness and restraint which served the production immensely by forgoing pretence and letting the players use the text tell the story.

The Zoom delivery method also gave the production a voyeuristic tinge as if the audience was given a peek at the private lives of people tangled up in a political drama who just happened to forget to exit out of their last Zoom meeting. This gave the impression that the audience was penetrating the backstory of a politically relevant tale, without having to rely on the superficial treatment of such a story as filtered through the news media.

The economy or health?

But the real achievement of the production was the full-on embrace of the social reality that necessitated this type of delivery method in the first place by turning the pandemic into a permeating subtext of the visual representation. Accompanying the windowpanes of the performers were panels exhibiting mannequins seated in theatre rows and draped in cloths as if they were ghostly spectators, lifeless spectres in humanoid form who testified to the horrors of public health disasters — the potential disaster awaiting the town, in the play and the one lurking outside the audience’s doors. They were haunting, lingering reminders of what happens when public health is ignored for economic motives. The issue at hand (in both the play and the social ethos in which the viewers encountered it) is one of profit vs health. “Is the economy more important than people’s lives?” pondered Gelber, continuing “It really is economy or health, so we pushed that [theme].”

In the end, the production lands firmly on the side of health and its corollary scientific, empirical evidence-based knowledge. Dr. Stockman’s attempts to reveal the truth are met first with pseudo-scientific argumentation. When that fails, appeals to a false universalism are relied on, i.e. opening contaminated baths will be good for everybody. When this proves ineffective, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, and ideological appeals ensue. When these don’t work, the political elite embodied in the character of the mayor turn to economic coercion — persist and I will ruin you.

EOP 48 resized

The truth, in the words of the mayor, is just “too expensive” to accept — too expensive for those who are financially invested in the baths. This idea of a truth too costly to speak was elevated through the censoring of the audio every time a character uttered what Dr. Stockman discovered about the bath’s water. The lines were obfuscated with auditory distortion and accompanied by a ‘technical difficulty’ message on the screen. The message was hidden until the very end when, having endured threats from his brother and faced with the prospect of financial devastation, Dr. Stockman refuses to capitulate. Agitated, desperate but still with conviction and fidelity to empirical observation, he screams his sharable truth: the waters are poisoned.

In this gesture, this final revelation, the audience is given hope of a world where science matters and profit and political expediency don’t outweigh public health and people’s lives. This hope took on further significance by encountering it the day after the spontaneous eruption of revelries all across the country celebrating the defeat of Donald Trump, a politician with a history of appeals to a false universalism, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, ideological fantasy, threats, attacks on science and the flaunting of public health to advance his own political fortune. In the show (as with the election results) one can just start to feel the slightest burgeoning sensations, faint reverberations of optimism. 

With this production, Gelber and his cast and crew have delivered a resounding, socially relevant, politically salient success.

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, in a new adaptation by Brad Birch, directed by Bill Gelber, was delivered via Zoom by the J.T. and Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts School of Theatre & Dance, Texas Tech University.

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:49

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille interviews Adam Theron-Lee Rensch about his new book No Home for You Here: A Memoir of Class and Culture

Q. Can you tell us about why you decided to write the book; what the book is about; and why you chose the ‘memoir’ genre to write it in?

A. I was very resistant to writing a traditional memoir, and the first draft of the book included very little personal narrative. While I’ve written about my life and experiences in essays, I believe the memoir or “creative nonfiction” genre tends to perpetuate neoliberal narratives that eliminate structural critique in favour of emotional identification. Everything becomes about the writer as an individual: their suffering, their triumph, etc. Who cares about the larger set of social relations that make this possible? What matters is what is moving enough to sell copy. So, I knew I didn’t want to play into this.

At the same time, I realized my life was something of a convenient structure onto which I could hang my critique: I was born in 1984, came of age in the post-9/11 landscape, and internalized the liberal obsession with meritocracy. If I was going to make something of myself, I thought, I had to become educated. The middle-class fantasy of managerial creativity was baked into how I saw the world, and how I imagined solutions to its problems. I had to unlearn all of that. I think the “left” more broadly also needs to unlearn this, and I’m hoping that people will find something useful in reading about my own process.

Q. Yes, and one of the ways you are clearly hoping that readers will ‘unlearn’ their political outlook is through a more accurate understanding of their class position, and the importance of class-based politics. Can you tell us about your own journey to a clearer understanding of class, and your thoughts on how the left can achieve a cultural shift towards a greater class consciousness amongst working people?

The biggest obstacle for me in understanding class was, as it is for many, the cultural and aesthetic markers that are often confused for class: education, taste, etc. I grew up in Ohio, surrounded primarily by poor and working-class whites. For a long time, I was ashamed of this fact, and attempted to leave it behind by embracing a stereotypically “cultured” aesthetic. I placed a lopsided emphasis on “ideas,” that elusive resource utilized by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the so-class professional-managerial class. There was something seductive about feeling smart, but at the end of the day it did not change my material conditions. I was still struggling to find reliable work, and was in debt from all that schooling I was certain would bring me success.

A few years after the financial crisis of 2008, I moved back to Ohio. Slowly, and admittedly with some resistance, I began to see that all the stuff I thought mattered was not very important. It was mainly a way for me to rationalize my own position in the hierarchy: I may be poor, but at least I’m not stupid! Sadly, this is still a common reason for many to justify inequality and suffering. I think the first major step in creating class consciousness would be to understand that it has nothing to do with individual beliefs and traits of this sort. You likely belong to the same class as many of your partisan adversaries—the working class—and while it may feel uncomfortable to demand justice for them as well it is nevertheless the only way forward.

What I mean is that a majority of workers receive a wage that barely covers their cost of living. It is enough to cover rising costs in housing, food, and insurance, perhaps a credit card or car payment, but not enough to get ahead. Many are not “lucky enough” to even make this much. These are the conditions that shape the lives of most people. They are material, not cultural, and they unite workers in a way that other categories cannot.

The left’s best chance at organizing a broad movement is to focus on these material conditions that a diverse population has in common. This is of course easier said than done, because cultural divisions are powerful. Resentment is a logical reaction to suffering, and it is easier to blame someone than it is to accept that your pain is simply the result of an indifferent economic logic. But again, I think focusing on material condition is a necessary first step toward creating a political movement that a mass of people find appealing.

Q. Ok so if we need to develop a new culture of class-based politics which will unite the mass of working people, this will mean engaging in so-called ‘culture wars’ against the dominant forces that shape our culture. In this context, what do you think is the responsibility of cultural workers – artists, poets, writers, film-makers, playmakers etc. – to help our class develop and apply a more class conscious approach to social and political campaigns?

This is a good but difficult question, but one I think about a lot given my own position as a writer who values culture objects like novels and films. I am not “influential” in any meaningful sense, at least compared to mainstream writers and filmmakers who reach the general public. Nevertheless, I am conflicted by the role works of culture play. It is something of a cliché to bemoan the fact that art is a commodity, and that works of film or literature, even those with explicitly political commitments, must in some sense appeal to a market for distribution. But acknowledging the cliché doesn’t change that fact. The market’s primary function is to relegate politics to the realm of consumer preference: this film appeals to your political sensibilities, that novel appeals to someone else’s, etc. In my more cynical moments, I often wonder if art is not inherently conservative, even when its aesthetic is outwardly radical.

At the same time, I don’t think being a philistine is a useful position for anyone to take. So, what we’re left with is a tension between market forces and the individual commitments of cultural workers, the latter of whom must court the market for an audience. Their politics, much like the critics handing out prestigious awards, tend to skew liberal. But I would say if there’s one thing cultural workers can do it is challenge the sort of narratives the market finds so appealing, and that justify the neoliberal worldview of individual adversity and triumph. What this would look like, exactly, I’m not sure. Class relations have nothing to do with “the individual” in the narrative sense, or even “lived experience,” to borrow a term used a lot these days. Perhaps the role of cultural workers is simply to find ways to make objects that acknowledge this. I think a film like Parasite comes close: it is a film first and foremost about class, and adopts genre tropes to offer a description of class relations, which is totally smart and useful.

Q. Thank you! There is a lot there to think about, and that resonated with our approach to culture on Culture Matters. Can I now turn to the main political and cultural issue in the United States – the presidential election. In the light of the need for more class-based politics, what’s your take on Trump’s presidency and the class consciousness of different segments of the American people?

Contrary to popular belief, I think class consciousness does exist in America. The problem is that it’s the wrong class. The wealthy have a keen sense of their position, and as our political “spectrum” shows they are willing to put aside differences to make sure they maintain their power. Indeed, bipartisanship is never greater than when workers try to organize or fight back.

There are many obstacles preventing widespread class consciousness among workers, from the shame of admitting one is poor to the atomization characteristic of what I like to call “curated capitalism.” The algorithm has done a lot to fracture any sense of a common or “mainstream” culture that everyone interacts with. Everything can be tweaked and personalized, and soon you find yourself online in communities of people just like you, never needing to interact with anyone outside of it. Add to this our lack of organized labour, our culture wars, and a deep suspicion toward the possibility of change, and you’re left with a country of alienated people who are often too exhausted to do anything except find small comforts in leisurely activities.

Adam head shot

Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Trump’s presidency has been painted as some sort of populist uprising, but I don’t think that’s quite right. About 110 million people didn’t vote in 2016, mostly those in the lower income brackets. If anything, the absence of working class participation is the real populist revolt, but this fact is never talked about seriously. Instead, we continue to inflate the problem of the “white working class” who of course is described as inherently authoritarian, racist, etc.

Why? Because it justifies the worldview of those who benefit from our class structure, and ensures that the discourse focuses on criticizing individuals (bigots) and not social relations. After all, if you’re a manager or media personality, even one with left-leaning politics, do you really want workers to organize and take away what power and influence you have? It’s not a surprise that during the 2020 primary, Elizabeth Warren’s base was educated professionals who preferred her top-down managerial approach to Bernie’s bottom-up solidarity. They were the ones who’d get to manage the “revolution”!

Q. Thank you. Finally, what is your view on the result of the election, in terms of the need to develop and promote class-based and socialist politics in the U.S.? What does the future hold for the U.S. and the world generally?

The 2020 election was in a lot of ways a missed opportunity for class-based politics in America. Sanders never fully recaptured the insurgency he represented in 2016, and I think his exit was seen by the establishment as an indictment of policies that prioritize the needs of the working class. As a result, the “choice” between Biden and Trump was basically aesthetic: which version of austerity do you prefer?

Moving forward, I think there needs to be a serious conversation about what “the left” represents. The culture wars of the Bush era never really went away, they were just given new descriptions. To be somewhat reductive, the Christian Right was replaced by the Fascist alt-right, and the Latte Left was replaced by the anti-fascist Left. A lot of self-described socialists still reflexively approach working people as incapable of contributing to the movement. They are often seen as too reactionary, or too uneducated, unable to participate in the discourse properly. As someone who has spent too much time in academia, I feel comfortable saying we need to stop taking our cues from intellectual vanguards and prominent media personalities who remain mired in the culture wars. Under this approach, material interests of working people are not always represented within this dynamic. This can make the left’s project alienating and incapable of attracting broad support.

I am not smart enough to offer an easy solution to this problem. What I will say is that we need to focus more on those material interests that impact a massive segment of the population: wages, insurance, housing, and debt. The U.S. economy is not productive in the way it once was, which means the source of exploitation has changed. While industrial capital still exists, much of it has been outsourced and replaced by finance capital. Monopoly rent-seeking has become a critical problem and effectively resurrected feudalism.

In other words, far fewer American workers are being paid to produce goods that other workers buy to realize profits. Rather, profits are realized by charging workers to use services. This is the Silicon Valley model as seen with Netflix, Spotify, and others. Amazon, for example, generates billions each year simply by charging people to host websites. How do these companies remain profitable? They do so by cutting costs, not by hiring more workers to produce more goods. So, focusing our energy on that parasitic model of profit extraction would have the greatest impact in changing the power relations to benefit working people.

A Mother Stamps Her Feet
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:49

A Mother Stamps Her Feet

Published in Poetry

A Mother Stamps Her Feet

By Rafael Pizarro 

A mother in San Jose sees a child in
a cage and stamps her feet.

This is how it starts.

In a cabin, at the foot of humble
mountains a man and his wife, married
seventeen years now and still young,
watch a neighbor dragged out of his home
and taken away as his own wife works and
their children attend school. The young couple
visit the family that night. They cook a meal
together and plan for the next day.

This is how it builds.

A teacher leaves his classroom in Austin
for the long drive down to the border
and takes some colleagues with
him. Along the way they sing songs of
liberation and redemption.

This is how we sustain.

A committee of parishioners from
St. Mark’s in New York gather gifts of
clothing, toys and toothbrushes
and wrap them around a table in
the sanctuary.

This is how it grows.

They come one by one or in carloads. They come
on busses, they come by plane and a joyous
committee meets them at the airport
as if they were long lost relatives.

Now it really comes together.

Like mountain streams we meet together on
the road and out of one there are many
thousands and we stamp our feet, and the Earth
shakes. Some hearts are hardened, others are
broken, but each and all must now reckon
with their own demanding soul.

That’s how we win.

Statue of L

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:49

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

SL 1

Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.


Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.

'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:49

'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy

Published in Fiction

Phil Brett tells the story of when Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joseph McCarthy.                              

Sixty five years ago, on March 26th 1953, Dashiell Hammett, the famous novelist who was responsible for popularising the hard-boiled private eye novel, faced Senator Joseph McCarthy. For a brief moment in the confrontation, there took place an exchange concerning the possibility of communism in the United States. What led to that frankly surreal moment shows both what the American state will do to protect its rule, and the power which it fears.

 PB 2 Maltese Falcon                      

By 1953, Hammett was internationally known for his novels such as The Maltese Falcon, which had set the template of the cynical hard-drinking detective (See Murder, Mavericks and Marxism for my socialist look at the growth of crime fiction). His writing inspired legions of others, including such luminaries as Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Many of his stories had been made into Hollywood movies. The 1941 film of the Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, usually appears in best movie lists, and the book figures in literary equivalents. But it wasn't because McCarthy disliked film noir that Hammett was having to defend himself. To find the reason, we perhaps should travel back to the start of the twentieth century.

By then, the United States had grown to a position where it could rival Britain and Germany. Huge corporations were now creating huge wealth, but only for those at the top. With the ever greater demands of profit, came ever greater exploitation. Workers fought back and unionisation grew, but the American federation of trade unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was ill-equipped to lead it, being virtually all male, all white and all skilled. Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States writes that "Racism was practical for the AFL. The exclusion of women and foreigners was also practical." Theirs was a business unionism, set up to help big business whilst earning fantastic salaries for the officials; divide and rule worked for them. But not for the movement. Mass strikes, such as the 1907 general strike of over ten thousand black and white workers on the New Orleans levees, terrified the bosses. Socialists and anarchists found their ideas gaining an audience. A new union, The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies) was created to cross racial, gender and sectional lines. It grew massively. The ruling class responded as they always had, and would continue to do, by unleashing terrible violence. Strikers were regularly fired on, such as in 1916 Everett, Washington, when two hundred armed thugs opened fire, leaving five Wobblies dead. It was far from being a one off.

   PB 3 IWW                               

A year later, IWW organiser Frank Little, was kidnapped by vigilantes, tortured and hanged. Strong evidence suggests that the vigilantes were in fact members of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. A member of the Pinkertons at the time was one Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Lillian Hellman, playwright and writer, comrade and partner of his for thirty years, later claimed that Hammett himself had been personally approached to be part of the gang. Her claim has been questioned, but whatever the truth of it, there is no doubt that Little's murder appalled him, and as a Pinkerton he would have witnessed the strike-breaking, infiltration, blackmail and murder which, despite their name, was pretty much the main work of the agency. Seeing at first hand how the state would subcontract out terror made Hammett begin to question the values which he had been brought up with.

 PB 4 newspaper on IWW                                

By the twenties, the IWW had been destroyed, with many activists dead or in prison, and the Socialist Party was falling apart. In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan had grown to 4.5 million. It looked as if the American ruling class had won, and reaction was on the march. Racism and terror had long been popular mechanisms of oppression, but now there was something new in their tool box of terror - anti-communism. The first Red Scare was launched as a reaction of to the 1917 Russian Revolution, with the state mobilising against the threat. The press joined in, howling against anyone who even vaguely threatened the 'American way of life'.  President Woodrow Wilson forced Congress to pass the 1918 Sedition Act, primarily aimed against anarchists. Similar to what we see today, with Donald Trump calling anyone he perceives to be an opponent a snow flake, back then, there was little concern to differentiate between communists, socialists, anarchists, liberals or merely decent human beings. They all were 'reds'.

However, the struggle continued, with mass strikes. Marcus Garvey's message of black pride reached large audiences and the NAACP bravely battled for justice. In 1919, the American Communist Party (CP) was formed. The 1930s depression saw times get even harder, with more workers growing disillusioned with capitalism. The CP had grown to 55,000 by the end of the decade.

Hammett might have left the Pinkertons, but he was using the experience of detection in his writing. His first story was published in the magazine The Smart Set in 1929. The first of his five novels was Red Harvest (1929), which was followed by The Dain Curse (1929), the Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931) and the Thin Man (1934). They brought fame and wealth. However, the effect wasn't to draw him towards capitalism, but quite the opposite.

The 1930s saw him involved in civil rights and anti-fascist activity, joining the American Labor Party and in 1937, the Communist Party. In the main, his support was financial, and lending his name to campaigns. Not that his politics can especially be seen in his writing - there is a constant theme of a corrupt society in them, with many of the cops on the take, but little more than that.

But neither the lack of overt literary socialism, nor the fact that he had served in both world wars, was going to save him from the watchful eye of the red scaremongers. Over time, legislation had been steadily passed against the left. In March 1947 president Truman signed Executive Order 9835 to check the "Americanism" of public employees. It was the legislation which the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) would use. Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, says, ""The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter." And the crook was certainly cheap here, with Senator McCarthy achieving his moment in history, by conducting several HUAC investigations.

Again, as with today's resident of the White House and purveyor of gaudy Twitter patter, stars in the movie industry were useful targets (see also Peter Frost's article I am Spartacus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo). This was partly because there was anxiety that any liberalism in the arts might help raise awkward questions about society (see my If We Stop Fighting The World Will Die for an example of how political messages appear in the most mainstream of films). But it was also because the stars' fame could be used to spread the fear - if the state was willing and able to go for the great and good, then the local activist was an easy target. In wielding such power, the ruling class showed their fear, by trying to instil it in others.

    PB 5 HB and LB              

Some fought back, including in 1947, a high profile, (and in the history of lobbying, possibly the best-dressed ever) delegation, led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In the same year, Hammett was elected the president of the Civil Rights Congress (CVC) whose role was to fund defences for those arrested for political offences.                                      

Four years later, he was brought before the United Sates attorney for the southern district of New York to disclose who had been aided. Hammett refused. As a result, he was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt. The magazine Hollywood Life caught the OTT hysteria, calling Hammett, "one of the most dangerous (if not THE) influential communists in America".

Then in 1953, he was dragged in front of the HUAC. This time it was to face the charge that 'pro-communist' books had made their way into overseas libraries run by the State Department. Three hundred copies of his books had been found on the shelves of seventy three of its libraries. Fearing that American capital would collapse from Sam Spade's sardonic wit, Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joe McCarthy.

For most of the hearing, Hammett, like so many others who appeared before the HUAC, pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions in case they might incriminate him. There is a tradition of socialists using political trials as a platform to argue their cause. Why Hammett and others didn't do this is not clear. Perhaps, the reason is hinted at when one of the Committee questions him as to why he is appearing "before the bar of public opinion". He replies that it was not the 'bar of public opinion' which had sent him to prison for six months - the implication being that it was the state, doing so for political reasons. By the fifties, the left had suffered a series of defeats and confidence was low: taking the Fifth was seen as the only viable tactic. Certainly, Hammett didn't lack moral courage. He'd shown that in the 1947 trial and the fact that he had publicly supported campaigns associated with the CP throughout the Red Scare.

But then McCarthy asked, "Do you believe that the communist system is better than the system in use in this country?" Hammett didn't this time take the Fifth but instead answered, "Well, regardless of what I thought of communism in Russia today, it is doubtful if, you know, any one sort of thing - one is better for one country, and one is better for the other country."

McCarthy, then asked, "You seem to distinguish between Russian communism and American communism. While I cannot see any distinction, I will assume there is for the purpose of the questioning. Would you think that American communism would be a good system to adopt in this country?" Hammett took the Fifth, but then to perhaps McCarthy's surprise, he added that it was a question which could not be answered by a yes or no. McCarthy asked why. "You see," Hammett answered, "I don't understand. Theoretical communism is no form of government. You know, there is no government. And I actually don't know, and I couldn't without - even in the end, I doubt it if I can give a definite answer."

Sensing a chance to trap him, the senator asked if he favoured the adoption of communism in the United States. Hammett didn't take the Fifth but answered no. It wasn't the answer that McCarthy had expected. Hammett explained, "For one thing, it would seem to me impractical, if most people didn't want it."

Maybe McCarthy should have read some of the books he was so intent on banning. If he had, then he might have understood that to achieve communism, Marxists believe that a transitional socialist state is required, you did not jump straight to a communist state. So Hammett was, strictly speaking, not denying his politics. McCarthy just simply did not understand them. In any case, the agent of change was the mass of the working class. The masses in 1953 USA were not in a pre-revolutionary state, so Hammett was being practical. Hammett's testimony couldn't be said to have been a stirring defence of socialism, but he hadn't implicated anybody else, nor fundamentally denied his politics.

The session ended with McCarthy returning to the ostensible reason for his appearance, the stocking of 'communist literature' in state libraries. He asked the author, "If you were in charge of that programme to fight communism, would you purchase the works of some 75 communist authors?" Hammett, replied with a putdown which Sam Spade would have been proud of, "If I were fighting communism, I don't think I would do it by giving people any books at all."

Despite his careful replies, he had done enough to provoke further action against him. He was blacklisted and the FBI spent a lot of time and effort in trying to charge him for tax fraud. Perhaps nothing more was done because Hammett was a sick man, who would not publish anything major again. He become a virtual recluse, living with Hellman until his death in 1961. Even then, he had beaten McCarthy, outliving the senator by four years.

There is no doubt that the American ruling class faced a serious threat to its power in the first half of the twentieth century. It defended itself with brutal violence, intimidation and blacklisting - nothing less than state-sponsored terrorism. The left was smashed.  Sixty five years later, with Trump as president, it could be easy to think that McCarthy had won. However, within a decade, the sixties would see a re-emergence of radicalism, with women's, black, gay and anti-Vietnam movements changing American society forever. Even today, with the Uncut, Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns, not to mention campaigns against Trump, people still fight for radical ideas in the States. McCarthy would have been apoplectic at the sight of hundreds of thousands of Americans flocking to support Bernie Sanders, a politician proud to call himself a socialist.

The root of Senator Joe McCarthy's fear is still here. And let us also remember that McCarthy's name is now despised, synonymous with witch hunts, whilst Hammett is famous for the creation of a literary genre. Perhaps the words of Sam Spade, his most famous creation, also spoke for him: "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble."

Hollywood Ten

The Trouble with Monsters
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:49

The Trouble with Monsters

Published in Poetry

The Trouble with Monsters

by Chris Norris

Quick way with monsters: send a hero out
For mortal combat: sometimes he'll prevail
And kill the beast, while other times he'll fail
And it will be his death that ends the bout.

The point is, those old poets had it right,
Those Greeks, and Romans, and the guy (or guys)
Of Anglo-Saxon stock whose epic vies
With theirs as Beowulf goes forth to fight

First Grendel, then his mother, she whose sheer
Brute strength and monstrous bulk he hacks to death
But only to yield up his dying breath
In the last act of his renowned career.

cn beowulf

We have our modern monsters, but they tend
More often to emerge from some bad place
Within our home-domain, not some wild space
Beyond it where all codes and kinships end.

From every source these modern monsters spring:
From corporate culture, from the daily trade
In weapons of mass-murder, from the made-
To-measure ranks of lying hacks who bring

Our daily news, from the assorted fools
And rogues lined up for a safe Tory seat
Post-Oxbridge, or from teachers keen to beat
The kids just like in their old public schools.

CN bj 20145 Boris Johnson wins seat MP

But now we have new monsters of a kind
Unknown in earlier times because their lair
Is deep within a psychic space they share
With fifty million others of a mind

To have their worldview, politics, and sense
Of right and wrong conditioned daily by
The sorts of TV show that amplify
Bad vibes long quelled in reason's self-defence.

It's monstrous emanations such as these,
Rough beasts that slouch from all our TV screens,
Whose aspect takes us closest to those scenes
Of epic strife and somehow holds the keys

To all our deep-commingled dreads and fears,
As well as savage impulses that drive
The moguls and press-barons to connive
At each assault on decency's frontiers.

CN adolf hitler reichskanzler 1933

Our last real monster turned up nine decades
Back and did all the usual monster-stuff -
Killed millions out of some long-rankling huff,
Laid countries waste, recruited his brigades

Of street-thugs early on from folk bereft
Of money, life-hopes, pride, or self-respect,
And so, like Grendel, carried on unchecked
Till desperate remedies alone were left.

Now we've another monster on the loose,
One just as bad in many ways and worse
In some, since we've now further cause to curse
The advent of a president obtuse

And infantile enough to blow us all
To kingdom come if goaded by some stray
Remark, or say 'Just weather!’ come what may
Of hurricanes by way of wake-up call.

CN dt

We think 'if only', and routinely hold
Them in the highest honour, those who tried
But failed to stem the rising fascist tide
By monster-slaying, some of them extolled,

Like Bonhoeffer, as heroes with a claim
To sainthood while so many others, known
Or unknown to us, left their safety-zone
To venture on a last and lethal game.

Our current monster preys on all the ills
Of ignorance, stupidity, and greed
That fed his viewing-figures and his need
To see that every whim directly spills

Into the Twitter-sphere no matter if
It's sub-moronic, apt to spark a war,
Designed to show a hapless aide the door,
Or his last shot in some crass ‘fake news’ tiff.

Yet it's a case borne out by monsters down
From Roman times that they're no less a threat
To humankind for being apt to get
Their kicks in imbecilic ways, or clown

It up at just those times when all depends,
If not on their appearing wise or shrewd,
Then on their not indulging some wild mood-
Swing prone to make new enemies of old friends.

That Mark One monster might have been dispatched
At any time from nineteen-thirty-three
To forty-four, a fine thing – you'll agree –
Since who’d blame plotters for a game-plan hatched

To rid the world of one who, as things went
In brutal truth, survived to leave his mark,
As will this monster if left to embark
On half the crimes that seem his fixed intent?

That's why they got it right, those epic bards,
About what's best to do when monsters strike
And why perhaps, in special cases like
The present, it's the role of bodyguards,

Not some resurgent Beowulf, to show
The highest civic virtue and the sort
Of courage that inspired those long-ago
Folk-heroes to cut monster-stories short.

CN Karl Theodor von Piloty Murder of Caesar 1865