Saturday, October 10, 2015

The book on the film (2015)

Book Review from the October 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies', by Dave Itzkoff (Times Books, 2014)
In 1976, MGM released Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, a film that would change the way people saw television. It tells the story of Howard Beale, the distinguished senior anchorman of a major American network, who suffers an on-air breakdown. ‘I’m going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today,’ he announces, explaining that he ‘just ran out of bullshit’ to broadcast. The network executives are horrified and plan on firing him, but after seeing the effect his rants had on the show’s ratings, decide to keep him on. An increasingly inflamed Beale abandons all pretence of objectivity and uses his top-rated show to whip millions into a frenzy over the injustices he sees in society. Impressed, the network commissions a slate of new programmes showcasing violent crime, terrorism, political extremism, and paranoid prophecies of doom—all with the sole purpose of channelling viewers’ fear and outrage into market share and advertising revenue.

Network caused a sensation when it was released. It was loudly denounced by television journalists, who saw it as an unconscionable attack on the nobility of their profession, but it went on to sweep the Academy Awards with a record-setting ten nominations and four wins. Despite this, the film is virtually unknown to today’s audiences—and when it is shown at all, viewers take it as a straight-up drama rather than the sly but radical comedy it was written and received as in the 1970s. As contemporary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin aptly put it, ‘No predictor of the future—not even Orwell—has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.’
In Mad as Hell, Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times recounts the curious story of how a film as anti-establishment as Network ever made it to the big screen. In Itzkoff’s analysis, thatNetwork got produced at all may well have been a happy historical accident: MGM had found themselves missing out on the counterculture wave that was sweeping Hollywood, and so, desperate for a box office hit of their own, acceded to veteran screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s demands for total creative control over his next film. Chayefsky used this highly unusual grant of authority—which exceeded even that of the film’s director—to ensure that his dystopian world was faithfully translated from screenplay to film. That Network so pointedly attacked the medium of television was of no concern to the studio, which at the time had no relationship to any television networks apart from the occasional sale of broadcasting rights for their films. Whether MGM would have produced such a film today is another matter entirely. ‘In an age when all the major broadcast networks are now either owned by or affiliated with a motion picture and entertainment conglomerate,’ observes Itzkoff, ‘it is hard to imagine a studio turning its guns on itself the same way.’
Mad as Hell faithfully documents Network’s entire production process, from early drafts of the screenplay up to postproduction and pre-release marketing, and goes on to recount and analyze the controversy and critical acclaim the film garnered upon its release. Of greatest interest, however, is the book’s final chapter, which discusses how Chayefsky’s nightmarish vision of a world that has eroded away the distinction between information and entertainment has finally come to pass. Itzkoff attributes this to a significant relaxation in antitrust laws and federally mandated broadcasting standards, coupled with a proliferation of cable TV channels. While journalism has never been truly objective, before 1987 US broadcasters were at least nominally required to be honest and to provide contrasting views. Itzkoff explains how ‘informational’ television today is dominated by shallow, tabloid-style programming, making good use of interviews with veteran newsmen who have variously resisted and embraced the new regime.
Itzkoff is equally astute at identifying the film’s enduring contribution to popular political discourse. Though neither Paddy Chayefsky nor his mouthpiece Howard Beale are socialists, they are both acutely aware of the ills of global capitalism and of the urgent necessity of the population at large taking some sort of radical, corrective action. (‘We are right now living in what has to be called a corporate society, a corporate world, a corporate universe,’ laments Beale at one point in the film. ‘This world quite simply is a vast cosmology of small corporations orbiting around larger corporations who, in turn, revolve around giant corporations, and this whole, endless, ultimate cosmology is expressly designed for the production and consumption of useless things.’) Network, Itzkoff concludes, was all about ‘awakening its viewers to ugly and unflattering truths about their lives and the world they inhabited, and it did not communicate its messages in a subtle or soft-spoken manner: it put its most urgent and passionate ideas in the mouth of a man who at times is literally screaming them at his audience, commanding them to go to their windows and scream their dissatisfaction themselves.’ Indeed, what sets Beale apart from his countless successors—both in the film and in real life—are his perceptiveness and sincerity. He proclaims himself to be ‘mad as hell’, but he is not deranged; he is lucid and insightful, and his anger is no mere shtick. The real tragedy of Beale—and of Chayefsky—may be that they failed to offer their enraptured viewers any real solution to the problems they so effectively articulated.
Tristan Miller

Notes on Economic History (5) (1961)

From the March 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Physiocrats

Although the Mercantile system was abundantly criticised, it was a long time before opposition to it became formed into a new doctrine. Such a new system of economic thought arose in France, its chief advocate being François Quesnay. He gave his doctrine the name Physiocracy—the rule of nature.

François Quesnay (1694-1774) was the son of a lawyer. He graduated as a doctor of medicine and became a physician to Madame de Pompadour and Louis XVth, His principal writings are the Economic Tables, 1758, and General Maims, 1758.

Quesnay's teaching is something more than economics; it appears to be part of a general philosophy. Setting out from the materialist notions of his time, he wanted to have social and moral phenomena regarded as being no less "natural" than physical phenomena; and the laws governing the former as well as the latter were to be seen as mechanical laws of nature.

The natural right of human beings in primitive society, he argues was the right to property—that is the right to the free disposal of goods which the individual has made or appropriated by means of his own labour. When at a later stage, men, for the better safeguarding of their natural rights, entered into the social contract, it was essential that they should not lose the right each of them had to earn his own living. Bound up in this right is another natural right of the individual—the right to foster his own economic interest and to shape his own future as best suited to him. This following of self-interest, according to Quesnay, leads to the establishment of a "natural order" in the economic association of human beings.

This doctrine of self-interest was eventually erected by Quesnay into a finished system. He endeavoured to study the laws of the economic "natural order", which were to be deduced by reason from the general plan of nature. This doctrine of "natural order" is important to him for two reasons. First, inasmuch as the pursuit of self-interest is regarded as an idea of natural right, a system of economic individualism is for the first time established. Secondly, the persons who, in their economic life, act consistently because they are guided by motives of self-interest, resemble atoms with fixed properties. The phenomena that result from their mutual contacts (in the market and elsewhere in society) are mechanically determined like those that result from the mutual contacts of the atoms. It follows, says Quesnay, that political economy, like the realm of material nature, is governed by natural laws.

To the question of what activity of the individual it is that regulates the economic machinery, and upon what foundation economic life depends. Quesnay answers—upon natural economic activities, namely agriculture. Agriculture is for him the source of all the wealth of the nation. Not money, trade, traffic and industry, but the tilling of the soil is the true source of public welfare. The former activities merely transform matter and move it from place to place; they are not creative. The agriculturist renders them possible by nourishing those who engage in them, and he supplies the raw material without which they cannot be undertaken. Commerce, industry and transport are to be considered as dependent upon agriculture.

The Physiocrats put the matter thus. The countryman gets hides, leather, and in the end his boots and other articles from his oxen; wood, and in the end his tools, from the trees on his farm; and so on. But, they said, to avoid the wasting of materials and energy, it is better that he should not himself undertake the work that transforms these basic materials, but should have it done for him by various specialists (the tanner, bootmaker, joiner, etc.) whom he must support of his agricultural surpluses.

The only productive, the only creative labour is, therefore, labour on the land. It is true that work which transforms materials derived from land, or moves them from place to place, can enhance the value of these things, but the cost of the supplementary labour is really defrayed by the agriculturist, who must feed the workers who perform it. The increase in value this produced is, therefore, according to the cost of the labour and is equal to the expense of maintaining the workers who do it. Such labour is once again covered and made good by labour on the land. The tanner, joiner, etc. who shape the raw material derived from land work merely earn their own keep in the form of wages; they make nothing new. All they do, says Quesnay, is to "add" not to "create". The agriculturist's work is a work of creation; the industrial workers perform only a work of addition, of transformation, or of transport.

Thus the class of landowners (consisting in those days chiefly of tenant farmers as contrasted with the landowning nobility) appear to Quesnay to be the only "productive" class. The land owners, on the other hand, form an "owning" or "distributive" class, while the industrialists and craftsmen comprise a "sterile" class.

These three classes are considered to be the "active" classes of the population, whilst the wage earners make up a fourth, a "passive" class, with no economic activity of its own.

Agriculture cannot continue to be prosperous, adds Quesnay, unless grain realises high prices, for only then can agriculture provide a large "net product"* and thus become able to provide large incomes for the landowning class, the manufacturers, and the working class, and in this way diffuse general prosperity. It was essential, therefore, to do away with all restriction upon the export of grain—Quesnay completely rejected the mercantilist theory of the balance of trade. The demand for free trade was an inevitable result of his views.

The Physiocratic system also gave a picture of the formation of value and of price. In certain connections Quesnay emphasized the nature of value as utility but with his doctrine of net product, value and price and derived from cost. In his view the transformative labour of industry added to goods only so much value as this labour itself consumed—only an amount of value therefore equivalent to its own cost. It follows from this that for Quesnay wages represent nothing other than the cost of replacement of the labour power that has been expended. Wages are merely the equivalent of subsistence.
Bob Ambridge

* Quesnay uses the term "Produit Nett" as signifying the surplus of the raw produce of the earth left after defraying the cost of its production.

Reagan at mid-term (1983)

From the January 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

In November 1980 Ronald Reagan swept to an overwhelming victory in the United States Presidential election - the culmination of one of the longest campaigns ever. In addition to his two terms as Governor of California, Reagan had unsuccessfully tried for the Republican Party nomination in 1968 and 1976, his image as a right-wing extremist possibly contributing to his defeat on those occasions. The main campaign issues were inflation, rising unemployment, the crisis over the American hostages in Iran, law-and-order, and the stance taken by the incumbent Jimmy Carter on the need for energy conservation. Reagan stressed the “communist” (Russian ruling class) threat abroad (who doesn’t in American politics?) and the dire effect so-called “big government” was having on the nation’s economy. He never clearly spelled out his remedies other than calling for a massive cut in income taxes, but then, who does (we might say, who can) among those seeking political power under capitalism? Basically his fiscal policies have been those nowadays dubbed as monetarist, similar to those of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government in Britain.

During his campaign Reagan hammered away at bureaucratic inefficiency and waste, portraying himself as an untainted outsider who would clean up the mess, defeat unemployment and inflation, and restore faith in America at home and abroad. Jimmy Carter’s task, like that of most incumbents, was somewhat harder, particularly with capitalism in recession. His tactics were to minimize critical scrutiny of his administration’s record and to emphasize Reagan’s extremist image, suggesting on many occasions that his opponent was too dangerous to have his finger on the nuclear trigger. Reagan’s acting skill was a considerable help in defeating this tactic, and the television debates screened nation-wide provided just the right setting in which to exploit this asset: one that can still win a trick or two for him after two years in office. By speech and gesture Reagan still manages to convey the image of a crusader battling against the Washington establishment. As could be foreseen he has failed to deliver the goods he promised to American workers in 1980, but despite this a recent opinion poll published by the Los Angeles Times, and quoted by Nicholas Ashford (The Times 14 October) revealed that “. . . American workers believed OPEC, Japan, big business, the trade unions and even former President Jimmy Carter, were more responsible for the recession and rise in unemployment than Reagan”.

In one of his typically emotional campaign speeches Reagan stated that “recovery begins when Jimmy Carter loses his job”, a promise particularly directed at the unemployed workers. The grim reality after two years was graphically illustrated on the television news. (BBC1). We were informed that over 11 million American workers are out of a job and shown a negro Baptist church in New York where charity is handed out to the destitute. A thousand or more are given a daily basic ration yet always supplies have run out before applicants. It was claimed that many were actually starving.

The President’s tax cut program me has also suffered a considerable setback. Congress, after weeks of bitter debate, passed a bill on 29 July 1981 to cut income tax rates by 25 per cent over 33 months, the largest reduction in United States history. Despite appearances, however, tax cuts are of no benefit to the working class as a whole. The wage or salary which the worker receives is the price which his or her labour power will fetch on the labour market. On average this is just enough to keep the worker and any dependents in a state fit to carry out the tasks required by the capitalist class. Of necessity it must be the net wage, the worker’s take-home pay, which  represents the price of labour power, otherwise the worker’s efficiency as a wage slave would tend to diminish, all other things being equal. Thus the income tax deduction on an employee’s pay slip is in fact part of the employer’s contribution to the exchequer and not a charge on the worker.

The contrary argument used by supported of tax cuts is that the extra money left in individual or corporate hands will lead to increased investment, and hence more jobs. The immediate effect of the cuts however is to reduce the living standards of the lower paid workers quite considerably as the tax reductions were made possible by swingeing cuts in spending on social security. As The Times (14 October 1982) reported: “since January of last year the poor in America have lost more than $10,000 million in federal support. Some 660,000 children have lost Medicaid coverage. Almost one million poor children no longer receive free or reduced price school lunches. One million people have been dropped from food stamp rolls. “The increased investment however has not taken place. How can there be investment without the prospect of a profit? Instead, in a sharp U-turn the President has been forced to persuade Congress, after an intense lobbying campaign, to vote in favor of a record $98,300 million tax bill intended to reduce federal government budget deficits and speed up America’s economic recovery (The Times, 21 August 1982).

Reagan has been no more successful  on the “law and order” issue. A firm believer himself in the Almighty, and given considerable support by a right-wing, semi-religious movement calling itself the Moral Majority, he made much emotional play during the 1980 campaign on how, by having the right party in government, a moral climate would be created in which the crime rate would come tumbling down. However the president was recently forced to admit (The Times, 13 September 1982) that the “US was in the midst of a crime epidemic which has touched nearly a third of American households”. A Bill now before Congress to toughen the law includes revision of the insanity defense. (Apparently reagan is particularly upset at the acquittal of his assailant, John Hinckley, for this reason. The insanity of the social system which produces such unbalanced minds has, of course, escaped him.) In any case, attempts to introduce tougher legislation have proved ineffective on countless occasions, leaving untouched the social cause of crime.

The ruthless suppression of the strike staged in August 1981 by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation (one of the few unions to endorse the Reagan ticket in 1980) is very much in the Republican tradition. It was a Republican controlled Congress which passed the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of Harry Truman, then President on the Democratic ticket. Not that the record of the Democrats, though possibly less openly aggressive, is really much better, as was shown by the crushing of a national rail strike in September of this year. On 22 September an emergency order was approved which ordered an immediate return to work and removed the engineers right to strike for the remaining 21 months of their present work contract. The votes were overwhelming in both Houses of Congress, even so-called liberal Democratic representatives chipping in. Edward Kennedy was quoted (The Times, 23 September 1982) as saying: “The National Interest is overriding and there is not, I believe, any alternative”.

The recent mid-term elections produced just enough gains to enable the opposition Democrats to claim a substantial victory but, by and large, their gains were of debatable significance. The political system in the United States differs in a number of ways from its British counterpart. For instance, the executive (President) and legislative (Congress) branches are much more separate. In Britain, loss of a parliamentary majority almost invariably forces the government to resign; in the United States his has never happened. The 1980 elections produced a Republican Senate but a Democratic House of Representatives and, while the Democrats increased their majority in the lower house this autumn, there was no change in the Senate. There have been many instances where a President has governed without  a real deadlock with both Houses of Congress containing a majority of the opposition party. Conversely there have been occasions when the President’s party has had adequate majorities in both Houses but considerable friction has existed. Congress represents many capitalist interests spread over a large and diverse geographical area - hence they have difficulty in uniting on a common viewpoint. For this and various other historical reasons, party discipline is much more lax in the United States than is usually the case in Europe, and ad-hoc coalitions often form across party lines.

This does not however prevent the whole government machinery from acting effectively when called on, as shown by the railway strike. Here all sections of the capitalist class united against what they saw as a common threat, and decisive action was taken.

In the presidential stakes the Democrats have made little headway and, despite their mid-term gains, still seem to be in some disarray. Ronald Reagan (The Times, 14 October 1982) is the only president in recent history whose popularity rating has never fallen below 40 per cent and the most recent polls say that his popularity is on the increase again. This, linked with the poll published by the Los Angeles Times, suggests that the President, somewhat unusually for someone actually in power, has succeeded in diverting the blame onto other influences at home and abroad, In this situation the Democrats might once have hoped that Edward Kennedy would regain power for them but whatever they now do, we obviously cannot rule out a second Reagan term.
E. C. Edge

Notes on Economic History (4) (1961)

From the February 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard

Before the Physiocrats

Sir William Petty (1623-1687)
Marx, in Volume 1 of Capital, says: "Once for all, I may add that by classical political economy I understand that economy which since the time of W. Petty has investigated the real relations of production in bourgeois society, in contradiction to vulgar economy, which deals with appearances only".

This is a tribute to the genius and originality of Sir William Petty, the founder of modern political economy. It is in his Treatise of Taxes and Contribution, London 1662, that we find the first idea of surplus value.

Petty distinguishes the natural price of commodities from the market price, the "true price current". By natural price he means value. This is his main point, as the determination of surplus value depends on the determination of value itself. What, then, is value? Petty determines the value of commodities by the relative amounts of labour which they contain; he is concerned not with appearances, but with foundations.

In the following quotation from his Treatise of Taxes and Contributions we get the first definition of value:
If a man brings to London an ounce of Silver out of the earth in Peru, in the same time that he can produce a bushel of corn, then one is the natural price of the other; now if by reason of new and more mines a man can get two ounces of silver as easily as formerly he did one, then corn will be as cheap at ten shillings the bushel as it was before at five shillings, caeteris paribus (all things being equal).
The next quotation from the same work interests us, as it is the early examination of the value of labour;
The law . . . should allow the labourer but just the wherewithall to live; for if you allow double then he works but half so much as he could have done, and otherwise would; which is a loss to the publick of the fruit of so much labour.
In modern words, in receiving for six hours' labour the value of six hours, the labourer would receive double what he receives if he worked for twelve hours and got only the value of six. he would therefore not work more than six hours. Thus the value of labour is determined by the minimum necessary for subsistence. To induce the labourer to produce surplus value and to perform surplus labour, it is necessary to compel him to expend all the labour power of which he is capable, as the condition upon which he may earn the necessities of life.

Petty recognises two forms of surplus value, ground rent and money rent (interest). He divides the second from the first which, for him, as later for the Physiocrats, is the true form of surplus value. He depicts rent not as simple surplus of labour expended over and above necessary labour, but as a surplus, of the surplus labour of the producer himself over and above his wages and the replacement of his capital; as for example the following"
Suppose a man could with his own hands plant a certain scope of land with corn, that is, could dig, or plough, harrow, weed, reap, carry home, thresh and winnow so much as the husbandry of this land requires; and had withal seed wherewith to sow the same. I say that when this man has subtracted his food out of the proceed and given to others in exchange for clothes and other natural necessaries, that the remainder of the corn is the natural and true rent of the land for that year, and the medium of seven years, or rather of so-many years as make up the cycle, within which dearth and plenties make their revolution, doth give the ordinary rent of the land in corn.
To Petty, the value of the corn is determined by the labour time which it contains, while rent, equivalent to the total product after the deduction of wages and seed, equals the surplus labour represented by surplus product. Rent, therefore, includes profit which is inseparable from it.

Petty also shows that the individual character of the labour is of no consequence. Labour time is what matters.

As a final tribute, and summing up of Petty's contribution to political economy, we quote the following extract from Volume III, of Capital.
Petty . . .  and in general the writers who are closer to feudal times, assume that ground rent is the normal form of surplus value, whereas profit to them is still vaguely combined with wages, or at best looks to them like a portion of surplus value filched by the capitalist from the landlord. These writers take their departure from a condition, in which the agricultural population still constitutes the overwhelming majority of the nation, and in which the landlord still appears as the individual, who appropriates at first hand the surplus labor of the direct producers through his land monopoly, in which land therefore still appears as the chief requisite of production. These writers could not yet face the question, which, contrary to them, seeks to investigate from the point of view of capitalist production, how it happens that private ownership in land manages to wrest from capital a portion of the surplus-value produced by it at first hand (that is, filched by it from the direct producers) and first appropriated by it.
John Locke (1633-1704)
John Locke is probably better known for his philosophy than he is for his contribution to political economy. He follows William Petty in that he regarded human labour as the principal source of wealth, though Petty regarded both labour and land as the important factors. For Locke, nature was out of the prime importance. He believed that the laws of nature established personal labour as the natural limit of private property—the limit arising from the physical limitation on the amount of labour an individual can perform, and from the fact that no one should accumulate more than his needs.

Locke was opposed to the private ownership of land. In his opinion ground rent was no different from usury and, due to the unequal distribution of the means of production, was a transfer from one person to another of the profit that should have been the reward of one man's labour. The following quotation from his Consideration of the Lowering of Interest is an illustration of this:
Money, therefore, in buying and selling, being perfectly in the same condition with other commodities, and subject to all the same laws of value, let us next see how it comes to be of the same nature with land, by yielding a certain yearly income, which we call use or interest. For land produces naturally something new and profitable, and of value to mankind; but money is a barren thing, and produces nothing, but by compact transfers that profit that was the reward of one man's labour into another man's pocket.
Locke's importance is that he is the voice of the juridical theories of capitalist society as opposed to feudalism. His work in philosophy was the basis upon which the thinking of subsequent English economist rested.

Sir Dudley North (1641-1690)
Sir Dudley North is best known his Discourses upon Trade. This is mainly concerned with commercial capital, and as such is outside the scope of these notes. The importance of North is that he reflects in his writing the period in which he lived.

From 1663 to 1798, except for the years 1708 and 1709, wheat prices were falling. Landlords complained continuously about falling rents. Industrial capitalists and landowners were concerned about, and did in fact bring about, a reduction in the rate of interest. Up to 1760 it was considered to be in the national interest to maintain and increase the value of land. From 1760 onwards an economic investigation began into the rise in rents, about the increase in the price of land and corn, and of other consumer goods.

The years 1650 to 1750 were full of struggles between "monied interests" and "landed interests". The landowners gradually lost out to the money lenders and financiers of the period. The financiers, with the establishment of the credit system, and the system of State debt, became predominant in society.

Petty, in his works, refers to the complaints of the landlords regarding the fall of rents. He defended the monied interests against the landlords, and placed the rent of money and rent of land in the same category. North, in his writing, follows Petty. It was in this form that capital gave landed property its first set-back, since money-lending at interest was one of the main means for the accumulation of capital.

North seems to have been the first to understand interest correctly. He included both capital and money in "Stock". On price and money his observation that gold and silver serve not as gold and silver in themselves, but only as forms of exchange value, is, for his day, remarkable.

To sum up, the position of the economists before the physiocrats was that they had to try and understand the conditions in which the landlord was being forced out, to the advantage of finance capital which was growing.
Bob Ambridge