Capitalism is more hierarchical than ever

One of the most persistent delusions is the idea that capitalism has entered a new “spirit,” one in which it is no longer “Fordist” or hierarchical in the way it works. As Slavoj Zizek put it,

Capitalism abandoned the hierarchical Fordist structure of the production process…and developed a network-based form of organization that accounted for employee initiative and autonomy in the workplace. As a result, we get networks with a multitude of participants, organizing work in teams or by projects, intent on customer satisfaction and public welfare…

In this way, capitalism usurped the left’s rhetoric of worker self-management, turning it from an anti-capitalist slogan to a capitalist one. It was Socialism that was conservative, hierarchic and administrative.

Right off the bat this seems suspicious, at the most immediate level, do we see a radically different world of freer workers? In films like Office Space, were people complaining about how autonomous they were? If anything it is the exact opposite, we are entering an age that is more hierarchical than in centuries.

The idea that the workplace changed to be freer comes from Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s 1999 book, The New Spirit of Capitalism. In it, they look at the managerial literature from the late 1800s to today and look at how corporations tried to internally resolve some of the critiques that were offered. Of course while the evidence is vast, the conclusion does not follow; by examining how managers talked to each other, all it shows is the propaganda that companies used, not whether the structure actually changed.

In contrast, organizational studies show that the organization did change but not in the way Boltanski and Chiapello predicted. What is called “guard labor,” that is, the labor that is used to keep people under control rather than to do something productive, has dramatically increased. As one study shows, management has gone from about 10 percent throughout the 1940s-60s to 16 percent today. The authors even wrote about it in the New York Times (blog), and the problem could conceivably be getting worse.

supervisors

If this has shown anything, it is that capitalism is inherently hierarchical, and that, instead of following corporate propaganda, we should be looking for ways to change it.

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Was Lenin Actually For Democracy?

Among Marxist circles In recent years, there has been a re-evaluation of Lenin as wanting to construct a democratic party organization but because of war-time circumstances, had to create a top-down hierarchical organization. Of course, this points to something positive, since the radical left is advocating for democracy instead of the short flirtation with authoritarianism after the collapse of Occupy. But this rehabilitation is itself troubling because it simply is not true: for all of Lenin’s libertarian writings before the revolution, none of the proposals were actually carried out and instead a regression happened.

It’s Not Democracy If We Lose: The 1917 Election

If there was an obvious point where the Bolsheviks could have implemented full democracy, it was after the 1917 Russian elections. In the first free and fair elections since taking power, the Bolsheviks overwhelmingly lost the vote to other left parties. Instead of stepping down, they threw out the results and justified it on the grounds that the true power was with the worker’s councils. Unfortunately, that power was quickly broken apart as well.

Lenin and Worker’s Control

It is worth remembering that, independent of the Bolsheviks, worker takeovers were spreading throughout Russia. In a detailed history by Maurice Brinton, it shows how Lenin attempted to suppress much of what was happening right from the beginning.

While political maneuvering to break self-management were occurring earlier, the first full attempt at repression occurred in early November 1917, when Lenin published the “Draft Decree on Workers’ Control.” In it he outlined that if enterprises were designated “of importance to the State” they would then be “answerable to the State for the maintenance of the strictest order and discipline and for the protection of property.

To be considered such an enterprise it would either be involved in defense or “in any way connected with the production of articles necessary for the existence of the masses of the population.” That is, almost any workplace could be taken over.

In fact, the decree was so odious it was resisted by the workers: the decree failed to pass because of resistance. After a two week stalemate, the Bolsheviks had agreed to a “compromise” where the workplaces could be given orders by a “Regional Council of Workers’ Control,” which-surprise!-was appointed by the Bolsheviks. This occurred on Novemebr 14th, all but ending worker’s control in Russia.

But, the Civil War!

The biggest defense for all this is the Russian Civil War, which, as an existential threat, necessitated brutal repression. Between the war and Lenin’s death then is the tragic rise of Stalin, who supposedly ruined everything. Let’s leave aside whether secret police, torture and forced labor are justified in war-time conditions, what this history shows is that workers control in Russia was ended a month before any signs of war (December being when the Volunteer Whites were formed).

Even later pre-Stalin propaganda justified the November repression for efficiency’s sake, it’s impossible to argue that these were done for the war when no signs of war were even close to present.

We need to accept that there is no rehabilitating Lenin or Leninism, he set out to subordinate the workers as soon as he could.

The Conservative Fantasy of Godzilla (Analysis and Spoilers)

Some people have looked at the political message of Godzilla (2014) because of how surprising frequent it is, given it’s a giant monster movie. On the one hand there is the heavy handed anti-nuclear message: literally, giant monsters emerged because of nuclear submarines and the past 50 years of tests were secret attempts to pacify them. In fact, one of the complaints was that there was not enough Godzilla and too much story. But on the other is the hidden symbolic message that this supposedly progressive movie has.

To put it simply, the film argues that we’ve angered the gods. Humanity was doing fine until nuclear power came about which led to an “imbalance” by attracting giant monsters. As Ken Watanabe says explicitly:

“The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.”

Thus the solution is Godzilla, as the “Alpha Predator.” As Watanabe says, his role is to restore order and the only thing humans can do is to “let them fight.”

Human Responsibility for Our Actions

One of the great appeals for having a mythical “natural order” is that it alleviates human responsibility. It’s something that Eric Fromm pointed out in Escape From Freedom, if we are no longer the agents in control of events, then we are not responsible for them.

Surprisingly, even though Godzilla tried to make nuclear power look bad it ironically did the opposite. Instead of just having disasters and fallout because of horrific policies and technology, in the film’s universe they were defenses against giant monsters. That is, the injuries from nuclear power was out of self-defense, rather than a catastrophe in-itself (If the movie went one step further, it might have negated the 1954 original by arguing that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were really just attempts to kill Godzilla.)

In a sense this is an easier story to take, instead of governments and corporations inflicting pain on their own people (as the US and USSR did in their nuclear tests), they can be rationalized as defensive measures, as almost all horrific crimes are.

Return To a “Natural” (Read: Overtly Patriarchal) Order  

Nuclear power is in many ways the perfect folly because it gets liberals on board with “restoring nature.” The problem is what kind “nature” is movie is implying. One is overt male hierarchy, as Wantabe illustrates there is a prophecy for the “Alpha” Predator to kill the other Muto monsters: a smaller male and larger (read: dominant) female.

If that symbolism wasn’t obvious enough image this: Godzilla is a giant MRA rampaging through San Fransisco while the male Mutto is a fedora-wearing Nice Guy and the female Muto is an All Powerful Feminist. This follows a slew of recent sci fi/action films of men “taking back” control from women like Doghouse (2009) or Wanted (2008).

This of course is usually a chauvinistic fantasy which in real life leads to things like the recent Santa Barbara shooting. The only science fiction film that accurately portrays men “taking back” control is Chronicle (2012) where the main character uses telekinesis to become an “Apex Predatory” (not unlike the Alpha Predator of Godzilla) and essentially became a murderer.

Restoration of Fatherhood

As Zizek pointed out, if there is one thing any conservative/patriarchal movie needs it’s a restoration of paternal authority. Godzilla doesn’t just have one father restoring himself in the eyes of his children but two. The first is Bryan Cranston, who through Malcom in the Middle to Breaking Bad, is sort of the epitome of fathers taking back respect. Anyways, he goes from conspiracy-theory cook to justified in proving that that were actually giant monsters! (and to insult to injury, he was the only decently acted character in the whole film). Next is Aaron Taylor-Johnson who is too aloof and removed from his kid. Ultimately, he helps save the city and is reunited with his family by the end.

Did I mention that in addition to two fathers reconciling that are three kids that end up getting fathered? In addition to Taylor-Johnson and his son, there’s also a separated kid in San Fransisco that Taylor-Johnson basically fathers on the side.

The Director Made A Film About Immigrant Space Aliens Destroying Society

But wait, maybe I’m looking too deeply into this. Well that would be the case if Gareth Edwards wasn’t so on the nose reactionary. In Monsters (2010) the whole premise is that space aliens crashland on the US-Mexico border (Get it? Space/Mexican Aliens!) and have “infected” and essentially destroyed the US (oh…).

It just goes to show how a progressive premise (nuclear power bad!) can be executed in such an absurdly reactionary way.

Prisoners (2012) Is Hobbesian As Hell

After seeing the thriller Prisoners, the title became obvious: everyone is imprisoning everyone else. Whether it’s child kidnappers or Hugh Jackman kidnapping suspected kidnappers, or even one kidnapper holding himself captive(?)  the film showcases how under duress people engage in terrible behavior, not limited to torture and zealotry.

Ironically, there is one group of people who don’t unethically imprison people: the police. Throughout the film they only make two arrests with one leading to no charges and another which probably would have led to the same thing. Likewise, by the end it’s the officer Jake Gyllenhaal who ends up saving the day.

If this isn’t some giant Hobbesian defense of the state I don’t know what is. Hobbes made it a point to say that people fight each other in a war of “all against all” and that only a leviathan, or central authority, can stop it. The film portrays seven people in a small Pennsylvania town who are either directly or indirectly involved in kidnapping and torture (as if kidnapping and torture is the norm) while the police’s only problem is not charging/killing enough people.

It’s a sad state of affairs when Hollywood portrays people as the problem and not the police themselves.

Spring Breakers is actually Terrible

When I watched Spring Breakers (2012) it was almost like watching a reverse Rebecca Black “Friday”: it’s a pure form of what not to do for an indie film. While it’s been polarizing and recently better received by the indie film community, all the hype for how it’s Harmony Korine’s subversive satire of American culture falls flat on its face.

The biggest problem with the film is its mismatch between tone and character. On a tonal level, there is no comedy, dark or otherwise. It is, to quote some reviews, “deadly serious” and “take[s] itself seriously.” indeed, in many ways the film has the sincerity of a made-for-TV Hallmark drama.

But then come the characters.

In what seems like it was out of a play from Bertold Brecht, all the characters are pathologically flat. Indeed throughout the film they engage in the excess and debauchery of spring break like mindless machines without any kind of deepness or insight whatsoever. The immediate response then is “of course, that’s the point!” Well here lies the problem of Spring Breakers, it tries to be both completely serious while examining the internal world of characters who are empty. You can’t have it both ways.

The whole point of having unrealistic characters is to put a distance between the audience, so that they can critically analyze what their watching. As the Swedish novelist Elfriede Jelinek put it:

Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the “luxuriousness” of personality…The writer’s task is to block this maneuver, to chase us off to a point from which we can view horror with a dispassionate eye.

However, the seriousness of the film tries to remove this distance, making it contradictory. Thus it does not work, you can either have passionate realism or a satirical distanced critique, not both.

Spring Breakers tries to do both and fails spectacularly.

Has Zizek Ever Read The Dispossessed?

Whenever I hear Slavoj Zizek’s famous phrase “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” I immediately think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. As a best-selling science fiction book, it has been unapologetically presenting anarcho-syndicalism as an alternative to capitalism for 40 years now. In fact it was so unapologetic, Philip K. Dick called it a “political sermonette all gussied up with literary style…when you strip the style away, it’s all from the poli-sci department at the University of California at Berkeley.”

So can we please stop pretending like our society is brainwashed into submission when many of its renowned books actively challenge it?

The Irony of Lars von Trier: A feminist analysis of Nymphomaniac (2013)

After seeing the Lars von Trier’s controversial new film Nymphomaniac (2013)  (or really two films), I can say that it was generally watchable as a film (assuming someone doesn’t have an aversion to graphic content) but there was a tension between the  message of the film, which, in a poor film-making choice was told explicitly to the audience, and the actual content that was shown. Specifically, since the film dealt with women and sex, it is appropriate to use a feminist lens to analyze the film. 

As mentioned before, the film makes the strange choice to explain to the audience the point of every scene and the ostensibly pro-feminist message of the film. This is perhaps not without cause, von Trier has been accused of being a misogynist for the unfortunate outcomes of women in his films and making a film where a sex-addicted women falls on hard times would probably further that image. And while he is certainly no misogynist, it is hard to see this film as a feminist parable.

The film is takes place in the present where Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, is found lying in an alley and is given refuge by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) and the two recount her life’s story, going into flashbacks of her youth. After she finishes her story, Seligman concludes that her fall from grace was the result of European society’s double standard for women.

This is particularly odd given Joe’s character. First she is explicitly illiberal when it comes to race, democracy, and equality in general (although without a central core that can identify an ideology). For instance when she is in a sex-addicts self-help group, she gives a rousing speech about how she is better than all the other women there and that societal standards for egalitarianism are wrong. It is also odd given her backstory: throughout the film, Joe never explicitly faces structural barriers as a women (at one point she even gets a job despite having no experience) and any sanctions come from her loved ones. For instance, Joe leaves her child alone from 2 AM to 6 AM alone to go to BDSM building, which almost results in the child’s death. After she does it again, her husband and child leave her.

Thus despite the proclamations to the audience, the film is not seen as a struggle of women in a patriarchal society; instead we are shown a reactionary struggling in a liberal society. Given the politeness of strangers, Joe’s illiberal character and easy achievements, and the hatred of her by her loved ones, it is hard to see it in any other way. von Trier also has precedent for using reactionary themes in his films. In Manderlay (2005), von Trier presents a slave plantation that is trapped in time in the 1930s and, after being liberated by an idealistic mob heiress, falls apart because of the dependencies of the former slaves (apparently von Trier never heard about the slave uprisings and mass escapes in general).

One can of course, make the argument that perhaps the home-maker structure itself was oppressive, forcing her to neglect her child, but among all the proclamations of double standards, this one was never pointed out. Indeed, what’s hiding behind the graphic content in von Trier’s film, is an oddly reactionary story.