Fahrenheit 11/9 review: “There are many Americas”

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By Ani White.

Why is there a water crisis in Michigan? “We don’t have the power. We don’t run the factories.”

I was worried that Michigan local Michael Moore might affirm the dominant ‘white working class’ narrative with this film. The above line, spoken by a black working class Michigan woman, abolishes that bullshit in one shot.

Moore is utterly clear that Trump was never the working class candidate. 75% of the USA didn’t vote for him, and the remaining 25% is the wealthiest slice of the electorate.

The film wisely doesn’t focus too heavily on Trump’s various daily inanities, implicitly assuming we already understand he’s evil and ridiculous. Rather, Moore asks what it is about the USA that allowed Trump to gain power. The answers: firstly a sensationalist media that Trump played like a harp from hell, secondly the electoral college, thirdly the demobilisation of the Democrat base, and fundamentally the perennial: racialised, gendered capitalism in advanced senility.

I’m not always a Moore fan – Bowling for Columbine was hilarious at age 13, Roger and Me was an important history lesson, but Fahrenheit 9/11 and Capitalism: A Love Story were politically messy and narcissistic. This film is getting bad box office, and I saw it essentially by accident, initially meaning to see Suspiria which was sold out. However, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a return to form.

Moore employs his traditional populist montage-heavy method for variously better and worse, it’s eclectic and too damn long, but overall it’s bang on target. My red heart swelled at shots of striking teachers set to marching drums. Moore’s familiarity with his home state delivers many cogent and powerful moments.

Couple of political criticisms: Moore sort of dog-whistles at 9/11 trutherism, and just to state an unpopular opinion on the left, he is too soft on the Sanders wave. Vote Democrat out of sheer desperation if you like, but it seems to me that turning the party left-wing is a fool’s errand.

That said, he conveys the deep disappointment generated by every prior Democratic president, constructing a convincing narrative of a party split. For all my many criticisms, I feel the excitement of a youthful socialist counterpublic forming, and understand the need for optimism.

Why do we need optimism? Because a racist misogynist failed businessman leads the ‘free world’, and the fascists are back.
Merry Fucking Christmas.

 

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Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Book Review)

 

murdoch exhibition

Pataka gallery exhibition by Murdoch Stephens.

By Giovanni Tiso.

The successful campaign to double the New Zealand refugee quota began with an exhibition. It opened at the Pataka gallery in Porirua, in 2013, and consisted of a collection of photographs of Afghan nationals that Murdoch Stephens had recovered at an abandoned refugee detention centre in Iran. Placed within a larger exhibition on migration, the display of black and white photographs without names or any other identifying information attached was a powerful signifier of the loss of personal and collective history that the displacement of people almost always entails.

Having become the temporary custodian of this archive – which is now housed with the Afghan Centre at Kabul University – was one of the sparks that motivated Stephens to launch his campaign and articulate the demand (‘double the quota’) which became synonymous with it. It was by no means a radical demand: it didn’t ask of the country to fundamentally alter its existing approach to refugees, but merely to expand a commitment to resettlement that was very low by international standards and had not been increased in decades. However, at a time of hardening of the borders, even such apparently modest demands can be radical in outlook and force us to look critically at our place in the world.

I thought about the collage of nameless photographs I saw at Pataka as I read Lights in the Distance, Daniel Trilling’s new book on the European response to what most of us are liable to calling ‘the refugee crisis’. Trilling suggests it might better be described as a border crisis and proceeds to illustrate a system whose principal aim is to defend Europe’s borders as opposed to protecting people’s lives. Crucially, the book delves into the extraordinarily opaque and convoluted workings of this system not by means of policy analysis and journalistic reporting but rather through the first-person accounts of actual migrants.

This approach has two distinct virtues: firstly, it makes the subject matter knowable at all, since any attempt to forensically dissect the permanent and temporary measures enacted piecemeal by European nations over the last decade would defy any writer and deter all readers; secondly, and I think more importantly, it restores the personhood of the people targeted by those measures. This has an explicitly political intent. As Trilling writes, ‘the starting point should be the migrants themselves, [whose] experiences are often treated as secondary to the question of what to do with them.’

Jamal, who fled Sudan as a teenager; Zainab, who left Iraq with her three children; Ousmane, who was born in Guinea, studied in Senegal and tried to find work in Mauritania; Caesar, who hails from southern Mali; Fatima from Syria, the Ahmeds from Afghanistan and several others meet on the pages of this book because of a thing they all have in common: having attempted to make a new life in Europe. But there are just as many things that set them apart. They all have distinct motivations, aspirations, social resources and networks of support. They all speak in a different voice. Trilling met them over the course of the years he spent covering the issue and travelling to its hot spots: the port town of Calais, Sicily, Greece, Bulgaria, Ukraine.

Often we encounter the same people in different countries and at different stages of their journey. Some of the stories end well. Others, not so well. Some others are still nowhere near a resolution of any kind. But it’s important to take note of the things they have in common.

The first one is the constant state of existential danger. People fleeing extreme poverty, war or persecution wishing to reach Europe are met first of all with the perils of the journey itself, be it as they attempt to cross the Sahara to get within sight of it, or as they sit in smugglers’ boats which are not worthy of the name – leading to thousands of drownings every year along the route from Libya to Southern Italy alone. Almost every path is potentially deadly. A visit to the migrants’ graveyard in Sidiro, Greece, bears testimony to the hundreds of people from Asia and Africa who failed to cross the Evro river to safety: some of them drowned, others froze to death during the winter months.

The danger doesn’t cease once the migrant sets foot in Europe. Trilling visits the Afghan community gravitating around Saint Panteleimon Square, in Athens, during the campaign of violence carried out by Golden Dawn. The attacks followed a chilling script:

At night, when crossing the square in small groups or alone, Afghans would be approached by a child. The child would ask them where they were from. If they said, ‘Afghanistan,’ a group of adults standing nearby would come over and assault them. Sometimes it would be kicks and punches, other times it would be a plank of wood or a broken bottle.

People without rights, without the protection of the law – often exposed, in fact, to the random brutality of the police – must constantly work to maintain a level of basic safety that the rest of us take for granted. And this is the second thing the migrants in the book have in common: save for the occasional period of confinement in a facility, camp or actual prison, they all have to spend an enormous amount of labour in order to continue to survive, to keep moving and to retain some control over their lives, whether it is by foraging for food inside of skips, re-selling state-supplied phone cards for loose change, begging, or trying to hitch a ride on the underside of a truck. This last form of work – requiring constant vigil and the ability to evade a number of protective measures – exemplifies the utter lack of both security (in a social sense) and safety (in a physical but also psychological sense) to which irregular migrants in Europe are subjected to. It takes Jamal four years to succeed in stowing himself under a truck and then onto a ferry from Patras to Venice. Having reached Calais, after months of failed attempts he finally gives up on his plan of ever reaching Britain. It takes the time of a ferry ride, if you are legally entitled.

This leads us to the third and most important shared experience of the characters in Lights in the Distance: the almost ritual erasure of identity.

The migrant who wishes to enter Europe must become undocumented in order to maximise his or her chances. If a false passport was secured, it will have to be jettisoned after use. If a temporary document was assigned, it will be destroyed before crossing into the next country, as will the SIM card in the migrant’s phone. For the policing of the borders is also a policing of identities.

The Eurodac police database allows European countries to enforce the Dublin Regulation dictating that asylum must be sought in the country where one first entered the EU. Often, however, these are also the border countries that take the longest to process applications and offer the least welfare in the interim. Thus, the migrant who plays by that particular rule and lets their point of entry be recorded on the database may be forced into homelessness while they wait indefinitely for their ‘turn’ to have their application heard. In one of the most dramatic episodes recounted in the book, one of Trilling’s interviewees tells him of how fellow Sudanese migrants camped outside Calais would attempt to burn off their prints by pressing their fingertips onto a red-hot iron – all to prevent detection by Eurodac.

Such literal acts of mutilation are the mirror of the demand placed on migrants to forget who they are, so we may forget that they exist. In what is perhaps the cruellest consequence of this demand, those who cross the border without documents expose themselves to the risk of having their death rendered anonymous and go unreported among their loved ones back home. As Trilling notes, the graves in the cemetery at Sidiro are all nameless, like the photographs in the archive found by Murdoch Stephens.

There is immense political value in allowing migrants to tell their own stories and restoring the full and often staggering complexity of their experience. Think of the prohibition for the media and NGOs to speak to the prisoners at Nauru or Manus Island, and how concealing their humanity contributes to erasing their rights. And think of the effect that a single photo had, when the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi shook the collective conscience of Western nations more than the mass drownings that preceded it.

The historical comparisons have political value, too. Lights in the Distance ends in the past tense, with the story of the author’s grandmother – a Jewish refugee who had first her Russian, then her German citizenship revoked between the two wars, thus was made twice stateless, undocumented by two different acts of government before finding fortuitous asylum in London on the eve of global disaster. It is a grim but instructive parallel, and a fitting conclusion for this important book.

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

fall-of-the-regime

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).

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.

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.

BlackFaggot