New Yorkers have an extraordinary opportunity to see one of the most explicitly Marxist documentaries of this or any other age. Not surprisingly, “The Forgotten Space” will be showing at Anthology Film Archives, a showcase for the political and aesthetic leading edge for four decades. Opening on Wednesday February 15, it is simply not to be missed.
Directed by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, the film is a probing examination of modern-day transportation systems like container ships that make global trade possible—their impact on workers, the environment, and more subtly the quality of life for city-dwellers living under its influence. When the Communist Manifesto first appeared in 1848, most on the left would have agreed with its authors that the development described in these words was deeply revolutionary:
Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.
While no doubt agreeing with this observation, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch look at its dialectical negative, namely the tendency for capitalism to destroy human bonds of solidarity in its inexorable drive to turn the entire planet into a marketplace. On the film’s website, the directors lay out their perspective:
First and foremost, globalization is the penetration of the multinational corporate economy into every nook and cranny of human life. It is the latest incarnation of an imperative that has long been accepted as vital necessity, even before economics could claim the status of a science. The first law of proto-capitalism: markets must multiply through foreign trade or they will stagnate and die. As the most sophisticated of the 17th century defenders of mercantilism, William Petty, put it: “There is much more to be gained by Manufacture than Husbandry, and by Merchandize than Manufacture. A Seaman is in effect three Husbandmen.” (Political Arithmetick, 1690).
The contemporary vision of an integrated, globalized, self-regulating capitalist world economy can be traced back to some of these axioms of the capitalist “spirit of adventure.” And yet what is largely missing from the current picture is any sense of material resistance to the expansion of the market imperative. Investment flows intangibly, through the ether, as if by magic. Money begets money. Wealth is weightless. Sea trade, when it is remembered at all, is a relic of an older and obsolete economy, a world of decrepitude, rust, and creaking cables, of the slow movement of heavy things. If Petty’s old fable held that a seafarer was worth three peasants, neither count for much in the even more fabulous new equation. And yet we would all die without the toil of farmers and seafarers.
Covering just about every corner of the world, the film puts us in touch with the humble people who keep the machinery of trade going. They show us Filipino women who occupy the public space near a Hong Kong bank the one afternoon a week away from their jobs as maids. They play cards, gossip, make barbecue, and feel like free human beings rather than domestic slaves. They evoke Marx’s words in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:
the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.
They interview an Indonesian who works on a massive container ship, forced to go to sea after being unemployed for a year. He describes life on the ship, which consists of repainting rusted areas on a daily basis. There is little of the 19th century romanticism attached to a job like this, a complaint heard as well from a Dutch locomotive engineer who feels more like a cog in a machine than like Casey Jones.
While alienation is bad enough in itself, the more destructive aspect of global transportation systems is its tendency to accelerate the destruction of traditional societies and convert villagers into super-exploited assembly like workers. Without container ships, there is no supercharging of the Chinese economy, nor the transformation of Walmart into the 18th largest corporation in the world.
The directors not only question the dubious benefits of globalization socially and economically; they find its cultural legacy almost nonexistent. As a critic of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, I was delighted to see the museum eviscerated in the documentary. They reveal that the titanium metal used in most of the museum’s undulating exterior was bought dirt-cheap from the former Soviet Union during the “shock therapy” of Yeltsin/oligarchic rule. A Basque cultural critic tells us that the museum was virtually inflicted on the city, funded publicly but accountable only to its private owners, who count on Spain’s largest steel company for sponsorship.
Ironically, one of the directors—Allan Sekula—is the awardee of a Guggenheim fellowship. Biting the hand that feeds it, the film describes Guggenheim as a mining company that profited from the exploitation of Mexican and Chilean workers.
His co-director Noël Burch was born in San Francisco in 1932 and moved to France at an early age where he became a film theorist. As a committed Marxist, he has no problem ignoring the precept of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer: “Movies are for entertainment. If you want to send a message, send a telegram.” Considering the state of the world, it is not surprising that the local Cineplex features one escapist piece of crap after another while an intrepid but obscure theater like Anthology Film Archives is happy to show the unvarnished truth. The best thing you can do is go see “The Forgotten Space” and tell your friends about. (Schedule information is here.)