Thursday, October 21, 2010

Workers' Fightback - French Resistance Movement Shakes Sarkozy

Yesterday, UK Chancellor George Osborne launched unprecedented social cuts, as part of the new Coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Spending was slashed by an average of 19% across all government departments, and unemployment is expected to rise by around a million as a result. That the cuts had been demanded by the same financial institutions that got a trillion pound bailout from the previous government was underscored by confident predictions that UK PLC would now keep its ‘AAA’ credit rating. Meanwhile millions of working class people in Britain and Northern Ireland are today counting the cost, and worrying about their uncertain futures.

But they need only look across the Channel for an example of determined opposition to government austerity measures. France is currently convulsed by a wave of protests, strikes, blockades and occupations, as President Nicolas Sarkozy seeks to implement two year increases in the state pension age.

One of Osborne’s announcements was that the British state pension age would go up to sixty-six, a rise of six years for women. French workers are angry about having to wait until sixty-two for their pensions, but that is just the tip of the iceberg, and merely the latest reactionary reform introduced or threatened by Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement government. While there have been large numbers at union-organised rallies, a series of rolling strikes has paralysed key industrial sectors, and occupations of oil depots have raised the prospect of bringing the whole country to a standstill.

However, over the last couple of days, Sarkozy’s government has moved to break the blockades, using a mixture of riot police and the assistance of trade union bosses. Depots in Donges, Le Mans, and La Rochelle have been attacked. Workers occupying the depot at Fos, near Marseilles, had already been evicted last Friday, 15th October, when ten busloads of riot police faced fifteen protesters left behind after the General Confederation of Labour union had called off a temporary blockade. The union’s strategy of merely symbolic occupations was confirmed by their representative in Martigues, who told the WSWS, “The aim of the blockage of the depot was not to hold it ad vitam aeternam [for all time]”.

As the WSWS report continues:

“[...]the CGT does not make the issue of the occupation of an important oil storage site a strategic question for the working class. It gives the impression of being combative, but that is not the case. In fact, the CGT general secretary, Bernard Thibault, has insisted on several occasions that he does not want to block the French economy, and that he is simply looking to renegotiate the attacks on pensions and jobs being carried out by Sarkozy.”

The pension legislation is now expected to pass through the French parliament by the start of next week, and union leaders have signalled they want to wind down the movement against Sarkozy. Like union tops around the world, the French bureaucrats have sought to manage and control the anger over the pension reforms and other issues, calling a series of demonstrations and marches, at which workers and young people have heard similar speeches time and again. However, support for the action remains high, and there is concern in French ruling circles that the anti-Sarkozy movement may have escaped the control of those who would manipulate it for their own ends.

According to the same WSWS article:

“Columnist Michel Noblecourt wrote yesterday in Le Monde: “Running out of steam is not on the program [of the demonstrations]… exiting from the crisis is difficult.” He added that union leaders had previously described the October 19 day of action as a “last gallant fight purely for purposes of honor,” before the cuts passed. However, these plans were thwarted by “radicalization,” that is, by “the unexpected mobilization of high school students and industrial action in the refineries.”

In France, Greece, South Africa, China, and now Great Britain, workers fighting back against ruling class austerity measures face the combined weight of the state, the corporations, the mainstream media and the unions. Only by taking their struggle into their own hands and uniting across oceans can they hope to overturn “savage cuts” in living standards, wherever they may occur.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (12A)

Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Allan Loeb, Stephen Schiff, Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone

"Greed - for a lack of a better word - is good." So said Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's iconic 1987 film. As he did so, he summed up the ideology promoted by the ultra-rich during the Reagan/Thatcher era. This ideology continued and expanded until the Great Crash of 2008, when the new financial aristocracy's castles were found to be built in the air, and 'the law of gravity asserted itself', to paraphrase Karl Marx. But most of them needn't have worried, because governments around the world bailed them out, and more than likely you are very concerned about your employment prospects and government services as a direct result. 'Investment banker' is now a term of abuse, and Strongbow even had an anti-banker advert on before my screening ("Ooooh, the anger dollar!", in the words of Bill Hicks).

In short, it is no exaggeration to say that the events depicted in this film - the lead-up to the Crash, the Crash itself, and the events immediately following it - are the most historically significant of the century so far. Unfortunately, as so often in the past, Stone has brought controversial moments to the big screen, but he has failed to make much sense of them.

Having done eight years for insider trading, Gekko is now out, and is rebranding himself as something of a doom-monger, warning Wall Street of the disaster coming once the subprime mortgage bubble bursts. He tells a lecture hall of students that catastrophe is inevitable, because financial speculation has become totally divorced from production of goods or useful services. The students laugh, and buy his book, but he is shouting into the void - speculators are unable to see beyond short term profit.

Meanwhile, young trader Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) has just got his first million dollar bonus cheque from fictional investment bank Keller Zabel, so he is also blind to what's coming. But Jacob wants to marry Gecko's estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), so he befriends the old stager, and taps into his advice once Keller Zabel goes belly up.

Certain scenes have emotional impact, such as when the numbers turn red and the panic sets in. Stone borrows graphics techniques from a billion 'cool' movies, so things split and slide all over the place, to reasonably good effect. Douglas and LaBeouf are excellent, with the latter showing he has a decent future in more serious roles, should he want it.

But there are major problems. The love story between Jacob and Winnie is pushed way too far into the foreground. Even as a love story, it's uninspired, but it's just damn irritating when the future - my future and yours - hangs in the balance. I found myself trying to look behind the young couple, to check if anything significant was happening.

Perhaps more importantly, Stone reduces the inevitably chaotic workings of the capitalist system to the behaviour of reckless individuals, rather than explaining them by those individuals, in their particular social setting. Gekko - and presumably through him Oliver Stone - even has a go at "everyone", indicting you and me as well as the banksters for the crisis. Apparently, we all lived beyond our means. Well yes, some of us had our means extremely curtailed over the space of a few decades, particularly by people in fancy suits. Contrary to what David Cameron says, we are not "all in this together". Despite everything in this film, the rich are still getting richer, and the poor are still getting poorer. The elastic can only be stretched so far before it snaps back.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Iron Heel

Jack London

Do you find Nineteen Eighty-Four a bit light on economics? Do you see the super-abundance of Brave New World irrelevant in this new age of austerity? Well unlike those two, you won’t see Jack London's 1908 dystopia on any school syllabus. Yes, that is partly because it doesn’t serve the ideological needs of the ruling class. Quite frankly though, it’s just not that well written. But Orwell read it, and it influenced him as he prepared to write his classic portrait of a totalitarian regime. And there are plenty of other reasons why this disjointed effort is still of interest.

I was first turned on to reading Jack London a few years back, when a friend recommended his Martin Eden – the story of a poverty-stricken labourer’s disillusioning struggle to elevate himself into the upper class by sheer hard work and determination. I had heard of his famous children’s adventures – The Call Of The Wild and White Fang, but I’d never been particularly interested in them. Since then I have been thoroughly impressed by both, plus John Barleycorn, London’s ‘alcoholic memoir’, and The People Of The Abyss, his account of life amongst the poorest of the poor.

This novel purports to be a summary of a would-be revolutionist’s memoir, written during an epic guerrilla struggle against “the oligarch” class informally known as “the Iron Heel”. The insurrectionist in question is one Avis Everhard, the widow of executed Socialist leader Ernest. In this at the very least the work is extraordinary, as it was extremely unusual for a man to write in a woman’s ‘voice’ at the time.

The first few chapters are grindingly didactic – London has the character of Ernest Everhard making long, densely philosophical speeches to assembled groups of elite capitalists, bishops and small business owners. He reveals to the capitalists the brutality of their system, and the bankruptcy of their philosophy. He upbraids the bishops for building metaphysical castles in the sky and floating away from a sober consideration of real conditions. He chastises the small businessmen for condemning profit-making when they are losers, and praising it when they are winners. In all of this, I would argue that Everhard/London are ‘correct’. Yet it is the stifling and occasionally arrogant ‘correctness’ of these passages which makes it entirely unsuitable for fiction, so London presents us with a strangled polemic. Cause of death: too much telling and not enough showing.

Importantly though, even this ‘correctness’ has definite limits. In the small business speech, London “the great intellectual hero of socialism” Karl Marx, and specifically his theory of surplus value. But whereas surplus value was Marx’s term for the value added by a labourer during a working day over and above their wage compensation, it becomes something quite different in this version. For London, apparently, ‘surplus value’ was some kind of unsolvable problem rooted in international trade, and one that would surely bring the capitalist system to its knees.

At this point, London apparently abandons materialism altogether, and the most of the rest is a chaotic and confusing mass of guerrilla warfare anecdotes, which are compellingly described in of themselves, but far too late in the book to start seriously caring about the characters, or the fate of the revolution. As the story culminates in the description of a failed Chicago coup, and in colossal slaughter, London’s materialist becomes a kind of ultra-left, idealist figure. The Everhards show absolute disdain for the great mass of society, whose supposedly unfocused rage betrays a certain fear of the mob in the author. The “savage beasts” of the lower working class were to be pitied for sure, but they were not capable of organising themselves, and were merely cattle to be herded by far-sighted leaders. In short, London was writing the vanguard theory of revolution, long before the Bolsheviks brought it to bitter fruition in Russia.

Indeed, perhaps The Iron Heel is most successful in its dismal ‘predictions’. What we know as World War One comes a year ‘early’, but Germany is correctly identified as a principal belligerent. The major theme of the novel – the rise and rule of “the oligarchy” – can be seen as a perceptive appraisal of how – under threat from a mutinous working class – the rich would dispense with the pretence of democracy and their “reply shall be couched in terms of lead”. At such a time, seeking power through elections would be pointless, even if it were desirable. London described fascism, before Mussolini and co. developed the idea and put it into practice.

So what’s the point in giving The Iron Heel a go now, more than a hundred years after it was written? After all, it’s really not a great read, and I’ve already revealed the ways in which in predicted the horrors of the twentieth century. Perhaps because the trajectory of the early twenty-first century seems to have such striking similarities to that of London’s time. A now global class of “savage beasts” is confronted with the question that was not resolved last time around. A group of oligarchs – today a financial aristocracy – is savagely attacking living standards, and gorging itself on the ever-growing profits squeezed from the rest of humanity. With a certain historical inevitability, state repression is drastically on the increase, and tensions between rival powers are coming to the surface. The iron heel of the jack boot will soon be stamping once more, and it is our generation’s task to put a stop to it, by overturning the conditions that give it motion.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Death of Bunny Munro

Nick Cave

However much he meant to – and he is quite literally on record as being an avid listener of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour – legendary Australian songwriter Nick Cave has written a novel for the feminist (or feminist ally) in all of us. Meanwhile, devotees of Cave’s music will delight at this literary outing for his “lower” Grinderman persona, and the plentiful Bad Seeds-style flourishes of purple prose.

The eponymous anti-hero is a self-styled “cocksman”, whose career flogging beauty treatments is just another way to put himself in the homes of many, many women in the Brighton area. When his abandoned and exasperated wife commits suicide (“she had a medical condition”), Bunny must take care of nine-year-old Bunny Junior. This would be difficult enough if his life wasn’t careening out of control, he wasn’t desperately trying to have sex with almost every woman he meets, and he wasn’t apparently destined for an encounter with an even more menacing horny devil.

The language use is wonderful, and Bunny’s relationship with his son is drawn with great skill and subtlety. But the particular strength of the novel is its rendering of Bunny’s thought processes, and their basis in his biology (to a small extent), his upbringing (to a larger extent), and the patriarchal onslaught of the mass media (to the maximum extent). His mind is a chaotic whirl of Kylie videos, underwear adverts, and the image oh so carefully designed for Avril Lavigne. As a result, any woman who isn’t immediately won over by Bunny’s dubious charms is clearly a “bitch” or a “rug muncher”.

Cave brilliantly portrays a society on the edge, while illustrating the crucial difference between fancying some women and believing one has an inalienable right to possess every woman. The death of the salesman is obviously flagged-up by the title, but it’s the manner of his demise that’s the most intriguing. Just when you might be forgiven for finding the central character a bit one dimensional, his ending rounds him off in fitting style.

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