Thursday, March 30, 2017

Henchman Politics

"While we appreciate your Fort Knox proposal, Mr Goldfinger, we at
Spectre feel our efforts to eliminate the capital gains tax will be more
profitable. Please don't hesitate to contact us in the future."
You've seen this happen in a thousand or more films: the head of the drug cartel, the big city crime lord, the ruthless Texas land baron, the mafia boss, or the Bond supervillain is in the crucial stages of his plan to rob a mint or death ray a country when one of his henchmen does something stupid that puts everything at risk. And you know what happens next: the top man has the miscreant dragged in front of him and says something along the lines of, "You've messed up for the last time!", or "This organization does not tolerate failure.", or, most chillingly, "You've disappointed me." The henchman, by this point weeping or squealing, or perhaps just mouthing the words, "But boss--" is cut short by bullets or the sudden application of a school of piranha. In films, the incompetent henchman, who is inevitably stupid, impetuous, overly violent, mouthy or boastful, serves to highlight the boss's brains, cunning, foresight and self-control. The power structure is made very clear--smart guy at the top, reckless fools at the bottom.

In contemporary politics it's the henchmen, underlings, flunkies and idiot sons who are now in charge. Villainous characters have often reached the top in politics, but they at least maintained a facade of sober competence, even respectability. In Thunderball Spectre conducted business behind (literally) an organization to help refugees. In the non-fictional world, Richard Nixon was as bad as they come but he was always composed in his public appearances and utterances. And today? Politicians such as Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Erdogan, and Nigel Farage behave like characters who would be spectacularly killed off in the second act of most action films. And then we have Donald Trump, the Fredo Corleone of U.S. presidents presiding over a posse of henchmen so transparently villainous they belong in a Steven Seagal film.

Political supervillains are still around (Putin being the obvious example), but, as a sign of their cunning, they've mostly left the arena of elected politicians and do their plotting through think tanks, media organizations and PACs. The Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson, Robert Mercer and various other multi-billionaires put their assorted henchmen in power and happily watch them emasculate every level of government. Henchmen politicians, through their bombast, bullshit, arrogance, stupidity, cruelty and ignorance are more effective than a death ray in eroding the foundations of good governance and democracy.

Another characteristic of henchmen is psychopathy, and it certainly looks like we've entered the age of the political psychopath. Henchmen politicians can't even pretend to be interested in improving the welfare of the average citizen; in fact, they proudly and consciously expend most of their energy on making things worse for almost everyone. Climate change, income inequality, the rights of minorities, and active and potential military conflicts around the world are the most pressing issues of the day. The Trump administration is actively making things worse in all these areas.

The reason the Murdochs and Kochs of the world have created and funded this situation is that they, like generations of plutocrats before them, realize that democracy is fundamentally inimical to capitalism. A healthy democracy, even one as ramshackle and antiquarian as the U.S., works to better the lives of all its citizens by regulating and limiting the power of capitalists. The hallmark of a non-democratic state is the concentration of wealth and power in a very, very few hands. And such is the goal of today's power brokers. What sets them apart from previous generations of capitalists is that their anti-democratic ambitions are more open, less subtle, and are stage-managed by a supporting cast of smirking fools and pious sadists--henchmen to the core. A socialist James Bond is clearly needed, but I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Film Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

This is a poorly-made movie and that immediately makes it the best of the Kong/Godzilla reboots that have bellowed and crashed their way into multiplexes over the last decade and a bit. I include Godzilla in the mix because whether the star monster is covered in scales or fur, the films they're in all follow the same playbook. Where previous iterations have gone wrong is in trying to be conventionally good films--you know, the kind with properly developed characters, plausible dialogue, and believable human relationships. That's not what monster movies (or "kaiju" films if you want to get excessively nerdy) are supposed to be about. The appeal of these films is in watching outsized critters kick ass. That's it. No one wants anything more. The original Toho films stuck to this formula and surrounded the smackdown sequences with preposterous dialogue, barely-there plots, and stock characters. Kong: Skull Island is a return to those roots.

The smashing, the roaring, and the screaming of terrified humans starts early and rarely lets up. The effects are fine, and kids, the real and traditional audience for this kind of film, should have a joyous time at the theatre. The rest of us can marvel at how little in the way of directorial competence and script writing ability one gets for a budget of $200m. There are far too many supporting actors (none of whom are introduced properly), all the dialogue is flat, and most of the actors seem unsure of what tone to adopt. Samuel L. Jackson takes his part very, very seriously, John C. Reilly is looking around for Will Ferrell to riff with, Brie Larson seems distracted, and Tom Hiddleston gives us the poshest ex-SAS mercenary ever--instead of a gun I was expecting him to be armed with a Fortnum & Mason's picnic hamper.

As shambolic as most of the film is, it at least delivers lots of visual thrills in a reasonable running time, something that none of the recent monster megafauna movies have managed to do. Peter Jackson's King Kong was farcical, Pacific Rim was tedious and visually muddy, and, the worst of all, Godzilla (2014) was perversely determined to not show off its titular hero. So let's hope the Kong: Skull Island sequels are all as enthusiastically dumb.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Bring Back the Red Menace!

If you enjoy paid vacations, free healthcare and a pension, you might
want to thank this guy.
I'm guessing here, but I'd say every second opinion piece produced online or in print over the last three months has fallen into one of three camps: Why Trump? Why Brexit? Why rabid, right-wing ethno-nationalism? And here's my answer to all three questions: the collapse of the USSR in 1991. More specifically, the eclipse of communism as a political, economic alternative to capitalism. Communism's utility as an antidote to capitalism didn't come from direct opposition, it came from its magnetic pull on socialist parties.

In David Sasson's 1998 book One Hundred Years of Socialism, he makes the case that the presence of communist states and strong communist parties in places like France and Italy effectively emboldened socialist parties in their demands for worker's rights and strong social welfare policies. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the western political world, particularly in Europe, was terrified by the possibility of communist parties coming to power. The fear of communism forced or encouraged parties of the left and centre, and even some on the right, to move their politics further to the left as a strategy to draw the teeth of the red menace. The idea was simple: if the working classes were well, or at least adequately, provided with living wages, legal protection for unions, free healthcare, pensions, low or free university tuition, and unemployment benefits, then they would be less likely to turn to communist parties. Socialist parties in particular benefited from the red menace. The perceived threat of communism allowed them to build strong social welfare policies, nationalize various industries, and establish high tax rates for the wealthy. These policies were palatable to the middle classes and above because the communist alternative was far more alarming.

The appeal of communism and the influence of the USSR began to decline with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and accelerated with their invasion of Afghanistan eleven years later. The failure of communist economies to provide a consumerist lifestyle equal to that of the west was yet another, and equally important factor, in its decline. With the election of Thatcher in 1979 and Reagan in 1980, the conservative counter-revolution against the social welfare state was underway. When the USSR shifted to a more western and liberal outlook under Gorbachev, and then broke apart, in '91, conservatives were quick to claim that this was the inevitable triumph of capitalism.

The end of communism produced two swift, and parallel, responses. One was the rightward shift of leftist parties, most notably Britain's Labour Party, which morphed into so-called New Labour. These new socialist parties embraced capitalist concepts like globalization, deregulation, lower corporate taxes,  and privatization once they no longer had to contend with competing communist parties. The other immediate response came from capitalists and rightists who became solidly triumphalist in their outlook. For them, capitalism had been proven to be the only viable political/economic reality. Parties of the left offered minimal or non-existent resistance to this view, and from '91 onwards voters in the developed world were left with a choice between different flavours of capitalism. Terms like "working class" and "underclass" disappeared from the lexicon of leftist parties to be replaced by the more aspirational "middle class," a group everyone was trying to get in or stay in.

The triumphalism of capitalism since 1991 has led to what I'd call Manichean capitalism--any public policy which adds to a company's bottom line is incontrovertibly good, while one which hinders or reduces profitability is bad in an almost existential sense. We've now reached a stage where being opposed to capitalism is seen in many quarters as being deviant or immoral or criminal. The angry reactions from the right to the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 are an illustration of this. More recently, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour party produced a vituperative reaction in British right wing circles because Corbyn was, by their definition, an extreme leftist. By the political standards of the 1960s and '70s Corbyn was your average leftist, but in 2015 he was a "loony" lefty, to use the parlance of Brit tabloids. The prospect of someone of that ilk becoming PM was enough to send the capitalist establishment into a fury of denunciations, smear jobs, and dark warnings about the future of Britain.

Now that the major political parties in most developed countries have tacitly agreed that capitalism, preferably the Manichean variety, is the bedrock upon which all public policy is built, how do they differentiate between themselves come election day? Through nationalism, sidebar issues, scandal-mongering and identity politics. Political policy and campaigning built around the concept of national programs that benefit the majority have gone by the wayside, replaced by bickering over local and regional interests, and venomous arguments over people who are supposedly getting more than their fair share. In Britain, the tabloids work tirelessly to demonize migrants, so-called "benefits cheats", and a dozen other fringe and minority groups, all of whom, according to the tabs, are parasitical in one way or another. The last US election was built on scapegoating minority groups.

Whether it's a government of the left or right, the developed world is in a rush to abandon the activist social welfare policies that characterized governments in the post-war era. Ethno-nationalism, the most abstract, meaningless and vicious of political concepts, is what has often replaced it, Communism (in theory if not always in practice) acted as a counterweight to this political philosophy by taking a rational, analytical and critical look at the relationship between labour and capital. And perhaps more importantly, communism kept alive the concept of actions taken for the collective good. What we're left with now is irrational invective, jingoism and hate-mongering. Communism was never a panacea, but it's role in retarding the growth of Manichean capitalism has largely been overlooked.