Posts Tagged ‘film’

The+Jungle+web

Food production has been a problem throughout the history of American capitalism.

Back in 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to portray the harsh working conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrializing cities.* However, it seems, many readers were more concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early-twentieth century. Thus, Sinclair quipped: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

A century later, Richard Linklater directed the film Fast Food Nation, which was loosely based on Eric Schlosser’s bestselling 2001 non-fiction book of the same name. Like Sinclair, Linklater focused on the working conditions in the slaughterhouses, to which he added fast-food restaurants—and, like Sinclair, he exposed the role exploited immigrants played in lowering costs and increasing profits in the American food industry.

The farm-to-table movement was supposed to change all that—with happy animals, humane working conditions, and foods sourced from local farmers. However, as Andrea Reusing [ht: db] explains, the authenticity attributed to the preparation and serving of good that is local, organic, and sustainable has increasingly “slipped further away from the food movement and into the realms of foodie-ism and corporate marketing.” Thus

it is increasingly unhitched from the issues it is so often assumed to address.

Farm-to-table’s sincere glow distracts from how the production and processing of even the most pristine ingredients — from field or dock or slaughterhouse to restaurant or school cafeteria — is nearly always configured to rely on cheap labor. Work very often performed by people who are themselves poor and hungry.

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There are, in fact, over 7.5 million food-preparation workers in the United States, who earn less than $10.50 an hour—which comes to less than $21,000 a year. Many of those workers are immigrants, both documented and undocumented.**

Over the course of the past century, we’ve moved from the meatpacking industry to the food-service sector. But the problems identified by Sinclair and Linklater remain: exploited workers and immigrants that are subjected to inhumane treatment during the process of immigration and on the job.

As a chef herself, Reusing follows the lead of Sinclair and Linklater in suggesting that

As chefs, we need to talk more about the economic realities of our kitchens and dining rooms and allow eaters to begin to experience them as we do: imperfect places where abundance and hope exist beside scarcity and compromise. Places that are weakened by the same structural inequality that afflicts every aspect of American life.

 

*Sinclair’s novel was first published in serial form in 1905 in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason and published the next year as a book by Doubleday.

**Overall, according to a report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative (pdf), the American food system employs over 21.5 million workers, making it the largest source of employment in the United States. Eleven million workers are in the food service sector, comprising more than half of the food chain.

Mainstream economists argue that time makes money. According to the Austrians, production takes time, because of “roundabout” methods, which creates the additional value that flows to capital. Neoclassical economists have a different theory: the return to capital is the reward for savings created by time-deferred consumption. However, in both cases, time is the basis of the value that is captured as profits.*

In Cosmopolis, the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo (adapted for the cinema by David Cronenberg in 2012), Erik Packer’s “chief of theory,” Vija Kinski, explains they have it backwards:

“Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man-hours, using labor more efficiently.”. . .

“Because time is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent. This is why something will happen soon, maybe today,” she said, looking slyly into her hands. “To correct the acceleration of time. Bring nature back to normal, more or less.”

DeLillo (via Kinski), as it turns out, is right—at least when it comes to healthcare in the United States.

According to a series of reports in the most recent issue of the British medical journal The Lancet (confirming the results of a study I wrote about last year), increasing inequality means wealthy Americans can now expect to live up to 15 years longer than their poor counterparts.

As economic inequality in the USA has deepened, so too has inequality in health. Almost every chronic condition, from stroke to heart disease and arthritis, follows a predictable pattern of rising prevalence with declining income. The life expectancy gap between rich and poor Americans has been widening since the 1970s, with the difference between the richest and poorest 1% now standing at 10.1 years for women and 14.6 years for men.

The obscenely unequal distribution of income and wealth in the United States is responsible for increasingly unequal health outcomes.**

In addition, both structural racism (the “systematic and interconnected web of institutions and factors that lead to adverse health outcomes”) and mass incarceration (on prisoners, their families, and their communities), according to two other studies, exacerbate class-based health inequalities.

While the authors of one of the studies argue that “the health-care system could soften the effects of economic inequality by delivering high-quality care to all,” they conclude that the U.S. system falls “far short of this ideal.” That’s because disparities in access to care—based on income, race, and unequal rates of imprisonment—are far wider in the United States than in other wealthy countries.

Moreover, according to another study, even after the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansion, twenty-seven million Americans remain uninsured and, even for many with insurance, access to affordable care remains elusive. At the same time, unneeded and even harmful medical interventions remain common (due, in part, to the fragmented health-care delivery system), corporate administration consumes nearly a third of health spending, and wealthy Americans consume a disproportionate and rising share of medical resources.

Thus, the editors of the series conclude,

Although a Series about health published in a medical journal may seem far removed from the political arena where much of the decision making about how to address these factors lies, the message of this collection of papers transcends that distance. . .it is no radical statement to say that Americans deserve better and, most importantly, the time for action has arrived.

It is time, in other words, to make the necessary changes so that money is available to provide decent healthcare for all Americans.

 

*One neoclassical economist, the late Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow (pdf), did have the intellectual honesty to admit that the absence of future markets represented a severe shortcoming of capitalism, a coordination failure, and supported the case for a socialist economy.

**The authors also note that the medical system in the United States itself influences inequality, as an employer of nearly 17 million Americans. Although physicians and nurses are generally well paid, many other health-care workers are not:

The health-care system employs more than 20% of all black female workers; more than a quarter of these health-care workers subsist on family incomes below 150% of the poverty line, and 12.9% of them are uninsured.

Lest we think the current fascination with and support for benevolent dictatorship are a new phenomenon (or, for that matter, that the Second Great Depression never occurred or its effects safely confined and superseded by the current economic recovery), Thomas Doherty [ht: ja] reminds us of the “dictator craze” of the early 1930s.

The “hankering for supermen” was represented by a series of films on the worlds of business and politics, including The Power and the Glory, Employees’ EntranceGabriel Over the White House, and, finally, Mussolini Speaks.

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I cited Andrew O’Heir’s critical review of Boom Bust Boom, Terry Jones and Theo Kocken’s Monty Pythonesque documentary about the crash of 2007-08 back in March but I hadn’t seen the film itself until last night.

In many ways, I wish I hadn’t.

Oh, sure, there are a couple of good moments. Introducing the work of Hyman Minsky to a larger audience. A cameo by John Cusack, who suggests that economics students should pelt their professors with vegetables and rotten fruit if they continue to parrot the party line. “Maybe urinate on them. That’s what I would do.” And some well-deserved attention to the students in the Post-Crash Economics Society at the University of Manchester.

But otherwise, the film is just not very good. For starters, consider the fact that, after the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression, only once is capitalism itself even mentioned!

Then, as O’Heir wrote, there’s not a single mention of John Maynard Keynes (who published his General Theory in 1936, in the midst of the earlier depression), let alone Karl Marx (who, along with Friedrich Engels, was writing about capitalism’s crisis tendencies in the middle of the nineteenth century). Since Jones and Kocken decided to make forgetting a central part of their story—especially failing to remember and draw lessons from previous financial crises—they might also have mentioned the deliberate forgetting by mainstream economists and economic policymakers of other economic ideas, now as in the past.

And, in this day and age, it smacks viewers in the face that, as Shane Ferro wrote, “Women and minorities are almost entirely left out of this film—not unlike the way they’ve been left out of financial and economics professions.” The only two expert women the movie manages to feature are Lucy Prebble, a playwright who once wrote a play about the collapse of Enron, and Laurie Santos, a Yale psychology professor who studies how monkeys make decisions. Neither, as it turns out, has a background in economics, or much knowledge of capitalism, its history, or the 2007-08 crash.*

But the worst part of this high-budget, cleverly animated documentary is the actual story Terry and Kocken decided to tell. What it boils down to is this: financial crises have always been with us (at least since Tulip Mania in the 1630s), people tend to make irrational decisions (e.g, by forgetting about previous crises and taking on too much risk), and making irrational decisions is part of our human nature, as determined by evolutionary behavioral psychology (hence the monkeys).

Actually, the film is more confused than that. At one point, it features Minsky (in an animated dialogue with his son)—and, if it had continued in that vein, it would have been able to reveal something about the financial fragility inherent in the regular boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism (since the key actors in Minsky’s approach are capitalist enterprises and banks). But then Minksy is dropped and the filmmakers decide to go in a different direction, with a fanciful discussion of human nature (continuing an approach that, from the beginning, features an undifferentiated “we” who is responsible for speculation, risk-taking, euphoria, forgetting, and so on) and then an attempt to ground human nature in primate behavior (this after criticizing the scientistic pretensions of neoclassical economics).

There’s no attempt to identify the dynamics of a particular economic system, which we usually refer to as capitalism. No attempt to identify particular and differentiated actors and institutions within capitalism, such as bankers, workers, consumers, politicians, enterprises, financial markets, and so on. No references to other countries today, in addition to the United States and the United Kingdom. No mention of the grotesques levels of inequality in the lead-up to the crash, and no discussion of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and so on after the crash.

Instead, what we are presented with is a succession of financial crises, which in the end are grounded in our singular human nature.

That, to say the least, is not a particularly insightful analysis of the causes and consequences of the crash. And the best the filmmakers and the various talking heads can come up with by way of policies is the need, since human nature can’t be changed, to regulate the financial system (perhaps, at its most adventurous, by restoring Glass-Steagal barriers between commercial and investment banking) to keep “us” from making the same mistakes.

To which we can all respond: “Been there, done that. Now let’s try something that might actually work, beginning with the inherent instabilities of capitalism itself.”

 

*Here’s the list of the contributors: Dan Ariely, Dirk Bezemer, Zvi Bodie, Willem Buiter, John Cassidy, John Cusack, John K. Galbraith, James K. Galbraith, Andy Haldane, Daniel Kahneman, Steve Keen, Stephen Kinsella, Larry Kotlikoff, Paul Krugman, George Magnus, Paul Mason, Perry Mehrling, Hyman P. Minsky, Alan Minsky, Lucy Prebble, Laurie Santos, Robert J. Shiller, Nathan Tankus, Sweder Van Wijnbergen, and Randall Wray.

Regular readers of this blog know that I take seriously the idea that representations of the economy are regularly produced and disseminated in many different forms and social sites. They are generated, of course, within the discipline of economics as well as by official (degreed) economists in think tanks, financial institutions, the media, and elsewhere. But, I argue, economic representations are also created and circulate outside economics—in a kind of Bakhtinian carnival—in academic departments other than economics (from anthropology to cultural studies) and outside the academy itself (in painting, film, graffiti, music, cartoons, and so on).

Some of these alternative economic representations I’m aware of. But there are many others I’m not. One of them showed up in a recent piece on “Feeling Let Down and Left Behind, With Little Hope for Better,” on the role of an e-cigarette shop in Wilkes County, North Carolina.

Lonnie Ramsay, 45, walked in looking for help. He described a nasty falling-out with his girlfriend and said he just wanted to get home to a nearby city. But he only had $25 to his name. He said he had been making $10 an hour at a factory.

One Friday afternoon someone brought a pair of virtual reality goggles hooked up to a laptop to the shop. Mr. Foster exhaled a cloud that smelled like a Popsicle. He said he had been reading up on the idea, explored in the “Zeitgeist” movie, of a “resource-based economy” — a system in which, he said, “There’s no money and everything is controlled by computers and resources are equally distributed and there’s no ownership or anything like that.”

“The system we have now is going to collapse,” he said. “And technology, the automation process, is going to keep taking over and over.”

That, he said, would free up people to do what they wanted.

Chris Lentz, 36, a worker for a utility company in a pair of mud-caked boots, frowned and asked, “If people were just given everything they ever needed, then what’s the point of going to work?”

And so it went: the thick, sweet haze; the frustrations, diversions and digital toys; and the sense, in this jagged, hyperconnected moment, that everything is possible, or nothing is.

The essay itself is a representation of the economy—of an America riddled with economic anxieties, based on the “Fear that an honest, 40-hour working-class job can no longer pay the bills.”

And then, in the midst of that representation, there’s another: a reference to the Zeitgeist film series, especially (I am guessing by the quotations) the second film, Zeitgeist: Addendum from 2008. It was produced and directed by Peter Joseph, as a sequel to the 2007 film, Zeitgeist: The Movie. (There’s a third installment, Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, which premiered in 2011.)

What I find interesting about the film is less the conspiracy-driven analysis of the monetary system and the Federal Reserve (although there’s a certain validity to the idea that people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work in order to pay off their debt) than the argument that capitalism perpetuates the conditions it claims to address and that it’s possible to imagine a different economy, one that puts environmental friendliness, sustainability, and abundance as fundamental economic and social goals. Zeitgeist offers a particular representation of the economy as it is and how it can be made better, in a manner that runs directly counter to the representations offered by most official economists in the United States.

That and the fact that the film has been viewed on Youtube over half a million times.

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Blood-sucking vampires are, of course, ubiquitous in contemporary film—from Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre to Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (the most recent in a long line that stretches back through Christopher Lee’s various portrayals of the Transylvanian vampire to the 1909 silent film Vampire of the Coast).

Vampires are also, as it turns out, familiar as a critical trope within economics.

Terrell Carver (in Postmodern Marx) notes that Marx used the vampire motif three times in Capital—in the chapter on the working day:

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”

“The prolongation of the working-day beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night, only acts as a palliative. It quenches only in a slight degree the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.”

“The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no ‘free agent,’ that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him ‘so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited’.”

As Carver explains, “Marx did not accept a commonplace distinction between literal and figurative language, and he did not attempt to avoid the latter in what is taken to be his most scientific work.” Why?

Marx’s critique takes political economy as a textual surface, and by means of a thorough, and thoroughly linguistic analysis he refigures, in a parodic text, a supposedly familiar and uncontentious world as strange (requiring explanation) and problematic (requiring political action).

A more recent example is Matt Taibbi’s reference to Goldman Sachs as “A great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

And now we have Pope Francis calling the people who take advantage of the poor “true bloodsuckers” who “live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labour.”*

When riches are created by exploiting the people, by those rich people who exploit [others], they take advantage of the work of the people, and those poor people become slaves. We think of the here and now, the same thing happens all over the world. “I want to work.” “Good, they’ll make you a contract, from September to June.” Without a pension, without health care… Then they suspend it, and in July and August they have to eat air. And in September, they laugh at you about it. Those who do that are true bloodsuckers, and they live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labour.

Vampires are central, then, to the ruthless criticism of mainstream economics, a critique that makes the supposedly common-sense world in which we live—the world of capitalist commodities and wage-slavery—both strange and ripe for fundamental change.

 

*The pope’s reference is to the reading for 19 May 2016, from James 5:

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
your gold and silver have corroded,
and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;
it will devour your flesh like a fire.
You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.

Rosebud

Posted: 18 May 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

I happened to see Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane the other night and immediately noticed the parallels between the quintessential American saga about a giant who brings ruin to all and the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump—from the inherited wealth and the creation of an empire to the desire to be seen as the defender of “the workingman” and the retreat to an opulent Florida palace.

Why, I asked myself, had no one else made the connection to Citizen Trump?

Well, as it turns out, they have. Chris Matthews, in a clear attempt to grab some ratings, created a four-part series titled Citizen Trump back in December (here’s the link to part 4).

The connection has also been made by the Daily Beast:

even though a scandal proves Kane’s immediate undoing, the film makes clear that his political aspirations were ill fated from the start. After the returns come in, Kane receives a visit from Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), his old friend and surrogate conscience. In spite (or perhaps because of) being plastered, Leland cuts to the heart of Kane’s misplaced ambition:

You talk about the people as though you owned them … As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you could make them a present of liberty… When your precious underprivileged really get together… oh, boy. That’s going to add up to something bigger than your privilege, then I don’t know what you’ll do. Sail away to a desert island, probably, and lord it over the monkeys.”

Leland recognizes the absurdity of a man who’s never had to work a day in his life appointing himself the defender of “the workingman.” With all the power at his command, Kane has crafted a compelling narrative, in which the people are victims and he’s their savior. But he can’t save them, because they’re not his to save. Sooner or later, Leland predicts, they’ll figure out they don’t need him. And then they’ll turn on him.

And, I discovered, Citizen Kane is Trump’s favorite movie.

No points for me, then, for originality. But the connection, along with the insights it reveals, stands.