Monday, April 27, 2009

After All

I was attracted to the following quote from Camus's novel The Plague (Stuart Gilbert translation) as a possible addendum to my "Camus and the Necessity of Unbelief" post, but it could stand just as well as a testament for the character of Niide in the Kurosawa film Red Beard (q.v.).

Tarrou squared his shoulders against the back of the chair, then moved his head forward into the light.
"Do you believe in God, Doctor?"
Again the question was put in an ordinary tone. But this time Rieux took longer to find the answer.
"No - but what does that really mean? I'm fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I've long ceased finding that original."
"Isn't that it - the gulf between Paneloux and you?"
"I doubt it. Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn't come in contact with death; that's why he can speak with such assurance of the truth - with a capital T. But every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He'd try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence."
Tarrou remained seated in his chair; he was smiling again. "Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don't believe in God?"
His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he'd already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God. And this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself on Providence completely. Anyhow, in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road - in fighting against creation as he found it.
"Ah," Tarrou remarked. "so that's the idea you have of your profession?"
"More or less." The doctor came back into the light.
Tarrou made a faint whistling noise with his lips, and the doctor gazed at him.
"Yes, you're thinking it calls for pride to feel that way. But I assure you I've no more than the pride that's needed to keep me going. I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they'll think things over; and so shall I. But what's wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best I can, that's all."
"Against whom?"
Rieux turned to the window. A shadow-line on the horizon told of the presence of the sea. He was conscious only of his exhaustion, and at the same time was struggling against a sudden, irrational impulse to unburden himself a little more to his companion; an eccentric, perhaps, but who, he guessed, was one of his own kind.
"I haven't a notion, Tarrou; I assure you I haven't a notion. When I entered this profession, I did it 'abstractedly,' so to speak; because I had a desire for it, because it meant a career like another, one that young men often aspire to. Perhaps, too, because it was particularly difficult for a workman's son, like myself. And then I had to see people die. Do you know that there are some who refuse to die? Have you ever heard a woman scream 'Never!' with her last gasp? Well, I have. And then I saw that I could never get hardened to it. I was young then, and I was outraged by the whole scheme of things, or so I thought. Subsequently I grew more modest. Only, I've never managed to get used to seeing people die. That's all I know. Yet after all - "
Rieux fell silent and sat down. He felt his mouth dry.
"After all -?" Tarrou prompted softly.
"After all," the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, "it's something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?"
Tarrou nodded.
"Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that's all."
Rieux's face darkened.
"Yes, I know that. But it's no reason for giving up the struggle."
"No reason, I agree." Tarrou stared at the doctor for a moment, then turned and tramped heavily toward the door. Rieux followed him and was almost at his side when Tarrou, who was staring at the floor, suddenly said:
"Who taught you all this, Doctor?"
The reply came promptly:

Friday, April 24, 2009

Silent Clowns

Walter Kerr's wonderful book, The Silent Clowns, is an overview of the great comic masters of the silent film era, from Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd to Harry Langdon and Laurel and Hardy. Their silent art did not die with the invention of sound, of course. Chaplin made two films well into the sound era, in 1931 and 1936, that kept themselves silent, even with recorded music and sound effects. The Frenchman, Jacques Tati created a character whom he named "Hulot" who appeared in four films, from 1953 to 1971. One of Hulot's distinguishing quirks was a tacit refusal to speak anything other than his name.

In 1989, the Englishman Rowan Atkinson introduced a character named Mr. Bean who has since become world famous, as popular in Beijing and Budapest as he is in Birmingham. Like Hulot, Bean says next to nothing in his films, except his name. Aside from his eighteen half-hour TV sketches, the last of which was made in 1995, Atkinson has played Bean in two feature films, Bean (1997) and Mr. Bean's Holiday (2007), and has added his voice to an even more popular Mr. Bean animated series (2002-03).

The difference with our latter day silent clowns is that their silence is not just a product of the medium, as it was for Chaplin and Keaton. They both spoke in their silent films, as much as anyone else. We simply could not hear their voices. Hulot and Bean live in a world of sounds and voices, but their comparative silence has become a defining feature of their comic personae. Their silence sets them apart, contributes to their eccentricity. But it also makes them sometimes seem odd, even a little creepy.

And where Chaplin and Keaton often made the worlds they inhabited obey their own rules, Hulot's and Bean's world is the same one we all live in, with its own absurd rules, but ones that they must obey - however inadequately - as much as we must. Often, Tati and Atkinson find their comic ideas in their characters' failure to belong in our world, however hard they may try. But watching them try, and try, and fail, and yet still abide in our world, makes it a somewhat more human and more beautiful place.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

High and Dry

Of the many Ealing comedies I have been lucky enough to have seen over the years, my favorites have not always been the best. While I could plainly see the merits of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), I preferred the out of the way wonders of films like Another Shore (1948), about the funny but futile efforts of some young Irishmen to get out of Ireland (to Tahiti). Or A Run For Your Money (1949), about two Welsh brothers in London to collect their winnings from a London newspaper contest, with Alec Guinness along for the ride to cover the story for the newspaper. Or The Maggie, aka High and Dry (1954).

The "Maggie" is the name of an old "puffer," a near broken-down cargo ship that sails the seas, the firths and the lochs in and around Scotland, skippered by Mactaggart (Alex Mackenzie), with a crew complement of a mate (James Copeland), an engineer (Abe Barker) and a "wee boy" (Tommy Kearins). When a wealthy American businessman named Calvin Marshall (Paul Douglas) needs some valuable household items transported to a house he has just bought for his wife, his agent hires the Maggie sight unseen to take on the job. The agent and Marshall spend the rest of the film trying to wrest the household goods from Mactaggart as the Maggie staggers its way across Scotland. Along the way, Marshall finds he must also assure his enraged wife that her precious goods will arrive soon.

By the end of the film, Mactaggart and the Maggie have won and Marshall has lost. But when I first saw the film more than thirty years ago, I thought that the American was somehow changed in his acquisitive ways by his contact with the salt of the earth Scots folk. After recently seeing the film again, I found it less moving than I remembered but more subtle and believable. The American is not changed. He is defeated, nearly broken. Faced with the tenacity of the deceptively simple Scotsmen. not to mention a termagant wife threatening divorce, the American simply gives up.

It was probably the director of the film, Alexander Mackendrick, who contributed these subtleties to the script he co-wrote with William Rose.(1) Mackendrick directed some of Ealing's best films, Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). Whereupon he was enticed away to Hollywood and The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).(2)

Mackendrick had a populist streak a kilometer wide, and enjoyed depicting how a big cheese is outwitted by his assumed underlings. One of the central scenes of The Maggie has Marshall left speechless by the wisdom of a teen-aged village girl:

Marshall: What I can't understand is why you want to spend the whole evening with me when all those young fellows...
Sheena: Oh, I can always dance with them. It's exciting to meet a stranger. Not many strange men come to Bare Maguinee. Besides, it'll do the two of them good.
Marshall: They've been watching you every minute. Who?
Sheena: The one in the window is Donal MacDougall, he's a fisherman. And the one in the door in Ian McConnaghey, he owns the store by the pier. The question is, which should I marry?
Marshall: Oh?
Sheena: It's very difficult when you're only nineteen make such a decision. It would be easier if I were older. I would know so much more. I mean about men.
Marshall: Well, how're you going to choose?
Sheena: Oh, everyone says that Ian should be the one because he owns the store and already he's planning to buy another on Collinsey. And people say that Ian McConnaghey will be a great man one day.
Marshall: And the other one? Donal MacDougall?
Sheena: He's the...he's just a fisherman who sails with his brothers. When they're not all drinking or fighting or running after girls. He hasn't much money. He's not so handsome as Ian McConnaghey. Everyone agrees to that.
Marshall: Well, I don't want to influence you, Sheena. But it doesn't seem a very difficult choice.
Sheena: You mean I should marry Ian?
Marshall: If he really wants to be somebody. If he really wants to make something of himself. You want a man you know can take care of you ands can give you the things you need.
Sheena: Yes. Yes, it would be exciting to be married to a man who will do big things. A man who is going so far in the world. T'would be exciting to be taken to places, to be given fine clothes and expensive presents. Yes, I would like all those things. But I . . . I think it will be the other one I'll be taking.
Marshall: Why?
Sheena: Oh, it's simply that even although he's away with his brothers so much, he'd have more time for me. He'd not be so interested in what he's trying to do or where he's going to. Because he'll just be fishing. And when he's come home from the fishing there'll just be me. And when we are very old we'll have only what we've been able to make together, for ourselves. And I . . . I think perhaps that that is all we'll need.

When Marshall finally arrives at his destination, his wife's things gone and all his pride with them, the best that Ealing could come up with for a big house in the last shot was a painted backdrop. (You can see the bottom of the tarp clearly.) Marshall turns his back on the Maggie and walks stoically down the pier, ready to face his wife and whatever else fate has in store for him. That, as it turns out, is the best lesson he could have learned.

(1) Rose was later guilty of such horrors as The Flim-Flam Man (1967) and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)
(2) Mackendrick ended his career in Hollywood with Don't Make Waves (1967), a paean to Southern California sensuality that left a lasting impression on me when I first saw it in my early teens.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Red Beard

[Holy Week delayed my appearance in my favorite internet cafe, what with the owner closing up shop and going to Manila to be with her family. (Yes, I manage this blog from other people's computers. Which also accounts for occasional lapses in proofreading!) So here goes another previously published piece.]

Red Beard
by Dan Harper

…this may well be my last chance to insist, with any hope of a hearing, that Red Beard is an overpowering experience. I recognize that fewer people all the time go to films wishing to be overpowered. Soon I’ll have nobody to talk to…
– Vernon Young (1)

Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard was both a culmination of his filmmaking career and a dead-end. It was his last film to be shot in black-and-white and his last collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, with whom he had worked so closely in 16 films. But it was also the last of his statements about humanity – more specifically his last great positive statement. Subsequent upheavals in his personal and professional life were so devastating that Kurosawa apparently gave up hoping for a solution to the dire problems chronicled most forcefully in such films as Stray Dog (1949), Ikiru (1952), The Lower Depths (1957), and most recently at the time of Red Beard's release, High and Low (1963) – namely, how to alleviate what George Orwell called “the offensive contrast of wealth and poverty”(2) . In Red Beard, however, Kurosawa was still searching for – and sometimes finding – answers to the seemingly endemic suffering of humanity.

A simple account of the story can give no indication of the effect of its telling. In 19th century Japan, a young doctor, Yasumoto, arrives at a free clinic to pay his respects to a friend of his father’s. Niide, whom everyone calls Red Beard, runs the clinic, and he coolly informs Yasumoto that he has been sent to replace another doctor who is leaving the clinic, and he is to begin his work immediately. Yasumoto is at first astonished, then terrified by the news, and tries to escape without ever quite succeeding. So strange and overwhelming are the problems he encounters among the clinic’s many patients – and so fascinating is the character of Red Beard – that Yasumoto finds himself somehow unable to leave.

Kurosawa’s strategy for the film is similar to that used in The Lower Depths – concentrating on the reactions of a few individuals to a tableau of numerous minor characters, each one propelling the story forward by adding another layer to the veristic details, and greater depth to the film’s theme. If it is less kinetic than most other Kurosawa films (even in its few outdoor scenes, the film’s frame is largely enclosed to include only the principal players), Red Beard is all the more engrossing for its concentration on character and emotion.

Kurosawa establishes a setting in which human suffering is most concentrated – a clinic for the poor – and draws the spectator, like Yasumoto, into the grime of their lives, shows us their faces, and tells us their stories of pain and unhappiness. And like Yasumoto, we are overwhelmed by it, astonished by it, repelled by it, but unable to turn away from it. Stephen Prince, in his book The Warrior’s Camera, sees Red Beard as “a deeply spiritualistic film”, in which “suffering is spiritualized”(3). Perhaps giving a nod to the then current Bresson-Ozu vogue, Prince goes on at some length to suggest that Yasumoto finds some karmic transformation in the film. Unable to alter the social conditions that result in the suffering he finds in the clinic, Yasumoto (at Red Beard’s behest) can only find relief – and release – in some Zen, monk-like detachment.

Yet Red Beard is above (or, perhaps, beneath) such mystification. Kurosawa never seemed interested in any hereafters. The closest he ever came to one is in the demented fantasies of the squatters in Dodes’ka-Den (1970), grotesquely contrasted with the horrible world they must live – and die – in. And while he may have despaired of finding an Earthly Paradise, Kurosawa knew only too well the dimensions of Hell. The film he made before Red Beard was called High and Low in the West, but Heaven and Hell (Tengoku to Jigoku) in Japan – the two poles being the rich and the poor. Kurosawa showed how the two worlds barely touch, until a corporate boss must descend from the serene heights of his luxurious home to find the criminal who mistakenly kidnapped his chauffeur’s son. When Kurosawa explores individual responsibility, it is never simply a matter of personal delicacy. The aim of Watanabe’s last deed in Ikiru is the redemption of a small part of the physical world he lives in, not his own soul.

Could this not simply be Kurosawa’s protest? Just as in Ikiru, and just as emphatically, Kurosawa appears in Red Beard to dramatise the pointlessness of living in a world where no single life can effect positive change. Until, of course, Watanabe discovers his chance and lives to see the playground constructed. So, in Red Beard, Niide succeeds in winning Yasumoto over to his daunting and unrewarding task – the steadfast and diligent caring for those whom no-one else will care for. That is Red Beard’s triumph, and that is what provides the uplift at the end of the film. But what sort of dubious triumph is it to attain karmic serenity when surrounded by suffering whose cause may be unavoidable but for which a palliative measure – compassion – is at hand? Yasumoto is, in fact, given the choice of merely accepting things as they are – the mono no aware approach – or of never surrendering in one’s battle against abject suffering, no matter how incurable or inescapable it is. As Vernon Young remarked on seeing Red Beard: “Suffering is an absolute value, not to be impugned by democratic hedonism nor bewailed by accusing a God in hiding.” (4)

The film has its shortcomings, to be sure. There are moments when an overwhelming sentiment verges precariously close to sentimentality. The film’s music, for example, is unsubtle and gets a little soupy at times. This is a charge levelled at many Japanese films, good and bad – one has only to recall the scene in Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956) when Japanese and American soldiers on opposite sides of a battlefield spontaneously join in singing “There’s No Place Like Home”. And even Niide admits he has gone a little too far when Kurosawa has him resort to a savage (and hilarious) judo display while rescuing a 12-year-old girl from a brothel. But if he was occasionally guilty of laying it on a little thick, “Kurosawa’s art”, as Vernon Young states, “is principally the sum of his conviction”.

Kurosawa, even as Japan was emerging into economic prosperity, sought out his heroes among those who were overlooked by progress and economic reformers. He stated, “I think that the terrible reality that I describe in Red Beard is exactly that of Japan today. How to explain the contrast, the discrepancy between what one sees, the appearance of prosperity and the deep reality?” (5)

Red Beard stands as Kurosawa’s most powerful testament to the challenge that his brother Heigo set for him. In an oft-related anecdote, Kurosawa accompanied his brother through the ruins of Tokyo after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Turning away from the sight of the dead and dying victims of the quake, Heigo told his younger brother, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.” (6) In his greatest films, Kurosawa exhorts us all to do the same.

© Dan Harper, March 2006

(1) Vernon Young, “International Film: Tensions and Pretensions”, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art, Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., New York, 1972, p. 302 (originally published in 1967 in The Hudson Review).
(2) George Orwell, The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1984, p. 188.
(3) Stephen Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1991, p. 235.
(4) Young, p. 304.
(5) Quoted in Prince, p. 247.
(6) Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, trans. Audie Bock, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1982, p. 54.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spite Marriage

Buster Keaton's last silent film, Spite Marriage, was released by MGM in 1929, during the terrible interim period in which sound was taking over, and it demonstrates just how ill-served a genius could be by a major Hollywood studio. Keaton's decline after he signed a contract with MGM was precipitous not because he gave up creative control over his work but because the studio had no understanding of his particular talents. Unlike Chaplin, who did everything himself (and took credit for it) Keaton relied on collaborators, people he knew and trusted and - more importantly - who knew Keaton and exactly what his comedic strengths were.

One of Chaplin's great failings was insisting on absolute control over every aspect of his films. More than one critic commented, after the release of his near-miss The Circus (1928), that what Chaplin needed was a good director and story writer. He could have made one film a year instead of one every three or more. In the same six years, 1923 to 1929, that it took Chaplin to make three feature-length films, A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus, Buster Keaton made eleven - including at least five masterpieces.(1)

Although we are assured in the opening credits that Spite Marriage is a "Buster Keaton Production," (which, of course, is the only reason why anyone is still watching it eighty years later), far too much of the film's time is taken up with Dorothy Sebastian, who is otherwise utterly forgotten. And she is the worst sort of heroine for Buster - too old and too worldly. Keaton's heroines were always genuine, if a trifle incompetent. But MGM, clearly, paid no attention to Keaton's previous work. Making him, in Spite Marriage, the infatuated dry-cleaner who spends all his money and spare time gazing lovingly at Trilby Drew (Sebastian) onstage in a Civil War melodrama, showed to what extent MGM wanted to alter Keaton's image, and otherwise wreck his career.

Carl Harbaugh and Lew Lipton, two of MGM's trustiest hacks, are credited with the script for Spite Marriage. Keaton's old designer, Fred Gabourie, did the excellent sets. But the scenes on the yacht seem like outtakes from The Navigator. Keaton manages to come up with enough wonderful gags to keep the story moving, but they come at his own expense. And his "happy" ending is not nearly so sweet as those he used in all of his great comedies. Even the last kiss is missing, even if it would have been more than a little unwelcome. The two of them, Trilby and Elmer, walk together through the front door of a hotel. But Buster is being led by Dorothy Sebastian by the hand. And the hand-shaking, hat-tipping gag with which the film closes, and which was used in two prior scenes, was already tired when Max Linder used it in Max Between Two Fires (1915).

Making Keaton into a lapdog was too cruel even for MGM. It is hard to believe that they wanted to ruin him. He was an important property for them. But he was having problems. His films were no longer the hits they once were, and he was personally embittered about the treatment of his old friend Roscoe Arbuckle at the hands of the Hollywood gossip columnists, who effectively ended his career in films. And he was drinking heavily. What might have become of him if he hadn't signed with MGM isn't hard to figure out. He had only two real peers in the late 1920s, Harold Lloyd and Chaplin. But they were much better at handling their fortunes. When Spite Marriage was shunned by critics and audiences, and when MGM found there was nothing they could do with Keaton's harsh midwestern voice, he was relegated to smaller roles in smaller pictures, until, in obvious desperation, he was even paired with Jimmy Durante. And when they had nothing for him to do, the studio used him as a gag man. Typically, it would take thirty years of obscurity before film archivists and critics re-discovered his genius. Some comment that it was because Keaton was too far ahead of his time. It is some consolation that Keaton lived long enough to enjoy a little of his own re-discovery.

(1) Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), Go West (1925), Battling Butler (1926), The General (1926), College (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), and Spite Marriage (1929). My own favorite of these films is the laconic Go West.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What Does Einstein Know Anyhow?

Albert Einstein was one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. Aside from physics, he also thought deeply about many other subjects concerning human existence and, more importantly in the age of the atomic bomb, the possibilities for its continued existence. Was Einstein especially qualified to expound on issues not touching on his specialized expertise? And, if so, would his comments on those issues be more significant or informed simply because he was such a great physicist? Scientists, of course, would argue in the affirmative. I remain skeptical. However much I agree with Einstein's remarks in the following essay, I have to admit that it is full of the political jargon that still drives people away from the subject. Besides which, thanks to forty years of cold war with the communist Soviet Union, the term "socialism" is still tinged with somewhat treasonous overtones. For anyone to be a socialist - especially when Einstein made these remarks - was enough to warrant the creation of a secret FBI file. And, indeed, Einstein was the subject of particular attention from J. Edgar Hoover from the moment he set foot in the United States. But holding such social views as Einstein did should hardly have been a worry for a liberal society, whose sole end is the liberty of the individual and the expansion of his autonomous rights. So, what has such a society to fear of socialism? Or, more to the point, what have some individuals in that society to fear of it?

Why Socialism?
by Albert Einstein

This essay was originally published in the first issue of Monthly Review (May 1949)

Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult by the circumstance that observed economic phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history has—as is well known—been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature. For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called "the predatory phase" of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

Second, socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and—if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous—are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.

For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered. It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent or even hostile toward the group, small or large, to which they belong. In order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience. I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked that only a supra-national organization would offer protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: "Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?"

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?

It is easy to raise such questions, but difficult to answer them with any degree of assurance. I must try, however, as best I can, although I am very conscious of the fact that our feelings and strivings are often contradictory and obscure and that they cannot be expressed in easy and simple formulas.

Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting, strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept "society" means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is "society" which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word “society.”

It is evident, therefore, that the dependence of the individual upon society is a fact of nature which cannot be abolished—just as in the case of ants and bees. However, while the whole life process of ants and bees is fixed down to the smallest detail by rigid, hereditary instincts, the social pattern and interrelationships of human beings are very variable and susceptible to change. Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human being which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organizations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.

Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution which we must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural urges which are characteristic of the human species. In addition, during his lifetime, he acquires a cultural constitution which he adopts from society through communication and through many other types of influences. It is this cultural constitution which, with the passage of time, is subject to change and which determines to a very large extent the relationship between the individual and society. Modern anthropology has taught us, through comparative investigation of so-called primitive cultures, that the social behavior of human beings may differ greatly, depending upon prevailing cultural patterns and the types of organization which predominate in society. It is on this that those who are striving to improve the lot of man may ground their hopes: human beings are not condemned, because of their biological constitution, to annihilate each other or to be at the mercy of a cruel, self-inflicted fate.

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as possible, we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. As mentioned before, the biological nature of man is, for all practical purposes, not subject to change. Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

For the sake of simplicity, in the discussion that follows I shall call “workers” all those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production—although this does not quite correspond to the customary use of the term. The owner of the means of production is in a position to purchase the labor power of the worker. By using the means of production, the worker produces new goods which become the property of the capitalist. The essential point about this process is the relation between what the worker produces and what he is paid, both measured in terms of real value. Insofar as the labor contract is “free,” what the worker receives is determined not by the real value of the goods he produces, but by his minimum needs and by the capitalists' requirements for labor power in relation to the number of workers competing for jobs. It is important to understand that even in theory the payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of capital is thus characterized by two main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see fit; second, the labor contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the “free labor contract” for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present day economy does not differ much from “pure” capitalism.
Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers' goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chip On Their Shoulder

As the recent experience with Hong Kong columnist Chip Tsao demonstrated, Filipinos are hyper-sensitive to criticism. Requests have been made through official channels that Mr. Tsao be blacklisted for life by Philippine Immigration for calling the Philippines a "nation of servants." Honestly, when I saw the first news report on this story, I thought Mr. Tsao was a Filipino journalist who had aroused the ire of the Chinese government in Beijing for referring to the 1.3 billion Chinese people's service to their own Communist "masters."

Coincidentally, a friend in far away Nevada asked me if I was aware of how offensive some of my prior comments on this blog might be construed by Filipinos. I told her that the only Filipinos who should be offended by what I write are either politicians and/or celebrities. In which case they could, as Liberace once put it, "cry all the way to the bank."* I also made it clear to her, as I hope it is clear to the readers of this blog, that when I express disgust or dismay at some of the inequities that divide the Philippine people or the living conditions or the injustices that I see them endure not every once in awhile but every day and everywhere I look, I am doing so because I am convinced that those inequities, living conditions, and injustices are completely unnecessary and unacceptable from my particular perspective as a citizen of a nation that is certainly not without its own faults - not the least of which were its forty-seven year forcible occupation of the Philippines and its economic and military assistance to certain well-known tyrants when it suited their own vaunted national security interests.

Unlike mine, Mr. Tsao's comments were aimed indiscriminately at the Filipino race, and his subsequent apologies were utterly unconvincing. If I were to apologize, which I won't, while I was at it I might as well apologize to the Swedes, the Irish, and the Chinese - not to mention my very own fellow Americans, upon whom I have heaped gigaloads of abuse.

*This famous quote is nearly always misquoted as "laugh all the way to the bank." Liberace was asked how he reacted to the hostile criticism of his piano playing.