The Return of the Working Class to American Politics

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Back during the Presidential election in 1984, when I was a sophomore at Rutgers University, I went to see Walter Mondale at the State Theater in downtown, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Even though Mondale, a colorless liberal Democrat who got creamed in the general election, invoked Bruce Springsteen so many times I thought he was a music critic, he never once used the term “working class.” In 1984, we were all “middle-class.” In 2016, the working-class has reemerged onto the political debate.

Why?

Spoiler alert: I have no real answers. I am not a journalist, an economist, a political theorist, or a labor activist. I have not traveled extensively, and have no direct first hand knowledge of the “working class” outside of the places where I have lived. If I can speak with any authority at all, it’s mainly because I grew up at the tail end of New Deal America, and was able to attend a fairly reputable state university without going deeply into debt. If can find an audience (you), it’s mainly because in the 1990s the American ruling-class decided to make the Internet commercially available to the public. My thoughts about the working-class are only impressionistic musings.

So what am I? I guess the vernacular term would be “a bum.” In spite of a fairly good education, I have not been able to work my way into the middle-class. I do not belong to a union, a professional society, a church, or any kind of civic organization. I have no place in society, no family, no wife or kids, and no steady employment. I have “white privilege.” In fact, as a white Protestant with four native-born grandparents, I suppose I qualify as a “real American,” even in the eyes of Ann Coulter or Donald Trump, but all of that is meaningless. The overwhelming reality for most Americans is what they do for a living, and I do nothing. I am a member of what Scrooge called “the surplus-population,” or what Karl Marx more accurately defined as The Reserve Army of Labor.

“capitalistic accumulation itself… constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of workers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the valorisation of capital, and therefore a surplus-population… It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of laborers, if the cost is about the same… The more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital.”

At times I am deeply pessimistic. I am a member of a Reserve Army of Labor that’s unlikely to be of much use during my lifetime. While the United States would certainly by any definition still qualify as a “great industrial power,” the computer I’m typing on was made in China. The car you drive was probably made in Mexico and assembled in the right-to-work American south. I am far too old to be of much use to the service industry, or to get onto any kind of track for any kind of skilled position. Who would train a fifty year old when there’s a vast supply of unemployed twenty year olds? I cannot afford Obamacare. At age fifty-one, I am long past my physical prime, and if I have not yet joined that epidemic of white middle-aged people dying before their time, it’s mainly because of a rugged physique, good genetics, and a puritanical upbringing that kept me from ever getting too caught up in drugs, sex or alcohol. Yet I can only last so long. What purpose can I possible serve? I am like an antiquated warship, permanently mothballed, and waiting to be towed to the Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard.

Nevertheless, if there’s a silver lining in the very black cloud that is the Presidential election of 2016, it’s this. The system that has filed me away as useless is beginning to crack up. The post-Bretton-Woods capitalism that has outsourced most of the economy to Bangladesh or Central America has taken off the mask and revealed itself to be the ugly monster it is. Politicians, who for decades avoided the subject like the plague, are once again talking about the “working class.” The elite neoliberalism of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has proven itself insufficient to keep order, for it has run smack into its central contradiction. The neo-fascism of Donald Trump has stepped in to paper over the cracks.

For the Ivy League educated, professional class in Park Slope, Cambridge, Princeton, Silicon Valley, or Washington, D.C., the disappearance of the American working class is not a thing to be mourned. On the contrary, rich liberals have no objection to the idea that Asian, Mexican, or Indian workers will do the manual labor while the United States becomes one big London, Paris or Manhattan, an administrative and financial center with a need for service workers, but not industrial or clerical workers, “Cloud City” from the old Star Trek series where a chosen few people of color are allowed to join the elite, and where the dirty work is done far away, and in a foreign language. The problem is what to do with the existing working class, especially the existing “white working class,” in places like Scranton, Pennsylvania, Sandusky, Ohio, or Flint, Michigan. Not everybody can, or would even want to learn how to code Java. There can only be so many hedge fund managers and political consultants. What do you with people who simply have no economic reason to exist? There’s no place in Cloud City for the “Unnecessariat.”

For the Clinton campaign in 2016, and for liberal elite as a whole, the answer was to divide and conquer the working class along racial issues, then try to forget about it. Supporters of Bernie Sanders, an old New Deal liberal, were dismissed as racists and sexists. Black and Latino workers were flattered as bourgeoisie in embryo, a natural elite held back only by racism. Then they were disappeared entirely. The “white working-class” was demonized as primitive and regressive, people who by virtue of their “white privilege” should already be rich, but who have instead chosen instead to spend their time watching professional wrestling and monster truck rallies, and killing themselves with prescription opiates.

If people behaved in a purely rational manner, the white, black, Latino and Asian working-class would have already united behind a revolutionary agenda to destroy capitalism. The New York Stock Exchange and the Goldman Sachs Building would be a smouldering ruin, but as Louis Althusser has demonstrated in his seminal work Contradiction and Overdetermination, that’s not the way it works in the real world. Asians and Latins, divided by class and nationality, played a surprisingly small role in the Presidential election of 2016. While the Clinton campaign did use Chicano activist Dolores Huerta to drive a wedge between Latinos and the Sanders campaign, by the time Hillary Clinton secured the nomination in July she felt so confident of Latino support she chose the white Virginian Tim Kaine as her Vice Presidential nominee. While Asians, with the ascendancy of China to the status of economic superpower, probably make up the majority of the world’s “industrial proletariat,” Asian Americans are rarely, if ever thought of as “working class” but instead as petty bourgeois and upwardly mobile. The historic Presidency of Barack Obama, the Clinton campaign’s use of Civil Rights icons like John Lewis, and fear of Donald Trump have effectively preempted rebellion by the black working-class, and they largely stayed within the neoliberal corporate mainstream.

It was the “white working class,” a term popularized by Hillary Clinton during her losing run against Barack Obama, that came to be identified with the working class as a whole. In 2016, the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party under Hillary Clinton — largely in order to tamp down a liberal insurgency of Bernie Sanders — decided to do a 180 degree about face from their position in 2008. No longer the candidate of “hard working white people,” Hillary Clinton became their scourge. Even though black people were impacted much more severely by the financial crisis of 2008 than white people, pro-Clinton neoliberals managed to define any move towards a class-based campaign as racist and sexist. The black working-class was an enlightened middle-class in embryo, held back only by racism. The white working class was backwards and regressive. It became a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Largely pushed out of the Democratic Party in the name of an alliance between the white liberal elite, Latino and black Americans, and lacking the institutional support or historical consciousness to move to the left, the “white working-class” moved precipitously to the right. In fact, it moved so far to the right that they wound up helping to put the neo-fascist Donald Trump in the White House.

To understand why the “white working-class” chose fascism over socialism, we need to understand the history of the New Deal. New Deal America wasn’t social democracy. It was, for lack of a better term,  libertarians would call a “warfare welfare state.” Franklin Roosevelt was essentially a conservative who used the idea of socialism against itself. It was not the New Deal that wrenched the American economy out of the Great Depression. It was the Second World War and the collapse of Western Europe. The golden age of the “white working-class” from 1945 to 1973 depended on American imperial hegemony, not on Keynesian make work programs. Even if the United States had not suffered from the self-inflicted wound of the Vietnam War, it was still only a matter of time before Germany, Japan, and eventually China would challenge its economic supremacy.

Bernie Sanders awkwardly tried to invoke New Deal America without confronting the military industrial complex, but most “white workers” know better. While Sanders may have appealed to young liberals, their parents and grandparents understood that you can’t have the GI Bill without a war. Go to any working-class town anywhere in the United States and you’ll probably find a Pearl Harbor Memorial of some kind, usually opposite the 9/11 Memorial. On the other hand talk to random strangers about the WPA mural on the wall of the local post office and you’ll more likely than not be met without uncomprehending stares. In the 1930s, my grandparents moved from the anthracite coal fields in Northeastern Pennsylvania to New Jersey, not to work for the WPA, but because my grandfather found a job in the Kearny shipyards working on destroyers and light cruisers. The New Deal never called American imperialism into question. Quite the opposite. The New Deal and the Great Society were the domestic component of American imperialism at its most powerful.

Donald Trump is a radical, right-wing free market ideologue who has never claimed to be anything but a radical, right-wing, free-market ideologue. Nevertheless, with his crude flag waiving and vicious nationalism, he managed to appeal, probably unconsciously, to the same nostalgia for New Deal America Bernie Sanders tried so hard to invoke from the left. The “white working-class,” having had its collective, historical memory stripped of any kind of revolutionary, or even radical consciousness, chose fascism over social democracy. “Make America Great Again,” not “workers of the world unite,” became its guiding principle. If the Clinton campaign chained the black working class to the same neoliberalism that destroyed the housing market and the tax base for inner city schools, the Sanders campaign eventually delivered the white working class right into the arms of Donald Trump. Social democracy without anti-imperialism isn’t identical with fascism, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Effectively deemed a surplus population by the Clinton campaign, and denied a radical alternative, the “white working class” chose the racism and imperial nostalgia of the Republicans over the “socially liberal and economically conservative” neoliberalism of the Democrats.

With the crackup of neoliberal capitalism, however, it’s time to sever the idea of the American working class from American nationalism. The working-class is not American. It’s neither white nor black. It’s white. It’s black. It’s Asian. It’s Latino. It’s French, German, Pakistani, Chinese, Mexican and Korean. It’s not only  the auto worker in Detroit. It’s the Chinese worker who made your computer and the Filipino nanny who takes care of your kids while you go to see “Hamilton” on Broadway. The right-wing populist who wants to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and the  Clinton supporter who refuses to talk about class at all he sees the working class as “white,” are two sides of the same coin.  Without a precise, and all-embracing view of the working-class as multi-ethnic, multi-racial and international, the left will be helpless in the face of the Trumps, the UKIPs, and the Marine Le Pens, the tidal wave of ultra-nationalist reaction sweeping the west. The term “working class” has made its way back into the political debate. It’s time for the working-class itself to make its way back into history. If it doesn’t, we have a lot more to lose than our chains.

The Fountainhead (1949)

The famous scene where Patricia Neal admires Gary Cooper’s, ahem, jackhammer.

While there have always been powerful, well-connected fans of Ayn Rand like Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan, something about her ideas appeals, not necessarily to the weak, but to outsiders, to failures, to losers and malcontents, among whom, of course, I number myself. If society rejects me, it feels a lot better to fool myself into thinking I’m a misunderstood genius than it does to face the harsh reality that I’m physically unattractive or lack social skills. There are, of course, physically unattractive, misunderstood geniuses who lack social skills, but they are far more likely to become poets or novelists than film directors or architects. Anybody who can somehow make it back to his apartment drunk off his ass and write a few lines of poetry can imagine that he might someday be the next Charles Bukowski. To be even a bad architect or a bad film director, however, takes other people. You need actors, construction workers, building inspectors, sound engineers, and most importantly of all, people with money to back your project, or you’ll never really make it past the stage of “impractical dreamer.”

King Vidor, who adapted Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, was not a bad filmmaker. On the contrary, he’s one of the greatest directors American cinema has ever produced. One look at the famous opening of his silent masterpiece The Crowd will make it obvious just how much later directors like Orson Welles owed to his pioneering genius. Vidor, however, was also a rebel and a malcontent, whose self-produced film Our Daily Bread, flopped at the box office. Even though Our Daily Bread was a solidly leftist, even socialist film, Vidor ended his career as a reactionary and an anti-communist, a member of Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The Hollywood studio bosses and the critical establishment which rejected Our Daily Bread lurched sharply to the left under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Vidor, in the aggrieved, contrarian manner every genuine loser and malcontent understands, did just the opposite. He turned to the right. What better director, therefore, to adapt Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead to the big screen?

Vidor’s adaptation of The Fountainhead has long divided critical opinion. While some people appreciate the acting of Gary Cooper and especially Patricia Neal in the roles of Howard Rourk and Dominique Francon, or the magnificent, and completely artificial – according to its IDMB entry there are no “on location” shoots in The Fountainhead – sets of New York City designed by its art director Edward Carrere, other people find the dialog ludicrous, Gary Cooper miscast and too old, and the movie’s politics a thinly veiled apology for fascism. Ayn Rand herself, even though she was heavily involved in its production, hated it so much that she refused to allow Hollywood to film an adaption of her later novel Atlas Shrugs. Her grievances seem to have been mainly centered on the way the adaptation edited down Howard Rourk’s final speech to under eight minutes. I come down firmly on the side of “it’s a great film.” It’s not because I agree with Rand’s or Vidor’s politics. On the contrary, I’m a Marxist and a collectivist who thinks the only thing that can save humanity from itself is communist revolution. It’s not because the film appeals to me as a contrarian and a malcontent. While I can certainly appreciate the twenty-two-year-old Patricia Neal lusting for Gary Cooper’s flaccid old dick in the famous granite quarry scene, I find Howard Rourk and Dominique Francon both such irritating characters that if they existed in real life — and I got to live out my fantasy of being Joseph Stalin — I’d send them both right to the Gulag. The short answer to why I think The Fountainhead is a great film is that it’s a magnificent triumph of form over content. Let me briefly summarize the plot then give you the long answer.

The Fountainhead opens with Howard Rourk, the forty-seven-year-old Gary Cooper, being expelled from a university that looks a bit like Princeton. The reason he’s being expelled is probably a first, at least for the Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Albert Einstein. He’s too individualistic. He won’t design buildings to please the public. He’s got too much integrity. After leaving the university, Rourk finds a mentor, and soulmate, in the form of Henry Cameron, another maverick architect played by Henry Hull. Cameron, who may be an individualist, but who certainly can’t be described as a “rugged” individualist, eventually breaks down in despair over his lack of clients, and warns Rourk to take the easy way out and conform. Forget about modern architecture, he cries in anguish. Give the people the trash that they want. Rourk, who’s rugged as well as an individualist, assures Cameron that far from giving in, he’ll carry on his legacy, but soon runs into the same problems. He can’t find any clients. We soon see why. While the local tabloid, “The Banner,” is owned by the honorable, but flawed, Gail Wynand – the sexually ambiguous first name is no accident – the newspapers domineering spirit is a man named Ellsworth M. Toohey. Rand was no Dickens but she could occasionally come up with an amusing name. Toohey, who smokes a cigarette in a holder – shades of Franklin Roosevelt? – is not only a dedicated collectivist, he’s basically Satan. He wants to control and then break Rourke, who he recognizes as a man of integrity, through his control of the stupid mob, the uneducated masses easily manipulated by tabloids like The Banner. Rourke, of course, is too strong to be intimidated by Toohey. When he runs out of clients, and money, he not only refuses to take a loan from his old classmate Peter Keating – a fashionable architect and caricature of the conformist who gets along by going along – he takes a job as a day laborer in a granite quarry.

While Ayn Rand and King Vidor may have been conservatives, and while Cooper may have been too old to play the twenty-five-year-old Howard Rourk, the sections of The Fountainhead that take place in the granite quarry works perfectly, almost in spite of itself. When Patricia Neal, a bourgeois “lady” in her fashionable clothes, comes to the quarry and observes the tall, muscular Cooper, who looks exactly like an idealized proletarian superman from Soviet mural, it’s a miniature Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Ayn Rand, like D.H. Lawrence, worshiped dick, as you can plainly see by the way Neal looks at Cooper as he applies a jackhammer to a wall of granite. Howard Rourke eventually gets a commission to build a skyscraper for an eccentric millionaire named Roger Enright, but doesn’t leave before he and Dominique Francon have a round of hot prole on bourgeoisie, and pretty explicitly rapey, sex in her father’s summer home. The Enright Building is, of course, a success. Rourk, who’s modeled on Rand’s hero Frank Lloyd Wright is a genius. After he and Francon meet for a second time at the Enright Building’s opening day party – for some odd reason she never asked him his name at the quarry – they get better acquainted. Rourk isn’t an uneducated day laborer at all, but a fellow bourgeoisie. Ellsworth M. Toohey, more determined than every before to destroy Howard Rourke, persuades Gail Wynand, who’s too busy pining after Dominique Francon to pay much attention to anything, to enlist The Banner in a smear campaign against modern architecture. The stupid masses, being stupid masses, are easily manipulated into rejecting the Enright Building’s pioneering design, and once again, Rourk finds himself without any clients. Dominique Francon, still pining for Howard Rourke’s Chrysler Building of a penis, resigns from The Banner in protest.

Rourk, the ruggedest of rugged individualists, works his way back, taking any small commission in any out of the way place from anybody who will let him design buildings, not for the public, but for himself. Eventually Gail Wynand, who in the intervening years has successfully bullied Dominique Francon into marrying him, commissions Rourk to build a dream house for his wife, who’s never loved him. Wynand, who’s long forgotten about the smear campaign that destroyed Rourk’s career, has enough taste to know he’s the man for the job. What he doesn’t realize is that Rourke’s already slept with his wife, and that the house, once built, might be, for lack of a better term, called The Cuck Palace. Wynand, who’s played in an almost catatonic manner by Raymond Massey, is not only a rich man trying to buy his way into his trophy bride’s heart. He’s probably a closeted homosexual who wants the Howard Rourk dick as badly as his wife does, but can’t admit it to himself. Eventually he and Rourk become good friends, recognizing each other as fellow men of integrity, and the not so subtle shift in the balance of power excites Dominique Francon like she’s never been excited before. Who will she choose? Raymond Massey or Gary Cooper? Of course she chooses Rourke. When Peter Keating, Rourk’s light-weight old “friend” from the university, once a fashionable architect but now down on his luck, manages to convince the all powerful Ellsworth M. Toohey, who by this point is as much Robert Moses as he is Franklin Roosevelt, into letting him design a gigantic new public housing project, and finding himself in over his head, he manages to convince Rourke to do it for him. Rourk, uncharacteristically agrees, but only on one condition, that his design be accepted as is with no changes.

Note: Ayn Rand seems to have anticipated the way blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters would use “fronts” during the McCarthyite 1950s, only here the victim isn’t a communist screenwriter but a libertarian superman persecuted by the stupid masses.

Rourke’s design for the housing project is, of course, a triumph. There’s really nothing Howard Rourk can’t do. Unfortunately, however, he decides to go on a long, slow cruise with his friend – gay lover? – Gail Wynand and is unavailable to advise Peter Keating when Ellsworth Toohey hires assistant architects to make a mess of Rourk’s original design. When Rourke returns to the city, he’s aghast, but unlike with Toohey’s previous attempts to reduce him to submission, he can’t just quit and walk out. Keating has already agreed to the modifications, and the housing project is already going up. The only solution left is to become, if not a terrorist, then at least a vandal on an epic scale, so he rigs the construction site with dynamite and blows the housing project to kingdom come. Rourke doesn’t mind if poor people get to live in his magnificent creation, but he does mind if mediocrities make changes to his “art.” It’s really not difficult to see the connection here between the architect and the screenwriter, more specifically, to Ayn Rand herself, who hated the idea, even of minor editing to bring one of her turgid speeches down to manageable proportions.

The trial itself, which seems besides the point since the police have found Rourk on the site of the construction site after the explosions, serves mainly to give Gail Wynand the opportunity to redeem, then disgrace himself in his wife’s eyes, initially throwing The Banner behind Rourk’s defense, then backing down after the paper’s shareholders threaten to pull out. Rourk’s long speech on the differences between the creator and the parasite so moves the jury that they nullify the charges, and Rourk, although he actually confesses during the trial to having blown up the housing project, walks free. Gail Wynand, who now admits that Rourk deserves possession of Dominique Francon, has only two more things to do. First he commissions Rourke to build the “Wynand Building,” the tallest skyscraper in New York, then he blows his brains out. The last scene in the film, with Francon riding a service operator to the top of Rourk’s creation, is the fulfillment of the scene in the quarry when she first sees Rourk with the jackhammer, an ode to the biggest dick in the world, not the Wynand Building, but the thing hanging between Howard Rourk’s legs.

The opening scene of King Vidor’s film The Crowd. Note how the Equitable Building eventually becomes a model.

The scene from The Fountainhead, where Gary Cooper takes his broken mentor to the hospital. Note the Equitable Building in the window of the ambulance, Vidor’s subtle allusion to the earlier film. The Fountainhead’s Henry Cameron, like the crowd’s John Sims, is overwhelmed by the scale and power of the city, only in the Fountainhead, unlike in The Crowd, Vidor celebrates the great machine that breaks the insignificant little man.

So why does so obviously stupid a film work?

I would argue that it’s not in spite of but because of Rand’s insipid script. The Fountainhead’s characters are so badly written and so difficult to connect with that we eventually ignore them, and they fade into the wonderfully designed sets. King Vidor, who decades earlier had directed The Crowd, easily one of the greatest movies of the 1920s, has brought some of the magic of the late silent film back into the theater. Indeed, it’s possible to look at The Fountainhead as the true sequel to The Crowd that Our Daily Bread tried, and failed to become. Where Our Daily Bread focused on the redemption through collectivism of The Crowd’s hero, an anonymous little man crushed by the weight of the modern city, The Fountainhead celebrates the great city that crushed him. Vidor probably didn’t intend it to turn out that way any more than George Lucas wanted so many people to find his evil empire, those magnificent star destroyers and death stars, to be the coolest thing about the Star Wars franchise, but that’s what’s on the screen. Nothing in The Crowd quite lived up to the great opening scene where Vidor’s camera pans up the side of the Equitable Building in lower Manhattan until it’s transformed into something so much larger than anything on the human scale that it becomes a model, but that scene is completely fulfilled in The Fountainhead. Everything about the film, the lighting, the shadow, the “deep focus” borrowed from Citizen Kane, the out sized offices and apartments, serves to diminish the people that inhabit it. Indeed, even Howard Rourke is subordinated in the famous ending – you should never shoot a middle-aged man from below lest you reveal his saggy chin – in favor of his creation. In the end The Fountainhead is pure cinema, a film, not about Howard Rourk, but about the beauty of the Manhattan skyline, perhaps the greatest film ever made about the impersonally vast, aesthetically overwhelming machine that is New York City.

The Walk (2015)

On the night of August 6, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit and a group of friends rigged a series of steel cables between two towers of the World Trade Center. When the sun came up the next morning on August 7, Petit climbed out onto the cable and did a death-defying, forty-five minute hire-wire act 1350 feet above the streets of lower-Manhattan before the rain finally forced him to come inside. Petit’s walk, which is sometimes credited with redeeming the World Trade Center in the eyes of most New Yorkers, has already been the subject of one film, the acclaimed Man on a Wire. Since most of the images of the real Philippe in the act of walking between the World Trade Center are still photos, however, the story was ripe for a semi-fictional dramatization.

The Walk, which was directed by Forrest Gump’s Robert Zemeckis, somehow manages to be both a great film and a terrible film. The critical consensus, that The Walk has a great second half marred by a dull first half and a terrible performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, misses the point. Yes, Levitt hams it up with a fake French accent, which some dialect coaches argue is perfectly authentic, but fake French accents, as we’ve learned from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, are fun. If you’re an American pretending to be a Frenchman, you’d might as well give it the whole Pepe Le Pew. Levitt, while clearly a man in his thirties and not a twenty-four-year-old, manages to project the kind of athleticism you wold expect from a man who could walk for forty-five minutes on a steel cable suspended 1350 feet in the air. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not a problem. He’s an asset. The first half of The Walk isn’t inspired cinema, but it serves its purpose. Petit learned how to wire walk when he was sixteen. He walked the between World Trade Center Number One and World Trade Center Number Two when he was twenty-four. That’s not a lot of time, as the opening of the film makes clear.

The problem with The Walk isn’t Joseph Gordon-Levitt or the uninspired opening in Paris. It’s that the film is more libertarian than anarchist. As you might expect from the right-wing Robert Zemeckis – Forrest Gump was a dreadful piece of reactionary propaganda – the spirit that presides over The Walk is not Peter Kropotkin but Ayn Rand. Part of the fun of a good heist film is watching how a team of conspirators cases the target, cracks their security code, then comes together and pulls off the job. When Jean-Pierre Melville, who actually called himself a right-wing anarchist, made Le Cercle Rouge and Bob le flambeur, he knew what teamwork looked like. The Walk — which purports to be a heist movie about a fun loving group of anarchists who come together to pull off “the coup” of infiltrating the security of the World Trade Center — is mainly about the need to respect the superman and get out of his way. Indeed, in Zemeckis’ imagination, Petit’s team, which includes a stereotypical, dumb American stoner and Jeff, a French math nerd who’s terrified of heights, is almost worse than useless.

Jeff in fact becomes the The Walk’s surrogate for its audience. Don’t get me wrong, the second half of The Walk is filmed with so much skill I literally had to turn it off several times to recover my composure. There are reports of people getting vertigo and throwing up  during its original theatrical run in New York. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t see The Walk, even at home. The problem is that a good film would have put us in the shoes of Philippe Petit, not his useless assistant. Instead of letting us share the hero’s triumph, The Walk reduces us to terrified spectators. Zemeckis doesn’t liberate us. He manipulates us.

That’s too bad because, in spite of everything, I still think The Walk is the best film ever made about the World Trade Center, and, in some ways, the best film ever made about 9/11. As we watch Petit walk from tower to tower, turn around, then walk back again, it’s impossible not to think about people who chose to fall to their deaths rather than be burned alive. Indeed, the most terrifying thing about The Wire is how vividly it drives home the idea of being stuck 1350 feet above ground with no chance of being rescued. The police are not only useless. They almost get Petit killed. An NYPD helicopter buzzes him overhead. Police officers reach out their hands to “rescue” him in such an absurd manner we half suspect that the reason he stayed on the wire for so long was because he was afraid that some fool of New York City cop would get in his way. He solves that problem by tossing them his balancing pole, which knocks them to the ground long enough for him to jump back onto the roof to safety, and to his arrest. The second half of The Walk is brilliantly done, but it’s really not much fun. We share none of Petit’s exhilaration. The longer The Walk goes on, the more we want it to end, for Petit to get the hell off the roof before he has an attack of nerves, falls and ends up a smashed pile of flesh and bones on the sidewalk below. While Petit is dancing in the sky like an aerial John Galt, we become, in effect, the cops, ordinary people without the courage or the imagination to do anything so inspired.

At the end of The Walk, Petit tells us that the director of the World Trade Center gave him lifetime pass to the observation deck. We can’t help but reflect on how Petit is still very much alive, but that the World Trade Center is gone. We remember the people who died with it.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

chain

Before there was Sansho the Bailiff, Wages of Fear, Army of Shadows, A Man Escaped, Sullivan’s Travels or Twelve Years a Slave, there was I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Based on the autobiography of Robert Elliott Burns, a New Jersey man who escaped from a Georgia penal institution, not once, but twice, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of the first, and still one of the best, films to explore the prison industrial complex, the essentially fascist nature of capitalism, and the meaning of “freedom.” It also had a direct influence on the politics of the early 1930. Its success not only made it possible for the Governor of New Jersey to refuse to extradite Burns to Georgia, it provoked a retaliatory lawsuit by the Georgia chain gang warden J. Harold Hardy against Warner Brothers for “vicious, brutal and false attacks.”

And thus begins a second drama that rivals the one recounted in his book. Warden J. Harold Hardy of the Troup County chain gang – a prominent character in this book – and Troup County police Chief R. B. Carter went to New Jersey to take Burns back to Georgia after extradition. However, New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore received hundreds of telegrams and letters, including one representing the 800 members of the Fourteenth Engineers Veterans’ Association, Burns’ old outfit, opposing extradition. All this outpouring of support was a result of the media coverage Burns received at the time and the overwhelming popularity of his story, both the book and the film.

http://www.oocities.org/marulaslair/legacy1.html

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang begins with Sergeant James Allen, played by the seminal American actor Paul Muni, returning to his hometown from the western front of the First World War. His older brother, a Protestant minister, advises him to go back to his old job as a clerk in the local shoe factory, but Allen has other plans. Having learned civil engineering in the army, he wants to start over again in the construction industry. So he hits the road, running squarely into the deep, and pretty much forgotten recession that hit the United States following the First World War. Allen’s brother was right. Jobs aren’t easy to come by when you’re competing against over a million demobilized soldiers. He should have taken his old job back, and sat tight until the recession was over. Soon he’s one of many unemployed hobos wandering through America looking for work.

Allen refused his old job at the shoe factory because his experience in the army had taught him to dislike regimentation. He has no idea what’s coming. When a fellow hobo invites the hungry Allen out for a hamburger, he enthusiastically tags along, only to realize, to his horror, that he’s been tricked into participating in an armed robbery. Of course the police, who arrive quickly on scene, don’t believe his story of having only come along for the hamburger, especially when he panics and tries to run. Sentenced to ten years hard labor on a George chain gang, where the food is barely edible, and where torture is regularly to motivate prisoners who can’t take the brutal sixteen-hour work days, he begins to long for his former life as an unemployed bum. Allen quickly realizes that if he doesn’t escape soon, the regimentation and the bad food will begin to feel normal, that his life will essentially be over. Against all odds, and with the help of his fellow prisoners, one African American, he manages to bend the cuffs of his chain far enough to slip out and “take it on the lamb.” One of the most radical things about I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is the way Allen’s fellow prisoners are not only racially diverse, but capable of solidarity. They’re not depraved criminals so much as proletarians trapped inside an essentially fascist capitalism.

Note: Yes, they could have, and probably should, have made the black prisoner who helps Allen break his chains the real star of the film, but that would have been another movie, 12 Years a Slave to be precise.

James Allen’s escape from the Georgia chain gang to Chicago not only holds up as a nail biting thriller,  it’s probably better than most films being released today. It’s certainly better than the overrated The Fugitive from the 1990s. Just about the only film that puts us so squarely in the shoes of a man trying against all odds to get away from his captors is Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Watch both films consecutively to compare the revolutionary potential of Pre-Code Hollywood and the French New Wave. Bresson would never cast an actor as expressive as Paul Muni, but they’re not as different as you might think. Allen’s success in Chicago under an assumed name – he finally gets that job in construction he wanted so badly and eventually rises to become superintendent of a construction site – is overshadowed by Marie, a jealous, resentful woman who finds out about his real identity and uses it to blackmail him into marrying her. The misogynistic portrayal of Marie is perhaps the film’s biggest weak point – it’s just the “woman scorned” cliche – but there is a point behind it. Under capitalism, even a comfortable member of the bourgeoisie, which Allen has now become, isn’t genuinely free. Alienated from ourselves, and from our fellow suffering humans, every man still back on the chain gang in Georgia, we are still regimented. It’s a kinder, gentler, far more comfortable variety of slavery, but it’s slavery none the less. So when Allen meets Helen, the woman of his dreams – actually she’s as much of a card board cutout as his wife – he attempts to convince Marie to give him a divorce, and she rats him out to the police, who are still on his trail after all those years.

James Allen is once again a prisoner of the state. Released from the necessity to live under an assumed name, however, and as a prominent bourgeoisie with access to the media, he can now agitate for his fellow prisoners back in Georgia, and against the prison industrial complex in general. Without a revolutionary movement behind him, however, James Allen is doomed. The governor of Georgia, which promises him a full pardon if he goes back and serves another ninety days, goes back on his word. Of course he does. We all know he will, and it’s almost unbearable to watch Allen reject the advice of his lawyer and take the deal. Did Allen really believe he was ever going to get out of that prison system once they tricked him back inside? His second round of incarceration is, if anything, even worse than the first, not only because his fellow prisoners no longer respect him – they rightfully think he’s an idiot – but because he places his “hope,” not in outright rebellion, but in the idea that “the system” might be fair. So he waits, and waits, and waits while his “pardon” is pushed back further and further, first ninety days, then a year, then indefinitely. It’s only when he loses all hope that the state of Georgia will ever release him that he regains his ability to act, and by that time it’s too late. He’s crossed the line from rebel over to hardened criminal.

It’s interesting to speculate on the potential of “Pro-Code” Hollywood, that short era between the advent of “talkies” and the introduction of the “Production Code” in 1934, those three or four years when Hollywood was not only putting out sophisticated romantic comedies like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Flying Down to Rio, but “social justice” films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. American cinema might have become as revolutionary as the Soviet Cinema of the 1920s, or the French New Wave. Alas though, the puritan scolds of the Republican Party and the Catholic Church saw what they were up against and put a stop to it. Indeed, few Americans realize that between 1934 and 1968, American cinema was subject to a regime of censorship that was as strict as anything in the “free world.” When the Production Code finally started to break down in the 1960s, the result was more “Bonnie and Clyde” than I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, coarse violent exploitation rather than a profound meditation on the nature of freedom, capitalism and the prison industrial complex.

Elegy for the Giant Meteor

The aggressive, repetitive chanting that has come to dominate modern pop music, the way I encounter it in almost identical conditions every day, has elevated its own banality to the realm of the sinister. If there’s a collective unconscious this is its Tell-Tale Heart Moment.

I hear repeated over loudspeakers at least 10 times in a given day:

“WE AIN’T EVER GETTING OLDER

WE AIN’T EVER GETTING OLDER”

Before this it was another chant about partying like there’s no tomorrow, with a heavy emphasis on the no tomorrow part. Is the end of the world an aphrodisiac? I suppose it must be.

Before the election happened and the actual lines of the laughable revealed themselves, there were polls where Trump and Clinton both were trailing “A Giant Meteor Hitting the Earth.” We could’ve had that, but the two-party establishment kept the meteor out of the debates.

It was presumed that Trump was finished at numerous times; in the beginning of his campaign he was treated as a joke. In the debates he came across as incoherent and possibly coked up to the gills. Trump was the ultimate post-modern candidate, the one who existed outside the binary of “true/false” and won despite it? Because of it?

I wondered as I walked my dogs this week about another world where in fact the Giant Meteor had made it to the debates. Where people laughed off the Giant Meteor but the Meteor had more get up and go. Where members of the press warned “This is literally what killed the dinosaurs” instead of “This is literally Adolph Hitler.” Where the Giant Meteor chose an appropriate running mate, say an outbreak of cholera. I could see the signs on peoples’ lawns.

“METEOR/CHOLERA 2016:

GETTING THE JOB DONE!”

“GETTING THE JOB DONE!” because, of course, “BETTER TOGETHER” was already taken.

As directly as Trump managed to connect with voters in the apocalyptic rust belt, I feel like a Giant Meteor could’ve connected even more directly. The Giant Meteor has had at least as much exposure in TV and the movies over the last 30 years as either of the other candidates and unlike Trump, who only did cameos for the most part, the Giant Meteor has been the de facto star of every vehicle it’s appeared in.

armageddon-poster06

We thought the threat of an American Hitler was enough to warn off most of the US public from voting for one and we were wrong. It’s not like we as a culture didn’t spend enough time obsessing over Hitler. At least one US cable channel could be accurately renamed The Hitler and Aliens Network. They broadcast 24/7.

What odds would Nate Silver have given the Meteor? Who would have been the Meteor’s secret constituency? Who would the Meteor have appointed as its advisers on how best to collide with the Earth?

The Meteor is the bigger outsider. The Meteor could’ve effected substantial change and overcome congressional deadlock. The Meteor has never held public office. The Meteor has never sent any e-mails.

You laugh at this. We all laughed at Trump months ago.

“The Meteor promises all this stuff but it’ll disintegrate in the atmosphere before it gets to congress. It’ll just be business as usual soon enough,” NPR would have said..

Dear god let’s hope so…

Trump and the Culpability of White People, Specifically and Generally

(Note: This article started out as a series of notes I typed in response to a friend who asked me to comment on this article. They’ve been cleaned up but the rambling flow has been retained. Seeing how uncertain the future is in most respects, informal musings seem like as good a form as any for a further response to the election.)

Who’s responsible?

-One specific white person was too busy striking Sam the Eagle poses in the mirror (or during the debates whenever Trump was talking, to all of us watching) imagining how presidential she was going to look when she was presidenting instead of how to effectively canvass large swathes of the country. She was a creature entirely made out of money and girded by money. Only such a creature would think the approval of Lena Dunham is a major campaign asset to be sent around. Much of the scooped out middle of America sees Dunham (and probably most of the other bajillions of celeb endorsements Clinton rolled out) as something emphasizing how out of touch and patrician Clinton was/is. Judith Butler’s discussion of how the appearance of transgression paradoxically legitimizes the things it’s attached to from Excitable Speech needs to be looked over again by the left/center-left. If they ever looked at in the first place.

-The super-rich that actually bankroll these elections were, as the super rich have been historically for the last 100 years or so that fascism has existed as a discrete political ideology, perfectly willing to play out a hostage situation instead of a campaign. “Buy the magazine or we shoot this puppy!” “Elect the person we want or devolve into fascism!” Large portions of America went for the “shoot the puppy” vote, the only time in history that calling anything the “shoot the puppy” something could be considered a positive glossing over. But here we are.

When Brian and I were shooting Plain Songs, we asked strangers the question “Where do you see the US headed in 10-15 years?” A solid 70-80% of the total answers were variations on:

“Ha, like it’ll still be here” or…

“Do you think we’ll last that long?” or…

“To hell”.

When I walked through the “downtown”s of these places and saw one open Hardee’s and a Dollar General that doubled as the only grocery store, I could see their point-there’s an extremely apocalyptic tenor to our present culture. Our landscape is unevenly divided into urban spaces meant to resemble amusement parks/boardwalks and an everywhere else that looks well…like this:

trip-photos-400

That’s an original photo I took on the road. I’m provisionally calling it “Freedom Isn’t Free”.

-People interviewed in a Guardian article in the midst of primary season re: “My first choice is Bernie, my second choice is Trump”, all the respondents were airing what I’d call “accelerationist” beliefs-stated more succinctly: “give me full communism or just  fucking end this shit already”. In a poll conducted a couple years ago, 13% of respondents thought Obama was the antichrist and there was a 5% overlap (i.e. 5% of the total people polled) who both thought Obama was the antichrist AND voted for him. I’d be interested to see what percentage of Trump’s voters also thought he was the anti-Christ. If anyone knows whether there were surveys asking this, please contact me.

“…not the Anti-Christ we want, but the Anti-Christ we deserve…”

trumptacobowl

-Given the climate change angle, which unfortunately wasn’t focused on much by the candidates or the polling, I’m inclined to take the 5% of antichrist voters at face value. What percentage of the electorate actively want the world to end? What percentage were actively waiting for a “shoot the puppy” candidate? To what extent is this “not exclusively a race thing” because the electorate was set on dooming everybody?

-Why is no one drawing a line between the effects of Clinton’s “deplorables” comment and Romney’s “47%” remarks? They’re as close as we’re ever gonna get to part of history literally repeating itself.

More to come…

Talking to Strangers in Public

Yesterday I went to my local coffee shop to get away from the Internet and read a book. Since I’m too poor to have a cell-phone, leaving the house without my laptop means going back to the world of the 1980s. My brain slows down. I regain the ability to think in complete sentences. I can lose myself in the world of the world of the United States Civil War or the French Revolution. I can talk to strangers. I went inside, ordered a coffee, nodded to an old women who smiled at me, then quickly grabbed one of the comfortable chairs near the window.

Ever since I cycled through New England, I have been unable to turn down a stranger who asks for directions. How many times had I been lost somewhere in Western Massachusetts only to be saved from going ten miles out of my way by some helpful stranger who took five minutes out of his time to help me find the road that Google Maps helped me lose. So when I heard a woman ask a man in broken English if he knew the way to a drugstore, I jumped at the chance, not only to pay back the man who helped me escape the twilight zone that is Worcester, Massachusetts, but to show off my laboriously acquired Spanish.

Gira a la izquierda. Sigue. Walgreens es cerca de tres cuadras a la derecha.

We talked for a few minutes. Between her broken English and my broken Spanish, I think I managed to get her to the right place. After she left, I looked around, almost hoping that some Trump voter would tell me that “this is America. We speak English.” Then I could practice my “performative white ally” skills and ask him to step outside and settle it like bros. It didn’t happen. The coffee shop, which is in that part of northern New Jersey the New York Times has dubbed “Brooklyn West,” probably had as many Gary Johnson and Jill Stein supporters as it did Trump supporters. If you say anything as dumb as “this is America, we speak English” in my part of the world, people will probably just laugh at you.

As I looked around at my fellow coffee shop patrons, mostly twentysomething and thirtysomething New York City commuters – the coffee shop is part of a mixed use condo building right across the street from a New Jersey Transit station — I was suddenly reminded of how poor I am and how old I am. Just then, as if on cue, the old woman I had nodded to on my way in, changed her seat to sit closer to mine. She asked me if I lived in town. I told her I lived in the town next door and knew my way around. She asked me if I knew the location of a good bar. I told her to walk through the tunnel in the New Jersey Transit station, make a right, and she would find a very good one a few blocks down the road. I looked back down at my book, but she kept talking. She was from Philadelphia, she told me, and had spent a few days in Elizabeth, which she liked. Who in their right mind likes Elizabeth? She was planning to visit Plainfield or Somerville. Who the hell visits Plainfield or Somerville? My eye wandered to the large, cheap knapsack she had on the chair opposite her table. It was full of clothes.

I continued to read my book, not because I have anything against talking to strangers, but because the woman was older, and poorer than I was, perhaps even homeless. She had moved her chair next to mine because not because she had wanted to ask directions, but because she was lonely and wanted to talk. How many times have I been in a similar position? I should have talked to her as long as she wanted. Instead, I tried not to hear what she was saying, burying my head in Bruce Catton’s Glory Road, marveling at the way ordinary young Americans had once been willing to die for their ideals, or at least trying. In reality, I was ashamed at how approachable I must have been, that I lacked the quintessentially upper-middle-class American skill of of being private in public. This woman had noticed how eagerly I had given the Spanish speaking woman directions to Walgreens, and had marked me off as a fellow misfit in need of company, which, of course, I was. Eventually she got frustrated and moved on.

How many of us live lives of quiet desperation, unwilling to acknowledge our own reflection?

Towards a People’s Impeachment

declaration

When Carl Higbie, the spokesman for the pro-Trump Great American PAC, told Megyn Kelly of Fox News that the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II would provide a legal precedent for a registry of Muslim Americans under the Trump administration, it wasn’t all that it seemed. He was not proposing that “we” round up Muslim Americans and put them in detention camps. He was merely suggesting that if the Trump Administration brought back the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which existed under the Bush Administration, it would not be against the law.

But let’s not kid ourselves.

Higbie was clearly floating the idea of a generation detention of Muslim Americans on a national TV network in order to gauge public reaction. Michelle Malkin did a similar thing back in 2004 with her book In Defense of Internment.We have no idea just how far the Bush Administration would have gone had it not been for Hurricane Katrina and the Iraqi Resistance. Since he’s already appointed the fanatical Islamophobe Frank Gaffney to his transition team and has dropped hints that either John Bolton or Rudy Giuliani could be Secretary of State, we may get a better idea under President Donald Trump. A certain type of American reactionary is eternally obsessed with the idea that the United States loses wars like Vietnam or Iraq, not because those wars are unwinnable, but because the politicians and the “liberal” media make the troops fight those wars with “one hand tied behind their back.” Don’t listen to what Trump says. Look at what he does. He’s currently filling his administration with Bush-era neoconservatives. That means there’s a very good chance that we are going to get a second run of the war on terror, only this time with the gloves off, with Trump as Barry Goldwater to George W. Bush’s Lyndon Johnson. The white supremacist American right are aching to show that they can “win” somewhere, anywhere. That means more torture, more attacks on our civil liberties, more persecution of Muslims, immigrants and other minorities.

All of this could have been avoided if the Democrats had impeached George W. Bush after they took back the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2007. It could have been significantly slowed down had Barack Obama worked to restore the “rule of law” after he became President in 2008. But here we are. There are no more restraints on the American ruling class. They are going to get anything and everything they want. What they really want remains to be seen, but let’s just say that when it comes to the ruling class of any nation, the answer is usually “everything.” They will take what we let them take. We let them take our civil liberties under George W. Bush. We let them reach into our pockets for the money to bail out Wall Street under Barack Obama. If they want to privitize Social Security and Medicaid, scrap what little remains of the Bill of Rights, and wage an all out “war on terror and immigrants” under President Donald J. Trump, they’re probably going to get it, at least if we don’t stop them.

We cannot depend on Congress, now under the control of the Republicans, to protect the United States Constitution. If the liberal Nancy Pelosi took the very clearly justified impeachment of George W. Bush “off the table” as soon as she became Speaker of the House of Representatives, we can’t expect the-right-wing extremist Paul Ryan to stand up to Donald Trump if he decides to embark on an unconstitutional registry of Muslim Americans, or a massive deportation of Mexican immigrants. Stranger things have happened. — the only prominent American politician to oppose the internment of Japanese Americans was the right-wing-extremist Robert Taft — but I wouldn’t count on it. The system of checks and balances written into the Constitution to restrain arbitrary executive power no longer works. If Trump effectively tries to abolish the First Amendment by imposing a religious test on Muslim Americans Congress will not only refuse to stop him. They will rewrite the law to make everything legal. If we depend on the Democrats to impeach Trump, they will betray us exactly the way they did in 1987 and 2007.

The “Not My President” marches that have erupted ever since Trump’s victory on November 8 may radicalize small groups of people, but they will ultimately peter out unless they coalesce around a clear objective. Single issue protests, anti-war protests, protests against racism, the protests against the pipeline at Standing Rock, protest against individual Trump appointees, the awful Stephen Bannon, for example, or against specific policies, do not get to the root of the problem, the decades long political process that reduced the Presidential election to a mud-slinging contest between two such horrible candidates. How did it get to the point where we got a choice between a Wall Street stooge and an actual plutocrat, where the most inspiring and radical figure to emerge in 2016 was a 74-year-old, right-wing social democrat who praised Winston Churchill, called Hugo Chavez a “dead communist dictator,” suggested that we “work with our Saudi allies in the war against Islamic extremism,” and refused to do so much as criticize American imperialism and the military industrial complex.

The demand to repeal the Electoral College and elect the President by the popular vote is being driven by a legitimate grievance. Hillary Clinton won 61,963,234 votes to Trump’s 60,961,185. Donald Trump is President mainly because of an antiquated system designed to protect small, rural states over large, urban states. We should by all means work to abolish the Electoral College, but to do it now will not only smack of desperation. It will bog political activists down in a long, drawn out process to amend the Constitution. We should not make the same mistake people did in Wisconsin when they demobilized the ongoing protests at the Wisconsin state capital for a vote on the recall of Scott Walker. 61,963,234 and 60,961,185 are certainly important numbers. More important than that is the number of people who didn’t show up to vote on November 8. The United States has 240 million people of voting age. That means that 50% of eligible voters didn’t think the Presidential election worth their time. Don’t listen to the conservative pundits who tell you that Trump was a popular rebellion against “political correctness” or to the liberal pundits who tell you it was all about race. Donald Trump was chosen by a reactionary minority of only 25% of the American people. Because of gerrymandering and incumbency, Congress, which is supposed to be the most “popularly elected” branch of the American government, is is even less representative.

That’s just the way the American ruling class wants it. It’s even the way the Clinton campaign wanted it. As reported in the Huffington Post, the Clinton campaign lost the crucial state of Michigan, mostly because of it’s reluctance to mobilize voters.

A senior official from Clinton’s campaign noted that they did have a large staff presence in Michigan and Wisconsin (200 and 180 people respectively) while also stressing that one of the reasons they didn’t do more was, in part, because of psychological games they were playing with the Trump campaign. They recognized that Michigan, for example, was a vulnerable state and felt that if they could keep Trump away ― by acting overly confident about their chances ― they would win it by a small margin and with a marginal resource allocation.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/clinton-campaign-neglect_us_582cacb0e4b058ce7aa8b861

If we can’t get a genuine workers party, let’s at least demand a little truth in advertising from the two corporate parties. The Republicans are only “republican” in the most basic sense of the word. They’re not monarchists. The Democrats have long since ceased to be a “democratic” party, democratic with a small “d.” Better names would be “Corporate Imperialist Stooge Formation A” and “Corporate Imperialist Stooge Formation B.” The exact date when the United States ceased to be a democratic republic is up for debate. Neoconfederates will tell you it was the Civil War, when the Lincoln administration built a gigantic industrialized army to bring the South back into the union at the point of a gun. They’re not totally wrong. Right wing libertarians will tell you it was 1913 and the founding of the Federal Reserve. Noam Chomsky makes a very good case that it was 1917, when the Wilson Administration employed a sophisticated advertising campaign along with the brutal suppression of the antiwar left to strong arm the American people into the First World War.

African American and Native American scholars will argue that the United States has never been a democracy, that it was founded on slavery and genocide, but they will often praise the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Indeed, as Chomsky points out, in the 1960s and the 1970s, the American ruling class became concerned about the “crisis of democracy,” the “crisis meaning that there was too much of it. The counteroffensive, which began with a memo written by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell began in 1971. Not surprisingly, the neoliberal outlet The American Prospect is a bit more skeptical than Noam Chomsky. Whatever the exact date or the exact cause of the corporate counteroffensive against the democratic upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s, there’s no question that it’s been successful, leading to what journalist Chris Hedges and the late Sheldon Wolin refer to as “inverted totalitarianism,” a government that has all the formal trappings of democracy but no real popular representation. Such a government depends on low voter turnout, “junk politics” centered on personalities and not genuine issues, and the ultimate dissolution of civil society. There is no greater testimony to Sheldon Wolin’s prescience as a political thinker than the Presidential election of 2016. It was a textbook example of inverted totalitarianism in action.

One possible road out of inverted totalitarianism could be what I’ll call “a people’s impeachment.”

Donald Trump is a grotesque, authoritarian figure who will almost certainly mount an attack on the Bill of Rights that will make George W. Bush look like Louis Brandeis. Since Paul Ryan is unlikely to begin impeachment proceedings against anything that doesn’t threaten corporate power, it’s going to be up to “we the people.” The ongoing direct action and popular protest that we’re currently seeing in the Not My President and Standing Rock water protectors rallies, as well any future single issue, anti-racist or anti-war protests, need to learn the hard lessons of the anti-war protests against George W. Bush, all of which the Democratic Party were ultimately able to coopt and shut down when Barack Obama became President in 2008. In 2005 and 2006, I worked with a group called “The World Can’t Wait: Drive Out the Bush Regime.” They had the right idea, popular protest that destabilized the Bush administration and had as is ultimate objective his impeachment or resignation, but The World Can’t Wait was hobbled by it’s authoritarian leadership and its ties to the often cult like Revolutionary Communist Party. In the end, The World Can’t Wait became more about itself as an organizing than as a radical movement against George W. Bush. After Barack Obama became President in 2008, they simply became irrelevant.

The organizers of the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014 and 2015 learned some of the lessons of the failure of the Bush-era anti-war protests. They avoided the top down, authoritarian structure of United for Peace and Justice and International Answer, but they had their own flaws. Occupy Wall Street had no clear demands or objectives. Bring back Glass-Steagall? Get money out of politics? Overthrow the gender binary? Destroy the patriarchy? Occupy Wall Street was whatever the local general assembly said it was. Black Lives Matter had what seemed to be a simple demand. End police brutality, but they had no clear program on how to do it. Body cameras? More training? In the end they just seemed to get more expansive and vague. Black Lives Matter’s current program sounds great, but the longer their list of demands get, the more it seems to pull away from the original demand to end police brutality.

The election of Donald Trump, while ominous, also provides an opportunity. A series of mass demonstrations outside of the control of the Democratic Party — and any group funded or related to the Democratic Party — organized in a horizontal manner, but with a clear unifying demand – the resignation of Donald Trump and Mike Pence – could possibly succeed in united Clinton voters, non-voters, and disaffected Trump voters, who are sure to start coming as soon as Trump makes any move against genuinely popular governmental programs like Social Security or Medicaid. These demonstrations should not, I need to be clear, be aimed at pressuring Congress to impeach Trump, but have as their objective the direct removal of the President and the Vice President on constitutional grounds by a mass movement of the people. A requirement that Muslims register with the federal government as Muslims, for example, would be a clear violation of the First Amendment and grounds for impeachment. An illegal war, an unconstitutional attempt to increase the powers of the NSA would be grounds for impeachment. If the Clinton people turn out to be right, and there was Russian collusion with the FBI to elect Trump, and if Trump knew about it, the people would have to be crazy to let Paul Ryan keep the federal government in the hands of a Republican Congress. Ryan will never start impeachment proceedings unless the objective is to stifle a popular rebellion. An end run around Congress to impeach President Trump and Vice President Pence, on the other hand,  will force both parties not only to expand Congress but to make all three branches of the federal government more responsive to the popular will.

A “people’s impeachment” of Donald Trump could, in fact, be the restoration of the United States as a democratic republic.

Emmanuelle Riva: The Francesca da Rimini of French Cinema

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Many American street preachers will tell you that they get most of their converts from hecklers. Unlike people who walk by your fire and brimstone sermon without comment, hecklers are passionate, engaged. Even if they only want to prove you wrong, they’re still interested in what you have to say. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s criminally neglected film Léon Morin, Priest (1961), Barny (no that’s not a typo and no I’ve never heard that name before either), a beautiful young widow in her twenties played by Emmanuelle Riva, is ripe for conversion. A teacher at a correspondence school which has been moved away from the German occupation in Paris to a small town in the Alps, she’s bored. Not to put too fine a point on it, she’s horny. Not only was her husband, a Jewish communist, killed in the Battle of France, most of the men in their twenties and thirties are either in forced labor camps in Germany, or hiding out in the wood with the Resistance. After she decides to have her half Jewish daughter baptized as a Catholic, she decides to “troll” a random priest in order to prove to herself that she’s still a communist and a good atheist.

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“Religion is the opiate of the people,” she says to the handsome young Abbe Morin, probably the only unattached man in town under 30. In the United States, Barny would have had to settle for an evangelical Bible thumper or a dull, elderly Presbyterian Minister. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s imagination, however, the priest she has chosen to heckle is a well-read, left-wing intellectual played by none other than Jean-Paul Belmondo, the James Dean of the French New Wave. “Not exactly,” he responds. “The bourgeoisie have made it so, distorting it to their advantage.” Barny’s “confession,” which goes on for about five minutes, isn’t so much a confession as it is a debate between two undergraduates in the dormitory lounge after everybody else has gone to bed. If you don’t know what love at first sight looks like, you will after you’ve seen this film. Abbe Morin asks Barny if he’d like to drop by his apartment to borrow a book from his library. Barny leaves the confessional a changed woman. This is where Riva demonstrates her greatness as an actress. Something about the way she walks, in a slow, distracted manner then bumps into one of pews allows the viewer to understand Barny’s motivations in a way that neither Barny, nor indeed Jean-Pierre Melville himself understands.

I have always suspected that woman don’t particularly like men, that they admire male social status and economic power, but could do without the creatures that inhabit them. After watching Léon Morin, Priest, I have changed my mind. It’s not so much the script. Barny never grieves her dead husband, who’s more of a plot device to give her a half-Jewish daughter than a real memory. Melville establishes very early in the film that Barny is probably bisexual. In spite of how it is one of the most passionately romantic films I’ve seen in awhile, Leon and Barny never consummate their relationship or even kiss. All they really do is talk about books. It is, rather, the performances of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva that make what could have been a crushingly dull film come alive. Léon Morin, Priest was not among Jean-Paul Melville’s favorites. He not only disparaged the religious impulse behind the original novel, he ascribed motives to Barny that, if not necessarily sexist, were certainly crude and reductive. She was sexually frustrated, and wanted to get laid. The way Riva looks at Belmondo, however, the way her eyes wander over his course black robe, the way she tries to work her way into his physical space, the way she reacts to an occasional rough, aggressive gesture are a tutorial in how a heterosexual woman looks at a man she’s not only attracted to, but actually loves. Belmondo, in turn, gives life to a character who, on the page, must have seemed confused, even manipulative. Does he love Barny as much as she loves him, or is he merely leading her on in order to save her soul? After a particularly intense discussion, however, and she reaches over the tale to touch his shoulder, he pulls back so quickly it looks as if he had just gotten an electric shock. Jean-Pierre Melville, a Jewish atheist, has managed to visualize the presence of two Christian souls struggling against temptation.

In the fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno, the poet Virgil explains to Dante who inhabits the Second Circle of Hell. Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Tristan, they are people who, unlike Barny and Léon Morin, did not resist their carnal desires. Dante does not consider the shades who inhabit the Second Circle of Hell to be evil. They are merely sinners whose lust proved stronger than their reason. As someone whose reason is almost always stronger than his lust, I can certainly admire a Tristan, an Achilles, a Romeo or a Juliet. I can also understand that lust, without reason, inevitably leads to the dissolution of the mind, and therefore hell. The mostly vividly depicted sinners in the Fifth Canto are Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. Francesca — who along with Paolo is blown through the Second Circle of Hell as they eternally cling to each other — does all the talking. When she was a young girl, she was forced into an arranged marriage with Giovanni Malatesta, Paolo’s cruel, and physically deformed older brother. I’ll let her describe the rest. What brought the two young lovers together in an adulterous and ultimately and quite literally damned relationship – Giovanni murdered them both before they could take the last rites – was exactly what tempted Barny and Leon, reading.

The double grief of a lost bliss

is to recall its happy hour in pain.

Your Guide and Teacher knows the truth of this.

But if there is indeed a soul in Hell

to ask of the beginning of our love

out of his pity, I will weep and tell:

On a day for dalliance we read the rhyme

of Lancelot, how love had mastered him.

We were alone with innocence and dim time.

Pause after pause that high old story drew

our eyes together while we blushed and paled;

but it was one soft passage overthrew

our caution and our hearts. For when we read

how her fond smile was kissed by such a lover,

he who is one with me alive and dead

breathed on my lips the tremor of his kiss.

That book, and he who wrote it, was a pander.

That day we read no further.

“The double grief of a lost bliss is to recall its happy hour in pain.”

It is a perfect one line summary of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), the film for which Emmanuelle Riva is best known, and which, even though it was made three years before Léon Morin, Priest, almost reads like a sequel. Here Riva plays a thirty-five-year-old French actress, referred to only as “she.” While in Hiroshima for a film shoot, she has a brief, and adulterous affair with a thirty-seven-year-old Japanese architect, referred to only as “him.” We never find out if the actress loves the architect. He loves her, but we suspect his feelings are not reciprocated. For the French actress, the Japanese architect, like the madeleine in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, is a mnemonic device, a means to recover her lost youth. Seventeen years before, during the German occupation of France, she had a love affair with a twenty-three-year-old German soldier, an incident that had scarred her for life, one that she can, but does not want to forget.

“Grant me my desire just once,” Barny had said to herself in Léon Morin, Priest, “only that once, and afterwords blessed be the eternal torment.” Unlike Paola in The Inferno, Leon, the object of her desire, is more interested in saving her soul than in fucking her. The French actress in Hiroshima Mon Amour’s “she,” on the other hand, gets exactly what Barny wants, fulfilled sexual desire followed by eternal damnation. As the film progresses, and she continues to tell her story to the Japanese architect, we learn what happened. Just before her twentieth birthday, and the liberation of France, a resistance sniper had shot her German lover in the stomach and left him in the street. We don’t learn much about what he was like. Was he a Nazi? Was he just a soldier doing his job? We never find out. His memory in the mind of the French actress is dim, and she can recall him only after sex with the architect.

The resistance, the French actress tells her Japanese lover, had shaved her head and paraded her through town as a traitor. Now that she has come to Hiroshima, which years before the Americans had transformed into a very literal hell, she can remember that her parents, in shame, had locked her in the basement until her hair grew back long enough for her to travel. She can remember that she spent two hours in the street with her German lover, hovering over him as the life drained out of his body and he died in agonizing pain. Months in that basement had destroyed her youth forever, but since it was the key to her past, the place where she had replayed the German soldier’s death over and over again as the scarlet letter marking her off as a traitor and a collaborator disappeared beneath her hair, she has come to Hiroshima to find her lost bliss in the grief of another people. Hiroshima has recovered from the nuclear holocaust. It’s now a beautiful city with a vibrant peace movement and a nightlife that the architect tells her never ends before dawn, but the outtakes from her movie, which is set in 1945, tell a different story. Here we see children running from the flames raining down on the city into a boiling river, mutilated bodies, and women with no hair, who mirrors her own fate at the end of the German occupation of France. It is a hell where, like Francesca, she can live with her lost lover until his image, along with the last of her youth, fades completely from her memory.

If Emmanuelle Riva’s task in Léon Morin, Priest is difficult, it is even more difficult in Hiroshima Mon Amour. Resnais’ film depends less on his actors than Melville’s, his camera, floating through the streets of Hiroshima like a disembodied spirit, does most of the work. Riva often resorts to conventional dramatic outbursts. “Oh I was so young then,” her performance lacking the refined subtly of her performance as Barny in Léon Morin, Priest. Here, like Belmondo, she is the object of desire, not the unrequited lover. Much of the weight of the film, therefore, falls upon Eiji Okada, who plays the Japanese architect. The architect, who learned French in order to study the French Revolution –we suspect that he was never a fascist – owes his life to having been drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. A native of Hiroshima, he had been away from the city as his family were boiled alive in the river trying to escape the heat in the river that runs through town, a recurring image in the film we search for any clue about his past. Eiji Okada is a less expressive actor than Emmanuelle Riva, but, we suspect as we listen to the opening monologue – we she recites the past and he denies that she remembers anything — that is part of the director’s intentions. The actress, still in hell, continues to seek the past, and her lost German lover. The architect wants to live in the present, for the actress to leave her husband and live with him in the reborn Hiroshima. The film ends on an ambiguous note. We want her to stay. We suspect that she doesn’t, that she will continue to seek her hour of bliss, which grows ever shorter as it fades into the past, in her pain, which she must cultivate in order to hold on to the last few moments of her lost youth.

On Performative Anti-Fascism

A quick tutorial on how to deal with occupying Nazis:

1.) Apply bayonet liberally to carotid artery

2.) Use Nazi as tackling dummy

3.) Go jogging to reduce tension caused by nicotine addiction and worry over narrowly escaped death by slow torture

4.) Stop at your local barber shop for a shave.

At the beginning of Army of Shadows, In Jean-Pierre Melville’s bleak, unromantic film about the French Resistance, Philippe Gerbier, a bourgeois anti-fascist, is sent to a Vichy detention camp. He sizes up his fellow prisoners, quickly dismissing one middle-aged man who was arrested for calling Admiral Darlan “a jackass” in public as “a simpleton.” Gerbier, the right-wing, Gaullist resistance leader, isn’t fucking around. He’s a civilian who hates violence. He’s also a brainy civil engineer who’s under no illusions about what fighting the Nazis means. Not only was calling a high-placed Vichy collaborator a “jackass” in public a useless display of what I would call “performative anti-fascism.” It got the poor fool locked up in a detention camp. Gerbier doesn’t need an ineffectual loudmouth. He needs someone who would sneak up behind Darlan, blow his brains out, and never talk about, even to his closest friends. When he finally decides upon someone he thinks he can trust to help him escape, it’s not a fellow bourgeoisie. It’s a nineteen-year-old communist.

“Comrade,” he says to the young man, who’s figured out how to short out the power to the guard tower.

“Are you a communist?” his new communist friend responds.

“No,” Gerbier says, “but I do have comrades.”

We never find out whether or not the young leftist militant’s plan would have worked. The very next day Gerbier, who manages the entire resistance network in Marseilles, is transferred to the Gestapo in Paris. Gerbier’s situation has gone from inconvenient – the Vichy camp is run by French guards who seem to have no particular interest in doing much more than using their position to scam extra food on the black market – to desperate. The Gestapo are now aware that they have captured a high-value prisoner, who they can now brutally torture over the course of a week or two to find out what he knows. Sitting in the waiting room at the hotel the Nazis have converted into a torture chamber, Gerbier realizes he has only one chance. There’s a single guard in the room, and two guards outside. He’s got about five minutes to kill or be killed. After convincing another prisoner to join him in his attempt to escape – Gerbier will take care of the guard and they’ll each run in opposition directions – he manages to snatch the sentry’s own bayonet out of its sheath, cut his throat, bull his way past another guard, and run out into the street. We never find out what happens to Gerbier’s fellow detainee, but from all appearances, the other Frenchman is machine gunned. Gerbier has not only slit a man’s throat – and Melville always goes out of his way to show that the typical German occupier isn’t a monster but just a soldier doing his job – he’s made a calculated decision to use another resistance fighter as a decoy.

That, my friends, is what anti-fascism is all about.

Fast forward to 2016. Donald J. Trump, the far-right-wing populist billionaire has been elected President, and we have a lot more performative anti-fascist “simpletons” than we have hardcore resistance fighters. Thank God. The last thing any healthy society needs is a lot of potential terrorists and armed guerilla fighters running around. What category do I fall into? I’m in the ineffectual, loudmouth “simpleton” category, of course. I enjoy ranting on social media in my own name. I like writing long essays where I use derogatory epithets about the forty-fifth president’s tiny hands and tiny dick. Over the next few years, I’ll probably go to dozens of protests in New York and Washington. I’ll probably carry signs. I’ll chant. “Donald Trump you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide.” I may even spend a day or two in The Tombs,  but the odds of my grabbing a baseball bat, masking up, and and inflicting a little well-deserved traumatic brain injury on a racist skinhead out in the streets are probably pretty small. That would mean risking real prison time, not a weekend in central booking with potheads and drunk drivers, but a hard core “pound you in the ass federal penitentiary” with rapists and murderers.

If Donald Trump is just another conservative, that’s OK. Eventually the morons who voted for him will realize they’ve been had. The Democrats will stage a comeback and we’ll get President Sanders or President Ellison exactly the way we got President Obama. We may even get a real social democrat, single payer, and tuition free public universities. We survived Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, so we’ll survive Donald Trump, right? I suppose it depends on who “we” are.

For Philippe Gerbier it was easy. The guys in jackboots speaking German wearing swastikas were probably the bad guys. For most of the French, Catholic bourgeoisie in 1941, it wasn’t. Perhaps the Germans were better than the communists. Perhaps they could even be used as muscle to suppress the pesky French working-class, who have had a annoying habit of going on strike and hitting the streets ever since 1789. Even if you recognized the Nazis as evil, you might still hesitate to act. Was it really worth it to assassinate a local Gauleiter or blow up a weapons dump? Wouldn’t the Germans simply pick ten hostages (or a hell of a lot more) and line them up against the wall? Wouldn’t it be easier just to wait for the Americans and British to invade? Of course it would. The problem, however, is that while you were waiting, the Nazis were transporting French Jews back to Auschwitz. The French economy had been mobilized in support of the invasion of the Soviet Union and the eventual extermination of the Slavic people. Your children would not grow up in a “free” (or even a bourgeois liberal) country. In the United States, in turn, not one of those gigantic protests during the Bush years did anything to stop the invasion of Iraq, which killed five thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi. All they did was make us feel better about ourselves. Singing “We Shall Overcome” while masturbating would have done just as much good, and saved a lot of bus fare to Washington.

Whether or not Donald J. Trump turns out to be a more destructive President than George W. Bush remains to be seen.  Some liberals argue that Trump’s appointment of the racist and antisemitic Stephen Bannon as his “chief strategist” indicates that he’s no different from David Duke. They certainly have a point. It’s a bad sign, but their solutions — complain about how you supported Bernie and not Hillary, wear a paperclip in solidarity with people of color, double down on the same old identity politics — are inadequate to say the least. Other liberals, like the eternally slimy Islamophobe Bill Maher, are ready to make nice. Even though they argued only last week that Trump was of a magnitude worse than Bush, many of them, including Barack Obama, have begun to hope for the best. You don’t get rich and famous, get a TV show or climb to the top of the Democratic unless you know how to navigate power. Mainstream liberals are predisposed to compromise. In 1941, the French Resistance was made up almost entirely of left wing extremists, communists, outcasts and misfits. A militant resistance against Trump, starting now, is likely to be the same way. “Normal” people rarely, if ever, join a resistance movement until it’s on the verge of winning, until the fascists are identified so clearly as fascists there’s no doubt in the mind of even the most respectable bourgeoisie. Ambitious mediocrities – like Maurice Papon or Adolf Eichmann — usually collaborate with the occupiers.

There is rarely a clear line between “fascist” and “just another capitalist politician.” Was George W. Bush a fascist? Yes and no. Is Donald Trump a fascist? Yes and no. Has Barack Obama proven himself a fascist by using taxpayer money to bail out Wall Street, keep Gitmo open, and lock Chelsea Manning in solitary confinement in the hope that she’ll commit suicide? Yes and no. There’s no litmus test to determine whether you’re in a country that’s “simply moving in a reactionary direction” (in which case protest and democratic politics are still the best solution) or if it’s “actually positively we’re really not fucking kidding this time it’s really Nazi Germany” (when the best solution, if you don’t have the Soviet Army at your disposal, is probably terrorism). As Robert Paxton demonstrated in his seminal work “The Anatomy of Fascism,” fascism is a historical process, not any one particular government or individual. By the time you think it’s fascism, it probably is. It’s also probably already too late to do anything about it.

The best way to deal with fascism is to never to let it get close, to keep pushing your country in the direction of more and more freedom and democracy, to demand more freedom, even when everybody else thinks you already have enough. If in 1948 we had elected Henry Wallace instead of Harry Truman president and stopped the Cold War before it began, we never would have had a President Trump. If in 1950, we had stood up and smashed McCarthyism before any innocent people got hurt, we never would have had a President Trump. If in 1973, we had pushed the Watergate Investigation through to their logical conclusion, if we had immediately poured into the streets to protest Ford’s pardon, we never would have had a President Trump. Had we impeached Ronald Reagan over Iran Contra we wouldn’t have had a President Trump. If Jesse Jackson and the “Rainbow Coalition” had taken over the Democratic Party – and kept Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council out of power – we wouldn’t have had a President Trump. If had stopped NAFTA, the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, mass incarceration and welfare reform, we never would have had to deal with President Trump. If we had kept our heads after 9/11, and not let George W. Bush destroy our civil liberties or invade Iraq, we never would have had President Trump. If we had pushed Nancy Pelosi into impeaching George W. Bush, we wouldn’t have had President Trump. If we had stopped President Obama from bailing out Wall Street or consolidating the Bush torture and surveillance state, we never would have had to deal with Trump.

But we’re here now. We’ve arrived at the point where the question of whether or not we live under a fascist government is no longer ridiculous. So what are we prepared to do?

No snowflake, safety pins aren’t going to cut it.