Tuesday, October 31, 2017

You May Not Care About History but History Cares About You...

“A People’s History of the Russian Revolution,” by Neil Faulkner, 2017
Neil Faulkner is a former member of the British Socialist Workers Party, who certainly learned things in that organization, but then left as he saw it degenerate.  This short history is good for a beginner who wishes to understand why this revolution even happened.  The ‘bottom line,’ as they like to say in the U.S., is that nearly everyone but the Monarchists, landlords, capitalists, the Black Hundreds and the liberals demanded it.  It cribs much from Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution,” as well as other sources like John Reed, Tony Cliff, Plekhanov, Zinoviev, Sukhanov, Raskolnikov, Serge and Le Blanc. 

Lenin addressing the revolutionary proletariat
Faulkner’s views impact this short history, as he knows the limitations of the stardard ‘party’ form of organization.  He states that Lenin was a ‘democrat,’ not a ‘democratic-centralist’ so that assertion is something to mull over.  The SWP of which he was part was a Trotskyist-inspired but Schachtmanite organization that believed the USSR became a state-capitalist formation. Trotsky believed it had become a degenerated workers state.  Faulkner's position does not really impact his description of the events of 1917, only later.
Some interesting facts and points brought up by Faulkner:
1.     The Tsar was so deluded he did not even understand that he had no armed support anymore. (Tsar comes from “Ceasar.”)  Tsarism was an end in itself, and had nothing to do with the population, who existed for the Tsar and not visa-versa.  Tsarism basically used all monies for building an expanding military-political empire.
2.     By 1900, foreign bankers in France and England supplied up to 50% of Russian capital, which certainly explains the Russian capitalists' inability to quit WWI.  They had been bought.
3.     The 1905 Revolution was sparked by “Bloody Sunday,” where the Tsar’s Cossacks murdered over a 1,000 people.  This put ‘a river of blood’ between the people and the government which lasted.  Not a good idea if you are a government.
4.     The defeat in the Russo-Japanese war sped up revolution.  Lenin’s position of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ understood this.  Revolutionaries want their own capitalist governments to lose wars.  Or as they say in the U.S., 'hands off the world.'
5.     The ‘professional strata’ – as was shown in Russia – might dissent, but they cannot carry through revolutionary change. They ultimately back the rulers. Sounds familiar.
6.     The end of official serfdom created a kulak class of owners in the countryside, which allowed capital to attempt to control the countryside.  This attempt failed in February 2017 when the mass of the peasantry took over the land from the landlords.
7.     Faulkner oddly thinks that Marx & Engels in the end maintained that the European working class was the sole agent of revolution.  Not sure where he gets this.
8.     Faulkner understands that the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) was a politically broad organization up to the split with the Mensheviks and afterwards. Zinoviev and Kamenev broke discipline immediately before the seizure of the Winter Palace in November 7, 1917 by leaking the revolutionary plan to the opposition (Gregorian calendar).  They remained within the party for many years afterwards, until they were executed by Stalin.
9.     An illegal situation requires that party membership become tighter.  (Duh)  Significant RSDLP party decisions in these revolutionary times were made by local leaders, not issued by a center.
10.  The Black Hundreds – Monarchist, anti-communist, anti-Semitic, anti-working class – were used in the July Days to attempt to roll back the revolution, in league with the bourgeois press and its lies about Lenin being a paid German agent.  It shows that fascists are merely the shock troops of a weak capitalist system.
11.  It was easy for soldiers in Russia to desert from WWI after a certain point, as they were fighting in or close to their own country.  Not in places like Afghanistan, Iraq or Vietnam, as the U.S. military did.  Millions of Russian peasant soldiers deserted during WWI.
12.  As must be emphasized, women started the February revolution, which led inexorably to the November revolution.  It was in late February that women went into the streets to demand bread.  The RSDLP and other socialist groups did not play an official role in calling for these demonstrations.
13.  Among the soldiers, those who followed orders to shoot women and workers changed their minds, and refused to fire on the working class in the following days.  Units stationed in St. Petersburg began to go over to the Revolution one by one. 
14.  While this was going on, the “Black Partition” was occurring in rural Russia, as millions of peasants began seizing land, burning landlord’s houses and forming village communes and organizations. 
15.  Police, in both February and November, provided the main bulwark for the forces of reaction.  When soldiers started to fire on the police, the end of the regime was at hand.  This is the true character of the police, which never changes.  The police were run out of St. Petersburg, Moscow and other cities by Red Guards and the revolutionary army.
16.  Quite simply, the Provisional government was for war, the control of the land by the landlords, the assertion of vicious military discipline in the Army and support for the local capitalists.  It was unable to provide food.  It failed on all fronts, as had the Tsar.  A continuing revolution was inevitable.
17.  The  military coup by Kornilov against revolutionary Petrograd was diverted by railroad workers and by proletarians along the way.  It dissolved.
18.  The average age of the Bolshevik Party in August 2017 was 29 years old.  This was a young people’s organization.
19.  The Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, led by Trotsky, acted defensively by shelling and then arresting the Provisional Government in the early morning of November 7 due to the latter’s attempt to militarily organize against the Soviet.  Thus ended ‘dual power.’ This was the culmination of the 1917 revolution.
20.  What were the ‘terrible’ demands of the ‘dark people’ of the November 1917 Russian Revolution?
a.     Peace and an end to WWI.  It was not:  ‘Oh, oh, oh what a wonderful war!’
b.     Land to the tiller, abolition of private property in land.
c.      Right of self-determination for all minority people’s, including the right to secession.
d.     Workers control of the workplaces, run democratically.  An end to private property in the means of production.
e.     Participatory democracy, with the right of recall.
f.      Full equality for women, right of abortion and divorce and legitimizing children born out of wedlock.
         Later the terrible Soviets legalized homosexuality, ended religious indoctrination in the schools and set up free education at all levels. 
All of these decrees were among the first in the world.  Now they seem somewhat sensible – but EVEN TODAY – under ‘advanced’ capitalism, they are still revolutionary and still unachieved in most places. 
Clearly both Lenin and Trotsky and the ideology of Marxism at that time were based on the idea of the revolution spreading to other countries, especially in Europe, as capital is an international system.  The failure of the near revolutions in Germany, in Hungary, in Italy, in Austria, in Bavaria, in Finland isolated the USSR.  As did the vicious invasions and counter-revolution led by White monarchists and foreign capitalists, which bled Russia during the "Civil War."  All of which is the responsibility of the capitalist system to explain – which they will never do. 
Prior reviews on this topic:  Mieville’s “October – the Story of the Russian Revolution,” Chernychevsky’s “What is to be Done?” Monthly Review on the Russian Revolution, Biely’s “Petersburg” and many books about the Soviet Union.
And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
Communa di Cortona, Italia
October 31, 2017

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Through the Past Darkly

"The Age of the Vikings," by Anders Winroth, 2014 / "The Vikings," the History Channel

The problem with standard historians is that they have little interest in tracking regressive or progressive issues in history, except by accident.  Dialectics is foreign to them. The obvious choices in any discussion of the Vikings is the status of women, the role of Christianity and paganism, the issues of taxation and economics which underlie religion and the social breadth of the Vikings.  The other issue is the 'cult' of the Vikings practiced by some ultra-right wing groups in the U.S. When you see their wood shields and Aryan chants, they may fancy themselves the return of Thor, but they are just playing dress-up.

Winroth tracks the 'age of the Vikings' from the storming of the Lindsfarne monastery in Northumberland, England in 793 to the defeat of King Harald Sigurdsson Hardruler of Norway at the battle of Stamford Bridge, England in 1066.  This defeat marks the end of the effectiveness of opportunistic surprise attacks against poorly organized opponents.  This battle was only 3 weeks before the successful invasion of England by William the Conqueror.  Winroth mostly uses written poems and narratives of the time and afterwards, runestones in old Norse, as well as archeological evidence to describe this period in European history.  His focus is mostly on kings and prominent people.  He does not include the earlier period when the Vikings went east towards what is now known as Russia ("Rus" is based on the Finnish word Ruotsi for Sweden.  "Slavic" itself gave birth to the word 'slave.') 

The History Channel had an excellent series called "The Vikings" focused on the Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok, who they depict as leading the raid on Lindisfarne, taking control of parts of Northumbria and Wessex, attacking and sacking Paris and dreaming of sailing through the Mediterranean.  His story is used as a partly fictional one that ties the narrative together  The Vikings series indicates that the East was the first area the Vikings raided or traded before they headed west and southwest, to Lindisfarne.  I read this history to see if this TV 'fiction' stacked up, and in a some senses, it does. 

Lagertha - Shield-Maiden and Earl - landing at Lindisfarne with Ragnar Lothbrok
WOMEN

Winroth describes Viking women's roles as circumscribed to the home only.  He makes much of a farm wife named Estrid who lived to be 60+ years old and managed a large farm in what is now Sweden, through several husbands and some sons.

However, recently archeologists in Scandinavia have identified the body of a Viking warrior that they thought was a man - as a woman.  Winroth mentions that Viking women could get a divorce at their own calling - something rare in the rest of the world.  Viking women could also own property.  He also says that the Vikings did not use rape when they raided.  The Scandinavian poets called 'skalds' constantly talk of Valkyries in Valhalla, who are not merely farm wives.  This hints that the role of women was stronger in the North than in standard Catholic medieval societies, such as in Alfred's Wessex or Charlemagne's Frankish kingdom.  The Vikings series shows a somewhat free sexuality and a good number of female warriors, as well as one female chieftain.  Which might be a concession to modern ideas or perhaps a more accurate version of pagan life.  Winroth, as a standard historian, does not dig into this issue.   Fascist nostalgists might look at their own 'all male' groups and realize they are more backward than the Vikings themselves. 

RELIGION

The Vikings practiced a 'pagan' religion that united them around various chieftains.  As an example of the impact, we still see it in the 'English' language - which is really a language combining many languages.  Sun's Day, Moon's Day, Tyr's Day, Wooten's Day, Thor's Day, Freyr's Day, Saturn's Day - all names of Norse gods or based on nature worship.  The key role of religion at this point was to meld the followers of an earl or chieftain together, for battle and community, and this was the role of Norse paganism.  (It seems to be the permanent role of religion, as method of uniting some communities against others.)  The limitation of paganism was that this relationship was based on a gift economy between the chieftain and his followers, as well as personal connections.  So it could not control large areas. Christianity was actually brought in from the top by Viking rulers who wanted to consolidate far larger areas than one town or small area (like Kattegat in "The Vikings" series), under a more totalitarian ideology - Catholic Christianity.  Christianity had cachet among these rulers because it was exotic and connected to the powerful kings of Europe.  But aspects of paganism were actually more progressive than Christianity - it was more materialist in outlook, did not oppress women as much (Freya was a female god, one of several, dwelling in Asgard) and was less controlling.  Even on minor cultural issues like cremation, the Christians opposed it while the pagans practiced it.  Actual Scandinavians, of course, blended the two religious traditions for many a year.

Winroth debunks the idea that the Vikings practiced human sacrifice, but does delineate a story (which the Vikings series also shows) of a slave being killed with her master and earl, and both set aflame.  He also debunks the idea of the 'blood eagle' - a gruesome torture that involved pulling a person's lungs out through their back, though the Vikings series showed this one.  Some of the narratives by Christians about Viking practices are suspect due to their hostile origins, and some skalds relied more on imagination than reality, which accounts for discrepancies in knowledge.  One Christian claimed the Vikings killed their babies if they were too poor, as if this was exclusive to Scandinavia.  Some Christians put biblical meanings into Norse religious tales.  But both shared the apocalypse, which in the Norse religion was called "Ragnarok.'  

Ragnar ultimately stops believing in Valhalla or Heaven and so becomes a modern man.  He knows that humans decide their own fate, not gods.  In that sense, he emerges an existentialist.

DISCOVERY

The Vikings developed low-draft boats that could go up rivers, hug coasts but also cross large bodies of water, based on square sails and oars.  To put another nail in Christopher Columbus's coffin, the Vikings under Eric the Red's son Leif Erickson landed on Newfoundland, Canada and built structures there in two places, but left because of the fierceness of the indigenous people.  This 500 years before Columbus.   Not so Catholic Columbus, who participated in the destruction of the Carib & Taino peoples when he finally arrived on Hispaniola. 

Viking warriors formed a 'Varangian' praetorian guard in Constantinople as 'sell-swords' for the ruler there.  They had a trading center on the Volga in mid-Russia called Bulghar, which brought in good from Asia, India and the near east.  The went upstream on every river in Europe that bordered on the Baltic or North Sea on raids.  Greenland, Iceland, the Orkneys, Shetlands and even Dublin were founded by the North men.  They portaged their boats over land using fallen timber and ropes - shown in both the series and in the book.  While Winroth says they had no special navigating tools, the Viking's series indicates Ragnar using a floating sundial to determine direction.  They, along with the Phoenicians and the Polynesians, were probably the best sea-faring folk in history.

Vikings Doing Business
ECONOMY & TAXES

Why did the Vikings raid?  Blood lust?  No.  Winroth debunks the idea that there was a Viking warrior cult called the 'Berserkers' high on mushrooms (our word beserk..., meaning 'bear shirt', a Sami religious symbol) who killed for the joy of it.  The Vikings raided for silver and gold, manufactured items, cloth, slaves - anything they could carry away.  They were thieves.  But if a king or lord would pay ransom, they would go away without attacking.  And this was frequent, sort of like Mafia protection money.  Sometimes English or French rulers tried to hire Vikings to fight other kings or lords and even other Vikings.  For instance in the Vikings series Rollo, Ragnar's brother, becomes the protector of Paris.  Most of the raiders were young men without wives, children or farms and so had to raid to get any money at all.  Again, something showing our fascist's are even more backward than the Vikings, as our fascists only believe in Viking violence. 

Sometimes the Vikings settled where they landed, as they were not just a seafaring people, but also a tough farming people.  Coins were 'weighed' as their value was based on the amount of gold or silver in them, so scales were common even in farmsteads.  Only later, as medieval society developed and the Viking age ended, did the coin itself come to symbolize value.  The medieval kings introduced broad taxation instead of raiding as their source of funding.  A "Danegeld" tax was first introduced by an English king, but he got the idea from the Danes.  Winroth makes the good point that the Vikings trading activities actually revived the European economy, as it brought in, among other things, Arab silver dirhams from the Middle East and thus increased the circulation of monetary values.  Their looting of Catholic churches, where so much silver & gold wealth was held, also helped circulation in the broader economy. 

Neither book nor History Channel series shows much about the economy, which is typical.  But from our prior knowledge, the more complex feudal landlord-serf relationships in France and England which made Paris possible, were not the model in Scandinavia.  There was certainly tribute in Scandinavian communities, but farmers were mostly free-holders who might have to supply fighting men or goods to the earl or king, but not out of serfdom.  Trading and plunder were other sources of income, and were not confined to the upper classes.  In a sense, the economy was actually closer to mercantilism / merchant economy. In other words, religion followed economics.  Ordinary histories, as these both are, do not track this, but instead concentrate on the religious divide, which is actually a stand-in for economics.

Our Aryan fascists can perhaps collect protection money, and become the official criminals they really are.  Or else collect taxes, which they will hate. 

SLAVERY & CULTURAL BREADTH

The Vikings held slaves for work or ransom, but the economy was not based on slaves.  They also spent a lot of time attacking each other, as raiding overseas left them open to attacks from their own neighbors.  Our modern Aryan fascists might enjoy these comparisons.  Yet the slaves were usually Europeans captured in raids, and had nothing to do with skin color.  Even early Frisians (German & Dutch) could be slaves.  You might even say that Catholicism's embrace of serfdom made whole populations slaves, so the Vikings were lesser offenders.  The Vikings actually intermarried into the communities they settled in, and did not restrict themselves to other Northmen or women.  As a seafaring and trading people, they were not afraid of travel or meeting new people, but were clever enough to borrow what they could from those who had better ideas, such as harder steel swords, probably made in Germany.  Our modern Aryan fascists will also not like that comparison, as they are isolated "American" nationalists first. 

DEMOCRACY

Viking societies were based on the consent of various communities, which is shown in the Viking Series. Winroth pays no attention to this issue, but between the lines he does explain the new Christian rules of handing power or wealth to only blood relations, starting with the eldest son.  This might allow corrupt families to continue in power for years, which became obvious as medieval history continued.  Viking communities were based on some sharing of wealth, drinking and eating in the longhouse 'mead halls,' and personal bonds.  A chieftain who disappointed his community could be replaced by an upstart.  In the Viking series Ragnar, an ordinary farmer and fisherman, replaces his Earl by leading profitable raids on England.  In essence, Viking society was at a midpoint between primitive communism and the medieval class system based on the exploitation of peasant farmers.  At one point outside Paris, Ragnar tells one of his many sons, "always use your head first, not your heart," as the secret to his success. This is closer to a meritocracy than to inherited and rigid class power.

Does any of this influence the modern Scandinavian social-democracies in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark & Iceland?  We will see...

Lastly, some great names of Norse kings that Tolkein must have also enjoyed.  We have met "Hardruler."  There is also "Fairhair,"  "Hairy Breeches", "Cnut," "Bloodaxe," "Silkenbeard" and "Forkbeard." Ragnar's son was Bjorn "Ironside," a real Viking who also raided in the Mediterranean.  Another son was "Ivar the Boneless" whose grave was actually found in central England.  There was a skald poet named "Old Bragi."  And King Magnus' axe was named "Hel." 

P.S. - Sorry fellow Minnesotans, according to Winroth the Kennsington Runestone is a clever modern fake.  And Viking warriors never wore horns.

Reviews of "Game of Thrones;" commentaries on fascism, the book "Collapse" which discusses the end of Viking settlement in Greenland; "In Praise of Barbarians;" Scandinavian fiction: "Redbreast," and the Icelandic tale "Independent People," all below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
October 22, 2017

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Lumberjack Blues

"Sometimes a Great Notion,” by Ken Kesey, 1963

This is a swamp bear of a book.  Wrestling its 700+ pages is like an endurance race that you lose at your peril.  Ken Kesey has an identity that mostly doesn’t involve this book.  He’s a Merry Prankster, an LSD aficionado; the author of the rebel book ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which became a film starring Jack Nicholson; a high beatnik, then a high hippie.  This book proves conclusively that he was also a very good writer, although you might argue with his political slant and lack of editing.  It was the only large book he wrote.

Ken Kesey - Master of Ceremonies
Some people call this a book about a union strike struggle, which is true up to a point. It is immersed in the Oregon woods – creeks, rivers, plants, flowers, animals, sky and mountains, where the salt means the clear, just back of the Oregon coast near Eugene.  A sometimes turbulent river, the Wakonda Auga, eats away at the family land.  The rain in September, October and November never seems to stop falling and it provides a constant presence.  The forests surround the central rambling family house like a prison.  This family house is located across a river, symbolically alone, so no car can drive up to it. The geese, the bears, the wildcats, the hunting dogs all cohabit this still wild woods. 

It is also a meditation on masculinity and the tiring clash between education and ‘rugged individualism.’  The educated buffoon with certain kinds of college intelligence versus the ignorant buffoons who have a great grasp of material reality.  As if these were the only cultural poles available.  It centers on a description of that classic “American type” – the independent male small businessman and his primitive role as a ruler of his family.  In this case, daddy Henry.  Tiring because, in 2017, this trope is still with us – the ranch owner ethos, the right-wing, self-centered, ‘tough’ guy owner -oil driller, logger, contractor, trucking company honcho.  Yes, right-wingers are human beings with personalities and successes.  However, practical and mechanical skills like motors, wood-working, hunting, fishing, motorcycles, guns, mechanical skills, animals, even drinking - are not exclusive to small businessmen.  The depictions in this book becomes a political stereotype that flatters this class of male profiteers. 

It is the early 1960s in the U.S.  Kesey’s plot centers around a family of loggers, the Stamper clan, led by old-man Henry. They are the ones who live in that isolated homestead.  Henry is a garrulous old-timer who seems to epitomize the stand-up pioneer of the past.  The Stampers decide to work for a logging company while the Timber-worker’s Union is out on strike against it. You got it, the whole closely-related bunch of Stamper woodsmen are scabs.  Union men play a role in the book and historically, this union was led by Wobblies and later Communists until they were purged, but a Wobbly echo remains in the person of the local's president, Floyd Evenwrite.  The out of work and on-strike loggers dominate the town and bars.  So the Stamper’s are not favorites in the nearby town of Wakonda, as they are strike-breakers.  But this predictably does not bother them.

It is written in a modernist style, full of well-written dialog, where past and present mix, scenes transpose themselves sentence by sentence, first person changes hands, internal meditations intrude, and gradually the book becomes a somewhat magical attempt at telling a story.  In a way, the style is difficult and confusing and why the book is a mud-wrestling match.  The book is not a straight-on depiction of class struggle, which is never its intention, but more of a group of interior monologues dripping in nature. Actual tree cutting work is depicted in several chapters, which gives you a physical feel for the work if you've never done it yourself.  But the capitalist logging company is invisible, and instead the psychology of various individuals dominates.

Kesey himself grew up in Oregon and went to Stanford, so this book reflects his own life.  One of the two main characters in this book, Leland Stamper, is Henry's intellectual son.  He leaves his paterfamilias-dominated family with his unhappy upscale mother and moves back to the East coast.  There Lee attends Harvard and reluctantly returns, after a failed suicide attempt, to help the family business during the strike. And perhaps prove he's a real man.  He could be a Kesey stand-in for all the similarities.  

This cultural class difference lies at the base of the conflict in the book. Lee flirts with madness and perhaps thinks returning home will straighten his psychology and also allow him to extract some revenge for his bullying treatment as a young bookish boy – which made him an absolute stranger to this hard-drinking, yahoo-thinking bunch.

Old boss Henry has another son - like-minded and tough Hank - a younger ‘chip off the old block.’  Hank marries a slim blonde woman, Vivian, from Colorado while on a motorcycle ride.  She becomes somewhat unhappy living in the homestead, as she’s a reader and this isolates her a bit, even while she performs all the duties of a virtual pioneer wife - cooking, cleaning, milking the cow, attending to the children, being available for sex.  In this book her actual thoughts are almost invisible until the very end, unlike most of the men involved.  Hank is the older brother that tormented Lee as a young boy and jealousy erupts, as Leland's plan is to steal Vivian to get back at Hank.  The struggle of the brothers dominates the book and Vivian plays the dithering prize until the very end when she eventually stands up for herself.
 
Young Hank Stamper is a real hero.  He is the all-time high school football and wrestling champ, never loses, always considerate, achieving physical feats of endurance, impervious to pain and bad weather, tough as nails, hard working to a fault, relies on himself, loves his wife but not too much.  It is his and his father's arrogance that they can get the scab logging job done alone in the cold wind and pouring rain - with only 3 men - that results in tragedy, a tragedy that Hank barely notices.  But the book basically has you rooting for his 'heroic' success, against Lee's stupid plan or the inept but numerous unionists. 

Kesey depicts the majority of the population of Wakonda as fools of different sorts.  Drunks, weaklings, people with secrets, some crazy, blowhards, thugs, false friends, stupid kids - quite a bunch.

The attempts by the union to shut down the Stampers are marked by ridicule and failure.  Their one-day picket line is disrupted by a drunken prostitute.  Their attempt to send the scab logs downriver ends with them falling in the drink themselves and being rescued by none other than Hank.  Their attempts to isolate the Stampers for the most part fail, especially a planned beating in the local bar, which Hank wins.  A plot to pretend to buyout the Stampers never comes to fruition. An attempt to burn the log mill results in Hank breaking an agreement and trying to get logs to the company anyway.  Only the somewhat bureaucratic union rep from California, a smooth, cultured man, thinks he can wait the Stampers out, and he succeeds. This gives you an idea of Kesey's attitude towards unionism, which was apparently somewhat hostile.  Not every hipster is a friend...no matter how 'hip' they seem.

If you want a taste of coastal Oregon, circa the early 1960s, this book will give it to you. 

Kerouac's "Dharma Bums" reviewed below. Commentaries on the Greatful Dead, below.  Book review about the 1960s:  "Sunset Daydream" below.

And I got it at the library!
Red Frog
October 17, 2017       

Monday, October 9, 2017

Wake Me When Its Over

"Blade Runner - 2049" directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2017

You may ask yourself, "Why a sequel?"  The original 'Blade Runner' film was hugely influential to a whole generation of dystopian film.  After sitting through this overly long film, you may have the answer.  The story is not enough to hold up the heralded wide-screen visuals, which are being carried by a tiny narrative that collapses at the end, dead.  Like some hollow Star Wars film that has at its heart a tired Harrison Ford, a wooden Ryan Gosling and an android-human baby - all surrounded by debris, rain and neon, you wonder.  Is that all there is? 

Flying Cars in Dystopia
And by crikey there is a lot to work with here, if it was ever used.  But it is not.  We have killer drones, virtual girlfriends, slave androids, an underground rebel movement, environmental collapse, constant rain, radioactive wastelands, a fascistic LAPD intent on genetic homogeneity, sexual exploitation circa the early 1970s, a one-man police hit squad, terrible humans, a dominant Wallace Corporation and human-android cross-breeding.  It sounds like now!  This complex of problems is actually the real message of the film.  It is a goddamn warning.

But to its creators, memory issues and human identity take center stage.  Is the blade runner "K" - a Kafkesque name if there ever was one - a replicant android or a human - or both? No.  Yes?  No?  Yes?  No...  At one point you go, who cares, as they are almost identical to the viewer.  (Humaness is a political construct...)  The key issue for the LAPD is to destroy any idea that replicant slaves and humans can interact, thus preserving human dominance, while the Wallace Corporation wants to breed replicants and humans for more slaves.  This seems to be a sidelight.  The other key issue for the filmmakers is memory - does K have real memories or are they implanted in his virtual brain?  Yes, the Big One, is reality real?  Even this film is an attempt to 'implant' memories into the viewer.  As you navigate this film's wrecked or run-down Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas, you might also later wonder, 'did it happen?' 

Ultimately the film is a film about family, and one man's search for his possible mother or father.  That is American filmmaking - turning dystopia into something else.

The movie is based on Philip Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," which was reviewed below. The book was different than the first film, but the mood carried over.  In essence it felt sympathy for the androids and their abject slave-like conditions.  This film also deviates from the first film and the book.  It concentrates on K's individual story, and a hopeless, depressing one at that.  As you might say, Hollywood does with Dick what they want.

The barely-noticed rebels here in 2049 are replicant slaves who are going to overthrow the slave system and the wretched human rulers who rule over this dystopia.  (The next sequel?) Of course do the replicants really represent soft machines - or do they represent real brutalized proletarians across our present world?  The answer seems to be obvious.  One scene even shows poor orphans in a waste zone disassembling PC boards for the metals - just like now!   But to culture mavens who prefer to wonder if Siri is a better girlfriend than a real one, this is a mind-fuck that will generate many sophomore college papers.  What is real? Where do humans end and cyborgs begin? 

The essence of bourgeois thinking is idealism - not in the sense of 'having ideals' - but in the sense of thinking reality is not based on material, scientific facts, but only on what you think.  So wondering what is real is essential to disordering the population - in religion, in miracles, in real-world fantasies, in factless conspiracies, in ghosts, in new age mysticism, in science fiction - its endless really.  Better to concentrate on family issues. This is not what Dick was solely concerned with, but the director and writers of this film thought to place their major emphasis on it, thus undermining their own somewhat surreal and beautiful construction. 

Prior review of Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" below.

Red Frog
October 9, 2017

Friday, October 6, 2017

Why He Did It...

Stephen Paddock

The U.S. media is scrambling around for a reason why this individual man killed and injured so many people in Las Vegas.  May I propose a theory.  It has been noted he was on Valium, which is the drug of choice for suicides and mass shooters.  Even through Big Pharma claims it works on 'depression.' However, what is not noted is his class position.  He was a 'multi-millionaire' according to his brother.  He was a real-estate businessman, one of the most sleazy businesses in the world, the one Trump is also in involved in.  He was an inveterate gambler, a compulsion that is hard to explain except that you believe in your 'elevated luck.'  He had a lot of money to buy, what , 47 weapons, tons of ammo and explosives.  Anyone who owns a gun knows that takes a lot of cash.  He was reported to abuse his Filipino girlfriend in public and visit prostitutes for violent sex.  Abusing women is another characteristic of mass shooters.  He was white, male and older, a hunter, a suburbanite with a big house and quite likely a conservative of a very common type.

Entitled God Complex
Rich people believe they have special rights - if you've had contact with them you know this.  They are, in a way, entitled, and killing is the highest entitlement of all.  Paddock had scheduled two trips to towns with music festivals before he came to Vegas.  Vegas is a town where working-class people go to have a cheap vacation.  Paddock was a country music fan too, so he knew exactly who was down there. Who goes to a country-music festival?  Mostly fun-loving young people, mostly working class.

This was primarily a terrorist ambush of class hatred, but hatred of the young, machismo, U.S. militarism and white privilege also filter into it.  It is a message in the class war.

Red Frog
October 6, 2017

Thursday, October 5, 2017

'Sassy' and 'Poorly Behaved' - not Enough

"Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt Again."  by Alice Birch, presented by Frank Theater, 2017

This is a play by a young feminist English dramaturge, which was billed as  'sharply funny,' 'searing,' and exploring the ' power of language' in the context of the oppression of women.   Considering we are talking about 'the power of words,' let's look at the key term here: 'feminist.' There are a number of types of feminism and which one you are talking about is key.  The generic term actually hides a multiplicity of ideologies, so just saying you are a 'feminist' hides more than it reveals.
They Liked it in New York

The play was actually somewhat sad, confused and gave up on exploring language.  But most prominent was the idea that feminism is about men as the root of all evil.  And men do horrible things.  Only last week in Minneapolis, a man lit his ex-girlfriend on fire with gasoline after years of harassing her, killing her. Another choked his wife to death with a phone cord because she threatened to divorce him. A local St. Paul school bus driver was accused of sexually-abusing 10 children.  The mass murderer in Las Vegas abused his girlfriend in public and hired prostitutes for violent sex, which gives you a hint of what type of guy he was.  This is a pattern by other mass killers.  The jails are full of men who have committed violent crimes but unfortunately are not full of rapists, who normally get away with rape.  Restraining orders aren't worth the paper they are printed on sometimes.  Are we living in India or Pakistan?  No, but the class structure and profit motive in India, Pakistan or the U.S. is still the same and women's oppression is 'baked in.'  Inequality in economics makes inequality among the genders or ethnicities inevitable.

The first scene involved a somewhat clever dialog between a stupid male Lothario and a woman who turns the tables on him verbally, until he sexually is the 'woman.'  Another is about a guy who proposes marriage out of the blue and his overly-talkative girlfriend can't quite say no, but compares the offer to being asked to take part in a suicide bombing.  Barely funny, but at least coherent on a 'micro-aggression' level. 

Another is about a male boss who refuses to give a woman every Monday off, another somewhat coherent set piece.  Let me look at this one, as it is the only place in the play where economics, that invisible and monstrous creature, plays a direct role.  What does the female employee want to do with her day off?  Walk in the woods with her dogs and maybe sleep!  Loeverly, aye?  What would most women want to do with their day off?  Probably avoid a day of expensive daycare if they have children, or do all the chores they haven't done on the weekend.  Yes, get more sleep (why is never explained but it might have something to do with overwork...), maybe do homework on some night-school class, visit their aging parent whom they never see, but walking in the woods might be last on the list unless they have a pretty calm life. 

Now the male boss offers every ridiculous enticement in the books to get her to quit asking for Monday off ... and she refuses.  Now who is she?  What is her job?  If she is an ordinary, working class white or blue-collar employee working full time, non-exempt, there is no flexibility in the schedule and asking for Monday off is impossible.  If she is 'exempt' from overtime, and gets paid a salary, then she might be able to work 4 days a week if there was not a crush of work, but again this conversation would not be so fraught, and could be easily denied.  If she is a temp or part-time worker, it could be arranged, but then this scene would not be the way it is.  Is she a high-ranking corporate manager who can set her own hours?  Evidently not, or the scene would not be taking place either.  She stands up to the boss and tells him she will see him Tuesday.  In the real world, if she was a regular worker, she would be terminated for job abandonment.  So the whole scene takes place in a situation of 'everywoman' unreality.  And on purpose.

From there, the play descends into confusion, with rape and incest failing to get laugh lines, lots of running around, words upon words, underwear gyrations and other 'experimental' methods.

The most disturbing parts of the play, though I'm not sure if they are on purpose, is that black woman actors have to do somewhat humiliating things.  One is stuffed in a shopping cart, to be yelled at by a young, cute white woman. From there she has to gyrate around in her underwear on the floor.  Later she gets to dump water on her head.  Some other scenes also play out like this, yet there is no mention of the double-oppression of black women in the play.

Portrayal of these 'micro-aggressions' is insufficient, though this seems to be as far as modern middle-class feminism goes right now.  If you want to really 'behave poorly,' attacking the 'MACRO-aggression' of the capitalist use of the patriarchy might be a good place to start.  Capital actually makes money off the oppression of women, which is why, many years after the beginning of the feminist movements, things continue as before.  Democratic rights alone are insufficient.

Free labor at home by taking care of children or the elderly or poorly paid labor in the work-places like minimum-wage tip exemptions and the practice of 'tipping' are the lot of many women.  Jobs where women are kept out or harassed, as in Silicon Valley or the military.  Then there is the 'male bribe,' which tells some sad-sack men they are superior to any woman.  We are familiar with police and judges coddling rapists and domestic violence to back up the male bribe.  Sexual exploitation is profitable.  

Then there are the politics that back up the economics.  There is the cult of manly violence portrayed in film, as a backup for our imperial war-like Spartan society.  Our foreign policy tolerates the oppression of women world-wide in reality while paying lip-service as a cover.  The government supports archaic religions that encourage the oppression of women in their practice and texts.  The U.S.  military and schools tolerate sexual harassment or rape.  Rape kits sit in police evidence departments all over the country unopened.  Even marriage itself is an legal contract with the state and an economic contract with the partners.   It is now more and more confined to those with higher incomes. None of these somewhat realistic points were brought up by the play.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  'Macro-aggressions' like this should be the real final target for any feminist worth their salt.

These latter are all points of proletarian feminism, which was strong in the 1970s but is weak now.  Yet it is going to come roaring back as bourgeois feminism (the glass ceiling feminists like Hillary) and this middle-class feminism (men-suck feminists) are seen as basically unable to change society.  Yes, words do mean something.

The play ends with the four women donning combat gear while admitting that something has gone dreadfully wrong in the feminist movement. No matter. Their solution it seems is a 'revolution' where it will be necessary to 'kill all the men.' This last scene really exposes the sad bankruptcy of their ideology.  After that, the audience filed out quietly...

The play continues until 10/22/17 at the Gremlin Theater, at the back of the Vandalia arts complex in St. Paul.

Other plays, including Frank Theater plays, reviewed below.

Red Frog
October 5, 2017