Book review: The Impossible Revolution – Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy


Demonstration outside Syrian embassy in London – art by Hamid Sulaiman (source).

By Ani White.

As sectarianism and the far-right rear their heads internationally, it’s easy to forget the optimism of 2011. Those seeking to understand this trajectory must read Syrian revolutionary Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s essay collection The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.

A foreword by Robin Yassin-Kassab, who co-wrote the excellent work Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, explains why this work is so essential:

 ” ‘They simply do not see us’, [Yassin al-Haj Saleh] laments. If we don’t see Syrian revolutionaries, if we don’t hear their voices when they talk of their experience, their motivations and hopes, then all we are left with are (inevitably orientalist) assumptions, constraining ideologies, and pre-existent grand narratives. These big stories, or totalising explanations, include a supposedly inevitable and ancient sectarian conflict underpinning events, and a jihadist-secularist binary, as well as the idea, running counter to all evidence, that Syria is a re-run of Iraq, a Western-led regime change plot. No need to attend to detail, runs the implication, nor to Syrian oppositional voices, for we already know what needs to be known.”

For many ‘anti-imperialists’, this disengagement is a matter of maintaining a clear ideology. Given the focus on the USA as the Great Satan, a situation where the USA’s role is marginal, where a supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ regime perpetrates mass slaughter with the support of the Russian and Iranian regimes, is ideologically inconvenient. The retreat into conspiracy theory (depicting revolutionaries as foreign agents) serves to warp reality so it stays consistent with ideology.

Although this ideology claims the mantle of anti-imperialism, its proponents see people exactly as empires do; pawns on a global chessboard. To regain our revolutionary conscience, ‘anti-imperialists’ must learn from the ground up, through an allegiance with people rather than states. As a Syrian communist partisan of the revolution, Saleh’s work is crucial in this rethinking of the world.

Having spent 16 years in prison for his political activities, Saleh is an implacable opponent of the regime – yet as the so-called ‘conscience of the revolution’, he is also a thoughtful opponent, raising challenging questions for all who read. Most of the essays in this collection were written during 2011, capturing the spirit of the moment. Yet right from the start, Saleh also delves deeper into historical and structural questions to explain driving factors in the revolution. Later essays, from 2012-2015, provide perhaps the most significant sustained analysis of the revolution’s tragic collapse available in English.

Saleh’s analysis is both educational on the Syrian situation specifically, and a master-class in structural analysis generally.  An early essay outlines the class composition of Syrian society. Saleh identifies a ‘new bourgeoisie’ that is the base of the Assads’ dictatorship; the loyal intellectuals of the ‘Syrian Arab Republic’, who offer superficial opposition without questioning the fundamentals of Assad’s rule; an urban middle class, and a poor rural majority, who together formed the base of the revolution. Saleh suggests that the middle class and poor were united by an experience of work, in contrast to those who prosper without working. This gulf widened during the early 2000s, with the introduction of neoliberal reforms.

To explain how the Assads have maintained power, Saleh often returns to Assad Sr’s development of a brutal security apparatus, and an ideological apparatus centring on Assad himself. This fiefdom was inherited by his son. Saleh argues that this is a fascist state apparatus, a characterisation that is worth thinking through given the international rise of the far right, many in fact exploiting the Syrian refugee crisis.

It is commonly asserted that the Syrian revolution is discredited by sectarianism. In particular, the Sunni majority is often depicted as too sectarian to govern. Although it is a dangerous simplification, this view has a ring of truth as confusing sectarian warfare fills the nightly news: as Saleh grimly notes in his final essay, Syria’s war “promises to be an ideal specimen for the study of sectarianism.” In this disquieting spirit, the later essays consider the problem in detail.

Saleh famously distinguishes between the ‘neck-tie fascists’ of the regime and the ‘long-beard fascists’ of political Islam, indicating the way Syrians are caught between a rock and a hard place. However, he avoids the common simplification that ‘both sides/all sides are equally bad.’ He centrally contends that sectarianism is a political tool, not a matter of ancient identity. More specifically, sectarianism is deeply rooted in the Assadist regime itself.

Saleh’s final essay, the longest in the collection, roots modern sectarianism in the Assadist ‘neo-Sultanic state.’ This state opportunistically fosters sectarianism in various ways, all preserving a dictatorial power structure. Firstly, the ‘neo-Sultanic state’ fosters sectarianism with the elevation of Alawites, an Islamic sect of which the ‘Sultans’ (Assads) are members. Secondly, while the repressive apparatus (or ‘inner state’) is sectarian, the ideological apparatus (or ‘outer state’) maintains a kind of hollow secularism that represses discussion of sectarianism. Thirdly, the development of a corrupt ‘clientelism’ (bribes, favours for friends, and other forms of cronyism) that favours some sects over others.

Saleh argues that sectarianism is ultimately about class, providing cultural justifications for material hierarchies. In Syria specifically, the Sunni majority is dispossessed, and their poverty is blamed on their cultural ignorance.

In this repressive context, devoid of a common civil society, it is remarkable that the 2011 revolution saw such a flowering of non-sectarian sentiment. Slogans such as ‘Sunnis and Alawis are One’ defied the Balkanisation of communities fostered under the Assad regime.

To undercut the legitimacy of the uprising, Assad’s regime set out to stoke sectarianism. The regime carried out massacres targeting Sunnis well before the revolutionaries armed themselves, and infamously released many Salafists from jail.

Saleh refers to the growth of political Islam in this context as a kind of ‘militant nihilism’ – seeing the whole world as corrupted, withdrawing into an abstracted mental space that justifies all manner of cleansing violence. Nonetheless, Saleh maintains that this is only a defensive posture given the besieged and isolated position of the Sunni majority (note that this analysis does not apply to ISIS, who are essentially an occupying power not borne of the revolution).

With the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, many observers have returned to the confirmation bias which says Sunni Arabs are too backwards to govern, too easily forgetting what 2011 illuminated. While discussing the many sectarian ‘fiefdoms’ developing by 2013, Saleh clarifies: “The fall of the regime would not mean an end to the process of ‘feudalization’ – but there is no hope of stopping this feudalization without overthrowing the regime.”

Saleh promotes a democratic Syrian nationalism, as an alternative to both Assad’s Syria and an Islamic state.

This progressive nationalism is worth considering critically. Saleh suggests that only the revolutionaries truly adhere to the ideal of ‘Syria’, often implying their enemies are not truly Syrian (whether by citizenship or philosophy).  Assad’s regime is regularly compared to a colonial regime, and Islamists are depicted as fundamentally more international than local. These are compelling points, and everyone can probably agree that tensions internal to Syria have been exploited by various international actors. At one point Saleh suggests in passing that the ‘central bourgeoisie’ could also be considered an ‘external bourgeoisie’ due to its international trade. However, identifying the revolution with ‘Syria’ and counter-revolutionary enemies with ‘foreignness’ seems surprisingly Manichean for such a sophisticated thinker (and an ironic inversion of the Assadist propaganda that all rebels are foreign agents). Even if international forces exploit divisions in Syrian society, that doesn’t mean that all enemies come from outside Syrian society. Some may also question Saleh’s position on the Kurdish national question, apparently believing that a liberated Syria should include Kurdish territory under a single nation (though recognising linguistic and cultural rights), in contrast to the secessionist position held by the Kurdish leadership.

Conversely, Saleh’s nationalism is far from an unthinking adherence; rejecting the stifling culture of the Assad regime, he calls for the development of a pluralist Republican intellectual culture. Saleh’s nationalism is more Gramscian then jingoistic, seeking the development of a new civil society, and his ‘Syria’ is aspirational. For Saleh and other Syrian revolutionaries, ‘Free Syria’ holds the promise of a unity based on common citizenship rather than Balkanised sects. This vision stands in stark contrast to the Assadist form of ‘Modernization’, which treats the Sunni majority as children to be managed for their own good, rather than democratic subjects.

The Impossible Revolution is essential reading for anyone considering social transformation in the 21st Century. It should be read along with Burning Country (reviewed here).

Prince and Politics in Reagan’s America

prince symbol

Originally published by redwedgemagazine.

Jordy Cummings is a critic, labor activist and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto.

In the face of profound social, political and economic tragedy, it has often been the case that popular musicians, out of a sense of solidarity, put out a song to capture the moment and inspire the movement. It is often the case, by virtue of historic specificity, that these songs don’t date well, their universality caught in the particularity of a given moment. There are a few songs, however, that have outlasted their origins and continue to resonate. Neil Young’s “Ohio,” Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” and, most recently, in the face of the spate of police murder of Black youth, and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Prince’s “Baltimore.”

Reminiscent of mid-period Prince and the Revolution, it combines a funkish shuffle in a minor key with vaguely country/western sounding acoustic and electric guitars. The lyrics, while angry, are more sad and resigned than anything else: “Nobody got in nobody’s way… So I guess you could say it was a good day… At least a little better than the day in Baltimore… If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.” Never an explicitly political artist, except perhaps in what he signified and his charmingly naïve “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” urging the new US president to end the Cold War, Prince nevertheless was compelled by circumstances to write a song for the moment, and it will remain relevant, even if the battle is ever won.

And it was in many ways his swan song.

The Reaper has been busy in 2016, Prince is dead at 57 years old and only recently on the road doing a well-received solo piano tour. Looking back at nearly four decades of hybridizing rock, funk and dance music, there can be no doubt that the man was a pioneer, sonically, aesthetically and as an artist who stood up and fought back against a music industry that alienated his labour. It’s damned-near impossible to think of an artist like Prince on any of these levels, as he is likely one of the last artists coming out of the guitar/bass/drums pre-1980 world to have virtually invented a new form of music. Starting out playing in funk bands, he became part of a vibrant Minneapolis music scene in the late seventies, a time in which an audience existed for both Black artists like Prince and Morris Day and white punk bands like the Replacements and Husker Du. Like Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott in Ireland, Prince never was seen as a “Black guy doing white music”, he was simply a musician in a red-hot and innovative music scene unaffected by coastal snobbery or Southern reaction.

In 1982 he put out his most ambitious record, the double vinyl 1999. Like Stevie Wonder’s 70s period, Prince played every instrument on the album. Pushing over 70 minutes, 1999 never drags at all, combining some of the great pop singles of all time with even deeper funk, harder rock and a synth sound as overworldly as anything coming from the growing synth-pop scene across the pond in the UK. With 1999 Prince took the sonic template he’d set with his first three records and set a musical and aesthetic template that would touch artists as varied as Beck, Ween, Daft Punk and Kool Keith. Like American punk rock vocalists trying to affect a British accent, a hell of a lot of rock and R&B since Prince has had vocalists affecting a Minnesota accent, the sibiliant “ts” and “s”, the extended vowels (fast, coming out as “fa-yast”). Listen to Beck’s vocal intonations, even Michael Jackson on his post-1983 work or most recently, Drake’s half-sung choruses – this is Prince-style phrasing.

Prince was now a rock star in the height of Reagan’s America, a time of renewed conformism and neoliberalized expectations about collective political projects. The dominant themes at that time, in film and in music were taking the public’s false optimism and problematizing by showing its limits. Dated as they are, films like Footloose andFlashdance were essentially about the alienation of the body by social conservatism, the first attempt at “Making America great again”, an era captured well on the FX series The Americans. Prince took some of the great songs from his live set, notably his showstopper “Purple Rain,” and with some screenwriters, developed one of the greatest music films of all time, with that title. A sort of homage to The Harder they Come with a background more of a dysfunctional lower-middle class family and Ziggy Stardust-style dreams of escape for a character known merely as “the Kid”, Purple Rain was nearly blocked by the studios, but was released and was a huge hit. The accompanying album, a soundtrack but also a fully-realized record in its own right, was shorter than 1999, and this time more band driven and guitar heavy.  It was not without subtle sonic innovations, like the eerie “When Doves Cry,” which contains no bass-instruments and uses negative space in a fashion reminiscent of the Velvet Underground.

Prince spent the rest of the 80s touring through sonic textures and making them his own, evoking the Beatles onPaisley Park with its classic singalong choruses, notably “Raspberry Beret”; adding deep funk back into the mix onParade, the best Beck album that Beck never made.  Following this was another sprawling double album’, Sign O’ the Times, in which the aforementioned political bent came to the fore once again, along with a return to a pronounced sexual ambiguity, with a number of songs sung from the point of view of a female protagonist. The references to AIDS, still spoken about in hushed tones in early 1987 accompanied angry denunciations of Reagan’s Star Wars programme and the brand-new drug, crack cocaine. Like 1999, Sign… is a long album, even longer than 1999, but it doesn’t drag and while it isn’t the most “fun’ record Prince put out, it likely stands as crowning achievement.

Prince’s followup to Sign…, The Black Album (so named as its fall 1987 release was supposed to be in a plain Black album cover/CD booklet with no credits, names or even song-listings). While there are many stories as to why it was pulled, and many more wrong-headed accounts of it as Prince’s “failed attempt to reach a black audience,” the consensus among those close to Prince is that it was recorded and written during Prince’s discovery of MDMA (Ecstasy). Prince later had a sort of “bad trip” and decided to pull the album, likely knowing it would be widely bootlegged and with the legend around it, it was “officially” released in 1994. A dark druggie/sexy record, it goes above the status of being a mere curiosity in its signification of the end of Prince’s “classic period”. The album he put out instead, LoveSexy, had some great singles, but it marked the beginning of Prince seemingly realizing he needed to grope towards a new sound. This was hinted at with his shimmering, House-influenced score for Tim Burton’sBatman reboot.

One thing that can be said about Prince in the 80s that leads us back to his song last year for Black Lives Matter. This was his sense of humility, as an artist, in particular around his main theme, that of love and sex, and the divergences and intersections between the two, the combination of intensity with matter-of-fact. As a male artist, he was certainly far from perfect, but one would be hard pressed to find celebrations of rape culture or traditional “womanizing” in his lyrics. His career of crafting mega jams about getting down while being respectful and not paternalistic and highly sexual while not being proprietary stands in stark contrast to most other performers.* Likewise, in making political statements, Prince is expository and empathic, not posing as more militant-than-thou. Nuclear war, crack, AIDS, the murder of Black youth by the pigs, these all made Prince sad.

It is sad that he died at 57, but not as sad as the world might have been had he not made it somewhat more interesting, fun, danceable and contemplative. Nothing compared 2 him.

*I owe this insight to Bryan Doherty


Film Review: This Changes Everything

this changes everything trailer

Submitted to Fightback by Maria Ramos.

Although the seriousness of global warming and climate change has been made clear through the work of scientists and environmental advocates, it’s sometimes difficult to present this message in a way that resonates with the general public. As long as modern practices of pollution and resource extraction continue unchecked, ecological harm will almost certainly get worse. The documentary film This Changes Everything aims to alert viewers to the environmental hazards inherent in our economic system and ways of going about addressing the problem.

Based upon Naomi Klein’s 2014 book of the same name, the film was directed by her husband, Avi Lewis. Instead of focusing upon one or two specific effects of corporate disregard for our natural surroundings – say, a decline in polar bear populations or increased illnesses caused by polluted water – Klein and Lewis indict our entire neoliberal capitalist system as a whole. An ethos of viewing the earth as something to be ruthlessly exploited has caused unsustainable growth and ecological degradation. Most of the negative consequences hit hardest in poor communities, whose residents lack the financial resources and political clout to protect their rights through normal channels.

Even though certain pollution-reducing initiatives and public policy goals have been spearheaded by the wealthy and elite, the filmmakers show how these efforts have either been illusory from the start or have been derailed. The cap-and-trade system in particular is rife with abuse, often amounting to little more than the rich trading emissions among themselves with no overall reductions in greenhouse gas pollution. Corporate titans often parrot lines about green energy and clean business practices, but the reality is that any gains thereby achieved are often negated by the wholesale expansions of production in a quest for market share and profits.

This Changes Everything shows the stories of assorted individuals and communities around the world who have been adversely affected by the activities of big enterprises. This allows the documentary to explore the human side of climate change, which is often neglected in other similar works that focus their attention on lakes, rivers and animals. Unfortunately, the broad scope of the film combined with its running time of only 90 minutes mean that the final results feel a bit scatter-shot and disjointed. It’s difficult for the viewer to parse how the various stories relate to each other and to the overall theme of the movie.

Instead of just concerning itself with the damage caused by multinational businesses, This Changes Everything shows us how to fight back against these soulless entities. Through grassroots campaigns directed by the very people whose livelihoods or homes are threatened, depredations against Mother Nature can be halted. People in India have physically blocked the construction of fossil-fuel-burning plants while ranchers in Montana are defending themselves and their homes against a polluting oil company. Meanwhile, municipalities in Germany are purchasing their electric grids back from private companies. Because large national and international bodies are likely to be co-opted or have their missions subtly shift and morph over time, it is these small-scale, locally directed, authentic movements that are most promising.

According to a report from Direct Energy, more than 30 gigatonnes of CO2 were released from the combustion of fossil fuels in 2010, up from less than 15 gigatonnes in 1970. Clearly we must halt and reverse this trend if we would leave succeeding generations a healthy, comfortable planet to live upon.

This Changes Everything and other documentaries are important in order to drum up support among ordinary people for combating dangers that could make the Earth uninhabitable or at least a poor place to live. While the scientific case for the reality of climate change is incredibly strong, we need public outreach and entertainment as a way of delivering the news in a way that the average person can easily access. After all, climate change deniers spend a lot of money spreading their version of the facts, so it’s only fair that we raise our voices against them in whatever media are available.

See also

Book Review: The FIRE Economy (Jane Kelsey)

UNDP Ms. Helen Clark meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key

Kelsey underlines the continuity between Labour and National governments over the last 30 years

By Ian Anderson, Fightback (Aotearoa / New Zealand).

Professor Jane Kelsey has made headlines in recent months combating the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), a secretive trade agreement that seeks to constitutionally embed neoliberalism. Her latest book, The FIRE Economy: New Zealand’s Reckoning, is a welcome explanation of the political-economic history that has led us to this point.

Before proceeding, it may be necessary to define some key terms. Neoliberalism refers to a certain organisation of capitalism, a certain way of responding to capitalist crisis, a certain configuration of the capitalist state, that has predominated for the last 30 years. Marxist geographer David Harvey has defined neoliberalism as a form of “accumulation by dispossession,” particularly privatisation of public assets. Kelsey draws on Marxist sociologist John Bellamy Foster’s characterisation of financialisation as the “shift in the centre of gravity in the capitalist economy” from industrial production to finance: FIRE refers to Finance, Insurance and Real Estate, the industries that have risen to prominence in this financialised regime. Kelsey notes that neoliberalism and financialisation are “analytically distinct but organically inseparable” – we might also say that financialisation is a key plank of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a reconfiguration of the relationship between labour, capital and the state: while Kelsey does not focus on this aspect, neoliberal attacks used state machinery to gut the power of organised labour.

Kelsey rigorously documents the institutional embedding of neoliberalism in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Neoliberal theorists knew that their project was potentially unpopular, voicing concerns about the “commitment problem,” “political slippage” and “despotic democracy” – the horrifying thought that elections, or popular pressure, might lead to future governments abandoning neoliberalism. The Reserve Bank, and other regulatory mechanisms, are an undemocratic form of “economic constitutionalism,” seeking to constrain the economic capacities of future governments – limiting monetary policy to setting interest rates, and subordinating fiscal policy to monetary policy. Alternative economic goals, such as full employment or raising incomes, are subordinated to price stability. While many critics of the TPPA present it as a departure from free trade, Kelsey clarifies that it’s the same “economic constitutionalism” on an international scale – binding future governments to the current course, giving multinational corporations the ability to sue for any reforms that impact their investments. Against those who contend the neoliberal era has come to an end, Kelsey underlines how structural reforms are institutionally embedded. Kelsey is clear about the continuity between Labour and National governments since 1984:

“While the decade of Labour-led government in New Zealand from 1999 softened the raw edges of Rogernomics, the government’s modernisation actually served to embed neoliberalism more deeply.”

Kelsey does suggest that the international neoliberal consensus has begun to fracture in the wake of the global financial crisis (GFC), although Aotearoa / New Zealand remains largely “cocooned” from these debates. State interventions in favour of the finance sector have been described as ‘Keynesian,’ or even ‘socialism for the rich.’ David Harvey observed even before the GFC that while neoliberal theory should warn ‘Lender, beware’, the practice is closer to ‘Borrower, beware.’ However, neoliberalism is a class project more than a theoretical project. Kelsey underlines how partial departures from orthodoxy only go far enough to protect the orthodoxy – usually injecting capital, then getting back to business-as-usual. Kelsey offers an unusually level-headed account of Iceland’s response to the crisis, which has been alternately ignored or overhyped. Iceland’s IMF-supported response to the GFC, particularly their use of capital controls, was the least orthodox:

“[The IMF rescue package] had three pillars: first, stabilising the currency using interest rates and capital controls to prevent capital from fleeing: second, restructuring the banking system; and third, making gradual cuts to public spending.”

This temporary departure from orthodoxy was not wholesale, and the Right has regained power in the ensuing period. Kelsey argues that instead of a piecemeal approach, those opposing neoliberalism must take a systemic approach – although she is officially agnostic about whether to overthrow capitalism or just the neoliberal regime.

Kelsey’s analysis does have some weaknesses, particularly concerning the nation-state and the ‘productive economy.’ Early in the book, Kelsey briefly references “people with real jobs making real products,” a somewhat idealised notion of capitalist industry. The book focuses explicitly on finance capital, largely leaving these “real” industries out of the equation. Kelsey acknowledges this limitation in her conclusion:

“Although realignments in the material economy are not the focus of this book, it is essential to recognise that they are what will drive any transformation.”

This gesture towards materialism elides a key point: ‘real jobs,’ the labour central to maintaining any social system, are exploitative under capitalism. Kelsey focuses on the ‘superstructure,’ the political-ideological structure which stabilises capitalism, and rightly emphasises the importance of developing a new hegemony (referencing Antonio Gramsci). However, this ideological project cannot let productive capital off the hook with a distinction between a “real” and a “fake” economy. New Zealand-owned companies Talley’s and Fonterra, which produce “real” products, are just as craven as any finance company.

Although often portrayed as purely parasitic, banking and finance are also necessary to capitalism. Lenders advance the initial capital needed for production (and consumption, particularly in a low-wage economy). Further, the incentives to gouge interest and to ‘gamble’ are structural, as banks and investors must make a profit. States can employ stabilising measures, but these are only stop-gaps allowed when affordable: as Kelsey herself acknowledges, we cannot simply turn the clock back to the post-WWII boom. The tendency towards crisis is systemic. In other words, the volatility Kelsey describes is not only unacceptable, it’s also necessary to capitalism. No national regulatory regime can defeat this beast – only a movement that recognises the class struggle is international on both sides, and that democracy rests with organised communities, not the state.

Despite these caveats, The FIRE Economy is an important book for anyone figuring out how we got into this mess. With a housing crisis looming on the horizon, understanding how we got here will be necessary to finding a way out.

Book Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate


by Naomi Klein: Simon & Schuster, 2014

Review by Daphne Lawless (Fightback Auckland / Tāmaki Makarau)

It’s quite depressing to note how long the facts have been out there that capitalism is – literally and figuratively – eating up the only planet we have. Scientists were telling US President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that the emissions of industrial civilisation could dangerously heat the planet, a “greenhouse effect” which NASA scientist James Hansen made a household word with his testimony to the US Congress in 1988.

But even at that stage, it became clear that the mega-corporates who were then beginning the process of neoliberal globalization did not see this as a priority. British comedian Ben Elton’s novel Stark, which came out in the previous year, envisaged the mega-rich building a spaceship to abandon a doomed planet. Almost 30 years later, all that has happened is that the question has become more urgent, as shown in the latest book by Canadian activist Naomi Klein.

Klein presents her book as an expose of:

“the power and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented [technological solutions to climate problems] from taking hold on anything close to the scale required… a shift that challenges not only capitalism, but also the building blocks of materialism that preceded modern capitalism”.

The central argument of Klein’s book is not only that climate change is an existential crisis for human civilisation, but that it is also the key link for a new movement which can challenge the era of neoliberal globalized capitalism. She argues that, since the end of the slave trade, all subsequent social movements have been defused by granting legal and social demands for equality while increasing economic equality:

“These economic demands… represent nothing less than the unfinished business of the most powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries…Climate change does not need some shiny new movement… where others failed; climate change can be the force… that will bring together all of these still living movements”.

This review will argue that, in this latest book, Klein’s main contribution to the movement is to show clearly that the struggle for social justice and post-capitalist economics goes hand-in-glove with not only the “eco-socialist” programme for a post-extractive economics, but the defence of the traditional rights and resources of Indigenous people. She even touches on feminist issues, given Western culture’s history of using metaphors for technological process which suggest the forcible violation of “Mother Nature”.

Sacrifice zones

One of Klein’s strengths is in coining pithy phrases to encapsulate vital issues for the movement to grasp. Her previous books have given us phrases like “disaster capitalism” and “the shock doctrine”; this book gives us not only “extreme extraction”, but “sacrifice zones”. The latter are “places that, to their extractors, somehow don’t count and can therefore be poisoned, drained or otherwise destroyed” – landscapes sacrificed to big energy projects like hydro-dams or open-cast mines, for example.

Crucially, the lifeworlds of ethnic minorities or Indigenous people have also been considered “sacrifice zones” for big energy. We are not only talking about outright genocide and theft to grab Indigenous lands and fisheries, but slower processes of cultural genocide or even literal poisoning – such as the Aamjiwnaang people of southern Canada, who suffered a catastrophic drop in the number of boy babies after petrochemical plants opened on their ancestral land. Though Klein doesn’t go into it, you could argue that the same is true of all working-class communities under capitalism, whose lives are valued less. To give an example, the working-class suburb of Newton in Auckland was dug up almost entirely to build the Central Motorway Junction, its inhabitants exiled to the southern fringe of the urban area.

Klein effectively links “extractivism” – “a non-reciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth” – to the exploitation of not only natural resources, but the exploitation, oppression, enslavement and genocide of various kinds of human being. As she puts it in relation to the Chinese “economic miracle”:

“The same logic that is willing to work labourers to the bone for pennies a day will burn mountains of dirty coal while spending next to nothing on pollution controls… our own corporations… with full participation from China’s autocratic rulers, turned the Pearl River Delta into their carbon-spewing Special Economic Zone, with the goods going straight onto container ships headed for our superstores.”

She gives us the cautionary tale of Nauru, the Pacific island which almost literally ate itself to death. 90% of the island was dug up for its phosphate deposits, sold as fertilizer to rich countries. The country drove fast cars and ate imported food for decades. When the phosphate ran out, leaving a mostly uninhabitable island, an increasingly panicked government lost most of the resource profits in a real estate scam, set itself up as a tax haven for money laundering, and finally rented itself out as a prison camp for Australia’s barbaric refugee policy.

The main legacy of Nauru’s resource wealth is the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes in the world. As Klein notes, this is a timely warning for left-wing governments in South America such as Venezuela or Bolivia, which are still reliant on fossil fuels. Continuing these exploitative, extractive relationships will both engender corruption in the short term and leave these countries without a long-term future. It also shows the obsolescence of older “productivist” forms of socialist thought which also dreamed of Promethean dominance of nature and electricity too cheap to meter.

Klein also clearly exposes the fraudulent nature of the “emissions trading schemes”, which serve mainly as a means by which Western countries can “export” their emissions to China or India; enriching those countries’ ruling elites while turning the poorer areas into sacrifice zones. The crucial issue is that on these markets, emissions are counted where they are produced and not where the goods produced are consumed, and international transport emissions are not counted at all. This lets Western consumerism off the hook for both the products it buys from polluting industry in the developing countries, and for the coal and other fossil fuels it exports there.

The global economy is increasingly a unity, as is global ecology; pollution and resource exhaustion respect borders no more than capital does. Klein ruthlessly exposes “emissions trading” as a shell-game where responsibility for emissions is simply passed between different capitalist states, and which is rife with fraud; such as “carbon offsets” which means that emissions don’t go down at all, or oil companies in the Nigerian delta demanding carbon credits for not pointlessly burning natural gas.

Denial and dimming the sun

Klein goes into the belly of the beast, not only to show the impact of global climate change on ordinary people’s lives, but to show the extent that the ruling classes are engaged in deep-down denial of it. She explains:

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism… The actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe… are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

In her first chapter, she braves a conference of the climate-denying Heartland Institute, where “talking points [are] tested [which] will jam the comment sections beneath every article and YouTube video”. In an echo of Cameron Slater’s “Dirty Politics”, Klein explains the climate deniers’ message not to just twist the argument, but to destroy discourse altogether:

“the goal was never just to spread doubt but to spread fear – to send a clear message that saying anything at all about climate change was a sure-fire way to find your inbox and comment threads jammed with a toxic strain of vitriol.”

The Heartlanders, Klein argues, “did not become engaged with climate issues because they found flaws in the scientific facts. Rather, they became alarmed about the economic and political implications of those facts and set out to disprove them.” Paradoxically, Klein argues, the Heartlanders are precisely right in their linking of climate disaster with capitalist freedom itself – whereas there the mainstream green movement, with its neither left-nor-right slogan, has been in denial.

Another form of denial is “magical thinking” – admitting that climate change is a real problem, but believing in technological fixes which will make everything okay without requiring any sacrifice from the privileged. A conference on “geoengineering” at Chicherly Hall in England has rich donors such as Bill Gates listening intently as excited scientists talk up their projects for “safe” nuclear power, simulated volcanic explosions or giant mirrors to literally block out the sun.

This may sound like a plot line from an old Simpsons episode – or, when they start talking about orbital colonies or Martian terraforming, the plotline of Elton’s Stark come to life. But it proves that fiction, if anything, underestimates the depravity of the global ruling class, and their irrational belief that “inconvenient truths” such as climate change can be simply ignored out of existence. As Klein puts it:

“It is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the time of the purges as it is of libertarian climate deniers today…For the fossil fuel companies and their paid champions, anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempting to regulate the sun.”

Klein points out again and again that it is the neoliberal free trade agenda – and even capitalism’s logic of endless growth itself, which predates the neoliberal/globalized era – which is simply incompatible with the kind of serious action which is now necessary. There is no argument against state intervention in the economy if it is a question of the very habitability of the planet, which runs counter to 40 years of neoliberal reforms. And so the corporate denialists, according to Klein, want:

“not action to prevent climate chaos but rather policies that would safeguard or even increase their profits no matter the weather… Their dominance-based worldview provides them with the intellectual tools to write off huge swathes of humanity, and indeed, to rationalise profiting from the meltdown.”

Even when individual billionaires are convinced by the case for climate action – such as Richard Branson, who made a big deal out of “Gaia Capitalism” – when they come up against the logic of the market and profit maximisation, these ideals are put aside as too difficult. Branson offered a $25 million prize to anyone who could develop sustainable sources of jet fuel; but he never considered for a moment that actually cutting back the expansion of Virgin Air’s services might be an option.

Big Green

It’s not just the big corporates in denial. Our habit of making black humour about impending signs of the apocalypse, Klein argues, is another “way of looking away”, as is a kind of defensive misanthropy:

“Somewhere within each of us dwells a belief in [neoliberalism]’s– that we are nothing but selfish, greedy, self-gratification machines… convinc[ing] us that we are not just incapable of self-preservation but fundamentally not worth saving.”

Another is the middle-class urban liberal lifestyle option:

“Meditate and shop at farmer’s markets and stop driving – but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable… many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.”

Klein is bitingly precise that “dropping out and planting vegetables is not an option for this generation. The fossil fuels runaway train is coming for us one way or another.”

Other reviewers have suggested that This Changes Everything is not going to win any new converts to the climate movement. Klein is upfront that she blames 30 years of inaction in large part on the mainstream of the climate movement itself, and its attempts to disguise the essential conflict between capitalist economics and climate science. Her real ideological battle is against what she calls “Big Green” – the kind of people who surrendered to the neoliberal ideological offensive, who argue that “market logic and ecological limits” can be reconciled, who wish to “coddle conservatives” by appealing to patriotism or big-ticket technological solutions. These people, she suggests, do not realise the

“direct and compelling relationship between the dominance of the values that are intimately tied to triumphant capitalism and … anti-environment views and behaviours”.

One biting section of her book discusses the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of the biggest milestones in the early neoliberal era. She points out that something like 80% of the US environmental movement of the time was won over to support this agreement, being fobbed off with toothless side-agreements. This may be one of the reasons why “Big Green” prefers not to draw attention to its complicity setting up the very neoliberal regime which allows big powers to sabotage one another’s renewable energy schemes by appealing to the various trade courts. Another may be that Al Gore, now among the biggest players in Big Green, was the US Vice-President who presided over NAFTA’s enactment.

Most shockingly, Big Green goes along with the logic of “sacrifice zones” (and thus lesser classes of human being) by supporting the alienation of Indigenous lands to create “carbon sinks” from which Indigenous people’s traditional activities are excluded. Klein describes these “green human rights abuses” as “a cost-benefit analysis that it’s easier to cordon off a forest inhabited by politically weak people in a poor country than to stop politically powerful corporate emitters in rich countries.” It’s no coincidence that the dimming-the-sun projects of the geo-engineers would probably cause massive droughts in Africa and southern India, to save the Global North’s climate.

Klein’s argument that “less consumption”, rather than simply “green consumption” – reversing the consumption boom of the 1980s provoked by the first wave of neoliberal globalisation – is simply necessary is, therefore, also completely counter to the logic of the market economy. The Values Party, New Zealand’s pioneering green party of the 1970s, called for Zero Economic Growth; but this would mean nothing but recession and misery for ordinary people under a capitalist economy. Klein shows that the only time that emissions have ever gone down under industrial capitalism is during severe recessions; even the massive collapse of the post-Stalinist economies only brought emissions down by 5%, less than the 8% which science suggests we need year on year even to slow global warming down.

But still our rulers appear to have learned nothing, with the US having made sure that even lip service to climate realities was taken out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Klein convincingly makes the case that as long as market liberalism is the consensus of both Big Green and the globe’s power élites, the necessary action is simply inconceivable. As she herself points out: “when climate deniers argue that global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth, it’s not (only) because they are paranoid. It’s because they’ve been paying attention.”

Indigenous lead the way

Klein gives a great account of what must happen to protect a future for human civilisation – selective degrowth; reversing privatisation of electricity and water; an expansion of public, non-profit and caregiving economies; a shift from industrial agriculture to “agroecology” worldwide; and an end to “shitty jobs” made possible by a Universal Basic Income. But can we get there from here?

Part of her answer is found in the chapters she devotes to the pivotal role played by Indigenous peoples in climate struggle. She explains how – particularly in North and South America – Indigenous people have been spurred into combatting “extreme extraction” (open cast mining, fracking, new coal ports) by the imperatives of defending their traditional lands and fisheries. One example of this happening in Aotearoa/New Zealand has been the opposition by Northland Māori to the Norwegian state-owned oil company, Statoil, exploring the Cape Reinga basin.

This is made all the more vital by the fact that, once fossil fuels get a foothold in a particular area, they wreck the local lifeworld to the point where other ways of living become impossible. Areas based on fossil fuel economies, as Klein puts it, are “the ultimate in rootlessness” – Wild West-type situations, like the mining industry in Australia, where people only go to earn enough money to get out of there, and whose hyper-masculine culture encourages a massive sex-work industry.

Crucially, she also argues that globalization has meant that the entire planet has become a “sacrifice zone”. Fracking, for example, has spread to the rich countries of Western Europe. Significantly, when previously privileged communities find the lifeworlds threatened by extractivism, they too can rise in revolt, and even stand in solidarity with the oppressed. For example, when the Mi’kmaq people of eastern Canada first stood up for their historic fisheries 15 years ago, there was a huge racist backlash among white fishermen. But now, Mi’kmaq and white people stand together against Texan companies attempting to frack their water sources.

Similarly, when frackers came to the south of France, whose inhabitants prize themselves on their climate and the individuality and uniqueness of their local food products, the resulting outcry managed to have fracking banned in the entire country. And the privileged people of Auckland’s inner-eastern suburbs were able to stop the Eastern Motorway project of 2004 (and unseat right-wing mayor John Banks) where the people of Newton failed.

Klein has the essential insight that the climate struggle is a class struggle, as shown in her analysis of Heartland Institute propaganda:

“Even climate action at home looks suspiciously like socialism to them; all the calls for high-density affordable housing and brand-new public transit are obviously just ways to give backdoor subsidies to the undeserving poor.”

Unfortunately, she doesn’t expand on the question of how exactly the “undeserving poor” who don’t happen to be living on top of carbon bombs, or in picturesque places which might gain the sympathy of the privileged classes, can fight back.

Bad timing?

Klein argues that the climate movement suffered from “bad timing” – that it was unfortunate that climate change became an issue at the same time as the fall of the USSR and its satellite states. Klein argues that “right wing ideologues in Washington seized on this moment of global flux to crush all political competition”. Her argument seems to be that the struggle has to be an ideological one above all. She argues repeatedly for the decisive role of “right-wing think-tanks”, first in establishing the overwhelming neoliberal consensus of the 1990s, and since then in defending it against the urgent needs of the planet’s climate.

But neoliberalism – with its “Three Pillars” that Klein lists of privatisation, deregulation and low taxes – wasn’t simply a policy choice. It was a policy response to restore capitalist profits after the 1970s oil crisis. Crucially, the main reason the USSR fell (despite its even more extreme despoliation of the environment) was because the bureaucratic Stalinist system had no similar way to cut costs and increase consumption of its products. China, however, is proof that Stalinist bureaucratic authoritarianism works well with neoliberal, consumerist market economics.

Given that neoliberalism won because it was useful to the interests of the capitalist classes, the reason it still exists – and still strangles the climate movement – is that it continues to be useful to our rulers. Simply put, the right-wing think-tanks like the Heartland Institute which Klein identifies as the bogeypersons poisoning the “meme pool” are tools of class interest.

This ties in, interestingly, with the recent movement in Aotearoa/NZ to create a “left-wing think tank”. But an ideological struggle in isolation is doomed to failure; even a political one will be easily side-tracked. At the basis of ideological and political struggle has to be a basis in a new economic power – and where will that come from? The growing importance of the developing world might be part of this, particularly in the sense of challenging the stranglehold of various trade agreements, and demands for reparation for the “climate debt” of the Global North.

Klein is at her most convincing when she talks about the power of indigenous people protecting their treaty rights, as “many of the planet’s largest and most dangerous unexploded carbon bombs lie beneath lands and waters to which Indigenous peoples have legitimate legal claims”. She’s absolutely right that white radicals who encourage Indigenous people to resist the temptations of selling out their lands and fisheries to fossil-fuel corporates must suggest and even create feasible economic alternatives by which those peoples can improve their lot in life.

But what counter-power and alternative economy is available to the urban working masses? The last paragraph in her book promotes Greece’s SYRIZA party as a source of hope, after the disappointment of the Obama administration. But just like Obama, but when it gained power, SYRIZA quickly buckled under to the demands of finance capital, since there was no other alternative available within “the system”.


This Changes Everything makes it clear that the titans of the global economy are not only stunningly uninterested in the supposedly global issue of ecological sustainability, but are gambling that when the disaster hits, it won’t hit them: “Those involved feel free to engage in these high-stakes gambles because they believe that they and theirs will be protected from the ravages in question, at least for another generation or so.” Klein’s no-holds-barred exposé shows that Ben Elton’s vision of the mega-rich abandoning the planet (and the majority of its people) to its fate is all too plausible.

Her precise process for building an ideological, cultural and political movement which can overcome global capitalism and save the ecology can be critiqued as somewhat incomplete – concentrating on the Indigenous people and developing nations of the periphery, rather than the working masses of the urban core. But her clarity that climate change is not the only issue for the social issue, but the key issue which opens the door to all the other issues, is absolutely vital.

Particularly in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the need for the tauiwi social justice movements to take Māori struggles and Māori ways of knowing seriously is vitally urgent. Klein shows that there is no socialist or post-capitalist future which is not ecologically sustainable and which does not have indigenous struggle at its heart. The alternative is “climate-fuelled disaster capitalism”. We need to build a future which is not only resilient, but regenerative:

“Resilience – though certainly one of nature’s gifts, is a passive process, implying the ability to absorb blows and get back up. Regeneration, on the other hand, is active.”

Review: Catching Fire (movie)

Catching Fire

By Wei Sun (Fightback, Christchurch).

The second movie of The Hunger Games trilogy—Catching Fire, based on Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novels, officially started at the cinemas in November 2013. As a sequel to the first movie The Hunger Games, the story of Katniss Everdeen and the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem continues; and as in the previous movie, the kids from 12 districts selected by Capitol are being sent to the wild to fight against each other to death.

Catching Fire should possibly cause more concern to the far-right US commentators, after they targeted venom at a few ‘Marxist’ films such as The Muppets and The Lorax. At the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss temporarily loses her consciousness due to the massive explosion destroying the arena. Therefore, the 75th Hunger Games is forced to end earlier than it is originally planned by Capitol. When she wakes up, her sorrow turns into anger and determination in no time.

One major difference between the first and second movie is that in Catching Fire, the main characters—Katniss and Peeta from District Twelve—are getting more rebellious rather than being scared and depressed. The desire to end the oppression of Capitol keeps growing stronger throughout the movie. Katniss chooses to fight back against Capitol in the end, which is completely different to the first movie where she and Peeta attempted suicide to prevent Capitol from having only one victor for the 74th Hunger Games.

Very similar to our society, people are being divided into ‘districts’ that are forced to fight against each other to survive. A tyrannical dictatorship rules, and also ensures to enforce the brutal Hunger Games annually to make submissions to the state. The Hunger Games also act to distract the working-class from the daily grinding struggle.

Class politics is a major factor of The Hunger Games trilogy. While the ruling class in Capitol are enjoying all the luxuries, the poor and powerless class are being watched for the rich-class’s entertainment, struggling from poverty and having to fight completely unwillingly against one another to survive with the constant high risk of losing their lives.

Donald Sutherland, who plays the head of state President Snow, has said that he only plays this role to inspire young people to start a revolution and fight back, because the rich class need the annual Hunger Games to continue to make the state complete. And because class society is very fragile; the poor who are fighting back against the upper class nearly destroy Capitol in the end, indicating that the rebellion continues without doubt in the last movie Mockingjay.

Like the way capitalism oppresses the working-class in real life, Katniss is forced to wear a wedding dress. However, the white wedding dress burns and becomes a black dress with wings like a mockingjay when Katniss is asked to stand up and turn around to show all the audience her ‘magic trick’. Would this be a symbol that the revolution is about to start? According to the third book of the trilogy, the strength of the working-class is much bigger than what Capitol expects, and the fragile system of the state definitely fails eventually.

The movement based on the strength of the working-class clearly does not only exist in fictional worlds. The larger the upper-class gets, the smaller we get, and the easier the upper-class will oppress us. It is necessary for us to learn the theme of The Hunger Games—solidarity of the oppressed class to fight against the exploiters.

See also

Review: Five Broken Cameras (Palestinian documentary)

Director Emad Burnat's son Gibreel, featured in the documentary.

Director Emad Burnat’s son Gibreel, featured in the documentary.

Directors: Emad Bernat, Guy Davidi

Distributed by: Kino Lorber
Release year: 2011
Review: Ian Anderson

Screened as part of Aotearoa/NZ’s first national Conference on Palestine, Five Broken Cameras portrays the resistance of a Palestinian village (Bil’in) to the expansion of Israel’s Separation Wall and settlements. Strictly the wall is illegal in international law, and the settlement expansions are dubious even in Israeli law however  no amount of paper resolutions will stop the advance of colonisation. Only popular resistance can slow, and ultimately stop, this monster.

The film’s narrative is structured around co-director Emad Burnat’s titular five broken cameras, home video cameras. Emad uses these cameras to capture both the resistance of his own community, and the brutality of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF)  which destroys both the hardware and the people which records them. Given the level of access the cameras have, it’s apparent that editors Guy Davidi and Véronique Lagoarde-Ségot used other footage to flesh the narrative out; five additional photographers are credited.

These cameras document an intensely personal and political story: the  story of Emad and his community in Bil’in. Focusing on this community’s experience as part of the wider Palestinian struggle, the film largely leaves macro-level political questions of statehood and the nature of Israel to the audience. Surrounded by soldiers, military vehicles and Caterpillar bulldozers, the men of this community march down to the encroaching wall each week, joined at times by international activists. At home, Emad’s wife Soraya Burnat soldiers on despite the constant threat to herself and her family. Bil’in’s resilience in the face of an expanding military machine embodies the slogan “resistance is existence.”

The film also reflects on forms of resistance. Bil’in’s resistance is largely guided by principles of non-violent civil disobedience. Palestinian youth throwing rocks pales  in comparison to the US-funded military machine which has faced them since birth. At one point, Emad’s narration reflects, “It’s hard to maintain non-violent principles when you’re surrounded by death.” After another Palestinian death, Emad’s son Gibreel asks why he does not stab an IDF soldier, and Emad responds that they would shoot him. Although taking a non-violent tactical position, this is a far cry from the liberal Western humanitarianism which moralistically treats only certain forms of resistance as legitimate.

The film was co-directed by a Palestinian (Emad Burnat) and an Israeli (Guy Davidi). Their collaboration has caused controversy, with the Israeli embassy in the US claiming it as an Israeli film, and the directors stating that it is “first and foremost a Palestinian film.” Norman Finkelstein, a critic of the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) of Israel, has criticised the BDS campaign for hypocrisy in not boycotting the film. However, the film actually does not meet the campaign’s criteria for a cultural boycott, because it did not receive direct funding from the Israeli state and Israeli co-director Guy Davidi is critical of the occupation.

In fact, this is an exemplary case of cross-cultural work to challenge colonisation and support resistance. It is not enough, but it’s well worth seeing.

Review: Marx in Soho

Written by: Howard Zinn
Preformed by: Brian Jones
Venue: University of Melbourne Student Union
Reviewed by: Joel Cosgrove

“Don’t you wonder why it is necessary to declare me dead again and again?” asks Brian Jones in his performance as Karl Marx in Marx In Soho, a part of the Marxism Conference at Melbourne University.

The premise of the play is that Marx has been granted an hour to return to earth from heaven to argue his case and clear his name against over one hundred and fifty years of confusion and bastardization of his ideas by both supporters and opponents of his ideas. The twist being that instead of returning to Soho, London, he ends up in Soho, New York. With as much reflection on the 21st century as much as the 19th century that Marx inhabited.

Sitting on the sparse (but smartly laid out) stage, Marx reflects from his desk “Is there anything more boring than reading political economy? Writing it.” And proceeds to give an exposition of his ideas and his life. Drawing on being deported across Europe stating: “It seems the police develop an international consciousness long before the working class” as he ends up in London.”

Living in poverty, in part a result of Marx’s focus on writing (apart from occasional journalism assignments the only job Marx ever had was as a rail clerk, but he wasn’t offered the job when it became apparent that his handwriting was illegible.). Jones as Marx details the struggles his family went through, the deaths of a number of his children, the anguish and pain is something felt dearly from the stage.

This is a play that on one hand has a dense yet accessible account of Marx’s politics, but the heart of the play is a personal humanizing reflection on the relationship between Marx and his wife Jenny. Jenny Marx is someone who is often left out of discussions of Marx and Engels. Yet here figuratively she takes centre stage. Jones as Marx rages at their arguments, lauds her for her piercing intellect and studious work transcribing his illegible notes and is honest about his flaws and the struggles that he put her through. A key aspect of the play that makes it so enjoyable is the strongly feminist aspect, an almost defence of the role of Jenny played, subtly but clearly critiquing what is often labeled on the internet as ‘brocialism’.

The two aspects of the play which come together so beautifully are Howard Zinn’s excellent script and Brian Jones’ consummate performance. Zinn, a prolific radical writer and educator, best know for his bestselling work A People’s History of the United States produced in 1999 what is a deep and intelligent portrayal of Marx the political theorist and Marx as an individual, that gets across a dense amount of information in a surprisingly accessible and absorbable manner. Like the best theatre (or episode of Sesame Street), it teaches and informs without the audience realizing necessarily realizing. Primarily it is funny and entertaining.

In an interview speaking about his experience performing the play, Jones had the following to say:
“The secret: Zinn has a deep respect for his audience, and they know it. You feel it instantly when you meet him. He speaks and writes not to impress, but to stimulate. He never talks down to you, never writes in language you can’t understand to make him seem smarter. Making complicated ideas clear as glass, rescuing socialism from Stalin, and, yes, giving us a vision of Karl Marx that actually makes us laugh…these are the products of Zinn’s excellent method.”

It is Brian Jones who takes Zinn’s script and completes it as a live performance. It is Jones, 25 when he first started performing the play (he has been performing it since Zinn wrote it with him in mind in 1999), an African-American who so deeply embodies the eccentricities and humanism of the German revolutionary Marx.

The audience was the perfect one for this play. Densely layered with jokes and asides about Marx, Marxism and the wider history that Marx’s ideas inhabit. You don’t need to know all these intricacies, but it definitely helped on the night!

Film Review: No

no_filmByron Clark

After touring a number of film festivals and picking up the Art Cinema award at Cannes, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s film No has arrived in New Zealand for a limited theatrical release. This is Larrain’s second film looking at Chile’s tumultuous political history; 2010’s Post Mortem was set during the 1973 military coup that overthrew leftist President Salvador Allende, inaugurating the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. No is set in 1988 and takes place during the historic referendum on whether or not Pinochet should have another 8-year term as President.

While the film is certainly one to see for fans for Latin American cinema or anyone with an interest in Chile’s history, it also provides some ideas for those active in political campaigns today.

Gael García Bernal (star of 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries) plays René, an advertising agent who is shown at the beginning of the film pitching a soft drink commercial when he is approached by an old acquaintance requesting his help on the ‘No’ campaign.
When international pressure forced the Pinochet regime to hold the referendum, each side was given 15 minutes of advertising in the middle of the night over a 27 day period. The group of left-wing parties involved in the No campaign initially wanted to show the horrors of the regime on screen; torture, disappearances and restrictions on dissent. Rene, in contrast, wanted to present an optimistic view of a post-Pinochet Chile, which appears to have more in common with his soda and microwave commercials than the opposition’s suggestions.

While the conflict between these ideas makes for one of the best dramatic scenes in the film, the final TV spots that Rene and his team come up with represent the best of both worlds, not dumbing down the politics of the situation, but presenting them in a way that is catching and memorable. For example, when a jingle writer asks Rene why he isn’t finding a rock or folk singer to write an anthem for the No campaign he replies that he isn’t looking for an anthem, he is looking for a jingle.

One of the key themes of the film is the question of how to communicate political ideas. While most advertising is indeed terrible from a creative standpoint, the nature of capitalism means that it is the industry where many creative types will end up working and the skills of those people shouldn’t be written off wholesale. Cynical leftist attitudes toward advertising, such as those presented in the Canadian magazine Adbusters, fail to acknowledge its persuasive power. To quote Australian author (and former marketing guy) Max Barry “You’re probably not persuaded by advertising. The thing is, everyone thinks that, and advertising is a $600 billion industry. Someone, somewhere is getting $600 billion worth of persuasion. “

Locally, Unite Union recognised the impact that marketing had in their 2005-2006 “SupersizeMyPay” campaign. It adopted a striking red and yellow colour scheme for all campaign materials and borrowed the McDonalds created phrase ‘Super Size’. The campaign co-opted as much as it subverted the fast food industry’s own marketing. While of course the biggest impact came from a supersized organising effort and industrial action, visibility and public awareness of the campaign was increased by the way it was branded.
No deserves the critical acclaim it has received. The danger of working on a dissenting campaign under an authoritarian regime is shown through the intimidation Rene and his colleagues find themselves in. It is also shown in the conflict between Rene and his boss, who has been enlisted to work on the ‘Yes’ campaign. A subplot about the relationship between Rene and his ex-wife gives the character depth, though this subplot is unresolved by the end of the movie.

Larrain made the interesting decision to shoot the movie on U-Matic magnetic tape, a format widely used for news broadcasts in Chile (as elsewhere) in the 1980s, rather than shooting on film or a modern digital format. This means that archival footage blends seamlessly with the fictionalised narrative and adds to the realism of the film. Of course since No is deliberately low-definition you won’t be missing out on much if you forgo the cinema screenings and watch it on DVD. Whichever way you see it though, just make sure you do.

Review: Black Faggot

black faggot

Reviewed by Ian Anderson

Black Faggot, performed in Auckland for Pride and Fringe Festival, should tour everywhere. Playwright Victor Rodgers’ examination of the “gay Samoan male experience” is timely and important. It’s also a crowd-pleasing comedy, selling out for its first season.

Direction, by Roy Ward, is spare and character-driven. Iaheto Ah Hi (Sione’s Wedding) and Beulah Koale (Shortland Street) perform in simple black outfits – with no props, no pre-recorded soundtrack, and simple lighting cues. In Auckland’s black-walled Basement Theatre, this simplicity allows the performers space to bounce a range of roles off each other, including various gay men and fa’afafine, their friends, family members, and tormentors. This two-man setup also allows for some excellent gender-bending performance, with Iaheto Ah Hi particularly relishing his portrayals of a Samoan mother and a fa’afafine artist.

Rodgers’ play is well-timed, given the recent press focus on homophobic Pasifika leaders.  According to Colmar Brunton polls, around 60% of Pasifika respondents support marriage rights, a similar amount to the general population. However, the play explores the complexity of double oppression for Pasifika queers: particularly the dominance of conservative churches (a closeted Destiny Church member prays to be straight) and the challenge of articulating an identity (a Samoan mother stumbles over whether to call her child “fa’afafine” or “gay”).

The play also acknowledges the racism faced by Pasifika queers, including in gay spaces. In an interview for GayTalk Tonight, writer Victor Rodger notes: “Race is something that always fascinates me and that is absolutely a product of growing up in Christchurch.” While Black Faggot focuses more on struggles within Pasifika communities, the play humorously highlights the corporate palagi monoculture of many gay spaces: “You know the one thing that makes me wish I was straight? The music they play in gay bars.”

Although nodding to the Civil Union and Marriage reforms, Black Faggot focuses mainly on personal relationships rather than legal reforms. The play should remind us of the importance of solidarity within communities; the importance of families supporting their fa’afafine, queer, and gender variant brethren. While some may find the slogan “it gets better,” spoken to a struggling queer kid near the end of the play, overly passive – it doesn’t “get better” until we make it better – the play reminds us that the struggle for liberation has just begun.