Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 16, 2015

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, one must conclude that Russell Brand is one of Michael Moore’s biggest fans. Opening today at the IFC Center in New York, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is one of the many documentaries that have be made in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Like a British remake of Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story”, Brand is featured in just about every minute of the film calling attention to bankster criminality and the suffering of the poor, especially the council housing denizens who are to him as the people of Flint were to Moore.

Director Michael Winterbottom also made “The Shock Doctrine”, a 2009 documentary based on Naomi Klein’s book. As was the case with the Klein collaboration, Winterbottom’s goal was clearly to allow his subject to set the dramatic and political agenda. In essence, it was Brand’s movie as much as his.

For those who have been on another planet over the past five years or so, comedian Russell Brand became famous for taking on the rich and the powerful in a series of articles, interviews and Youtube videos in a style reminiscent of Jon Stewart. The emphasis was less on analysis and more on jeremiad. Since Brand can be even funnier than Stewart, the jeremiads had high entertainment value.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” covers well-trodden themes as Brand points out in the opening moments, admitting that you will not be hearing anything new about economic inequality. The difference is that this time you will be learning about how to change things.

This boils down to following the example of council housing activists who were fighting eviction orders by Westbrook Partners, an American company determined to build luxury condos. Eventually Westbrook mass action forced them to abandon their plans despite the British government’s support for its privatization agenda. Throughout the film, David Cameron is seen as the archfiend directing Britain’s implementation of Milton Friedman type economics. For Brand, the enemy is not so much capitalism as what he calls free market fundamentalism. Toward the end of the film, he acknowledges that his goals are relatively modest: making the billionaires pay their taxes, enforcing a living wage, and imposing a Tobin tax to fund new investments in housing, health and job creation. In light of the powerful economic forces driving the attack on working people, it is open to question that much can be done without a frontal attack on capitalism itself.

As a sign of his goodhearted but perhaps naïve understanding of class politics, Brand comes to New York to drop in on Mayor Bill de Blasio to get his advice on fending off Westbrook. While it was commendable that Brand was able to convince De Blasio to offer his support to those facing eviction in Britain, maybe he could have reminded the mayor that housing activists in New York have been bitterly disappointed in his affordable housing program that fails to address the seriousness of a housing crisis that makes many working people barely able to make ends meet. Jonathan Westin of the group Real Affordability for All has complained that the mayor has not made much of a commitment despite his lofty rhetoric. Maybe the fact that de Blasio’s point man on real estate matters is none other than James Patchett, a Goldman-Sachs alum, would explain this.

In one of the more amusing moments of the film, Brand rides around in a truck draped with signs calling for the arrest of top British bankers who were involved in what Woody Guthrie described as robbing with a fountain pen. As he makes the rounds of The City–the London version of Wall Street–in the truck, he uses a bullhorn to urge passers by to track down the guilty bankers and make a citizen’s arrest of just the sort of people who worked for Goldman-Sachs. Indeed, he makes a stop at Goldman offices in London to demand to speak to the head of the firm about why he is paid as much in a single year as one of his window washers would make in three hundred, a move patented by Michael Moore.The fact that Russell Brand seems innocent of Bill de Blasio’s shortcomings does not detract from the delight of this confrontation and many others in a well-constructed documentary that is best suited for people who have not read David Harvey or Doug Henwood.

While we are on the topic of austerity and bourgeois criminality, I would recommend a look at the Intercept website for a series of four videos on the election of Syriza and its failure to make any headway in the ongoing rape of a proud nation. It is a joint production of Laurie Poitras and Paul Mason and rather good as reporting. Unfortunately, as is the case with the Brand documentary, it does not penetrate beneath the surface. To this day much of the left looks at Alex Tsipras as the culprit but it is doubtful that anybody in the left faction of his party could have made much of a difference if they had been in power. With Venezuela’s new neoliberal government about to assail most of the social gains of the Chavistas, it might begin to make sense to stop looking for traitors and more at blind economic forces that keep working people in chains. Greece’s economic problems go back for decades and have much to do with its weak industrial base just as Venezuela’s woes grow out of the falling price of oil on world markets. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels always thought in terms of world revolution. Maybe it is time to return to their original vision.

Finally, I want to recommend a documentary titled “The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes & The Course Of Country Music” that also opens at the IFC Center today. I reviewed it in August 2014 and found it one of the finest documentaries about musicians I have ever seen. (https://louisproyect.org/2014/08/04/three-documentaries-of-note-4/)


  1. re: “it might begin to make sense to stop looking for traitors and more at blind economic forces that keep working people in chains.”

    Yes. On this particular point, I tend to agree with the thoughts Moishe Postone expresses in the passage quoted here:

    In my experience, liberals who have recently shifted to the left tend to particularly seek “bad actor” explanations (given their lack of a framework and analytical habits that might permit deeper structural understanding).

    Comment by affinis — December 19, 2015 @ 4:12 am

  2. Blind economic forces require flesh and blood people with eyes to implement the policies that exploit working people.
    Oppressing working people IS Legitimate, exploiting them is not. Is it necessary for me to point out the difference between oppression and exploitation?
    Working people all over the world are like children. If they were to get freedom or power they will only hurt themselves. The working people of the world need to be molded by those leaders pointed out in the book Night of the Generals, by Hans Helmut Kirst (near the end of that book) to be responsible and enlightened citizens. If instilling fear among those who have no sense of collective spirit is necessary to achieve that goal the tactics used to achieve such fear are legitimate.
    On the other hand, those who have been in charge in the world up until now, especially in the US and UK, have been using people as firewood. The current leaders have been molding people for purposes that have nothing to do with enlightening them. The tactics that these manipulators use to deceive and frighten people are not legitimate, even if a majority of a given population supports their policies.
    Unfortunately, on a dying planet such details are probably irrelevant. On a dying planet the time necessary to achieve the goal of an enlightened society is no longer available. Do we live on a dying planet?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 22, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

  3. It has been repeated over and over and over that world MUST not allow the planet to warm up more than 2° C over pre industrial levels or the planet will face a terrible case of climate change that humans “might” not survive. It is also widely reported that the world must commit itself to preventing more than 1.5°C warming to give some cushion of not going over the 2° mark. Yet the evidence seems to indicate that the number of 2°C was and is grossly mistaken. The evidence is that the northern trunda is thawing out and that even the seabed of the Arctic Ocean is now releasing methane even before the 1.5°C level was reached.
    Therefore I have to wonder if humanity really ever had the slightest chance to prevent runaway global warming. It seems, to me anyways, that the tipping point was a half degree celsius of global warming and 300 parts of CO2 per million to have had a chance to prevent runaway global warming. If I am right about this who else reached this conclusion sooner than I did? If other people did reach this conclusion in the past who were they? How would this pessimistic assessment have affected the decisions that they made? Were any of these people serving positions of political power?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 23, 2016 @ 9:07 pm

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