Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (12A)

Written and directed by Michael Moore

Since achieving international fame with his documentary examination of the U.S. gun culture (Bowling For Columbine) seven years ago, Michael Moore has gone on to look at the 'war on terror' (Fahrenheit 9/11), and the wretched for-profit American healthcare system (Sicko). Finally, the Wall Street Crash of 2008 has compelled him to stop "hacking at the branches" - to quote Henry David Thoreau - and instead begin "striking at the root" of these problems: capitalism itself.

However, Moore's blows are very much hit and miss.

As always, he succeeds on an emotional level. We see a Carolina family filming their own eviction, at the hands of seven carloads of cops. We meet a widow who was accidentally informed that her husband's employers were cashing in on his demise - they apparently took out secret 'dead peasant' life insurance on him, and raked in $1.5 million. We learn how two Pennsylvania judges received millions in kickbacks from the owners of the privatised juvenile detention system, and incarcerated children for 'offences' such as setting up a parody website. Moore clearly has deep sympathy for those who suffer under the profit system, and by default this sets him apart from almost all mass media.

Unfortunately, Moore still fails as a thinker. He offers no definition of capitalism, and muddies the waters by allowing religious figures time to label it an 'evil'. Neither does he try to explain the structural causes of the current economic crisis. Indeed his stunts - which include sealing off bank headquarters with crime scene tape - actually reduce the social problem to the level of individual behaviour, much as capitalist 'justice' does.

Most disheartening of all for the concerned viewer, Moore does not suggest any clear way out of this mess. And okay, he doesn't directly claim that the Democrats can solve anything, but at times he seems to shield Obama from reasonable criticism (for the part he played in the pre-election $700 bank bailout, for example). Late on he raises the ghost of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used the U.S.'s world dominance to save the country's elite from itself during the last great depression, but Moore certainly doesn't include that context.

These are very different times from the 1930s, and the U.S. empire is on the wane. We are in the midst of a global catastrophe which only the organised international working class can solve. For that reason, it is the brief sequences from inside the occupied Republic Windows and Doors factory which are by far the most inspiring.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rage at Number One: The Cultural Revolution Starts Here?

Something which seemed unthinkable only a few weeks ago has just happened. 'Killing In The Name', a 1992 song about police brutality and racism has beaten the X Factor and Simon Cowell to the Christmas number one. The final festive chart topper of the decade is by fiercely radical rap metal group Rage Against The Machine. It's a story that has captured the public imagination, and captivated the corporate mass media. But what is the significance - if any - of this event, and what does it say about the future of campaigning in the age when internet social networking has met deep economic recession?

When the 'campaign' began in November, many treated it as a light-hearted joke. Jon Morter (a DJ), and his wife Tracy (an astrophysics graduate turned gig photographer) apparently launched the 'Rage Against The Machine For Christmas No. 1' Facebook group to make a point about the commercialisation of pop music, and the monotony of Cowell's charges getting to number one for each of the previous four years.

"It's a rallying cry," Jon told NME.com about the choice of song. "It’s been taken on by thousands in the group as a defiance to Simon Cowell's 'music machine'. Some certainly do see it as a direct response to him personally. If that's what they take out of that song, then that's fine for them. We've nothing personal against him at all, we just do not want yet another Christmas chart-topper from that show again."

However, the 'joke' soon became serious as the week leading up to the Christmas chart came round, and Facebook users joined the group in their hundreds of thousands. By 7 pm on the Sunday, almost a million had joined the party.

So what does this all mean? First, let's take a look at the songs. In the blue corner sits Joe McElderry, winner of the X Factor, a prime time Saturday night karaoke contest/enormous focus group, the final of which was seen by eighteen million people - approaching a third of the UK population. 'His' song is 'The Climb', which was originally performed by teen superstar Miley Cyrus, in her guise as 'Hannah Montana'. That version was released just nine months ago by Walt Disney Records. A slow ballad, its lyrics are full of 'you can make it on your own' individualism, with lines about how "the struggles I'm facing" are "not breaking" the singer. It's hard to imagine a more blatantly commercial product.

In the red corner we have Rage Against The Machine, now veteran musicians whose 'bombtracks' have thrown down challenges to the powers that be ever since their 1992 debut. In the meantime they have supported radical resistance to the capitalist system, faced down police attack at the 2000 Democratic Convention, and - together with documentary maker Michael Moore and a group of fans - actually shut down the New York Stock Exchange for the day, a feat that can be seen in their video for 'Sleep Now In The Fire'. 'Killing In The Name', one of their earliest tracks, calls out "some of those who work forces", who also "burn crosses" - a reference to institutional police racism recorded in the wake of the videotaped police beating of Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots. As is now well known, it ends with the screamed refrain of "fuck you, I won't do what you tell me", a tirade which guaranteed near zero airplay, at least until recently.

It would be one thing if Sony Music - who own the Epic label that Rage are signed to - had decided to aggressively market this most unlikely of festive hits, and then hundreds of thousands had bought it. But it is the spontaneous, grassroots, and non-hierarchical nature of the 'rage4xmas' phenomenon which is arguably its most intriguing feature. Though the Morters have become unofficial mass media spokespeople for the movement, many thousands of individuals have played their own self-designated roles - whether that be through emailing requests to radio shows, rebutting online criticism (such as the Daily Telegraph's 'Rage Against the Machine v The X Factor: tragic isn't it?' article) or just persuading their friends to get involved. Typically, an individual would make a suggestion on the Facebook group, then many hundreds would instantly follow it up, overwhelming mainstream media switchboards and inboxes.

The sneering disgust and fear of the mob in the Telegraph's article typifies one pole of mainstream media response, the other being wry intrigue. While the right wing paper's TV features editor claimed that "a snowballing horde of simpletons" were propelling a "tone-deaf pretend-anarchist" to the top of the charts in a "dunderheaded pseudo-protest", the BBC was often more interested in the spectacle. The online BBC magazine even devoted a whole article to decoding the lyrics, suggesting that the explicit last section could be translated as: "Since I believe police officers and law-makers to be institutionally corrupt, I see no need to follow their instructions."

Of course, the success of the song certainly does not mean that all group members or downloaders hold such opinions. However, posters quickly developed a sense of group solidarity, often referring to each other as 'comrades' in the 'revolution'. Others described how they see Simon Cowell and the X Factor as being symbolic of the whole capitalist system, and the worship of profit at the cost of everything else. "Fuck you, I won't buy what you sell me" quickly became the group's rallying slogan. As slogans go, it's not a revolutionary one, but perhaps it does indicate inchoate disillusionment with the current set-up, and the production line X Factor world of elite winners and demoralised losers.

Rage's live performance on BBC 5 Live was censored on the 17th after the band didn't do as they were told, and swore on breakfast radio. But before the song was aired, lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha proclaimed that: "I think that it says something about the real tensions that people are experiencing all over the UK and in the United States as well, and i think that people would love to hear a song that reflects some of the tensions that they are experiencing in their daily lives."

Maybe, with no working class movement worthy of the name yet able to fight back against the recessionary ruling class onslaught, this is the initial form which anger is taking, within a generation raised to consume. Meanwhile, it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the internet - a tool given to us by advanced capitalist development - could potentially be used to resist the destruction which late capitalism necessarily brings.

Also published on the Mute magazine website.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Workers' Fightback - Czech Wildcats/Greece On Fire Again/California Fighting

Many people are getting ready to celebrate the season of 'peace on earth and good will to all men', but that doesn't mean there's any let-up in the class war. Instead, it is business as usual for 2009, with sporadic outbreaks of working class resistance meeting fierce resolve from the ruling establishment.

One group of car workers in the Czech Republic seem to have made a temporary gain, although Hyundai bosses are regrouping for a new year counter-attack. By all accounts, management have been cranking up the pressure on employees at the Nošovice factory this year, and a statement by a worker's husband on a Czech newspaper forum is surely reminiscent of what many have been feeling worldwide, as corporations and governments have turned the screw:
"The other day my wife came home, locked herself in a room and cried. When I came to her and asked what had happened, she told me little by little how things work there and what they have to endure. She’s been bottling it up inside her heroically for almost 7 months. I can’t understand how something like this is possible in our country. When I read statements of [Czech Hyundai spokesman] Petr Vaňek I feel like I’m about to vomit. Chicanery, humiliation, threats = this is where Mr Rakovský and Mr Vaněk are heading to."
On 1st December, the pressure erupted, and twenty workers left the welding shop, taking unofficial wildcat action against compulsory overtime, cuts to bonuses, and workplace harassment. The next day, staff at the nearby Hyundai subcontractor struck ever hour in solidarity. There was a much larger one hour strike on the 9th.

At the time of writing, it appears that Hyundai have abandoned the practice of compulsory overtime for the rest of the month. However, the company want to victimise those who struck on the 9th, and the whole contract will be renegotiated with union bureaucrats next month. Watch this space...

Twelve months ago, large areas of urban Greece were ablaze, as a spontaneous uprising of young people saw massive fights with police. It was touched off by the police killing of fifteen year old Alex Grigoropolous, but the movement had its roots in the desperate conditions facing many working class Greek youths. The 6th December anniversary of Alex's death saw more conflict, and massive police retaliation.

The 'conservative' government of Kostas Karamanlis did not survive the aftermath of the uprising, and was forced into an early general election. This was largely because the Greek elite did not believe his party could implement the drastic cuts needed to balance the budget in one of the economies worst hit by the economic collapse. Now 'socialist' PM George Papandréou has allowed the European Union to dictate a drastic austerity programme, which will ferociously tear into jobs, wages and conditions. Much more conflict is inevitable in the year ahead.

In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is talking tough on student resistance to his cuts agenda, and has labelled students' behaviour as "terrorism". This may be the first time the label has been applied to domestic opponents of the American ruling class since the 'war on terror' was declared in 2001. Having 'terminated' much of the California education budget, he has allowed universities to dramatically increase tuition fees, pricing many working class students out of higher education.

As has been reported previously, students have staged numerous protests and occupations. Last Friday however, up to seventy-five demonstrators are said to have surrounded Berkeley Chancellor Robert Bergenau’s mansion following a violent campus eviction, and eight were arrested for allegedly causing property damage, as well as fighting police. At least one activist disputes this version of events, but whatever the truth, Schwarzenegger denounced the attack on a rich man's property in the strongest terms, declaring: "California will not tolerate any type of terrorism against any leaders, including educators."

This provocative use of the 'T-word' has inflamed press coverage of a relatively minor incident, obscuring the reality that his policies - and those of elites around the world - are part of an unprecedented attack on working class living standards. If the beginnings of a global rebellion this year are any guide, it will not go unanswered in 2010.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Nerve 15 - 2010 Resistance Calendar

“Until the lions have their own story-tellers, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” - Nigerian proverb

When we published our Merseyside Resistance Calendar in Nerve 11, we were overwhelmed by the positive response from people who had put it on their walls, been inspired to do some research, or had just found out something new about the city they had maybe lived in all their lives. In fact, lots of people wanted more, so this is what we’re giving you in Nerve 15.

Just like last time, the calendar is full of dates commemorating times when the ‘ordinary’ people of Liverpool stood up and took action for what they believed in. Because of struggles like these, great advances in living standards were often won from the rich and powerful, advances which have been attacked over recent decades, and particularly during this catastrophic economic crisis. The calendar features pictures old and new, and we’re confident they provide a thought-provoking collection which is a cut above the ‘business as usual’ calendars available elsewhere. And of course we’ve still got all the Nerve regulars, including artist profiles, book reviews and social issues opinion pieces.

History cannot be ‘neutral’ – it is the record of opposing forces battling it out - and the historian must either side with the oppressed or a section of the oppressors. At Nerve, we’re proud to stand with the ‘ordinary’ people who just happen to make the world - and Merseyside within it - go round.

Talking of history. We have reports that the New Museum of Liverpool Life will only have a small section devoted to the role played by workers in the making of the city. This museum started life as the Labour History Museum in 1986 with donations of artefacts from far and wide, reflecting our rich culture. It will be a shame if this is not recognised.

Have a great 2010, and make some history of your own.

The full index is here. The free magazine will be available from cultural venues, libraries, cafés and News From Nowhere, Liverpool's radical and community bookshop.

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