“Brother Can You Spare a Dollar?” opened two nights ago at the Quad Cinema in NYC and can best be described as a close relative of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism, a Love Story”. As was the case with Moore’s documentary, the dominant message is that the government should address the Great Recession of today just as it did during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Moore’s film ended on the rather foolish note that Obama would become the FDR of today, while director Thom Hoffman ends “Brother Can You Spare a Dollar?” with a nod toward the Occupy Movement. That’s progress on the political front to say the least.
Although I can recommend the film, there are some caveats. To begin with, it is politically unsophisticated. Except for Columbia University’s Alan Brinkley, an excellent FDR scholar who has examined the New Deal critically, Hoffman’s interviewees are exclusively ordinary people who either lived through the depression as very young people or who are confronting the current crisis as Occupy activists or as vulnerable college graduates entering a brutal job market. One group is identified as “professional women” from Long Island who will remind you of the cast of a Bravo cable TV reality show.
Ultimately its provenance is what makes the film interesting, at least to me (who else matters?). Without pretending that he is some kind of expert on economics or political science, director Thom Hoffman, who narrates the film and appears on-screen frequently, comes across as a next-door neighbor in Long Island, where most of the documentary was shot. While his focus was on his interviewees and their stories about trying to survive in Hard Times, my interest was primarily sustained by the phenomenon of what appeared to be an average middle-class American committing a sizable amount of time and money to examining capitalist crisis.
Thom Hoffman’s close associate Ray Adell was one of the people interviewed in the film who lived through the depression, as well as its associate producer. He has been involved in radio and film production for over 50 years, including a radio program called “About Long Island” developed for Northrup/Grumman, a major manufacturer of military aircraft. Another credit was making instructional films for the U.S. Navy, produced by Sperry Gyroscope. All this is unlikely preparation for a documentary on the evils of a system based on private property. Since Thom Hoffman was Production Manager for Ray Adell, you have to assume that he was working on the same kinds of projects. Their willingness today to critically examine the system that has left millions without jobs and without homes is something to behold even if they stop short of coming to the kinds of radical conclusions of my readers.
Now that I am retired I have more time to meet with people during the week. A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a young man studying economics from a Marxist perspective and willing to put up with the ardors of graduate school and landing a position in a field notoriously hostile to radicals.
We chatted a bit about his parents who live and work in New York. He described his mother’s conversion to Judaism decades ago as a reaction to racist violence in Louisiana, her native state. While I am not quite sure what her exact motivations were, she was at least someone struggling to live a moral life in an immoral society in a way that she saw fit.
While adhering to liberal beliefs her entire adult life, she took an abrupt shift to the left in 2008 when the financial system collapsed. Just as Thom Hoffman decided to make a film about the crisis, she decided to look for a political alternative to the two-party system that was responsible for so much suffering. Ultimately she joined the Green Party in New York but drifted away because it seemed ineffective and because one meeting appeared dominated by Trotskyist windbags as her son put it.
I considered writing a longish post on this but have decided for the time being to only make a brief observation as follows:
There are literally millions of people like Thom Hoffman and my friend’s mother out there who are desperately looking for a political vehicle. And most certainly the Occupy Movement inspired them, including the young aspiring economist who did statistical studies on foreclosures for Occupy Wall Street.
I have no idea what happened to the Occupy Movement but want to offer a proposal for what could have sustained it, even if it amounts to nothing more than an intellectual exercise. After the cops had evicted the last activist from the last occupied public space, it would have been a perfect time to convene a national conference somewhere in the Midwest that featured plenary sessions with some of the best-known figures on the left from Ralph Nader to Chris Hedges, from Barbara Ehrenreich to Boots Riley. Some of the money that had found its way into the movement’s coffers should have paid for ads in the N.Y. Times, the Nation Magazine and Rolling Stone. The conference should have had workshops on foreclosures, debt, unemployment, etc.
The main goal of the conference would have been to form a party calling itself the Occupy Party that ran a candidate in the 2012 election—Boots Riley would have been perfect. Activists would have worked to get ballot status in all fifty states. Money raised at the conference in a closing plenary session would have funded a national office that could have maintained a database of members and kept them informed of what the movement was doing nationally through both electronic and print communications. Membership would cost $20 annually and be free for the unemployed and the poor.
Given the tremendous support that the Occupy movement received from the American people and given its willingness to confront the one percent whichever party it was identified with, this would have been the next logical step for the American left presenting in an embryonic form what the Syriza Party in Greece represents.
For most people outside of the ideologically committed Marxist or anarchist, politics means electoral politics. The key to an organization like Syriza, or for that matter Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party, is its ability to fight on Election Day as well as every other day of the year. Just look at the relationship between the Christian right or the Tea Party and the Republicans to see how the class enemy does it. In contrast to the Republicans, the Democrats are much more committed to strangling any grass roots movement supposedly on its side.
I am not close enough to the Occupy Movement to figure out whether this was feasible or not. I have my doubts that it was since it there was an unfortunate fetish over public spaces, even though a good part of the movement has now begun to organize around foreclosures, an issue that will remain outstanding given the White House’s treachery:
After inheriting the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, President Obama poured vast amounts of money into efforts to stabilize the financial system, rescue the auto industry and revive the economy.
But he tried to finesse the cleanup of the housing crash, rejecting unpopular proposals for a broad bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure in favor of a limited aid program — and a bet that a recovering economy would take care of the rest.
During his first two years in office, Mr. Obama and his advisers repeatedly affirmed this carefully calibrated strategy, leaving unspent hundreds of billions of dollars that Congress had allocated to buy mortgage loans, even as millions of people lost their homes and the economic recovery stalled somewhere between crisis and prosperity.
The nation’s painfully slow pace of growth is now the primary threat to Mr. Obama’s bid for a second term, and some economists and political allies say the cautious response to the housing crisis was the administration’s most significant mistake. The bailouts of banks and automakers are now widely regarded as crucial steps in arresting the recession, while the depressed housing market remains a millstone.