Sunday, 1 November 2015

My Neighbour Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro is 1988 animated children's film by Hayao Miyazaki.

It's the 1950s in Japan. A university professor, Tatsuo Kusakabe,  moves to a new house with his daughters Mei and Satsuki. Their mother is ill and is staying at the hospital. Their new house however makes them neighbours with with a forest spirit, the eponymous Totoro, who the children befriend.

Totoro is a film that manages to combine seamlessly the seeming opposites of realism and imaginative fantasy. The everyday lives of the Kusakabe family is on one hand depicted with utter realism, with no artificial drama or plot grafted on. Yet the film glides without any trouble into fantasy, when the children interact with Totoro and other spirits.

And what fantasy it is. My Neighbour Totoro is perhaps the only film to truly capture what it is like being a child. The fantasy sequences has a truly childlike aspect to them, that makes them utterly charming. The sheer imagination is of course also helped by the utterly beautiful animations. The music by Joe Hisaishi is also wonderful.

Not that the realist sequences are boring either. Despite being void of plot and having pretty much no conflict, they are utterly compelling to watch. The idyll that the family lives never seems unrealistic or sentimental, but utterly real. This is in part due to the fact that the joy that the family finds lie in common everyday things.

The realism of the idyll is also due to the fact that there are also minor, but contrasting shades of darkness in the film, primarily the illness of the mother. Miyazaki doesn't forget that being a child doesn't only mean wonder and imagination, but also  being powerless and fearful.

These shades are however never overpowering and everything works out nicely in the end. This remains if not Miyazaki's greatest work, undoubtedly his most charming and heart-warming film

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Inherent Vice by Paul Thomas Anderson

Well, now I have seen the film adaptation by director Paul Thomas Anderson of Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice.

The film follows the story of the book rather faithfully, but cuts a lot of it. This is of course inevitable in any film adaptation, but in this case it becomes somewhat of a problem. The cuts make the film very incoherent. The book was already rather incoherent, but the film is far worse in that regard.

I have read the novel and still found the film very hard to follow, far more so than the book. One can only imagine how confusing the film must be for someone who hasn't read the book.

Sadly, the thematic concerns seem to be somewhat lost in that general incoherence, Pynchon's argument weakened due to all the cuts.

The problem really is that Anderson's direction doesn't shed any new light on the story, or do anything really creative with it, he just re-tells it. And so with all the cuts, you lose a lot in the translation to film, yet don't really gain anything. There's really nothing here that wasn't done better in the book.

It's sad, for the film is well-made otherwise. The very look of the film is wonderful. It is shoot on grainy and colour-saturated filmstock, so that it looks like it was made in the 70s. The acting is truly excellent throughout the entire film. Even minor roles are strongly cast. This makes many of the individual scenes and jokes come off successfully.

So despite the film being a bit of a mess as a whole, it is often an entertaining mess. If you see it without any expectations to understand the plot whatsoever and just go with the flow, it will be a fun but confusing experience. I do however miss the substance of the book and all the wonderful material that was cut from it.

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a animated film by Isao Takahata, co-founder alongside Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli.

It is based on a Japanese Folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Like the folktale, the story of the film begins with a Bamboo cutter discovering a small girl inside a glowing bamboo stalk. The Bamboo-cutter and his wife, who have no children, raise the girl as their own child, believing her to be a princess sent by Heaven. The girl grows supernaturally fast, and has a happy childhood in the countryside. She develops a close friendship with a boy named Sutemaru.

The Bamboo-cutter then discovers gold and expensive clothing in the bamboo, the same way he discovered the girl. He believes this to be a message from Heaven, to use the gold to give the Princess a life as a rich noblewoman in the Capital City (probably Kyoto). Therefore, he constructs a mansion in the city and moves the family there. But this proves to be a mistake, as the Princess, now named Kaguya, can't adapt to the restrictions and artifice of life as a noblewoman.

The story is a wonderful fairy tale, told with lyricism and a dreamlike ambience.  Indeed, the division between reality and dreams at times break down. Yet there is also some humour weaven into Takahata's rich narrative tapestry.

The characterisation is strong. Kaguya is especially a very sympathetic character. One feels with her throughout the entire film, including every emotion from ecstatic joy to deepest depression. And like his friend Miyazaki, Takahata admirably avoids making of his characters into traditional evil villains, despite having a message to impart.

The animation is utterly beautiful. It has an unique watercolourlike style, looking like no other animated film that I know of.  The animation often subtly changes to convey the mood of a scene, when for example Kaguya is distressed, the animation gets more rough.

The music is also wonderful, with composer Joe Hisaishi again proving that he is one of the greatest film composers of our time. The voice acting is also excellent, with a strong lead performance from Aki Asakura as Kaguya.

This film is an ecstatic celebration of life and it's simple gifts, especially nature, family and friends. The conflict in the film comes from the forces that prevent Kaguya from living her life in accordance with these values.

Foremost of these are the cruel demands of a femininity that ultimately requires her to lose her natural, free humanity and become the possession of a man. These demands are portrayed with an almost visceral horror, as Kaguya's teeth are blackened and her eyebrows plucked. Much of the film is about Kaguya's struggle against these patriarchal norms in order to retain her freedom and dignity. The feminist message is clear.

As Kaguya's journey to the city also is a journey to a different social class, the film also touches briefly on class issues. In a significant scene, Sutemaru and Kaguya meet again in the Capital city, in which her wealth and his continuing poverty is contrasted.  It lays bare the injustice of a society in which a few live in idle luxury, while most people live in poverty and are sometimes even forced to steal in order to survive.

But Takahata also sends the message that wealth, luxury and status are not necessary for living a good life, perhaps even inimical to that goal. There are other, simpler things that matter. The film makes a sharp contrast between Kaguya's poor but happy, natural and free childhood in the countryside and her dour, unfree and artificial life as a rich noble in the city. This may sound banal, but is a message worth hearing in this increasingly consumerist age.

Kaguya is one of the best films I have ever seen. It is beautifully made, and is ultimately a very life-affirming experience.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Woyzeck by Georg Büchner

Woyzeck is a play by German playwright Georg Büchner (1813-1837).

It is a simple story of a a soldier, Franz Woyzeck. He loses his sanity due to cruel treatment he receives from his captain and a doctor. The Doctor uses him for deranged experiments, like making only eat peas for three months. Woyzeck has an unmarried relationship with a woman named Marie, and they have child together. When he discovers that Marie is cheating on him with another man, this is the final humiliation. Woyzeck kills her and then apparently drowns. Whether he killed himself or it was an accident is left to interpretation.

The play was unfinished at the author's death and is in a very fragmentary state.  Scenes begin and end abruptly, and their order in which they are supposed to be is very uncertain. Matters weren't helped much by the difficulty in deciphering Büchner's handwriting and the physical decay of the original manuscript.

What does emerge through the murk is however a work that is far ahead of it's time. This is one of the first works of fiction to look at the psychological and especially social causes of crime.
Woyzeck's insanity and murder is for Büchner the product of the soldier's awful treatment by his social superiors.

There is of course a strong criticism of class society implicit in this. Woyzeck is the ordinary proletarian, who is in the end a victim of an unequal society.

The portrait of the Doctor, and his truly sickening experiments, is an early warning against the potential for medicine and science to have a dehumanizing effect. A portrayal of the very forces that would later produce Mengele.

There is an truly excellent operatic adaptation by Alban Berg, called Wozzeck. It is one of the true masterpieces of modernist music.

Woyzeck is a truly great play, astounding in it's psychological depth and prophetic in it's social criticism. It is unfinished, but it accomplishes more than most finished plays do.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Paul Roland

Often the best in music (and other artforms) goes unappreciated. Such is the strange case of Paul Roland. He make some of the best rock music ever made, yet is not only unknown to the public, but also to the critics and most music fans.

Paul Roland was born September 6, 1959 (this should go up on his 56th birthday). He made his debut rather young as an artist in 1980 with the album The Werevolves of London. With certain hiatuses, the longest of which was in the late 1990s and early 2000s in order to raise his children and write books, he has released albums ever since.

The best way I can find to describe his music is intellectual art pop. His songs are generally short, melodic and catchy, yet genuinely intellectual and artistic in the way pop music so rarely is. The music has intellectual and romanticist quality that has made him popular with Progressive rock fans, earning him an entry on the prog archives site, yet  has the directness and melodic qualities of good pop music. As he explained in an interview,  "early rock records instilled into me the idea that you should say every­thing you need to say in 3 min­utes or less and get to the point from the first few bars".  He himself describes his music as "spinning musical tales against a backdrop of gothic rock, psych pop, folk & baroque strings." This gives some idea of the sheer range and variety his music has, yet he retains a distinct and very original identity.

What really sets Roland apart are his lyrics. They are very gothic and romantic, often with elements of horror, the fantastic and the macabre (though not morbid, as he likes to point out). In a 2005 interview with Nucleus Magazine, he described his lyrics this way: "As for lyrics, they tend to be historical or supernatural as I am not interested in mundane, every day modern images".  He is thus more the heir of the romantic poets of the 19th century, than any rock lyricists, who instead tend to focus on personal issues and love. A recurring theme is an idealized victorian/edwardian era, making him an important forerunner of the modern Steampunk movement (which he has written a book about). His inspirations vary, from horror and fantasy books and films to historical events and persons.

I'm not a good music critic, so I will keep this short. The only reason I wrote this is to promote an unjustly neglected music artist. If you are at all interested in hearing music with fantastical or historical imagery, you should check him out. He has made a playlist of various songs of his on youtube, that serve as a good introduction to his work here. Good introductory songs, giving an idea of his range, in no particular order, are The Edwardian Air-raid, Wyndham Hill, Nosferatu, In the Opium Den, Gabrielle, Twillight of the Gods, Buccaneers, Taliesin and The Crimes of Dr Cream. There is much more good stuff, but that should get you started.

Some other resources:

His website.

Interview database

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Wizard of the Crow is a satirical fantasy novel by Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. It was originally written in the language of the Gikuyu people, but has been translated into English by the author himself.

It is set in the fictional African country of Aburĩria. It is ruled over by a dictator known only as The Ruler. As the novel begins, The Ruler has decided to build a tower that will reach the heavens and fulfil what humanity attempted with the Tower of Babel. The project is called "Marching to Heaven".
We also meet the well-educated beggar Kamiti, who discovers that he has magical powers. He becomes the Wizard of the Crow of the title and uses his powers to help people with their problems (which are often psychological in nature). He also meets a woman, Nyawira, who is a member of a resistance movement.

This is fundamentally a book about dictatorship, or rather an absurd satire of it. The Ruler is one of the most dislikeable figures in modern literature, viewing the people he governs merely as a way to make money or to sate his megalomaniac desires.

The portrait of dictatorship comes main from the author's experiences with the regime of Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya, who imprisoned Wa Thiong'o and eventually drove into exile.  The Ruler of the book has strong similarities with Moi. But as all good fiction, the novel has universal qualities and The Ruler could sadly stand in for many real dictators.

An important theme of the book is the complicity of Western capitalism in these kinds of dictatorships.  The Ruler's dictatorship is portrayed as more or less a puppet of the West, once used as a weapon by them in the Cold War. His purpose is essentially to keep Aburiria open to the profit-making of Western corporations.

The novel also satirizes the hollowness of most African democracies. When democracy seemingly comes to Aburiria near the end of the novel, it's a continuation of the Ruler's dictatorship in another guise. Wa Thiong'o points out how bourgeois democracy is often wholly controlled by the forces of capital, resulting in many parties with a single goal: the free reign of capital.

Another important theme is feminism. With the character of Nyawira, Wa Thiong'o paints a portrait of a strong, independent woman, the political conscience of the novel. And never have I seen a male author get so passionate and uncompromising about the issue of domestic violence.

The humour of the novel is somewhat absurd and broad. It contains everything from witty political satire to slapstick. To give an example of the latter, there is a funny scene in which a man takes over a military base armed only with a bucket of shit.

But this book is not only funny, it is also moving and beautiful. This very long novel (767 pages) gives itself time to develop it's characters. Among the humorous and satirical passages, there are also wonderfully written lyrical parts, such as descriptions of nature and an interesting magical realist sidestory involving a lake where time is frozen. The venal corruption of the dictatorship of the ruler is contrasted with the altruism and the gentle, Buddhist influenced spirituality of The Wizard of the Crow.

Wizard of the Crow is a masterpiece. It's many pages fly by due to Wa Thiong'o easy-flowing style (inspired by oral tradition, perhaps). The whole book is illuminated by the warmth and sheer joy of his storytelling.

I haven't read any other works by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, but this book alone is good enough to make him, in my opinion, one of the most important authors writing today.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

A Redtail's Dream by Minna Sundberg

A Redtail's Dream is the debut work of Minna Sundberg, which she worked on as a "practice comic" before she started Stand Still, Stay Silent. I have covered it earlier on this blog here.

The premise is a bit complicated. A young fox-spirit is given the task of guarding the Northern Lights. But he makes a serious mistake, which causes  all the souls in the tiny Finnish village of Hokanniemi to be transferred to the spirit plane. The spirit can't return the souls to the mortal world by himself. This is bad, because in the spirit world, the human souls will be taken to Tounela, the after-life and the Fox spirit will be punished for his mistakes. To prevent this, he puts the humans into dream-worlds of his own creation, where they will be safe for a little while.

When this happened, a young man living in the village, Hannu and his dog Ville, was outside the village, which means that they are both taken to the spirit plane, but aren't put into the dream worlds.
The fox spirit realizes that he can use them to return the humans to the mortal world, without having to do anything himself, so he gives them the task. Hannu and Ville must venture into each dream-world and rescue the humans there.

This is bit confusing and you do notice that Sundberg was a bit inexperienced as a writer. But once one has gotten past the somewhat complicated beginning, it's far from difficult to understand (and even in the beginning, one gets at least a sufficient understanding of what is happening). The comic has a simple episodic structure, in which Hannu and Ville in each dream-world must find the leading figure of the humans there, help them complete some random task, and then give them a talisman that will free the humans trapped in that dream-world.

This episodic set-up is oddly satisfying and one can see Sundberg maturing as a writer, with each chapter being better than the last, with the comic fully cohering by the third chapter. Most of the book is well-written adventure-comedy in the vein of her influences, such as Don Rosa or Hergé. What sets her apart is the element of Finnish mythology, which is skilfully woven into Hannu's dream adventures. And just as her influences, the comedy and adventure is balanced out by drama, which comes to the fore in the final chapters, and due to her growth as a writer is rather well-written.

The art is excellent from the start, yet gets even better as Sundberg learns from doing the comic and develops the beautiful and mature style she would use for Stand Still, Stay Silent.  Her beautiful natural landscapes are given more time to rightfully shine, due to the story allowing more variation than the other comic with it's wastelands. The mythological or fantastic aspect of the tale makes the influences from the national romantic painters become even more apparent, with her depictions of Tuonela and the Swan being directly inspired by Akseli Gallen-Kallela's depiction in his painting Lemminkäinen's mother

A Redtail's dream is highly recommended. Highly original with it's use of Finnish mythology, worth a read if you're interested in fantasy and comedic adventure comics.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Jon Vickers 1926-2015

Canadian tenor Jon Vickers died a few days ago on July 10 at the age of 88. He was one of the foremost dramatic operatic tenors of his time. In my opinion, he was simply the greatest. Vickers had a powerful, big, dark and dramatic voice. Not only did he have a great voice, but he was also a great actor, with deeply intelligent, psychological and passionate characterisations.

Vickers famously had a strong and uncompromising artistic temperament. He expected the best from himself, but also from others, which often meant conflict. His devout Christianity could also cause frictions. For example, he rejected singing the role of Tannhäuser in part due to perceiving the work as anti-Christian.

He excelled in Wagnerian heldentenor roles, especially Siegmund and Tristan. He recorded both roles with Herbert Von Karajan. 

Outside of Wagner, he did other dramatic tenor roles like Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio, (which he recorded with Otto Klemperer), Britten's Peter Grimes and Verdi's Otello. He also did some non-operatic parts, most famously the tenor part in Händel's Messiah, in the famous recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.
"Ein Schwert verhiess mir der vater" from Wagner's Die Walküre. Conductor: Erich Leinsdorf
"Ev´ry valley shall be exalted" From Händel's Messiah. Conductor: Sir Thomas Beecham

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

V For Vendetta is a comic book written by Alan Moore and drawn by David Lloyd.

It's 1997. A nuclear exchange between America and The Soviet Union in 1988 has destroyed most of the world. The only country to avoid being a target and survive the war is The United Kingdom. In the chaos after the apocalypse, a brutal fascist government calling itself Norsefire has taken over the country. Exterminating all undesirables (non-white people, leftists, homosexuals), they rule with an iron fist. There is however an Anarchistic revolutionary with superhuman powers who opposes them. He is known only as V, his face hidden by the now iconic Guy Fawkes mask. The story follows a young girl by the name of Evey Hammond, who is witness to V's conflict with Norsefire.

This premise sounds like pulp fiction and indeed, it very much is, as Alan Moore himself acknowledges in an essay included with the comic.  But it is definitely pulp fiction for intellectuals. Moore and Lloyd achieve a  synthesis of high and low culture that reminds one of Thomas Pynchon, though one more slanted against the low, pulp side of the spectrum. Indeed, Moore acknowledges Pynchon strong influence on his writing by having V read one of Pynchon's books (No points for guessing which one).

The premise is of course also outdated, which Moore of course had to acknowledge even before the story was finished.  During the time of the comics creation, scientists discovered that a nuclear war is probably not survivable, due to the climate effects it would have, the so-called Nuclear Winter.
The reason why The UK survives in this story is due to a Labour victory in the 1982 elections, which leads to a withdrawal of US missiles from the country, thereby not making the country a target in the war that follows. As Moore notes in his introduction, this "should tell you how reliable we were in our role as Cassandras."

This doesn't hurt the story in any significant way, because it still works as a story and it's themes are still relevant today. And Moore was completely right about one thing: The Surveillance Cameras. Moore's prediction of an England watched over by millions of cameras is still chilling to read, because it came to pass.

Essentially the story is a clash of ideologies, it's V's Anarchism contra the Norsefire government's fascism. And Moore comes down definitely on the side of anarchism. But what makes V For Vendetta great is the very human complexity of it's conflict. While Moore may endorse V's anarchism, he is more ambivalent about V's violent methods and the character and his actions are depicted with ambiguity. The horrific nature of V's violent actions is vividly conveyed and is not glossed over. We view V not through his eyes, but through the eyes of the real main character, Evey Hammond, who is often understandably horrified by what V does. The reader is essentially left to draw their own conclusions.

Similarly, the Norsefire government are not a one-dimensional bad guys.  Moore depicts them as human beings and thus with nuance and certain sympathetic aspects to their characters. They believe, not without reason, that their rule has saved England from the chaos after the war (one wonders if this is Moore's comment on the reactionary politics of most post-apocalyptic fiction. In most SF novels, Norsefire would have been the heroes). Even their leader, Adam Susan, in the end becomes more of a pitiable figure than a loathsome one, despite having led a genocide. The police detective Edward Finch, who is given the task of hunting down V, is if anything a more sympathetic character than V himself. In this aspect, Moore surpasses his influence Orwell's 1984, which depicts it's totalitarian villains with little or no nuance and sympathy.

The powerful, often deeply moving writing of Alan Moore and the wonderful artwork of David Lloyd makes this a unique experience and one of Moore's foremost works.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Chris Squire 1948-2015

Chris Squire, bassist of the progressive rock band Yes died today from leukemia.

His bass playing was very original and influential, at least in Progressive Rock. Most rock bassists both then (the 1960s-70s) and now use the bass as a rhythm instrument. Squire instead used his bass as melodic instrument, something previously unheard of in rock music. In many ways, his virtuosic playing, with it's distinctive bright and cutting tone, made the bass a lead instrument, fully the equal of the electric guitar.

He was also a talented songwriter, contributing much to the group's now classic  albums and was up until now the only constant in the infamously ever-changing line-up of Yes. Here's Long Distance runaround  from the album Fragile. This segues into the track The Fish (Squire's nickname, due to his long baths), where as the liner notes say "each riff, rhythm, and melody is produced by using the different sounds of the bass guitar".

Monday, 1 June 2015

Bruges-La-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Bruges-La-Morte (Bruges the dead) is a novella from 1892 by Belgian author Georges Rodenbach.  It is about the widower Hugues Vinae. Five years after her death, he is still obsessed by her wife and has turned his sorrow over her into a heavily ritualized private religon, centering around the relic of a braid of her hair.

He has moved to the city of Bruges, which has such a melancholic mood that it is as if it were dead. It fits his grieving mood. But there he meets a woman, which he thinks looks exactly like his dead wife. He transfers his obsession to her, starting an affair with her.
Rodenbach was heavily influenced by the French symbolist writers, like Baudelaire and Mallarmé (who he knew personally) and wrote in French, despite being ethnically Flemish. Thus, material "reality" in his novels merely represent ideals. In this case the city of Bruges comes to represent decay and death (and being the gothic romantic and decadent he is, this is a positive for Rodenbach). This is a real city and the novel is illustrated with 35 pictures (it was the first time a work of fiction was illustrated with photographs). It was originally a bustling town of commerce, but the river which enabled the ships to come there dried up and the city decayed.

It is Rodenbach's portrait of Bruges that makes the book worth reading. It is very atmospheric, beautiful and poetic, but also disturbing, depicting a "dead city", locked in tradition into complete stasis. Bruges seems less like a city and more the corpse of some gigantic creature that people somehow have made into a morbid home. It is as much the main character as Vinae is and they deliberately mirror each other. Vinae's private religion of grieving his dead wife is mirrored by the morbid, death-obsessed Catholicism of Bruges.  Recurring motifs are the many church bells and the almost dried up and unmoving canals.

The obsessive and insane love story is also interesting and, with the main character's neurotic need to control the appearance of his love and prevent her from betraying him with some else reminds me of Proust and was perhaps an influence on him. As so many late-romantics, Rodenbach presages the modernists, with his lack of conventional storytelling and focus on the inner life of his main character.  In a review for the guardian, Nicholas Lezard notes that Rodenbach making Bruges into a main character precedes Joyce doing the same with Dublin in Ulysses.  The book has also had several film adaptations and probably inspired the novel D'entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac which Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was adapted from.

There is also an Wagnerian opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Die Tote Stadt, based on a german translation of  the play that Rodenbach later adapted from the novel. There is much beautiful music in it, though it doesn't capture the melancholic and poetic mood of the novel in any way. Korngold would later become one of the foremost soundtrack composers in Hollywood and it's obvious that Hollywood is his true calling and companion, not the subtle and poetic Rodenbach

As the Swedish translator Leif Jäger notes in his informative afterword to his translation of the book, this is a minor classic and it is well worth reading if one is interested in Symbolist literature and poetic prose.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Tristan and Isolde by Joseph Bédier

The tale of Tristan And Isolde is a classic legend, most famously retold by Richard Wagner in his music drama. It is the classic tale of passion vs. duty, and as long as society demands that we subjugate our passions to it's moral and legal demands, as long as civilization persists, it will continue to have it's relevance.

In 1900 Frenchman Joseph Bédier, probably spurred by Wagner's revival of the tale, published his retelling in prose of the tale, a synthesis of the medieval sources such as those of Béroul, Thomas, Eilhart and Gottfried.

It's a brilliant work, making the tale accessible and enjoyable to modern readers. The medieval sources can be hard to find in translation and are probably just as hard to understand. The story does however remain very much relevant and  Bédier doesn't need to change it, only re-tell it. And that he does well.

His style is interesting. He avoids the style of the modern novel, with it's close accounting of events and thoughts, instead going for a conversational style that reminds me of medieval epic poetry I have read, yet fully modern. It reads like a transcription of a masterful oral re-telling, full of asides and comments to the audience, that does not take one out of the story and instead enhances it.

To illustrate here's the beautiful first paragraph in Hilaire Belloc's English translation:
"My lords, if you would hear a high tale of love and of death, here is that of Tristan and Queen Iseult; how to their full joy, but to their sorrow also, they loved each other, and how at last they died of that love together upon one day; she by him and he by her." Notice how he uses "hear" instead of "read".

This is highly recommended. While not the innovative masterpiece of Wagner, it is probably the best way to introduce yourself to this legend.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

On advertising and adblocking.

Advertising is a scourge. Of the various institutions of capitalism, it is perhaps the most alienating. The reason for advertising is simply to make people want stuff they don't need. You never see advertising for basic things that people actually need, it's always the unnecessary stuff that people wouldn't buy otherwise that are advertised.

Advertisers do their work by simply using bullshit and lies, often deliberately trying to make people insecure and induce anxiety, then offering a way out of that anxiety by buying their product. Advertisers try to make you unhappy with what you got, even if it's perfectly acceptable, so that you will buy their product. This anxiety, and the sheer lack of meaning in the chase for more and more stuff creates great alienation and unhappiness in our society.

Today, they also use modern information technology to violate the privacy of pretty much every internet user. Their programs track the individual internet user and use that information to tailor the advertisements that the user sees to what the programs perceive as their interests. Facebook and various other social media services are essentially schemes to sell such data to advertisers.

There is also the aesthetic aspect: advertising is generally so ugly as to be dispiriting even without considering the message that they send.  Garish, kitschy and loud are the archetypical qualities of advertising. Even worse is when they actively destroy works of real aesthetic value, such as when advertising chops up films on television into bits, or appropriates music for their dubious cause.
I've made my own little revolt against advertising. I don't read, listen or watch ad-supported newspapers, radio or television, getting my news instead from public service radio. One must still deal with outdoor advertising and the like, but every little bit helps. I can't help but admire the people of Sao Paulo, who have enforced a ban on outdoor advertising.

There are also the useful programs of Adblock plus and Ghostery. The former simply blocks advertising on the internet while the later enables you to detect and stop data collecting companies from collecting data about your internet use.

Of course, adblocking has raised some consternation from the commercial parts of the internet. For people who live on producing bullshit, there is no greater crime than to not listen to them. There has been much sanctimonious moralizing about the "entitled freeloaders" who free-ride by blocking advertising, thereby not paying for the content that they "consume". (implicitly admitting that viewing advertising is negative, draining experience, that it takes something out of you, like paying for something drains your money supply). They do of course ignore that producing advertising is highly morally questionable activity, as related above. To paraphrase Brecht ("Was ist ein Einbruch in eine Bank gegen die Gründung einer Bank?"),  blocking advertising is no crime compared to the crime of producing it.

In the most hysterical of these ravings, the doom of the internet is prophesied. By cutting off ad revenue, adblockers, if they become prevalent, will kill off the commercial internet who relies on that revenue, they claim. Of course, if that was to actually it happen it would be a good thing. The present ad-driven model would be proven to have been unsustainable, to be build on sand and it's collapse would therefore not only be inevitable, it would be just.

There is no need to grieve an economic model which couldn't survive the economic reality. Almost no one except the aristocratic class who lost most of their power grieves the collapse of feudalism today, even if it's replacement wasn't much better and perhaps even worse. There is not much use in grieving over the march of history.

Such predictions of doom also underestimate the non-commercial parts of the internet. The collapse of the commercial internet will probably not put a stop to the free and non-commercial sharing of information. If the collapse leaves a void, one might fill it with public funding, as we do in other parts of our culture. This way the collapse might turn out to be a positive development in the history of the internet, especially as it would mean the end of advertising.

Of course, such a collapse will probably not happen for quite some time. Internet advertising is still a healthy industry, and even if it does happen, some other source of revenue will probably be found. Still, a man can dream.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Vampyr by Carl T.H. Dreyer

Vampyr is a 1932 german-french horror film by Danish director Carl T.H. Dreyer. It is very loosely based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu short story collection In a Glass Darkly.

It is about a man who studies the occult, Allan Grey (played by the film's producer, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg under the stage name Julian West). These studies has made him into "eine träumer und phantasten" (a dreamer and fantasist) In the beginning of the film he comes to the small French village of Courtempierre (a real place, the film was shot on location). When Grey is staying at the inn, he meets under strange circumstances the owner of a manor in the village, whose daughter Léone is the victim of a vampire. Grey decides to help.

That is the plot, but it doesn't do the film justice. It really has no plot.The film is surrealist and doesn't try to make much logical sense. It is an exercise in creating a surreal and dreamy atmosphere, filled with dread. Vampyr is really a irrationalist and romantic attempt to make a nightmare on celluiod, and one of the most successful ones. It is as such not really amenable to rationalist analysis. The results are very creepy and deeply unsettling.

The cinematography is made by perhaps the greatest cinematographer to ever live, Rudolph Mate, and is absolutely brilliant. The imagery is memorable, atmospheric and beautiful.  The film is (literally) shot through gauze and apparently deliberately overexposed giving it a blurry, washed-out dreamlike look, that adds to the film's nightmarish quality. Vampyr is deeply influenced by German expressionist filmmaking, which especially shows in its excellent use of shadows, but it is no way second to it's influences.

Vampyr does have sound, but dialogue is sparse and it is mostly silent, even using title cards at times. This adds to the film's tone. The acting is surprisingly good, considering most of the actors were complete amateurs. Dreyer coaxes out of them very non-naturalistic performances, which just makes the dreamy mood stronger. A case in point is the main actor Baron De Gunzberg, who gives a very flat, emotionless performance, which however fits perfectly with the surreal events in the film, despite being lacking from a traditional perspective.

Indeed, in order to appreciate Vampyr,  one must abandon all traditional expectations and instead embrace it's surrealist nature.  And from that perspective, Vampyr is a masterpiece. The only comparisons one can make is to films like Das cabinet des Dr. Caligari and especially Murnau's Nosferatu. And it is one of the few films which can stand up to such comparison. While not as well known, Vampyr fully deserves to have it's place among them as a surreal horror masterpiece.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

To Margot Wallström, and The importance of cultural exchange.

To Margot Wallström

"Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake"
William Shakepeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene IV

The ghost of Olof Palme smiled, for once
(he is used to tears).
The Wahhabists will continue to execute
dissidents, but they will no longer use
Swedish bullets, Swedish rifles.
There is value in not
contributing to the evils of the World.

The industrialists scream, for their profit
was made from the blood of democracy.
And the liberals reaffirm their long-standing
commitment to democracy and human rights,
just as when they defended the Shah of Iran
and Pinochet.
"We have burnt bridges", they say
Good, for they lead only to dictatorship.

The importance of cultural exchange.

The industrialists and newspapermen
have spoken of the importance of Sweden
having a cultural exchange with Saudi Arabia.
(culture apparently means money and arms)
Then I propose that the Swedish newspapermen
and industrialists which have defended the arms deal
shall exchange places with the dissidents in Saudi prisons
The defenders of dictatorship in the prisons, and the dissidents
in the mansions,
That is an cultural exchange that both countries would benefit from.

Till Margot Wallström

Olof Palmes spöke log, för en gångs skull
(han är van vid tårar)
Wahhabisterna kommer att fortsätta avrätta
dissidenter, men dem kommer inte mer att
använda svenska kulor, svenska gevär
Det ligger värde i att inte bidra till Världens ondska.

Industriledarna skriker, för deras profit skapades utav
demokratins blod.
Och liberaler bekräftar deras långvariaga
stöd för demokrati och mäniskliga rättigheter,
som när de försvarade Shahen av Iran och Pinochet.
"Vi har brännt broar". säger dem.
Bra, för dem ledde bara till diktatur.

Vikten av kulturellt utbyte

Industriägarna och tidningsmännen har talat om vikten
av ett kulturellt utbyte mellan Sverige och Saudiarabien
(uppenbarligen är pengar och vapen kultur)
Då föreslår jag att vi byter ut tidningsmännen och
industriledarna som försvarat saudiavtalet mot
dissidenterna i Saudi Arabiens fängelser.
Diktaturförsvararna i fängelserna och dissidenterna
i dem rikas villor,
Det är ett kulturellt utbyte som båda länder skulle tjäna på.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Daevid Allen 1938-2015

The Australian-British musician Daevid Allen is dead (dark times, first Pratchett and now him).
He was a founding member, alongside Robert Wyatt of the band Soft Machine (named after the novel by William Burroughs) in 1966. The band was formed in Canterbury and  was a central band of the so called Canterbury scene. Soft Machine was along with Pink Floyd and The Beatles one of the first bands to take rock music seriously, as an artform, rather than dance music or entertainment. Progressive rock, in other words. They were also one of the first bands to explore psychedelia and to fuse jazz and rock. Their importance and influence can't be overestimated.

However, Allen left Soft Machine before their first album, because being an Australian citizen, British authorities did not allow him re-entry into the country after a journey to France. Instead, he formed Gong, with which he did his finest recorded work. The music was progressive/psychedelic rock. Jazz was a prominent element, as was electronic music. Gong was an important pioneer of so-called space rock.

The band had a concept or mythology behind it, revolving around the hero named Zero and the Planet Gong, which came to the fore on the classic Radio Gnome Trilogy of albums: Flying Teapot (1973), Angel's Egg (1973) and You (1974). It was a surrealist and very funny science fiction story, in the spirit of the psychedelia of the time, but also in the grand tradition of British surrealism going back to Lewis Carroll*.  As funny and whimsical as the concept was, it also expressed Allen's spiritual worldview.

Today we have lost one of the most important people in the history of rock music. Daevid Allen was a musical pioneer, who with daring and humour, explored unknown territory in rock music and expanded it's borders. Hopefully his music will inspire others to continue to do the same.

*While English culture is know for it's stoic, earthy and matter-of-fact approach, with analytic philosophy and Victorian stuffiness, there is also a surrealist tendency. There is a tradition of outwardly respectable and otherwise perfectly "Victorian" gentlemen writing works of fantasy and "whimsy". The  Examples include Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Terry Pratchett 1948 - 2015

Terry Pratchett is dead. Not that it is much of a chock. He has long been open about his struggles with Alzheimer and the disease has finally claimed his life (before he had the chance to end it himself, as he wished to). He was notoriously unafraid of dying, with Death being a major recurring and oddly sympathetic character in his books.

Pratchett was the foremost satirical writer of our age, using his fantasy creation of Discworld to comment on our society and it's follies. Targets included, but were not limited to, sexism (Equal Rites, in which the unexamined gender inequalities of traditional fantasy are finally examined), capitalism (Going Postal, with it's furious denunciation of privatization), militarism and jingoism (Jingo) and religious fundamentalism (Small Gods, which sees such fanaticism as antithetical to real religion).

As his friend and collaborator Neil Gaiman noted, Pratchett beneath his generous humour, was a writer driven by rage. He was writing, as A.S Byatt noted, "about us", not about anything fantastic.
While Pratchett could as every human being make mistakes (as someone who has a disability, his enthusiasm for euthanasia, while understandable with his situation, left me somewhat cold.) and his satire could at times be unduly hectoring, it was a rage that was driven by compassion for the suffering and put to use with such humour that  his voice will be missed. Farewell, Terry. You may leave this life, but your books will remain with us.

Thursday, 5 March 2015


Snowpiercer is a science fiction action film by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho based on a french comic book written by Jacques Lob and after Lob's death Benjamin Legrand, and drawn by Jean-Marc Rochette.

A failed attempt to combat global warming by injecting a coolant into the atmosphere backfires catastrophically and instead creates a new ice age, which kills most of life on Earth. The only remaining human survivors live on a train built and run by the industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris) that circles the world. The train is a brutal class society in which the third class passengers live in utter poverty in the back of the train while the first class live in luxury in the front. The film chronicles a revolution of the train's underclass, "the tail-enders" against the prevailing order, which is led by Curtis (Chris Evans). He plans to lead the revolt all the way through the train to reach and take over the engine. To help him, he enlists the security specialist Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-Ho) who has constructed the doors of the train, but due to a drug addiction fallen out of favour with Wilford.

As you might tell, this is a highly political film. In it's uncompromising and brilliant criticism of capitalism, it's perhaps the most daring and intelligent film to reach the general public in decades.  Bong Joon-Ho is a former student activist (the link contains spoilers by the way) currently affiliated with the socialist New Progressive Party in South Korea. His depiction of a class society of the train is unflinching and brutal, but well supported by history. Worse things have happened. Writer Jacques Lob's allegory of the train for capitalism, is utterly brilliant just as an idea, and the execution by the director is superb.

The science of the train (and the film in general) makes as much sense as Godzilla, but objecting to such a powerful allegory on the grounds of scientific or even logical sense is like objecting to H. G. Wells time machine on the same grounds. It would be missing the point, which isn't to create a plausible gadget, like the science fiction of Jules Verne or Robert L. Forward but to create an allegory which speaks to us on an emotional and artistic level.

And while Joon-Ho is definitely on the side of the revolutionaries, he also makes the clear the necessity for a revolution to not further the logic of the system it seeks to replace, but to break it. Otherwise, he argues, the revolution will be corrupted.

Another important theme of the film is sacrifice. Joon-Ho makes a distinction between people who perform self sacrifice and those (like the capitalist overclass that owns and runs the train) who force others to sacrifice for them. And when Joon-Ho says sacrifice, he means it: the recurring symbol of such sacrifice is people losing one of their arms.

The storytelling is riveting, just when you think things can't get any worse, the film throws another gut-wrenching twist at you, all the way up to the cathartic ending. The action is incredibly suspenseful.  While the film is very dark, dirty and filled with brutal violence, it's never really realistic, and there is an element of absurd and satirical humour. A tense fight can be put on hold for an impromptu New Years celebration.  At one point, actress Allison Pill takes over the film to deliver an absolutely hilarious performance as a teacher, in a utterly scathing, but funny satire on education.

 This tone is also set by the beautiful cinematography. While much of the film is set in a small, cramped and dirty environment, there are several memorable and beautiful images. When a upper-class woman visits the tail section, the class distinction is highlighted by her vivid yellow dress. When a gunfight breaks a window, the camera takes time away from the action to focus on a single snowflake floating past a character's face. The ending is veritable orgy of strong images.

The acting is brilliant, and there are no weak links, with Chris Evans and Song Kang-Ho giving very strong lead performances. Go Ah-Sung is very convincing in the surprisingly crucial role as the latter's daughter.  John Hurt is his wonderful self. Ed Harris gives a convincing performance as the film's villian. Tilda Swinton, so into her role that she's totally unrecognisable, gives a funny and mesmerising performance as the grotesque and loathsome villain Minister Mason, who reminds one of Margaret Thatcher.

This is overall one of the best and most intelligent science fiction films made in the past decade. While it probably has already left the theatres (Sweden often receives non-mainstream films like this a little late), you should definitely see it at the earliest possible opportunity.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (analysis/review)

In 1970 Los Angeles, private detective and hippe Larry "Doc" Sportello gets a visit from an ex-girlfriend of his, Shasta. She is currently seeing a billionaire land developer, Mickey Wolfmann. Problem is, he is married to another woman, who is also having an affair. The wife and her boyfriend have cooked up a nasty scheme to kidnap Wolfmann and get a hold of all his money. Shasta asks Doc for help, but before long both she and Wolfmann have disappeared. To quote the author himself "by then it gets kinda peculiar" The novel dives into Pynchonian absurdity, though one is also reminded of Chandler's byzantine plots. I will stop here, but for any prospective readers I must warn that this review in it's analysis somewhat reveals the ending of the book.

Inherent Vice is a homage both to the 60s counter-culture and the literary tradition of the private detective. This might seem to be quite disparate subjects, but as Pynchon writes, the private detective is a subversive figure, "always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solving the crime while the cops are followin' wrong leads and gettin' in the way".  This isn't a radical re-interpretation of the private detective genre as one might think. . The creator of the genre as we know it, Dashiell Hammett was a communist and while Raymond Chandler didn't share Hammett's beliefs, he didn't believe in capitalism either.

By returning to the 60s, Pynchon naturally revisits themes from Vineland. The counterculture, that Pynchon was a part of, is given a loving, but very humorous portrayal that is one of the book's main strengths. Doc himself is a hippie and substitutes the traditional whisky flask of the PI with a joint.

The motto of the book is from the May 1968 events in France: "Beneath the paving-stone - the beach!", beneath the artificial world of capitalism lies the freedom of nature, to narrow down such a beautiful metaphor. Doc lives on Gordita beach, an obvious substitute of the real Manhattan Beach on which Pynchon lived in the 60s, writing Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon makes the obvious connection between the hippies and California's surfer culture, with the hilarious idea of psychedelic surf rock or "surfadelic" returning from Vineland. In that light, it is interesting that, due to it's accessibility, this book has been called Pynchon's "Beach-read".

But despite all the hippie nostalgia, throughout the novel are forebodings of what is to come, how the Counter-culture will wane in influence and America will become the dystopia depicted in Vineland. The Nixon government is in the wake of the Manson murders coming down hard on the hippies. Nixon himself appears on television in a kind of vision to set the agenda: "There are always the whiners and complainers who'll say, this is fascism.  Well, fellow Americans, if it's Fascism for Freedom? I . . . can . . . dig it!" The Internet appears, in embryonal form as ARPANET, and Pynchon ever the paranoiac foreshadows it's future use as a tool of mass surveillance.

But Doc also sees how the counter-culture becomes increasingly subverted by commercializing forces. Just as in Vineland, the hippie movement wasn't so much crushed with physical force as insidiously corrupted by commercial culture.  In a powerful passage, Doc drives by a record store and sees people listening to rock music on headphones in listening booths: "Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side."

By becoming a commodity, something you can sell or buy, rock music and other aspects of the counter-culture ceased to be revolutionary. Just as in Vineland, tv is criticised as a form of brainwashing and control, and Pynchon contrasts the subversive private detective in the form of Doc, with television police shows, that try to  "get the viewer population so cop-happy  they're beggin' to be run in".

The celebration of the 60s slowly becomes an elegy as Doc realizes "how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all" and be taken over "The faithless money-driven world" or "The ancient forces of greed and fear".

Against these forces stand Doc, embodying Chandler's ideal of the private detective as a man who walks the mean streets, "who is not himself mean". Doing his detective not so much to earn money, but to help others, he is an altruistic force in a selfish world. His hero is actor John Garfield, who often portrayed a PI in the film noirs of the 40s, but who lost his career nobly refusing to sell out his friends in the Mccarthyist witch-trials of the 50s.

The major theme of the novel is redemption, and the question is if it's possible or not. For Pynchon, the world is fallen and corrupt, with the hippie movement a noble, but failed attempt at redemption.    It is eventually revealed that the land developer, Wolfmann was kidnapped after coming to the realisation, very much influenced by the spirit of the age, that his life of capitalist greed is wrong and attempting redemption.  The title of the novel comes from a phrase within insurance referring to basic faults in the nature of things, that it's impossible to insure against. For example, it is the nature of eggs to be broken, it's their Inherent Vice. And the major question within the novel is whether there exists an inherent vice within human beings that drives them towards corruption or makes redemption impossible.

Pynchon doesn't come to an answer. Wolfmann is released and is back to his old ways, apparently  brainwashed, with Doc unable to help him. One of Doc's hippie friends dream of a spiritual revolution and tell him of the sunken continent of Lemuria, which may rise to the surface again. But Doc world-wearily wonders if that happened right outside LA anybody there would actually notice it, believing as they do only "what was on the tube or in the morning papers”, truth being  “a place they’d been exiled from too long ago to remember”.

There is however still hope for redemption. Doc comes across a broken family, in which the father, Coy Harlingen, is separated from his wife and daughter by his involvement due to a heroin addiction with the mysterious organization The Golden Fang (another example of Pyncon juxtaposing absurdity with realistic human problems.), but Doc manages in the end to rescue the father and return him home. And in the final scene, drivers on the freeway form a kind of temporary commune and guide each other through thick LA smog (a symbol if anything for what Pynchon believes in) and one can but hope for "For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead."

Inherent Vice is yet another excellent novel from Pynchon. The jokes are funny, and the book is often very moving in a subtle way, as you slowly realise how much Doc really cares for other people. The story of Coy Harlingen is especially moving, and well worth any price of admission. As you may realize from my plentiful quotes, Pynchon is still an absolutely wonderful stylist.

While it is not as deep as other Pynchon novels, it is deep enough to be meaningful, and what it lacks in gravitas, it gains in accessibility, which may make this a good novel to start out with if you're planning to get into Pynchon. As you might have guessed, I have read this, in order to be prepared for the film adaptation. Look out in the future for my comments on it

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Stories of Mr. Keuner by Bertolt Brecht

Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner (Stories of Mr. Keuner) is a series of short stories, aphorisms and commentary written by the great dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht from about 1930 to his death in 1956.  They give advice and comments about all aspects of life and go far beyond the purely political  themes one usually associates with Brecht.  The advice is often simply about how to relate to other human beings and how to live ones daily life. Politics is however of course not absent at all and is a prominent recurring theme. The stories are very short, ranging from one sentence or a paragraph to two pages at the most.

The stories are both about and told by Mr. Keuner (therefore the ambiguous title) and serve to illustrate the points made by the title character. Keuner is a clever, if not wise man, a humanist and a thinker, who has opinions on most things and is most often seen in the role of the teacher and sage.

The advice given is often contrary to and directly challenges percieved and common "wisdom" and is often odd in a way that is hard to describe, if it's understandable at all. At times Keuner's comments resemble Zen koans. Humour is another important element and are present in many, if not most of the stories. The stories is often inspired by the author's Marxist worldview, but also by the Chinese philosophy that inspired Brecht as well.

But one should also keep in mind that the stories are more supposed to act as incitement to further thinking, than an infallible guide.  Keuner is far from always a sympathetic character. For all his non-conformist and revolutinary thinking, Keuner also advocates a cowardly submission to the powers that be when necessary, something that Brecht practiced in real life at times.

The Keuner stories are despite this very much worth reading. The advice given is often very wise and thought provoking and even if one doesn't agree or understand, the story is often interesting or funny nevertheless.
The stories have been translated into English by Martin Chalmers. The Swedish translations I read was by Ulf Gran and a complete collection of them was released last year. Many of the stories can be found on the internet. Here is a page with some of the stories in english.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Why I am a socialist

Part 1: Definitions


If I going to justify why I call myself a socialist, a definition of the word "socialism" is in order.
The definition that is most commonly used and that I hold is simple: "a system of economic organization in which the means of production are owned socially or collectively; or the ideology that supports such a system" (essentially similar definitions can be found in most dictionaries).
The "means of production" are simply the physical things used to produce goods and services (tools, buildings, raw materials and so on). In the present system, called "capitalism", the means of production are owned by individuals.

Part 2: The problem with capitalism, or the author bemoans the present state of the world.


The Lack of Democracy 


The basic problem of capitalism is that it is undemocratic. With the means of production under their private control, capitalists have enormous power over everyone else, and they use this power to control and exploit the workers. At work democracy ends, and there the worker has about the same self-determination of a thrall in the age of slavery. Terminating an employment is for the capitalist at worst an hassle; for the worker it often means destitution.

This naturally leads to awful working conditions of early industrialism. Thanks to unions and government legislation, these conditions have at least have been ameliorated in the west. But this prompted capitalists to move production to the third world, where they collaborate with local dictatorships to exploit workers there.

Not that things are fine in the west either. Employers still retain considerable powers over their employees, and as the Keynesian policy of full employment has been abandoned, this power has only increased.

Sadly, as we shifted to a service economy, employers now not only demand that you do your job well, but also confirm to their social standards. They do not only ask for a specific skill-set, but a specific personality as well. (and that personality is almost without exceptions the personality of a psychopath). And with modern information technology, it can be hard to keep your interests and opinions secret.

This has of course a oppressive effect on employees freedom. For example, the reason I'm writing under a pseudonym is not because I'm afraid of the government, but of what prospective employers might think (The call to end internet anonymity is understandable, due to all the abuse it can facilitate, but one should always keep in mind that it also enables many to express their opinions and interests without fear of reprisal).

Of course, this lack of economic democracy also adversely affects our political democracy. The ownership of most media is concentrated into a few, very rich, hands, such as The Bonnier group or Rupert Murdoch. The news, opinions and political candidates that are favoured by this media are therefore overwhelmingly those that are in the interests of the rich owners. As the functioning of our democracy depends on the information supplied by these media channels, this distorts democracy in favour of the rich.

Grow or die


Before I go on, let me reiterate some basic economics. This is basic stuff, that's supported by nearly all mainstream economics.

Capitalism supposes economic growth.  It's driving motor is market competition. This means producers must compete with each other in selling products. Each capitalist must make their production more efficient than their competitor, by either cutting the cost of raw materials or labour, raising productivity through better technology or simply expand production to take advantage of economies of scale.

This means "grow or die" is the law of market competition. As productivity and output rises, one must find new markets for this increasing output. Growing big also enables the firm to take advantage of economies of scale and gives one more resources to pour into research for better and more efficient technology to use in production. Big corporations are thereby able to to out-compete smaller competitors, and thus every corporation tries to grow as big as possible.

Also, today the predominant form of economic organization is the corporation, which is owned by shareholders. These seek to maximize profits and therefore compel or pressure the corporations to grow. Profit must be bigger than last year, otherwise the corporations risk their share's losing value and their stockholders abandoning them, or worse. Sure, the corporation can increase it's profits by inventing new methods of production which lower labour and resource inputs, but competitors will adopt these as well, leaving them with no option but to increase production and take a bigger market share or invent new markets (see Smith 2010).

This is the state of world. Practically all economists, left and right, accept this explanation of things. The problem with this is that you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet. While there is possible for the economy to grow by producers "making more with less", the above argument demonstrates that capitalism also requires quantitative growth.

We all know the effects of this: widespread ecological destruction, over-use of non-renewable natural resources and climate change. All this, while statistics show that growth doesn't make us happier (Schweickart 2008).

There have been plans laid out to stop growth within a capitalist system, but even if such a thing was possible, we all know what happens when a capitalist system stops growing: it's called a depression. That is why governments, while claiming to be trying to create a sustainable economy, are so reluctant to create legislation that would actually put an end to capitalist exploitation of nature. A capitalism with no growth could perhaps be made ecologically sustainable, but the wide-spread unemployment that would entail is certainly not economically or socially sustainable.

The solution is clear: we need another system, one that doesn't rely on growth.



Before I go on, there is one final argument I will make against capitalism. There are certainly many others that can be made, including the wide-spread poverty and starvation the capitalist system entails, but this is not and can not be any final judgement on capitalism. The issues I chose to point out are ones that are very dear to me, and this is why I will chose this to be my closing criticism.

Marx observed that capitalism has destroyed the old feudal, national and religious ties between men, leaving "no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest".  While Marx and Engels more or less accepted this development, and one can certainly see their point, it is a horrible world to live in.

To view other human beings as merely competitors in the struggle for life, as one must in today's society, is de-humanizing and alienating in the extreme. Feeling of loneliness and lack of meaning dominate, especially when unemployment is high and work can not give people meaning (though the meaning given to people though work is of little worth). Often, and particularly for young men, fascist groups sweep in to fill the void.

Capitalist consumerism only adds fuel to the fire. Hollow material values can not fulfil human needs, and the pursuit of them is an exhausting hamster wheel, as advertising keeps on giving you new things to buy, due to the demand of eternal growth.

While art and culture is able to provide some vital comfort and meaning, culture is increasingly becoming commercialized, just another product among others. With aggressive advertising, purely commercial cultural products crowd out non-commercial art in the public consciousness, if not directly attacking it (for example, think about how classical music is portrayed in pop culture)

In a similar way, the experience of the natural world is vital for the human mind, as research proves, yet capitalism in it's relentless pursuit of profit as explained above removes us from nature. Forests and fields are replaced by ugly grey concrete cities.

To sum up, capitalism is obviously unable to fulfil the basic human needs we all have, and even destroys the ways of fulfilling them we used to have.

Part 3: The alternative


The alternative to capitalism that socialists advocate is as said an economy in which the means of production are owned in common. Perhaps the most comprehensive model of how such a society would look like has been developed by American philosopher and mathematician David Schweickart, who call his model, "economic democracy".

Schweickart's model has three features: firstly, productive enterprises are common property and run democratically by those who work there, who share the profits.  Secondly, the democratically-managed firms sell products and services on a market in order to make a profit and prices are set by supply and demand.  Thirdly, investment is socially controlled. The state creates investments funds, from money gained through a tax on capital assets, which is invested in new enterprises.

This is of course a very rough summary of that model. It's more fully explained in Schweickart's book "After Capitalism". A good introduction to his thinking is this article, though is over 20 years old and Schweickart's thinking has naturally evolved since then. There is also this powerpoint presentation.
The great advantage of this model is that it retains the market economy, unlike the more traditional socialist model of economic planning. It is therefore rather immune to the traditional criticisms of socialism, which really are criticisms of central economic planning. The incentives (to innovate, among other things) and information (about prices, for example) the market provides are still fully present in the market socialist system, yet without the democratic deficit and unsustainable endless growth mechanic inherent in capitalism. 

All firms would be democratically run and workers would all receive shares in the company's profits instead of wages, given everybody more than sufficient motivation for them to work and innovate, yet without much incentive to grow (See this article by Schweickart for an thorough explanation for why this would be. A central passage: "if the owners of a capitalist firm can make $X under present conditions, they can make $2X by doubling the size of their operation. But if a democratic firm doubles its size, it doubles its workforce, leaving its per-capita income unchanged.").

Schweickart's model has of course not been put into reality yet, though a somewhat similar system of worker's management functioned in Tito's Yugoslavia (with some success, as Schweickart points out), though it was of course very different from the democratic system Schweickart advocates. A similar system of investment has also existed in Japan.

Though, to play devil's advocate, I'm not entirely convinced that economic planning is entirely out for the count, despite criticisms of Schweickart and others. Modern information technology would make things much easier for planners, we don't know how such a system would function in a democratic nation (as the soviet states were all dictatorships) and planning is much easier in a steady-state economy without economic growth (which as explained above, must be our goal for a sustainable society). It just speaks to the many alternatives we have to capitalism, despite the constant neo-liberal refrain of "There is no alternative".

Part 4: How to get there?


While we may have established that capitalism is undesirable and that socialism is perhaps the better alternative, the question remains: how are we to reach socialism; what should we do to get from one state of affairs to the other?

I really don't have a good answer to that question. There have been broadly two alternatives proposed: gradual democratic reform or violent revolution. The former has led to the reformers being bogged down in compromises with capitalism and eventually forgetting about the goal of socialism, (but we should never forget the tangible good such reforms have brought about: it is the reason why most people in the west aren't living in poverty.) The latter has only lead to repression by the well-organized and better armed state or, when successful, dictatorship, as the leaders of a violent revolution by necessity are brutes, who rule by violence.  Lenin, Castro and Mao are good examples.

That doesn't leave good prospects for a democratic socialism. The only possibility one can see is some form of non-violent revolution.  I'm open to the possibility of socialism being impossible, either though capitalism being impossible to overthrow or socialism simply not working; that the only possibility for mankind is a road towards ruin though capitalist eco-cide. "Socialism or barbarism", declared Rosa Luxemburg, and it may very well be that humanity is only fit for barbarism.

I still believe in keeping on fighting though. In the ancient Norse myths, Odin and the other Aesir keep on struggling. despite knowing that their struggles are fated to end in defeat. Humans must be like that, keep on fighting, though their struggles will always end in their death and may very well be without consequence.

And thankfully, unlike Odin's, our future isn't set and known, but instead filled with possibility and hope. Socialism, though un-realized, has acted as a ideal and guiding light for reforms that has made our lives much better and may very well do so again.  And one should remember that the myths tell that in the wake of the god's struggle with evil and the end of the old world, the world is re-born:

Now do I see | the earth anew
Rise all green | from the waves again..
(trans. Henry Adams Bellows)


Smith, Richard, 2010, "Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism", real-world economics review, issue no. 53, 26 june 2010, pp. 28-42,

Schweickart, David, 2008, "Is Sustainable Capitalism an Oxymoron?",  Synthesis/Regeneration, issue 47 (fall 2008),

Schweickart, David, 1992, "Economic Democracy: A Worthy Socialism That Would Really Work", Science and Society, vol. 56, no. 1 spring 1992, p 9-38,

Thursday, 29 January 2015

How is it?, or questions to a man who probably doesn't exist (poem)

How is it to feel at home in the world?
How is it to never dream of a better one
and accept a map without Utopia on it?
How is it to never feel constrained by
the role assigned to you at birth?
How is it to prefer concrete to trees?
How is it to believe what the newspapers say
and not having an allergic reaction to the TV drug?
How is it to read only the books
the publishers say you should read?
How is it to believe that the bombs and
drones are magically guided to
only kill and maim the guilty?
(trust me, I'm merely envious)
How it is to believe in our
great leaders?
How is it to believe that money and power always goes
to those that deserve it?
How is it to not feel engaged
in a constant struggle for survival?
How is it to never know
how it is?

Saturday, 10 January 2015

On the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. (poem)

After the evil forces of Salafism
have killed the people of may 68,
doing what De Gaulle dreamed
of so many years ago,
the men come from the right bank
to lower the red flag of socialism
and wash it in the  blood
and then claim it was
the Tricolore all along.

Comment: The right-wing has been quick to appropriate Charlie Hebdo as a symbol, washing over the fact that Charlie is a fiercely anti-capitalist magazine, born in the forges of the 60s and 70s counterculture and an opponent of the very mainstream bourgeois media outlets that now hypocritically support the magazine after being it's enemies for over 40 years.
The reference to De Gaulle is due to various Gaullist attempts to ban the magazine for it's satire. The right bank of the Seine (looking downstream) in Paris is traditionally associated with the establishment, as opposed to the left bank which is associated with artists and bohemianism. Salafism is the, literalist, fundamentalist and reactionary wing of Islam.