Friday, May 13, 2016

Alien America (2003)

From the April 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
Twentieth century American culture – the media context of my generation. Rock n' roll, jazz, blues, soul, hotrods, superheroes, fast food and, of course, Hollywood. Monsters, gangsters, westerns and science fiction; I have loved them all. That all of this was and is generated by the profit system which exploits us is only part of the story. To see our generation as purely the victims of a remorseless marketing campaign is to overlook the dialectical forces that lie beneath the empty glamour and desperate novelty of American culture. Human imagination itself is defined by its economic context and the capitalist context is rich in deep and unresolvable contradictions. Hollywood's fantasies are powerful examples of the need to both defend and celebrate its cultural values and also to escape from them.
To illustrate this let us consider the science fiction genre and its escapism which, in its better incarnations, is always combined with a political/cultural narrative. These themes are sometimes personified in the character of the 'alien'. Star Trek was a series that began as a TV drama in the sixties and subsequently spawned many movies and other TV spin-offs. Its menagerie of aliens can be seen as expressions of American characteristics; the naïve 'gung-ho' Klingon warriors, the inhuman logicians of Vulcan, the business greed of the Ferengi and, not least, the fascistic militarism of the Borg. Most intriguing of all is the alien 'Q' who is an omnipotent tragic fool (God in man's image). All of these aliens are contrasted with the crew of the 'Enterprise' (the future Americans) who, amazingly, have no money, no gods and no prejudices! It is as if this is one of the few arenas where Americans can truly see themselves, not as the human characters but as their alien incarnations. This perverse identification does not stop there; it has evolved into a full blown 'post-modern' cultural synthesis aided in no small part by the high priest of alien iconography – Steven Spielberg.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was my first encounter with the subsequently ubiquitous 'grey' aliens. Whether or not it was Spielberg who actually invented them, his mystical insect-eyed, monochromatic, androgynous extra-terrestrials have come to dominate the science fiction of the past few decades. Countless books, movies and TV dramas have featured this species of alien all over the world – yet another example of US cultural imperialism. No longer confined to 'fiction' they now feature in the symbiotic cultural phenomena of alien abductions. One is reminded of the appearance of witches and demons to people immersed within the Christian cultures of the past. Surrounded as they were by paintings, sculptures and stained-glass representations of angels and devils we can see that such media inspired experiences are nothing new. Even the Christ himself seems to have been inspired by Old Testament prophecies of the coming of a Jewish 'messiah'. But, some might legitimately inquire, how do we know that at least some of these events are not 'real encounters' instigated by the activities of extra terrestrials? This is precisely the subject of Spielberg's latest TV series.

Taken is the story of alien abductees and their struggle to be taken seriously. These characters are continually thwarted in this by the conspiratorial activities of a US government agency. With references to previous media versions of this story within the narrative we have a series that feeds on both its own predecessors and the cultural experiences they helped to create. Just as religion was once 'the opiate of the people' now it is the media that provides the escapism from the day-to-day realities of the class struggle. It also provides that other ingredient so crucial for successful escapism – justice. No other culture has been so obsessive in its zeal for 'freedom and justice' and so fearful of its reality as America. In the character of the child-alien in the series we have yet another example of a messianic figure complete with miracles. Why does the land of technological miracles need the super-natural variety as well in its stories? Only because technology has failed to deliver the human necessity of social justice in its capitalist context. As with religion these stories are a projection into another realm of this basic human need. The greys and their 'hard-ware' represent both the fear and disappointment associated with technology and its still unfulfilled promise of a better world. It is hard not to conclude that the greys are the actual cultural incarnation of man's alienation from his own technical creations. Socialists are often told to just enjoy the story and stop analysing everything – but to us this is the story. Once you've seen the world through the lens of a new consciousness you cannot see the 'Emperor's new clothes' ever again. Although the owners of the media allow the telling of these stories, they do so because of their popularity and so profit potential. Quite possibly they are as unaware as their public as to the underlying political/dialectical reasons for its success. Where the politically naïve see evidence of aliens, socialists see evidence of alienation – I leave it to the reader to decide which is more plausible.
Andrew Westley

Material World: St Kilda and Socialism (2016)

The Material World Column from the May 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The last native resident of St Kilda died in April. This remote part of Britain used to practise a communistic society.
Socialists, when asked about examples of common ownership and control in action, often refer to peoples who live or lived in a social system that we term ‘primitive communism’, often tribes in the Amazonian rainforest. Yet 110 miles west of the Scottish mainland there are a small cluster of islands known as St Kilda, inhabited for at least two millennia and with a population probably never exceeding 180, where a form of primitive communism prevailed.
In theory St Kilda was part of Scotland but it was effectively overlooked. The Inland Revenue never attempted to impose taxation, and the inhabitants of St Kilda were never invited to register on an electoral roll. No crime was ever officially recorded. No one from St Kilda was called up into the armed forces. Until the nineteenth century money was not used on St Kilda. On the islands the islanders had developed a self-sufficient communal economy based on seabirds (meat, oil and eggs), Soay sheep, fishing, and some small scale crofting.
On the whole the people were left free to develop their own type of society. The outcome was a form of communism in which decisions affecting the whole community were taken in a collective manner (though only by the men), work was assigned on the basis of individual skills, and there was no private property apart from accommodation, furniture, and other personal items. The community made sure that those who were sick, disabled, or elderly could live at the same standard as anyone else. A large proportion of the communal work involved the catching of sea birds and the gathering of eggs. After a day capturing fulmars, for example, all the dead birds would be placed on a large pile, and then distributed to each family according to the size of the family. Men who returned with especially large quantities of fulmars would receive the same share as any other.
In 1838, a traveller, Lachlan MacLean wrote ‘If St Kilda is not the Eutopia so long sought, where will it be found? Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda. No taxgatherer's bill threatens on a church door, the game-laws reach not the gannets. Safe in its own whirlwinds, and cradled in its own tempests, it heeds not the storms which shake the foundations of Europe  –  and acknowledging the dominion of M'Leod, cares not who sways the British sceptre. Well may the pampered native of happy Hirt refuse to change his situation – his slumbers are late – his labours are light – his occupation his amusement. Government he has not – law he feels not – physic he wants not – politics he heeds not – money he sees not – of war he hears not. His state is his city, his city is his social circle, he has the liberty of his thoughts, his actions, and his kingdom and all the world are his equals. His climate is mild, and his island green, and the stranger who might corrupt him shuns its shores. If happiness is not a dweller in St Kilda, where shall it be sought?’
In 1887 Robert Connell observed in his St. Kilda and the St. Kildians: ‘To discover the socialistic principle you have only to toss a roll of tobacco – an ounce will serve the purpose as well – to the first man that accosts you. True to the apostolic theory of ‘all things common’ this latter-day Ananias will share his spoil, to the last leaf, with every smoker on the island.’
The men of Hirta (the only inhabitable island) would meet every morning in what was the daily ‘Parliament’. It had no rules, no chairman and participants arrived in their own time. This was a meeting to share information, discuss current issues, resolve disputes, and make decisions, in particular in relation to work that needed to be done. Decisions were reached by consensus. ‘Often the proceedings are anything but harmonious, and the loud talking of the men at one and the same moment is suggestive of anything but a peaceful solution. However, when a decision is arrived at the malcontents readily give way, and co-operate cordially with the majority.’ Never in recorded history were feuds bitter enough as to bring about a permanent division in the community.
Like the free workers of Jamaica that Marx describes in the Grundrisse who, being ‘content to produce what was strictly necessary for their own consumption’, and how they were portrayed by the plantation owners as idle and indulgent, so the St Kildans were similarly held in contempt by visitors and churchmen for their production just of use-values and their adherence to their home-grown version of communism of directly satisfying needs.
The entire population was evacuated in 1930 and so ended perhaps the longest surviving example of a communistic system in action on British soil.