Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 28, 2016

Requiem for the American Dream; Something Better to Come

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

Despite my disaffection from Noam Chomsky in recent months for his touting Patrick Cockburn’s pro-Assad views on Syria, I found “Requiem for the American Dream” totally absorbing and urge New Yorkers to see it at the Cinema Village where it opens tomorrow. This is a documentary that is pieced together of four years’ worth of interviews with Chomsky interspersed with still photos and newsreel footage spanning around the same number of years that he has been alive (eighty-seven). While I would have found Chomsky’s insights compelling in and of themselves, co-directors Kelly Nyks, Jared P. Scott, Peter D. Hutchison have made what is essentially a talking head film exciting cinema. With a minimalist but powerful film score by Malcolm Francis, “Requiem for the American Dream” makes for a mind-altering tour of American politics that will be as useful for those starting to question the system as it is for grizzled veterans like me.

If nothing else Chomsky’s display of erudition is worth the price of a ticket. He points out that Adam Smith believed that the “principal architects of policy” are those who own the country: the merchants and no matter how “grievous” the impact on others, including the people of England.

He then cites James Madison on the need to maintain a system that is undemocratic as possible in order to protect the interest of the propertied. Madison openly stated that the government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

Turning next to Lewis Powell, who before becoming a Supreme Court justice was a hired gun for the tobacco industry, we learn from Chomsky that in 1971 he wrote a confidential memo to the head of the Chamber of Commerce warning about the “threat to the American free enterprise system”. It was a diatribe against the student movement and a call for all out assault to curb democratic rights and promote the kind of neoliberalism that we live under now, which you can read here. It reveals the degree to which the bourgeoisie worried about the masses, even if their fears were as overstated as was ours about our prospects.

The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival – survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people.

The film is structured as a ten-part meditation on the principles of money and power that make the USA a plutocracy. As is customary for Chomsky, there is much more of an emphasis on democratizing the system than in what Karl Marx called concocting recipes for a future society (a sorry feature of ZNet, where Chomsky is held in reverence.) Mostly what comes out of the documentary is a kind of prophetic denunciation of existing conditions that perhaps might owe something to Chomsky’s upbringing in an orthodox Jewish household.

Chomsky’s father was the principal of a Hebrew school and raised his son according to traditional Jewish beliefs. Although his parents identified with the New Deal, various cousins, aunts and uncles were further to the left. Within the extended Chomsky household, various opinions clashed with each other. Against this political backdrop, it was inevitable that he would come to identify with the left, especially since the radical opinions he heard all about him were reinforced by “seeing people coming to the door and trying to sell rags or apples” and ” travelling in a trolley car past a textile factory where women were on strike, and watching riot police beat the strikers”.

The bulk of the young people who became radicalized during the 1930s joined the Communist Party, while a smaller number became anti-Stalinists. And within this minority most joined the Trotskyist movement or the left wing of the Socialist Party, which tended to overlap. There were, however, a smaller number that identified with anarchism or the left communism (sometimes called council communism) that constituted a reaction to the compromises with world capitalism forced on the USSR. Noam Chomsky became part of this current.

Chomsky created an eclectic blend of council communism, anarchism and a left-Zionism that was natural to a Jewish household that retained many traditional beliefs side-by-side with progressive politics. All three influences reinforced each other and produce what appears to be a life-long affinity for small-scale cooperatives against “state socialism.”

Whatever his ideology, Chomsky stands out above all as a riveting critic of the existing system, conveying in his own way what Karl Marx called “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” Although of Jewish ethnicity, Marx was raised as a Christian. Living in a historical epoch where as Yeats put it, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, we should be grateful for the writings of latter-day prophets such as Marx and Chomsky. Put this film on your calendar if you are in NY and look for it when it is available VOD as it surely will be if there is any justice left in the USA.

Although much is made of Richard Linklaeter’s “Boyhood” whose lead actor is seen over a twelve-year period starting from the first grade, I found the film uninteresting—mostly because the characters were uninteresting. It was like watching someone’s home movies as they go on vacation or bowling, and you know what kind of hell that can be. Victoria Alexander, who writes for the Las Vegas Informer and is even more immune to hype than me, concluded her review this way:

Nothing about the family resonated with me. There was no high drama, conflict, or family rage that is so common today in families broken through divorce. Linklater should have filmed a few days every month at our house the year my stepson came to live with us.

And then there is “Something Better to Come”, one of the DVD’s I received in December for consideration by NYFCO. This is a documentary made by Hanna Polak, a Polish filmmaker, and produced by a Danish company. Polak’s film takes place nearly entirely within the confines of a garbage dump called the Svalka that is only 13 miles from the Kremlin, where her subjects live in miserable shacks and eke out a living recycling junk they pluck from the mountains of rubble.

Her main character is Yula, a pretty blue-eyed blonde who we first meet when she was 10 years old. Polak filmed her over a fourteen-year period, showing her interacting with other denizens of these lower depths including her mother who is an alcoholic. She is like most people who end up in the dump, a product of a social system that has little use for those who live at the fringes. Unlike most Russians who may have benefited to some extent from Putin’s spreading around the oil and gas wealth, the people of Yura’s world are the left out and the hopeless.

To Polak’s everlasting credit, she cares about each and every one of them and risks arrest from the authorities who have no interest in seeing the dark underbelly of Russia revealed. Throughout the film we see Polak in a tug-of-war with various men in uniform who warn her not to film anything or else she would be sorry. These are not idle threats in Putin’s Russia.

There is a lot of suffering in the film from disease and hunger but there is also a lot of solidarity that arguably is missing from the winners in Putin’s Russia. Mostly you will be reminded of Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths” that supplies the final words shown on screen as the film ends: “Everybody, my friend, everybody lives for something better to come.”

I cannot find any VOD link for the documentary but if you come across one, grab it.

The first was “God’s Children” that was filmed in Quezon’s “Smokey Valley”, about which I wrote:

Hiroshi Shinomiya’s documentary “God’s Children” takes the audience into the lowest levels of hell on earth. It revolves around the lives of Filipinos who eke out a living in search of scrap metal, plastic bottles, etc. at a massive garbage dump near Quezon City called “Smokey Valley,” a sardonic euphemism in line with “Smokey Mountain,” another garbage dump outside Manila whose denizens were featured in Shinomiya’s first film.

 Eighteen thousand families were drawn to Smokey Valley because there were no economic alternatives. During a question and answer period after last night’s screening at MOMA, the director stated that the unemployment rate in Manila for youth now stands at fifty percent.

 In the opening scenes of the film, we discover that a typhoon had ripped through the area in July 2000, causing a landslide of garbage that demolished shacks abutting the dump, killing more than one thousand dwellers. We are reminded of the aftermath of 9/11 as we see rescue crews pulling dead bodies out of the fetid rubble, but with one difference. Given the power relationships that govern this planet in this epoch, nobody ever held memorial concerts or raised millions for these victims of the nameless and faceless terror known as capitalist neo-liberalism.

Like “Something Better to Come”, there is no streaming link for “God’s Children” and–alas–not likely to beone.

Finally, there is “Waste Land”, a Brazilian film directed by Vik Muniz that is more upbeat than the others since those who picked through the garbage (know as catadores) saw themselves as performing a socially useful function—recycling. Coming once again from the lower depths, they show no signs of having accommodated to the degradation that surrounds them in this desperately poor slum. They are proud that they have not resorted to selling drugs or prostitution, two professions that other slum denizens drift into.

The film can be seen for free on Hulu: http://www.hulu.com/watch/397079

1 Comment »

  1. I read somewhere that Chomsky’s father or uncle or something was in the IWW. That may be where his anarcho-syndicalist sympathies originated.

    Comment by jschulman — January 31, 2016 @ 9:01 pm


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