Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 30, 2016

Salero; Vita Activa

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

Scheduled for screening at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, N.C. between April 7-10 and the San Francisco Film Festival on April 30 through May 3rd, Mike Plunkett’s “Salero” is a documentary about one of the last saleros in Bolivia, men who harvest salt from the vast plateau Salar de Uyuni—underneath which lies the gargantuan lithium deposits that some describe as having the possibility of turning Bolivia into a kind of Saudi Arabia based on the sale of a mineral needed for batteries and other industrial uses.

The salero is one Moises Chambri Yucra, a Quechean Indian in his thirties who lives with his wife and two young sons in a tiny village called Colchani in fairly primitive conditions and on the edge of poverty, largely as a result of a declining demand for the home-grown table salt he peddles to vendors in Uyuni, a small city that is the hub of the burgeoning lithium mining industry.

Equipped with nothing but a pick-ax and shovel, he drives each day to the salt flats and gathers the mineral into piles, which are then loaded into the back of his truck and transported back to his village to be ground down for table use. When the film begins, you hear Moises musing over the first moon landing in 1969, recounting the sense of awe that overcame Neil Armstrong. As you see the snow-white sea of salt surrounded by mountains beneath Moises’s feet, you will feel the same kind of awe. This is an utterly remote region of Bolivia whose citizens are peripheral to the economic and political life of the country but in whose name Evo Morales has governed—up until recently.

Cinematically, the film is utterly stunning. Every landscape shot of the salt flats can take your breath away, especially when you hear Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie’s film score in the background. His music has the ambient quality of Brian Eno or Phillip Glass but with much more drama. It is the perfect aural accompaniment for a natural world that is unlike anything you have seen in a film before. If “Salero” consisted of nothing but such images and Wiltzie’s music, it would still be worth seeing just like Phillip Glass’s “Koyaanisqatsi”.

But is more than that. It is a portrait of assimilation, though one not like the kind that the conquistadores forced on Bolivia Indians in the 16th century onwards but one that is market-driven. Moises is a man with a keen idea of indigenous struggles in his country, including the role of Potosi in supplying the silver that would make Europe wealthy. He wonders if the lithium jackpot will be part of Bolivia’s ongoing agony even if his president promises that it will relieve his peoples’ poverty.

The film shows Evo Morales arriving in Uyuni to much fanfare and giving speeches about how lithium will benefit the people. Moises remains skeptical. He doesn’t like Uyuni or any other city for that matter since they are about nothing but money. His pleasure comes from his family, especially teaching his young sons Quechean songs that they sing to his delight in their own language.

I strongly recommend the film to people in the Durham and San Francisco area. It is an extraordinary work that has a powerful social message combined with fine art. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Opening at the Film Forum in NY on April 6th, “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt” is an absorbing portrait of the philosopher best known for the controversy sparked by her New Yorker Magazine coverage of the 1961 Adolph Eichmann trial that contained the words that would condemn her in the eyes of many Jews, liberals and Israeli politicians: “the banality of evil”.

The film gives extensive coverage to her views on this matter that interviewee Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College and a former student of Arendt’s, were distorted all out of proportion. Since Botstein is an ardent Zionist, this is quite a statement. I was particularly interested in the film since I had a connection not only to Botstein (as a gadfly over the years) but also to her close friend Hans Jonas, who I studied philosophy with at the New School in 1965-1967. Unlike his fellow Zionist Botstein, Jonas emerges as one of the unforgiving in an interview. Although he is not seen in film footage, Heinrich Blucher—Arendt’s husband from the late 30s until his death in 1970—figures prominently in the film largely through the recitation of his love letters to her and hers to him. I studied with Blucher at Bard College in the early 60s and consider him a major influence on my intellectual development. Blucher was a member of the German Communist Party and a veteran of street battles with the Nazis during the Weimar Republic. He eventually became disillusioned with Marxism (or at least the bogus version he identified with) and became part of the circle around Karl Jaspers that included Arendt and Jonas. The film includes recitations of the correspondence between Jaspers and Arendt that are mostly focused on philosophy and politics, as well as that between Heidegger and Arendt that are only about their controversial love affair. A number of the interviewees consider her willingness to forgive Heidegger after WWII a serious error in judgment.

The core of the film deals with her analysis of Nazism within the context of her philosophical stance against “ideology” and “idealism”. She blames them for the rise of both Nazism and Communism (ie. Stalinism):

Ideologies—isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise—are a very recent phenomenon and, for many decades, this played a negligible role in political life. Only with the wisdom of hindsight can we discover in them certain elements which have made them so disturbingly useful for totalitarian rule. Not before Hitler and Stalin were the great political potentialities of the ideologies discovered.

I am not surprised that the film stepped around some of Arendt’s key philosophical precepts, including this one. Although it is a dramatic story covering all the bases—her affair with Heidegger, the Eichmann trial, her disillusionment with Zionism—there is not much in the way of intellectual engagement in an otherwise stimulating documentary.

After graduating Bard College, it took me two years to get past the same kind of analysis about the perils of ideology I got from her husband. I obviously needed to dump existentialism and liberalism to become a revolutionary socialist. (I doubt anything can shake me from my Marxist beliefs at this point since the NY Times reminds me of the horrors of capitalism every morning.) In 1961 Blucher asked me to prepare a report on the Communist Manifesto, expecting me to echo the kind of liberal anti-Communism that was fashionable at the time. Not just from Arendt but Albert Camus and Daniel Bell as well. But the whole idea of Marxism was so remote from my intellectual universe that I could not begin to make sense of the Manifesto.

The film was directed by Ada Ushpiz, an Israeli filmmaker who has written for Ha’aretz. She obviously has an affinity with Arendt’s anti-Zionism as illustrated by her last film “Good Garbage” that identifies with poor Palestinians recycling junk tossed out by Israeli settlers in Hebron. From the Ha’aretz review:

The impoverished village was hit hard by unemployment. In the film we see and hear what Ushpiz, the narrator, calls the “third generation of the occupation”: a generation that has lost faith in the prospect of ever leading a free life. In the middle of shooting, officials from the Hebron municipality, accompanied by representatives of the World Bank, show up with a plan to turn the dump into a garbage-recycling site. In that way they would “save” the children. The film documents the World Bank’s Good Samaritan attempt to end a bad situation and found a cooperative. The film’s creators trace the collapse of this attempt.

I imagine that if Hannah Arendt were still alive, she would be proud of both films.

(For a more extensive analysis of Hannah Arendt’s ideas, here is something I wrote prompted by the Margerethe Von Trotta biopic: https://louisproyect.org/2014/02/01/the-hannah-arendt-industry/)

2 Comments »

  1. Ideologies—isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise—are a very recent phenomenon and, for many decades, this played a negligible role in political life. Only with the wisdom of hindsight can we discover in them certain elements which have made them so disturbingly useful for totalitarian rule. Not before Hitler and Stalin were the great political potentialities of the ideologies discovered.

    Even if we step outside the frugal but well-manicured petty-bourgeois world of a German or American college professor of the mid-twentieth century, only a professional intellectual could assume, as Arendt appears to do, that because words are spoken about what can be analyzed as concepts there must necessarily be, on however primitive a level, a purely intellectual systematic order in the utterances of the speakers–at the very least, deduction “from a single premise” (wow!).

    This by the way weirdly and perhaps intentionally echoes the–to me, the non-philosopher–both highly esoteric and highly intellectual claim of Ludwig von Mises to have deduced the whole of economics using Kantian logic from a single “a priori synthetic proposition. (I can’t remember what it was–“Man farts” is the only thing that comes to mind.) Is Mises one of Arendt’s “ideologues”? If so, of what value could the term “ideology” be politically, seeing that it forcibly yokes together such obviously different, if arguably poisonous things. Did Hitler do this with the mishmash that appears in Mein Kampf?

    In this, Arendt’s total intellectualism dovetails nicely with–and is perhaps is in some measure responsible for–its seeming opposite: the continually reinvented but highly traditional American idiocy that opposes “ideology” to the untutored apprehension of apodictic “truths … self-evident” that is supposed to be inherent in merely being a person. Add to this the additional perturbation caused by identity politics divorced from a broader social context, and you have a recipe for the smug and gibbering incoherence that has overwhelmed most of American political and intellectual life from the right to the pseudo-left in the Age of Ronald Rump.

    There seems to be no historical case, BTW, for Arendt’s assertion that “ideology” as she defines it was “recent” in the mid-twentieth century. The word “ideology” was coined in the eighteenth century by Destutt de Tracy to denote a new “science of ideas, and was (I’m told) first given its contemporary meaning by Napoleon 1, who used the word “ideologues’ as a slur against his political opponents (including de Tracy). [I’m here summarizing a Wikipedia article referencing work by Karl Manheim with which I am unfamiliar. I can’t find a link to what Napoleon originally said or wrote, though numerous sources repeat the assertion.] If borne out by original sources, that seems to be a pretty clear instance of the meaning described by Arendt as only coming to be in her lifetime.

    Clearly, only a Marxist conception of “ideology” can place the artifacts of political and intellectual discourse in the broader context of the social relations under which they are produced.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 4, 2016 @ 5:30 pm

  2. Reading “Eichmann in Jerusalem” was a profound experience for me. I think it is an essential book. Recently, I read “Unlearning with Hannah Arendt” by Marie Luise Knott (2011, Other Press, NY), which was an interesting jolt for my simple brain. Knott discusses the themes of translation, forgiveness, dramatization and laughter in Hannah Arendt’s work. All very enlightening, and I am grateful to have read these books, but it is beyond me to say more.

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — April 5, 2016 @ 1:17 am


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