The Ouroboros of the Workers’ State

If the ouroboros of the workers’ state were to be compared to a clock, 12:00-3:00 would be a state of ‘NEP,’ as it were (see below); 3:00-6:00 would be the beginning of a real building of socialism, as Stalin did in the 1930s; 6:00-9:00 would be remarkable progress in that building; and 9:00-12:00 would result in the withering away of the socialist state, and the attainment of communist society.

It goes without saying that one doesn’t go from revolution to full communist society overnight. A process of gradual transformation has to be made, starting with the capitalist structure one has just taken over (recall when Lenin wrote of how “difficult [it would be] to abolish classes”–Lenin/Tucker, pages 668-669), smashing the possibility of it continuing seamlessly from before that takeover, and building socialism step by step, changing every facet of what had existed before, each facet examined one by one.

This process of moving along the continuum from capitalism, through the building of more and more socialism, to full communism can be symbolized by the ouroboros, a circular continuum where the serpent’s biting head represents one extreme, and its bitten tail represents the opposite extreme. The tail is the dialectical thesis of the desired communist society; the head is the capitalist negation of that desired society; and the length of the coiled body is the socialist sublation of the contradiction. In other posts, I’ve discussed this ouroboros symbolism before.

We wish to move in a clockwise direction from the capitalist head (i.e., 12:00-1:00) to the communist tail (11:00-12:00); but a counter-clockwise reactionary movement continually threatens to undo all our progress. Because of this danger, the movement towards more and more socialism must be accelerated, to at least some extent; also, proper protections must be established, and acts of treason must be extirpated with the utmost ruthlessness.

In the early stages of socialism (i.e., 1:00-3:00 along the ouroboros’ body), some concessions to the established order are sadly inevitable, as was the case with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty to get the RSFSR out of World War I, a move Lenin had to make to fulfill part of his “peace, land, and bread” promise, yet also a move that angered the impatient left communists.

Lenin, in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, responded to this anger: “It had seemed to them that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a compromise with the imperialists, which was inexcusable on principle and harmful to the party of the revolutionary proletariat. It was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made.” […]

“The party which entered into a compromise with the German imperialists by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had been evolving its internationalism in practice ever since the end of 1914. It was not afraid to call for the defeat of the tsarist monarchy and to condemn “defence of country” in a war between two imperialist robbers. The parliamentary representatives of this party preferred exile in Siberia to taking a road leading to ministerial portfolios in a bourgeois government. The revolution that overthrew tsarism and established a democratic republic put this party to a new and tremendous test–it did not enter into any agreements with its “own” imperialists, but prepared and brought about their overthrow. When it had assumed political power, this party did not leave a vestige of either landed or capitalist ownership. After making public and repudiating the imperialists’ secret treaties, this party proposed peace to all nations, and yielded to the violence of the Brest-Litovsk robbers only after the Anglo-French imperialists had torpedoed the conclusion of a peace, and after the Bolsheviks had done everything humanly possible to hasten the revolution in Germany and other countries. The absolute correctness of this compromise, entered into by such a party in such a situation, is becoming ever clearer and more obvious with every day.” (Lenin/Tucker, pages 563-564, Lenin’s emphasis)

Another concession Lenin made was with the NEP, which he himself called “state capitalism” (Lenin/Tucker, pages 511-531) as a temporary measure to deal with the economic exigencies of the early 1920s. Nonetheless, Stalin had already phased out the NEP by the beginning of the 1930s, as it was by then time to move socialism on forward. Indeed, when the concessions are no longer necessary, it’s time to continue clockwise along the body of the ouroboros (i.e., move from 3:00 to, say, 6:00).

In this connection I must discuss China under Xi Jinping, and do so with necessary candour. Nothing would make me happier to believe that the country is going down a genuine path of Marxism-Leninism, but beyond Xi’s rhetoric, I’m sorry to say that I can only see China as being, at best, in a seemingly almost permanent state of arrested NEP development.

China‘s is a mixed economy, partially state-planned and partially private enterprise. This latter part is the beginning of the cancer of capitalism in any country; the small amount of private enterprise allowed in Cuba is enough to make me fear for her future. That there’s so much more free enterprise in China should be enough to make any communist nervous, yet many respectable Marxist-Leninists out there still rationalize what China is doing. I must respectfully disagree with them.

The defences I’ve heard to support Dengism as legitimate Leninism include such arguments as wages have been rising (itself a debatable notion), hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, and of course, theirs is a state-planned economy. All of these arguments can be applied to capitalist countries, where at certain points in history, wages have risen (as they did in the West from 1945-1973), ‘millions lifted out of poverty’ has been claimed to have been a capitalist achievement, and state-planning, or state intervention, has existed–to at least some extent–in both fascist and Keynesian forms of capitalist economies.

How have ‘hundreds of millions of Chinese been pulled out of poverty,’ anyway? The poverty line is defined at making US$1.90/day, so any money earned above that, even US$1.91, is considered to be technically ‘above poverty.’ This World Bank definition is applied equally to capitalist boasts of raising people out of poverty as it is to Chinese boasts. Granted, many Chinese today are now doing much, much better than they were back when Deng Xiaoping had just taken over (including today’s hundreds of Chinese billionaires and millionaires!); but in the rural areas–and in some urban ones–many are still very poor.

How many of these Chinese ‘above the poverty line’ in as recent a year as 2015 were making, say, US$2.00/day, or $2.50, or $3.00, or in any case, under $3.20/day? Up to 7%. How many made under $5.50/day? 27.2%, not a trifling percentage, and not much money. As of the end of 2017, Xinhua acknowledged that 30.46% of rural Chinese were still below the poverty line. I don’t think the average Westerner would be happy to make less than US$3.20/day, or less than $5.50/day, then be congratulated for no longer being impoverished!

Need I remind you, Dear Reader, that the ‘state-planned economy equals socialism’ argument is commonly heard among certain quarters outside the China-defending Marxists?…they’re called right-libertarians and ‘anarcho’-capitalists. It isn’t state-planning per se that makes it socialist: it’s how the planning is used. Does it lift the poor out of squalor in a meaningful way, or does it allow–or even facilitateflagrant wealth inequality?

Recently, the Chinese government has cracked down on corruption; but this can happen in capitalist countries, too, if only with modest success. Socialist government is by far the most moral, but at least some virtue in government can be seen elsewhere. Virtue in government alone doesn’t make it socialist.

It’s not my wish to disparage China, or to speak out of malice; China’s growth since the 1980s has been nothing short of impressive. I certainly have no bourgeois agenda against China; these criticisms I’ve made are not the kind you get from anti-communists; nor are they of the infantile disorder one gets from impatient, utopian socialists who want everything perfect all at once. I just want to see China move further clockwise towards the tail of the ouroboros. I’m a patient socialist, but my patience has limits.

I would much rather have China (or Russia, for that matter), far less inclined to waging war, as the strongest country in the world than the eternally bellicose US…and I live as a Canadian in Taiwan! But until someone can provide more convincing arguments that China, having joined such capitalist institutions as the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank, is legitimately socialist, I’ll continue to have my doubts.

Consider the working conditions in China’s (and Vietnam‘s) factories and sweatshops. Consider the legal existence of private property in China, and how Marx and Engels told us, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Consider the evidence of imperialistic tendencies, often reduced, by China’s apologists, to investment in the growth of developing foreign countries.

I think I understand the psychological motive for many to regard China as socialist in spite of its obvious capitalist tendencies: it is depressing to see the great majority of socialist nations having succumbed to neoliberal depredations, and so we’d all like to believe that China isn’t one of those casualties. Until I see a genuine Chinese movement away from the tendencies I outlined above, however, and more muscular efforts to even out the wealth inequality, I’ll find it difficult to support Xi’s government.

But enough of ‘NEP-oriented’ politics. Time to move further clockwise along the serpent’s body, from 3:00-6:00. When the productive forces are sufficiently developed, efforts towards universal housing, education, employment, and healthcare must be immediately undertaken. We’re moving towards the ideal of ‘from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs.’ Part of this means taking the ‘his or her’ part seriously, thus establishing full equal rights for women and a way out of the trap of restrictive traditional roles for both sexes (Lenin/Tucker, pages 679-699).

These developments, along with such ones as promoting tolerance for LGBT people, helping people with physical and mental disabilities, and eliminating racial prejudice, will help move us further clockwise along the ouroboros from its head to its tail, from 3:00-9:00.

Proper defences against the danger of a reinstating of capitalism, a move from 6:00 back to 1:00, must be erected. North Korea has done well in that regard with their development of nuclear weapons, the only thing that has prevented a US invasion. Venezuela must do more to protect herself from imperialist aggression: gusanos like Guaidó should be arrested (at least) for treason; let the liberal media lambast Maduro for being firm with these traitors, for they’ll criticize his democratically socialist government as a ‘dictatorship’ regardless of what he does. To ensure the survival of the proletarian dictatorship, not letting it slip counter-clockwise back to the bourgeois dictatorship of ‘liberal democracy,’ one mustn’t flinch at such measures.

To an extent, some concessions have to be made to ensure against the backsliding into bourgeois ways. But sometimes, those concessions really do result in such backsliding. A delicate balance must be made, like walking a tightrope. Moving too much the one way (as Mao was perceived to have done) or too much the other way (as I perceive Deng to have done) leads to a slipping along the serpent’s tail back to its capitalist head.

And once we reach the tip of the tail of the ouroboros (9:00-12:00)–when all remaining traces of capitalism have been eradicated, mountainous class differences have been lowered to the calmly rippling waves of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” the state finally withers away, and money is replaced with a gift economy–we mustn’t assume our new communist society will be a painless utopia. There will be new challenges to be dealt with, new contradictions of some sort or other. The bitten tail will phase into a new biting head, though not a capitalist one. We’ll have to be ready for those new challenges when they come.

Robert C. Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1975

Analysis of ‘Three Friends’

Three Friends is a concept album by Gentle Giant, released in 1972. At this time, the band was a sextet, with saxophonist/singer Phil Shulman playing beside his younger brothers, Derek (vocals) and Ray (bass, violin, acoustic guitar, backing vocals); original drummer Martin Smith was replaced by Malcolm Mortimore, who played only on this Gentle Giant album before being replaced in turn by drummer/tuned percussionist/singer John Weathers, who would stay with the band until their breakup in 1980.

This album is not as dissonant or complex as the other Gentle Giant albums, and I say this in full knowledge of how they abandoned progressive rock in the late 70s in an abortive attempt to become more radio-friendly. Put another way, I don’t consider their attempt at going pop to be genuine Gentle Giant…and I don’t think mine is a minority opinion. The profit motive ruins art by forcing it to conform to trends.

The outer front album cover shows three boys, sharing a similar whitish-blue-purple colour for their bodies, sitting and facing each other, with a seagull in the middle; the back cover shows the three boys with their backs to each other, their colours now different (reddish-white, greenish-white, and purplish-white), and the seagull flying away. The front cover thus suggests their similar nature at first as boys, enjoying each other’s company by the sea, an image I’ve elsewhere associated with the highest peace; this then changes, on the back cover, to their growing different from each other, and thus alienated, with the memory of their togetherness by the sea having flown away, like the seagull.

The inner sleeve shows black and white drawings of the boys at school, with their strict, authoritarian teacher, their blissful memories together hearing an old brass band, and playing with kites on the beach, with the seagulls flying nearby. Then, we see each of them as men in their respective career choices: a wealthy businessman in his coat and hat looking at his nice, expensive house and car; a construction worker with his pickaxe; and an artist in his (basement?) studio with his drawings. The three men are facing away from us, for they are as alienated from us and the rest of the world as they are from each other.

The six songs of the album tell the story of these three boys, whose childhood friendship ended with them as men going their separate ways–a worker, a painter, and a businessman. This story can thus be seen to be an allegory of how class conflict causes alienation among people who, except for this class conflict, would be close and happy together.

Here is a link to all the lyrics on the album.

The first song, “Prologue,” sets the tone for the album by presenting a precis of the story in the lyrics, and by creating a dark mood in the music. A snare drum roll by Mortimore leads into a mildly dissonant opening, with Kerry Minnear‘s organ, Gary Green‘s guitar, and Ray’s bass; these three are playing in 6/8 time while Mortimore is drumming a cross-rhythm in 4/4.

Next comes a dark theme, the main one of the song, played on Ray’s fuzz bass, Green’s guitar, and Minnear’s Minimoog. Phil joins them on baritone sax, then sings the lead vocal, with a backing vocal by Minnear, singing contrapuntal melodies that are independent of each other, and reminding us of the independent voices of a polyphonic Renaissance madrigal, already a staple of Gentle Giant’s music.

Phil sings of how the boys’ friendship shared all the joys and sadness that any childhood relationship would have. “But fate and skill and chances” would eventually separate the boys, not just geographically, but also in terms of class, most crucially. As Phil and Minnear are singing, we hear Ray’s sad notes plucked on a 12-string acoustic guitar in the background.

“They tell their tales to justify,” that is, justify why they have had to go their separate ways; for, in spite of how, deep down in their unconscious, they’d much rather be together again, as adults they are in deep denial of how empty their lives have become. “Skill” separates them, for their differing skills (or lack of them) result in their going either higher or lower in terms of social class, the “chances” being their differing economic opportunities.

“Schooldays” is my personal favourite song on the album, for it is the richest in melody and harmony, in my opinion. It opens with a playful melody on Minnear’s vibraphone and Green’s jazz-toned guitar. It suggests the joyful, spontaneous energy of children running around, laughing, and playing together. Minnear and Phil sing in reminiscence of the happy time the boys shared, one voice following the other, as one boy chasing the other in play.

Each of the three men, in his dreams or internal monologues, has moments remembering his Edenic childhood; for only in their unconscious minds, or their private thoughts, would they allow such idyllic moments to be experienced. “Was it real, or did we dream? The days of children gone,” young Calvin Shulman (Ray’s son) sings as Minnear sings of the boys together with their ice cream on the beach, or hearing the brass band play.

The childlike innocence of the first half of the song gives way to a dark melancholy in Minnear’s pounding piano chords, based on the tritone interval (the diabolus in musica), suggesting the loss of that Edenic innocence as childhood naïveté acquires devilish knowledge in the authoritarian setting of school. The bitonality between these dark piano chords and the simultaneously playing, but also fading-out instrumentation of the previous “How long is ever,…” section also emphasizes the conflict between childhood innocence and adult experience.

The strict, Yahweh-like teacher wants obedient, unquestioning pupils who get all their homework assignments done on time. One suspects that the boy who thinks “it’s worth the pain to go out when [he] want[s]” will become an underachieving student who, when he becomes a man, will be…

“Working All Day” begins with Green playing a guitar part whose tape recording is slowed down, the discordant lowering of pitch suggesting how the first of the three friends has gone down in social rank, and how discordant the resulting class conflict feels. Indeed, since he’s a member of the working class, the painful contradiction between him and the bourgeoisie will be most keenly felt of all three men.

“Digging up the roads,” he has to do the most menial of labour to live. As miserable as he is, though, he’s often in denial of that misery, for he gets his money to “spend it where [he] like[s],” and “money buys escape” (drinking and partying, presumably), so he’s “got no regrets,” apparently. This denial of discontent is just as evident in the other two friends, as we’ll soon see.

The guitar- and sax-driven main riff reflects the meat-and-potatoes life of the working class, a strong contrast to the jazzy playfulness of “Schooldays,” and the Baroque lushness of the first part of “Peel the Paint.” The rock-oriented voice of Derek is thus most appropriate for “Working All Day.”

“Papa was rough. He didn’t care for learning. Hell, life is tough.” Either Papa was “rough” in the sense of unrefined, or “rough” in the sense of beating the boy, or both. In any case, the first friend wasn’t encouraged to be ambitious, hence he’s a worker.

The bitterness he feels over his life’s disappointments causes him not to believe in socialist ideas about equality, so one assumes he isn’t in a union; from this, we can assume that “working all day” means working more than eight hours a day for him.

He does all the work, “the boss gets all the money. Life ain’t just.” Without a union to help him fight for his rights (and this at a time, in the 1970s, when unions were at their strongest), “who can [he] trust?” The dissonance of the background instrumentation at the end of each verse symbolically reinforces the sense of class conflict, the contradiction between the interests of the boss and those of the overworked, underpaid workers.

Since the painter, whose story is sung by Phil during the first half of “Peel the Paint,” is “free from the start” and “thinks he has won a place in the sun, free from the worries and the ways of everyone,” it seems reasonable to assume that he isn’t the stereotypical starving artist. I’m guessing that this second of the three friends has achieved a moderate level of success, though “high in the air, his dreams are there,” as he hopes for greater financial success.

Since the first friend is working class and the third friend is among the upper classes, and since all three friends have gone “from class to class” (as we hear in the title track), that is, separated from each other in terms of social class, it is safe to assume that the artist occupies the remaining section of the social ladder–the middle class.

He fancies himself a creator of great art, of the sort that will be remembered among the masterpieces of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Vermeer; hence, in the background instrumentation we hear Ray plucking violin pizzicatos behind Phil’s singing, then after we hear Phil sing “colour the brush,” we hear a lavish pastiche of Baroque music with Ray bowing harmonized violin overdubs. This Baroque/Rococo parody suggests the artist’s snobbish pretensions.

The contrast between Phil’s gentle singing of “colour the brush” (i.e., put on the paint, and hide yourself), as against Derek’s aggressive singing of “peel the paint” (i.e., take off the paint, and show who you really are) symbolizes the artist’s pretence of artistry against the moral imperative to reveal the ugly truth, that the artist has compromised his integrity for money. Putting on the paint, versus taking it off, is like a prostitute painting her face with bright colours of makeup (as if pretending to like what she does), versus removing it and showing her unhappy self.

The artist imagines himself to be refined, but underneath he’s “the same old savage beast,” whose savagery is reflected in the change from the fancy first half to a balls-out hard rock second half, now with Derek on lead vocals. This brutish materialism is what the artist really exudes underneath the phoney genteel surface, since he’s a mere panderer to lucrative trends; Gentle Giant’s moral condemnation of the painter is ironic given how the band made a failed attempt to do what Genesis succeeded at in the late 70s, a pandering Gentle Giant would soon regret.

Speaking of pandering for the sake of financial success, consider now the third friend, who’s grown up to be “Mister Class and Quality?” He brags of “the prizes [he has] showing,” then denies his narcissism by saying he “never shout[s] about them,” namely, his “house and car and pretty wife.” His friends are his only in terms of how they can help him rise higher; put another way, those two childhood chums of his are no longer of any use to him, so why try to reunite with them?

After each verse, a dissonant counterpoint is heard between the guitar, organ, and bass, once again representing the class conflict between him, “the artist [and] the lazy workers” as well as between him and those at work, among whom he must “give and take the orders.” There’s a similarly dissonant bitonality between the fading-out end of the instrumental jam (licks courtesy of Green’s bluesy guitar and Minnear’s wah-wah electric piano) in the bridge and the return of the main riff (lead by Ray’s violin) for the final verse.

The title track is a sad epilogue for the album. Some on the internet claim either that the three friends see the error of their ways and reunite in the end, or at least imply a possible reunion. I see no evidence anywhere in the lyrics or in the music, especially with this last song’s melancholy melodies, to justify such an interpretation.

Their childhood past was “sweet in sadness,” for it included both the good and the bad times that occur in every relationship. The “gladness” that comes “in the end” must be ironic, a reference to how gladly the businessman chooses money over friendship; how the painter gladly panders for money, instead of sacrificing comfort for the sake of preserving artistic integrity; and how the worker gladly spends his meagre wages as a fleeting “escape” from his miserable existence as a wage slave.

The tragedy of the three friends–a tragedy whose cathartic quality is what makes the album so artistically satisfying–is their mutual alienation, an inevitable consequence of moving “from class to class,” lower, middle, and upper. People on different rungs of the social ladder don’t mingle, except “to give and take the orders.” That’s the whole point of Three Friends: all of us, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, are like those three lost boys, separated by skill, fate, and opportunity, mutually alienated.

Analysis of ‘Casablanca’

Casablanca is a 1942 drama film/love story directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, and featuring Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, and Sydney Greenstreet. Based on the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s (which was written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison), the movie is considered one of the greatest of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Round up the usual suspects.” –Captain Renault (Rains)

“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By‘.” –Ilsa Lund (Bergman) [Often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam.”]

“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” –Rick Blaine (Bogart), to Ilsa

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” –Rick, of Ilsa

“I stick my neck out for nobody.” –Rick (said several times)

“I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean.  I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” –Renault

“My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” –Signor Ferrari (Greenstreet)

“If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.” –Victor Laszlo (Henreid)

“We’ll always have Paris.” –Rick, to Ilsa

“Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” –Rick

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” –Rick

Refugees hope to escape Nazi-occupied, war-torn Europe and get to the US through politically-neutral Lisbon. Most can’t get there directly, so instead they go from Paris to Marseille, then to Oran, Algeria, then finally to Casablanca, in French Morocco.

Casablanca is a hellhole to these refugees. They find it virtually impossible to scrounge up the money to buy the coveted exit visas to Lisbon. It’s as though Dante‘s sign at the entrance to the Inferno were moved to Casablanca’s entrance.

Casablanca thus symbolizes the snare of poverty most of the world can’t escape, especially those in the Third World. Some, like Ugarte (Lorre), are so desperate to escape that they’ll resort to murder to get the money they need to pay for a visa.

Unscrupulous Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains.

Captain Renault is an appropriate prefect of police in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, for he’s unabashedly corrupt, often taking advantage of pretty young women desperate for a visa. He represents Vichy France, who were Nazi collaborators during World War II.

Richard “Rick” Blaine is the American owner of a night club called “Rick’s Café Americain.” He’s cynical and cold, refusing to drink with customers. The casino’s games are fixed to ensure that Renault, who never pays for his drinks, always wins. Thus, between Rick’s alienating of others and Renault’s control over Rick’s business, we see the two men personifying state capitalism.

Rick has some redeeming qualities, though. We learn that he ran guns to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He’ll redeem himself again, as will even Renault (well…sort of), at the end of the film. So Rick, as a capitalist, is more of a liberal one, loosely comparable with Orwell, who also fought against fascism in Spain, then grew disillusioned with the left.

Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart.

The idealized hero of the film, though, is Victor Laszlo, the Czechoslovakian leader of an underground resistance against the Nazis. That resistance was historically connected with the Soviet Union, incidentally…not that a bourgeois Hollywood movie would ever admit to such an association, of course. Laszlo, dressed in an off-white suit, has a saintly, if dully stoic, aura about him; his unending, virtuous fight against fascism makes him seem other-worldly, almost…too good to be true. That scar on his forehead seems to be his only fault, physical or otherwise.

Since Rick has his good, idealistic side, how has he become so embittered and cynical? Back in Paris, he had a love affair with the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Bergman), not knowing she was Laszlo’s wife! The husband had been in a concentration camp, and she thought he’d died trying to escape, so she had an affair with Rick. When she learned Laszlo was alive, she left Rick without an explanation, for fear he’d follow her and endanger himself in the flight from the occupying Nazis. Rick thus got on a train to Marseille with Sam (Wilson), with an unused ticket for Ilsa, and with a broken heart.

Ilsa thus represents the beauty of that ideal both Laszlo and Rick have fought for; because she left Rick, he’s lost his idealism and become a politically neutral, cynical man who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody.’

Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman.

Many who, in their youth, fight passionately for an ideal, such as freedom from fascism, equality, socialism, etc., later grow cynical and bitter because they fail to understand that fighting for such ideals involves sacrificing one’s selfish desires for the greater good. This is what has happened to Rick, and this self-centredness is what he must overcome. Indeed, sacrifice is the main theme of the film.

One such a sacrifice occurs among the minor characters, when a young Bulgarian woman (played by Joy Page) who, it is implied (defying the strict censorship of the Production Code of the 1940s), has slept with Renault behind her husband’s back in hopes of getting a visa in return. She, with guilty tears in her eyes as she asks Rick for help, has sacrificed her loyalty to her husband, and to Church morality, for freedom.

Rick’s late intervention to fight fascism and make the ultimate sacrifice (something Laszlo’s been doing from the beginning) makes him the film’s personification of the US, which stayed out of World War II until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. People in the West knew for years what a problem Hitler was, but did little to check his growing power; for the West was hoping the Nazis would succeed in invading and crushing the USSR. Incidentally, the USSR’s sacrifice (between 25 and 30 million Soviet Russians died) in defeating fascism is given short shrift in Western history.

Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.

Laszlo, at one point in the film, knowing of Rick’s love for Ilsa, is even willing to let the American use the letters of transit to take his wife to the US, since her safety is all-important to him. This is the length to which Laszlo will go to sacrifice all that he has to ensure the safety of his wife, the lovely personification of the ideal of freedom.

But in the end, it is Rick who makes the sacrifice, insisting that Renault write Laszlo’s and Lund’s names on the letters of transit. Rick sacrifices his enjoyment of the ideal so others can be free. Even unscrupulous Renault joins Rick in the end to join the struggle of the Free French in Brazzaville.

Now, what must be emphasized is that this fight for liberty must be understood in its proper bourgeois context. The film was released in a rush to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa, to stir up American patriotism. And the Western powers’ real motives for fighting the Nazis weren’t as noble as they may have seemed.

Sam, played by Dooley Wilson.

As it says in the ‘Writers Without Money’ critique of the film, “Indeed, early in the war, Churchill and Roosevelt seemed more concerned with retrieving France’s and Britain’s old colonial empire in North Africa than about liberating western Europe from the Nazis.” This is how we should think about Renault’s joining the Free French; it’s not much of a redemption for him. Both Rick and Renault, as personifications of their respective countries, are mainly concerned with their nations’ class/power interests.

Consider Rick’s and Ilsa’s relationship with Sam, the only black character in the movie, and one clearly in a subordinate position. Rick claims that Sam gets 25% of the profits, and Rick makes Signor Ferrari promise to continue giving Sam the 25% when Rick leaves Casablanca (…and will he keep the promise, I wonder? After all, Ferrari understands Sam gets only 10%!); but given how Sam’s popularity as a piano man, singer, and bandleader is practically the lifeblood of the success of Rick’s Café Americain (as against Rick’s coldness to customers), shouldn’t he get 50%, if not much more? If Rick and Sam are such good friends, shouldn’t they be co-owners of the night club? Rick personifies the US in more ways than one.

During Sam’s singing of the song “Shine,” when he sings, “because my hair is curly,” he strokes his hair with a grin, as if glad to internalize the racism of the time. Later, when Ferrari hopes to have Sam work for him, even willing to pay Sam twice the salary Rick pays him, Sam says he doesn’t have the time even to spend Rick’s salary…oh, really? Why not use the money to get an exit visa and go back to the US? It’s almost as if…he is owned…by Rick. Of course, Ferrari wouldn’t mind owning Sam himself.

Signor Ferrari, played by Sidney Greenstreet.

How deferential Sam is to Rick, Ilsa, and all the other white characters makes one think of the Jim Crow years, which is oddly out of place in North Africa, where there were not only anti-fascist, but also the beginning of anti-colonial, rumblings at the time. Surely expatriate Sam has noticed how the African times, they are a-changin’, but he never gives an opinion about something that should give him high hopes. But maybe that’s just the point.

On top of all of this is how Ilsa, much younger than Sam, refers to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano,” when she knew him personally back when they were with Rick in Paris. So as a personification of that ideal of freedom, Ilsa is only a conventional, bourgeois, and white liberal form, the kind that 1940s Hollywood would have cherished.

Similarly, as mentioned above, her husband, Laszlo, is only dully virtuous; he lacks the revolutionary fervour of the Red Army, who did the majority of the work in ridding Europe of Nazis. Laszlo’s singing of La Marseillaise, as impassioned as it is, hardly compensates for his ‘nice guys finish last’ kind of blandness.

Casablanca is a prison.

Thus, both Laszlo and Lund represent bourgeois ideals of sex roles in the fight for liberty: him, dull protective Christian stoicism; her, passive, timid beauty…and this was at a time when armed women had fought fascists during the Spanish Civil War a mere three to six years before the making of Casablanca.

And so, Casablanca the city is truly a prison for all living in it. Those film noir shadows–as well as the window blinds, whose shadows showing on characters’ faces look like prison bars–are symbolic examples of indications that, in spite of, or rather, because of, the bourgeois nature of this Hollywood production, the true political problems of the time creep out in the form of Freudian slips, as it were, and expose themselves.

Many on the left will condemn this film as intolerably reactionary, and so the near-universal praise Casablanca has garnered over the years is in many ways just the bourgeois establishment giving itself a pat on the back. Imagine, on the other hand, a socialist Casablanca, with an unapologetically leftist Laszlo, and a militarily-trained Ilsa who won’t stop at just pointing a pistol at someone in her way. Imagine a Sam with dignity. Imagine an anti-fascist struggle willing to go further, and also defeat Franco, the right-wing government in ‘neutralLisbon, and the Nazis on the Eastern Front, actually aiding the Soviets!

Crime doesn’t pay, Ugarte (played by Peter Lorre)…if you’re on the wrong side.

Well, we can’t expect much from Hollywood, especially not in the 1940s, even though Curtiz would soon direct the pro-Stalin Mission To Moscow. When you think about it, though, the Casablanca we have is politically appropriate, not for the ‘liberty’ it espouses, but ironically for the sham liberty it actually presents.

I’d say it’s useful to see a movie that pretends to be all liberal and freedom-loving, yet a movie that is also clumsy enough to let the cat out of the bag often enough for attentive viewers to notice the con game being played on them. This is useful because that’s the liberal con game played before us every day in the West.

“The freedom of the Americas” is never seen because it never really existed; the US is a country founded not on liberty, but on slavery, discrimination, class antagonism, and the genocide of the aboriginals; it thus can only make a myth out of liberty, a ‘liberty’ that put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. The building of socialism in the USSR, on the other hand, is never seen because the bourgeoisie would never want us to see it.

Major Strasser (played by Conrad Veidt).

Sam is said to get 25% of the profits, but probably only gets 10%, if that. The wife of a freedom fighter is only the ‘behind-every-great-man-is-a-great-woman’ kind of wife. The escape route to the US is ‘neutral’ Lisbon, where there’s actually a fascist government. Sexually predatory Renault has a most charming exterior. Ferrari, who has no qualms about buying slaves, seems an affable enough chap. All looks well on the outside.

My point is that it’s important to see the mask before we can remove it. The political faults of Casablanca are its very virtues, for in order to correct those faults, we must be able to find them…faults one will always try to hide.

Like Rick, we are heartbroken to see our ideals so compromised, as they inevitably will be in the world we see around us. A movie like Casablanca is like Ilsa in how beautifully packaged its message of liberty is; yet it disappoints us, as she does Rick. Still, in our disappointment, if we are willing to sacrifice our selfish wants, we can revive our hopes and fight for our ideals…as long as we watch our backs, with snakes like Renault following us.

Analysis of ‘Animals’

Animals is a 1977 concept album by Pink Floyd. It was all conceived by bassist Roger Waters, who not only wrote almost all the music as well as all the lyrics, but also sang most of the lead vocals (except for ‘Dogs,’ much of which was sung by guitarist David Gilmour, who also co-wrote the song), and even played much of the acoustic and rhythm guitar [with Gilmour playing bass on ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’ and ‘Sheep‘].

Here are the lyrics to all the songs on the album.

The album’s concept, with its dogs, pigs, and sheep, was loosely inspired by George Orwell‘s Animal Farm; but don’t expect this album to be a criticism of Marxism-Leninism. These dogs don’t represent Stalin‘s secret police; these pigs are not the Bolsheviks; and these sheep, while docile and unthinkingly obedient at first, eventually rise up and crush the real enemy of modern humanity–capitalism.

Again, as with my analysis of The Dark Side of the Moon, I’m writing this as a tribute to Roger Waters, and his principled stance against such current issues as what’s happening in Syria, the West Bank and Gaza, Brazil, and now, Venezuela. Though not quite as radical a socialist as I’d prefer him to be, Waters is as opposed to the ruling class now as he was back in the 70s. His socialism is what justifies my doing a leftist analysis of Animals.

Since I wrote my analysis of Animal Farm, I’ve continued my transition away from staunch anarcho-communism and grown much more patient about when the withering away of the state should occur. Because of this change of heart, coupled with my sense of horror at what’s happened to the world since the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, I’ve come to view Orwell’s novella in a much less positive light.

This change of heart has made me want to write of Animal Farm in a far more critical way, but without hassling to update my old post. (Remember, Dear Reader: if you want to know my current views on a subject, check the dates of my posts; my views evolve and change all the time, so if my newer posts contradict anything I said in the older ones, you should know which views to judge me by now.) So I’ll be critical of Orwell here, if indirectly.

Tankie readers, I give you my anti-Animal Farm!

The cover colour photo of Animals shows a pig balloon floating over the Battersea Power Station. Black and white photos on the inner sleeve show more of the power station, as well as a bigger image of the pig balloon, a gate, and barbed wire.

So instead of the private property of a farm, which in Orwell’s allegory becomes the so-called state capitalist property of the Stalinist pigs, we have the actual state capitalist property of the bourgeois UK government, whose pigs, gates, and barbed wire seem to say “Keep out!” (as the sign of an owner of private property would say) to the disenfranchised rest of us.

These images are ominous: though state-owned enterprises can be for the public good, they can also be privatized. The cover of Animals seems to be warning us of what will happen to such things as the welfare state if people like Thatcher are allowed to have their way…as, indeed, they eventually would, so many years following the release of the album. Don’t let pigs gain ascendancy over public services!

The ‘Pigs On the Wing‘ songs were written for Waters’s then just-married wife Carolyne Christie, though their message of love can easily be extended to a general sense of comradeship.

If we don’t care about each other, we’ll just “zig-zag our way,” that is, move about aimlessly, with no sense of direction. “The boredom and pain” of alienation and ennui will have us only “occasionally glancing up through the rain,” that is, rarely noticing the cause of our woes.

Note how irregular the rhythm of Waters’s acoustic guitar strumming gets at this point, ultimately switching from its 3+3+2 subdivision of (2 bars of ) 4/4 at the beginning to 3/4 at the end, when he sings of who the cause of our pain is: the “pigs on the wing,” who cause our irregularity, our zig-zagging.

The pigs are flying because they are the ugly beasts at the top of the political and economic ladder, like that pig balloon on the album cover. They’re also “on the wing” because the ideal they represent will come true when pigs fly.

…and what is that ideal? Not full communism, for recall, this album is the anti-Animal Farm. These pigs’ ideal is ‘free market’ capitalism, already championed in the mid-1970s by such people as Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher, at the time the Leader of the Opposition. This ideal would quickly degenerate into the ugly reality of neoliberalism, the effects of which we’ve been suffering increasingly for the past forty years.

The dogs in Animal Farm, as I mentioned above, were the NKVD, whose excesses during the 1930s (unjust incarcerations and executions) are blamed on Stalin, but were largely the fault of Yagoda and Yezhov.

The dogs of Animals, however, are the dogs of capitalism, not communism. These bourgeois barkers are those of the middle and upper classes. Those who “can work on points of style, like the club tie, and the firm handshake” are clearly those of the upper classes, who “as [they] get older…in the end [they’ll] pack up and fly down south.” The rest of the lyrics can equally apply to all those from the lower-middle to upper classes.

Since the dogs of Animal Farm are understood to be the secret police of the proletarian state, the dogs of Animals can be seen to represent, at least in part, the police of the bourgeois state, loyal to their upper class masters to the point of fawning, while vicious to, and growling at, the working class.

The petite bourgeois, “when…on the street,” has “got to be able to pick out the easy meat,” that is, find good opportunities in his upwardly-mobile ambitions, and “strike when the moment is right without thinking.” Indeed, not thinking about the workers he’s exploiting. Then, if he’s one of the small minority of petite bourgeois who rise up the ranks of the rich, he “can work on points for style.”

The back-stabbing capitalist has “to be trusted by the people that [he lies] to.” These people include not only the masses of exploited workers, but also the traumatized veterans of imperialist wars, all those people deceived by the corporate media, and also the petite bourgeoisie, whose hopes for advancement are frustrated by the super-rich’s use of the state to keep down the competition. “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, p. 929) Capitalism is a dog eat dog world.

It’s significant that musically, the whole song has a sad tone to it, for the rule of the bourgeois makes sadness, depression, and alienation all epidemic problems. Gilmour’s harmonized guitar leads imitate the sad howling of lonely dogs, who symbolize the alienated people of all classes.

You could be a worker, a petite bourgeois, a cop, or a billionaire, and “it’s going to get harder…as you get older.” And while you may be rich enough to afford to “pack up and fly down south,” your wealth won’t save you from having to suffer what so many of the rest of us suffer, to “hide your head in the sand, just another sad old man, all alone and dying of cancer.”

The tendency of the rate of profit to fall results in financial crises when the capitalist will “lose control” and “reap the harvest [he has] sown.” One day, the crisis will be too great to recover from, and it will be “too late to lose the weight [he] used to throw around. So, have a good drown,” bourgeoisie, “as you go down all alone, dragged down by the stone.” That stone dragging down the self-destructing, suicidal bourgeoisie is tied to the same dialectical wheel that ended feudalism; that echoing “stone, stone, stone,…” symbolizes the cyclical turning of that wheel.

Gilmour has sung so far; now, Waters takes over the lead vocals. He is singing in the voice of one beginning to develop class consciousness, for he’s “confused,” sensing he’s “just being used.” He has to “shake off this creeping malaise” of alienation, and “find [his] way out of this maze,” the base and superstructure created by the ruling class.

He tells all those without class consciousness that they are “deaf, dumb, and blind…pretending that everyone’s expendable, and no one has a real friend.” The pro-capitalist dogs of class war, regardless of their social class or occupation (businessman, cop, soldier), justify their defence of society’s class structure, for they “believe at heart everyone’s a killer.”

The pro-capitalist has this cynical view of the world because he “was born in a house full of pain,…was told what to do by the man,…was broken by trained personnel, [and]…was fitted with collar and chain,” for he’s been a good, obedient dog who never questioned his indoctrination that there is no alternative. As a result, he “was only a stranger at home,” for that’s how deep worker alienation cuts.

And when the capitalist mode of production finally collapses under its own contradictions, the obedient dogs of the bourgeoisie will be “dragged down by the stone” with their masters.

“Pigs (Three Different Ones)” takes on three political influences in England that Waters had, and still has, no love for.

It’s hard to know specifically who Waters had in mind for the first one, a “big man, pig man, ha-ha, charade you are.” As a pig, he’s a politician, by reference to the Bolshevik pigs in Animal Farm; but since this is Waters’s anti-capitalist allegory, and since he’s probably thinking about a 1970s British politician, it’s safe to assume he’s thinking about a right-winger.

Allied to the above is the notion of ‘war pigs,’ an expression that, by the late 70s, was already popularized by the Black Sabbath song. So I’ll venture to guess that, whoever this pig was, he was probably hawkish and imperialistic, hoping to get his filthy hands on the natural resources of an exploited Third World country, hence the pig’s “digging.” “What do you hope to find?” Waters asks, “down in the pig mine.”

The second pig seems to be Margaret Thatcher, who at the time of Animals‘ release wasn’t yet prime minister, but who as Leader of the Opposition was already up to no good. We often think of the rise of neoliberalism as something that began in the 1980s, with her and Reagan; but the precursors of it were already going on in a big way from the mid-70s, after the oil crisis caused many to consider Keynesian economics to have run its course.

The influence of Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys was already felt in Chile, after the September 11th 1973 coup replaced democratically-elected Salvador Allende with authoritarian dictator Augusto Pinochet. A popular myth claims that the “free market” policies of Pinochet‘s regime revived the Chilean economy, but the only beneficiaries were the ruling class. Their benefit, nonetheless, was enough to encourage ideologues like Thatcher to apply “free market” capitalism to the UK and the rest of the world.

In making Animals, Waters was being prescient in a way I’m sure that today, with neoliberalism having metastasized into a global evil, he would wish he’d gotten horribly wrong.

Many, if not most people, in the UK and around the world would agree that Thatcher was a “fucked up old hag.” As one who wanted to maximize privatization, she is aptly described in the song as a “bus stop [i.e., stop the progressive movement of public services] rat bag” [i.e., the filth and squalor that results from ending those public services]. She radiated “cold shafts of broken glass,” and she did “like the feel of steel” (the term Iron Lady was already being used for her).

Like the first pig, she was “good fun with a hand gun,” for she would soon prove to be an imperialist, too; also, she’s “nearly a laugh, but…really a cry”: we should be laughing at clowns like her, but what they do is so hurtful, we can only cry. The surprise in how these ideologues’ asininity actually hurts is felt in the brief switch from 4/4 to one bar of 3/4 on hearing Waters sing “cry,” then back to 4/4.

The third pig was Mary Whitehouse, an old prude who protested against the growing permissiveness of British society. Again, her wish to restore a repressive sexual morality would have been laughable if not for her later political alliances with highly-placed conservatives like Thatcher. The ruling class wants to control us in every way, including our sexuality.

Today, however, the ruling class controls our desires in the opposite way, by overindulging us through the media and markets, so we’ll be too distracted to think critically about the system we’re all stuck in. Recall my use of the ouroboros as a symbol of the dialectical relationship of opposites: as regards sexuality, the serpent’s biting head of repression (Whitehouse) shifts over to its opposite, the bitten tail of such things as addiction to internet porn, strippers, prostitutes, etc. We think about fucking, so we won’t think about how we’re all being fucked.

“Do you feel abused?” Waters taunts Whitehouse, then pants lewdly into the microphone, as if watching a porno. She’d have us “keep it all on the inside.” She’s “nearly a treat,” another sexual taunt at her priggishness, but she, like Thatcher et al, is “really a cry.”

Nick Mason punctuates the beat in this song by hitting a cowbell, an ironic allusion to the cows in Animal Farm, and perhaps another jab at Thatcher and Whitehouse. In the middle section, Richard Wright plays a hypnotic melody on the organ, later adding a synth to it: B-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G-B-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G-C-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G-C-E-F#-G-F#-E-F#-G…,” etc., suggesting the way these politicians hypnotize us all into going along with their agendas.

Switching roles, lead guitarist Gilmour plays sad bass licks over the sad E minor/C major progression that bassist Waters strums on the rhythm guitar (with a delay effect), and with Wright’s mesmerizing keyboard melody. Elsewhere, Gilmour uses a talk box to imitate pigs’ oinks and grunts as he plays lead guitar licks. It’s so sad being mesmerized by political pigs.

Waters’s “Sheep” aren’t the usual passive type, at least not by the end of the song. They’re like the rebelling animals at the end of the CIA-financed cartoon version of Animal Farm, which was an egregious bit of anti-Soviet propaganda going even further than Orwell had intended. Thus, the irony of this anti-capitalist song, when compared with that cartoon, is a masterstroke for Waters.

At first, the sheep are like most of us, “only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air.” We all suffer the discontents of neoliberalism, but many of us still think that either voting Trump out of office, or pushing for still more “free market” deregulation, or voting in Labour in the UK, or voting in anybody, in and of itself will solve the problem. “You better watch out! There may be dogs about.” Remember to be careful not to let slip the dogs of class war.

Waters has looked over the Jordan River, and instead of seeing the band of angels coming for to carry the evangelical Christian Zionists home, he’s seen the oppression of the Palestinians. This is “what…you get for pretending the danger’s not real.”

When, “meek and obedient, you follow the leader…into the valley of steel”–the steel of the Iron Lady who helped bring about the neoliberalism that has resulted in an epidemic of homelessness in the UK, San Francisco, and elsewhere–you finally have “terminal shock in your eyes,” and you realize that “this is no bad dream.”

Waters warned us about people like Thatcher decades ago. In allowing May‘s ascendancy, we proved we never heeded this warning. The scraping on the dubbed strings of Waters’s rhythm guitar suggests that “terminal shock.”

In the midsection of the song, we hear a bassline and some keyboard harmonizing (based on a D diminished seventh chord) that seem inspired by the Doctor Who theme. Do we need The Doctor to intervene and wake us complacent sheep up?

Also during this section of the song, we hear Waters speaking through a vocoder and parodying Psalm 23, indicating that Church authoritarianism has been used to help the ruling class, that is, people like Whitehouse helping people like Thatcher. Is The Doctor one of those sons of God who, in consorting with the daughters of man, will do the forbidden mixing of the human and divine worlds (symbolic language for sharing the power of the wealthy with the poor), and thus give us the strength to revolt against the ruling class?

The rich would naturally see such a development as a great evil; for when the revolution comes, and we erstwhile timid sheep have fallen “on [the bourgeois’s] neck with a scream,” we “wave upon wave of demented avengers” will have finally replaced the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with that of the proletariat.

Then, when “the [capitalist] dogs are dead,” and any petite bourgeois puppies hope to revive the profit motive, we’ll warn them to “stay home and do as you’re told,” for the workers will have power over the rich…for a change. The surviving bourgeois wannabes will have to “get out of the road if [they] want to grow old.”

The song ends with Gilmour strumming triumphant chords high up the guitar neck in the key of E major, then over background progressions of D major and E major (with a bass pedal point in octaves of E), and also E major and A major.

“Pigs on the Wing, Part Two” reaffirms that we care for each other, now that we’ve defeated the capitalists and done away with the attendant alienation. We thus “don’t feel alone, or the weight of the stone.”

Waters also acknowledges that he’s a dog himself, as a wealthy member of a successful 70s band…and as the then-spouse of a British aristocrat! (He thus seems, as a critic of capitalism, to be acknowledging his ‘canine nature’ in anticipation of the old tu quoque retort.)

To be fair, though, we all need a home, even the bourgeois; accordingly, socialists strive to provide homes for everyone. “A shelter from pigs on the wing,” those dangerous ideologues who try to charm us with the empty promises of the “free market,” promises that will come true only when pigs grow wings.

Analysis of ‘The Power and the Glory’

The Power and the Glory is a political concept album recorded in 1974 by British progressive rock band Gentle Giant. While the eccentric, complex (by prog standards!), and dissonant music of this band, for obvious reasons, never resulted in widespread commercial success for them, this album–despite being one of their most dissonant–was an attempt, on some level, to expand their audience in the US.

Sherman Hemsley, having been an accomplished musician himself, was a fan of progressive rock; on Dinah Shore‘s TV show, Dinah!, he apparently danced to ‘Proclamation,’ the rather funky first track on the album. If anyone out there has footage of this holy TV moment, I would be eternally grateful if he or she could present me with video of it.

Here is a link to all the lyrics on the album, including those for the bonus title track. The songs tell the story of a politician who, at first, seems to want to help the people, but then gets mired in the corrupt system and ends up the very kind of politician he was supposed to be trying to cure the system of…an all-too-familiar problem, making the album as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago.

The studio version of ‘Proclamation’ begins with a roaring crowd of supporters of the rising politician, unnamed because…really…he or she could be anyone, past, present, or future. Then we hear multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear playing a jaunty tune on an electric piano, typically idiosyncratic Gentle Giant. This quirky jauntiness suggests the shaky hope we feel that the politician will deliver on his promises.

Singer Derek Shulman comes in on the off-beat (or at least what feels like the off-beat, at the beginning of the studio version of the song), an example of Gentle Giant’s typical trickiness, but also a suggestion that we already have little reason to trust the tricky politician’s promises to cure the ailing nation.

“You may not have all you want or you need.” May not? Of course we don’t! Politicians, conservative or liberal, always ensure the imperialist, class structure of society while making empty promises of change, for the sole purpose of appeasing the masses and stopping them from revolting.

“All that you have has been due to my hand.” What do we have that’s come from you? Empty promises? Blind hopes? Not what we genuinely need.

“It can change. It can stay the same./Who can say, who can make their claim?” The situation can change only through revolution; voting will keep it the same, with only the outer appearance of change. That’s my claim, for what it’s worth.

“The situation we are in at this time/Neither a good one, nor is it so unblest.” The politician must acknowledge the discontents of the people, yet from his privileged point of view, it isn’t so bad, either. Hence, all he has to make are some cosmetic changes to satisfy the herd, while leaving the same basic structure intact.

“Hail!” the crowd of mindless supporters shouts.

“Unity’s strength and all must be as one.” Solidarity and oneness are what we want, but “confidence in you, hope will reflect in me.” Mr. Politician, you have not yet earned our confidence, nor should we hope too much from you. “You are my people,” the politician says, putting on the charm, but that “there must be no change” is a hint that he has no intention of curing any of our societal, economic, and political ills. This is what he “will say,” this is how he “will make [his] claim.”

Still, the mindless rabble listens uncritically, chanting “Hail!”

The music gets increasingly discordant in the middle section, especially with Minnear’s organ, culminating in “Hail to the power, and to glory’s way!” The loud, dissonant chords emphasize the evil that inevitably results from the kind of blind nationalism and chauvinism that is too often inspired by manipulative demagogues, who lead the masses by the nose.

Next, we hear harmonic resolution (relatively speaking, of course: this is Gentle Giant, after all) behind the words “day by day,” which is repeated under an electric piano in the bass, bitonal in relation to the fading-out singing and organ. This bitonality suggests the two-faced nature of politicians, as well as the discordance between, on the one side, the lying politician, and on the other, the gullible public.

The next part uses a technique frequently used by Gentle Giant, one called hocketing, only with the instruments here rather than voices, so it is rather like Klangfarbenmelodie. It reassembles the fragments of the opening jaunty tune played on the electric piano, yet this time played not only on that keyboard, but also on organ, Gary Green‘s guitar, and a high-hat on John Weathers‘s drum kit. This need to reassemble the parts suggests an attempt to heal the collective wounds of the nation…and yet, we end up right back where we started. The song fades out with the roaring crowd again.

The studio version of ‘So Sincere‘ opens with a dissonant counterpoint played by Derek Shulman on sax, his brother Ray on violin, and Minnear plucking pizzicatos on a cello. This dissonance makes it clear that we should note the utter sarcasm in saying politicians’ words are “so sincere.”

“Hear, he’ll do it all for you,” sings Minnear…and so the insincerity begins. “Wise, and knowing what to do.” Knowing what to do…for whose benefit?

“And every word is…” Wait for the punchline…”Lies.”

“He only tells the truth…Means, not anything he says…” Later, “Wrong, he makes his promise right.” Note the proliferation of contradictions: lies/truth, yes/no, wrong/right, full/empty, good/bad. Corrupt politicians confuse us with their contradictory speech, denying what they said earlier, which they now contradict, and never resolving class contradictions–they only perpetuate those…and if you don’t watch carefully, “You’ll never know why.”

The dissonance comes to a head in the chorus, with Derek singing, “So sin-cere!” and ending with the deliberate pun, “So sin.”

Now, the guile and cunning of politicians are one thing, but there’s another side to this problem–the credulity of the public who listen to their revered leader’s bullshit, hoping that finally, this new one is going to make everything right. This is the subject of ‘Aspirations,’ sung by Minnear as he plays the electric piano.

This is probably my favourite song on the whole album, for in this one we can feel the pain and hopes of the people for a better world, sung in a sympathetic melody. “See our dreams all coming true, it depends on you.” (Not if “you” is your average politician.)

The followers already have some vague sense that their faith is “aimless blind,” yet they hope all the same that their new leader’s claims are “really so sincere.” They hope he can “be our guide,” even after they’ve been disappointed so many times before. They never learn. “Make us strong, build our unity, all men as one, it is all in you.” Seriously? All in one man?

“Hopes, dreams, hopes, dreaming that all our sorrows gone…” Apart from noting how ungrammatical this line sounds, I can’t help hearing, “go on,” rather than “gone,” suggesting an unconscious Freudian slip, revealing the death drive behind all these foolish “hopes [and] dreams.”

Playing the Game‘ is interesting when heard juxtaposed with a viewing of the album cover: vying for political power is like a card game–part luck, part strategy, all about trying to win as big a portion of the pot as possible.

Minnear’s marimba opening of the studio version of the song was replaced in live performance by Derek’s strumming a “Shulberry,” a kind of electric ukulele with three strings. Furthermore, instead of playing a violin as he did in the studio version, Ray played a second electric guitar in concert.

The politician has “the key to the back door” of his secret connections, his “hand touching bounds never had before.” He has power for the first time in his life…and he likes it. His games are all “won before they’re played for,” and “no opposition can stage a fight.” He’ll “never, ever lose” at the game of politics.

Corruption no longer seems ugly when it benefits you, with your “thoughts never spoken,” your “silent words left unsaid.” Because of the success that corruption allows you to cheat at getting, the music of the song is upbeat.

The politician may be content, but the masses have finally caught on, and they are furious, as we hear in “Cogs In Cogs,” which opens with intricate counterpoint in Minnear’s keyboards, Ray’s bass, and Green’s guitar, played in alternating 6/8 and 9/8 time. Next, we hear a tricky riff with a bar of 6/8, then one in 4/16; then there’s a brief riff in 9/16, then another brief riff in 7/8 before Derek comes in singing. This structural complexity symbolizes the trickiness of politicians’ unending deceit.

Derek’s voice, loud and aggressive, unlike Minnear’s soft and gentle singing, is apt for a song about the “anger and the rising murmur” of the people over the politician’s every “empty promise.”

“Cogs in cogs” is a vivid image to describe the revolving cycles of hope and disappointment felt with each new politician voted into office. The anger, accompanying disillusionment over the latest in a line of corrupt politicians, should be the thing that “breaks the old circle,” but the cycle soon begins turning again, “the wheel slowly turns around.”

“The air is sour with discontent,” but we never learn; for after this current politician is reviled and removed, a new one comes along to raise our hopes, then disappoint us once again. “The circle turns around, the changing voices calling…” Derek’s overdubbed voice in the studio version, during the bridge (a section played instrumentally live), sings these words over and over again, reflecting this unchanging cyclical reality of hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment…

No God’s a Man‘ expresses more of the sadness and disillusion than the anger felt when realizing the politician is like all the others. Our idealized politician, a “god,” is never the reality, just a man. Hear the sadness in Ray’s and Green’s acoustic guitar doubling; hear it in Green’s bluesy electric guitar licks in the middle of the song, a style that is natural for him to play.

The singing of the first two verses, harmonizing in independent voices (Derek, Minnear, Ray, Green, and Weathers), in a style reminiscent of Renaissance vocal polyphony (a singing technique frequently heard in Gentle Giant’s music), suggests the clamour of disappointed people who, frowning at the face of the corrupt politician, are “now telling him to go.”

The music grows dissonant again in ‘The Face,’ which focuses on the corrupt nature of politics, and how one tries to hold on to power in spite of waning popularity. When the politician’s face is showing, he tries to put his mask back on. “Hide your mask, show the face that is sorry.”

Normally, Gentle Giant’s use of dissonance is more subtle, hidden in the counterpoint; not blatant and obvious, as it is in King Crimson (e.g., the chaotic ending of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ or Keith Tippett‘s piano cluster chords in ‘Cat Food‘) or in Frank Zappa’s modernist orchestral music (e.g., the 200 Motels soundtrack).

In ‘The Face,’ Gentle Giant is blatantly dissonant, too, particularly with Ray’s grating electric violin solo. This dissonance is, again, suggestive of class conflict, between the greed in the leaders and the wishes of the people.

Valedictory‘ is a hard rock variation on themes played more jauntily in ‘Proclamation.’ We’ve come full circle (as in ‘cogs in cogs’), and while the corrupt politician is doing all he can in terms of damage control after all the scandals have exposed him, we know “things must stay, there must be no change.” We’ve come back to the beginning…again.

We start looking for another idealized politician we can follow blindly: “time to rearrange.” The dissonant keyboard music in 5/4 that we heard in the middle of ‘Proclamation’ is heard again (on Green’s guitar and Minnear’s synthesizer), descending chromatic notes that come round and round in circles, culminating, at the end of the song, in a cry of “Hail!…”

…then the tape speeds up and spins out of control, bringing the album to an abrupt end, and implying that nothing’s been learned…

No, nothing at all. (Oops, wrong album.)

But that’s the whole point of the album. We never learn. Will we ever?

Politicians on both sides of the mainstream political fence have made big promises, then disappointed us. This is true of leaders in the remote past, the recent past, and…I prophesy with utmost confidence…the future.

Voting and reform do nothing to change the system, for it was never meant to change anything. It keeps the same class structure intact and placates the masses, with liberals throwing a few bones to the poor to prevent revolution; with conservatives hypocritically preaching about the need to cut costs…while they spend wildly on the military; and with fascists stomping on us with their jackboots if we dare to…dare I say it?…start a revolution.

“Anger and the rising murmur breaks the old circle” [my emphasis]

Analysis of ‘Scanners’

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science fiction/horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O’Neill, and Patrick McGoohan. It is about people with mind powers (empathy, telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) who are wanted by a company, ConSec, that hopes to exploit their powers. Elsewhere, there’s a rogue scanner (Ironside) who also wants scanners to build an army and rule the world; any scanner who won’t join him…he kills, as he does any other enemies.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Cameron Vale: You called me a scanner. What is that?

Paul Ruth: Freak of nature, born with a certain form of ESP; derangement of the synapses which we call telepathy. […]

“My art… keeps me sane.” –Benjamin Pierce, gesturing at plaster head

“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? [pause] The answer’s simple. You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.” –Paul Ruth

Darryl Revok: This was a test campaign used in 1947 to market a new product. The product was a drug, a tranquilizer called ‘Ephemerol’. It was aimed at pregnant women. If it had worked it would have been marketed all over North America. But the campaign failed and the drug failed, because it had a side effect on the unborn children. An invisible side effect.

Cameron: It created Scanners. […]

[striking at Cameron with scanner abilities] “All right. We’re gonna do this the scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry! Everything you are is gonna become me. You’re gonna be with me Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close, don’t you think?” –Darryl Revok

“I’m here, Kim. We’ve won, we’ve won.” –Cameron Vale, in Revok’s body

Cameron Vale.

What is particularly interesting about this film is the relationship between inner, psychic reality and outer, socioeconomic and political reality. There’s also how politics and economics affect family life, and vice versa.

ConSec, as a private security firm that wants to capitalize on scanners as a potential weapon, is a representation of capitalist, imperialist war profiteering, reminding one of Lockheed-Martin et al. That Vale’s and Revok’s father, Dr. Paul Ruth (McCoohan), has few qualms about using his sons for profit shows how politics and economics damage family life.

Ruth is the inventor of ephemerol–a drug he put on the market for pregnant women back in the 1940s, but which also had the surprising side effect of creating scanners. He gave his pregnant wife the strongest doses of ephemerol, making his two sons the most powerful scanners.

Ruth seems to know that Vale and Revok are his sons, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him, for shows little fatherly attitude to them–he just wants to use Vale to hunt down Revok; and what’s more to the point is why he abandoned his sons when they were little, leaving Vale to become a derelict, and leaving Revok to become a psychopath. His fear of the ‘Ripe’ program creating new scanners gives him a jolt, but until this realization, he’s been content to use scanners like his sons for the sake of ConSec profiteering.

Dr. Paul Ruth.

It’s often hell enough being an empath of the ordinary kind, always intensely feeling the emotions of others, especially their pain. But Vale’s sensory overload, his agony from hearing the whispers of others, from further off in a shopping mall, where two middle class women at a table look down on him as a ‘bum’…that’s excruciating. So connected to others he is, yet so alienated. So close to others…yet, so far away.

The point is that scanners are extremely sensitive, gifted people. The trauma of being separated from their parents and any normal, loving human contact is unbearable for them. It’s easy to see how Vale and Revok would go mad with their powers, though in almost opposite ways.

Revok went so insane he tried to kill himself by drilling a hole in his head. The mark is like a third eye of Siva; in fact, black-and-white video of him, interviewed by a psychiatrist, shows an eye drawn on the bandage where the drill mark is. His pain is his higher mystical knowledge, as it were. Later, instead of trying to destroy his own mind, he succeeds in destroying that of another scanner in the famous head explosion scene.

This scene perfectly exemplifies, in symbolic form, projection of Revok’s death drive onto someone else. All of his fragmentation and psychological falling apart, all of his inner pain thrown at another scanner.

Darryl Revok is about to blow the mind of a fellow scanner.

ConSec staff try to control Revok by giving him a shot of ephemerol, the very drug that has given him his powers in the first place. (Vale has been calmed down with the same drug when Dr. Ruth has him in his custody.) A pun on ephemeral, the drug temporarily inhibits scanning ability; this paradox of giving and inhibiting the psychic powers exemplifies the dialectical relationship between opposites that I symbolize with the ouroboros. From the serpent’s biting head of maximum scanner powers, we shift to the serpent’s bitten tail of their suppression.

Similarly, there’s a dialectical relationship between the extreme sensitivity and empathy of scanners and their psychopathic opposite, as seen in Revok. When younger, he must have felt the agonizing of that extreme sensitivity and empathy, and the pain drove him to put that hole in his head. This self-injury was him crossing the serpent’s biting head of empathy over to its bitten tail of psychopathic lack of empathy.

Benjamin Pierce (played by Robert A. Silverman) was similarly violent to his family because of the torment that scanner empathy gives him; now, he uses his art to stop the pain from driving him mad. When Cameron Vale learns how to control his scanner powers, he too can function without going mad; but Pierce knows that, apart from his art, the only way to avoid pain is to avoid contact with people–that closeness, in a world of alienation, causes his empathy to torment him. The serpent’s head of closeness, what we would normally find an emotionally healing thing, for Pierce too easily slips over to the serpent’s bitten tail of new wounds.

While ConSec’s exploitation of scanners as human weapons for profit is easily allegorized as capitalist commodification, Revok’s building up of a scanner army, not only to rival ConSec, but also to rule the world, can be allegorized as a form of fascism (i.e., the superiority of scanners, a new master race). Note how Revok’s company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, is a rival, not the opposite, of ConSec; Revok is also running his ‘Ripe’ program through ConSec. Note what this ‘love-hate relationship,’ if you will, between the rival companies also implies, symbolically, about the relationship between capitalism and fascism.

Kim Obrist.

The real opposition to this pair of rivals is a group of scanners led by Kim Obrist (played by O’Neill), who meet in private. When Vale finds them, though, he unwittingly leads Revok’s assassins to them, too…as he had led them to Pierce.

Obrist’s group of scanners sit together in a circle, in a meditative state, and use their powers to connect with each other. The scene is proof of how empathy doesn’t have to be painful; when used among friends, it can cause a sense of communal love to grow. Indeed, the sight of them together meditating in that circle, looks almost like a mystical experience for them. Closeness to others can be a good thing, after all.

So, if ConSec represents capitalism, and Revok and his assassins represent fascism, then Vale and Obrist’s group of scanners can be seen to represent socialism…though, it must be emphasized, a libertarian, anarchist, form of socialism, since their group is poorly protected. Indeed, Revok’s assassins come in and kill everyone except Vale and Obrist; it’s like when Franco‘s fascists took over Spain and crushed the communists and anarchists within a mere three years.

Vale and Obrist learn of Revok’s rival company, whose ‘Ripe’ program is giving pregnant women ephemerol to make new scanner babies. Revok also has a corporate spy, Braedon Keller (played by Lawrence Dane), who is giving Revok information about ConSec, as well as trying to stop Vale and Obrist. Revok even has Keller kill Ruth: this goes to show you how capitalist success makes a failure of one’s home.

Keller, about to kill Dr. Ruth.

The whole point of the contrast between the communal oneness of Obrist’s scanners, as against ConSec and Revok, is to see how empathy should be used to hold us together, not drive us mad and tear us apart. Cooperation and mutual aid, not competition and destruction of perceived enemies, are what will move humanity forward.

We see how, in ConSec’s profit motive, capitalism manipulates our feelings to make us enemies of each other; here sensitivity is distorted into feelings of persecutory anxiety, a move from the ouroboros’s head of empathic feeling to the serpent’s tail of psychopathic lack of feeling. When the ConSec security guards try to apprehend Vale and Obrist, she makes the man pointing a gun at her think he’s threatening his mother with it; he breaks down and weeps. Here again we see the tense relationship between upholding the capitalist system and one’s family relations.

(Recall what Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, had to say about the family in relation to capitalism: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.

“The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.

“Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” [Marx, page 52])

Back to the movie. When Revok has Vale and Obrist in his custody, he hopes to make a last gasp at connection with someone, his own brother. Of course, his plan to dominate the world with his future scanner army is too insane an idea for Vale to accept, so Revok feels as betrayed by him as by all the others.

Revok, sucking Vale dry.

The ensuing final confrontation between the two most powerful scanners is symbolically a sublation of opposing ideologies–socialism and fascist domination–and thus it is, in a way, comparable to the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.

The war ended in a victory for communism over fascism, but a costly and even ambiguous one; for those on the west of divided Germany still had ex-Nazis in their government, and the US incorporated some ex-Nazis in their government, too, via Operation Paperclip. Small wonder Dr. Strangelove was a Nazi stereotype in Kubrick’s satirical 1964 movie, and small wonder East Germany called the Berlin Wall the “antifascist protective rampart.” When opposing forces come that close together, there’s bound to be tension.

Similarly, with Vale and Revok, we feel a chilling tension when the latter says, “brothers should be close, don’t you think?” as he begins sucking the former dry. This feeling of intense closeness, in a hostile world full of alienation, is the central theme of Scanners. This is why the scanners’ heightened empathy, with the attendant sensory overload, is so agonizing for them.

As Revok continues to “suck [Vale’s] brain dry,” pulling Vale into him, we see the dialectical resolving of contradictions. In this particular case, we see not only the symbolic sublation of fascism vs. socialism, but also of self vs. other, for it is through Revok’s introjection of Vale, and Vale’s projection of himself into Revok, that one sees oneself in others, and vice versa. This is Bion‘s container/contained, dramatized; it’s also apparent in the logo used for ephemerol.

At first, Revok seems to have the upper hand: Vale is cringing, his veins are popping out blood, and he even tears a gory scar on his cheek. Revok is grinning maniacally.

Revok seems to have the upper hand.

Then, Vale regains his composure, even as he’s covered in blood and set on fire psychically by Revok. Vale’s eyes explode in splashes of blood, while Revok’s show only the whites. By the end of the confrontation, we’re not sure who’s won.

Indeed, when Obrist wakes up and comes into the room, she sees Vale’s body lying in a silhouette of ashes, yet her scanning ability seems to detect Vale’s presence. Crouching in a corner and with a coat covering him, Revok is seen; but with Vale’s eyes instead of Revok’s dark ones, and without Revok’s forehead mark (his ‘third eye of Siva,’ as I like to call it), he says in Vale’s voice, “We’ve won.”

Obviously, Vale and Revok are one…but who won? Whose personality is dominating Revok’s body? Is that really Vale’s voice we’re hearing, or is Revok psychically forcing Vale to say he and Obrist have won, to trick her?

Revok is Siva, the destroyer. Ruth is Brahma, the creator (of all scanners). Vale is Vishnu, the preserver, the sustainer of his life throughout the film, in all his struggles to survive. By dying and resurrecting, with his mind put into Revok’s body, Vale is also a Christ figure, the spirit conquering the flesh. I, however, am a materialist, and I see mostly Revok’s body. So who won?

Has Revok really been eliminated at the end of the film?

And as far as my political allegory for the film is concerned, who were the real postwar winners, the political left, or the right? Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were defeated, but many fascists survived 1945. Only some Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg. Francoist Spain carried on unchecked until Franco’s death in 1975. Pinochet’s authoritarian, right-wing government, with the help of the CIA, replaced Allende’s in 1973. Israel, irony of ironies, has become a racist apartheid state. And fascism in Europe and Brazil has been on the rise in recent years, as against a largely impotent left.

And even if Vale is in control of Revok’s body, he and Obrist will still have to deal with ConSec, which hopes to make weapons out of that new generation of scanners about to be born. So, if that’s Vale’s real voice saying, “We’ve won,” what justification does he have to be so overconfident?

Dialectical thinking mustn’t be reduced to the cliché triad of thesis/negation/sublation, as even I’ve done in other posts, for the sake of brevity. With every sublation comes a new thesis to be contradicted, for the idea of dialectics is to give us all a sense that reality is a fluid, ever-changing thing, not permanent blocks of stasis. The sublation of socialism defeating fascism had merely lead to a new contradiction, the Cold War, which was resolved in the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of neoliberalism. If we’re lucky to triumph over this new variation in class war, there will be new contradictions to resolve under the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as the danger of a resurgence of capitalism.

The microcosm of such contradictions is in the family situation, where so much alienation is spawned, as we see in Ruth’s so troubled sons. He cared so little about the monsters he’d created, and their fusion in one body, one mind, could very well be a new battleground, all inside one body. Will Obrist be able to accept it? Will Vale and Revok be able to?

With the end of Siva/Revok, is Vishnu/Vale’s reincarnation the start of a new cycle of creation/preservation/destruction, a new thesis to be negated and sublated? It seems that way. Vale considers Revok to be a reincarnation of Brahma/Ruth: could Vale’s judgement be a projection, now that he’s reincarnated in the Ruth-reincarnation of Revok? The cycle of dialectics spins round and round, forever, it seems, with not only irresolution of class conflict, but also irresolution of family conflict.

And this irresolution in the family, who “should be close,” is the true horror symbolized in this film.

Analysis of Aeschylus’ ‘Persians’

The Persians is a historical tragedy Aeschylus wrote, and which won first prize in the dramatic competitions in 472 BCE. It is his earliest surviving play, and the only one we have of his based on historical sources, rather than on Greek myth. It tells the story of Xerxes‘ disastrous invasion of Greece, Persia’s second humiliating defeat after the failed attempt by his father, Darius I, to invade Greece.

The translation I’ll be basing this analysis on is a brand new one by Mark Will, which can be found here on Amazon. It’s a literal translation that comes as close as possible to paralleling the poetry of the original Greek. It also includes an excellent introduction that not only explains the historical background of the play, but also, in a timely way, relates imperial Persia’s losses to contemporary concerns, making it a kind of cautionary tale about what the US’s current imperialist excesses will most likely lead to.

Here are some of Will‘s translated lines:

“Oh, wretched me, having met/this loathsome, obscure fate/because a demon savage-mindedly trod upon/the Persian race!” –Xerxes, beginning of Episode 4, page 68, lines 909-912

“My son found sharp the vengeance/of famous Athens, for they did not suffice,/the barbarians whom Marathon destroyed before./Intending to make retribution for them, my son/has caused so great a plethora of calamities.” —Atossa, Episode 1, page 45, lines 473-477

“Groan and mourn,/cry heavy and/heavenly distress!/Strain the sadly wailing,/clamorous, wretched voice!

“Torn by the whirlpool,/they are mangled by the voiceless,/by the children of the undefiled sea!

“And the deprived house mourns/the man of the family, and childless fathers/are demonized by distress,/and old men bewailing/everything perceive pain.” –Chorus, Choral Ode 2, page 49, lines 571-583

Structurally, the play can be divided into four parts: 1) premonitions and fears for the Persian army, as felt by the Chorus of Persian Elders and by Atossa, Darius’ widow queen and King Xerxes’ mother; 2) the calamity of the Persian army’s defeat at the Battle of Salamis, as told by a messenger; 3) the Ghost of Darius’ report of further Persian woe, and counsel not to attempt an invasion of Greece again [lines 790-792]; and 4) Xerxes’ despair when he returns to Susa, his clothes in tatters.

[Bear in mind that my four-way division of the play differs from Will’s, whose Episode 1 combines my parts one and two, as described in the previous paragraph, and his Episode 2 is a speech by Atossa, just before his Episode 3 and my part three, with Darius’ ghost. Each of his Episodes is preceded by a Choral Ode, with strophes, antistrophes, and epodes; whereas I’m dividing the play in terms of thematic contrasts I’ve seen.]

The choral poetry comments on the fortunes of the Persian empire, past and present. We hear of the great glories of Persia’s imperial past, her conquest of Ionia, and the achievements of Darius the Great (Choral Ode 4, pages 66-67).

While it’s more typical in Greek tragedy to start the play with a hubristic character who experiences a sudden reversal of fortune (peripeteia) and a realization (anagnorisis) of some terrible truth, both of these elements propelling the action towards tragedy (e.g., a fall of pride); there seems to be very little of such contrast in The Persians. The flowing of the plot, from beginning to end, seems a sea of undifferentiated sorrow.

Xerxes’ hubris is felt offstage, while he’s creating the pontoon bridges for his army to cross the Hellespont (lines 65-72; also lines 743-750), and when his troops commit sacrilege (lines 809-812) by destroying the images of Greek gods at their temples. This hubris is described by the characters in Susa, where the whole play takes place. Instead of seeing a boastful king, we hear the Chorus expressing their fears, for the Persian army, who at the beginning of the play (lines 8-15, 107-139) have not sent any reports on the progress of the invasion. The Chorus’ pride is only in Persia’s past.

This fear morphs into sorrow from the messenger’s report; then further sorrow from what Darius’ ghost knows of the army’s other misfortunes, coupled with his not-so-comforting advice not to invade Greece again; and finally despairing sorrow on shamed Xerxes’ return. Fear, woe, more woe, and the worst. The whole play is a continuous descent into sadness.

As I’ve said above, Mark Will parallels this Persian woe to the predicted fate of the US’s near future, with–as I would add–the ascent of China and Russia as against American imperialist overreach, with its absurd military overspending and over trillion-dollar debt, a ticking time bomb that will destroy the US sooner than the military-industrial complex expects. Will also asks us to use this play to help us sympathize with Iran (Translator’s Preface, page 11), the modern Persia threatened with invasion from, ironically, the American Persia of today.

While I affirm Mark Will’s parallels to contemporary events as perfectly true and legitimate, I see another parallel between The Persians and the recent past: the decline in Persian might, and its military humiliations, can be compared to those of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Hamartia in political leaders should be understood as a warning to them that “missing the mark” can lead to political catastrophes for the nation. Xerxes’ foolish overconfidence in his army and navy leads to missteps and his huge losses. This missing the mark is easily seen in the military misadventures of the US over the past twenty years, as Will observes. I’d say that a missing of the mark (quite an understatement, given the growing treason in the USSR, especially from Khrushchev onwards) is also attributable to Gorbachev‘s mismanagement of Soviet affairs.

A series of woes befell the USSR that parallel those of Xerxes and his army. The US lured the USSR into a war with Afghanistan, a war that was a major factor in the weakening of the socialist state (this is rather like Xerxes being manipulated into planning “this voyage and campaign against Hellas” by “evil men” [lines 753-758]). The USSR’s loss against the mujahideen, who were proxy warriors (including Bin Laden) for the US, was a humiliating defeat comparable to that of Xerxes.

Furthermore, Xerxes’ listening to the Greeks’ plans to flee at night, and taking them at their word (lines 355-371), is comparable to Gorbachev thinking he could negotiate with the US and NATO over whether to open up the Soviet economy to the West, and to allow the reunification of Germany, breaking down the anti-fascist protection Wall. Xerxes’ gullibility caused his humiliating loss at Salamis, as Gorbachev’s caused not only the USSR’s dissolution, but also the eastward advance of NATO.

The Persian loss is considered a momentous turn of events in Western history; for if the Persians had won, the West, some argue, would likely have been inundated with Persian, rather than Greek, culture. Their loss is assumed to have been a good thing, with Greek democracy triumphing over Persian despotism. Certainly Hegel thought so in his Philosophy of History:

“The World-Historical contact of the Greeks was with the Persians; in that, Greece exhibited itself in its most glorious aspect…In the case before us, the interest of the World’s History hung trembling in the balance. Oriental despotism–a world united under one lord and sovereign–on the one side, and separate states–insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free individuality–on the other side, stood front to front in array of battle. Never in History has the superiority of spiritual power over material bulk–and that of no contemptible amount–been made so gloriously manifest.” (Hegel, pages 256-258)

On closer inspection, however, it can be argued that the Persians under the Achaemenid Dynasty were closer to real democracy than the Greeks. Achaemenid-era Persians had far fewer slaves than Greeks, and Persian women enjoyed far better rights than their Greek counterparts.

This point is especially salient when we parallel it with the propagandistic portrayal of American “democracy,” with its history of racism, slavery, genocide of Native Americans, income inequality, and mass incarceration, as against the USSR‘s having considerably fewer of these evils. Certainly, Paul Robeson felt far more at home in the USSR than in his native US.

Paralleled with the end of Persian hegemony over the region, and thus the liberation of Greece, is the notion that the USSR’s dissolution meant the triumph of American capitalist democracy and “the end of history.” Consider how the rise of neoliberalism under the Clintons, coupled with the near ubiquity of American imperialist war, have shown the lie of this democracy.

With the end of the Achaemenid Dynasty came the rise of Alexander the Great, whose imperialism–justified as a spreading of Greek culture and civilization to the barbarians of the East–parallels American neoconservative arrogance.

The Ghost of Darius advising the Persians not to invade Greece again seems to me like the ghost of Stalin wishing to advise the Soviets of the 1980s to revert to Socialism in One Country, rather than attempt to bring it about in other countries like Afghanistan.

The Messenger, by his own admission, describes only a fraction of the misfortunes that have befallen the Persian army and navy. Though they outnumbered the Greeks, they’ve been mostly destroyed. Most of the survivors have perished on their journey back home, through hunger or thirst (lines 482-491).

Darius’ Ghost also informs the Chorus and Atossa of newer woes. This piling up of one misfortune after another is, on the one hand, a warning of the karmic future of US imperialist overreach, as Will maintains; but on the other hand, as I am arguing, this accumulation of woe is also something that can be paralleled with the growing suffering in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

The US and NATO were scheming at how they could bring about the USSR’s downfall. There were shortages of food, which was Gorbachev‘s responsibility. Through the establishment of “free market” economic policies, the traitors in the Russian government privatized and seized state-owned assets, and removed the Soviet social safety net, throwing millions of Russians into poverty and starvation, and allowing the ascendance of Russian oligarchs; and when the people tried to bring back socialism, not only did the US’s puppet, Yeltsin, use violence to stop them, but the US also helped Russia’s extremely unpopular leader get reelected in 1996.

Some have called the suffering of Russians in the 1990s an “economic genocide.” This woe after woe after woe is easily paralleled with Persian suffering in the play. Russians have consistently, in poll after poll, regretted the end of the Soviet system, especially recently. Apart from the lost social services, Russians are nostalgic of when their country was once a great world power; as the Chorus, in their lamentations, reminisce of Persia in Choral Ode 4. Putin is well-known for having said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

So when we get to Xerxes’ return to Susa, with his clothes in tatters, we see the final amalgamation of Persian suffering and despair. Back and forth between him and the Chorus, we hear “Ototototoi!” [Philip Vellacott, page 151], “Ay, ay!” [Will, page 76], and “Woe!” during their exodos from the stage. This quick cutting back and forth of brief one-liners, as opposed to the long speeches heard before, symbolically suggests the psychological fragmentation and disintegration each Persian is experiencing.

We may wonder what the ancient Greek response was to Xerxes’ humiliation. For many, it must have been Schadenfreude to see their oppressors finally brought so low, knowing it really happened: remember Xerxes’ words, line 1034, “Distressing, but a joy to our enemies.” (page 76) Similarly, many on the left, including American socialists, are eagerly awaiting the downfall of the American empire, which some experts say may happen by the 2030s.

There’s also a sympathetic reading of the play, though, in which one pities the Persians; and after all, the whole point of tragedy is to arouse pity and terror, as well as to bring about the catharsis of those emotions. At least some Greeks in the audience must have felt that pity for Xerxes and Atossa, or else how could the play have won first prize in 472 BCE?

Certainly, we leftists can pity the Russians, who lost their great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither I nor many leftists agree with Reagan’s projection that the USSR was an “evil empire”; though Maoists, during the time of the Sino-Soviet split, thought it was an empire. I see the USSR rather as a check against imperialism, though a flawed one.

In the end, we can see my paralleling of the play with modern problems, in a dialectical sense, with Will’s paralleling. And his thesis, with my negation, can undergo a sublation to give a deeper message about US imperialism: it destroys any attempts to end its evil, causing oceans of woe; then it will destroy itself, bringing karmic woe on itself.

Evil empire, indeed.

Aeschylus, Persians, a new translation by Mark Will, Cadmus and Harmony Media, 2018

Analysis of ‘The French Connection’

The French Connection is a 1971 crime thriller directed by William Friedkin (who did The Exorcist two years later), and starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, and Tony Lo Bianco. The film is a fictionalized dramatization of The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy, a 1969 book about a famous 1962 drug bust.

In fact, Eddie “Popeye” Egan (whose fictionalized counterpart was played by Hackman–Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle) plays a supporting role as Doyle’s supervisor, Walt Simonson. Egan was also a technical supervisor for the film, as was his real-life partner, Sonny “Cloudy” Grosso (the film’s counterpart for whom was played by Scheider–Buddy “Cloudy” Russo). Grosso also appeared in the film, playing a federal agent named Klein.

Widely considered one of the best films ever made, The French Connection also boasts one of the best car chase scenes ever filmed, a deliberate–and successful–attempt to outdo the famous car chase scene in Bullitt. Indeed, chasing…pursuit…is a major theme in this film.

Here are some famous quotes:

“All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means? Goddammit! All winter long I got to listen to him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” –Doyle, to black perp […]

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: You dumb guinea.

Buddy “Cloudy” Russo: How the hell did I know he had a knife?

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: Never trust a nigger.

Buddy “Cloudy” Russo: He could have been white.

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: Never trust anyone! […]

“Yeah, I know Popeye. His brilliant hunches cost the life of a good cop.” –Bill Mulderig […]

[analyzing drug shipment] “Blast off: one-eight-oh.” [as thermometer keeps rising] “200: Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Two ten: U.S. Government certified. Two twenty: lunar trajectory, junk of the month club, sirloin steak. Two thirty: Grade A poison.” [when the thermometer tops at 240] “Absolute dynamite. Eighty-nine percent pure junk. Best I’ve ever seen. If the rest is like this, you’ll be dealing on this load for two years.” –Chemist

There are three distinct groups of people in this film: the wealthy French/US heroin dealers led by Alain Charnier (played by Rey, and based on Jean Jehan), whom Popeye charmingly calls “Frog One,” as well as Americans Boca and Weinstock; the New York City Police, including Popeye, “Cloudy” (Scheider), Bill Mulderig (played by Bill Hickman), and Simonson; and there are the black drug dealers and junkies who are bullied by the cops.

These three groups can be seen to symbolize the upper, middle, and lower classes of society. The wealthy French drug dealers, along with their American counterparts (such as upwardly-mobile Sal Boca [Lo Blanco], Joel Weinstock [Harold Gary], etc.) are, of course, mafia…and mafia are capitalists, as I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

The cops represent the middle class that envies the ruling class and wants to supplant them, while they also despise the poor, as symbolically made clear in the cops’ racism against blacks and Latinos. The conflict between cops and mafia on the one side, and between cops and blacks on the other, thus symbolizes class conflict in general.

After a brief opening scene in Marseilles, in which an undercover French cop has been seen trailing Charnier, then is killed by Pierre Nicoli (played by Marcel Bozzuffi), Charnier’s bodyguard/hitman; we go over to Brooklyn, where Doyle is dressed as Santa, and Cloudy is pretending to be a hot dog vendor. They’re outside a bar filled with blacks, at least some of whom are drug addicts/pushers.

Doyle, as Santa, is entertaining a group of little black boys, singing ‘Jingle Bells’ with them. Given what he and Cloudy are about to do regarding the black junkies in the bar, we should note the phoniness of Doyle’s attitude towards these kids.

Blacks and other racial minorities know better than anybody about the cruelties of police brutality, rooted in racial prejudice. Although “Popeye” was originally Eddie Egan’s nickname, and it had nothing to do with the cartoon character; his counterpart in the film is fictional enough to allow the false association with the cartoon hero, a false association especially justified when seen in light of Doyle’s introduction to us dressed as another children’s hero, Santa Claus.

When we see the cops as representatives of the middle class, or the upwardly-mobile petite bourgeoisie, we can see Doyle’s avuncular phoniness in its proper light. He pretends to be kind to the black boys because it’s part of his job; later, he’ll make no secret of his racism against blacks, Italians, Jews, the French, and Latinos (listen for his racial/ethnic slurs against all of these groups throughout the film).

Bourgeois liberals pretend to be kind to the less fortunate as long as their own class status isn’t threatened; when it is, though, they show their true colours, and the hero costuming is thrown aside, as it is when Doyle and Cloudy chase the knife-swinging black junkie, who slashes at them only in self-defence.

Only people as naïve as children would be fooled by the fake kindness of a petite bourgeois who ultimately keeps the class structure of society intact through force. This Popeye, this Santa, is no hero.

Doyle and Cloudy catch the guy, a representative of the proletariat and lumpenproletariat, and they engage in a kind of word salad to disorient him and manipulate him into confessing his crimes: “picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” We see and hear this manipulation of our feelings with language all the time in the media, which distracts us with nonsense, so we won’t see the true nature of class relations around us.

Don Ellis‘s dissonant music for the film perfectly captures this sense of class conflict, as well as the seedy, slimy underbelly of New York.

Let’s now consider the drugs themselves, and what they mean in the context of this movie. Whether they’re heroin, pills, or marijuana, it doesn’t matter: they’re a commodity, representative of all commodities–use-values for all of us who need them or are addicted to them (in whatever way they may be addictive–literally as drugs, or a necessity or craving of some other kind), and exchange values for those who sell them, ultimately the ruling class of capitalist mafias.

Speaking of exchanges–and remember that in our imperialist, modern world, these exchanges often happen between countries–an exchange is being planned between Charnier’s heroin dealers in France and the American dealers in New York, including Sal Boca and Joel Weinstock.

These capitalists are the middle men who produce nothing, but make a huge profit in the exchange. They make a fortune exploiting the drug addicts with their commodity, while whoever makes the commodity is, in all probability, paid little in proportion to the value of the commodity they make–in this film’s case, some of the best quality heroin of the time.

Of all the people to be judging and attacking the black junkies, Popeye Doyle and cops of his ilk are the last who should be doing it. Doyle has a drug of his own–alcohol–and on top of that, he’s a womanizer, chasing pussy as much as he chases perps. The juxtaposition of these two pursuits should help us understand his real reason for doing it…desire.

He’s hardly stopping the “bad guys,” for he’s hardly any better than they are. Apart from his addiction to alcohol and women, he’s trigger happy, his violent excesses resulting in the needless deaths of his fellow cops, and he’s willing to shoot perps in the back. Some would call that murder, save for the police’s licence to kill.

As a cop, and as a womanizer, Doyle is a predator. A deleted scene shows him in his car, going after a pretty girl riding a bicycle (about 12 minutes into this video); as part of his plan to seduce her, he accuses her of breaking the law on her bike. He also takes her bicycle to ride around backwards on it, to harass her for the fun of it, as well as to manipulate her into bed. Some would say his behaviour borders on, if not lapses into, sexual assault.

So when we see him eyeballing, following, and chasing perps, whether by foot or by car, his pursuing shouldn’t be so naïvely misconstrued as a “good guy” going after the “bad guys.” I would compare Doyle to a character in Buddhist myth, namely, Ańgulimāla.

Having already killed almost a thousand victims, Ańgulimāla wanted his thousandth kill to be either the Buddha or–egad!–his mother. He chose the former, whom he chased after. Odd thing, though: the Buddha walked slowly while his would-be murderer raced after and could never catch up to him. Instead, the Buddha got further and further away from him!

Charnier’s calm elusiveness, if not his morality, can be compared to that of the Buddha. Doyle’s rage and frustration–as well as his immorality–from racing after and never catching “Frog One” is easily comparable to that of Ańgulimāla. Doyle is the archetypal “bad cop” to Cloudy’s “good cop.” Cloudy follows the rules, Doyle disregards them. Still, Cloudy supports his partner, just as bourgeois liberals, despite their “progressive” stance, defend the capitalist system. (Consider “progressive” Elizabeth Warren’s support of Hillary Clinton in 2016.)

Since I consider the cops to be an allegorical representation of the middle class, this lawful “good cop” and lawless “bad cop” can also be seen to represent two different kinds of capitalist: respectively, the liberal who advocates a ‘kinder, gentler’ capitalism (Cloudy), and a deregulated “free market” capitalism (Doyle), the neoliberal kind that not only fails to stop the ruling, haute bourgeoisie (Charnier), but actually reinforces neoliberalism‘s brutality and cruelty (Doyle’s violence).

What is Doyle’s reason for taking Cloudy to the Copacabana, a bar with rich mafiosi at one table, beginning the chain of events that lead to the heroin bust? Doyle wants to go there because of desire, his wish to get drunk and chase skirt. Here we see, in a symbolic sense, the root cause of his hunger to catch “Frog One”: Doyle is projecting, onto Charnier et al, his own desire for power over others. There’s a fine line between cop and criminal.

To be fair, there are always some individual good cops out there who honestly, though misguidedly, wish to do their part to make the world a better place by fighting crime. Nonetheless, this doesn’t change the fact that the purpose of law enforcement (outside the militsiya of the USSR and Soviet Bloc countries) is to protect the private property of the capitalist class. Doyle’s predation on Charnier is just a symbolizing of how capitalists, big or small, sometimes step on each other as well as on the poor.

Drug addiction should be considered a health issue rather than an excuse to lock people up. Junkies should be put into rehabnot behind bars, then exploited as prison slave labour. That cops like Doyle and Cloudy go after both the sellers and the buyers of dope shows they aren’t interested in doing what’s right: they only want to have power over others, then after (hopefully) successful busts, they can climb up the ranks of the police force.

By catching Charnier, Boca, et al, Doyle hopes to mend his shattered reputation as a cop. He’s accidentally caused the death of another cop, something about which federal agent Bill Mulderig won’t stop taunting him. Doyle’s wish to improve his social status is the motivation behind any bourgeois, from petite to haute.

Many in the middle class, be they left-leaning liberals or right-wing libertarians, despise the ruling class; but they hate the elite for the wrong reasons (feeling envy and indignation that the elite got to the top unfairly, while thinking that having a top-down society is still defensible), and/or their approaches to ending the inequality are hopelessly wrongheaded.

Doyle’s and Cloudy’s failure to catch Charnier, coupled with the largely minimal punishments meted out to the other criminals, symbolizes how the middle class’s conflict with the upper classes ends in failure every time. The global proletariat, united in solidarity, is the only hope in defeating the rich.

As Doyle and Cloudy are eyeing the mafia patrons at a table in the Copacabana, The Three Degrees are singing Jimmy Webb‘s “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon.” Everybody enjoys the electric performance of this black female trio, Angie Boca–in a blonde wig–clapping and shouting, “More!” In mostly white bourgeois society, being talented performers is just about the only way blacks can be included. Everybody fantasizes that he can get up as high as the moon, a lunatic land of filthy lucre, but few really get to go there in the real world. We’re just stuck down here on the Earth.

Sal Boca is upwardly-mobile, too, and with a dirty past (like Doyle); and he hopes that with this heroin deal, he and Angie can rise up to the ranks of the ruling class. Envious Doyle will do all he can to thwart Boca’s and Charnier’s hopes; Doyle is envious Cassius, Cloudy is well-meaning Brutus, Boca is rising Mark Antony, and Charnier is all-powerful Julius Caesar.

Doyle and Cloudy go into another bar frequented by black dope addicts, whom the two men bully, then they ruin their drugs. Since, as I’ve argued above, the black junkies represent the oppressed proletariat, and their drugs represent commodities in general, the ruining of them by the cops–who represent the middle class/petite bourgeoisie–represents capitalism’s depriving of the poor of the necessities of life. Addiction in this movie symbolizes hunger.

A black informant, who pretends to be another junkie bullied by Doyle (yet receives real punches and shoves), tells the cop about a major shipment of heroin to come in a week. The informant thus represents class collaboration.

All the local addicts have been going through a relative dry spell, with very little, if any, junk to enjoy; but when this heroin arrives, their troubles will be over…or so they hope. This lack of drugs, again, represents hunger and starvation, especially the kind suffered in the Third World. So, again, the drug bust, from the point of view of the addicts, represents every thwarted attempt developing countries make to improve their lot, i.e., through electing leftist governments overthrown by the US.

Charnier and his heroin business, however, must not–through the analogy of the above three paragraphs–be confused with any kind of liberation movement. Their profiting off of the addictions of the blacks represents the capitalist system’s enslaving of all of us to the need for commodities as exchange values. The junkies’ addiction is just commodity fetishism, which is also symbolized by the chemist’s assessment of the quality of the heroin about to be sold to the American dealers. We’re in awe of the value of the final product, but we pay no attention to the process of creating that value…which has come from workers.

Allied to this fetishizing of the commodity of heroin is how it can be compared to soma in Brave New World. The high is a religious-like ecstasy, and as we know, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Charnier, the supplier, is thus like a false spiritual leader, a fake Buddha, if you will, who calmly eludes the racing, raging Ańgulimāla that is Doyle in the subway. Like the cops, Charnier only seems good, that is, from the junkies’ point of view, since they so crave his ‘soma.’ (<<Every junkie gets to go to a moon of a different kind.) People at the top of any hierarchy–political, religious, etc.–can fool the masses into thinking they make good leaders.

Note how oppressors of the lower classes can be as masochistic as they are sadistic. Doyle seduces the girl on the bike, but she uses his handcuffs to chain him to his bed. He seems rather amused when he calls her a “crazy kid.” Similarly, there’s a deleted scene (starting at about 5:40 here) in which Nicoli pays a prostitute to whip him; nonetheless, he threatens her by grabbing her at the throat when she complains that he’s fifty dollars short. The upper classes always cheat the working class, including sex workers.

Recall the corrupt ones in power in Sade‘s erotic writing, who enjoy receiving as well as giving pain. Many examples can be found in Juliette. Recall also Freud’s words, “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist” (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality). Finally, recall Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, which can be symbolized by these ‘sadomasochistic’ scenes.

The sadist in Nicoli comes out again when he opts to shoot Doyle, even when it seems unnecessary and even dangerous to Charnier. After the failed attempt in a sniper shooting, which kills a mother standing near Doyle just outside his home, it’s the cop’s turn to display his sadistic tendencies in the famous car/train chase scene.

While catching the sniper before he can have a chance to strike again is understandable, the lengths Doyle is willing to go to in order to catch Nicoli are far beyond reasonable. He knows perfectly well how outrageously he’s breaking the law in his pursuit, but he does it anyway.

Beeping the car horn in an endless ostinato, he drives through red light after red light, cutting other drivers and pedestrians off, and speeding like a maniac. He’s the classic case of a driver who thinks he ‘owns the road.’ This is reckless driving in the extreme, endangering people’s lives on every inch of the road he’s going over in the car he’s commandeering.

What he’s doing isn’t about the cops catching a perp–this is a personal vendetta. The hunter and hunted have simply switched roles: it isn’t ‘the good guys’ going after ‘the bad guys.’ This chase symbolizes, as does the rest of the movie, the class conflict between the rising petite bourgeoisie (Doyle et al) and the haute bourgeoisie (Charnier et al), while the proletariat (the junkies) gain nothing in the exchange.

That Doyle is no less a criminal than Nicoli is clear when the former shoots the latter in the back. At such close range, from the bottom to the top of a staircase, Doyle could have shot Nicoli in the leg or the arm; he chooses the back because he wants to kill him, just as he wants to kill Charnier (which he does at the end of French Connection II), and just as he doesn’t care at all if he kills or injures anyone during the car/train chase.

Police advisers on the set objected to Doyle’s shooting of Nicoli precisely on the grounds that it’s murder, but Friedkin defended the shooting, knowing that such a move is exactly what the real Popeye, Egan, would have done…and this should tell you something about real cops.

Note how, throughout this movie, we never see the production of the heroin, nor the use of it by the junkies; we only see the circulation process of the commodity, an issue focused on in Capital, Vol. II, something the capitalist would prefer to get through as quickly as possible, to bring about the turnover and put his capital back into production. A speed-up of the “switch” is what Charnier wants, surely not only for his own safety from the predatory cops, but also to keep his business moving.

This circulation process of exchanging a commodity for money (C-M), or money for a commodity (M-C), is the focal point of capitalism. So we learn of the heroin smuggled into the US in the car of French TV personality Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), hidden in the rocker panels, as well as the plan to sell it to Weinstock and Boca.

When the “switch” happens, we see the full explosion of class conflict, of “one capitalist always strikes down many others” (Marx, page 929), as symbolized in the shootout in the abandoned factory between the cops and the American and French mafiosi. Cloudy shoots Boca, and Doyle follows Charnier into a filthy, abandoned warehouse.

Mulderig–who, recall, has been taunting Doyle about having killed a cop–is also looking around the filthy place, its filthiness symbolic of the destruction and decay caused by the ownership of private property. Trigger-happy Doyle hears Mulderig and, thinking he’s Charnier, shoots him. Feeling not even the slightest remorse, and probably glad he killed him (Was the shooting a kind of Freudian slip?), Doyle continues hunting Charnier, whom he never catches.

A gunshot is heard offscreen, presumably Doyle’s, since he so badly wants to kill Charnier. This is the way the film ends, not only with a bang, but also a whimpering horn. The French Connection is thus, in a way, like the French Revolution: the middle class (symbolized by Doyle et al) takes on the aristocracy (symbolized by Charnier et al), but the bourgeoisie (be they petite or above), by their very nature, never create the justice they claim to fight for…since they never really wanted it, anyway.

The French Revolution removed the monarchy, but ended up, after a bloodbath, in the dictatorship of Napoleon. Similarly, Charnier is never caught, and is presumed to be back in France; so he can continue running his heroin empire. And though Doyle and Cloudy are taken out of the narcotics bureau, cops will still go around busting junkies instead of helping to end the problem of addiction in general. This symbolizes how the same class structure stays intact, regardless of whether the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy is at the top.

Ask the Communards, or the gilets jaunes, what they think of the ‘liberal democracy’ that replaced the French monarchy, with Macron as the new Napoleon. The new boss is essentially the same as the old boss…because he is a boss. Violence is always there, too. Hence the bang, and the whimper.

The Psychoanalysis of Capital

In order to overcome the hegemony of the capitalist, we must cultivate an understanding of his inner mental state. I believe that psychoanalysis can help us gain insight into the mind of not only the bourgeoisie, but also all of us who are in their thrall.

I discussed much of this already in such posts as The Self/Other Dialectic, The Narcissism of Capital, and The Psychoanalysis of Narcissistic Parental Abuse; if you read those posts, this one will be easier to follow. Here, I will reorganize and add to those three posts’ ideas by directly following the course of history of psychoanalytic developments, starting with Freud (dwelling only a little on him, though, since he was wrong much more often than he was right, and since his theories are of little help in promoting socialism, for which he had little more than criticism), and ending with Lacan (again, briefly dwelling on him, since his obscurantism and verbosity are of little help to anyone, especially the working class).

Of Freud’s ideas, the superego is probably the most useful, if not the only useful one; for in the superego, we find the cruel, unforgiving inner critic, an internalized object representing our parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other authority figures who berate us and chide us for failing to measure up to the unattainable ego ideal.

The shame that we feel from our failures, be they moral, financial, or career ones, drives us to over-compensate by an appeal to shame’s dialectical opposite: pride. If that pride can’t be felt through success and having power over others, which is the goal of the capitalist, it can be felt through ego defence mechanisms (fully systematized by Freud’s daughter, Anna). If these mechanisms won’t give the capitalist pride, he can at least use them to fend off feelings of shame, often by simply shaming others.

Freud and his daughter, Anna, who both elaborated on defence mechanisms.

Feelings of moral pride can be felt by the capitalist in the form of reaction formation: he won’t admit that his preferred economic system results in unaccountable private tyranny, including prison slave labour in the US; instead, he’ll prate about how capitalism promotes ‘freedom‘ (i.e., the deregulation that frees Big Business to overwork and underpay labourers, and to accumulate more and more wealth for himself, at everyone else’s expense), contrasting this ‘freedom‘ with the spurious history of ‘tyrannical’ socialist states.

The capitalist often takes pride in his identification with authority figures. The fascist–a hyper-capitalist, really–narcissistically identifies with leaders like Hitler and his in-group, a regime propped up by Big Business; as I’ve said many times before, associating the Nazis (just because of their name, ‘National Socialist’) with the left is sheer idiocy. As we can see, Anna Freud’s notion of identification with the aggressor can be seen as one of many capitalist defence mechanisms.

The capitalist may engage in fantasy, using, for example, his religious beliefs to give him a false sense of moral pride. He may imagine that all his sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ, and that his rigid faith in a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity (as opposed to those ‘wishy-washy liberal,’ or–egad!–Marxian interpretations, like liberation theology) makes his ‘moral’ position all the more justified.

The fantasy of this Christian faith could be Catholic or conservative Protestant, whose work ethic, clearly in the service of capitalism, results in a financial success strongly implying God’s favour and reward with grace. Thus, instead of helping “one of the least of these my brethren,” he can rationalize his abandoning of the poor by saying their ‘failure’ in life comes from a slothful loss of faith, and thus proves their non-elect status.

The capitalist can further rationalize his class status by giving to charity, which, apart from giving him a sweet tax break, also gives him an illusory cleaning of his conscience. Oh, he gave a little money to the poor…what a kind philanthropist! Never mind that the scraps given to charity do little of substance to pull the starving millions in the Third World out of poverty.

The capitalist routinely engages in denial about how his pet economic system leads to terrible wealth inequality, political corruption, and imperialist war. He claims that “taxation is theft” (i.e., taxing the bourgeoisie to give financial aid to the poor), but denies that overworking and underpaying labourers (which includes paying less than the minimum wage) is actual theft. Similarly, he blames political corruption and war on the state, ignoring the bourgeoisie’s role in maintaining the state apparatus.

Part of this denial expresses itself in displacement, as we could see in the above paragraph, by shifting the blame for the world’s woes from capitalism–the rightful blaming of which would cause him unbearable cognitive dissonance–onto the state alone. He could, however, displace the blame onto other scapegoats: immigrants, Jews, Muslims, Freemasons, or anyone else seen as opposing his interests, or those of Church orthodoxy.

Another part of this blame-shifting is expressed in projection, a pushing out of inner guilt onto other people, other organizations, or other political institutions. The capitalist is responsible for the millions who die every year (especially children under five) of malnutrition and starvation, when the entire world could be fed, provided we disregard the profit motive and spread the food around properly while keeping it fresh; yet the capitalist blames communism for ‘creating‘ famines in the Ukraine, China, and Cambodia, without properly researching the history behind those problems, or examining how Bolshevism largely ended Russian famines.

The capitalist projects his hunger for power onto communists by falsely equating them with fascism, an ideology not only far closer to capitalism than it could ever be to the left, but also a menace defeated far more by Stalin‘s Red Army than it was by the Western Allies, who joined in the fight only at the last minute, and sacrificed far fewer lives. Communists, on the other hand, want the power to end hunger.

The fundamentalist Christian capitalist will project his hunger for global domination onto any group (not just the communists) who deny that his world vision is exclusively the correct one. A large part of the motive for European countries to colonize the world in previous centuries was to make the whole world Christian, by force if necessary. They also wanted to dominate the global market. Therefore, losing such dominance, both religious and economic, is most upsetting to them.

Groups like the Jews, Freemasons, and the Illuminati denied the ‘exclusive truth’ of the Church, whose black-and-white worldview considers such an inclusive position to be anti-Christian, therefore Satanic. It isn’t a far leap to go from these ‘Satanic’ beliefs to a paranoid fear that these groups wish to spread this ‘Satanism’ worldwide. The secrecy of the Freemasons, coupled with the spread of secularism over the past two hundred years, makes it easy for the paranoid fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theorist to project his own wish for global domination onto these ‘Devil worshippers.’ Ditto for the imagined leftist global dominance.

This projection is coupled with the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good (i.e., fundamentalist Christians and ‘free market’ capitalists) and absolute evil (i.e., ‘Devil worshippers’ and socialists). With their black vs. white worldview, people with right-wing thinking can’t deal with ambiguity, or the possibility of a grey area in between.

Melanie Klein, who wrote much about splitting.

This dichotomous thinking is psychologically, unconsciously rooted, according to Melanie Klein, in the baby’s relationship with its mother, when she is perceived only as a part-object, namely, the breast. When it gives milk, it’s the “good breast“; when it doesn’t, it’s the “bad breast.” This part-object is perceived to be an extension of the baby.

Later, the baby comes to realize the breast is part of a complete human being, separate from the baby–a whole object, its mother. When she satisfies the baby’s needs and desires, she’s the “good mother”; when she frustrates the baby, she’s the “bad mother.” The same applies to its father in his good and bad aspects.

The baby’s irritation with the “bad mother” causes it to use splitting as a defence mechanism, resulting in the paranoid-schizoid position. The baby’s hostility makes it want to harm its mother in unconscious phantasy. Later, if the baby doesn’t see its mother for a lengthy time, it wonders if its hostility has either killed its mother or provoked a vengeful attitude in her. Now, it’s in the depressive position, longing for reparation with her, and soon seeing the “good” and “bad mother” merged into one person.

These two positions aren’t experienced only in infancy. They reappear again and again throughout life; we feel a swinging back and forth between the two, like a pendulum, all the way to our deaths, but instead of feeling them only for our parents, we can feel them for anybody or any organization of people we encounter in life.

The paranoid-schizoid position, or splitting as a defence mechanism, is like the confrontation of the thesis with its negation, where the ouroboros bites its tail on a circular continuum at which extreme opposites meet. The depressive position, where one learns to appreciate ambivalence, is the sublation of the dialectical contradictions, the circular middle of the serpent’s body, every intermediate point on the continuum, between the extreme opposites. This middle area is where contradictions are reconciled.

With their dualistic theology, fundamentalist Christians can’t grasp any reality other than where the serpent’s teeth are biting into its tail: God vs. Satan. Consequently, any belief system other than their own is seen as being of the Devil: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8) Furthermore, any capitalism (Keynesian, social democratic, New Democrat-oriented) other than that of the “free market” variety is really just a variation, it would seem, of socialism! You’re with us, or you’re the enemy.

We Marxists, on the other hand, aren’t so black and white in our thinking as the average Christian fundamentalist or neoliberal capitalist. For, as opposed to capitalism as we are, we nonetheless acknowledge its place in our materialist conception of history. The bourgeois French Revolution, for example, was a necessary development away from feudalism, though its results were far from our communist ideal.

Similarly, Lenin’s NEP was an acknowledgement of the need for a temporary “state capitalism” to resolve the problems of the USSR in the 1920s. Yugoslavia’s Titoism was also a market socialism. China‘s and Vietnam‘s bringing back of the market, albeit in a heavily state regulated form, is yet another example of the socialist’s ambivalent attitude towards capitalism; and while I have my doubts about the validity of the extent to which this attempted reconciliation of the market with Marxism-Leninism has gone, we must nonetheless acknowledge that many Marxist-Leninists are capable of such ambivalence about what we’re ideologically opposed to.

Capitalists, on the other hand, don’t have the same level of ambivalence towards socialism. While such social democratic systems as the Nordic Model have adapted their market economies to accommodate the needs of workers, and have free education and healthcare, they are nonetheless forms of capitalism, they have retained the class character of society, and they plunder the Third World as rapaciously, if not so much in a military sense, as the more overtly capitalist countries. Their concessions to the poor are meant to stave off communist revolution, not to encourage it.

WRD Fairbairn, who replaced Freud’s drive-oriented id/ego/superego personality structure with an object-seeking one.

WRD Fairbairn made a more systematic study of splitting. He replaced Freud’s id/ego/superego personality structure with one in which libido is object-directed, not drive-directed. For Fairbairn, Freud’s ego became the Central Ego, linked to an Ideal Object, since having relationships with real people is the ideal for mental health. (Here, ‘object‘ = other people.)

Inevitably, though, and in varying degrees, depending on the severity of our parents’ lack of empathy for us, we feel portions of our Central Ego/Ideal Object break off and split into a Libidinal Ego, which is linked to an Exciting Object (approximately paralleling Freud’s id), and an Anti-libidinal Ego, linked to a Rejecting Object (vaguely corresponding to Freud’s superego).

With the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration, we find ourselves replacing relationships with friends and family, with mere pleasure-seeking (drugs, sex, money, etc.). The Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration causes us to be nasty, alienating, and rejecting of other people. The viciousness and rudeness in today’s world seems an epidemic.

Herein we can see a link with capitalist alienation. The lack of kindness and empathy in the early family situation inhibits the development of proper human relationships, the Central Ego and its Ideal Object, which are replaced by internal ego/object relations that are divorced from reality.

Fairbairn pointed out that explicit pleasure-seeking indicates a failure of object-relationships, since for him, the libido is aimed at relationships with people, not things like money [Fairbairn: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (p. 139-140)].

I’ve written in other posts about characters in fiction and film whose social alienation results, on the individual level, in either miserliness or violence…on the social level, we find it ballooning into extreme income inequality and imperialism.

Heinz Kohut, who investigated and treated narcissism.

The lack of empathic parenting can also lead to pathological levels of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation. Heinz Kohut did a systematic study of narcissistic personality disorders, as well as how to treat them with empathy in the idealizing and mirror transferences. Treatment of narcissism is important for socialists, as this pathology attracts its sufferers to positions of corrupting power.

The lack of empathic parents to look up to as idealizing role models, coupled with a lack of empathic mirroring of a child’s own narcissism, causes the child to fail to develop mature, restrained narcissism, which is supposed to be let down in bearable, gradual steps. Instead, narcissism balloons into a bloated, unhealthy state, and the afflicted individual looks for others to idealize, such as political demagogues with similar narcissistic tendencies. A narcissist identifying with another of his ilk will feel narcissistic injury and rage if his idealized leader is criticized.

I’ve been subjected to such rage whenever my readers come across passages in which I point out Trump’s narcissism, a point so obvious it hardly seems controversial. Added to the narcissistic identification with, and idealization of, Trump, is the black-and-white thinking of splitting. And the Trump supporters aren’t the only ones who have that problem: he’s God-appointed (absurdly) to his supporters; and to the liberals who oppose him, he’s the Devil incarnate (also an absurd position–his faults are of the standard bourgeois type), and Hillary is idealized instead (even more absurdly).

Again, we communists have a more nuanced, ambivalent take on Trump. Yes, he’s awful, but we can give credit where credit is due: he opposes war with Russia, which should be a no-brainer for liberals. His pulling American troops out of Syria (and maybe Afghanistan) is something we see as in itself a good thing, though I question his motives for doing so (boosting his popularity, saving government revenue by having other countries–and mercenaries–do the fighting for the US…in other words, the wars are not ending!…while having kept military spending needlessly bloated [does he mean it when he calls this spending ‘crazy‘?] instead of using that money to help the American poor).

Liberals refuse to acknowledge him doing anything right for the same narcissistic reasons that Trump conservatives refuse to admit he’s ever done anything wrong. Thus, pussy-hat-wearing liberals support equally narcissistic Hillary Clinton, whom they idealize instead. It’s all splitting, and identifying with him or with his antithesis.

So, as I’ve said, the cure to all of this alienating and splitting is to cultivate more empathy in the family situation, and in our interpersonal relationships in general. That will mean focusing on what unifies us over what divides us.

Such unifying thinking is perfectly harmonious with Marxist thought, as dialectical materialism is all about reconciling contradictions. Part of reconciling the contradiction between rich and poor will involve reconciling psychological splitting, replacing the black-and-white mentality, or us vs. them thinking, with WE thinking, replacing alienation with solidarity.

D.W. Winnicott.

I believe an understanding of object relations theory can help us in this regard, for Klein, Fairbairn, and DW Winnicott–among the other theorists in this psychoanalytic school–demonstrated how our relationships with others are based on our original relationships with our early caregivers. Whatever is going wrong in our current relationships is probably based, at least to a large extent, on our faulty relationships with our parents; for the faults in those early experiences create a kind of blueprint for what ensues.

Authoritarian parents, especially religious ones, tend to cause us to choose authoritarian leaders and forms of religion, as well as authoritarian economic systems like the boss vs. wage slave hierarchical relationship in capitalism. This latter relationship causes one to have what Erich Fromm called the “having” (as opposed to “being”) way of living.

This “having” mentality causes one to base one’s happiness on how much stuff one owns, gaining narcissistic supply (and thus, a False Self, too) from conspicuous consumption; whereas a “being” way of life focuses more on how to be happy by being one’s own True Self, with a happiness coming from enjoying object relationships (family, friends, community, etc.). Togetherness with others is how we all were meant to be, not living just to help a boss make profits.

We’ll go from capitalist materialism (via dialectical materialism) to this state of community life by, as I’ve argued elsewhere, going beyond the pairs of opposites, noting the unity between self and other, and putting all the pieces together by realizing how everything flows from one dialectical opposite to the other.

Erich Fromm.

On the ‘having mode of existence,’ in Fromm’s own words: “[The] dead, sterile aspect of gold is shown in the myth of King Midas. He was so avaricious that his wish was granted that everything he touched became gold. Eventually, he had to die precisely because one cannot live from gold. In this myth is a clear vision of the sterility of gold, and it is by no means the highest value…” (Fromm, p. 61)

And, Fromm on the ‘being mode of existence’: “There is more: this being-in-the-world, this giving-oneself-to-the-world, this self-transformation in the act of life, is only possible when man loses his greediness and stinginess and abandons his self as an isolated, fixed ego that stands opposed to the world. Only when man abandons this self, when he can empty himself (to use the language of mystics), only then can he fill himself entirely. For he must be empty of his egotistical self in order to become full of what comes to him from the world.” (Fromm, p. 65)

Furthermore: “Joy, energy, happiness, all this depends on the degree to which we are related, to which we are concerned, and that is to say, to which we are in touch with the reality of our feelings, with the reality of other people, and not to experience them as abstractions that we can look at like the commodities at the market. Secondly, in this process of being related, we experience ourselves as entities, as I, who is related to the world. I become one with the world in my relatedness to the world, but I also experience myself as a self, as an individuality, as something unique, because in this process of relatedness, I am at the same time the subject of this activity, of this process, of relating myself. I am I, and I am the other person, but I am I too. I become one with the object of my concern, but in this process, I experience myself also as a subject.” (Fromm, pages 66-67)

Finally: “In this state of experience, the separation of subject from object disappears, they become unified by the bond of human active relatedness to the object.” (Fromm, p. 67)

To raise children in this healthier way needn’t require anything even approaching ‘perfect’ parenting–after all, what is ‘perfect parenting‘ anyway? All that’s needed is what Winnicott called good enough parenting, to help infants make the transition from the paranoid-schizoid position, one also where the baby makes no distinction between self and other, to the capacity for concern, as Winnicott called it, where the baby recognizes both good and bad in its parents (and, by extension, both good and bad in all people), as well as acknowledging the parents (and, by extension, all other people) as not an extension of itself (realizing ‘me’ vs. ‘not-me’).

We paradoxically recognize our togetherness, yet also our individual integrity, so that we’re united enough to feel mutual empathy, yet also distinct enough from each other to realize we don’t have the right to exploit others, out of a misguided belief that others are extensions of ourselves.

So, by fixing the psychological splits, alienation, and fragmentation in ourselves, we can begin to fix what’s broken in society. By not narcissistically identifying with an idealized, but illusory and self-alienating, mirror (as Lacan observed), and replacing these false images (including idealized self-images projected onto demagogues) with the communal symbols of language (i.e., real, meaningful communication), we can cultivate mutual love.

…and from love, we can create a revolutionary situation, toppling the narcissists and psychopaths at the top of the social and economic hierarchy, and thus create a community of equals. As Che Guevara once said, ““The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Erich Fromm, The Essential Fromm: Life Between Having and Being, Continuum, New York, 1995

Analysis of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’

In the Court of the Crimson King: an Observation by King Crimson is a 1969 progressive rock album by King Crimson, the band’s debut. Its dark, lugubrious, and portentous sound, combining woodwinds and the Moody Blues symphonic sound of the Mellotron with rock, helped define the art rock genre that would soon be represented by such bands as Yes, Genesis (the Peter Gabriel/Steve Hackett era), Jethro Tull, ELP (whose L was Greg Lake, King Crimson’s original bassist/singer), Gentle Giant, and Van der Graaf Generator.

Pete Townshend endorsed the album, calling it “an uncanny masterpiece,” and while it initially got a mixed critical response, it was commercially successful (making an unusually good ranking, for a King Crimson album, on the charts), and it’s now considered a classic.

Here is a link to all the lyrics.

The cover, a painting by Barry Godber (1946–1970), shows a closeup of a terrified face, reminding me of Edvard Munch‘s The Scream. The inside cover, a dominant blue to contrast the dominant pink of the outer cover, shows a face with an evil grin to contrast with the outer face.

The album was released in October 1969, when opposition to the Vietnam War was at its height. I’ve always thought, mistakenly, that “King Crimson,” coined by lyricist/light-show man Peter Sinfield, was meant as a synonym for the Devil; apparently, a ‘crimson king‘ is historically understood to mean a ruler mired in blood, one governing during a period of great civil unrest and war. Somehow, though, the Devil metaphor doesn’t seem too far off the mark. Certainly, US imperialism was, and is now even more so, a devilish crimson king for our time.

The first song on the album, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is prophetic to us now, from its title alone. “Schizoid” should be understood to mean the fragmented character of the modern personality. We’re all split, not in the schizophrenic or split personality senses, but in the sense of dividing the inner representations of our objects (e.g., other people in relation to oneself, the subject) into absolute good and bad–friends and foes, rather than the actual mixes of good and bad in each of us and them.

This dichotomous attitude, taken to an extreme, has led us to all of these horrible wars–the Vietnam War of the time of the album’s release, and all the wars we’ve had in this schizoid 21st century. The psychological fragmentation of modern man is symbolized in these lyrics–disjointed, standalone images of violence: “Cat’s foot, iron claw…Blood rack, barbed wire…Death seed, blind man’s greed.”

Neurosurgeons scream for more/At paranoia’s poison door.” I suspect, given the song’s focus on “paranoia” and being “schizoid,” that neurosurgeons is meant more metaphorically than literally. This seems especially plausible, since Freud shifted from neuropathology (via a study of neurosis) to psychoanalysis. Hence, for neurosurgeons, read psychiatrists, who have often forsaken their duty to their patients for the sake of profit. Also, there has been all that psychiatric complicity during the ‘War on Terror.’

“Politicians’ funeral pyre/Innocents raped with napalm fire” is an obvious reference to the Vietnam War, though of course the use of napalm can equally apply to any modern war from WWII till Nam, and a number of wars fought since this album was made.

The fast middle section of the song, mostly a change from 4/4 to 6/8, is called “Mirrors.” Given how Lacan‘s mirror gives us a falsely unified sense of self, to the point of alienating oneself from the reflected image, the title of this frantic, dissonant (i.e., Ian McDonald‘s alto sax solo) section–and with its awkward time changes during the fast-picked, alternating 4/16 to 6/16 “down-up” guitar part, doubled by the sax, towards the section’s end–reflects that spastic alienation from oneself, as “I Talk to the Wind” (the following track) reflects alienation from other people (more on that later).

The last verse demonstrates the root cause, the “Death seed,” of all this madness, killing, and suffering: “blind man’s greed,” also known as capitalism. The blindness of these greedy men comes from the capitalist’s denial that his economic system is responsible for the woes of the world–typically blaming the problem on the state, while proposing a ‘free market‘ solution instead…as if we haven’t had enough deregulation and tax cuts for the rich as it is. “Poets starve” because the profit motive has no use for art unless it can make money, thus cheapening art and turning poetry into the titillating superficiality of performers like Nicki Minaj.

Imperialist war makes “children bleed”: consider what happened to Phan Thị Kim Phúc, or what’s happening to Yemeni children now, to see my point. The super-rich have so much money, they don’t know what to do with it; so on the one hand, they avoid taxes by putting their money into offshore bank accounts, and on the other, their addiction to money drives them to cause more wars for the sake of profits for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, et al. Hence, “Nothing he’s got he really needs.”

Because of all these horrors, the song’s chaotic, dissonant ending shouldn’t surprise anyone: ever-increasing neoliberal, capitalist imperialism will inevitably lead to barbarism. Small wonder guitarist/bandleader Robert Fripp once introduced the song in a 1969 concert, dedicating it to Spiro T. Agnew. Here’s a live version of the song, done by the Cross/Fripp/Wetton/Bruford lineup of 1973, which I really like. 

The very title of the second track implies social alienation. “My words are all carried away,” and not listened to. Capitalism brought the madness expressed in the first song because it also brought the alienation described in this song. While I prefer a more uptempo version sung by Judy Dyble, the sadder, slower version on the album seems more thematically appropriate.

Where has “the late man” been? He’s “been here” and “there” and “in between.” He hasn’t been with “the straight man”: he was late. He didn’t care enough about his commitment to meet the straight man to arrive on time. Alienation causes this apathy.

It also causes one to be “on the outside, looking inside,” seeing “confusion…[and] disillusion.” Those who alienate us “don’t possess,” “don’t impress,” “can’t instruct…or conduct” us…they just “upset” us and waste our time.

Epitaph,” with its “March for No Reason,” evokes such things as the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is an allusion to Macbeth, and to that crimson king’s famous speech, upon learning of the death of his queen, when he speaks of the meaninglessness of life, and our day-after-day misery.

The lyrics of “Epitaph” put our present-day troubles into historical context. The words of the writers of scripture have little meaning for us today, for the wall of their etched words “is cracking at the seams.” “The instruments of death” are historic and modern ones, and the sunlight is our knowledge of such Vietnam War atrocities as the My Lai Massacre.

We’re “torn apart with nightmares and with dreams,” for the latter are rarely fulfilled, while the former all too often come true. Media “silence drowns the screams,” for we know of far too few of the atrocities of war, especially the wars of our schizoid 21st century.

We feel “confusion…as [we] crawl a cracked and broken path” paved by the lies of those who fraudulently got the US into the Vietnam War…and now the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and “I fear tomorrow” Iran, China, and Russia.

Part of what makes this album great, sadly, is that it’s even more relevant today than it was when it was released. We’re in a new Cold War with Russia, with NATO troops along the Russian border (and in the Arctic), ready to fight. The trade war with China could escalate, especially with tensions in the South China Sea. If we can prevent these problems from getting worse, “we can all sit back and laugh, but I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.”

Fate has “iron gates,” for it seems to have an implacable will. “The seeds of time were sown” between those gates, “and watered by the deeds of those who know”–Lake’s voice seems ironic with that last word–“and who are known.” Those in authority, the ruling classes, have dominated history and our collective fate; we know them all too well. What they know–how to manipulate us, keep us divided, and make us kill each other–“is a deadly friend” without ethical rules. Our fate “is in the hands of fools,” especially today, when MAD is being disregarded in the temptation to use nukes.

The song’s ending is one of the most emotively powerful ones, if not the most powerful, of the whole album, with Lake’s expressive voice, “Crying,” and backed by Ian McDonald’s weeping Mellotron string section tapes, as well as the kettledrum rolls by drummer Michael Giles.

[As a side note, I’d like to mention that these three songs each have their own ‘new versions’ on Side One of King Crimson’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Fripp wanted to rework the first album his way, with “Pictures of a City” paralleling “Schizoid Man,” “Cadence and Cascade” paralleling “I Talk to the Wind,” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” paralleling “Epitaph.” In fact, on Side Two, towards the end of “The Devil’s Triangle” (adapted by Fripp and Ian McDonald from “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s The Planets), a little bit of the “ah…ah-ah-ah…ah-ah-ah” singing from “The Court of the Crimson King” can be heard in the background.]

Now, let’s come to Side Two.

Moonchild” begins with “The Dream,” which is the section with Lake’s singing. She is “dancing in the shallows of a river,” “dreaming in the shadows of a willow,” “gathering the flowers in a garden,” and “playing hide and seek with the ghosts of dawn.” Throughout the darkness of the gloomy night, her frolicking and “waiting for a smile from a sun child” represents our long-held hope for peace and a better world. The long instrumental improvised section, however–with its almost Bartókian night music, seemingly going on for hours in a sad minor key until McDonald’s vibraphone switches to a major key, bringing on a happy daybreak of hope–is fittingly titled “The Illusion.”

The Court of the Crimson King” includes “The Return of the Fire Witch” and “The Dance of the Puppets.” A witch casts spells, mesmerizing and transforming those under her spells; fire is desire, craving, attachment, greed, hate, and delusion. Since the Fire Witch is in the court of the crimson king, her spells keep the fire of our desires aflame, and distract us from his evildoing, keeping us ignorant of it. Similarly, the puppets’ dance keeps us mesmerized and distracted, so we’ll ignore the bloodshed, carnage, and oppression the crimson king is responsible for.

The other songs of the album have dealt with the wars, as well as the suffering, greed, alienation, fear, and misguided hope we all feel; this last song deals with the bread and circuses, the entertainment and titillation used by the bloodthirsty ones in power to keep us at bay.

“The rusted chains of prison moons/Are shattered by the sun.” The prison of dark night, of lunacy, no longer keeps us in chains when we see the sunlight of truth. “I walk a road, horizons change”: I explore what’s out there in the freedom of my thoughts, and my whole perspective changes because of this sunny enlightenment. “The tournament’s begun”: the powers-that-be are ready to contest my freedom by attempting to put me back to sleep, back in the “rusted chains” of my former lunacy, a mental illness that comes from being denied the truth. 

To lure me back into hypnotized compliance, the “purple piper plays his tune/The choir softly sing/Three lullabies in an ancient tongue…” The three lullabies seem to represent the Trinity of the authoritarian Church, tricking me into thinking all these wars are for the glory of Christ (e.g., as against Muslims, etc.).

A king’s court is full of servile flatterers, and the contemporary equivalent–the media as part of the superstructure of the ruling class–is no improvement. All this lulling, hypnotizing music of the piper, the choir, and the orchestra symbolizes the deceitful narrative we get in the mainstream media, a problem every bit as real back in the days of the Cold War–with Operation Mockingbird–as it is today, with similar mind games going on to make one wonder if Operation Mockingbird ever really ended.

“The keeper of the city keys,” who controls who can enter and leave, and thus controls us in general, “put shutters on the dreams,” preventing us from realizing them. The “pilgrim” wishes to go on a far-off journey to a far better, holier place than our corrupt city, and “I wait outside” his home, thinking of how I can help him escape, but my “insufficient schemes” can’t get us out of town.

The “black queen” of Thanatos, the death drive that inspires war and lulls us into joining her with her “chants” and ringing “cracked brass bells,” more mesmerizing music to fan the flames of desire and hate, “To summon back the Fire Witch.” We take pleasure in satisfying our desires and in causing death.

The ruling class seems to do good in one place–that is, it “plants an evergreen/Whilst trampling on a flower,” or doing evil elsewhere. Distracted by all this, “I chase” empty pleasure, “the wind” (which I aimlessly talk to, knowing it won’t hear, much less satisfy my yearnings). In Shakespeare’s day, a juggler was a “trickster, deceiver, fraud” (Crystal and Crystal, page 248); lifting his hand, the juggler makes the mesmerizing, “orchestra begin/As slowly turns the grinding wheel” of the empire of bloodshed.

“The Return of the Fire Witch” section has a pretty flute solo by McDonald. We’re lulled in the bower of bliss of our desires, not noticing the death and destruction elsewhere in the world.

The “mornings [, when] widows cry,” are “grey” because the Moonchild’s illusory hope for a sunny morning never came true: the widows’ husbands came home from Vietnam (and the other wars of recent memory) in bodybags. “The wise men [who] share a joke” are the academics of today who are full of witty, clever observations, but are cut off from the common people because they’re all in ivory towers. 

I read the newspaper propaganda, the “divining signs,” because I want to be reassured in my prejudices of what’s going on in the world, “to satisfy the hoax,” and not face the truth. This propaganda is part of what the “jester” does as he “gently pulls the strings/And smiles as the puppets dance”–all part of the ruling class’s control of the media, the minds of the public, and therefore the political direction of the world, pushing us further and further towards even more bloodshed, inequality, and despair.

“The Dance of the Puppets” section, like the “Fire Witch” one, has a sweet melody played by multi-instrumentalist McDonald; again, we’re tricked into thinking all is well, so we never hear the screams of the suffering.

The dissonance heard coming towards the end of the song (including Giles’s magnificently precise and fast drum licks) suggests the pain and sorrow hidden behind the pleasant melodies of the “Fire Witch” and “Puppets” sections. In fact, the song ends almost as chaotically and abruptly as “21st Century Schizoid Man,” fittingly bringing the whole album full circle, and reminding us of the horrors that are hidden, because the crimson king uses silence to drown the screams.