Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2008

Breaking Bad

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

After watching the first three episodes of “Breaking Bad” on the AMC cable station, I can recommend it as the best crime show on television since “The Sopranos” and that’s high praise. Not that it is any big deal to make such a discovery, but the plot seems borrowed from Patricia Highsmith’s novel “Ripley’s Game”, the source of the screenplays for the movie of the same name and Wim Wenders’s “The American Friend”. As you may be aware, the character Tom Ripley, featured in a series of Highsmith’s novels, is a professional art forger who recruits an art-frame shop proprietor named Jonathan Trevanny, who has never committed a crime in his life, to carry out a series of hits on the Italian mafia who are rivals of his long-time partner in the art forgery business. Ripley reasons that the handsome cash payments received for the murders will provide an irresistible incentive to the ailing man insofar as it will allow his wife and child to live decently after he is gone. He also assumes that the Trevanny’s impending death will make him less fearful of being caught by the cops. What does the death penalty mean when you are already facing a death sentence by disease?

The counterpart of Jonathan Trevanny in “Breaking Bad” is Walter White, a high school teacher in Albuquerque with a nag of a pregnant wife and a teen-aged son with cerebral palsy. Since his salary does not cover expenses, White moonlights at a car-wash. In episode one, a prolonged and nasty cough causes him to faint one day. When goes in for an examination, he learns that he has lung cancer.

Around that time, his brother-in-law Hank, who works for the DEA, has dragged him along for a raid on a meth lab in Alburquerque in order to show him what “real life” is about. Inside the raided apartment, White notices hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money lying about. When he asks Hank if the meth business is always that lucrative, he is assured that it is. The only problem, of course, is that it is illegal and the cash always ends up being seized by sharp DEA agents like him. From that moment on, the chemistry professor begins to consider producing meth in order to help his wife, son and expected child to get by after he is gone.

What cinches the deal for him is seeing Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), one of his more underachieving students, fleeing the meth lab unnoticed by the cops. The next day Walter White looks him up and convinces him to take him on as a partner. Since Pinkman’s business partners have been busted, it would make sense to work with Walter White, even if he seems an unlikely accomplice in crime. Whatever White lacks in criminal know-how is made up for by his technical proficiency. The first batch of crystal meth is a purer and cheaper product to produce than anything Jesse Pinkman has ever seen and guaranteed to generate buckets of cash on the drug market.

The story moves forward with one huge mishap after another, evoking the dark comedy of “The Sopranos”. Walter White instructs Pinkman to dissolve the body of a Chicano drug-dealer that they have killed in self-defense in acid. But he adds that it must be done in a plastic tub. Pinkman, something of a slacker, decides to take a short-cut and carry out the job in his upstairs bathtub. It turns out that the acid will eat through practically anything except plastic and the liquefied body parts and tub crash through the bathroom floor and end up in a bloody mess on the ground floor. Glaring at his incompetent partner, White says that if he had paid attention in class, he would have known not to put acid in the bathtub.

The fundamental dramatic conflict in “Breaking Bad” is the same as it is in “Ripley’s Game”: a man’s obligation to his family versus society’s expectations not to engage in criminal activity. Ultimately, this is an existential choice of the kind that Sartre described in “Existentialism is a Humanism”:

As an example by which you may the better understand this state of abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine, who sought me out in the following circumstances. His father was quarrelling with his mother and was also inclined to be a “collaborator”; his elder brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940 and this young man, with a sentiment somewhat primitive but generous, burned to avenge him. His mother was living alone with him, deeply afflicted by the semi-treason of his father and by the death of her eldest son, and her one consolation was in this young man. But he, at this moment, had the choice between going to England to join the Free French Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her to live. He fully realised that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into despair. He also realised that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose.

Beyond the moral contradictions, there is another compelling, almost ontological dimension to “Breaking Bad”, which revolves around the question of “what is man”. As a chemist, Walter White tends to look at everything in a very materialist way even though his approaching demise has forced him to consider deeper questions about life and death. In a flashback, you see him as a young chemistry instructor adding up the percentages of all the chemicals in a human body while his future wife sits in a classroom chair. At the blackboard, he admits to her that he is stymied. He can only come up with 98 percent of the chemical composition of the body. What happened to the other 2 percent? She tells him that it might be the soul that he is missing.

You can watch episodes of “Breaking Bad” online from here.

February 13, 2008

Cormac McCarthy’s “muscular prose”

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

In the July/August 2001 Atlantic Monthly, an article titled “A Reader’s Manifesto: An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose” by B.R. Myers appeared. I was vaguely aware of it at the time but did not make that much of it since I was not familiar with most of the authors he lambasted, including Cormac McCarthy. After picking up McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” the other day, I decided to have a second look at Myers’s essay. While I agree with his take on McCarthy’s overwrought writing style (he also takes a scalpel to Anne Proulx, Don DeLillo and other trendy writers), there is much more that can be said about “Blood Meridian”, a truly awful novel. And I will. Suffice it to say at this point that I have never read a novel that is so lacking in psychological depth as “Blood Meridian”, a function of the author’s need to represent men in the old west as little more than coyotes. After all, from this perspective neither coyotes nor men think much about their actions. Bloody fights occur with great frequency but you never get a clue about what is inside the combatant’s heads that are as opaque as a cactus. I will have much more to say about this when I am finished with Cormac’s stupid novel that has been compared to the Iliad, Dante and Melville. Talk about the cheapening of standards.

Books July/August 2001 Atlantic Monthly
An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose
by B. R. Myers

A Reader’s Manifesto

Nothing gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like the modern “literary” best seller. Give me a time-tested masterpiece or what critics patronizingly call a fun read—Sister Carrie or just plain Carrie. Give me anything, in fact, as long as it doesn’t have a recent prize jury’s seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back. In the bookstore I’ll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose—”furious dabs of tulips stuttering,” say, or “in the dark before the day yet was”—and I’m hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics.

I realize that such a declaration must sound perversely ungrateful to the literary establishment. For years now editors, critics, and prize jurors, not to mention novelists themselves, have been telling the rest of us how lucky we are to be alive and reading in these exciting times. The absence of a dominant school of criticism, we are told, has given rise to an extraordinary variety of styles, a smorgasbord with something for every palate. As the novelist and critic David Lodge has remarked, in summing up a lecture about the coexistence of fabulation, minimalism, and other movements, “Everything is in and nothing is out.” Coming from insiders to whom a term like “fabulation” actually means something, this hyperbole is excusable, even endearing; it’s as if a team of hotel chefs were getting excited about their assortment of cabbages. From a reader’s standpoint, however, “variety” is the last word that comes to mind, and more appears to be “out” than ever before. More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”—at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most “genre” novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review.

(snip)

“Muscular” Prose

The masculine counterpart to the ladies’ prose poetry is a bold, Melvillean stiltedness, better known to readers of book reviews as “muscular” prose. Charles Frazier, Frederick Busch, and many other novelists write in this idiom, but the acknowledged granddaddy of them all is Cormac McCarthy. In fairness, it must be said that McCarthy’s style was once very different. The Orchard Keeper (1965), his debut novel, is a masterpiece of careful and restrained writing. An excerpt from the first page:

Far down the blazing strip of concrete a small shapeless mass had emerged and was struggling toward him. It loomed steadily, weaving and grotesque like something seen through bad glass, gained briefly the form and solidity of a pickup truck, whipped past and receded into the same liquid shape by which it came.

There’s not a word too many in there, and although the tone is hardly conversational, the reader is addressed as the writer’s equal, in a natural cadence and vocabulary. Note also how the figurative language (like something seen through bad glass) is fresh and vivid without seeming to strain for originality.

Now read this from McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994), part of the acclaimed Border Trilogy: “He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.”

Thriller writers know enough to save this kind of syntax for fast-moving scenes: “… and his shout of fear came as a bloody gurgle and he died, and Wolff felt nothing” (Ken Follett, The Key to Rebecca, 1980). In McCarthy’s sentence the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the slow, methodical nature of what is being described. And why repeat tortilla? When Hemingway wrote “small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers” (“In Another Country,” 1927), he was, as David Lodge points out in The Art of Fiction (1992), creating two sharp images in the simplest way he could. The repetition of wind, in subtly different senses, heightens the immediacy of the referent while echoing other reminders of Milan’s windiness in the fall. McCarthy’s second tortilla, in contrast, is there, like the syntax, to draw attention to the writer himself. For all the sentence tells us, it might as well be this: “He ate the last of the eggs. He wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate it. He drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth. He looked up and thanked her.” Had McCarthy written that, the critics would have taken him to task for his “workmanlike” prose. But the first version is no more informative or pleasing to the ear than the second, which can at least be read aloud in a natural fashion. (McCarthy is famously averse to public readings.) All the original does is say, “I express myself differently from you, therefore I am a Writer.”

The same message is conveyed by the stern biblical tone that runs through all of McCarthy’s recent novels. Parallelisms and pseudo-archaic formulations abound: “They caught up and set out each day in the dark before the day yet was and they ate cold meat and biscuit and made no fire”; “and they would always be so and never be otherwise”; “the captain wrote on nor did he look up”; “there rode no soul save he,” and so forth.

The reader is meant to be carried along on the stream of language. In the New York Times review of The Crossing, Robert Hass praised the effect: “It is a matter of straight-on writing, a veering accumulation of compound sentences, stinginess with commas, and a witching repetition of words … Once this style is established, firm, faintly hypnotic, the crispness and sinuousness of the sentences … gather to a magic.” The key word here is “accumulation.” Like Proulx and so many others today, McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

This may get Hass’s darkly meated heart pumping, but it’s really just bad poetry formatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose. The obscurity of who’s will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author’s mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn’t ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse’s bowels.

As a fan of movie westerns, I refuse to quibble with the myth that a wild landscape can bestow epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But novels tolerate epic language only in moderation. To record with the same somber majesty every aspect of a cowboy’s life, from a knife fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch. Here we learn that out west even a hangover is something special.

[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool. (All the Pretty Horses)

It is a rare passage that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals. But “wild animals” isn’t epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about some rude provisional species, as if your average quadruped had impeccable table manners and a pension plan. Then he switches from the horses’ perspective to the narrator’s, though just what something imperfect and malformed refers to is unclear. The last half sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace the same thing that is lodged in the heart of being? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds.

No novelist with a sense of the ridiculous would write such nonsense. Although his characters sometimes rib one another, McCarthy is among the most humorless writers in American history. In this excerpt the subject is horses.

He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold … Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and that it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal … Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses vanish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothing out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing. (All the Pretty Horses)

The further we get from our cowboy past, the loonier becomes the hippophilia we attribute to it. More to the point, especially considering The New York Times’s praise of All the Pretty Horses for its “realistic dialogue,” is the stiltedness with which the conversation is reproduced. The cowboys are supposed to be talking to a Mexican in Spanish, which is a stretch to begin with, but from the tone in which the conversation is set down you’d think it was ancient Hebrew. And shouldn’t Grady satisfy our curiosity by finding out what a horse’s soul looks like, instead of pursuing a hypothetical point of equine theology? You half expect him to ask how many horses’ souls can fit on the head of a pin.

All the Pretty Horses received the National Book Award in 1992. “Not until now,” the judges wrote in their fatuous citation, “has the unhuman world been given its own holy canon.” What a difference a pseudo-biblical style makes; this so-called canon has little more to offer than the conventional belief that horses, like dogs, serve us well enough to merit exemption from an otherwise sweeping disregard for animal life. (No one ever sees a cow’s soul.) McCarthy’s fiction may be less fun than the “genre” western, but its world view is much the same. So is the cast of characters: the quiet cowboys, the women who “like to see a man eat,” the howling savages. (In fairness to the western: McCarthy’s depiction of Native Americans in Blood Meridian [1985] is far more offensive than anything in Louis L’ Amour.) The critics, however, are too much impressed by the muscles of his prose to care about the heart underneath. Even The Village Voice has called McCarthy “a master stylist, perhaps without equal in American letters.” Robert Hass wrote much of his review of The Crossing in an earnest imitation of McCarthy’s style:

The boys travel through this world, tipping their hats, saying “yessir” and “nosir” and “si” and “es verdad” and “claro” to all its potential malice, its half-mad philosophers, as the world washes over and around them, and the brothers themselves come to be as much arrested by the gesture of the quest as the old are by their stores of bitter wisdom and the other travelers, in the middle of life, in various stages of the arc between innocence and experience, by whatever impulses have placed them on the road.

The vagueness of that encomium must annoy McCarthy, who prides himself on the way he tackles “issues of life and death” head on. In interviews he presents himself as a man’s man with no time for pansified intellectuals—a literary version, if you will, of Dave Thomas, the smugly parochial old-timer in the Wendy’s commercials. It would be both unfair and a little too charitable to suggest that this is just a pose. When McCarthy says of Marcel Proust and Henry James, “I don’t understand them. To me, that’s not literature,” I have a sinking feeling he’s telling the truth.

February 11, 2008

Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Coming of Age”

Filed under: aging — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

Beauvoir, Simone de: The Coming of Age G.P. Putnam, New York, 1972, 585 pages. (No ISBN but Library of Congress number is 75-189781.)

 (Swans – February 11, 2008)   Simone de Beauvoir has always been ahead of her times. In 1949, she wrote The Second Sex, a groundbreaking feminist text that would eventually become necessary reading for the women’s liberation movement two decades later. In 1970, just around the time that movement was taking to the streets, she wrote another book titled The Coming of Age that is equal to the first in terms of its profound understanding of the human condition. Now that many feminists weaned on The Second Sex have reached their sixties (Beauvoir was 62 when she wrote The Coming of Age) they might benefit from her wisdom, which as all wisdom deepens with age. This is not to speak of men of a certain age as well, who as members of the baby boomer generation are coping with the issues of aging.

On February 4, 2008, The New York Times published an article in the science section written by Jane E. Brody titled “A Heartfelt Appeal for a Graceful Exit” that defended assisted suicide. Brody, born in 1941, concludes:

I for one have made my wishes clear to my family. When the tortures of a continued existence with no hope of recovery outweigh the benefits of maintaining that existence, I want out. And I hope that those who love me will find a way to make that happen.

Although death is the climax of the aging process, Simone de Beauvoir’s main focus is on old age itself rather than dying, which she accepts in good existential fashion as an inescapable fate, much like the rock that keeps rolling back on Sisyphus. Using the same combination of Marxist sociology, phenomenological philosophy, and Freudian psychology that served The Second Sex so well, Beauvoir ranges across centuries and continents to render the definitive statement on growing old. In her preface, she writes:

Old age is not a mere statistical fact; it is the prolongation and the last stage of a certain process. What does this process consist of? In other words, what does growing old mean? The notion is bound up with that of change. Yet the life of the foetus, of the new-born baby and of the child is one of continuous change. Must we therefore say, as some have said, that our life is a gradual death? Certainly not. A paradox of this kind disregards the basic truth of life — life is an unstable system in which balance is continually lost and continually recovered: it is inertia that is synonymous with death.

It should be said at the outset that Beauvoir’s prose, as obvious from the quote above, is as pellucid as a mountain stream. Despite her training in continental philosophy, nobody could ever mistake her writing with Merleau Ponty’s or her long-time companion Jean-Paul Sartre. Although she is dealing with very complex subjects, often having contradictory aspects (and what can be more contradictory than the life/death duality?), she explains herself using language that should be a model for aspiring serious writers.

Continue reading

February 10, 2008

The production of absolute surplus value

Filed under: Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

Engels: “Labour begins with the making of tools”

(This was posted to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list, an online class. For more information go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marxism_class/.)

Over the next couple of days, I am going to be posting excerpts from Marx’s Capital Part III: The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value with some discussion questions. Based on the lack of response to my last posting on Part II, I am surmising that it has not been smooth sailing. I would urge having some patience since we are going to be moving on to more accessible aspects of Marxist thought but I do think that it was important to try to read and understand the bedrock of Marx’s economic analysis. After covering the highlights of Part III, we will take a look at some selected topics in Marxist economics that might seem to have more immediate relevance to the headlines in today’s newspapers since they look at the problem of falling rates of profit, economic crisis, etc.

In considering how to introduce Part III of Capital, Volume One, it dawned on me that it might help to compare the capitalist economy to the economies that preceded it historically. Rather than getting bogged down in the formulas that Marx uses to illustrate the creation of surplus value, which go to the very heart of the exploitation of labor, I thought it might make sense to look at how labor was used in societies that preceded the one that we live in today.

From the very beginning of mankind (I hope that feminists understand that I am using the word not in the sense of male, but simply to denote Homo sapiens), we have used tools to shape nature into usable goods. Arguably, this practice preceded us since Jane Goodall’s field studies of chimpanzees that revealed a kind of tool-making.

One day in October of 1960, Jane Goodall found a chimp that she had named David Greybeard squatting on a termite mound. Not wanting to startle him, she stopped some distance away and could not see clearly what he was doing. He seemed to be poking pieces of grass into the mound, then raising them to his mouth. When he left, she approached the mound. She inserted one of the abandoned grasses into a hole in the mound and found that the termites bit onto it with their jaws. David had been using the stem as a tool to “fish” for insects!

Not much has changed over the past million years or so. Long before Goodall made this discovery, Engels considered the role of labor in the transition from ape to man even though he associates tool-making exclusively with our species:

Labour begins with the making of tools. And what are the most ancient tools that we find – the most ancient judging by the heirlooms of prehistoric man that have been discovered, and by the mode of life of the earliest historical peoples and of the rawest of contemporary savages? They are hunting and fishing implements, the former at the same time serving as weapons. But hunting and fishing presuppose the transition from an exclusively vegetable diet to the concomitant use of meat, and this is another important step in the process of transition from ape to man.

The earliest form of economic activity is what anthropologists call hunting-and-gathering. It was dominant, for example, among indigenous peoples in North America. A tribe collectively went out to hunt for bison and shared the bounty collectively in an arrangement that can be called primitive communism. There was no notion of money, nor of commodity circulation. Collective labor using tools such as bows and arrows produced use values, such as hides and meat. There was very little incentive to produce improvements in technology, such as guns, since nature offered itself in ample supplies. Although there were obvious hardships associated with hunting, the key thing to understand is that labor was only deployed to meet the immediate needs of the tribe. Once food and clothing were stockpiled, leisure time was spent in story-telling, games and other forms of amusement that excluded television and video games of course. This primitive economy was described as “The Original Affluent Society” by Marshall Sahlins in the first chapter of “Stone Age Economics.” He writes:

The hunter, one is tempted to say, is ‘uneconomic man.’ At least as concerns nonsubsistence goods, he is the reverse of that standard caricature immortalized in any General Principles of Economics, page one. His wants are scarce and his means (in relation) plentiful. Consequently he is ‘comparatively free of material pressures,’ has ‘no sense of possession,’ shows ‘an undeveloped sense of property,’ is ‘completely indifferent to any material pressures,’ manifests a ‘lack of interest’ in developing his technological equipment.

In this relation of hunters to worldly goods there is a neat and important point. From the internal perspective of the economy, it seems wrong to say that wants are ‘restricted,’ desires ‘restrained,’ or even that the notion of wealth is ‘limited.’ Such phrasings imply in advance an Economic Man and a struggle of the hunter against his own worse nature, which is finally then subdued by a cultural vow of poverty. The words imply the renunciation of an acquisitiveness that in reality was never developed, a suppression of desires that were never broached. Economic Man is a bourgeois construction-as Marcel Mauss said, ‘not behind us, but before, like the moral man.’ It is not that hunters and gatherers have curbed their materialistic ‘impulses’; they simply never made an institution of them. ‘Moreover if it is a great blessing to be free from a great evil, our [Montagnais] Savages are happy; for the two tyrants who provide hell and torture for many of our Europeans, do not reign in their great forests,–I mean ambition and avarice . . . as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the Devil to acquire wealth.’

We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free. ‘Their extremely limited material possessions relieve them of all cares with regard to daily necessities and permit them to enjoy life.’

Marx and Engels were intensely interested in primitive communism throughout their careers since it offered a concrete example of how life without commodity production could be enjoyed. In particular, they relied on Lewis Henry Morgan’s field studies of the Iroquois. Marx kept Ethnological Notebooks that included observations on Morgan’s work plus studies of precapitalist societies worldwide. As I understand it, a new edition of the notebooks has been in the works for the past decade or so.

You can, of course, read what Engels wrote on the “stone age economics” of the American Indians in the classic “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”, which also relied heavily on Lewis Henry Morgan:

The population is extremely sparse; it is dense only at the tribe’s place of settlement, around which lie in a wide circle first the hunting grounds and then the protective belt of neutral forest, which separates the tribe from others. The division of labor is purely primitive, between the sexes only. The man fights in the wars, goes hunting and fishing, procures the raw materials of food and the tools necessary for doing so. The woman looks after the house and the preparation of food and clothing, cooks, weaves, sews. They are each master in their own sphere: the man in the forest, the woman in the house. Each is owner of the instruments which he or she makes and uses: the man of the weapons, the hunting and fishing implements, the woman of the household gear. The housekeeping is communal among several and often many families. What is made and used in common is common property – the house, the garden, the long-boat. Here therefore, and here alone, there still exists in actual fact that “property created by the owner’s labor” which in civilized society is an ideal fiction of the jurists and economists, the last lying legal pretense by which modern capitalist property still bolsters itself up.

The North American Indians essentially lived in a classless society. However, the entire hemisphere was not so egalitarian. Latin America was marked by class divisions fully in accord with the introduction of “civilization” in Europe and Asia. While lacking in some of the advanced technology of the rest of the world (an accident of geography), the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans lived in cities (the word civilization comes from the Roman word for city–civitas) and relied on agriculture to produce the commodities that were circulated in the economy. However, the mode of production was not market-driven. Unlike the capitalist system that would take its place, the tributary system was marked by the extraction of use values from the peasantry and the forced labor on public projects such as pyramid or cathedral building.

It is only with the production of a surplus product in agriculture that class division begins to appear. When grains can be stockpiled, a certain layer of the population can emerge over and above the rest of society and be constituted as a ruling class of priests or kings.

In pre-capitalist societies, a surplus product can be created either through slave labor or feudal obligation. The Roman Empire made widespread use of slave labor while the economies that followed its collapse were characterized mainly by the collection of tribute from serfs, who were nominally free in accordance with Church law.

Under serfdom, exploitation was highly visible. For the peasant, a certain portion of the week was devoted to working on his master’s land and the rest of the week was allocated to his own. In “Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory“, Ernest Mandel writes:

The great domains of the early Middle Ages furnish us with another illustration. The land of these domains was divided into three parts: the communal lands consisting of forest, meadows, swamps, etc.; the land worked by the serf for his own and his family’s subsistence; and finally, the land worked by the serf in order to maintain the feudal lord. The work week during this period was usually six days, not seven. It was divided into two equal parts: the serf worked three days on the land from which the yield belonged to him; the other three days he worked on the feudal lord’s land, without remuneration, supplying free labor to the ruling class.

The products of each of these two very different types of labor can be defined in different terms. When the producer is performing necessary labor, he is producing a necessary product. When he is performing surplus labor, he is producing a social surplus product.

Eventually, the growth of capitalist property relationships collided with this kind of labor exploitation because no matter how cruel it was it was not up to the task of efficient commodity production for the emerging cash marketplace. Ironically, it was the very domination of the Church which sought to preserve feudal class relations in perpetuity that served as a break on economic development, as Michael Perelman points out in his essential “The Invention of Capitalism”:

Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.

After the serfs were emancipated, they were now free to enter into a wage relationship with a new ruling class that proclaimed Enlightenment values that were totally opposed to feudal despotism of all sorts. Needless to say, they had a more efficient despotism in mind that created the illusion of freedom in the marketplace while masking within the wage relationship a form of exploitation as cruel as that which had preceded it. More about that to come.

February 9, 2008

Guest post on No Country for Old Men

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 2:54 pm

(This appears as comments on the previous posting, but I want to make sure that it does not escape anybody’s attention because of its extraordinary value. Malooga, the author, is a regular at http://www.moonofalabama.org/.)

 Coming late to the party.

Well, I’ve read the two reviews by our host and the 100+ comments, and I found a number of them interesting and even enlightening, and yet I come away from this thread of film criticism on a Marxist blog even more disappointed than from the movie itself.

Yes, the cinematography and the production values were top-notch, but one expects that from any Hollywood film, and has for a long time. It is hard to imagine that one would see a film for the sound production unless one worked in that industry; just as it is equally hard to imagine that one would bypass a film that had something important to say, but where the production values were not top-notch.

More to the point — and especially on a Marxist blog — is the question of what this film, and film in general, has to say about the human condition, and particularly the human condition at this critical juncture in time on this planet; what does the film have to say about the individual facing the contradictions and violence of modern society, coping with the ever-increasing material and social inequality and constraints on a stable and meaningful life posed by neo-liberal, late-stage capitalism, and the concomitant ecological collapse; what does the film have to say about the individual’s struggle against the very real violent and dehumanizing authoritarian and mass social forces in a time of rapid change; what does the film have to say about the search for community in a time of homogenization; what does the film have to say about the individual confronting the age-old forces of time, fate, change and death, and making a meaningful personal peace with them? Apparently very little.

To my mind, those are the important questions of our day, and to the extent that modern cinema engages and struggles with those questions is the extent to which it remains relevant. To the extent that a film addresses those issues and reveals some truth, some sense of humanity standing up to the dehumanizing and implacable forces confronting the modern condition, that film remains important and relevant. To the extent that it fails in this challenge, it is no more than escapism – an adult version of cartoons (OK, if it is acknowledged as that.) – or nihilism, and the belief in the impossibility of finding individual meaning and dignity: a condition which the elite who run this world would love to see the great masses reduced to. Where is the nobility in this? Or are we just reviewing cartoons for our entertainment in elevated language here?

At this point, let me say that I watch very little film because I find so much of it disappointing, or merely reinforcing of the most jejune values of contemporary society, albeit dressed up in pretty wrappers. I have been greatly influenced in this regard by the reviews on the wsws website, and particularly the deep and far-ranging discussion between John Steppling and John Walsh on the art and politics of film at swans.com several years ago.

Film, as a product for mass consumption, is less than 100 years old. Television is half that age. As John Berger points out, industrially produced images, themselves, are only about 500 years old, and we have gone from seeing the rare painted or sculpted image in a church to being bombarded with mass-produced images at the average rate of one every two seconds or so. Our habituation has been total. I spent whole years of my childhood watching cartoons, sit-coms, movies, game shows, and really everything that played across the phosphorescent screen. Did all of those hours teach me anything about life; how society works; how materials and products are grown, mined and manufactured, and the social conditions and structures involved in maintaining such processes; or how society is run, mass belief and thinking channeled, and dissent controlled? I think not; rather it filled my head with all manner of silly notions and illusions about the benignity of American Exceptionalism, and the glorious, religious wonder of endless technological growth.

Reduced to the mythic level there is the story: The story tells us about other’s experiences in life so that we may incorporate those experiences and lessons learned with our own. The moral narrative story was transferred to image. The average person I know cannot go more than one or two days without the overwhelming need to see (with their eyes) a story – either a movie, a rented video, or something on television. We have moved beyond mere habituation to complete capitulation. We probably view 500-1000 such complete stories a year. For the average 40 year old, that amounts to a total of perhaps 30-50,000 stories, replete with artificially constructed sets, and moving images, since birth. (For others, numbers may go as high as perhaps a quarter of a million or more such stories over the course of a lifetime.) Even if we consciously disbelieve the values and social conditions put forth by the vast majority of the images and stories we view, over time these values and visions become a part of us – and the science of public relations is exquisitely aware of this. (For instance fighting in space is more exciting and important than healing this planet.) Does the average person know more about the forces controlling society, and the struggle against subjugation than, say, the person of 1848 (who incidentally, in this country, was highly literate and read many books)? And if not, than why not? Does the average person have more highly developed moral, ethical, or even aesthetic values than the person of 200 years ago? Has film served a useful social purpose — the “instruct” part of Dr. Johnson’s immortal “instruct and delight” rationale for art, and if, by and large, it has failed at this, then why pontificate against the desire for a coherent ending – if this is only entertainment, why not give the masses what they want? Or at least refrain from arguing that one ending is in some way better than another, except to voice one’s own preference.

More to the point, is the question of why the average person needs such constant flow of visual stimulation in our society. When people go away on vacation and get away from such a bombardment of imagery, they usually report a greater sense of well-being and happiness. Are the forces of modern society, and the work we are often forced to do in order to survive, so oppressive that we cannot function without anti-depressants and a constant deluge of either escapist fairy-tales, or the perpetual reinforcing of conformist societal values (albeit, often dressed in pseudo-rebellious garb)? Sure, the human mind has the ability, and often the desire, to be in two places at once: to use our imagination. On a personal level we use much of our imagination in fantasizing about an improvement of our condition (for instance, sleeping with someone who we can’t, or owning a house or car we can’t afford). Perhaps cinema, in this sense, frees us from the need to exercise our own imaginations. It helps us escape the bind of the temporal condition, and be somewhere else, face new challenges and see new images: Sun and sea, when we are enmired in snow and ice, for instance. For a time we feel that we own the house and car, and have the mate of our dreams. Is it any wonder why the vast majority of Americans then believe they are much better of than they are, and thus can be manipulated against their interests on issues like welfare, and the inheritance tax.

But the real question remains: Why does modern man feel such a strong need to escape these temporal bonds? Why does modern man feel such a strong need for cinema? What ever happened to the Zen ideal of being hot in the summer and cold in the winter? Why not engage in a hobby, like woodworking or gardening, to relax and engage our creativity and imaginations? Why the overwhelming desire to spend 10-20 hrs/wk., or even much more, watching other’s stories? These are choices we make, consciously or not. I once lived high up a hill in a tropical rain forest, and when I got home from work (I did have an ordinary stress-filled, conflict-ridden job), I used to just sit and watch the opposite hillside: the flora and fauna, the changing conditions of light and cloud and wind, and the sounds of life, for the same hour or two that I had previously devoted to TV, every evening. Was I any less well off for not having seen some blood-thirsty killer stalking my field of vision for two hours? These are serious questions and, in our society, they demand serious consideration. What is the meaning and relevance of art?

Back to the specifics of this film: It seems there are two ways to treat the film: either by attempting to understand the storyline literally, or by viewing the film mythically.

Most of the problems with a literal reading have already been brought up, but here are a few more from my perspective. First off, neither I, nor my partner, understood a number of scenes, for instance, the scenes where Bell was speaking to a relative in the trailer. Who was the relative? Secondly, there were the usual string of illogicalities which propel any storyline. Who goes hunting in the desert without water, and if Moss had water, why didn’t he share it immediately? Does dark, oily, unprocessed, crude cocaine paste (it wasn’t pot) really come in from the Mexican border, or is that a myth, to scare the present public into closing the border? There are perhaps a dozen, or more, questions along those lines I could easily come up with. Most persuasive in arguing against a literal treatment is the absolute lack of caricature and character development; the characters were limed as flat and two-dimensional as possible; little hints of their past or any sense of development, or maturation, was provided. The only one who had a sense of past and self-reflection, of course, was Sheriff Bell, a man of such limited beliefs and views (meant to pass as some sort of mythic Western wisdom), that if I had met him alone in a coffee shop in West Texas, I would have been hard pressed to sit still and listen to his banal explanations of society and its forces. And believe me, I have met enough Bells in my life. Also problematic in this sense were the Mexicans: evil, swarming homunculi that would make even me want to close our borders to prevent their infiltration. Clearly, West Texas was a stage set, not a real place, and modern cityscapes, as well as social and economic relationships, were noticeably absent.

The crowd that gets excited by interpreting the implicit details of a storyline sure liked the haziness of this film. I found myself unable to empathize with the individual 2-D characters, and, hence, uncaring of all the subtle details. After reading everyone’s interpretations on the comments, I’m still not sure if it matters who killed who, and who got the money. It was all fairly run of the mill action film – I’ve seen perhaps 10,000 of these – and without caring about the characters, and their ultimate moral disposition – that, of course, is the key — the details were almost irrelevant.

Noticeably missing from the all the comments and reviews was any reflection about the supposed driving force behind the plot: the money itself. In a sense, it was the ultimate Mcguffin, and treated as meaningless, really — just a way to drive the action and the violence which, in this film, was the actual point, and took on a life (and death) of its own. What are the social forces behind drug running, how much is $2M really, and would a cartel go to such lengths and dangers to recover such a sum? (Having personally known small-to-medium size drug dealers in Colombia, I think not.) What effect would $2M have upon Moss’s life (Where did he find meaning anyway? Does $2M turn you from an antelope hunter into a Cheney with buckshot?); would taking out only $100,000 have had the same effect? Clearly, the film does not want us thinking about money, and how it controls so many of our actions and decisions in our society in any real way. This is probably the film’s greatest limitation and defect, if we are in any serious manner to attempt to understand the film literally as anything more than escapist entertainment.

So, I guess we are left to wrestling with the film’s purported greatness on symbolic and structural levels. I can’t underscore how few films, especially Hollywood types, I actually see, and yet it is obvious what is in vogue these days. One of the last films I saw, a full eight years ago, was American Beauty, and, while that was a much better film, the similarities are glaring. It is in vogue to mix genres — in this case, action, film noir, southern gothic, post-modern, etc. It is implicitly assumed that such mixing of genres results in a product that is somehow superior (in a cathetic sense) to the pure genre itself. But such a line of thinking denies the fact that such genres originally developed to emphasize certain qualities: In the case of action, heroism and good-vs-evil; in film noir, the hidden, implacable forces of evil itself; in southern gothic, the sense of cultural and economic strangulation; in post-modern, the absurdity of life itself. It is apparent from the comments presented here that this genre-melding has left viewers with a greater individual range of interpretations of the film’s meaning and quality, depending on their feeling of which genre prevailed, and yet, consequently, a diminished sense of the overall emotional impact of the film. In any event, it seems obvious to me that such a trick has been done before – there is no need for the viewer to be perplexed about it – and that it is neither original, nor even very difficult.

The second point I would like to comment upon is the currently fashionable technique, again used in American Beauty, of post-modern irony — Chigurh’s hairdo, and bizarre mannerisms, the interview-like quality of Bell’s disquisitions, the tacky hotel settings. All of this has the quality of distancing the director from the film and the statement being made. It is as if the director is saying to us, “This is just a construct, an artifice I am creating; don’t take it too seriously; it’s just a movie, it’s a joke and you’re in on it – so, don’t really listen to what I am trying to say, because I’m not really trying to say it.” Again, this has been done before — it is all the rage in what passes for “serious” film –or so it seems to me. So, we become like children watching war films: we are shocked by the licentious violence, but at the same time, we know it is not real. To which I reply, “Great! But, so what?”

Along a similar vein, what was the point of Chigurh’s odd weapon – would the film have been as engrossing if he used a common shotgun, and does this gimmick have any other meaning? One is hard pressed to make the argument that there is any substantial commentary concerning our violence to animal life in this film; only, perhaps, that human lives are being treated here with the casualness with which we treat animal life in our society. But, again, why? Is there anything we can do about it, or must we shudder in our apartments until Chigurh blows in our own lock? Why should we stand for human life to be treated this way, much less pay to see it, when we can read a blog like “Iraq Today” and see such violence in reality, and struggle with it personally, and the pain it causes both its victims and us, and struggle with either how to stop it, or grudgingly accept its real implacability. Perhaps I betray a fundamentalist streak, but I find it troubling that people pay to see such violence for enjoyment, but cannot bring themselves to follow the very real violence which is the principle product of our “way of life;” that is simply, boring. Yet, this is treated reverentially; this is “serious” cinema.

Finally, is it really so amazing and brilliant that the Coen brothers provided us with such an unclear climax and dénouement, with an open-ended resolution and incomplete catharsis? Has that not been done a zillion times before? It is just a style; either you like it or you don’t. Maybe it says that life is open-ended; maybe it doesn’t. Who cares? About ten years ago, I watched a few episodes of the TV show “Law and Order” (With that Fred guy who was running for President. I think that was the title, and a fitting one for mass media, too.); it seems even TV had figured out the trick a long time ago. When simple tricks such as these continue to create such a stir among “serious” cinema viewers, I would argue that the cinema, as many of our other art forms, is stuck and at a crisis. It seems that the great technological and emotional innovations have all been worked out, and, rather than confront the world as it is head-on, meaning and relevance have become rare indeed.

All of the above innovations of the Coen brothers – the mixing of genres, the ironic distancing, the inexplicable character quirks, the dramatic and narrative incompleteness — I would argue, only muddy the mythic quality of the film, while, arguably enhancing its stylistic value. Mythic value, for better or worse, is the reduction of the messy real world into an idealized war of human value against its opposite, a kind of Manichaen moralism. Stylistic unorthodoxy invites stylistic criticism, not high theatrical treatment. In any event, such stylistic “experimentation,” as mild and unoriginal as it is, is hardly revolutionary, or even progressive, in any sense of the word. How then can we seriously treat such limited innovation by Hollywood as representing even the tiniest change in social relations — even that between viewer and auteur, viewer and critic, viewer and industry, or viewer and viewer – much less between viewer and society?

It seems, after digesting all of the comments, that the message of the film was, “Shit happens. And often, inexplicably.” Deep. I really learned something. In Shakespearean tragedy — Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, for instance – this is a given. Even the illiterate groundlings of the sixteenth century Globe Theater got that. The interesting part is how a character deals with the shit, with injustice, with fate, especially when the “jig is up.” Well, here they just shoot each other up, or soliloquize in some meandering pre-Alzheimers sort of way until the celluloid runs out and the credits roll. I, for one, was glad when they did.

A final way of interpreting the film is to see the major players as representing different aspects of property law, that is to say, our relationship to material things. After all, all the action in the film was driven around the money — representing private property — and the individual quest for it. Bell, who McCarthy and the directors seem to have no small amount of sympathy for, represents governmental law in its best Western reactionary, racist, unquestioning tradition, “The law is the law, but unfortunately, it don’t work no more.” Moss, also portrayed sympathetically as a sort-of libertarian sleeper, represents property law in the neo-conservative, “possession is nine tenths of the law,” “I own it and I’m going to do what I want with it” sense. The Mexicans represent entrenched power: “We had it, you stole it, and we’re going to get you.” Apparently, they did come away with the money in the end. Radical, man. More complicated, in the novel, Chigurh, and the Harrelson character, represent the co-ordinator class in its good and bad aspects: paid by the elite to unquestioningly protect its property interests, either nicely or not so nicely. One is free to draw one’s own conclusions as to why the Coen’s were not comfortable portraying Chigurh as the bared fangs of violent servitude to the propertied class – the hired killer, the mercenary; I’m sure there was no personal element to that decision. In any event, the novel was changed, and Chigurh was depicted as simply lust for wealth, at all costs. While he suffered greatly, he persevered, and was even portrayed as having some personal integrity and arcane deeper personal moral code. All the minor characters were innocent spectators, and yet even some of these paid with their lives in the ruthless quest for lucre.

Nowhere in the film was a progressive voice ever heard, that is, one arguing in any fashion, for a more just and equitable distribution of property, much less any deeper consideration of the meaning of property, in general, for society — even if that character were to get its head blown off amidst gales of Mexican laughter. To me, the nihilistic quality of the film lies in its deeply cynical denial of altruism as a quality, indeed the quality sine qua non of humanity. Again, we are not even speaking of the relative value of altruism as a human endeavor, we are talking about the mere existence of it.

Louis’ personal page contains a beautiful quote from Max Horkheimer:

a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.

I assume that all of us who read this blog, absent the rotten core of the Rotten Tomato crowd, are activists in one manner or another. All of us have made personal sacrifices in one way or another, whether in money, recognition, time, or some other manner, because we felt deeply, to the core of our beings, that what we were doing was for the benefit of more than ourselves. Some of us have made very deep sacrifices and suffered greatly for it. Many of us have been ridiculed and shunned for our thinking. Much of the so-called “sympathetic world” has merely termed us “underachievers.” To my mind, a film which doesn’t even acknowledge our existence, and those like us – even if it is only to show us getting our heads blown off (and we all know that would not necessarily be an inaccurate portrayal of our type in West Texas at any point in history) — a film which doesn’t even acknowledge any love for that which is greater than us whatsoever, is a deeply cynical, distasteful, and reactionary film – rotten to its very core. Perhaps it is a “serious” post-modern, Fukuyama type of world where all activism will be extinct. But they will have to kill me, and my bretheren off before that happens – and then who will the Coen’s get to watch their reactionary screeds?

February 6, 2008

No Country for Old Men: a follow-up

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

Did you read what that idiot Proyect wrote about “No Country for Old Men”?

One of my blog articles usually generates no more than a dozen or so comments at best, which is more or less the way I like it. The thought of dealing with 50 to 60 comments, especially those annoying anonymous one-liners, would be enough for me to disable comments entirely. There is one exception to this, however. My November 17, 2007 highly negative review of “No Country for Old Men” has generated 113 comments so far. It is also my most accessed article, receiving over 6600 hits to date. This is mostly a function of it being included on Rottentomatoes.com, surrounded by a bunch of fawning reviews. People are curious to see why anybody would bash this over-hyped nonsense. Along with the equally pretentious “Atonement” and “There Will be Blood”, we can expect the Coen brothers movie to walk off with a bunch of Oscars this year.

After having mulled over the defenses of the movie posted to my blog for a while, I am ready to follow up with a kind of deeper reading of the movie’s problem, which almost everybody acknowledges (fans included) has to do with its anti-climactic ending. For the first 2/3’s of the movie, we see a kind of cat-and-mouse game between a very likable hero named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and the Terminator-like hit-man Chigurh hired to kill him. Moss has walked off with a fortune in drug money left by rival Mexican drug gangs after they have bumped each other off. Chigurh follows Moss all over West Texas trying to recover the cash and killing everybody who gets in his way, usually with a pneumatic bolt-gun used in slaughterhouses.

As the film builds toward a final showdown between Moss and Chigurh, it takes a sharp anti-climactic turn with Moss’s corpse floating in a motel swimming pool. His murder takes place off-screen and we are not clear who has killed him or what has happened to the money. This doesn’t bother the movie’s fans who seem to get intense pleasure out of tying loose ends together in a kind of DIY screenwriting fashion. Here’s one comment from my blog:

The Mexican drug dealers killed Moss, they found him when they were following Carla Jean and one of them asked her mother where they were going. The Mexicans get the money. It is implied that Chigurh kills Carla Jean because he can’t comprehend the choice she makes by refusing to call the coin. She refuses to leave something up to chance that should be decided with human compassion, and Chigurh is oblivious to the implications of chance, thus he is nearly killed by random chance.

You also saw this kind of amateur screenwriting from fans after the final episode of “The Sopranos” was aired. In that episode, the final scene fades to black just before an ominous looking figure at a diner counter may or may not ready to whack Tony Soprano. People wrote their own conclusions: Tony goes into the witness protection program, his son takes over the mob, etc. I didn’t mind this lackluster ending because I had enjoyed “The Sopranos” for over four years and was happy to see it end with a whimper rather than a bang.

The Coen brothers’ defenders also make the point that the movie’s ending was more “lifelike” because life is filled with random, pointless occurrences as this comment demonstrates:

Again, I do not think who got the money is important. The movie is about unfairness, chance and uncertainty in life. It is about morality, and choices, and the partially random nature of the universe. This is not a simple drug and money tale…

Life often has nothing to do with morality, goodness, or evil. I personally do not think that this is bad. The nature of chance makes life way more interesting than if everything were pre-ordained, from the beginning. There is no plan, get used to it! You can still have your beliefs and live life according to your morality. I wish I had realized this earlier in life. I think the philosopher Nietzsche would have loved this movie.

When I read this, I was reminded of what Jeeves told his young master Bertie Wooster, who had begun to read the German philosopher in an effort to impress the young intellectual he was infatuated with: “You would not like Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

As opposed to this sophisticated interpretation drenched in McCarthy’s patented pop existentialism, his critics were accused of longing for a conventional happy ending with Llewelyn Moss riding off into the sunset with the loot under his arm.

Considering the build-up until the point that Moss gets whacked, it is understandable why some people might be disappointed that this was not the case. When you go through all that trouble to develop Moss as a likable character who is resourceful enough to elude Chigurh’s onslaughts, you naturally want to see him succeed. If you want the audience to be satisfied with his demise, even off-screen, you have to pay a little bit more attention to highlighting his flaws.

Indeed, the conclusion to the 1998 “A Simple Plan” also ends up in disaster for the main character who too has absconded with drug money happened upon accidentally and who also must evade hit-men hired to retrieve it. Unlike “No Country For Old Men”, the main character is not very sympathetic. As played by Bill Paxton, Hank Mitchell is the typical small-town hustler who dreams of a bigger house and other middle-class perks. He allows nothing to stand in his way, including his erstwhile partners one of whom is his very brother. This Hank Mitchell has a lot in common with Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. Now, it would have obviously been a different movie if Cormac McCarthy had conceived of Llewelyn Moss in this fashion, but I suppose he had his reasons for not doing so—not that I would understand them in a million years.

Unlike Cormac McCarthy, Scott B. Smith, who wrote the novel “A Simple Plan” and the screenplay it is adapted from, had no grand ambitions to be the next William Faulkner. He was compared by one online critic to the great Jim Thompson, who wrote “The Grifters” and “The Getaway”. God, do we need more movies like those.

Although I confess to having hoped that Llewelyn Moss would have escaped with his life and the loot, by no means was that a sine qua non. I could have accepted an unhappy ending provided that the ending had what Aristotle called a cathartic effect. Let me provide a couple of examples, including one that might be described as real existentialism as opposed to the bogus product available from Coen/McCarthy.

In 1953, Yves Montand appeared as Mario in “Wages of Fear”, one of four men hired in Mexico to transport nitroglycerine in two trucks up a rocky mountain road to a burning oil well where it will be used to snuff the fire. Like Fred C. Dobbs, the men are jobless expatriates who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Only Mario survives the perilous trip to the oil-well. Once there, he receives a handsome fee for his services and returns down the mountain road, only to skid off accidentally and hurdle toward his death. You are stunned by his death, but immediately understand it in terms of the film’s overall existentialist message. Made in the spirit of Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus”, it described life as an exercise in futility.

The 1962 “Lonely are the Brave” also concludes with devastating and unexpected results for an equally likable main character. Played by Kirk Douglas, the cowboy Jack Burns has broken out of jail and has fled on his horse up the side of a mountain to make his way to Mexico and freedom. Burns is not really an outlaw but gets into a bar fight simply to land up in jail where he seeks to help a rancher and old friend named Paul Bondi break out with him. It is of some interest given the current situation that Bondi has ended up in jail for helping undocumented Mexican workers get across the border. The movie’s screenplay was adapted by ex-blacklistee Dalton Trumbo from a novel by the legendary anarchist and environmentalist Edward Abbey.

Most of the film depicts Jack Burns overcoming helicopters, posses and the natural terrain. He is not only an endearing character in his own right, but a symbol of America’s rebellious subculture. Every so often the film cuts to a New Mexico highway where a trailer truck filled with toilet bowls driven by Carrol O’Connor, the future Archie Bunker, is barreling down the road. Just at the moment when Burns is crossing the road to the Mexican side where freedom awaits him, O’Connor’s truck smacks into him and his horse, thus ending the movie on an altogether bleak and disappointing note. However, the ending works because of the overall point that Abbey sought to make, namely that the forces of capitalist production tend to overwhelm the common man and woman. In other works he urged resistance but the emphasis in “Lonely Are the Brave” was the crushing and inhuman power of the system.

In 350BC, Aristotle wrote “Poetics”, a work that sought to identify the main characteristics of comedy and tragedy. Of tragedy, Aristotle wrote:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions. By ‘language embellished,’ I mean language into which rhythm, ‘harmony’ and song enter. By ‘the several kinds in separate parts,’ I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song.

What is missing in “No Country for Old Men” is this very purgation that is essential to tragedy. One of the rejoinders that might be made is that we are no longer living in the age of tragedy, since the age of heroes is long gone. All we have today are anti-heroes like Willy Loman or Llewelyn Moss. Perhaps so, but over and above Aristotle’s schema is the need for resolution, an artistic requirement that one can either decide to respect or not. My need for resolution has nothing to do with happy endings. It is a yearning for an artistic whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

In the spirit of the Coen Brothers/Cormac McCarthy fans who have laid siege to my blog, I would offer up an alternative ending that while not perfect is more attentive to the requirements stipulated by Aristotle. I would have had Llewelyn Moss walking across the desert toward freedom in Mexico—just like Jack Burns—but en route discovers that the water canteen he is carrying has been seeping water, courtesy of a bullet hole suffered during a shoot-out with Chigurh. While he is dying of thirst on the desert sands, he writes a letter in timeless prose to his wife. That letter will be far more interesting than Tommy Lee Jones’s ruminations, even if is written by me.

February 3, 2008

Introductory remarks on Part Two of Karl Marx’s Capital, volume one

Filed under: economics,Introduction to Marxism class,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

(This was posted to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list, an online class. For more information go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marxism_class/.)

Before getting into Part two of Capital, which deals with the generation of capital (or to use Marx’s notation M-C-M’), I want to offer some prefatory comments on how this relates to the real world–particularly with respect to the word capital.

In the parlance of the bourgeois academy and press, capital is pretty much associated with the funds necessary to produce commodities, or with the factories, mines, etc. that are used to produce such commodities. A manufacturer goes to Goldman-Sachs to raise capital; alternatively, capital indicates all of the inputs necessary to produce goods. In this respect, labor is a constituent part of the production. A capitalist brings together money, machines and workers in order to compete in the marketplace and make the kind of profits that will keep share holders happy. In this scheme of things, a worker, a photocopier and a potted plant amount to the same thing. It was Marx’s distinction to challenge this schema and to put the worker at the center.

Bourgeois economics also obfuscates the class distinction between worker and capitalist by representing workers as incipient capitalists. Since both capitalist and worker have the capacity to work, there is only a difference in degree between a Bill Gates and some lowly programmer working for Microsoft. Bourgeois society presents itself as a kind of grand competition in which everybody competes to become king of the mountain. This is deeply engrained in the popular culture as television shows like Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” would indicate.

Furthermore, bourgeois sociology plays an important role in sustaining these illusions by representing class in terms of income. A “middle class” person is defined by a certain salary even though this criterion might be satisfied by both a shopkeeper (a true middle class person) and a truck-driving member of the Teamsters Union making $80,000 per year. It is no big surprise that given the hegemony of bourgeois ideology that the truck-driver often hopes to own their own rig so that they too can crawl their way to the top. When my own computer programming trade was much more in demand 30 years ago, I found myself more often than not in a desk next to somebody who was running his or her own little subcontracting business in the hopes that they could eventually live entirely off the profits generated by their sideline. This often went hand in hand with real estate investments. Needless to say, when downsizing began to thin the ranks of the programming field some years later, there was never an attempt to organize a trade union since middle-class individualism so permeated the programming ranks.

Even when bourgeois economics distinguished between the social role of capitalist and worker, it failed to acknowledge the intrinsic antagonism between the two. Ricardo, who developed a kind of labor theory of value without teeth, portrayed the two classes as having mutual interests in the development of “wealth” in chapter five (“Of Wages”) of “On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation .”

Ricardo writes, “When wages rise, it is generally because the increase of wealth and capital have occasioned a new demand for labour, which will, infallibly be attended with an increased production of commodities.” But in order for this happy state of affairs to transpire, “wages should be left to the fair and free competition of the market, and should never be controlled by the interference of the legislature.” And what could get in the way of this “fair and free competition of the market”? Well, for one there are the Poor Laws, which Ricardo described as follows:

The clear and direct tendency of the poor laws, is in direct opposition to these obvious principles: it is not, as the legislature benevolently intended, to amend the condition of the poor, but to deteriorate the condition of both poor and rich; instead of making the poor rich, they are calculated to make the rich poor; and whilst the present laws are in force, it is quite in the natural order of things that the fund for the maintenance of the poor should progressively increase, till it has absorbed all the net revenue of the country, or at least so much of it as the state shall leave to us, after satisfying its own never failing demands for the public expenditure.

Considering the fact that Bill Clinton was largely responsible for dismantling our modern Poor Laws in the form of the Welfare system and that Obama considers “tax money wasted by a welfare agency” or on the Pentagon to be equivalent, it appears that Ricardo’s hostility to the poor is still with us.

Marx wrote “The German Ideology ” in 1845 in a bid to help men and women “revolt” against “the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away.” Primarily, this meant establishing materialism as a guide to understanding the world, as opposed to the dominant idealist trend in German philosophy. To start with, it was necessary to understand that humanity distinguished itself from animals as soon as it “began to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”

It was clear that unlike Ricardo, Marx saw the creation of the “means of subsistence” as a bitter struggle between the two major classes of society in which the workers were always getting shafted. As a young man, Marx’s apparent sympathy for the proletariat was a function of his own psychology and personality just as much as was the case for Che Guevara, who decided to devote his life to the Latin American working class after discovering their terrible poverty riding across Latin America on his beat up Triumph motorcycle in 1952.

In the section titled “The Real Basis of Ideology”, Marx writes about the rise of a working class. While there is no reference to M-C-M’, it is obvious that he views the capitalist system as benefiting only those who own the means of production, who in effect become the new aristocracy on the basis of a wage relationship rather than through the seizure of a portion of a serf’s crop:

Simultaneously with the beginning of manufactures there was a period of vagabondage caused by the abolition of the feudal bodies of retainers, the disbanding of the swollen armies which had flocked to serve the kings against their vassals, the improvement of agriculture, and the transformation of great strips of tillage into pasture land. From this alone it is clear how this vagabondage is strictly connected with the disintegration of the feudal system. As early as the thirteenth century we find isolated epochs of this kind, but only at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth does this vagabondage make a general and permanent appearance. These vagabonds, who were so numerous that, for instance, Henry VIII of England had 72,000 of them hanged, were only prevailed upon to work with the greatest difficulty and through the most extreme necessity, and then only after long resistance. The rapid rise of manufactures, particularly in England, absorbed them gradually.

In 1845, the son of a textile manufacturer named Frederic Engels was drawing identical conclusions about the mutual antagonism of worker and capitalist in a work called “Conditions of the Working Class in England ” that also evoked Che’s “Motorcycle Diaries”. Engels wrote:

On Monday, Jan. 15th, 1844, two boys were brought before the police magistrate because, being in a starving condition, they had stolen and immediately devoured a half-cooked calf’s foot from a shop. The magistrate felt called upon to investigate the case further, and received the following details from the policeman: The mother of the two boys was the widow of an ex-soldier, afterwards policeman, and had had a very hard time since the death of her husband, to provide for her nine children. She lived at No. 2 Pool’s Place, Quaker Court, Spitalfields, in the utmost poverty. When the policeman came to her, he found her with six of her children literally huddled together in a little back room, with no furniture but two old rush-bottomed chairs with the seats gone, a small table with two legs broken, a broken cup, and a small dish. On the hearth was scarcely a spark of fire, and in one corner lay as many old rags as would fill a woman’s apron, which served the whole family as a bed. For bed clothing they had only their scanty day clothing. The poor woman told him that she had been forced to sell her bedstead the year before to buy food. Her bedding she had pawned with the victualler for food. In short, everything had gone for food. The magistrate ordered the woman a considerable provision from the poor-box.

Suffice it to say that David Ricardo’s writings were innocent of such observations. Whether he was aware of them and deliberately chose not to write about them is a matter for scholars to decide. The power of denial runs very deep in bourgeois society, as commentary on the occupation of Iraq from neoconservative hawks to weak-kneed liberals reflects.

Our intellectual and political tradition, taking a stand against “the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings” of bourgeois society operates on a totally different basis. In order to help place ourselves better in that tradition, I will be posting some readings and some questions for discussion on Part two of Karl Marx’s Capital.

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