Two very fine documentaries that opened today in New York serve as counterpoint to Joan Robinson’s observation in “Economic Philosophy” that “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”
“Braddock America”, which will be showing at the Anthology Film Archive, is an obvious confirmation of Robinson insofar as it demonstrates the terrible human costs of a Pennsylvania town losing 90 percent of its jobs as the steel mills closed down. By contrast, “The Hadza: Last of the First”, which opens at the Quad, suggests that the worst thing for a gathering-and-hunting tribe of a thousand souls that has lived outside the capitalist economy for millennia in Tanzania would be wage labor. Furthermore, the primitive communism of the Hadza points to alternatives to the current wage slavery that offers nothing but a Hobson’s choice to humanity: “take it or leave it”.
“Braddock America” was co-directed by a French team, Jean-Loïc Portron and Gabriella Kessler. If you’ve seen Tony Buba’s films, you will be familiar with the terrain. Braddock is a Detroit in miniature. The film opens with a drive past boarded up homes and abandoned factories. From an economic standpoint, there are obvious comparisons with the Great Depression but with one key difference. In the 1930s the factories were operating at full tilt and as such the workers could apply immense pressure on the bosses by withholding their labor. But when the factories are gone, there’s not much leverage. Presented with an ultimatum of “take it or leave it”, the former steel workers of Braddock leave it.
As a documentary, “Braddock America” takes a rather eclectic approach. It is a mixture of Frederick Wiseman cinema vérité, interviews with various Braddock residents affected by the collapse of the mills, and archival footage showing life as it was in the past. In its heyday, Braddock was a bustling town that in exchange for dangerous and backbreaking work could offer wages sufficient to buy a row house and consumer goods, as well as pay for the tuition your kid needed to get a decent education and an exit out of the mills. One of the interviewees is a middle-aged African-American man who judging by his impressive art collection has benefited from the advantages his blue-collar father was able to provide. As he begins describing the sacrifices his father made, the man begins to cry, something that happens frequently with the shell-shocked interviewees.
Since I am familiar with Buba’s work, I was able to recognize a number of the townspeople who have appeared in his films, including Tony himself. Unfortunately, the directors made an unwise decision to avoid identifying the people who are featured in the film except in the closing credits. Since a number of them were obvious experts on the history of the town, I regretted not being able to follow up by Googling their name. Perhaps this was done in order to maintain the vérité effect but I would advise up-and-coming filmmakers to avoid this practice like the plague.
Although I would be very interested in the Braddock story on its own terms, it resonated even deeper with me as having a similar experience with the collapse of the tourist industry in my upstate New York county that is now one of the poorest in the state. As the counterpart of Detroit’s auto plants and Braddock’s steel mills, the hotels of my youth have either been demolished or abandoned. With no prospects for opening a small business catering to the tourist industry, local residents can also “take it or leave it”. Taking it means working as a prison guard or selling drugs, two jobs that reinforce each other.
“Braddock America” is a graphic reminder of how bad things have become in the United States. Economic collapse has produced a kind of radicalization in the ranks of the people who live there that is a reminder of Marx’s dictum that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” A local cop is heard saying that the CEO’s are destroying the country. A priest opens the service giving what amounts to a liberation theology sermon. All that is missing is the economic power that can put the ruling class on the defensive and ultimately bring its rule to an end. The problem we face in the 21st century is that Robinson’s observation cuts both ways. Not only does failing to be exploited lead to hunger and illness, it also robs the worker of the one thing that can stop the boss in his tracks: the ability to withhold one’s labor.
Of all the films I have seen over the years about precapitalist society, none has come closer to confirming Engels’s take on the Iroquois in “Origins of the Family, Private Property than the Hadza:
There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.
The anthropologists who are interviewed in “The Hadza: Last of the First” concur that this tiny group of people living in the Rift Valley, where homo sapiens is first encountered, have a social organization that most closely resembles how humanity lived for upwards of 90 percent of its existence. Among the Hadza, there are no chiefs and nobody goes hungry, as long as there is sufficient food to go around. They are also people who try to avoid conflict as much as possible. When they first realized that the German and British colonizers threatened their way of life, they did not make war. They withdrew into the bush.
Unlike the slanderous accusation made by people like Shepard Krech about precapitalist societies being as wasteful as capitalist, the Hadza only kill what they plan to eat. They also are perfectly integrated into the ecosystem of their surroundings. When they come across a bee hive, they make sure to leave the combs that have been stripped of honey for the honeybirds that use them for their nests. They also enjoy a life of leisure that is unknown to the wage slave. When they have ample food, they stop their hunting and gathering, and rest. They are the perfect confirmations of what Marshall Sahlins called stone-age leisure. He accumulated data that demonstrated that in a representative hunting and gathering society, after adding up all the time spent in all economic activities (plant collecting, food preparation, and weapon repair), the average male worked three hours and forty-five minutes a day, while females worked on average just five minutes longer. Of course, they do not have cable television to stare at in their leisure time but after recently taking in a few minutes of Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, I wonder how much advantage there is in that.
While much of “The Hadza: Last of the First” is inspirational, the same sense of futility found in the Braddock film can be found here. If economic contraction has led to a crisis in a small Pennsylvania town, it is economic expansion that is leading to the same sort of social breakdown in Tanzania. Of the 1000 Hadza people, only 300 live by traditional means. In its haste to “develop” Tanzania, the ruling party has adopted economic policies that favor assimilation of precapitalist social formations into a new national identity based on a common language and state-sponsored agricultural projects—the “African socialism” of Julius Nyere that had little to do with socialism.
Export-oriented agribusiness has been accelerating in Tanzania just like the rest of Africa driven in large part by Chinese neocolonialism. The privatization of land forces pastoral societies to expand into Hadza territory. To create grazing land for the cattle, bush has to be cleared, thus reducing the number of animals that can be hunted.
The economic pressure on Tanzania from global capitalism threatens the existence of a people who are the closest link we have to a long-lost world where greed and violence were unknown. Despite the nonsense from Napoleon Chagnon and Jared Diamond, the evidence that Hadza society presents is one of peace and harmony even if it rests on a very thin margin. The mortality rate of the Hadza is very high due to diseases such as malaria and diarrhea, endemic to people living in remote areas where mosquito infestation is widespread and where water contains impurities.
The answer of course is to combine the communism of our ancestors with modern technology. Marx spent much time compiling an ethnological notebook. He was determined to find justification for his belief in the unnaturalness of capitalism by compiling the record of how peoples lived in its absence. I can only imagine the big smile that would have come across his face as he sat through a screening of “The Hadza: Last of the First”.