Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 3, 2010

Those Levi-Strauss worker ads

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

For about the last month or so, I’ve been seeing Levi jeans ads on bus stops around New York that have some kind of message involving the working class but geared more to visual appeal than any kind of social commentary, although it is possible to glean something like that from the ads. I have seen two different slogans to this point–“Everybody’s work is equally important” (seen in the ad above) and “We are all workers”—but mostly the ads remind me more than anything of the Ralph Lauren ads of the 1980s with blue collar chic replacing the Connecticut wasp look of the Lauren ads.

Curiosity finally got the better of me and I did some poking around to find out what was behind this campaign. The Levi-Strauss website explains:

SAN FRANCISCO (June 24, 2010)– Amid today’s widespread need for revitalization and recovery, a new generation of “real workers” has emerged, those who see challenges around them and are inspired to drive positive, meaningful change.  This fall, with the introduction of Go Forth ‘Ready to Work’, the Levi’s® brand will empower and inspire workers everywhere through Levi’s®  crafted product and stories of the new American worker.   Bolstered by its pioneering spirit and ‘Go Forth’ rallying cry, Levi’s® will explore how a new generation of real American workers is rolling up their sleeves to make real change happen.  The campaign, created in partnership with Wieden+Kennedy, kicks off this July and will reach across the Americas from the top of Canada, throughout the United States, Mexico and South America.

“Last year, driven by the pioneering spirit the Levi’s® brand has represented for more than 150 years, ‘Go Forth’ created a resonate message underscoring a new vision of hope and progress,” said Doug Sweeny, VP, Levi’s® Brand Marketing. “This year, we’re turning that energy into something tangible by engaging in meaningful conversations around ‘real work’ and celebrating the individuals who are carving the way for a better tomorrow.”

‘Ready to Work’ Campaign Spotlights Real Work in Braddock, Pennsylvania

The muse for Levi’s® new campaign is Braddock, a town embodying the demise of the blue collar base that is taking radical steps to reverse its decay.  Braddock now faces a new frontier of repurpose and new work in what was once a flourishing industrial mecca.  Since 2001, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, has taken his fight for social justice in Braddock to the masses by enlisting the help of modern pioneers – artists, craftsmen, musicians and business owners – to rebuild and revive the town.   As it rebuilds, Braddock has become a model for how any city, in any part of the country, can prevail as a symbol of hope and change.

To contribute to the real change in Braddock, the Levi’s® brand is committed to funding the refurbishment of Braddock’s community center, a focal point of the town and their youth-based programming.   Additionally, Levi’s® is supporting Braddock’s urban farm which supplies produce to local area residents at reduced costs.

This deserves some commentary.

John Fetterman checking out a brick bread oven

I first ran across John Fetterman on Sunday Morning CBS news on July 4th, a show that is the television equivalent in many ways of those smarmy “local color” segments that pollute radio’s NPR. Reporter Jeff Glor was really into Fetterman:

Fetterman  is excited too. Pittsburgh investors have given money to a number of his projects including an urban farm he created to promote local produce. And Levi Strauss, the jean company is launching a nationwide advertising campaign today featuring Braddock residents. It`s also contributing more than a million dollars to help the town. All of this investments and his oversized personality have made John Fetterman somewhat of a media darling.

But long-time city council president Jesse Brown decidedly less so:

Him and I don’t see eye to eye. For some reason he’s come to Braddock which is a predominantly Afro-American community that he seems want to be the– the white savior for this community and I just feel different.

I should add that the Levi-Strauss ads feature mostly white models even though the town, as Jesse Brown put it, is decidedly nonwhite.

Fetterman’s ideas for economic development in Braddock are borrowed from those of the ruling class of Pittsburgh, another Pennsylvania city that has lost its major source of jobs: the steel industry. Fetterman’s intention is to recast Braddock as some sort of arts and crafts/high technology/Green manufacturing oasis, the sort of post-industrial experiment that has been tried in Pittsburgh with less than overwhelming results. Indeed, this seems to be a deepening trend in the U.S. today with the Mayor of Detroit, former basketball professional Dave Bing, stating that the city must be shrunk to correspond to new economic realities.

Fetterman sounded a bit like Joseph Schumpeter when he proclaimed on his website: “Destruction breeds creation: create amidst destruction”. Of course, there is something a bit dubious about the idea of “creative destruction” in many ways. The assumption built into this former Marxist economist’s system is that when old technologies are made obsolete (the horse and buggy), new ones will come along that generate new jobs. Instead of blacksmiths, you will have autoworkers. What this schema does not anticipate is the possibility that a service-dominated capitalist economy will eventually find the disappearance of well-paying manufacturing jobs eminently unregrettable.

It was perhaps to be expected that an outfit like Levi-Strauss would get involved with Fetterman. This blue jean company has been very shrewd about marketing itself as an exception to the capitalist rule along the lines of American Apparel and Benetton. They brag:

By leveraging the power of our trade relationships and our brand, we seek to strengthen implementation and enforcement of labor laws and workplace standards in countries where we have a business presence.

What their website does not point out is that Levi-Strauss stopped making clothing in the United States in 2004, following the same route that the steel industry took. Despite the concern over Braddock’s economic health, the apparel company has participated in the same economic race to the bottom that has left this town and thousands of others virtual ghost towns.

And when they go somewhere else, it is with an iron fist rather than the velvet glove alluded to above as Ricky Baldwin reported in 2004:

When Dominican troops crossed into Haiti’s Codevi Free Trade Zone in June, it was not the first time troops had attacked Haitian factory workers there. Since the U.S. -backed coup overthrew the Haitian government in February, management at Grupo M, a Dominican-owned subcontractor for Levi Strauss, has repeatedly sicced troops of Haitian and/or Dominican origin on union sympathizers at the plant.

Jannick Etienne, a union organizer in Haiti, says that Ouanaminthe in the Codevi Free Trade Zone (FTZ) is at once remote from the center of Haitian political life and yet at the heart of recent events. The area is virtually cut off from the capital city of Port-au-Prince by miles of bad roads and difficult terrain. At the same time, Etienne says, Ouanaminthe is where the so-called “rebel” troops re-entered Haiti in February before the recent coup.

These “rebels” are actually a U.S. -funded proxy army, like the contras of Nicaragua, and many of them are veterans of earlier U.S.-supported coups and bloody repressions dating back to the father-and-son Duvalier dictatorships (1956-1987). A number of them had been in exile in the Dominican Republic following murder charges against their leaders related to the previous coup in 1991. These returning fugitives also freed others from prison as they swept through the Haitian countryside toward the capital.

Finally, a word on an eerie kind of unintentional admission on Levi-Strauss’s part. If you go to their website, you can watch a series of videos about their aims in Braddock. Very compelling stuff as you can see below:

This video has a brief introduction on the Levi-Strauss website:

When the steel mills closed in Braddock, PA, they left behind a dwindling population living in near apocalyptic circumstances. Now, a new generation of urban pioneers has come with a mission- to create a new frontier from the ashes of the once vibrant town. Brought to you by Levi’s in partnership with IFC and Sundance Channel.

Now it turns out that Australian director John Hillcoat has been hired to photograph the new ads for Levi-Strauss and conceivably had a hand in the production of the video above and others in the series. Was this just a coincidence? This Australian film director has “The Road” to his credit, a movie based on Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic vision of an economically ruined and environmentally despoiled America that has a population reduced to scavenging and cannibalism—not far I am afraid from America’s future unless the ruling class is stopped dead in its tracks.

September 2, 2010

I Live in Fear; Lower Depths

Filed under: Film,Kurosawa — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

This is the latest installment in a survey of Akira Kurosawa movies, mostly from early in his career and never seen by me before. Given a choice between Netflix rentals and the risk of crappy movies and bedbugs at my local Cineplex, there’s no contest.

As you may know, Kurosawa adapted Shakespeare’s King Lear in the 1985 Ran. But in 1955, he had his first shot at adapting the tragedy in 1955 with I Live in Fear, a movie that starred Toshiro Mifune as Kiichi Nakajima, the elderly owner of an iron foundry who has become paralyzed by fear over the threat of nuclear war. In the opening scene, he is in family court surrounded by his many children and grandchildren (including a number from his two mistresses) who want him judged incompetent. They want to prevent him from selling the foundry and using the proceeds to buy a ranch in Brazil where he is convinced that will elude the fallout from nuclear war.

A heavily made-up Toshiro Mifune as a Lear-like figure

Even though he has offered to bring everybody along with him, where they will continue to receive the allowances they now receive, they refuse to go. They clearly view him as having lost his mind. Not only do they understand that Brazil is no haven from all-out nuclear war, they also have ties to Japan that they do not want to break. The irony, of course, is that Nakajima’s fears are not that irrational. In 1955, Japan was only 10 years removed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the recipient of radioactive rain, courtesy of American H-Bomb testing in the South Pacific.

I can recommend I Live in Fear despite a couple of problems. Toshiro Mifune is actually quite believable in a role that arguably should have been performed by a true oldster but has a limited range of emotions to convey. He is either in a state of rage over the refusal of his offspring to come to Brazil with him or in a total state of panic fearing nuclear war. The other characters are not that well-developed as well, mostly expressing the venality of King Lear’s daughters and little else.

The movie has a stunning climax, however, in which Nakajima finally goes off the deep end.

I recommend the Turner Classic Movies website article on the movie:

Kurosawa later claimed that I Live in Fear was inspired by conversations he had with his longtime film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who had become seriously ill during the making of Seven Samurai. Hayasaka had said to him, “The world has come to such a state that we don’t really know what is in store for us tomorrow. I wouldn’t even know how to go on living – I’m that uncertain. Uncertainties, nothing but uncertainties. Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all.” These thoughts eventually led to a screenplay about the nuclear age and a man who was driven insane by it but at first, Kurosawa wanted to approach it as a satire. “But how do you make a satire on the H-bomb?” he asked. Instead his story became a tragedy and the somber tone deepened when Hayasaka succumbed to tuberculosis during the film’s production.

When he wasn’t drawing from Shakespeare, Kurosawa turned eastwards toward Russia. As a long-time Russian literature devotee, something like Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths would prove irresistible. It is structured around an ensemble cast of humble people such as the kind found in Seven Samurai.

Apparently Kurosawa’s adaptation is quite faithful to the original, including much of the dialog. He relocates Gorky’s play to the 19th century Edo period, one which shared the economic misery of Russian Czarism. Gorky of course was a Marxist revolutionary who became close friends with Lenin. After growing disenchanted with Bolshevik rule in the USSR, he moved to Italy. He eventually returned to Russia and became an apologist for Stalin. Some argue that this was motivated primarily by economic duress just as was the case of G.W. Pabst’s return to Nazi Germany.

Despite the author’s leftwing politics, Lower Depths was anything but socialist agitprop. The story is much more evocative of a Eugene O’Neill play with its characters lost in booze-soaked reverie, especially The Iceman Cometh.

Nearly all of the action in Kurosawa’s version takes place in a barn-like structure where the characters live pretty much like in the Bowery flophouses of yore. There is very little action as such. Instead the movie consists of dialog between one denizen and the other, mostly along the lines of pissing on each other’s pipe dreams.

The central drama involves a love triangle between one of the dwellers, a thief played memorably by Toshiro Mifune and two sisters—one the vicious wife of the landlord and the other her abused younger sister, a Cinderella like figure.

But the most interesting character is a Buddhist monk named Kahei who offers up wry commentary on the others after the fashion of a Greek chorus. He is played by Kurosawa favorite Bokuzen Hidari who steals every scene he is in.

Although the movie is great fun throughout (despite its grim material, Kurosawa played it as comedy just as Gorky intended), the final two minutes consist of a drunken song-and-dance played by the cast ensemble. It is just one more example of the director’s uncanny sense of how to use madcap musical performance to great effect. Below you can see this scene, as well as a scene from Drunken Angel that I have reviewed here previously and that is also inspired madness.

September 1, 2010

Photo of participant at Glenn Beck rally

Filed under: Fascism — louisproyect @ 3:15 pm

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