Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 5, 2008

Follow-up commentary on the Gindin-Brenner debate

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 6:52 pm

I have received a number of emails over the past few days from some of the main principals in the Gindin-Brenner debate over “crisis” that were posted to the Marxism mailing list. They were touched off by Robert Brenner’s comments on Doug Henwood’s statement on LBO-Talk that he agreed with Sam Gindin. The email is unedited. The debate in its entirety can be viewed at http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/bg020108.html.

1. Doug Henwood’s comment:

Thanks to Lou Proyect for pointing this out. There’s a multipart video of a recent discussion on capitalist crisis or not between Robert Brenner (yes) and Sam Gindin (no) at: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/bg020108.html.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m with Sam on this one.

Doug

2. From Robert Brenner: an initial response to Doug Henwood, who said that he agreed with Sam Gindin.

Dear Doug,

A friend of mine forwarded me the video and your note below from LBO Talk.

In fact, the debate at the Brecht forum, for which you have the video, is about the question of the dynamism of the US economy, not about whether we are today entering an economic crisis, as will be evident to anyone who follows the video. To see this immediately, simply take a look at Sam’s talk, which follows mine, and my initial response to Sam’s talk.

I argued at the Brecht forum, as I have for a long time, that the US economy has experienced declining economic dynamism since 1973, expressed in deteriorating economic performance in terms of virtually all of the main macro-indicators, decade by decade, business cycle by business cycle. The only exception, I argue, is the second half of the 1990s, when the US economy expanded rapidly, in part as a result of the partial but abortive recovery of profitability that took place between early 1980s and 1995 or so and especially as a result of the wealth effect of the “New Economy” equity price bubble of the years 1995-2000. In any case, in my view, however one interprets the 1990s, US economic performance in the seven years since the new business cycle at the start of 2000 put paid to any idea of renewed US economic dynamism, as it has been plainly the worst for any comparable period since 1948. The burden of my argument at the Brecht forum was that, grasping this declining economic dynamism, not least in the current business cycle, is indispensable for understanding what’s happening in the economy today.

At the Brecht forum, I distributed a set of data to support the above. Most of this is readily available in my Economics of Global Turbulence (2006) (EGT), especially p.240, Table 13.1 “Declining Economic Dynamism” and pp.282-283, Tables 15.1 thru 15.6, under the general title “The Decline of Profitability and Its Consequences,” as well as numerous graphs on the path of profitability for the private economy as a whole and for manufacturing for the US, Japan, and Germany.

Sam argued that the shift of the US economy that took place at the start of the 1980s, and to neoliberalism more generally has endowed the economy with new dynamism. I obviously deny this.

The video continues an ongoing discussion between myself and Sam and Leo Panitch. The first installment of which can be found in a collection edited by David Coates, Varieties of Capitalism, Varieties of Approaches, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), where there’s statement of position by Sam and Leo, as well as a critique of me by a student of theirs (Martijn Konings), and a response by me to both Leo and Sam and their student.

Leo and Sam have an article in NLR (n35) that appeared later, partly on the same subject, though without reference to the discussion in the Coates volume.

For the record, I certainly did at the end of my talk venture the view that, yes, we are entering into a recession, which could well be quite serious, though I didn’t get much opportunity, due to time constraints, to say why I think so. I fully stand by this proposition. It should be self-evident that predictions like this must, by nature, have a very tentative character, but I think they can be useful in checking our understandings of the economy, especially if the reasons underlying them are elucidated as clearly as possible.

But, I want to emphasize that the objective of most of my published work on the economy has been to establish the continuing reality of the long downturn into the present and to try to explain it…especially in terms of the trajectory of the profit rate. This will be self-evident even to those who follow the video, especially as I argue there, as elsewhere, that one of the distinctive, distinguishing features of the economic trajectory of the US and other advanced capitalist economies since 1973, by comparison with the period before WWII, has been precisely the avoidance of crisis/ability to avoid crisis-especially through the growth of credit underwritten in one way or another by the state-and the prevalence instead of declining economic dynamism, i.e. the long downturn.

Just to dot the i’s and cross the t’s: it’s sometimes argued against the above that the long downturn is a statistical illusion, resulting from comparing the economy post 1973 with the ostensibly exceptional long boom. However, as I argue in EGT, the long postwar boom 1950-1973 is not so exceptional, when compared to the previous long upturn 1890-1913.and that economic performance/dynamism in both these long upturns is decisively better than in the long downturn after 1973. See EGT, p.xxvii, Table 1.

For those who are interested, the complete video of the Brecht forum, which was made by graduate students from the sociology department at NYU, is directly below. The version you posted was truncated for some reason.

I’d be grateful if you could put this note on LBO talk, for purposes of clarification.

Thanks much…and Happy New Year!

Bob

3. Louis Proyect response to Robert Brenner:

Robert, you wrote:

“In fact, the debate at the Brecht forum, for which you have the video, is about the question of the dynamism of the US economy, not about whether we are today entering an economic crisis, as will be evident to anyone who follows the video.”

You also wrote:

“I argued at the Brecht forum, as I have for a long time, that the US economy has experienced declining economic dynamism since 1973, expressed in deteriorating economic performance in terms of virtually all of the main macro-indicators, decade by decade, business cycle by business cycle. The only exception, I argue, is the second half of the 1990s, when the US economy expanded rapidly, in part as a result of the partial but abortive recovery of profitability that took place between early 1980s and 1995 or so and especially as a result of the wealth effect of the ‘New Economy’ equity price bubble of the years 1995-2000.”

But it is you who are really responsible for joining the words “Robert Brenner” and “crisis” at the hip. In the November/December 1998 copy of Against the Current, you wrote an article titled “The Looming Crisis of World Capitalism“. It was not titled “The Declining Economic Dynamism of the US Economy”. Indeed, the word “crisis” appears 27 times in your article.

You refer to a crisis in this article that might “spell disaster for the world economy”, you point to lower wage growth than during the Great Depression, and compare IMF behavior to Herbert Hoover’s response to the 1929 crash. This would lead an innocent reader to believe that doom was imminent. Perhaps there is a semantic distinction that might let you off the hook here. The article concludes by stating that “it is difficult to see where the forces will be found to counter severe recession.” So maybe there is some kind of difference between a “severe recession” and a depression. I am no expert in the niceties of economic terminology so I am not qualified to answer this.

4. Robert Brenner’s response to my comments at #3:

Dear Louis,

Thanks for your note.

When I first read your comments, having virtually no memory of this article –senility fast overtaking me–I thought, well, you may very well have a point, indeed more than one point.

I would have been a bit embarrassed, but not really surprised, if I had used the term crisis carelessly at that moment and even, unintentionally, left myself open for a catastrophist interpretation. In early October 1998, roughly the time I was writing this piece–the financial economy was freezing up, and the international financial system seemed on the verge of collapse. For a good inside view of the scene at the time, and how it appeared and felt, see the opening pages of the book The Fed by the leading financial journalist Martin Meyer. Describing the subjectivity of the several thousands of bankers and central bankers and financiers and finance ministers who had just descended on Washington for a meeting of the World Bank and IMF, Meyer writes “It turned out to be an experience they will never forget as long as they live, a weekend of pure terror, as though an asteroid were descending on earth.” Meyer does not hesitate to go on to use the term crisis (and panic) to characterize the economic situation in general, and the financial meltdown in particular. So–I thought to myself –writing pretty soon after this moment–after the NY Fed had been obliged to bail out that hedge fund and Greenspan to cut interest rates outside the regular meetings of the Fed–I could easily have used the word crisis misleadingly and without sufficient thought.

(I guess I should add that, as someone who identifies himself first and foremost as from the political far left and who was here writing in ATC for a left political audience at a time of profound difficulty for the system, I would not have been surprised if I had not shown sufficient “restraint”, and let politics override science. :–))

I should say, more generally, that, the terminology of economic analysts, both Marxist and non-Marxist, on this stuff is not at all agreed upon or very precise. There’s some latitude–and differences–in how crisis, panic, even recession should be used. Unfortunately, it’s far from rocket science. So, that’s another reason I might have used the term unhelpfully.

In any case, on reading your notes, I was preparing myself for a mea culpa. But, when I actually went to the link that you kindly provided and read the text, I found, to my surprise, that there is very little of it that I would disavow (unless, of course, if I had the opportunity to rewrite it “for then,” using what we now know ensued in the short and long run). It’s a pretty fair statement of my view of things at the time. I hope I have learned a lot since then, but my current view would be a development on what’s written there.

I won’t bore you with an explication of the article, but I’d make four main points in response to your notes. .

1. I do use the term crisis, quite liberally, to characterize what was happening at the moment with respect to what might be, very loosely, called the economic peripheries–Russia, Brazil/Latin America, and above all East Asia (which was, of course, by this time, hardly a periphery in the sense of underdevelopment.) For these regions, there was truly profound economic crisis in any sense of the word you would want to use, with quite disastrous consequences for the populations and their standards of living and indeed for the ongoing functioning of those economies. There was deep, and deepening, crisis of these regions, and, especially because of the financial reverberations, it looked like this might envelope the advanced capitalist economies. So, I would stand by my use of the term crisis, multiple times, in reference to this stuff: everybody, Marxists and non-Marxists, used it in this way, and in retrospect quite correctly…although, of course, the underlying analyses of these crises, especially of the East Asian crisis, differed among themselves (in this text, I think I express my view that the analysis of much of the left–that the crisis was merely a financial one resulting from the opening of capital markets–was insufficient…but that’s another story). .

2. As you will see, I do not use the term crisis to describe what was yet happening in the US and the Advanced Capitalist Economies more generally, thus in the world economy as a whole. What I tried to say was that the deepening crisis of much of the world outside the advanced capitalist world did pose a serious threat to the US, Europe, and Japan, and thus the global system, especially because their underlying performance had been weak over the longer term, and ever weaker. I offered my account of the long downturn to explain this long term weakness and vulnerability.

3. I argued that, against the background of long term and declining growth systemwide, that the US–and thus the world economy that was so dependent upon it–was at that time facing especially serious difficulties. This was because the partial, but important, rise in the rate of profit, especially the manufacturing rate of profit, that had taken place in the US between the early 1980s and 1995/7 was in the process of reversal. The reason for this was that the forces that had driven this rise–especially increasing export competitiveness made possible by the low dollar, as well as the repression of real wage growth for a decade–were dissipating. With profitability declining, how was the US going to continue to expand and drive the world economy?

4. I concluded on, in retrospect, a too pessimistic note–the quote you adduce–because I could not really see, against that background of weak “fundamentals,” plus the apparent exhaustion of the economic policy tool box, what was going to push the US forward. The Clinton administration had rejected Keynesianism in the standard sense and turned decisively to neoliberalism, “the free market.” Its manufacturing sector faced a rising currency, plus global over-capacity more generally, exacerbated by the East Asian crisis. How was it going to go forward?

What I didn’t see then–the source of my misplaced short-term pessimism– was the huge, if temporally limited, capacity of the wealth effect of rising asset prices to provide the demand needed to underpin continuing economic expansion. The economy’s underlying problem was insufficient growth of aggregate demand, reflecting reduced profitability. But, I didn’t yet see the shift that had taken place in the Fed’s policy to stimulating the economy, pushing up demand, by way of the stoking of asset price bubbles– first in equities, then in housing. This is what came to substitute for Keynesian demand management–what I would call bubblenomics or asset price Keynesianism. It is this regime of bubblenomics that has underpinned the evolution of the global economy between 1995 and the present.

Still, management of the economy by bubbles is a very limited policy instrument. There was no recession in 1998, but there was a very sharp loss of momentum for the economy in 2000-2001 when the wealth effect of rising equity prices was reversed, when the stock market crashed. And this did issue in the recession that I had thought was coming in 1998. That recession looked to many people at the time as if it was going to be very serious, but it was, in fact, rendered very limited by Greenspan’s turn to a new bubble–the housing bubble. I can’t say that I saw that coming at the time, in 2000-2001, either. But, that bubble, too, obviously had to have a very brief half-life…and, it has. It is, in my view, the crisis of bubblenomics, as expressed in the collapse of the housing bubble and ensuing housing crisis and the related sub-prime cum banking crisis, that is the immediate source of the severe problems of the US economy today. (I don’t thank anyone would dispute the use of the term crisis in the foregoing respects),

As you may have noticed, there was a fair amount in my talk at the Brecht forum that continues this line of analysis. But, whatever the strength or weakness of this analysis, I don’t see it as crisis mongering or catastrophist. It is, rather–as I insisted in my note to Doug that I sent you–above all an attempt to grasp the long term underlying lack of dynamism, indeed declining dynamism, that has plagued the US and advanced capitalist economies more generally…and to use the understanding of that declining dynamism to frame and grasp medium term and short term developments, as well as government policy responses.

All best wishes, Robert

5. Response from Leo Panitch

Amidst what will obviously continue to be an ongoing debate – with even the appropriateness of the term “downturn” as open to questioning as the appropriateness of the term “crisis”, and with the whole point of Sam’s and my work being to theorize the role of the state rather that just treat it as a deus ex machina – let me just correct Bob [Brenner] on one misstatement here. In Sam’s and my piece in NLR 35 we do indeed make explicit reference to Brenner’s response to us in the Coates book. It appears very clearly in footnote 14 attached to the following argument on pp. 113-114, as follows:

A faltering colossus?

In any historical perspective, the notion that the power of such an empire might be eroded in the space of a few decades appears unlikely. This always made claims that the decline of American economic power was undermining US hegemony seem rather overblown. But what about today? To begin with the material basis of the empire, a few selected facts are worth noting:

- The real rate of growth of the American economy (GDP) in the twenty ‘golden years’ of 1953-73 was 3.8 per cent, while the growth of the other advanced capitalist states was considerably higher; the US rate of growth in the past two decades (1984-2004) was 3.4 per cent-not only higher than the rate of growth in all the periods before the golden age (1830-70, 1870-1913 and 1913-50), but higher than the other G7 countries in this period.[14]

[14] For the historical comparisons, see Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, Paris 2001. Growth rates: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) tables, 1950-73; 1984-2004.

A contrasting assessment of us growth performance, based on a different periodization, is offered by Robert Brenner, ‘The Capitalist Economy, 1945-2000: A Reply to Konings and Panitch and Gindin’ in Coates, Varieties of Capitalism, pp. 215-16. By making 1973-96 rather than 1984-2004 his period of comparison, Brenner includes the crisis decade of the 1970s (whereas our concern is with economic growth following the turn to neoliberalism) and leaves out the relatively high growth rates of the late 1990s and after the 2001 recession.

- US manufacturing productivity growth for 1950-73 averaged 2.5 per cent, well below that of the other advanced capitalist countries; for 1981-2004, it increased to 3.5 per cent, running ahead of all the other G7 economies. Notably, in terms of attracting investment, the rate of US manufacturing productivity growth has also run ahead of growth in labour compensation.15

- In 1981, the US spent almost as much on r&d as Japan, Germany, the UK, Italy and Canada combined; by 2000, it was spending more than the other G7 countries combined. The US share of global high-tech production (aerospace, pharmaceuticals, computers and office machinery, communication equipment, scientific instruments) was relatively steady at 32 per cent between 1980 and 2001, while that of Germany was halved (to 5 per cent) and Japan cut by about a third (to 13 per cent).16

- The volume of American exports since the 1980s has been growing faster than any of the other G7 countries: for 1987-2004, average annual export volume of the other G7 countries increased by a range of 4.5-5.8 per cent, while the US averaged 6.8 per cent.17 The sales of American corporations abroad (not included in the trade accounts) were at $3 trillion in 2002, well over double the overall exports from the us.18 The share of after-tax corporate profits relative to US GDP earned by American corporations in their domestic and international operations is currently at the highest level since 1945.19

6. Response of Patrick Bond

Aside from data, where Bob has terrific material to use against Leo/Sam/Martin in the David Coates book Approaches to Capitalism, I think there’s a bit of a semantic problem here.

If you take away ‘catastrophism’ or ‘breakdown’ or other red-flag words about economic crisis, how about considering Robert Cox’s definition, from his Production, Power and World Order (1987): ‘the economy must undergo some structural change in order to emerge from a crisis; in a cyclical downturn, the same structure contains the seeds of its own revival’.

In other words, if you need something like a countervailing logic – in my view, destruction of overaccumulated capital (on a much greater scale than simple obsolescence or wear-and-tear) – to get a capitalist system out of its stagnation, then you have a crisis. A recession is just a regular business cycle.

And then we can talk about matters such as crisis displacement (not resolution), via relative/absolute s.v. extraction, and spatial, temporal and accumulation by dispossession strategies.

But if Cox’s use of the word makes sense, then why not describe the period since the early 1970s as a crisis, insofar as sustained and extreme forms of (combined/uneven) devalorisation have visited many parts of the world, in ways that they didn’t – within economic logic – during the prior decades…

Cheers, Patrick

7. Response of Sam Gindin

Comrades,

Amongst the many issues involved in this debate, let me focus on four:

1. I do not think Bob’s graphs/tables should be dismissed, but I think they tend to an economistic view of the past quarter century. Leo and I have argued that this past period the American empire was at the center of one of the most dynamic in capitalism’s history in terms of the MAKING, DEEPENING AND PENETRATION-EXTENSION OF GLOBAL CAPITALISM.

This strikes me as self-evident in terms of the degree to which – in the economic sphere, politically, and culturally – labour and ‘the commons’ have been further commodified, the former Soviet Union and then China integrated, India brought in as a site of accumulation, the European model pushed towards the neoliberalism of a purer capitalism, Asian savings (and Middle-East oil profits) made available to the continued reproduction of America’s central global role, neoliberalism internalized by workers and by workers’ organizations, etc etc ETC. Rather than an age of decline, it is the last quarter century has been the golden age of global capitalisms.

2. Why then the alleged leaden age in terms of specific macro economic measures? Like others, I’ve argued that the 1950-73 period was exceptional (let me leave the ‘why’ aside for now). This implies it is not a valid basis for judging the subsequent period. Bob insists – on the basis of data derived from Maddison (the standard source) that 1950-73 was in fact ‘not so exceptional’ and impressive when compared to the previous long upturn 1890-1913.

It’s worth noting that Maddison himself saw 1950-73 as exceptional. In his 2001 tome ‘The World Economy: A Millenial Perspective’ he states: “The ‘golden age’, 1950-73, was by far the best in terms of growth performance. Our age, from 1973 onwards (henceforth characterized as the “neoliberal order”) has been second best. The old ‘liberal order’ 1870-1913, was third best, with marginally slower growth than our age'(p 125). He adds that in the advanced capitalist countries per capita growth in 1973-98 ‘fell well below that in the golden age, but was appreciably better than in 1870-1913′ (p 128). Part of the difference re Bob’s assertion is the exact time period chosen (Maddison uses 1870-1913, Brenner 1890-1913), but that doesn’t change the overall conclusion re world growth. Even Bob’s tables show that in Europe and Japan growth was twice as fast in the 1950-73 period than in the base Bob uses. In terms of macro performance, there can be no doubt that 1950-73 was a unique golden age for Europe and Japan. For the US, this is – as Bob says – not as clear. But we need to be careful in such long-term comparisons. The US was at a particular stage of explosive development in the narrower period of 1890-1913 with immigration playing a crucial role; measured in per capita terms, US performance in the 1950-73 period – and especially the period leading up to the mid-60s – was higher than in 1890-1913, as even Bob’s data shows.

3. So what then of Bob’s argument re steady decline since 1973 ‘by almost every macro indicator’ First, there was a clear upturn in US performance after the early 1980s. Bob admits as much but tries to negate this in a way I find confusing. He refers (in his comments below) to the ‘partial but abortive recovery of profitability that took place between the early 1980s and 1995′ and sees this as a prelude to ‘the second half of the 1990s, when the US economy expanded rapidly’. But doesn’t this indicate – in spite of the negative tone – an actual 20-year period of success in reversing the crisis? I don’t deny that the latter period did not match the mid-60s peak but ‘peaks’ can’t be the standard and that particular short peak was simply not sustainable (in some ways, it was as much a bubble as future ‘bubbles’).

Furthermore, to extend this into a steady ‘decline’ is not convincing; Bob makes, I think, too much of small variations that result from a particular periodization (eg whether going from 3.2% to 3.0% represents a significant trend). For example, the table below presents (somewhat arbitrarily) the past half-century (1957-2006) by decades and – though the latter decades are below the 60s – there is no significant continuous decline.

4. Finally, dynamic or not, capitalism does remain vulnerable to crisis. Leo and I have argued that the American state is not omnipotent but operates through other states, which means that it is dependent on the uncertain conditions of class relations within various social formations. Moreover, because finance is so central to the discipline and development of capitalism, and finance is inherently so volatile, potential crises are always on the agenda. The point, however, is that these cannot be understood in terms of a continuing crisis of the 1970s; it can only be grasped in terms of: a) how the balance of class forces has changed since the 1970s (and how this continues to change); b) the role of finance – not as a temporary stop-gap measure to postpone crises but as a permanent dimension of capitalist discipline, accumulation and restructuring; and c) the evolution of state capacities, above all led by the American state, to contain and manage crises – not to prevent them, but to limit them. In this regard, we have to recognize that the crises of the 1970s ended – for capital – with the Volcker shock and the subsequent defeat of labour and emergence of finance, and (to repeat) we must move on to analyze the present and its crises anew, on the basis of the new terrain.

Finally, as I said at the forum, I don’t see myself (or the left generally) as especially knowledgeable in figuring out whether a recession is coming. What has been interesting is that over the past fifteen years, there was no year of negative growth in the US, so a recession seems ‘due’ and would itself not be earth-shattering news. The question is whether capitalism will survive such a recession and even come out stronger for it. Absent any resistance from US workers re limiting the scope for how the American state and American capital can respond, and given that the rest of the capitalist world – including China – is also anxious to limit any such crisis in the US, I see no reason to doubt capitalism’s on-going capacity to not only stumble on but to do so in an expanding way.

January 3, 2008

Terry Jones’s “The Barbarians”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Now available from Netflix as well as viewable online, Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones’s “Barbarians” is a superlative exercise in historical revisionism. As this 2 DVD set makes abundantly clear, the real barbarians were the Romans, not the people they robbed, murdered and raped. The first disk looks at the Celts and the Goths, while the second takes up the Persians, the Goths and the Vandals. On almost all criteria associated with “civilization”, the Roman Empire comes off looking atrocious. The central point that Jones keeps hammering away as narrator and writer as he travels about Europe in pursuit of the truth is that history is written by the winners. If American and British history has a triumphalist and self-vindicating character, so does Roman history.

By correcting the record, Jones implicitly helps to undermine the imperialist mindset of today, which by no accident appropriates many of the themes of the Roman Empire. Within the walls of the civilized world (New York, London, Paris, et al), there is reason and goodness; outside that world (Baghdad, Tehran, Khartoum), there is nothing but insanity and evil. This worldview is virtually the same that the Romans put forward as an excuse for their conquests. As Jones points out, the real motivation for the conquests was the desire to control gold and other precious resources, not to “civilize”.

For those of you who were inspired by Cliff Conner’s ground-breaking “People’s History of Science,” you will likely applaud Terry Jones’s determination to set the record straight on who was the real scientific pioneer, “civilized” Rome or its “barbarian” enemies. It turns out that the real scientific breakthroughs were taking place in the Celtic territories, which ranged from Ireland to Eastern Europe, before the Roman conquest. We learn that Rome set out to colonize the Celts because they had immense supplies of gold that was extracted from the earth using advanced mining techniques that were unknown to the Romans. The Celts also created roads all across Europe that linked trading centers. While none of their cities were as large as Rome, they were every bit as “civilized”. And they certainly did not have wild animals eat people in coliseums for “entertainment”, the precursor to today’s football games.

Just like George W. Bush today, Julius Caesar launched the Gallic Wars against the Celts in the name of self-defense. Unless the Celts were stopped in Gaul, they might invade Rome. It turns out that Julius Caesar was motivated much more by the desire to resolve a long-standing problem of public debt in the Roman Empire than anything else. He even used a bogus casus belli to muster support for his invasion. He claimed that it was necessary to “rescue” the Helvetii people who were being threatened by the Celts. As masters of propaganda, the Romans clearly provided lessons in how to manipulate public opinion to Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Tony Blair and others in the modern epoch.

The Celts were also far more humane in how they treated their own citizens. One of the many renowned archaeologists interviewed by Jones shows artifacts that reveal the elevated status of women in Celtic society, who enjoyed political power and wealth of a kind unknown in Imperial Rome. The Celts also looked after children, the weak and infirm, and the elderly in a way that anticipates the modern welfare state. Meanwhile, the Romans were content to throw unwanted infants on garbage heaps.

The Persians also come across as much more enlightened, as well as superior military tacticians who repelled Roman invasions repeatedly. The Parthian Dynasty was particularly civilized as it created an Empire that rested on totally different values than Rome’s. Those who lived within its borders paid tribute, but they were never brutalized as were those subject to Roman rule. Indeed, the Parthians anticipated the Ottoman Empire in its willingness to allow political and cultural diversity to prevail. The determination of the Romans to forcibly assimilate conquered peoples is much more of a forerunner to British and American norms.

The connection to today’s world is unmistakable as Jones pointedly refers to the Parthians routing the Romans in Mesopotamia, i.e., the land that became Iraq. He also travels about modern Tehran and interviews Iranians who clearly identify with their Parthian ancestors. As military innovators second to none, the Parthians taught the Romans that they were not the master race, a lesson that perhaps the Romans of today have still not learned.

The Goths and the Vandals are probably the two “barbarian” groups that have the worst reputation in terms of ushering in the “Dark Ages”. The standard historical presentation is that after Rome was sacked in the fifth century Europe descended into a pit of superstition and depravity. It took five hundred years to recover from this abysmal state. Jones corrects the record by showing that the Huns never even entered Rome and were persuaded to turn back by Pope Leo. As for the Vandals, they simply took control of Carthage in the same period, which had been a Roman colony, and thereby denied Rome a traditional source of wealthy imports extracted by force from North Africa. Without this steady flow of resources, including grain and gold, the Empire began to shrivel and die–an obvious lesson for today.

Despite Jones’s background with Monty Python, “Barbarians” is played pretty straight except for the occasional clever barb. If he does not refer to the Roman Empire of today, it is only because he expects the clever viewer to make that connection themselves. There is no doubt, however, about what Jones thinks of the Julius Caesar of today. This was written on the eve of the invasion of Iraq:

I’m really excited by George Bush’s latest reason for bombing Iraq: he’s running out of patience. And so am I!

For some time now I’ve been really pissed off with Mr Johnson, who lives a couple of doors down the street. Well, him and Mr Patel, who runs the health food shop. They both give me queer looks, and I’m sure Mr Johnson is planning something nasty for me, but so far I haven’t been able to discover what. I’ve been round to his place a few times to see what he’s up to, but he’s got everything well hidden. That’s how devious he is.

At the end of disc one, Jones quotes the words of a Celtic general as found in the writings of Tacitus. Although Tacitus was a Roman, he was not above allowing one of the “barbarians” to make an eloquent case for his people. It includes the famous dictum: “They built a wilderness (or solitude) and call it peace”, an apt description of Iraq today.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant).

January 1, 2008

Film notes 2007, conclusion

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

These are capsule reviews of the remainder of the films that I received in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Part one is here. If they are now available in DVD rental, I will so indicate.

Best of the pack (in order of preference):

1. Savages, reviewed here.

2. Live-in Maid, reviewed here.

3. Unknown Woman (La Sconosciuta)
This film has the impact that David Cronenberg was trying to make with “Eastern Promises.” A poor Russian woman named Irina is lured into becoming a prostitute in Italy by gangsters. Eventually she becomes pregnant during an affair with a working class Italian, but the gangsters kill her lover and give the child up for adoption to a wealthy Italian couple. She then stabs her pimp, steals his money and goes on a quest to regain custody of her daughter. This involves taking a job as a maid with the couple and developing a close relationship with the 6 year old. Irina is played by Kseniya Rappoport, a Ukrainian Jew. She is just terrific. “Unknown Woman” is directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, whose best known film was “Cinema Paradiso”. Apparently he has a work-in-progress titled “Leningrad” that is described on IMDB as follows: “The historical epic depicts the siege of Leningrad by the German army during World War II. The Russians suffered terrible losses but the Communists would not give up the birthplace of the Russian revolution.”

4. Once
The quintessential date movie–just the sort of thing I tend to avoid–won me over immediately. Made on a shoestring ($150,000), it is basically a two character story with rock musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the lead roles. Hansard has been a long-time member of an Irish group called “The Frames” that has a generous selection of their songs at http://www.theframes.ie/. More recently Hansard has been recording with Irglová, a Czech singer-songwriter who moved to Dublin not too long ago.

They are in a personal as well as a musical relationship currently, which gives the film a kind of emotional resonance that compensates for their acting inexperience. Hansard plays Guy, a singer-guitarist working the streets of Dublin. One day “the girl”, played by Irglová, approaches him and tries to strike up a friendly conversation since she is a musician herself and admires his work. Burnt by a recent relationship that went sour, Guy is distrustful. He only warms up to her after hearing her perform one of her songs on a piano. Despite their attraction to each other, she hesitates because the father of her child is in Czechoslovakia and she is still committed to their marriage. The movie is directed by John Carney, a one-time member of The Frames. The movie is sustained by the couple’s performances, which are both heart-felt and true to the movie’s theme: the joy and frustrations of love. “Once” is now available in DVD.

5. The 11th Hour
A documentary on the ecological crisis narrated and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio with all the strengths and weaknesses of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. Using footage of melting glaciers, rivers ruined by fertilizer run-off, etc., DiCaprio relies on commentary from David Suzuki, Paul Hawken, Steven Hawking and others to make the case that the planet is in the “11th hour”. Unless radical measures are taken to eliminate corporate pollution, the world is doomed. Unfortunately, the radical measures considered in this film stop short of eliminating private property, which is responsible for the ecological crisis–not “greed” or any other human foible. Despite my general distaste for brat pack celebrities, I have to commend DiCaprio for his involvement with environmentalist issues, which in the final analysis challenge the capitalist system whatever the ideology of particular activists.

6. Crazy Love
A documentary that begins with a Lacan quotation: “To be an obsessional means to find oneself caught in a mechanism, in a trap increasingly demanding and endless.” “Crazy love” refers to the bizarre relationship between Burt Pugach and Linda Riss that began in the Bronx in 1959. Pugach, a successful but sleazy lawyer, spotted the good-looking and younger woman on the street one day and started dating her, even though he was married at the time. After he refuses to leave his wife, she begins dating another man. Driven into insane bouts of jealousy, Pugach hires some Black street criminals to throw lye in her face, which leaves her blind.

After beginning a long stretch at Attica, where he becomes a jailhouse lawyer and caught up in the uprising, Pugach sends love letters to Riss, which she ignores for obvious reasons. After getting out, his obsession running at full fever, he continues to pursue her. After realizing that she needs companionship, even at the hands of the man who robbed her of sight, she breaks down and marries him. They have been together for over the past 32 years. Despite the Lacan quotation, the movie is just one step up from tabloid TV and just as entertaining if your taste runs to the sensational, as mine does. “Crazy Love” is now available in DVD.

* * * * *

Middle of the Pack (These are films that I managed to watch until their conclusion. Each one has something to offer, even if only marginally so.)

1. In the Valley of Elah
I was all set to hate this film since it is directed by the dreadful Paul Haggis. Fortunately, it is redeemed by a rather good script based on a Playboy article written by Mark Boal that can be read here. Boal’s article details the effort of Lanny Davis, a former military cop, to discover the real reason for his son’s murder near an army base in New Mexico. This involves looking at post-traumatic stress that affected both his son and the other Iraq war returnees who were out drinking with him one night. As Lanny Davis, Tommy Lee Jones is very effective. The film has a somber, understated quality made even more effective by the cinematography, which really captures the cheap, sordid look of those small towns surrounding army bases. What undercuts the movie is Haggis’s insistence on superimposing a rather unnecessary “whodunit” on top of the more interesting story about a father’s loss of faith in the military system. This is typical Hollywood pandering to an audience that exists only in its imagination. “In the Valley of Elah” is now available in DVD.

2. The Rocket
A biopic about Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, a Montreal Canadiens hockey great who is a kind of combination of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. He was the first to score 50 goals in a season, an achievement roughly equivalent to hitting 60 home runs. He was also the first to speak out against anti-Francophone racism, which manifested itself in the 1940s, when his career began, as a ban on hockey players speaking their native language on the bench. Maurice Richard was a machinist in a factory when his career began and always came across to his fans as “one of them”. In 1955, Richard punched out a referee who was holding his arms while a Boston Bruins player attacked him. This led to the longest suspension in hockey history, which led in turn to a massive riot in Montreal.

On March 9, 1955, the NY Times reported that “French-Canadians regard the fiery right wing of the Canadiens as more than a man. He is a symbol of their race. The fact that he is as good as any ice hockey player who ever lived serves merely to burnish that symbol with a golden brightness.” The main drawback to “The Rocket” is its rather plodding style, which is far outweighed by its content. “The Rocket” is now available in DVD.

3. Music Within
Another plodding biopic that is redeemed by its content. The subject is Richard Pimentel, a man who lost his hearing in a mortar attack in Vietnam. After returning to civilian life and going to school at Portland State University, he became involved with disability rights after a fellow student and good friend with cerebral palsy was refused service at a pancake restaurant. Pimentel is played by Ron Livingston, who “Sex and the City” fans will remember as one of Carrie Bradshaw’s many lovers, in this case the motorcycle-driving novelist whose books didn’t sell very well. He is quite good in this film directed by first-timer Steven Sawalich, who was friends with Pimentel. I suspect that the film overstates Pimentel’s role in the disabilities rights movement, but that does not distract from its worthiness. “Music Within” is now available in DVD.

4. Operation Homecoming
A documentary about the essays and short stories written by GI’s serving in Iraq and a first cousin to “The War Tapes”, a far superior product that resulted from GI’s using donated video cameras to record their experience in the occupation. Both films end up as anti-war statements, but “Operation Homecoming” suffers from the tendency of new writers to embellish their work with “literary” effects as well as what seems like sheer embellishment in a couple of cases. The film also interviews writers who served in previous wars from Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien to WWII veteran Paul Fussell. The GI’s work has been anthologized in a Random House book of the same title. If you go to the book’s website, you discover that “Operation Homecoming is made possible by the Boeing Corporation”, just of course as the war itself was. “Operation Homecoming” is now available on DVD.

5. The Golden Compass
A movie based on Philip Pullman’s young adult novel that is in the same vein as “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “Fellowship of the Ring” and “Harry Potter”. Young girl makes an alliance with a CGI polar bear, old west cowboy-aviator and assorted other good guys in a parallel universe against an evil gang led by one Marisa Coulter, played by Nicole Kidman. Coulter seeks to amputate the “anima,” pet animals that speak English basically, that follow children around. I wasn’t quite clear on why this would be so horrible since I would hate to have a gabby chipmunk following me around all day, including the toilet.

Now it would have been more interesting if the bad guys were led by Ann Coulter. Apparently, Hollywood decided to cut out the implicitly anti-organized religion kernel of Pullman’s novel so as not to offend potential ticket buyers. Unlike Alan Moore, who denounced the Hollywoodization of “V for Vendetta,” Pullman blandly assures his readers that “In the case of an expensive film, the people who put up the money obviously deserve to have their concerns taken into consideration.” He also considers Soviet Communism to be the worst theocracy in the 20th century.

You can read the interview here. Frankly, “The Golden Compass” reminded me a lot of the misbegotten David Lynch movie “Dune” based on the Frank Herbert cult novel that an old girl-friend was obsessed with. Both movies are replete with Victorian-looking dress, architecture and machinery with too-long and tedious exposition speeches that try to jam the plot details down the audience’s throat. I only sat through to the conclusion because Nicole Kidman has this strange appeal for me. “The Golden Compass” is now available in DVD.

6. The Terror’s Advocate
A documentary on French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who is that country’s version of Ramsey Clark but even more defiant in his willingness to stand up to the warmongering pieties of people like Bernard Kouchner. Vergès, a WWII veteran, was born to a French father who was serving as a diplomat on Réunion island and a Vietnamese mother. He became a lawyer after the war and defended Djamila Bouhired, the woman who was depicted blowing up the Algiers café in Pontecorvo’s movie. They later married and had two children. Vergès, no exemplary as a human being, abandoned his family and returned to Paris, where he began practicing law after a 7 year “disappearance” and on the same basis as years past. He agreed to defend some of the imperialist world’s most hated enemies, from Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein.

He even decided to defend Klaus Barbie, but on a completely unexpected basis. Rather than trying to prove his innocence, he turned the tables on the prosecution, pointing out that Barbie did nothing different in France than they did in Algeria. One of director Barbet Schroeder’s main goals is to prove that Vergès is some kind of crypto-Nazi. Not only is the defense of Barbie held against him, there is an amalgam made with Francois Genoud, a Nazi sympathizer who financed Barbie’s defense as well as donating money to Palestinian resistance groups that Vergès was defending in court. Basically, Schroeder has made a film that is consistent with the “Islamofascism” narrative spun out by Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens and others.

What redeems this film is Vergès ample opportunity to make his own case, which is far more convincing than his detractors. In an interview with Schroeder that can be read on the film’s website, the director states that he initially saw the world like Vergès but eventually had a change of heart: “I felt very close to the Algerian cause, but shortly after independence, Ben Bella made a speech saying that, now, they were going to take care of Israel and I was shocked. At that time, I knew a lot about the Holocaust, and nothing about the Palestinian cause, and for me it was a crushing disappointment, seeing this great struggle ending up in one country’s waging war against another.” I would say that Schroeder still knows nothing about the Palestinian cause. “The Terror’s Advocate” is now available in DVD.

* * * * *

Bottom of the barrel (films that I gave up on after 10 or 15 minutes.)

1. Great World of Sound
I had heard comparisons made with the Maysles’ great documentary “Salesman” since this fictional work depicts a couple of salesmen trying to con unsuspecting Southerners and aspiring musicians in the “American Idol” mode into paying $3000 to have their first CD recorded in their boss’s studio. This is just one step above selling them bibles, as Maysles’ salesmen do. In either case, you end up with pie in the sky. The problem with “Great World of Sound” is that you really don’t care about the salesmen or their hapless victims. The entire film, or at least what I saw of it, reminded me of one of those misanthropic SNL sketches in which a superior-feeling audience is supposed to guffaw at poor people, especially those from rural or Southern areas–not my favorite kind of humor.

2. Juno
A comedy about a knocked-up teenager that has been compared to the wretched Jude Apatow movie “Knocked Up” but that critics regard as not as funny. I agree–it is not as funny. But this is like comparing Barry Manilow to Elton John. Who cares. You can have them both.

3. The Lookout
A crime melodrama about a college athlete who has brain damage from a stupid car accident that was his fault and now is working as a janitor at a bank. He is conned by thieves into participating in an inside job. I felt brain damaged after 10 minutes of this totally idiotic movie.

* * * * *

Special Category

The Diving Bell & the Butterfly
Even though I could only watch about 10 minutes of Julian Schabel’s movie, I really can’t say that it was a question of its quality that forced me to stop watching. As most of you probably know, it is based on a memoir written (or dictated) by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43 year old editor of Elle, who suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed except for his left eyelid. Using a code system worked out with his nurses and therapists, he composed the book that the movie was based on. I found it excruciatingly painful to watch since I have seen stroke victims at my mother’s nursing home, including my high school geometry teacher who could not move a muscle (he died last year.) Being a little too close to the situation and a bit anxious over my own slightly elevated blood pressure, this is the last movie I wanted to spend 2 hours watching.

Update:

I received this note from Richard Greener, an old friend and novelist who after receiving a new heart underwent an extended period of paralysis. Fortunately, he is okay now.

I haven’t seen it and probably won’t, for the same reasons you suggested, but your brief description reminded me of my own difficulties editing my second novel while paralyzed in the hospital.

I could only move my head. Maria [his wife] had a system installed whereby I could push a feather-weight, flat metal plate with the right side of my head and activate a tape recorder. If someone turned the pages of my manuscript for me, I could then dictate indicating line number, paragraph and word to spot changes I wanted to make or to answer question my editor had asked.

All communication was between my editor and my wife. Maureen, my editor, would send her comments/questions via email and Maria would then relate them with page, paragraph, etc. After dictating my changes or explanations, Maria would take the tape and translate it to email form to send on to Maureen. Toward the very end of this process I was able to sit in a wheelchair and the index finger on my right hand was responding well enough to turn the recorder on and off. But I needed the recorder to be affixed to my right hand otherwise it would slip away an inch or two and that was too far for me to retrieve it.

I remember thinking that I would try to write another novel using this process and actually looking forward to it. I had no hope of recovery at the time. I thought I would spend the rest of my life hospitalized and paralyzed, tube fed and diapered. I owe everything to Maria who always said, even in the darkest days, that this was all temporary. I’m so lucky.

 

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