Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2015

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

“The Price We Pay”, which opens tomorrow at Cinema Village in New York, is the first film that hones in on a deeply entrenched weapon of financial mass destruction, namely the use of tax havens by corporations like Amazon, Apple, and other behemoths of the “new economy”.

While capitalism has always been a global system, advances in automation have made it possible for multinationals to operate almost exclusively outside of the borders of the nation-state. This means, for example, that Apple can produce all its hardware in China while software development remains in Silicon Valley. “The Price We Pay” begins with footage from the Senate investigation of Apple that took place in 2013 that was also featured at the end of Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary on Steve Jobs. In the hot seat is CEO Tim Cook who is getting dressed down by Senator Carl Levin looking balefully down at him through eyeglasses roosting uneasily at the tip of his nose.

Apple had adopted “The Double Irish” strategy, something that requires three companies to pull off. Apple (or Google et al) licenses its intellectual property to a subsidiary based in Ireland. That company connects to an offshore entity in the Cayman Islands for instance, which then licenses the patent rights to another Irish company. The second Irish company receives income from the first but its taxes are low because the royalties and fees paid to the first Irish company are deductible expenses, so no taxes are paid on them. Meanwhile, the U.S. company doesn’t pay any Federal taxes on the income from the Irish companies because the earnings were not made in the U.S. Get it? Well, if you don’t, that’s because you don’t have a battery of tax lawyers and accounts to figure things out for you.

So, the practical effect of all this is to “starve the beast” as Grover Norquist put it. Tax revenues become so depleted that universities are “forced” to use adjuncts. Want to make a decent income in the new globalized economy? Forget about art history or philosophy. Get a degree in tax accounting and you are set for life.

The film is distinguished by expert testimony from the leading lights of NGO’s committed to reform such as Wallace Turbeville of Demos, a former Vice President at Goldman-Sachs. All of these people who have had senior positions in such places became turncoats because they believed that the current system is unsustainable. Like so many liberals, including Bernie Sanders, they are worried about how offshore havens are “silently killing our middle class” as the film’s subtitle puts it.

I can recommend “The Price We Pay” as the best documentary I have seen on the machinations of the financial elite since Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”. Unlike Ferguson’s film, this one deals with a capitalism that is supposedly in a post-crisis mode. Indeed, we are probably witnessing a new normal since both parties are committed to maintaining the status quo. Furthermore, even if Bernie Sanders were elected president by some miracle, there is little he could do to turn the clock back to the time depicted in the early moments of the film when happy wage-earners were washing a station wagon in the driveway of a split-level home in someplace like Cleveland or Detroit. The idea that such cities can become economically viable once again is a utopian fantasy.

How did it come to this? As the film points out through graphics and from testimony from the likes of Thomas Piketty, a social contract was broken in the 1970s when the ruling class put profits first, even if it meant turning its back on the American or British workers whose labor in steel mills or coal mines had made them so wealthy. A new economy had few loyalties to the nation-state, in a way confirming both David Harvey’s analysis of capitalism and putting the kibosh on reformist schemas that welcomed Obama as the next FDR. For the foreseeable future, we will be seeing Herbert Hoovers in the White House, whichever party wins the election.

This was dramatized in a key scene when Sam Holloway, an African-American firefighter from Chicago, recounted what Mayor Rahm Emmanuel told a gathering of firefighters following the death of a number of their brothers in a burning building. After uttering some mealy-mouthed condolences, Emmanuel brought up the topic of the need to cut pensions to balance the budget, In the Q&A, Holloway suggested that a better approach would be to push through a Tobin Tax since Chicago banks were doing great. Emmanuel said he would oppose such legislation, as would just about every politician in Washington.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film was its explanation of how places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands became tax havens. It turns out that the collapse of the British Empire made this possible. As “independent” countries, such islands in the Caribbean were able to serve as fictitious nation-states that gave multinationals the leverage they needed to cheat the population of the countries they were based in. So, in effect, decolonization led to a massive expansion of imperialism. Capitalism is never at a loss for dialectical contradiction after all.

Director Harold Crooks put it this way in the press notes:

The film illustrates how the tax haven system originally put in place by City of London bankers in former colonial dependencies as a replacement for the British Empire is today an unregulated “space of money”. Through this space beyond democratic control flows over half the world’s stock of money, multinationals’ profits and vast amounts of private wealth. But as we reveal this “offshore” world is a legal and accounting fiction. The Caymans and other major tax havens could disappear under the sea without losing their rank as major financial centers. They are artifices that allow their corporate clients to be “citizens of nowhere”. The untaxed trillions of dollars booked here – the so-called “missing” wealth of nations – remains under the control of global finance and big business, which leverages its financial power to dismantle the progressive taxation and social security that once assured rising 20th century equality.

Indeed.

Put yourself in Angel Cordero’s shoes. When he was 25 years old back in 1999, he and his brother joined a group of people who were watching an altercation in progress in his neighborhood in the Bronx.

Moments later, the cops appeared on the scene and arrested him for stabbing the man who lay bleeding on the sidewalk. But the perpetrator, a well-known drug dealer and petty thief in the neighborhood, had fled during the melee when cops were pushing people around, as they tend to do. The net result is that Cordero, who had never been arrested before, was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to a thirteen year prison term, this despite eyewitnesses telling the jury that he was innocent.

Even more horribly, when the guilty man feeling remorseful over an innocent man doing time for his crime stepped forward to confess, the judge refused to act on his admission and kept Cordero in prison for the full length of the term.

The documentary “Coming Home” begins with his release from prison as his wife and 16-year-old daughter try to catch up with a man who had disappeared from their life. The wife is ready to pick up with where they left off and their joy at being reunited is palpable.

However, the daughter who was raised by family friends in Florida is conflicted. Although she is happy that her father has finally been released from prison, the absence from her life has caused an estrangement that is difficult to overcome. In a number of scenes between father and daughter, you are struck by their emotional honesty—something that is rare to find in narrative films and that is a reminder of why documentaries remain truer to authentic human relationships in an age of terminal escapism both in the films and in life in general.

Another important player in the film is the man who finally came forward with the admission that he was responsible for the stabbing. Serving time in the same prison at one point with Cordero, he meets with him in a tense confrontation that could have led to violence. It is a testimony to the possibility of redemption that no violence occurred and that the two were finally able to reconcile.

Of course, there is very little possibility of redemption when it comes to the courts and the police department as is indicated in one shocking act of injustice after another, the latest instance being a cop manhandling a teenage girl in a South Carolina classroom.

Director Viko Nikci deserves a lot of credit for making such a film that puts a human face on the crime and punishment controversy that is polarizing the American conversation. Getting the principals of this film to reveal their innermost feelings to the cold and clinical eye of a camera is no easy task. “Coming Home” is a powerful drama about simple people who had the misfortune to be swept up by police actions that could be described accurately as that of a mob. The film opens tomorrow at the Village East Cinema in New York and at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles on November 13th. Strongly recommended.

“The Royal Road” is an hour-long documentary that might be described as an experimental film–the type of offering you would expect to see at Anthology of Film Archives that opens tomorrow.

My first reaction was one of puzzlement since it dispensed with all of the conventions you find in both documentaries and narrative films. My interest was piqued by the publicist’s invitation, which stated:

A cinematic essay set against a contemplative backdrop of 16mm urban California landscapes, “The Royal Road” offers up intimate reflections on nostalgia, the pursuit of unavailable women, butch identity and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo alongside a primer on Junipero Serra’s Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican American War. Featuring a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner.

Although that sounded intriguing, especially the business about Serra who has just been made a Saint by the new progressive pope over the objections of California Indians who resented his forced assimilation of their ancestors into the Catholic faith and the brutal punishment meted out by their Spanish overlords.

However, the film consisted visually of a series of California landscapes mostly in urban settings absent of people. Director and narrator Jenni Olson, a lesbian deeply involved with film activism, is present in a voiceover that begins with the opening frame and continues during the entire film. Her words can best be described as a mixture of a Spalding Gray type monologue and reflections on California history, all worked into the fabric of film history–her speciality. For example, it turns out that Junipero Serra created a mission that figured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. For Olson, the connection between the film and the new saint is over memory. Her abiding interest is in the presence of the past and the role of nostalgia, one that she associates with Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. She points out that Kim Novak’s character was named Madeleine, just like the cookie that triggered Swann’s recollections in the beginning of Proust’s masterpiece.

If you are up for some offbeat film fare, have a look at “Royal Road”. The film won me over, something I would not have expected in the first minute or two.

 

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