Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Democracy is Coming to the USA: Kshama Sawant, the New Face of Socialism in America

Following on my closing comments in the last post about the election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York, on a somewhat related note, a somehow even more promising ray of hope in US politics is the recent election of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council.

It's not just that she unapologetically describes herself as a socialist in a country where 'socialism' has become a bad word, nonetheless winning a surprise victory over a well-funded, business-friendly Democrat incumbent. And it's not just her articulate, direct, no-nonsense, cut-straight-to-the-chase public speaking style; or her experience as an organizer and campaigner for OWS and raising the minimum wage. And it's not just that she says all these things we want politicians to say but that they never say - even the most promising ones - for fear of upsetting their corporate sponsors, or being perceived as radical. It's that she does all these things, bucking all the trends and received wisdom of US electoral politics, changing the game as it were - running a low-budget campaign with no big business support, with less than half the campaign funding of her incumbent opponent - and succeeds in the most grass-roots way possible: by getting the voters' attention.

"There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants," she proclaims in her inauguration speech yesterday, and I believe her. "There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent."

Skip to 29:30 for Kshama's swearing-in and speech.

"A completely dysfunctional Congress does manage to agree on one thing," she says emphatically, "regular increases in their already bloated salaries…Yet at the same time allowing the federal minimum wage to stagnate, and fall further and further behind inflation…We have the obscene spectacle of the average corporate CEO getting seven thousand dollars an hour, while the lowest-paid workers are called presumptuous in their demand for just $15."

This is sexy stuff, people.

Sawant's response to Boeing's threat to move jobs out of Washington state if they don't get tax breaks and wage concessions? She calls their tactics 'economic terrorism', urging state leaders to reject "blackmail" and tell Boeing's CEOs, if you want to go, you can go - we don't need you. "The machines are here, the workers are here. Let us take this entire productive activity into democratic public ownership and retool the machines to produce mass transit."

Fuck yeah. This is what I've never understood about even some of the more progressive, left-leaning folks I know around here - they never seem to see a way out of this type of situation but to give in to corporate demands. This is why the unions are weak, and why the political establishment is for sale to the highest bidder - because there isn't enough of this type of thinking. Because people are naively afraid of taking risks, taking or even contemplating radical measures - like taking over factories - in response to what I will argue are just as radical threats and measures, macroeconomic blackmail and terrorism, such as the outsourcing and wholesale transfer of entire production systems to locales where workers can be more easily exploited. They did it in Argentina with FaSinPat and the fabricas recuperadas, why not here? If Big Business has you by the proverbial balls, you grab them by the balls.

This lady is pretty convincing, and she clearly means business. She could go much further than Seattle City Council. I really hope she does. And I hope there will be more like her.

It just might be that, as Leonard Cohen put it, democracy is coming to the USA.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Universal History in The Dark Knight Rises: A Tale of Two (or More) Cities

I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises a few weeks ago, and have been mulling over some ideas ever since.

First off, I don't see the 'Occupy' reference at all - certainly not a criticism or indictment of Occupy Wall Street. I mean, seriously? Just because someone attacks the New York Stock Exchange, it's a reference to the Occupy movement? Are people really that hysterical nowadays? Did the Occupy movement have anything to do with using high-tech weaponry to take over an entire city's infrastructure and capture an atom bomb in order to blow up the city and kill everyone? Anywhere in that ballpark? Nope. I don't see it. Frankly, any suggestion that this is a criticism of the Occupy movement is plainly, on its face stupid. Or hysterical. Or both.

Yes, yes, I know - the rhetoric. When Bane blows up the tunnels and takes over Gotham City, capturing the entire police force underground, in his speech at the stadium he proclaims 'We come not as conquerors, but as liberators.' He then proceeds to talk at length about how he is giving the city 'back to the people', ridding them of their corrupt leaders who have been telling them a pack of lies all these years. I get it.

However the thing about that is, there is a pretty blatant, neatly spelled-out and virtually literal historical reference here, which it seems virtually everyone who has commented on and written about this film has entirely missed. The words spoken by Bane in the stadium speech are almost verbatim the words spoken to the Iraqi people by one General Stanley Maude in the Proclamation of Baghdad, on the occasion of the British occupation of Iraq, way back in 1917:

"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."

After which the British army proceeded to maim and murder a large part of the civilian population of Iraq, quelling revolt with one of the very first documented uses of air-to-ground artillery against a civilian population in recorded history, decades before Guernica - a kind of Guernica before Guernica. (As related by Sven Lindqvist in A History of Bombing)

One British officer on the scene, Arthur 'Bomber' Harris (later responsible for the firebombing of German cities in WWII; and in particular notorious for choosing to target civilians rather than, say, railway transport links, including those used to transport Jews to the death camps, despite pressure from Jewish groups in Britain) reported with enthusiasm the remarkable effect that mowing down scores of Iraqis with heavy air-to-ground artillery had on the surviving population. Talk about state-sponsored terrorism.

Needless to say, the same rhetoric also blatantly echoes that deployed in Iraq 80-something years later, this time by the Americans. Wasn't it all about "winning hearts and minds" and "we're here to free you from your corrupt regime", and so on, and so forth? Anyone remember all the talk of 'regime change'? before they started all the torturing and murdering, that is - resulting in the death of over 100,000 people in a useless war started on false pretenses. Bane, too, is on a mission to rid Gotham city of its corrupt, lying leaders and 'give it back to the people'.

Paul Wolfowitz, one of the key neocon ideologues, notoriously told a congressional hearing: "I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators…"

The fact that Bane, along with Ras al-Gul, seems to have a vaguely middle-eastern or central Asian origin further reinforces this link. The entire story could be seen as a complex role-reversal scenario - we are shown in vivid detail what it might look like if a foreign power occupied a major American city saying 'we're here to liberate you from your corrupt leaders' and then proceeded to commit unspeakable crimes. Gotham is Baghdad, Bane is any old US or British general in Iraq, and the underlying message is: this is how they see us, the so-called liberators...

Given that the writing/directing Nolan brothers team are a couple of well-educated Brits (Christopher is an alum of my alma mater, UCL) is a reliable indicator that this cannot be a coincidence. They even suggest as much in the script, when Commissioner Gordon tells Blake: "You're a detective now, son. You're not allowed to believe in coincidence anymore."

One could of course view the referential whole of the story as ambiguous - it could be a reference to both Occupy and the empty liberation rhetoric of imperialist overlords with ulterior motives, along with the ambiguity of revolutionary language that unites them. Nolan is reported to have acknowledged the influence of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities on the writing of The Dark Knight Rises - a story of the French Revolution, which unlike Occupy certainly involved plenty of revolutionary violence. Bane, then, is a figure in the cast of Robespierre, though undoubtedly far more extreme or fanatical, given that his commitment to revolutionary goals is nonexistent and his aim is ultimately extermination - destruction of the city. The revolutionary rhetoric is deployed purely to create chaos and buy time.

In a Rolling Stone interview, Nolan denied any intent to vilify the Occupy movement, stating "If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person. You could also say the conditions the evil person is exploiting are problematic and should be addressed...You don't want to alienate people, you want to create a universal story."

Right, so - legitimate concerns, genuine need for social change, exploited by a villain with ulterior motives. And we have a 'universal story' - one that speaks to different contexts, time periods, different points of view. Role reversal is precisely at the heart of this historically-grounded universality - an intersubjective collective empathy accessed by walking in someone else's shoes, or for that matter swapping places. If this is a tale of two cities, it could just as well be Gotham/New York and (the spectre of) Baghdad, for instance.

When asked whether Bruce Wayne would vote for Mitt Romney, Nolan replies "Before or after Bruce goes broke?" He is clearly hinting at a fairly materialist message about how economic circumstances dictate one's political perspective. And the implicit lesson - the moral of the story - is a variation on the old biblical 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. Or to put it in Game Theory terms, it suggests the 'TIT FOR TAT' strategy , which has been shown to be the simplest and most successful in cooperative games such as the iterated prisoner's dilemma - demonstrating that over the long term, altruism and cooperation are (paradoxically, perhaps) closely linked to self-interest, and more beneficial to the individual as well as the whole of society than selfishness and 'dog eat dog' mentality.

"What's the worst thing our villain Bane can do?" Nolan asks. "What are we most afraid of? He's going to come in and turn our world upside down...That has happened to other societies throughout history, many times, so why not here? Why not Gotham?  We want something that moves people and gets under the skin."

My thoughts exactly. The liberal hysteria about the supposed reference to Occupy seems, perhaps despite best intentions, fairly self-centered and myopic, confined to the relatively simple coordinates of recent American history and binary politics of Republican/Democrat. To me it seemed pretty obvious while watching The Dark Knight Rises that the story was an attempt to re-imagine an experience relatively foreign to Americans - a foreign military occupation by villains utilizing the same duplicitous rhetoric deployed by colonial/hegemonic forces worldwide, throughout history - on contemporary American soil, as if to say "this is what it would look like if this type of thing happened here."

And that's the important point, the key transposition. If so many critics and commentators missed it, that is rather their failure, an index of that same 'failure of imagination' that people talked of in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. It is all too easy to see the horror of Gotham in ahistorical terms, as pure fiction/fantasy, or at best a narrative that panders to xenophobic right-wing fantasies, and miss the clearly historical reference, the whiff of chickens coming home to roost. The failure to genuinely imagine and internalize the possibility that 'this could happen here' - with all its consequences, political and social - is a typical conceit stemming from the myth of American/Western uniqueness and exceptionality. But even more significant is the failure to recognize in the horrors wrought upon Gotham by Bane the very horrors that American or British troops have wrought on distant lands in military campaigns christened with poetic names such as 'Desert Storm' and 'Shock and Awe'. With the same empty rhetoric. And with similarly sinister and self-serving motives.

Even Slavoj Žižek, in a somewhat surprisingly positivist critique of The Dark Knight Rises, is unable to answer the key question:

The prospect of the Occupy Wall Street movement taking power and establishing a people’s democracy on the island of Manhattan is so patently absurd, so utterly unrealistic, that one cannot avoid asking the following question – why does a Hollywood blockbuster dream about it? Why does it evoke this spectre? Why does it even fantasise about OWS exploding into a violent takeover?

One can only be baffled by this question, again, if one fails to see the historical reference(s), the role reversal. The echoes of OWS are purely incidental - and the ambiguously revolutionary rhetoric should only alert us to the way in which the language of revolution is appropriated by figures like Bane, just like the British colonial prelates of yore, or the modern-day military-industrialists of American empire. To view this as a criticism of Occupy is to ignore context - to heed words and ignore actions; to make the mistake of taking seriously the hypocritical American rhetoric of "spreading freedom and democracy".

Among the first to sound the liberal hysteria alarm about the allegedly conservative politics behind The Dark Knight Rises was a blog post on Slate, which asks the insidious question: is Batman part of the 1 percent? And this only on the basis of a preview, prior to the film's release.

Where Nolan's vision perhaps encounters a kind of cognitive dissonance in the commentariat is that the structure of political organization evoked in the film is the inverse of that in the Wizard of Oz, a cultural milestone that may go some way in explaining American foreign policy of the past few decades. In the Wizard of Oz, the moment Dorothy accidentally kills the Wicked Witch, the Witch's subjects, freed from her spell, suddenly become good. This type of 'magical thinking' perhaps explains in part why many Americans, including (perhaps) Paul Wolfowitz, may have genuinely believed that the Iraqis would welcome their murderous, racist troops as liberators, once they got rid of the 'evil leader'.

The Dark Knight Rises, by contrast, gives a far more realistic portrayal of a flawed proto-revolutionary moment, which even Žižek might agree with on second thought - suggesting that revolutions are necessarily violent, and that the removal of even a corrupt leader by a foreign power imposing its will, in the absence of any indigenous revolutionary program, is bound to create a power vacuum and lead to a bad end - a decidedly un-revolutionary one at that. It is in this respect that another criticism of Zizek's is mistaken - Nolan's point is not the typical conservative one, that society needs a strong central state authority to preserve law and order; rather, it is the lack of an organized indigenous revolutionary or reformist initiative of any kind, the imposition of a revolutionary program and removal of authority from the outside, by a foreign agent, that guarantees chaos.

What Žižek seems to be getting at but not quite getting, in the concluding paragraphs of the above-cited piece, is the subversive core of this spectacle - how easily the society of Gotham crumbles when key figures of authority are removed; how easily the people take up Bane's bidding and sack the palaces of the rich, turning the city upside down. This is clearly not an indictment of OWS, or of 'people power', but a fairly subversive suggestion that an unequal society, in which the maintenance of law and order depends on a few figures of authority who can easily be removed or manipulated, a society heavily reliant on a state monopoly over the use of violence, is in fact a weak society - filled with discontent waiting to be unleashed and/or manipulated. That the rule of law, along with all the lofty ideals of a progressive, democratic society, is useless if it is not, as Rousseau put it, 'in the hearts of men'.

Another interesting echo of Nolan's reference to A Tale of Two Cities is the recent campaign for Mayor of New York. Bill de Blasio, the challenger from the progressive Left and eventual winner (a true Lefty for once) has vowed to put an end to New York's 'Tale of Two Cities' - one super-rich, the other abjectly poor.

It's probably a safe bet that Bruce Wayne, if he's around, voted for de Blasio.