Saturday, August 30, 2014

History meets Hollywood (1996)

Film Review from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

History is the story of what happened; economics is the story of why it happened. Rarely does popular history go beyond a look, invariably distorted by the perceptions of the historian, at what happened and, especially when the story is written for the Hollywood financial moguls, history is moulded to box office terms.

According to the historical flashes which introduce Michael Collins to its audience, the emergence of the IRA in 1916 and the subsequent guerrilla war of 1919-22, which was largely masterminded by Collins was the culmination of seven hundred years of struggle by the people of Ireland to throw off the yoke of British oppression. In fact much of the historical conflict in Ireland was an agrarian struggle and while this was aggravated by English rule and landlordism established by the English, often as a means of rewarding feudal military adventurers, the concept of nationhood, as we understand it today, was not invented until after the establishment of capitalism.

The idea of a republican state in fact was introduced into Ireland some two hundred years ago by a Dublin lawyer, Wolfe Tone, and was most coherently expressed by northern Protestants who saw national independence as an essential corollary of economic development.

The economics behind the history that is the Michael Collins story emerged in the latter part of the last century and was originally represented by Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party. Parnell, like Sinn Fein later, opposed British rule because it denied the political representatives of a nascent Irish middle class the power to legislate which they perceived to be essential to the development of a thriving southern-based native capitalism.

The film raised bile in the moronic patriots of the English gutter press and, of course, it has infuriated the diehard brigade of Ulster Unionism. It is argued that it gives solace and respectability to the IRA and will encourage young people to become involved with the present Provisional IRA. If there is truth in that assertion then it could be argued that most films, and especially war films, should be banned.

Those who condemn the film are not concerned with the futility it depicts; the futility of workers, many of them semi-destitute, taking up arms to fight for a class that was actively exploiting them and sought victory as the means of intensifying that exploitation. Instead they carp that the heroes shown are not their heroes or, with distinct animosity, that the pen of the screen writer has taken a few incidental liberties with fact in order to package his story within the time limits of a feature film.

Liam Neeson as Collins is well cast and his portrayal is close to the mark. Big and bawdy leader from the front who has worked out the essentials of guerrilla warfare and instils those essentials without pity in his ragtag followers.

Alan Rickman, as Eamon De Valera, presents a man who is piously soured, insular and duplicitous; the man, who more than any other, fabricated the legend in which the current breed of armed-struggle republicans find legitimacy - even though, when history respectablised him and he became Prime Minister of the Irish Free State, he had more republicans hanged than the Ulster Unionists. Rickman's presentation of De Valera is superb to the point where you begin to feel a loathing for the character he depicts.

This Hollywood version of an important phase in Irish history makes little effort to expose republican warts and is, therefore, dangerously simplistic history. Still, if you like an all-action drama with moments of tenderness and a little humour, Michael Collins is a safe bet.
Richard Montague

The Downside of Upgrading (2014)

The Proper Gander column from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

When we splash out on something like the newest phone upgrade, we like to think that we’re making our own decision. But how free is our choice? Jacques Peretti, in his documentary series The Men Who Made Us Spend (BBC2), looks for answers in the wily world of marketing and product development.
The first episode focuses on an ‘open secret’ of the capitalist marketplace – planned obsolescence. This is how the lifespan of a commodity is deliberately reduced by the way it’s designed. Doing this means that manufacturers can manipulate us into buying a replacement and therefore increasing their profits. This approach has been applied to many products since a cartel of lighting luminaries agreed to limit the lifespan of lightbulbs in the 1920s. More recently, ink cartridges have been fitted with counters which click down when each page is printed. Our printers tell us that the cartridge needs replacing when the counter reaches zero, not when it actually runs out of ink.
Planned obsolescence not only relates to how a commodity is made, but also how it is perceived. Often, a product only lasts as long as we’re told it’s fashionable. If a new smartphone, car or games console is announced, we’re more likely to fork out for it if we’re made to think our old one has just become as outdated as a mullet. And if the advertisers have done their job well, we’ll be eager enough to queue outside a shop for weeks to be among the first to buy the latest iPhone.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with replacing gadgets for different or better versions, of course. As Peretti’s polemic explains, it’s only capitalism which corrupts this by manipulating our desire for the new. He argues that planned obsolescence has been used to help boost consumer spending during its various dips, and has led to today’s ‘limitless consumption’, with shopping seen as a duty. He takes the stance that our spending habits are driven by innovations in marketing strategies. The relationship is more reciprocal than that, as new approaches to selling build on previous spending patterns. And on a wider scale, consumer spending is influenced more by economic forces than small-scale changes in ideology. Despite overstating marketing’s role in the economy as a whole, Peretti’s perceptive arguments will remain relevant until we plan to make capitalism itself obsolete.
Mike Foster

Greasy Pole: Pray Silence for the Veterans (2014)

The Greasy Pole Column from the August 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Confronted with overwhelming evidence of their impotence to deal with capitalism's persistent barbarities our Members of Parliament are prone to disguise their discomfort behind what their Whips call 'a wall of noise'. Except that when a Member whose 'service' in the Commons qualifies them to be known as a 'veteran' considers that there is a matter of sufficient gravity to justify their rising to speak it is customary for them to be heard in respectful silence – apart from a few grovelling ‘hear hear's’. No matter that the veterans' past does not justify them claiming any exceptional insight into those barbarities. There is, for one, Peter Tapsell, MP for Louth and Horncastle whose unbroken presence there has given him the title of Father of the House, known by one observer as 'the grandest of grandees' who does not speak so much as 'intone superbly'– which he perhaps employed when he was once severely critical of his late leader Margaret Thatcher.

But Tapsell has decided that he will not be there after the 2015 election, which brings us to Tony Baldry, who is 20 years younger than Tapsell but has been MP for Banbury in Oxfordshire for over thirty years. He recently persuaded the government benches to be silent when he rose to put a 'question' to David Cameron about Ed Miliband as a teenager delivering election leaflets which promised that Michael Foot would take a Labour government out of the European Union. As Miliband sat squirming Cameron seized his chance. Ignoring the fact that capitalist politics is a process of the parties trying to reshape the confusion between their past and the present he bellowed: 'If as a 14-year-old that was his idea of fun obviously, you know, we have to, you know, make room for everybody'. Which had the Tories choking on their false laughter. As Baldry knows, feeding dummy questions to the party leadership is often essential to the hopes of an ambitious MP.

He got involved in politics while a student at Sussex University, with its reputation as a hot-bed of left wing turbulence. By the time of the general election of February 1974 he had begun his serious involvement in a political career, holding a series of jobs as Personal Assistant (in other words spin doctor) to Tory ministers including none other than Margaret Thatcher – before she had earned the title of The Iron Lady. His reward for this in 1979 was to be selected to stand for the Conservative Party at Thurrock where he did well enough against an entrenched Labour majority to be later selected to succeed the retiring Tory MP at the very different Banbury in Oxfordshire. The scale of his victory there in the 1983 election, with his previous experience, put him in line for promotion and he held a succession of promising jobs including another for Thatcher (his role as the persistent servant and assistant to all those luminaries caused his civil servants to stick the name 'Baldrick' on him).  The Banbury Tories were reputed to be devoted to him and the voters went along with this, giving him a majority of over 18,000 in the 2010 election.

Baldry has done well out of the system through which our governors congratulate themselves. He was made a Privy Councillor and in 2012 he was knighted so that we should acknowledge him correctly as The Right Honourable Sir... And then he was appointed as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, responsible for answering MP's questions about the Commissioners. All of which is designed to induce in us a state of comfortable admiration for those who claim to make themselves responsible for modelling our behaviour under the stress of this society of privilege and property. In the case of Baldry, as in so many others, it is not so straightforward for there is a maze of interests – financial and political – which have to be taken into account.

His time in the higher reaches of government and the law has been punctuated by a series of diverting and complicated events. In one example in 1997 he wrote in support of awarding the CBE to London solicitor Sarosh Zaiwalla. He did not mention that he had recently benefited from a large personal loan from Zaiwalla; in consequence he had to apologise to the House of Commons. In February 2010, as a barrister instructed by Zaiwalla, he wrote to David Miliband who was then Foreign Secretary, warning that a police investigation of James Ibori, who had been president of the Delta State in Nigeria, would 'damage British interests in that country'. At the time Ibori's assets in Britain, including houses and motor vehicles worth some £17 million, were being frozen as he was facing charges of theft of public funds, abuse of office and money laundering. At Southwark Crown Court in April 2012 Ibori was sent to prison for 13 years and much of his assets, described by the head of the Crown Prosecution Service central fraud squad as being acquired 'at the expense of some of the poorest people in the world', were confiscated.

Food Banks
That original question from Baldry is typical of his compliant support of the government. On the issue of the cuts in welfare benefits he consistently opposes any suggestion about easing the misery and despair which they aggravate. Instead he offers an almost Dickensian version about the division between the deserving poor and the un-deserving. The most catching idea he offers, based on events in Merseyside, is that anyone who is starving and has to resort to begging at their local Food Bank, should instead undergo a course in cookery and nutrition – at 50p a session – with the idea of making what little food they have sustaining and affordable. At the end of the course they will be rewarded with a book of recipes. His principle that 'I think everyone is agreeing that as a nation we have to get welfare spending under control' ignores the crucial fact that poverty and its symptoms are disastrously out of control of the victims. If he survives long enough in the raucous uproar of the Commons, Baldry will become a veteran to match Tapsell. With about as little to show for it.