Tag: Books & the Arts

Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed

BOOKS

All the Real Indians Died Off
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker
Beacon, 2016

Two scholars refute 21 myths about Native Americans commonly taught in U.S. schools, media, and pop culture.

 

Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue
Random House, 2016

The lives of two couples intersect in this timely novel – a Lehman Brothers executive and his wife on the eve of the 2008 Wall Street crash, and two hard-working immigrants from Cameroon who end up working for them. Told from the Africans’ point of view, the story has many poignant moments reflecting cultural and class differences.

 

City of Grit and Gold
By Maud Macrory Powell
Allium, 2017

This short novel can work for everyone from middle-school students to adults as it recounts from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl how her family becomes divided by the Haymarket strike for the 8-hour day by mostly immigrant workers in 1886 in Chicago.

 

From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation
By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Haymarket, 2016

Throughout U.S. history, black activists and their allies have found that confronting issues of race requires also confronting issues of class, gender, and economic justice.

 

Hitler’s American Model
By James Q. Whitman
Princeton University Press, 2017

In the 1930s, the German Nazis drew on American laws and practices on race as they laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.

 

Look
By Solmaz Sharif
Graywolf, 2016

A poet of Iranian descent writes powerfully about the impacts of war, both in the Middle East and here in the U.S. Some poems are built around phrases in the U.S. military’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Others are in the form of censored letters from military prison, with key words missing.

 

Small Great Things
By Jodi Picoult
Ballentine, 2016

A very readable and suspenseful novel (despite an implausible ending) doubles as a thought-provoking introduction for white readers to issues of racism, white privilege, and implicit bias.

 

The Fortunes
By Peter Ho Davies
Houghton Mifflin, 2016

Chinese-American experiences are explored in this novel through four lives in four time periods – a worker in the California gold rush and building of the railroads; a Hollywood actress in the 1920s; Vincent Chin, killed by Detroit auto workers who thought he was Japanese; and a Chinese-American man who goes with his wife to adopt a baby in China.

 

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded
By Unite
Duke University Press, 2017

Back in print with a new foreword, this classic collection of essays describes how foundation and government funding discourages some nonprofits from fighting for fundamental change.

 

The Vanishing Middle Class
By Peter Temin
MIT Press, 2017

Some of the economic, political, and historical roots of the increasing divide between America’s top 1% in wealth and those at the bottom and in the shrinking middle are explored.

 

Unmentionables
By Laurie Loewenstein
Akashic, 2014

The main character in this romantic tale is a woman who is a traveling speaker for women’s rights before and during World War I and the fight for women’s suffrage.

 

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?
By Kathleen Collins
Harper Collins, 2017

Sixteen short stories by the African American director of the 1982 film, Losing Ground, evoke relationships and experiences during the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s and beyond.

 

Where the Line is Drawn
By Raja Shehadeh
The New Press, 2017

A leading Palestinian writer tells how occupation of his country has affected him personally over the past 40 years and describes the ups and downs of his long friendship with a Jew living in Israel.

 

FILMS

4.1 Miles
Oscargo.com, 2016

This short film provides a powerful snapshot of the struggle of Syrian refugees to escape to safety, and of the efforts by Greek Coast Guard crews to help them despite severely limited resources

 

Acts and Intermissions
Abigailchild.com, 2016

An hour-long collage of words and images centered on anarchist Emma Goldman draws on archival footage, reenactment, and current events.

 

Fatima
Kinolorber.com, 2016

A Muslim immigrant to France and her two daughters each follow different paths as they try to build a life in their new home.

 

Graduation
Ifcfilms.com, 2017

A Romanian doctor has long dreamed that his daughter will go to a university abroad and escape their country’s bleakness and corruption. But in trying to realize that dream, will he become part of the system he wants her to escape?

 

In The Radiant City
ICMPartners.com, 2016

How long must people suffer for past mistakes, and how does a family find a pathway to forgiveness? These are some questions at the heart of this thoroughly engaging and flawlessly made drama. Twenty years before the action begins, a 17-year-old boy killed a child by setting fire to a house. He was sent to prison based on the testimony of his younger brother. Now, the older man is up for parole.

 

Ixcanul
Kinolorber.com, 2016

In this Guatemalan feature film that gains authenticity from a mostly non-professional cast, a 17-year-old girl in a remote village faces one cultural and economic obstacle after another as she tries to follow her dreams.

 

Sing
Singshortfilm.com, 2016

Faced with an imperious teacher, members of a children’s choir invent a creative way to stand up for each other in this charming 25-minute short feature from Hungary.

 

The Other Son
Cohenmedia.net, 2012

Two boys have been raised for their first 18 years on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Then, their families learn that their sons were born in the same hospital and mistakenly switched.

 

The Watermelon Woman
Firstrunfeatures.com, 2016

Remastered for its 20th anniversary, this pioneering film follows a young black lesbian filmmaker trying to make a documentary about an elusive African American actress from the 1930s.

 

Timecode
Shortstv.com, 2016
Luna and Diego are parking lot security guards, but this delightfully unique, Oscar-nominated, 15-minute feature from Spain shows us that there is much more to these two than their drab uniforms might suggest.

 

Watani: My Homeland
Oscargo.com, 2016

This short documentary follows a mother and her four young children as they flee the war zone in Aleppo, Syria, and make their way to Germany.

Books and the Arts: Life After the Great Industrial Extinction

Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America

By Tracy Neumann

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016

 

From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City

By Chloe Taft

Harvard University Press, 2016

 

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, all eyes turned to the Rust Belt. We heard stories of Youngstown and Erie, of the misery of coal country, and of how the anger of laid- off factory workers drove them into the arms of Donald Trump. Two new books suggest we have a good deal more to learn about what has been happening in what used to be the arsenal of democracy. Tracy Neumann’s Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America and Chloe Taft’s From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City respectively examine postindustrialism in the former steel towns of Pittsburgh, Hamilton, Ontario, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Things are not so simple after the factory gates close, both argue.

Neumann and Taft both complicate and expand on the definitions and geography of deindustrialization offered in seminal works like Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison’s The Deindustrialization of America and Daniel Bell’s optimistic The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. These well-researched, passionately-argued books each show, in the words of Neumann, “the primacy of local place in understanding how global and national social, political, and economic processes that constituted postindustrialism were worked out on the ground.” In their close attention to the particularities, processes, and context of how local communities grappled with these large-scale transformations, they complicate not just existing definitions of postindustrialism, but also neoliberalism. Neumann and Taft’s approaches reveal the value in exploring what geographers Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore have deemed “actually existing neoliberalism” rather than simply critiquing neoliberal ideology.

While Remaking the Rust Belt and From Steel to Slots seem to cover similar ground, they are neither in conflict nor redundant. Both authors expand the parameters of the “community study” approach to scholarship, breathing new life into the method. Yet they are quite different books and offer distinct perspectives and approaches.

Remaking the Rustbelt redraws the geography of the Rust Belt, drawing in Canada and Western Europe. Neumann challenges the widespread assumption that postindustrial transformation was historically inevitable and the by-product of “natural business cycles” and  “neutral market forces.” Instead, she reveals how it emerged from the deliberate efforts of public-private partnerships between politicians and corporate elites. She defines postindustrialism simultaneously as a “pervasive ideology that privileged white-collar jobs and middle-class residents” and “a set of pragmatic tactics” of public-private partnerships, which “included financial incentives, branding campaigns and physical redevelopments.”

Pittsburgh is routinely celebrated as the success story in narratives of urban rebirth, while Hamilton—its smaller Canadian counterpart—is seen as Toronto’s unsuccessful sibling. The comparison between the two steel cities enables Neumann to show both that the Rust Belt was a transnational phenomenon and how postindustrialism developed unevenly not just within cities, but among them.

Neumann demonstrates that while postindustrial ideology doggedly emphasized the future, it had roots firmly in the growth coalitions that had dominated postwar cities. Upending many treatments of postindustrial and neoliberal urbanism, she contends that public-private partnerships did not emerge de novo in the 1970s, but were intensifications of arrangements forged during the era of urban renewal. The postindustrial city was not a form of rupture, but rather continuity.

Pittsburgh offers an effective case in point. In the 1950s and 1960s the city initiated a massive urban renewal program called the Renaissance aimed at revitalizing the central business district (“the Golden Triangle”), which created key alliances between the public and private sector. In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of mayors in the New Democrat mold joined corporate leaders to reinvigorate that model. The members of this growth coalition saw in the decline of steelmaking not an impediment, but an opportunity. They initiated “Renaissance II,” mobilizing public subsidies to draw corporate headquarters downtown, swapping smokestacks for skyscrapers. Renaissance II developed new retail, entertainment and leisure spaces beyond the Golden Triangle to transform the city into “a postindustrial utopia for young well-educated professionals.”

Neumann provides an insightful analysis of how the city’s branding campaign served as a “material and symbolic” to create a new mental map of urban space. Mayor Richard Caliguiri’s goal was a population of “less people with high incomes than more people relatively low earning and spending power.” He wanted “to tear every picture of Pittsburgh’s smokestacks out of the country’s textbooks.” While branding and other tactics stopped short of that ambition, they were able to transform Pittsburgh’s reputation and physical landscape. By the mid-1980s, it earned the designation as “America’s Most Livable City.” The mid-1980s, of course, simultaneously saw a Depression-scale social and economic collapse in the old blue-collar neighborhoods along the Monongahela River. “Livable” for whom?

Pittsburgh, nevertheless, became an international model for other cities across the Rust Belt, including Ontario’s Hamilton. That steel center had its own growth coalition, which sought to remake it into a headquarters for the service and financial sectors. Hamilton’s bureaucrats emulated Pittsburgh, exchanging ideas and taking “policy tours” of their southern neighbor. However, Canadian policy constrained Hamilton’s leaders. The federal and provincial governments imposed a provincial growth policy requiring the city to remain a manufacturing center and preventing it from taking steps that might threaten Toronto’s position as the center of the postindustrial economy. Despite efforts on the part of the growth coalition and the consultants they hired, Hamilton had difficulty transcending its “lunch bucket” image. Ultimately city leaders had no choice but to embrace that reputation in a rather less successful urban branding campaign than Pittsburgh’s.

Rather than examine the hard-luck workers, Neumann focuses primarily on the efforts of the politicians, corporate leaders, technocrats, policy officials, and urban branders who together produced these new visions of the postindustrial landscape. She is careful to neither celebrate nor revile them. Neumann instead contends that that these figures pursued such a vision because they saw it as their only politically viable option. This was less “neoliberalism by design,” and more  “neoliberalism by default.” Such choices often emerged from forces beyond policymakers’ control; nonetheless, they inscribed inequality even deeper into the urban landscape.  

Neumann’s attention to urban policy is important for understanding the construction of key structures and systems of inequality. The book gives concrete meaning to abstractions like neoliberalism and postindustrialism. Her approach, nevertheless, demonstrates a tradeoff not only for policymakers but also for the scholars who study them. Neumann’s emphasis means that she gives less voice to the blue-collar and poor residents who absorbed the brunt of the urban transformation. She describes how branding campaigns glossed over Pittsburgh’s tradition of labor unrest, but at times she unintentionally replicates that tendency. She does describe the valiant and often dramatic efforts of activists against urban growth coalitions, though they were of little avail. In the epilogue, Neumann notes that by 2010 Pittsburgh had the highest rate of poverty among working-age African Americans in the forty largest metropolitan areas in the United States. While the book explains some of the policy that produced this calamity, there is little discussion of the people who experienced it.

While Neumann might not pay enough heed to how ordinary people made sense of the remaking of the urban economy and landscape, this is the central focus of From Steel to Slots. Taft provides an ethnographic analysis of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which sits 300 miles east of Pittsburgh.  Throughout the twentieth century it served as headquarters of Bethlehem Steel, at one point the world’s second largest steelmaker. Following the closing of “the Steel” in 2009, Sheldon Adelson’s Sands Casino Corporation—the world’s largest casino operator—opened an outpost on the former site of the mill. This transformation reveals an alternative model of public-private partnership and economic redevelopment rooted in the gaming industry. Yet the relationship between Adelson and local bureaucrats is not what interests Taft.  Rather, she concentrates on “how locals have variously embraced and grappled with the remaking of their steel town as a postindustrial city.”

. While Neumann defines postindustrialism in terms of urban policy and development, Taft is more invested in its cultural dimensions—what postindustrialism means to those who live it. She offers a literally fine-grained analysis, showing how particles of dust, Christmas lights, and mailboxes all became sites where residents grappled with the transformation of Bethlehem. In her examination of the texture of the city, Taft illustrates how economic restructuring left its mark on a range of spaces and experiences from churches and local festivals to heritage tourism exhibits. Where Neumann grounds her argument in planning reports and other evidence culled from municipal archives, Taft relies on interviews with 76 residents. These lend the book a conversational tone.

Taft’s source base also helps her show that deindustrialization was “not a finite moment or breaking point.” She finds instead a “diversity of experiences and interpretations of ongoing economic change.” Taft’s informants transcend class, racial and spatial boundaries and include representatives from Bethlehem’s sizable white-collar workforce and significant Latino population. These perspectives help her dispel the assumption that white steelworkers were the only people who lived in Bethlehem or who experienced deindustrialization.

Taft avoids declaring Bethlehem’s transformation a success or a failure. She does not offer a nostalgic view of the city’s bygone industrial era or castigate Bethlehem’s links to a global gaming network extending from Las Vegas to Macau. Bethlehem has long been enmeshed in a wider world. The Steel’s products were always part of the global market. The same roadway built to carry Bethlehem’s products to market now brings Chinese immigrants from New York and New Jersey to test their luck at the Sand’s baccarat tables.  “Lived from day to day,” she writes, “postindustrialism reflects an ongoing process marked by complicated, and at times paradoxical, continuities that also challenge well-worn categories of ’before’ and ‘after.’”

The casino itself highlights this duality. The Sands Corporation decided to abandon the Venetian-themed aesthetic of its other casinos for an industrial style, designing the building to evoke a steel mill in 1942. Taft suggests that by selecting that particular year, which represents the apex of production, the casino’s design offers as much of an escapist fantasy as the gondolas in Las Vegas. The decision of the Sands to embrace an industrial aesthetic might appear perverse—even cruel. Taft, though, finds a signification that the process of creative destruction was never entirely as complete as it might seem.

Taft provides a fascinating and detailed discussion of the ways in which the casino operates as a “postindustrial factory”—a phrase that succinctly collapses the dualities of before and after. While the dealers’  jobs reproduce the routinization of factory work without the midcentury social contract, many of the dealers have absorbed the company ideology about the value of entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and flexibility. She suggests the dealers’ labor and attitude stands in for the broader experiences of postindustrial employment insecurity. However, if casino workers have indeed bought in to management ideology, it seems doubtful that they would join in the kind of collective action that Taft repeatedly suggests the built environment and processes of “place-making” could bring.  

From Steel to Slots suggests that the casino itself reflects the larger financialization of the “new economy.” While Taft’s focus on Bethlehem allows her argument an intimate scale, her discussion of aspects of economic and political structures is much more vague than Neumann’s. Taft frequently alludes to a neoliberal and free-market logics without explaining what she means. This type of analysis ultimately makes the forces of the market seem inevitable and natural rather than the product of policies, deliberate decisions by politicians and corporate leaders, or even identifiable economic processes. Despite a few references to Adelson, managers, bureaucrats, and politicians play a minor role in the book and there is little attention to specific policies—those that Neumann draws out so well. (For example, what process led Pennsylvania to loosen regulation on the gaming industry in the 2000s, allowing the casino to be built in the first place?) Taft’s attention to how residents made cultural and social meanings out of economic restructuring is compelling; ultimately, though,  without more context about local, state and international political economy, it is hard to grasp in material terms how such meanings provide building blocks to create the “more equitable future” she calls for. It might make some readers skeptical that it would be possible.

As Neumann points out, policy decisions shape “the material possibilities and daily lives of urban dwellers.” By now it has become clear that our national politics are being whipsawed by the retribution for decades elite control over such material possibilities. In facing the new political order emerging throughout the North Atlantic, sensitivity to the unevenness of postindustrial development—to “actually existing neoliberalism”—is needed now more than ever. Neumann and Taft’s collective analysis is extremely important for demonstrating that there is no one definition or uniform set of policy prescriptions that will work in all communities. There is no singular Rust Belt space, resident, or experience; nor is there a singular postindustrial city. Economic change has gnawed away quickly here, slowly there, creating a variegated map of deprivation and prosperity. Such understanding will be crucial in organizing to resist policies that do not take such forms of unevenness into account and for proposing ones that do.

In 2016, Uber deployed its first self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. The high-tech car service giant has come to represent both the transformation of American cities into “livable” playgrounds for the affluent and, at the same time, the worst kind of gig economy working conditions. The growing tech boom in Pittsburgh—reflected in Uber’s presence—is the fruit of the urban redevelopment efforts of the postwar years and particularly the 1970s and 1980s. This approach to postindustrial renewal has, on its face, been successful in bringing about a new economy. But we should not overlook the irony that even cab drivers are now at risk of replacement by automation. Professional-class Democrats counting on “retraining” to make the Rust Belt working class vanish and drop its grievances would do well to take note, and to heed the lesson of these books: the Rust Belt did not just happen, but was made. Those who live through economic restructuring do not always have the same experiences, or interpret those experiences in ways that are predictable. No one is immune to creative destruction, but we are not helpless before it either.

 

It’s Good to Be King: The Crisis Documentary and the American Dreamscape

Heist: Who Stole the American Dream
Directed by Donald Goldmacher and Frances Causey
Connecting the Dots Productions, 2012

 
You’ve Been Trumped
Directed by Anthony Baxter
International Film Circuit, 2012

 
The Queen of Versailles
Directed by Lauren Greenfield
Magnolia Pictures, 2012

 

Reviewed by Jeremy Varon

The Great Recession of 2007, certainly relative to its namesake disaster, has yet to produce Great Art—nothing approaching Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Guthrie’s dustbowl ballads, or Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the dispossessed.  Even Occupy failed to generate signature songs or oratory (although chants it had), or a distinctive iconography, save perhaps its tumblr testimonials and the spectacle of occupation itself.  Overwhelmingly, Occupy’s was an aesthetics of the deed.

The world of art, viewed broadly so as to include popular entertainments and agitprop, has been, however, far from silent on the crisis.  And one medium is conspicuously thriving: the documentary, or its close cousin, the docudrama.  Notably, the 2010 Inside Job dissected the anatomy of the housing bubble.[1] The 2011 HBO miniseries Too Big to Fail dramatized the opus of a leading financial reporter in a landmark explication of the banking collapse.  Even the fictional Margin Call (2011) had a documentary feel, distilling corporate machination to its operational essence, without need of a Gordon Gekko-like villain.

Much favors documentary as a form of witness in and to our troubled times.  Truth has appeared stranger and more tragic than fiction, as trillions of dollars just vanished, leaving the public holding the bag. Simply chronicling the sad epic seems dramatic enough. The imperative of accessible explanation, moreover, is especially acute, given the role of financial exotica such as collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps in the meltdown.

Documentary has rallied as well its didactic prowess to address the great question of our era: just who, or what, was to blame?  Here the appeal to reality to build one’s case is hardly decisive.  In an age of hyper-polarization, each side exists in the universe of its own facts and talking heads, nearly impervious to persuasion by its rival.  Even if diminished, belief in the power of revelation has not disappeared, calling a new generation of truth-tellers with cameras to the scrum of public quarrel.  Finally, the ascent of the crisis documentary taps into the unprecedented ubiquity of “reality” as the stuff of barely mediated representation and a host of associated phenomena: the democratization of reportage by the digital camera; the televisual access we casually give others to our lives; the growing acceptance, fueled by reality TV, of ridicule as the price for celebrity; and the frequent blurring of the event itself with its spectacle.

Three documentaries from 2012 add to the accumulating body of work on our wounded economy: Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?, You’ve Been Trumped, and The Queen of Versailles.  Each expands critical understanding, whether by extending the analysis beyond Wall Street or casting exemplary narratives that bring both to life and into sharper focus the license and sheer absurdity of the capitalism of our times.  Screaming the need for large-scale change, the films also suggest the dim prospect of achieving it. A melancholy thus hangs over them, in which the beauty of small acts of resistance remains suffused with the ugliness of grand defeat.

Framed as a true crime epic, Heist proposes to tell the shocking story behind the collapse.  “The mess we’re in today,” it intones, “did not begin with Wall Street.”  Instead, it was the result of a “brilliantly executed coup,” entailing the “greatest wealth transfer . . . in the history of humankind” from the middle class and poor to the “super-rich.”

The tale Heist tells is a straightforward and, to progressives, a mostly familiar one, studded with the commentary of expert-advocates and a largely predictable cast of heroes and villains.  President Franklin Roosevelt is the first such hero, whose New Deal was a “great deal” for America.  Through jobs programs, unemployment insurance, pro-labor polices, and regulations, the middle class blossomed. Things, however, went to hell when, starting in the late 1960s, zealous capitalists, viewing “unions and government as the enemy” plotted their endgame of “business control of law and politics.” The first move was to chip away at corporate and estate taxes, the power of unions, and wages and benefits.  Equally important was the massive funding of right-wing think tanks and media outlets preaching a free market gospel.

With the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, phase one of the caper was complete.  His well-known sins, from union busting to deregulation, were followed by the less-often-damned policies of Bill Clinton, whose free trade agreements and welfare “reform” bled American jobs enriched multinational corporations and pushed the poor further down.  Radicalized under Republican rule, but championed throughout by Democrats, the pro-rich agenda has yielded for the current generation stagnant wages and inequality on a colossal scale.

The gestalt of Heist is a garish portrait of grand theft by determined conspiracy.  Its most affecting moments are when its commentators articulate the perversions of perspective that underwrite our economic order. United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard explains that rich people, living in gated communities and with their own police, schools, and swimming pools, don’t need government; the rest of us do.  But government is branded the enemy of all of us.

Such moments are, however, too fleeting to rescue Heist from feeling like a Powerpoint presentation with some moving images. There are no “gotcha” moments in which a villain lays bare his villainy; no tragic profiles to give a human face to structural failure.  Above all, Heist begs but poorly answers the question of why ideas that are evidently so bad for most of us have proven so resonant, even popular.  It is not enough to suggest a simple case of ideological capture by moneyed interests buying the public debate.  A more rigorous account would take up the thorny issue of the widespread perception of liberalism’s failure, historically tinged with racial backlash.  So, too, Heist fails to appreciate the power of the popular equation of the free market with liberty—how, for many Americans, limited government is a moral creed.  Without acknowledging this commitment in terms other than crass manipulation, conservatives appear either simply crooks or dupes. Such an insinuation is a terrible basis for finding common ground, while playing into dismissive charges of liberal elitism.

Heist is likely most useful as a tool to deepen the faith of the converted.  By the same token, it points to the profound fissures in progressive doctrine.  Heist proposes reasonable reforms, from fair taxation to an end to corporate welfare.  That these goals seem nearly unattainable is good cause not to over-reach and to be content with giving capitalism a more human face.  But the very fact that the system seems impervious even to mild improvement suggests the need for an entirely new model.  The reformism/radicalism debate of the left is therefore restaged and not solved, no matter Heist’s “art of the possible” bias.

You’ve Been Trumped succeeds where Heist falters, providing a fine-grained account of a single instance of capitalism unbound: the effort, spearheaded by Donald Trump, to build a luxury golf course and grand hotel on Scotland’s Aberdeenshire coast.  Expertly composed, verité style, by its director Anthony Baxter, Trumped affords an intimacy of character and theme that conveys the truth of anti-capitalist axioms—that the state does the bidding of corporations, that law is servant to profit—far greater than the power slogans or connect-the-dots analyses to express.  It is an aching lesson in the skewed balance of power that asks, as its grace note, where human richness truly lies.

The film documents, as its core plot, the march of might against right.  Stepwise, the Trump project entails the Scottish national government overriding the local town council, which had rejected the development on environmental grounds; the harassment and threatened removal of local residents, whose homes Trump deems an aesthetic irritant; the collusion of local police with the Trump venture; and the bulldozing of the locale’s “dynamic sand dunes,” regarded as a national treasure by Scots and a site of unique geological interest by world scientists.  The film thus appears a tale of David versus Goliath, absent the magic slingshot to secure the inheritance for the underdog.  It also bears uncanny resemblance to the fictional, 1983 film Local Hero, in which a corporate dissident thwarts the building of a refinery on the Scottish coast.  Embracing the coincidence, You’ve Been Trumped pays explicit homage to Local Hero.

The film is, however, too trained on particulars to be reducible to any archetype or cinematic precedent.  The ingenuity begins with the depiction of Trump.  Trump’s bombast is so great a matter of public record that the film needn’t belabor it with B-roll footage of Donald blather.  More importantly, it views Trump through the lens of the locals, who remain unimpressed by his celebrity and contemptuous of his values. Trump’s power is conveyed mostly by its proxies: the luxury SUVs that dispatch executives for photo-ops; the private security and local police who, shockingly, arrest the filmmaker; and of course the bulldozers, whose destruction the Aberdeenshire loyalists capture with hand-held cameras provided by Baxter.  Trump himself, slinging insults at the locals, shrinks in stature as they grow tall, standing up for common-sense right in the face of gross predation.

The landscape itself emerges as the chief protagonist, lending a Faustian quality to profit.  The very beauty of the setting is the cause of the golf course being placed there.  But its construction threatens the habitat that is its raison d’étre.  The impossible solution is the fabrication of an ersatz beauty falsely trumpeted as eco-friendly and good for local jobs.

It is tempting to declare the earnest opposition the true victor.  None of the locals were forcibly removed.  A community of resistance was built and sustained.  Though the golf course eventually opened, the hotel remains unbuilt, further stymied by plans for a state-supported oceanic wind farm ruining site lines.  Trump appears willing to walk away from most of it, leaving a half-baked monument to apparent failure.

Yet the acceptance of sunk costs and Trump’s likely pivot to the next venue promising greater profit margins and fewer headaches, underscore the cavalier profligacy of the entire game.  And while humans may appreciate the relativities of the political score sheet and savor moral victories, for the dunes it’s all or nothing: once despoiled they can never be again what they were.  No mulligans or redemption in the next round.

Most tantalizing among the films and ultimately instructive with respect to the current crisis is The Queen of Versailles.  Begun before the crash, it narrates the rags to riches to unlikely demise of the Siegel family. Its patriarch, the CEO of Westgate Resorts, made a fortune as the king of the time share industry, boasting a far-flung empire of quasi-luxury units.  The family’s great conceit is to build in Orlando, Florida the largest home in the United States, dwarfing its current, palatial dwelling with ancient regime grandeur (“Versailles,” so named, demands $5 million worth of imported marble alone).  Thwarted in its goal, the family meets an analogous fate to the countless saps who, in the foreclosure storm and credit crunch, can no longer afford to keep, or attain, property.  The breaking of the Siegels’ outsized dreams serves as allegory for plebian disappointments, conjoining lord and commoner in a perilous culture of desire.

Like the house of Kardashian and legions of TV housewives, the Siegels are painfully bereft of taste.  Theirs is a low-rent sensibility miscast in champagne-land.  As old as the Beverly Hillbillies, this dissonance has carried the quintessentially American proposition that wealth has no need of, or bearing on, cultural distinction.  If once used to skewer the pretense of the hereditary rich, this device now gives free rein to pedestrian gluttony untamed by aspirations to refinement and incapable of shame.

The excess of the Siegels seems totally unnecessary, as the sloppy family appears neither elevated by nor dependent on wealth.  Mrs. Siegel’s grandiose tastes—for breast enhancement and unmanageable quantities of pets, bathrooms, and children—seem almost incidental to her enduring identity as a small-city girl seeking just a little more than middle-class comfort.

Even more so, Mr. Siegel appears unexceptional, begging account of how he accumulated such vast wealth.  His fortune originated in an insight at once primitive and brilliant: that most Americans want to be rich and, if they can’t quite be rich, at least to feel rich.  Hence, the time share property, where, for a surprisingly affordable price, one can experience a facsimile of luxury and live, if for just one week in the year, like a king. (Even modest units in the flagship Vegas complex are decadently sized and fitted with drop screen TVs).  Siegel’s fortune, in sum, is built on democratizing the illusion of wealth and making primal dreams come true.

Documenting this, Versailles exposes a psychological and cultural reality far more complex than that of Heist, with its facile division between the 1 percent and the rest of us.  That is, it reveals the mass participation and even complicity in a socially destructive fantasy, discouraging easy identification of an enemy over-class.  By extension, redemption depends not only on policy reform but also on the makeover of the American dreamscape.

The great irony laid bare by the crash is that the Siegels are no more truly wealthy than their time share owners.  The units were largely financed with just 10 percent down and subprime mortgages.  So too, Westgate depends for its relentless expansion on hundreds of millions of dollars in bank loans. As the bubble bursts, throwing property holders into foreclosure and choking off loans to potential new buyers, Westgate loses its revenue stream and access to bank capital.

Remarkably, the entire enterprise goes into free-fall, claiming hundreds of staff, scuttling the half-built “Versailles,” and threatening bank possession of the billion-dollar Vegas property for pennies on the dollar.  Almost overnight, the Siegels must worry about the cost of the electric bill and saving for their children’s college.  All along, and like the rest of us, they were just playing at being rich.

Watching Mrs. Siegel turn back into Cinderella, before her reign as princess, provides the film’s most poignant moments. As an act of charity, she sells copious household items at greatly reduced prices to the riffed Westgate staff.  Here we see another truism: that average Americans, in hard times especially, have great need of discounts.  Thrift and excess later merge as Mrs. Siegel overfills her Wal-mart shopping cart with gifts for the kids.  Most painfully, her newfound, relative poverty writes lines of shame into her face in ways that boasting of $10,000 pairs of shoes never did.

If Mrs. Siegel grows more likeable in her humility, Mr. Siegel grows less so.  Most infuriating is his incapacity to acknowledge an iota of blame in the carnage.  Early in the film he casually boasts of having elected George W. Bush via generous donations of “probably illegal” campaign cash.  Wondering aloud if the Iraq war was the fruit of his investment, he quickly moves past the troubling thought.  Increasingly obsessed with saving the Vegas property, and neglecting his wife as a now-tarnished trophy, he concludes only that business is a wicked game of boom and bust, and that he’ll get on top again, if only he can secure several hundred million in bank loans.

If this, too, is allegory—if Wall Street has learned nothing more—we have great cause for anger and worry.  The world, we may conclude, is better off without petty monarchs like Mr. Siegel.  But the question burns: can the rest of us do without being king, if only for a week?  Touché, Seigneur Siegel, touché.

[1] A roundup of films about or loosely inspired by the crisis is at: http://www.metacritic.com/feature/best-and-worst-movies-about-the-financial-crisis

Visions of Utopia

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune.
By Kristin Ross
Verso, 2015
ISBN: 9781781688397

The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Lefts Founding Manifesto
Edited by Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-8122-4692-6

The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement.
By Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky
Oxford University Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780199313914

 

Reviewed by: Tim Barker

A time-honored trope of left-wing rhetoric works by identifying radical projects with the barest common sense. Witness the secondwave slogan, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” or Guatemalan reformist Juan José Arévalo’s declaration, “We are socialists because we live in the twentieth century.” More generally—and cryptically—Lenin counseled a politics “as radical as reality itself.” Effective as these formulations are, the rhetorical move involves a fundamental ambiguity. Is it that radicalism is not so radical, because it is only recognition of something everyone already accepts? Or is it that to achieve even the simplest and most obvious goals, we need to take an ax to the root of the whole system?

There is a version of this trope associated with participatory democracy. “We understand democracy to be that system of rule in which the people make the decisions that affect their lives.” Depending on your reading, this could be a high school civics lesson or a call for social revolution. Three recent books about episodes in the history of radical democracy—the 1871 Paris Commune, the 1962 Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society, and the Occupy Movement of 2011-2012—show how the tension between the obvious and the otherworldly remains unresolved in important ways today

The sequence begins with Kristin Ross’ Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. The Commune itself—a revolutionary government composed of the popular classes of Paris, which existed for seventytwo days in 1871 between the defeat of Napoleon III’s Second Empire at the hands of the Prussians and the violent foundation of the liberal Third Republic—is well-trodden historical ground. Ross’ contribution stresses the sheer radicalism of the Communard vision, which she finds too explosive to be contained within the narrow confines of French nationalist or Marxist historiography. In her clearest summation, Ross writes, “The Communal imagination operated on the preferred scale of the autonomous unit within an internationalist horizon. It had little room for the nation, or for that matter, for the market or state.” The Commune would revolutionize all aspects of life, all over the world, without throwing up any mediating institution besides voluntary association. Ross’ Communard vision centers around the transformative reconciliation of all binary oppositions—not just global and local but mental and manual labor, city and countryside, human industry and nature, and past and future. “Everything,” Ross sums up, “is in everything.”

Fortunately, Ross uses these grand themes to bring together a fascinating constellation of specific historical experiences. There is supposed to be something practical about the Communard vision, as indicated by Ross’ repeated endorsement of Marx’s conclusion that the Commune’s greatest achievement was “its own working existence.” Likewise, Ross shows that her protagonists’ ambitious visions were sparks thrown off in the course of concrete, and even dull, existence. A good example is Eugène Pottier, a spokesman for the Commune’s Artists Federation (more famous for later writing “The Internationale”). “Communal luxury” was Pottier’s name for the Federation’s program, which called for a world in which art was reunited with useful craftsmanship, and aesthetic seriousness extended to the humblest everyday objects. This wild dream emerged from Pottier’s zigzag life: As a teenage apprentice, he discovered a grammar in an old armoire and taught himself to read, writing poetry at night; by 1871, he ran a polyglot workshop of skilled artisans turning out everything from wallpaper to ceramics. Sympathetic observers abroad, William Morris chief among them, recognized with a thrill that their aesthetic politics were briefly embraced by the sovereign people.

But the dialectics of having it all have their drawbacks. Anything that falls short must be fully rejected. “There was no question for any of them,” Ross writes of her subjects, “of any reform or of a piecemeal solution.” So what do you do when “the complete dismantling of international commerce” is not on the table? The all-embracing scope of the Communard imagination reveals itself as brittle and, indeed, hostile to the reality of life after the fall. In a telling detail, Ross mentions that one of her central figures, the ex-Communard geographer Élisée Reclus, was said to hold “a kind of hatred for the people of Paris” and avoided the city even after his amnesty. The one limit to the Universal Republic, apparently, is “horror of the bourgeois, opportunistic republic,” so Ross’ protagonists turn after 1871 to the barren climes of Iceland and Siberia in search of alternatives to capitalist modernity.

If Ross sharpens the uncompromising edge of Communard democracy, the thrust of the essays collected by editors Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein in The Port Huron Statement is that the radical democrats of the early American New Left were far closer to the mainstream than generally acknowledged. The volume’s major theme, attested to by both participants and scholarly observers, is that the vision propounded in the 1962 founding statement of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) flowed from American traditions in general and from a healthy respect for early 1960s liberalism in particular. Many of the essays address different dimensions of this “symbiotic relationship,” including Robert Cohen on the New Left’s “love-hate relationship with the university,” Daniel Geary on SDS’s working relationship with activist liberal academics, and Nelson Lichtenstein on the ties between student radicals and the Reutherite wing of the labor movement.

This shared theme of left-liberal proximity can lead to different conclusions. Geary, for example, explores the close relationships between the early SDS and older liberals grouped around antinuclear activism and the Committee for Correspondence Newsletter, The Correspondent. Reminding us that the Port Huron Statement called for alliances with liberals, Geary also shows that Correspondence liberals like sociologist David Riesman were surprisingly sharp in their criticism of liberal reticence and Cold War verities. But Geary can only bemoan the alienation that set in within a few short years, acknowledging that the hostility came from both sides but concluding that liberalism and leftism can only succeed in a “synergistic relationship” characterized by mutual respect for both pragmatic and utopian approaches to politics.

The broad left-liberal alliance Geary describes is attractive. But in his contribution to the volume, Nelson Lichtenstein acknowledges the same descriptive overlap but finds the divorce not an unfortunate contingency but the result of a deeper underlying tension. Just as Geary showed how close early SDS came to dissenting liberal academics, Lichtenstein shows how the authors of The Port Huron Statement were on the same wavelength as their elders on United Auto Workers (UAW) staff. The connection was, first of all, practical; it was a last minute call by Michigan SDSer Sharon Jeffrey to her mother, UAW staffer Mildred Jeffrey, that found a home for the student conference at the UAW’s FDR Labor Education Center on Lake Huron. There were also substantive similarities, as the erstwhile socialists in the UAW, who had once undertaken direct action to expand democracy onto the shop floor, looked with hope on the emergence of new radicals. But Lichtenstein, in contrast to Geary, finds that the quick end to the liberal-left alliance was too overdetermined to regret. “Accommodative and coalition-building politics,” he writes, were “antithetical to the early New Left in its most creative and attractive moments” (p. 105).

One might reasonably object that nineteenth century French radicals and American baby boomers have little meaningful in common. But if nothing else, Communal Luxury and the Port Huron collection share a common contemporary reference in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and its offshoots. The movement receives more extended treatment in the Flacks/Lichtenstein collection, but both books try to make sense of the present according to the political orientation with which it approaches the past. Accordingly, Ross stresses the similarity of late nineteenth century penury to today’s “collapse of the labor market.” Like the men and women who made up the Commune, more and more people today spend their time “not working but looking for work,” and like Ross’ Communards, they have neither a heroic national bourgeoisie nor state socialism to inspire them. What is (or was, or perhaps will be) important about Occupy were those elements that, however short-lived, recall the revelatory flares of 1871: the immediate experience of “living differently now,” and a solidarity that bypassed the nation to link local spaces (Zuccotti to Tahrir) on a global scale.

The commentary in the Port Huron volume does not ignore how much has changed since 1962. “It simply was nowhere in our minds,” recalls Jane Mansbridge in a memoir of her time in various participatory collectives, “that there might not always be readily available low-paying, relatively interesting jobs that would let you pay the rent now and perhaps lead to better paying jobs later” (p. 194). The popping of this postwar bubble means that any contemporary upheaval will be “fueled by despair, not hope.” But Mansbridge concurs with the volume’s other contributors in stressing that, despite changed circumstances, the internal dynamics of participatory democracy are as fraught today as they turned out to be in the 1960s. Although these warnings suggest moderation, the contributors also take care to remind liberals that utopian desire remains a resource for motivating progressive change. Inevitably, perhaps, their calls for a return to the left-liberal symbiosis of the early SDS suggest only the sketchiest of blueprints. One might easily finish the book convinced by the historical claims but unsure that the “moment of convergence” will return in a world where Walter Reuther has no real equivalent and Clark Kerr has been replaced by hedge fund managers.

Readers eager for a more sustained reflection on contemporary radical democracy can profitably turn to Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky’s The Occupiers. The book offers a detailed history of the not-quite-two-months-long occupation of Zuccotti Park in 2011, with a brief prologue, epilogue, and excursuses to other encampments. Gould-Wartofsky is both a sociologist and an activist who participated in Occupy from the start, and his book aims to combine both perspectives. The bulk of the book, however, is a chronological recounting of events, and I found that the limited sociological analysis seemed sound but added little to the narrative. We learn, for example, that “a plurality” of Gould-Wartofsky’s respondents thought of Wall Street as “a kind of cypher for capitalism,” and that the interviewees were “nearly unanimous” in embracing “some or another form of radical democracy.” Interesting, but nothing you would not already suspect.

The biggest barrier to analysis is that, as Gould-Wartofsky concedes at one point, “it is still too early to tell” what impact OWS has had on American politics. He ventures the suggestion that Occupy is “not in itself a social movement” but part of a larger “political potentiality” he labels the “99 percent movement.” The definition of the “99 percent movement” remains unclear, at times seeming to encompass the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)– led Fight for $15 and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The inchoate nature of the movement, or movements, is clear in Gould-Wartofsky’s abstract speculations about paths forward. “One such path,” Gould-Wartofsky writes with clear approbation in his concluding paragraphs, “would be the construction of independent bases of power—from popular assemblies and democratic unions to national formations and international networks—which could generate the collective capacity to advance a concrete political program.”

Leaving aside a certain vagueness, this sounds great to me, as I suspect it will to you. But it is not a goal that seems any closer to reality now than it was before September 17, 2011. It does not follow obviously from the vision expressed by the book’s many interviewees, nor does it resonate with the shape of subsequent popular protest. For better or worse, the participatory form of OWS seems so far to have proved less persistent than its anti-inequality content. The phenomena which most obviously follow in the OWS chain are not occupations but the unexpectedly enthusiastic receptions for social democrats. Sanders supporters, Piketty readers, and Occupiers share a desire to deepen democracy by attacking inequality and endemic corruption, goals which seem stronger forces at present than the desire for an entirely new way of living.

Meanwhile, if anything that like a “99 percent movement” outlived the Occupy camps, it has surely been eclipsed in the world of movement politics by Black Lives Matter (BLM), which had not reached anything like its present force when The Occupiers went to press. Diffuse by design, the BLM phenomenon now includes everything from DeRay McKesson’s corporate-sponsored campaign for mayor of Baltimore to “collective bargaining by riot,” an Eric Hobsbawm coinage revived by the British journal Endnotes to describe the popular unrest that helped secure indictments and Department of Justice investigations on behalf of the residents of Ferguson and Baltimore. But from margin to mainstream, BLM so far has not yet emphasized direct democracy or the permanent occupation of physical space.

It seems safe to say that our own social world is somewhere between the prosperous optimism that birthed the Port Huron Statement and the postwar destruction that engendered the Paris Commune. It is likewise true that OWS and Sanders’ “political revolution” have both been simultaneously more successful than anyone would have guessed and clear failures on their own terms. This suggests that both souls of radical democracy—Ross’ utter rejectionism and The Port Huron Statement’s left-liberal alliance—remain compelling and as yet inadequate. Imagining ways to square the circle should keep us busy for years to come.