‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Three

The interminable series of commercials is over, and the news is back, with updates on the progress that the People’s Liberation Army is making all along the West coast of the island, and how feebly the local forces are trying to repel them. I just gulped down the last of my drink, and I’m off to fix myself a second Jim Beam and Coke.

With that done in my kitchen, I’ve returned with my refilled glass to the living room. Having set my glass on the coffee table and sat down, I’ve picked up the joint I rolled and I’m lighting it. I toke on it a few times and hold the smoke in for as long as I can hold my breath. I finally let it out and look down at my ecstasy pills.

I pick one up and break it in half. Before I pop it in my mouth, I look over at my window and listen to the outside gunfire and explosives for a few seconds. A gulp of my drink takes the half-pill down my gullet.

I see President Harris on the TV again. “My fellow Americans, we have a job to do,” she says in that posturing, ‘patriotic’ voice of hers. “My administration will do all it has to do to preserve and protect our fragile democracy from the aggression of autocratic Russia and China. This is our last chance at saving freedom for the world. The enemy is an evil that must be stopped at all costs.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I grunt, then reach for the remote and turn the TV off. “I can’t take any more of that.” Preserve and protect our feeble democracy, I think. What democracy, even if a feeble one, do we have in a world where the richest eight men in the world share the same amount of wealth as do the poorest half of all the world, millions of people in Third World countries? How do we all have freedom, even fragile freedom, when every time we leave our homes and go outside, we have to wear masks because of a disease that, especially now, is largely no worse than a head cold? What freedom exists in a world where we can only vote for politicians whose only concern is protecting the interests of the rich? Is protecting this ‘freedom’ worth risking nuclear annihilation? “I need music.”

I get up and go over to my CD player and CDs. I find a CD of some old South Indian Carnatic music on the Nonesuch label, music played on the flute, violin, and tabla drums. I put that on and go back to sit by the coffee table. I hear the drone of the tanpura beginning the music, and I sit back on my sofa, enjoying the high I’m getting from the joint and waiting for the E to kick in.

Thanks to the joint, everything looks, sounds, and feels slower and more intense. Music always sounds better when you’re stoned. In fact, the tapping of the tablas is, for the most part, drowning out the noise of the gunfire and explosions outside, so I don’t feel so paranoid. I reach over, pick up the joint, and take a few more puffs.

The bird-like tunes of the flute, as well as the violin glissandi, are making me feel as if I’m in the peaceful environs of nature. I sit back on the sofa, close my eyes, and imagine myself in such a serene place.

I try doing something I’ve done many times, with varying degrees of success and failure, to give myself peace of mind. I meditate on the unity of everything in the universe at the subatomic level, on how at that level, nothing really matters, because everything is all one there. If so, there is no death, because there’s no life either, with any of life’s pain and suffering. Think of how Thích Quảng Đức was able to immolate himself back in 1963.

So if I die from gunfire, a conventional bomb, or a nuke, why should I care, right? It’s only a reshuffling, as it were, of all the subatomic particles, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

A few of the explosions outside are getting louder, which is hardly reassuring for me. On the other hand, a half hour has gone by, and I can feel the E starting to kick in. Sparkly sensations of love are tingling all over my body. I just need to feel more of the illusion of protection.

Time to snort a line of K.

Thrones

She
had
the
big
chair, just
as so many
before her

used
that
seat
with
the intent to
take over and
plunder worlds.

One
may
sit
and
rest, while
many more
must fight

to
be
in
an
adequate
state of
existence.

One
can
sit
and
take it easy
on a throne
without gems,

and
the
men
and
women of the
world can be
seated as well.

So
we
in
an
abased state
must rise up
so all may sit.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Two

Lemme take another sip of my drink before I continue. Ahh, there.

My joint is rolled and ready to be lit up, my lines of ketamine are ready to be snorted, and several ecstasy pills are lying here on my coffee table, to the immediate left of the ketamine lines.

The machine gun fire and explosions outside have continued, uninterrupted, and slightly louder.

Before I get wasted, I need a moment to think.

As I hear the fighting going on outside, I wonder how many of those weapons were manufactured by Sakia. Even if none of them were (which is unlikely, given that my parents are so preoccupied with maximizing Sakia’s profits that they’re willing to sell to the Chinese on both sides of the current conflict), the principle is still the same. The whole reason for all of these wars is to enrich the coffers of weapons manufacturers like Sakia.

My mom and dad love money so much that they’re willing to sell weapons that could have their own son killed. Even if they aren’t being sold to the East Asian theatre of this new world war, they’re at least being sold to the East European NATO member countries, provoking Russia and bringing us all closer to nuclear annihilation. My parents are doing their part to ensure we’re all killed, including me.

I first started arguing with my father, Sutton Dana Gordimer, and my mother, Maya, about all the evil their profit-making was doing back when I’d learned, from reading a newspaper article, of Iraqi kids in a school bus killed when a drone missile made by Sakia hit it; this was back in the mid-2000s.

Both my parents dismissed the story as “unimportant.”

When I showed how furious I was at their callous attitude to the child victims, my mother tried to guilt-trip me over enjoying the privileged life of a rich kid, rich from Sakia’s success and my parents’ hard work. My father tossed in a little racism, not caring about the fate of “a few smelly, brown-skinned kids.”

As I learned of more and more deaths in Iraq, and later (once I’d moved here to teach English) in Libya and Syria, all the time knowing Sakia had sold billions of dollars in weapons to those who would kill these victims, I felt that I couldn’t accept any of the money Sakia made from these killings. So when my mother, during a long-distance phone call, brought up my future inheritance several years ago (she meant it to guilt-trip me for my having stopped communicating with them several years before that), I told her, in all bluntness, “I don’t want your Sakia money!”

She replied by saying, “That’s not exactly a sage decision to make, Sidney Arthur [the snobbish way she typically addressed me].”

“Oh, it’s very sage!” I retorted. “I’m the sage of Sakia, didn’t you know that? in refusing Sakia money. I won’t benefit materially from your blood money!”

“Oh, you are such an idealistic fool!” she growled, then hung up.

As far as I’m concerned, Maya Gordimer was never a mother to me, in the true sense of the word. I don’t know: maybe when I was a newborn baby, before I can remember, she had some kind of maternal feelings for me. But I’m guessing she, as a real mother, died, say, a week or so after I was born. She’s been a tyrant ever since.

As far back as I can remember, she’s always resented my very existence, and hated me for my sensitivity; I suspect she envies it, since that narcissist has none of her own. She never wanted me to have friends, or normal, healthy relationships of any kind: she always tried to make me feel too different from other people to feel as if I belonged.

She encouraged hostility, however tacitly, in my elder siblings towards me, allowing them to bully me when I was a child. When all three of them died suddenly in a car accident (several years before I moved to East Asia), and I didn’t shed even one tear for any of those who were meant to take over the company when our parents were to retire, Mom just scowled at me as if I was the unfeeling one, rather than her.

I suspect that her making my family enemies with me didn’t end with my late siblings. I suspect that she also sabotaged my friendship with my paternal cousin, David Adam Gordimer. We’d been good friends throughout our childhoods and young adulthoods; then, things turned strange…

I may be getting totally wasted on drugs and alcohol tonight, but I’m normally nowhere near this much of a druggie. David, however, always was, ever since his teens. His regular smoking of marijuana from those days, as well as his experimentation with LSD, opium, and ecstasy over the years, has surely affected his brain functioning.

I don’t know for sure, since I’m not qualified to be giving opinions in the psychiatric field, but I suspect David has developed paranoid schizophrenia. He’s had all kinds of delusional fantasies about me supposedly betraying his trust: gossiping about him with former friends of ours, stealing girlfriends and drugs from him, among other absurdities.

I suspect my mother has whispered all manner of malignant nonsense into his ears, reinforcing his paranoia and prompting him to send me abusive, incoherent word salads of emails loaded with wild, unsubstantiated accusations. It’s an abuse not so far removed from the nastiness I used to hear from my elder brothers and sister back when they were alive, hence my suspicions that the illusions of Maya were behind it all, for I’m sure she’d squirted her poison in their ears, too.

With my three siblings gone, my parents were relying on me, however reluctantly, to take over Sakia; but as I’ve said, I want nothing to do with their murderous business. They’d looked to David as a possible heir, but his increasing mental instability proved how hopeless he would be at running the company. My continuing refusal to take over the company may have been what prompted Mom to turn David against me…to spite me.

David must understand, deep down, that the world he sees and hears around himself is a surreal, hallucinatory one. He medicates himself with his cigarettes and pot to soothe and ease the terror he feels at a world he can no longer understand. He probably also envies me for my more stable mental state, though he’s projected his mental problems onto me, when repeating the nonsense my mom says about how “different” I am from everybody else.

The online abuse David has subjected me to was either through direct emails to me, or in comments on my blog, ironically called The Sage of Sakia, on which I’ve expressed my vehement opposition to my parents’ evil business. David has seen my attacks on Sakia as “treason” against the Gordimer family, rather than the principled antiwar stance that it is.

Again, I believe David envies me for having at least the ability, if not the willingness (which he has), to take over Sakia when my parents want to retire (which is coming soon, if not already upon us). Now, he hasn’t contacted me in years, unless it’s been under a fake name in a more recent abusive comment on my anti-Sakia posts.

Is he in a mental hospital? He should be, though I don’t expect anyone in the family to care enough to get him to see a doctor.

In all of my inter-family fighting over the years, whether between my mom, David, or my elder siblings on one side and me on the other, my father either neglected to say anything or he’s sided with them against me, which has been almost every time.

Some fucking family.

All the more reason for me to loathe life.

All the more reason for me to attempt an escape from it all through drugs and alcohol.

I’m going the David route…to death.

I wonder if I’ll die in a state of lunacy similar to his, only a happy one.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter One

My name is Sid, I’m forty years old, and…we’re all going to die.

Now, I’m not talking about plain, old, ordinary mortality here. I mean that all of us on this planet are going to die, and quite soon.

I’m sitting in the living room of my apartment late tonight, and I can hear the sounds of machine gun fire and far-off explosions from outside my window. I’m watching the news on my TV as I roll a joint, my right hand an inch or two away from my half-drunk glass of Jim Beam and Coke.

While all of this is happening, the last thing I want to be is sober.

President Harris is giving a press conference on the progress that the US and NATO have made in engaging the ‘enemy’: the alliance led by Russia, China, and Iran. She keeps ruling out the use of nuclear weapons, but why should we believe a word from that cackling bitch?

For almost fifteen years, I’ve been teaching English as a second language here in China…though we shouldn’t expect the Western world ever to admit that this small island is a part of China. Many, if not most, of the locals here insist it’s a country rather than a Chinese province.

Why, you may be wondering, didn’t I, a Western expat, simply leave when I had the chance, before this island became a war zone? There are several reasons: one, this is my home, of which I have no other, me being estranged from my ‘family,’ the Gordimer family, owners of Sakia, a weapons manufacturing company. As a pacifist, I have no need of any other reason to disown that family, though I have many others, as I will go into later on.

Two, my skill set as an English teacher is very limited. What am I going to do for work in my predominantly English-speaking country, where so many others are snapping up almost all of the job opportunities, as scant as they already are? I’ll doubtless be a derelict back there.

Three, and most important of all, World War Three has been going on for the past several days. This island isn’t the only place being hit, as I can hear from outside my window. Russia is counter-attacking Europe and the UK. China is hitting not only us here, but also Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada with its long-range missiles. Iran is hitting the American military bases surrounding it. North Korea has its nuclear weapons ready to fire.

Nowhere is it safe; it especially won’t be when the nukes start flying…when they start flying.

So, you see, we’re all going to die, and quite soon.

Nothing is going to save me or anyone else. Not getting off the island, not praying to a God that so obviously doesn’t exist, and not any of the wisdom contained in all the books on the bookshelves I have surrounding my TV.

No, none of my translations of Buddhist scriptures, nor the inspiration of Gautama’s mythical biography, nor my three volumes of Das Kapital, my Communist Manifesto, my Grundrisse, my Lenin anthology, my essential works of Mao Zedong, my Dialectical and Historical Materialism, nor any of my books by Melanie Klein, WRD Fairbairn, DW Winnicott, Wilfred R Bion, Heinz Kohut, or Jacques Lacan will help me.

My only escape will be a mental one, a manic defence, assisted by booze, marijuana, ecstasy pills, and a line or two of ketamine.

Yes, we, the lowly, wretched people of the Earth, are the targeted. It’s as though each of us has had a bullseye painted on his or her chest. If the bullets and conventional bombs don’t hit us, the nukes will. And even if, by some miracle, we manage to survive all of that, then the destruction of the Earth through climate change will kill us all.

If only we the people could target all the evils of the world, hit them like marksmen, and save humanity from itself. If only we ‘targeters,’ if you will, could have gone thus and stopped the warmongers from instigating what’s now the irreversible: the destruction of all life on this planet.

The targeter, having thus gone to his target, not missing the mark, would replace the error of the warmongers’ ways with the truth: namely, that those who are able should give to those in need; that ego is an illusion and we all are one; and that to harm others is to harm ourselves.

I can only dream of such a cure for the world, though. It’s already too late for us all. I hear the noisy proof of our doom from outside my window, and from the quacking of the American president on my TV.

So, in my despair, I’m using alcohol and drugs to numb my pain. If I can’t escape in body, I’ll do so in mind. May I, being a target, be too stoned to feel the incineration of my body when the time comes. May the drug trip I’m about to go on take me on a surreal journey somewhere far away, somewhere peaceful, so I won’t care when I finally die.

Analysis of ‘They Live’

They Live is a 1988 science fiction action film written and directed by John Carpenter, based on the 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, and the 1986 comic adaptation “Nada” by Nelson and artist Bill Wray. The film stars Roddy Piper, with Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, and Peter Jason.

They Live was a minor success during its release, but received negative reviews from critics for its social commentary, writing, and acting; but like other Carpenter films, it gained a cult following and more positive critical reappraisal. The film has had a huge impact on popular culture, with such iconic scenes as that of the shocked protagonist (Piper) putting on and taking off special sunglasses that reveal subliminal messages enslaving the world to aliens, and of a six-minute alley brawl between him and his eventual sidekick (David).

Here is a link to quotes from the film. Here’s a link to Nelson’s short story, and here’s a link to the comic adaptation.

The short story and comic are a straightforward narrative about a covert alien takeover of the world, with little if any sense of the aliens being among the ranks of the upper classes. Indeed, one of the aliens in Nelson’s story is disguised as “a loveable old drunk,” implying a homeless wino. Other aliens (or “Fascinators,” as they’re called in the story) are the neighbours in the apartment of Lil, the girlfriend of George Nada, the protagonist. The only suggestion that the “Fascinators” could be rich is that Nada finds “no aliens on the subway…Maybe they were too good for such things.” (PDF, page 5)

It was Carpenter (under the pseudonym of “Frank Armitage,” the name of David’s character in the film and also an allusion to Henry Armitage, a Lovecraft character) who turned Nelson’s story into an anti-capitalist allegory critical of the 1980s Reagan revolution and its war on the poor. A key element, however, retained in Nelson’s story, the comic, and the film is how the aliens use the mass media to lull the world into passive compliance with the nefarious, world-destroying agenda of the aliens.

Indeed, They Live is amazingly prescient in how it portrays the insidious effects of Reagan/Thatcher neoliberalism not only widening the gap between the rich and the poor, but also using the media to make us all passively accept our descent into ever-worsening alienation, submission to fascistic police, and mindless consumerism. The film grows more and more relevant with each passing year.

Though the anti-capitalist message should be so obvious that it doesn’t need comment, certain egregiously erroneous right-wing interpretations of who the aliens represent should be dismissed at the outset. No, they don’t represent a conspiracy of world domination by “the Jews” (capitalism, apparently, is only bad when they practice it, but when ‘good, decent Christians’ exploit the global proletariat, that’s perfectly OK [sarcasm]), or the Freemasons, or Big Government per se. Carpenter is very clear in his criticism of free enterprise, the “free market” that these right-wing morons all too often defend in their criticism of what’s wrong with today’s world. No, “small government” won’t fix our ailing society: a government that serves the people, rather than the rich, will fix it.

The film begins with Nada (Piper), a homeless drifter, walking into LA looking for work. His name is an interesting choice, being Spanish for “nothing,” and indeed, in the comic adaptation, when he dies at eight o’clock in the morning as predicted, we see the final panels showing his body decaying, being reduced to nothing, and him saying in the narration that he has become “…once…and…for…all…nada.”

As a personification of nothing, Nada represents the lumpenproletariat, thought by Marx and Engels to have no revolutionary potential, though some leftists today feel that people like Nada do have such potential…provided they are given proper guidance. When led astray, as the other Drifter (Flower) is, they can end up supporting the forces of reaction and even fascism.

Still, being “nothing” can paradoxically be everything from a dialectical perspective. We proletarian “nothings” can be everything if we come together in solidarity. Hegel’s dialectic, as expressed in his Science of Logic, finds the unity between being and nothing in becoming. In the course of this film, we certainly see Nada go on a journey from nothing to becoming something of the greatest importance.

After finding neither work nor food stamps in an employment agency, Nada walks by a park where he hears a blind street preacher (played by Raymond St. Jacques) warning his listeners of the aliens who are secretly controlling the world. He doesn’t mention aliens, so we assume at this point that he is simply talking about Satan and his demons.

The preacher is blind, yet he says the people’s enemies “have blinded us to the truth.” He is like the blind prophet Tiresias, who nonetheless could ‘see’ secret truths most people of his day could not see. This paradox of blindness vs. sight will be further developed when Nada sees through those black sunglasses.

The preacher speaks of our greed and, significantly, of “our owners,” which seems to anticipate what George Carlin would say in a rant, seventeen years after this film was made, about the real owners of the US, “the big, wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.” Police arrive at the park to shut the preacher up.

We hear the preacher’s words in a voiceover as the camera gets a shot of TV screens in a store window that night, showing Mount Rushmore, a bald eagle in flight, a cowboy on a horse, and men who seem to be celebrating winning a basketball game. All-American stuff: a colossal sculpture by a man “deeply involved in Klan politics,” and which was done on a mountain promised to the Lakota Tribe; a bird of prey aptly symbolic of the imperialist country; cowboy stereotypes; and pleasure in competition. It’s all on Cable 54, a station whose significance will be seen later. Nada walks by as a dazed black man is watching the TVs.

Nada finds a job at a construction area. After a day’s work, he meets Frank (David), who offers to show him a place, “Justiceville,” where the city’s homeless can get some food. It’s significant that homeless Nada is rarely welcome in any private property or shelter, which is why some of us wish to abolish private property.

The friendship between Nada and Frank is strained throughout the film, their alley brawl being where that tension comes to a head. This tension reflects how worker alienation is rife in capitalist society.

Frank has a good heart, and he has a sense, as most of us do, that something’s not right in a society that allows the rich to trample on the poor. Nada, who will ultimately lead in the duo’s revolution, is at first still willing to “believe in America,” to follow the rules, to do a good day’s work, and to hope for better luck in the future.

Frank, in contrast, though full of justified anger at the unfair system, is afraid of rocking the boat, since he has a wife and two kids in Detroit to support. Frank is, as The Last Poets once said, scared of revolution. This fear, combined with how the manipulative media hypnotizes us all, is one of the main reasons the masses won’t rise up against the ruling class.

Nada, though pro-American at the beginning, is observant to the point of putting everything together quite soon. He notes the bearded hacker interrupting the mesmerizing TV programs to warn people of the dangers the blind preacher was speaking of in the park. He notes that the church across from Justiceville, where the meals for the homeless are prepared, isn’t what it seems: recordings of church singing drown out the voices of a resistance movement.

This church reflects a paradoxical thing about religion: usually the church is used to prop up the class status quo, which is presumably why it’s a good hiding place for this resistance movement; but every now and then, Christians actually engage in anti-capitalism, like the preacher and the other resisters.

Still, in spite of the resistance’s attempts at being clandestine about their plotting, they’re discovered by the fascistic police, who raid Justiceville one night, trash the place, and beat the preacher and the bearded man who warned about the aliens when the TV programs were hacked. Attacking a homeless community, the kind the Black Panthers would have helped: what could be a more naked manifestation of class war? As we see in this scene, whenever the ruling class is threatened by plots of revolution, they use fascist violence to keep the people in line. Bourgeois ‘democracy’ is a sham.

Ever-observant Nada, however, is putting all the pieces together. After helping a boy get safe in a shelter from the police–a shelter in which one of the homeless says, “Somebody start World War Three?”–Nada goes back to the church to take a box of something he discovered before, something the resistance deems important. Inside the box are pairs of black sunglasses.

The reference to WWIII ought to be linked to something the other drifter (later, a collaborator–played by Flower) has said earlier. He spoke of an “epidemic of violence,” “end of the world kind of stuff,” terrorists “shooting people, robbing banks.” He’s talking about the resistance, of course, but he never develops the class consciousness needed to understand the need for revolution. These references to WWIII, epidemic, and the end of the world, as much as they’re made in passing in the film, are nonetheless another instance of how prophetic They Live really is, when we consider how dire the situation is in our world in the 2020s.

Anyway, Nada hides the box of sunglasses in an alleyway trashcan after taking out a pair for himself. Soon enough, he’ll realize their significance.

A paradox about wearing them is how they make you see the truth, yet in a way, they also ‘blind’ you. Wearing them, he sees only black and white, a seemingly simplified world; and while he sees the revelatory subliminal messages, these messages are as simplistic as their black-and-white presentation.

What’s more, though they’re black sunglasses, they can be associated with the dark glasses a blind man wears. Like the preacher, Nada is ‘blind,’ yet he sees what most seeing people don’t.

The propaganda used to keep the masses in their place is, of course, often far subtler in real life than merely “obey,” “marry and reproduce,” “conform,” “no independent thought,” and “consume,” but much of what is presented in the media, the breads and circuses as well as the divisive propaganda to keep partisan-minded people loyal to this or that political party, is also simplistic, so the simplicity of the film’s black-and-white subliminal messages is fitting.

In today’s intellectually impoverished political discourse, critics of Biden are assumed to be Trump supporters; disliking both the red and blue parties seems to require a capacity for abstract thought far too complex for too many of today’s liberals. The same applies to ultraconservative Trump supporters, who claim that their critics must be DNC “commies,” a ridiculous pairing of labels as any I’ve ever heard. The same black-and-white thinking applies to the conservative vs. liberal (actually bourgeois) parties in all countries around the world.

What is, of course, the most shocking thing that Nada has to deal with is his seeing the aliens, as they actually look, for the first time. He stares in a daze at a middle-aged businessman whose face looks like a skull with his eyeballs popping out.

In Nelson’s short story, the aliens look reptilian, snake-like, with green flesh and “multiple yellow eyes,” speaking with “bird-like croaks” (PDF, page 1). Such a description reminds us of David Icke‘s reptilian overlord conspiracy theory, but Nelson’s story is not so overtly political. The aliens in the comic adaptation are colourful, many-eyed, and grotesque, but not at all reptilian.

Carpenter’s representation of the aliens’ appearance is the most sensible one. Properly understood to be symbolic of the capitalist class, the aliens with their skull faces are agents of death. The lack of lips and eyelids gives their faces a zombie-like lack of human expressiveness that is chillingly fitting for the purposes of this anti-capitalist allegory.

The endless pursuit of profit is a dehumanizing process, causing alienation among people and within them, alienating them from their species-essence. Not only are the people of Earth enslaved by the aliens and their ideology, but the aliens themselves are also thus enslaved, hence their reading of newspapers and magazines with the same subliminal messages. Capitalists don’t pursue profit merely because they like to; they are compelled to maximize profit because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

The wish for endless growth on a planet with finite resources is why capitalists are agents of death, and therefore why it is apt for the aliens to have skull-faces. Late stage capitalism is destroying the planet through climate change and endless wars; the US military, being the number one polluter in the world, is waging wars to ensure the sustained profits of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, etc.

The capitalists know they’re destroying the Earth, despite their denials and lies that ‘climate change is a myth’; they have underground bunkers to survive in when “the Event” happens, be it climate change, nuclear war, or American civilizational collapse in general. Small wonder the bearded man on the TV says, “Look around at the environment we live in. Carbon dioxide, fluorocarbons, and methane have increased since 1958. Earth is being acclimatized. They are turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere.” Then he says the aliens will “deplete the planet, move on to another.”

Again, so there isn’t any doubt about who the aliens represent, resistance leader Gilbert (Jason) says it most explicitly. He says, “They’re free enterprisers. The Earth is just another developing planet. Their Third World.”

So, the aliens represent not only the ‘free market’ capitalism that right-wing libertarians idealize, they also personify imperialism. As we on the left understand so clearly, and try so hard to get the rest of the world to understand, imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, exporting capital to other countries, expanding markets out there and hiring cheap labour from Third World countries to maximize First World profits, and fighting wars in a competition to keep the biggest slice of the pie. The aliens in They Live do this on an interplanetary level.

Nada is amused, but not surprised, to see (through his sunglasses) a politician on a wall-mounted TV who is an alien speaking of how we should “have faith in our leaders,” and be optimistic about the future, in a world as obviously bleak as it is in the film, and by extension as bleak as ours is now. One is reminded of, for example, Trump’s State of the Union address in 2020, when he spoke of America’s great economic recovery…then soon after, the whole economy came crashing down.

Nada’s shock at the sight of all these aliens, and the messages saying “obey,” etc., cause him to react inadvisably, making the aliens realize that he sees them as they really are. After fighting off and killing two alien cops, he takes their guns and tries to take all of them on alone.

He runs into a bank with a number of aliens among the humans, and he introduces himself by saying that iconic line (of Piper’s own invention) about bubble gum and kicking ass. As bad-ass as this scene is, we must understand the error he as a potential revolutionary is making: his spontaneous attack on the aliens is mere recklessness and adventurism. It’s thrilling to watch at first, but it ultimately ends in failure. Revolutions must be planned, organized, and timed well.

To escape his inevitable pursuers, Nada goes into a parking lot and kidnaps a woman, Holly Thompson (Foster), and has her drive him to her home. It’s interesting how when he gets out of her car at her home, two male neighbours (aliens?) of hers seeing them, he in those sunglasses looks rather like a blind man (recall what I said above about seeing and blindness). She is scared, but cooperative with him…and cunning in her private thoughts.

Inside her home, he finally takes off the sunglasses, which have been giving him a headache. Earlier, whenever the bearded man on the TV interrupted the Cable 54 broadcast to warn of the aliens, his viewers would get headaches after a short while of listening to him, too. Indeed, it’s painful and depressing for us to learn the truth about our oppression; TV shows and fashion ads are so much more comforting in the illusions of superficial pleasure they perpetuate for us.

Nada gets excited to learn that Holly works for Cable 54, knowing that that’s where the alien signal is coming from, and therefore he can get a chance to destroy the transmitter. He lets his guard down, and she smashes a wine bottle over his head, making him fall out of her window and down a steep hill. Calling the police with a cold look on her face, Holly reveals herself to be a class collaborator. Nada has lost his sunglasses in this incident: will she put them on, realize the aliens are controlling everything, and later redeem herself to Nada? Or does she already know about them, and is she collaborating to save her own neck?

To get a new pair of those sunglasses, Nada has to go back to that alleyway and find the box he hid there. He’s already seen Frank at the construction area, who is so shocked from having heard of Nada’s violence in the bank that he wants nothing to do with him. Still, Frank has a good heart, and he goes to the alley with a week’s wages to give Nada. Frank wants no part of Nada’s revolution, all the same.

Frank’s unwillingness even to try on a pair of the sunglasses shows just how adamant so many of us are even ‘to wake up’ and see the enormity of our ugly reality. In Nelson’s short story and in the comic adaptation, ‘waking up’ is a straightforward matter of coming out of the state of hypnosis that the ‘Fascinators’ have put the human race under. The story begins with George Nada coming a little too much out of the hypnotic state to be lulled back into it.

He must try to wake up the rest of the world, including his girlfriend, Lil, before eight o’clock in the morning, the time a ‘Fascinator,’ by force of suggestion, has determined for his death by heart attack. Since he does die this way at the end of Nelson’s story, it’s clear that even he isn’t completely ‘awake.’

So as with Frank, there’s plenty of resistance to ‘waking up.’ Lil, represented in the comic as a shapely, buxom babe, comes across as ‘asleep’ in the sense of having internalized a wish to attain all of society’s beauty ideals without question. Her female equivalent in the film, Holly, is similarly all given over to the aliens’ agenda, if at least more aware of their existence.

Being ‘awake’ versus ‘asleep’ in our world is far from being the simple dichotomy that it is in the film. Various factions in the left disagree as to what it means to be ‘awake’ to the reality of capitalism and on what to do about it. What’s the answer? Anarchism, Trotskyism, social democracy, or Marxism-Leninism? Leftist infighting has made it most difficult for us to rise up together and defeat the ruling class.

Though it isn’t really dealt with in the film, Frank as a black man is especially affected by the capitalism that the aliens personify. Still, he’s scared to ‘wake up,’ yet the need to ‘stay woke‘ has been given expression as a major issue for African-Americans ever since the 1930s. Further complicating matters has been the bastardizing of the term “woke” by the right, first in the capitalist exploitation of the term, and also by conservatives’ pejorative use of it, similar to their use of “politically correct.”

So as we can see, waking people up is a hard thing to do for blacks (Frank) and women (Lil), as well as for a number of other complicating reasons. Small wonder Nada has to fight with Frank for about six minutes in that alley, just to get him to put on the sunglasses.

The ruling class loves to have the people fight with each other, rather than join together in solidarity to fight the elite. The Western oligarchs would have us all hating Russia and China to distract us from the glaringly obvious problems in our own societies. So in the story, George Nada has to tie Lil up and take her car; and Nada and Frank beat the crap out of each other.

In the hotel, Frank, finally acknowledging the situation with the aliens, speaks of how they must have always been here, making us all hate each other. The alienation brought on by class conflict has led to the kind of parental abuse Nada suffered as a kid from his dad.

Gilbert finds Frank and Nada in the hotel, and he tells them of a secret meeting of those in the resistance. At the meeting, our two heroes replace their sunglasses with far more effective contact lenses. Here, Gilbert tells the others that they all have to be far more careful. The resistance movement is suffering because of such problems as adventurism. He advises the others to blend into society to avoid getting caught. Indeed, one must wait for a revolutionary situation before rising up. In the meantime, one must be patient and bide one’s time; they can strike when they find out where the hypnotizing alien signal is coming from.

Another big part of what makes revolution so difficult is how so many people sell out, as Gilbert explains to Nada and Frank. So many join the police, who have historically existed to protect the interests of the owners of private property. Many on the “left” sell out, like Bernie Sanders, AOC, and the Squad, politicians who act as mere sheepdogs to lull American voters to elect right-wingers like Joe Biden, politicians that the mainstream media disingenuously claim are on the left.

Opportunism is so easy to give in to. People get promoted this way, get more money, and buy nice houses and cars. The resistance gets labelled as ‘commies’ by the cops in the film (and this is who they truly represent; though Carpenter is a liberal who has admitted to supporting [regulated] capitalism, he represents the left-leaning variety of the pre-Clinton years when ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something). Now communists, by contrast to the opportunists, are those who “stand out in the rain,” as Michael Parenti once described them: risking their careers and even their lives as they combat capitalism.

Nada is pleased to see Holly appear at the meeting. He imagines she is remorseful for hitting him with that wine bottle in her home. It would seem that she has led the police to the resistance’s meeting…though the film so far has left her private intentions ambiguous, so we’ll see her opportunism fully revealed at the end.

Nada and Frank, the only members of the resistance to survive the police attack on the meeting, manage to get to the Cable 54 building, where not only the source of the hypnotic alien signal is being transmitted, but also where the aliens are having a banquet with their human collaborators. Here we see symbolically how the ruling class colludes with the world’s politicians and the mainstream media.

At this banquet, Nada and Frank are reunited with the drifter from Justiceville who was the most resistant to the bearded man’s warnings about the aliens on the interruption of the TV program. This drifter, so totally given in to the mainstream media’s mesmerizing (as are so many of us), has predictably become a collaborator, having traded in his dirty old clothes for a tuxedo. Being as empty-headed as he is, he foolishly gives Nada and Frank a tour of the building, thinking our two heroes are collaborators, too.

They reveal that they aren’t collaborators in a sound-proofed room next to the TV studio where the mesmerizing messages are given by two alien news anchors. (For ‘Cable 54,’ read ‘CNN,’ to give but one example.) The drifter/collaborator rationalizes his treason to humanity by saying, “it’s business…there ain’t no countries anymore…we all sell out every day.” (This last line was inspired by something a Universal Pictures executive said to Carpenter.)

There being ‘no more countries’ shouldn’t be misinterpreted as the NWO ‘one-world-government’ nonsense, except in the sense that the new world order that George HW Bush spoke of referred to the post-Soviet, neoliberal, capitalist-imperialist one, in which it has been the ambition of Washington DC to rule the whole world. It’s business…it’s capitalism.

Nada and Frank manage to fight their way to the roof of the Cable 54 building, assuming they can trust Holly, who has a concealed pistol and puts a bullet in Frank’s head. He was so scared of revolution, and now his wife and kids have no man to put food on the table. This has made revolution all the more urgent, though.

Finally, Nada knows he’s going to be shot either by Holly or by the men hovering by him in a helicopter. Still, he says, “Fuck it” after shooting Holly, then he puts two bullets into the transmitter before being shot himself. Waking people up to the reality of our capitalist masters isn’t a sufficient condition of our liberation, but it’s certainly a necessary one. The mainstream media must be disabled.

Arousing class consciousness, as symbolized by the world finally waking up and seeing all the aliens as they really look, is of course a much more complicated process than what we see at the end of the movie. Yet it’s astonishing to see how many people in the world either deny that capitalism is the problem (preferring instead to focus on identity politics), or believe that only “unfettered capitalism” is the problem (as Carpenter himself believes!), or believe that billionaires can be allowed to exist in socialist states, or believe that, fantastically, “real capitalism” doesn’t exist and has never even been tried (as the market fundamentalists delude themselves)! They live, right-wing libertarians, while you sleep…and don’t even know you do.

Still, just as Nada doesn’t live to see the revolution happen, many of the rest of us who are ‘awake’ are not seeing a revolution happen, either. And as with George Nada of Nelson’s short story and the comic adaptation, there is little time left to wake the world up and start that revolution. George had only until eight o’clock in the morning to set the stage for revolution: how much time do we Nadas have before climate change, nuclear annihilation, or civilizational collapse become our eight o’clock in the morning?

Will we live, or will we forever sleep?

Analysis of ‘Spartacus’

Spartacus is a 1960 epic historical drama film directed by Stanley Kubrick (replacing original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting; therefore this is the only film over which Kubrick didn’t have complete artistic control) and written by Dalton Trumbo (who also wrote the novel, and the screenplay for, Johnny Got His Gun), based on Howard Fast‘s 1951 historical novel of the same name. The story is inspired by that of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in ancient, republican Rome, resulting in the Third Servile War.

The film stars Kirk Douglas in the title role, with Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, and John Gavin. Both Fast and Trumbo, being avowed leftists, were blacklisted, the former having to self-publish his book, and the latter being one of the Hollywood Ten.

Spartacus won four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Ustinov, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It had been the biggest moneymaker in Universal Studios’ history until Airport surpassed it in 1970.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to a PDF of Fast’s novel.

Spartacus is a hero to communists and leftists in general, for how his slave uprising against the Roman ruling class has inspired the socialists of today to foment revolution against the capitalist class of the modern world. Karl Marx praised him, his namesake was given to the German Spartacus League of 1915-1918, and the failed German communist revolution of January 1919 was called the Spartacist uprising.

Other examples of art and popular culture inspired by Spartacus include a 2004 miniseries starring Goran Višnjić in the title role, and a ballet of the same name, composed by Aram Khachaturian in 1954 and first staged in 1956; some of the music of this ballet was used in the soundtrack to the Penthouse production of Caligula in 1979.

To get back to Fast’s novel and the 1960 film, we immediately notice how differently both treat the subject matter of the story. The characters of Marcus Licinius Crassus (Olivier), Lentulus Batiatus (Ustinov), Varinia (Simmons), and Gracchus (Laughton) are all shared in both the book and the film, and apart from the basic history of the slaves’ failed uprising against Rome, the telling of the story differs wildly between book and movie.

The novel tells the story of Spartacus in a piecemeal fashion, given from the points of view of the various characters after Spartacus’ death, while the film tells his story in a straightforward, chronological way. The gladiatorial fight between Spartacus and Draba (played by Woody Strode) is generally similar, and the scenes of Crassus and Varinia, him frustrated in his efforts to win her love, and of Gracchus’ plan to steal her and her baby from Crassus and to give them their freedom, are essentially the same, though they differ greatly in the details.

A crucial difference between novel and movie is in the presentation of Spartacus’ death: in the book, he dies in battle (as affirmed by Plutarch, Appian, and Florus, though Appian also reports that Spartacus’ body was not found), whereas in the film, Spartacus is crucified.

Indeed, the sight of Spartacus chained to a rock to starve at the beginning of the film, his punishment for having bitten the leg of a Roman soldier, hamstringing him, is a parallel of his crucifixion at the end of the film. This parallel gives the story a sense that it has come full circle: his suffering is at its greatest at the beginning, with him as a slave lugging heavy rocks on his back from the mines in Libya; just as his suffering is at its greatest also at the end, with him hanging in excruciating pain.

In the novel, in chapter three of Part Two, is a vivid description of hell on Earth, a hell for slaves mining for gold in the unbearably hot desert of Nubia. To make matters worse, children are needed when the veins narrow “deep inside the black rock escarpment.” (One is reminded of Congolese children today, mining for the cobalt we use in our cellphones.) Spartacus is among “one hundred and twenty-two Thracians chained neck to neck, carrying their burning hot chains across the desert…” (PDF, page 55)

The film’s beginning is the equivalent to this chapter, the opening scene only briefly depicting the suffering of Spartacus and his fellow slaves in Libya, rather than Nubia. The chapter captures, with great intensity, the misery and despair of the slaves as they work, virtually without rest, from early in the dawn ’til the dusk. “Their skins are patchworks of black dust and brown dirt…” (PDF, page 57). Many slaves die from these back-breaking work conditions.

There’s a brief moment in the early morning, before the sun is fully risen to beat its oppressive heat on the slaves as they go to work. “In this single hour of the day, the desert is a friend.” (PDF, page 61). But only for that cool hour.

In the film, Batiatus arrives, discovers Spartacus, and saves him from his chaining to the rock to have him trained as a gladiator. Batiatus is a lanista, the owner of a school for gladiators. Spartacus is about to be pampered, a whole new experience for him that includes baths and massages, and a girl for a mate (in the novel, he’s mated to Varinia, rather than merely teased with her and denied her, as in the film; PDF, pages 78-81, 83).

Still, there is no happiness in being trained to kill or be killed for the entertainment of the ruling class. The fighting of gladiators to the death is perfectly symbolic of how the ruling class has always divided the people from each other, making them fight each other instead of fighting their oppressors. Their sense of alienation is well displayed in the scene when Spartacus asks Draba his name, the latter telling the former it isn’t wise to know the names of, or to become friends with, those they will have to kill, or be killed by, in the arena.

Though Draba has said this, he still doesn’t want to kill a fellow gladiator for the sport of rich Romans (who in the film are Crassus, Marcus Glabrus [played by John Dall, who incidentally also played chief psychopathic killer Brandon Shaw, in Hitchcock’s Rope], Helena Glabrus [played by Nina Foch], and Claudia Marius [played by Joanna Barnes]; but who in the novel are two men named Caius Crassus and Marius Bracus). So at the end of his fight with Spartacus, having won, Draba refuses to kill him, to the annoyance of their Roman audience, and instead he hurls his trident at them, only to be speared in the back himself. Nonetheless, Draba’s solidarity with Spartacus has inspired the surviving gladiator.

Added to this sense of solidarity, as a cure for alienation, is Spartacus and Varinia falling in love. She gets naked for him when he first meets her. He doesn’t think of her as a mere sex object, though: “Spartacus saw her and loved her, not for her nakedness, but because without clothes she was not naked at all and did not cringe or attempt to cover herself with her arms, but stood simply and proudly, showing no pain nor hurt, not looking at him or at Batiatus, but contained within herself, contained with her eyesight and her soul and her dreams, and containing all those things because she had decided to surrender life which was worth nothing any more. His heart went out to her.” (PDF, page 80)

In the film, Batiatus and Marcellus, the gladiators’ trainer (played by Charles McGraw) lecherously watch the couple, hoping to enjoy seeing them have sex; but Spartacus, furious at their lack of respect for his and her privacy, shouts at the men that he is not an animal. She, still naked, says she isn’t an animal, either. He naturally agrees with her, unlike the two voyeurs.

The love he feels for her, especially when he learns she has been sold to Crassus and therefore he’ll never see her again, is the final straw that drives him, followed by the other gladiators/slaves, to bring about a spontaneous rebellion. (The sight of Draba’s hanging body is also a major provocation for them.)

In the novel, this rebellion isn’t quite so spontaneous. There is discussion among Spartacus, Crixus the Gaul (played by John Ireland in the film), and Gannicus (played by Paul Lambert in the film) about whether they, as gladiators, should consider themselves friends (PDF, page 111). Thus the seeds of solidarity among slaves have been sown. They know that the Thracians call Spartacus “father” for all the love he’s shown his fellow slaves. He hints at a plotting of a rebellion when he says he’ll fight no more gladiators, and that he, Gannicus, and Crixus “will know what to do when the time comes to do it” (PDF, page 115).

In the film, Spartacus just spontaneously kills Marcellus by dunking his head in a pot of soup and drowning him in it. After having had to endure his trainer’s taunts for so long, he surely relishes killing the man. As we know in the modern world, though, revolutions cannot be so spontaneous: meticulous planning, theory, and organization are indispensable, as is the ability to intuit a revolutionary situation.

To get back to the story, though, more and more slaves join the gladiators’ rebellion, and Spartacus’ plan is for them all to go south to Brundusium and pay to have pirates’ ships take them out of Italy and to their home countries. Along the way, he is reunited with Varinia.

The Roman Senate is growing alarmed at the escalation of events, and Glabrus is to lead his cohorts to fight and subdue the slaves. Meanwhile, Crassus has found himself a handsome boy slave named Antoninus (Curtis), who is gifted at singing and reciting poetry.

In a scene originally censored by the prudish Production Code, Crassus is given a bath by Antoninus. The former asks the latter (with the voice of Anthony Hopkins in the restored version) of his sexual preferences, using indirect, symbolic language. Crassus asks the youth if he eats oysters, symbolic of female genitals; then he asks if Antoninus eats snails, symbolic of male genitals. Crassus considers these preferences a matter of taste rather than of morality; he then confesses his own eating of both oysters and snails, indicating his bisexuality.

The point to be made here is that Crassus is obviously trying to seduce the boy; how many slaves, male and female, were forced to perform sexual favours for their masters? In the scene previous to this one, Gracchus and Batiatus have a discussion alluding to the enjoyment of female slaves, in Gracchus’ case, to the point of him not even wanting to get married.

After Crassus’ bath with Antoninus, the former walks out, followed by the latter, to an adjoining room looking out across the river to the city of Rome. There, Crassus tells Antoninus of the greatness of Rome, and of how how one’s attitude towards her should be.

Crassus, in describing Rome’s greatness, is given a line that is an allusion to Julius Caesar, in which Cassius, complaining to Brutus about Caesar, says, “…he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus…” (I, ii, lines 135-136). In Spartacus, however, Crassus says this to Antoninus of Rome: “There is the power that bestrides the known world like a Colossus.”

What’s interesting in these two variations on the quote is that the first refers to Caesar, while the second refers to Rome, personified as a beloved woman, a man’s mistress. Young Julius Caesar, recall, is in Spartacus, played by John Gavin (who incidentally, in the same year, played Marion Crane‘s boyfriend, Sam Loomis, in Psycho). Later in the film, Crassus tells Caesar of his fear of him, an allusion to how Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey would form the First Triumvirate, and Crassus and Pompey would lose to Caesar’s rising power.

Indeed, the fear of republican Rome becoming a dictatorship, something Gracchus will fear of Crassus’ rising power towards the end of Spartacus, is a fear Brutus and Cassius would have of Caesar, which they would use to justify assassinating him. Crassus’ name fortuitously sounds like a pun on Cassius, hence what’s so intriguing about the allusion to Shakespeare’s play as put on Crassus’ lips. He fears Caesar’s rise as Cassius would decades later.

That Crassus’ absolute rule over Rome would come in association with the defeat of Spartacus’ army is also worthy of comment. In the modern world, many right-wing, authoritarian dictatorships came into being after the crushing of proletarian attempts at gaining power: fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Francoist Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, etc. The ruling class makes a masquerade of democracy when times are good; but if threatened, that same ruling class ends the masquerade and rules with an iron fist, as Crassus does.

In his speech on Rome to Antoninus, Crassus speaks as if everyone, including such members of the ruling class as himself, must make himself a slave to his beautiful mistress and goddess, Roma. In implying that he, too, is a slave in this larger sense, Crassus is rationalizing the whole slave system to the youth. He’s also implying that, in serving Rome, Antoninus must serve Crassus all the more faithfully and devotedly.

It is at this point that the boy sneaks away without Crassus knowing. Antoninus, of course, will join Spartacus’ army, eager to learn how to fight. The youth will endure the indignities of slavery no more: Crassus’ designs to enjoy Antoninus for his sexual sport, combined with this mad notion of enslaving oneself to a lofty abstract ideal such as Rome, are too much for him.

In today’s world, the global proletariat has its own political ideals to which it is expected to enslave itself: the “rules based international order,” the “free market,” or simply neoliberalism, are all ideals that we wage slaves are expected to grovel before, never questioning the source of our oppression.

On their way to Brundusium, the slaves enlist the help of a Cilician pirate envoy named Tigranes Levantus (played by Herbert Lom). Gracchus bribes the pirates to get them to take the slaves out of Italy, so that, fearing Crassus’ rise to power, he needn’t fear the slave crisis being exploited by Crassus to justify his making a dictatorship of Rome.

Still, Crassus bribes the pirates better, and they end up betraying Spartacus et al. When Tigranes returns to tell Spartacus the evil tidings, then offers him and the other slave leaders a chance to escape and live like kings in other countries, Spartacus tells him to go away. Opportunism has no place in a sincere struggle to be free.

At an earlier point on the way to Brundusium, Glabrus’ cohorts camp one night and, contemptuously underestimating the slaves, see no need to set up a proper perimeter of fortification around the camp, so the slaves can easily infiltrate it and massacre most of the men in the cohorts. This incident is based on the disastrous military leadership of Gaius Claudius Glaber against Spartacus on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

In Fast’s novel, Varinius Glabrus, as he’s called, is “vain, rather stupid, and politically dependable.” He’s killed with all the other men, all except one frightened, shamefaced soldier, who tells Gracchus and the rest of the Senate about the massacre (PDF, Part Five, chapters iv-vi). In the film, Marcus Glabrus is the one to explain his incompetence to the Senate, and he is sent out, disgraced. Crassus, his friend, leaves with him, pretending to share in his disgrace, but as Gracchus knows, Crassus will return, stronger than ever.

To get back to the part when Spartacus knows that he and his comrades cannot escape by sea, he knows their only way forward is to confront Crassus and his army, and thus to head back to Rome. His army is an impressive one, by the way, including women fighters, as we can see in the movie, extraordinary for one made back in 1960.

Here’s the thing: to be truly free, one cannot just run away from one’s oppressor–one must confront him and fight him. At the end of Fast’s novel, Varinia and her baby escape to live in a village near the Alps; but Roman soldiers go up there to enslave those villagers who can’t pay the high taxes, and her son, after she’s dead, has to fight these Romans just as his father, of the same name, did. (PDF, page 272)

In the film, the final confrontation happens, and it’s a nasty fight, with Spartacus’ army sending out rollers of flames to attack the Roman soldiers with. Much of the violence of this scene, with bloody stabbings and Spartacus’ hacking off of a Roman soldier’s arm, was originally censored out of the film, as with the ‘oysters and snails’ scene, because of the negative reaction of the preview audience.

By the time all of this has happened, Spartacus has already gotten Varinia with child, and when the slaves have been defeated, she has given birth to it. Crassus and Batiatus find her among the bodies of the fallen slaves, and Crassus wants her and the baby to be taken to his home. He especially wants to find Spartacus, to destroy the legend of the slave.

Why is it so important to Crassus to destroy the legend of Spartacus? Because, though the slave leader and his army have been defeated, their brave example will inspire thousands of future slaves to revolt one day. And where Spartacus has failed, any of the subsequent attempts may prove successful. That’s what Crassus is afraid of.

The Romans offer to spare the lives of the defeated slaves if they identify which man among them, living or dead, is Spartacus. They all respond with the famous repeated shout of “I’m Spartacus!” (a quote referenced and parodied in many films, including That Thing You Do!, and even Kubrick’s next film, Lolita), starting with Antoninus, who has prevented the real Spartacus from identifying himself, then dozens of men in his army shout it, in loving solidarity with their leader, who is moved to tears by their love.

This surviving love and solidarity is what is so threatening to Crassus, then the richest man in Rome. The slaves know they have lost…for now, but the hope of future success still burns like a flame in their hearts, and Crassus will have to find a way to extinguish that flame.

In our modern world, the Crassuses of today have been hard at work trying to extinguish the flame of hope that a socialist revolution will replace the capitalist hell we live in now. This story, as written by leftists Fast and Trumbo, was meant as an allegory for our times today; the master vs. slave contradiction of Spartacus is meant to represent the bourgeois vs. proletarian contradiction. And just as Crassus wants to destroy the legend of Spartacus, so do the bourgeoisie want to destroy the legend of Marxism-Leninism.

Imagine if, after the crushing of the Communards and the Paris Commune, that socialists had just given up! Of course they weren’t going to do that: instead, they worked hard to understand and learn from the errors that the Communards made.

Similarly, though a ruthless campaign of anti-communist propaganda (which I refute here, as in other posts) was doused here, there, and everywhere to extinguish the fire of socialism in the twentieth century, and that propaganda was a huge factor in the defeat of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc, we today shouldn’t listen to the capitalist lies that “socialism doesn’t work” and “TINA.” Instead, we must learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century and revive the hope that yes, another world is possible, that there is an alternative to neoliberalism.

To give a sense of how Crassus can be seen as an ancient version of a capitalist, in Fast’s novel, there’s a scene with him giving some women a tour of a perfume factory he owns. The scene at first hardly seems relevant to the life of Spartacus, but at the end of it, we can see Fast’s intentions (PDF, Part Six, chapter x).

Crassus speaks of how he makes much more of a profit with such businesses as his perfume factory than he could ever make in such wars as the Servile War. Furthermore, his workers in the factories aren’t slaves, so he needn’t feed or house them. Since they are free, he imagines he needn’t fear an uprising among them (PDF, page 221).

The bourgeoisie today, right-wing libertarians in particular, are fond of saying that if workers don’t like their jobs, they are free to quit, leaving their ‘poor, suffering’ bosses to have to find replacements. It may be relatively easy to quit when the economy is good, but not so when the economy is bad, as it is now, the worst it’s been since…forever, it seems.

Fast often refers to Romans as being on the dole, but this doesn’t change the fact that Rome was as brutal an empire as any. As an allegory of today’s world, his novel depicts Roman imperialism as paralleled (though assuredly not equal) with British and American imperialism. Romans being on the dole is to be paralleled with the welfare capitalism of the UK and US of the prosperous postwar years when the novel was written and the film was made. Welfare capitalism–at a time when the US and UK overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, to stop him from nationalizing Iranian oil, or when the US overthrew the government of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 for the sake of the United Fruit Company–is still capitalism…it’s still imperialism.

To get back to the story, though, Crassus has Varinia and her baby live with him. He’s captivated by her beauty, as well as puzzled with why such a beauty would remain in love with a lowly slave like Spartacus. None of Crassus’ wealth can lure her heart away from the father of her child and over to the man who has defeated him. But of course, Crassus’ defeat of the man she’s loved will ensure that she’ll never love Crassus…except that narcissistic Crassus will never accept her attitude.

What’s significant about the scene with him and her at dinner at night, in his attempt to woo her (recall that this scene is in Fast’s novel, too–Part Seven, chapter v), is that we see a kind of reversal of the roles of slave and master. He serves her food: squab and honey, a piece of melon, and a cup of wine, He has her wear a heavy necklace, once owned by a Persian queen. He doesn’t command her to eat–he invites her.

This reversal of roles suggests Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic, in which each tries to achieve self-recognition through the other. We’ve already seen the death struggle in the form of the battle in which Crassus’ army has defeated that of Spartacus.

Now, if all of the slaves are killed, then self-recognition through the other cannot be. The “I’m Spartacus!” shout of so many of the slaves, ensuring their collective crucifixion to a man, is nonetheless troubling for Crassus, not only because their defiant spirit will inspire other slaves, but also because their collective death means none will be left to give him and their other Roman masters the recognition they crave.

Crassus tries to get that recognition through Varinia, who coldly refuses to give it to him. Lacan said that man’s desire is the desire of the Other: to have the Other desire him, and to be recognized and acknowledged by the Other. Crassus’ desire is Varinia’s recognition, which she will never give him.

In Hegel’s myth, after the master has achieved dominance over the slave, a contradiction arises in how all of the slave’s work, producing so many things, gives their creator the recognition he craves, meaning he no longer needs it from his master; on the other hand, the master, having grown dependent on all of the slave’s productions, becomes subordinate. In Varinia’s case, her baby can be seen to symbolize the slave’s creations; similarly, her insistence that she nurse her own baby without the need of a slave-nurse to do it for her shows her self-emancipating agency.

Crassus’ frustration grows when he brings up Spartacus, who she insists was just a simple man, not a god. That she can love such a humble man is wounding to Crassus’ pride in the extreme. His implied threats to her baby’s life show, ironically, how defeated he really is. Since he owns her, he could simply rape her; but he wants her to love him, and he can never make her do that.

Another fascinating paradox occurs later, when Spartacus and Antoninus are made to fight each other to the death, the victor to be subsequently crucified. Since crucifixion is one of the worst, most painful ways to die, a death by stabbing is far preferred. So both men would kill each other…out of love…to spare the loser of the fight from suffering the agony of the cross.

Spartacus wins, and though neither history nor Fast’s novel have him die by crucifixion, the film has him die this way. Such an alteration naturally makes him into a Christ-figure, one who dies so future generations may live, that is, his sacrificial death will make of him a martyr who will inspire future slaves–including present-day wage slaves–to continue the struggle and, we hope, liberate us all for good.

Now, Fast’s novel gives extensive discussion of all those slaves crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua, where Batiatus has trained the gladiators. One gladiator/slave rebel whose crucifixion is given especial focus is a Jew named David. As he hangs in agony and despair on his cross, he ruminates over his mostly unfortunate life. (PDF, Part Six)

Fast divides David’s life into four parts: first, “a happy time of not knowing,” then, a time “full of knowledge and sorrow and hatred,” next came a “time of hope…when he fought with Spartacus,” and finally, a “time of despair,” when “their cause was lost” (PDF, page 212).

The difference between the times of not knowing and of knowing weren’t really those of happiness vs. unhappiness, but rather those of naïvely not knowing of the evils already present in the world, back when David was a child, and of when he became a man, had his eyes opened, saw the difference between the rich and the poor, and finally realized the world’s evil (PDF, page 190). Such a realization would have been especially poignant for David when he saw his father crucified for his involvement with the Maccabean rebellion (PDF, page 192).

Though Fast, having published Spartacus in 1951, wouldn’t have known at the time of the growing despair of socialists since the dissolution of the USSR (in fact, sadly, he came to believe the lies Khrushchev spoke about Stalin in his “secret speech,” and broke away from communism), still, David’s despair on the cross, and the length of his unhappy life, can be seen to allegorize the despair of any leftist revolutionary whose cause has failed, including the fall of the Soviet system.

We leftists in today’s world were once wide-eyed and naïve, like David as a boy, blissfully ignorant of the evils of the world. Then we grew up, put away childish things, ate of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak, and underwent our Fall into a knowledge of those evils; and accordingly, we felt the pain, the sorrow, and the hatred of those evils. Then there were those of us who were old enough to remember the era of the Soviets, and how their influence even softened the blow of capitalism with the welfare state; we experienced a time of revolutionary hope, like David’s hope as he insists on standing beside Spartacus in battle (PDF, page 200). And finally, our time of despair has been from the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, and the ensuing rise of neoliberal capitalism from then to the present day.

The suffering of David on that cross, one of the longest and most painful ways anyone can die, is a perfect metaphor for the long, drawn-out pain we on the left have felt as we watched Clinton gut welfare, Dubya start the “War on Terror,” Obama continue and expand Dubya’s policies, Trump lower the already-low corporate tax rate even further, and appoint conservative Supreme Court justices so Roe vs. Wade could be overturned, and Biden provoke Russia and intensify nuclear brinksmanship.

We’ve watched this slide into imperial tyranny (as did Cicero of republican Rome degenerating into the Second Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus; Cicero, who appears in Fast’s novel as an ambitious, upwardly-mobile writer of a monograph on the Servile Wars [PDF, Part Four, chapter i], but not as a critic of the power structure that would eventually have him killed), and we see no way out of the present situation. But recall the end of the movie, when liberated Varinia shows crucified Spartacus their now-freed baby. This child personifies our hopes of a revived revolution, which just might happen as the Western empire is crumbling.

We hang on the cross in agony, like Spartacus, but that baby of hope is alive and free. Instead of letting our heads droop down in despair, let’s keep our eyes on that baby.

Taiwan

Photo by Alan Wang on Pexels.com

As a resident of this island for, as of the end of the month of this article’s publication, what will be twenty-six years, I feel I must voice my opinions of the locals, especially as regards the attitude of many of them to China. What I’m about to say here is not a scientifically authoritative set of observations; it’s just the idiosyncratic opinions of a Canadian expatriate who has lived here and informally watched the locals for over two and a half decades.

Take these opinions with a grain of salt; I’m about to say some things many of the locals won’t like to read, but things I feel must be said. Be prepared, for much of what I’ll say will be critical, but with compassion: my intent is to help Taiwan save herself, not to be malicious. Furthermore, the criticisms are not meant to be sweeping generalizations of all of the locals, or even necessarily a comment on most of them, but rather a comment on as many of them as would be enough to prod Taiwan in the direction of provoking a war with China. More on that later.

I find the Taiwanese attitude to outsiders to be a curious one, full of contradictions. While some of them like China, from whence they came in waves over the years (mostly from Fujian province in particular, then with Chiang Kai-shek when Mao’s communists took over the mainland), many others detest the country of their ethnic origin. It’s a classic case of what Freud once called “the narcissism of small differences.”

On the other hand, the one country for which one would think the Taiwanese would have an abiding hatred, Japan, which had occupied the island from 1895 to the end of the Second World War, actually is a country the locals like so much that they visit it constantly, perhaps more than any other country, to my knowledge. My beloved Taiwanese wife, with whom I’ve vacationed in Japan many times, speaks Japanese very well. Just so we’re clear, though, Japanese rule here could be brutally repressive, as with their response to the Wushe Incident, which was dramatized in the Taiwanese film, Seediq Bale.

The locals’ attitude towards Westerners, whom they typically call waiguoren (“foreigners”) or meiguoren (“Americans”), is a mixture of contradictory feelings. Sometimes, they’re fascinated with us, reacting as if we were movie stars, or something. Little kids (and, occasionally, even adults) stare at us as if in a trance, as if there’s something shocking about how different we as non-Asians look from them.

At other times, a minority of locals, those with a more xenophobic attitude (sadly, a reaction any foreigner or racial minority will have to face from time to time in any country) will regard us as comical-looking; these ones may use the racial slur a-do-ah (“big nose”), or mock us by saying “Hello!” and “How do you do?” in an exaggerated tone, equivalent to white racists mocking Asians by bowing, squinting their eyes, sticking out their upper-front teeth and saying something ignorant like “Ah-so!” (which, incidentally, is Japanese, not Chinese, whitey.)

What all these contradictory attitudes have in common is the preoccupation with how ‘different’ we are from them. Such a preoccupation seems to stem, at least in part, from how the locals’ society conditions them, from early childhood, to be remarkably conformist. Social conformity, of course, exists in all countries and all cultures; but some places are more obviously conformist than others. A common way to reprimand bad behaviour among the locals is to call the offender qiguai (“strange”); one is bad because one is different from everyone else.

The real enforcing of conformity happens during elementary, junior, and senior high school…naturally. Kids here are bombarded with piles of homework not only from these schools, but also from their cram schools (buxiban) of many subjects (English, math, science, etc.), home tutors, and music lessons. In all of this intense study, we see how these kids are being prepared for the long working day–as of 2019, the fourth longest hours in the world.

Unlike in the West, the Taiwanese didn’t experience a radical 1960s countercultural rebellion against “The Man.” They’re essentially as we Westerners were back in the 1950s. To be sure, there are a number of individual cases of Taiwanese who go against the grain: I had the pleasure here of teaching a young woman, a violinist, who is now in the US studying the arts and is in a happy relationship with her female partner. I’m delighted every time I encounter such an exception; I’d encourage much more of it if I had the opportunity. But when I speak of conformity, I’m describing the large majority of the locals I’ve encountered, a largeness that I hope, for their sake, will soon shrink…if it hasn’t already, without my noticing.

Now, of course, East Asians have no monopoly on conservatism and conformity. Consider the recent, outrageous overturning of Roe vs. Wade by those Americans far too influenced by religious authoritarianism. But at least there’s a significant number of left-leaning Westerners trying to resist such reactionary behaviour. Sadly, I see far too little of such resistance here; by this, I’m referring to the Western pockets of resistance to such things as the mask and vaccine mandates. I know of no such questioning of authority here; anyone who does, please enlighten me–I’d be so happy to see examples of it here.

Alongside the locals’ non-questioning of authority, their homogeneity, which leads to their frequent over-reactions to foreigners as described above, their self-absorption (brought on, I believe, by their media’s constant focus on Taiwan, with scant exposure of international news to the locals), and their fear of a Chinese invasion, comes their belief that this island is a country, rather than a breakaway province of China. The locals are, essentially, ethnic Chinese, just as a huge percentage of the Ukrainian population is made up of ethnic Russians. Constitutionally, Taiwan is the Republic of China; the ruling Democratic Progressive Party keeps selling the public the idea that Taiwan is a ‘sovereign’ country.

I’m sorry, Taiwanese readers, but I must be frank with you. Nationalism is a form of collective narcissism. One thinks one’s country is ‘great’ because one was born there.

Just so we’re clear: nationalism has a danger of degenerating into fascism. See what’s happened to Ukrainian nationalists to see what I mean. Excessive patriotism, combined with economic hard times, tends to lead to such things as Naziism. Note today’s economy, and do the math to see what I’m getting at. Now, most Taiwanese are kind, gentle people who are very unlikely to develop the violent ways of fascism, but I worry that the combination of economic hard times, this nationalistic pride among the locals, and especially, American manipulations of the people here towards Sinophobia could make some disturbing changes in my home.

Indeed, the US government in its evil machinations encourages Taiwanese ‘nationalism’ as much as it can. Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State under Trump and confessed liar for the CIA, made a visit to Taiwan to embolden the locals in an anti-China stance. At one point during his visit, he wore a mask designed with a combination of the American and Taiwanese flags. The obvious message behind this design is that an ‘independent’ Taiwan is to be inextricably linked to the American empire. Translation: Taiwan is to be subservient to American interests.

If the Taiwanese think that, with their long work days as mentioned above, a link to ultra-capitalist, imperialist America will give them freedom, they should think again.

Indeed, far too many Taiwanese naïvely think that the US is here to protect us against a Chinese invasion, so they welcome neocon assholes like Pompeo. They don’t realize that the American government has ulterior motives: namely, to Balkanize China (and Russia, by the way), thereby weakening her. Call Taiwan a country, break Hong Kong off from China, use the unsubstantiated hoax of the Uyghur ‘genocide’ to justify breaking Xinjiang off from China, etc.

Though only fairly recently did Taiwanese news media start to show a substantial amount of international news, when they (and Western media) discuss such important stories as the Russian/Ukraine war, it’s to see how the conflict is to be paralleled with the danger of such a war happening here with China. Sadly, their coverage of Ukraine largely parrots the disingenuous Western reporting of the war (e.g., Taiwanese news reports of international news all too often show CNN reports with Chinese subtitles).

Accordingly, the average Taiwanese, if not the great majority of them, accept uncritically the MSM narrative that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was an “unprovoked” act of aggression by the villainous Putin. I suspect that a precious few Taiwanese (if any–indeed, my “precious few” is me being generous and hopeful that more locals are properly informed of what’s really going on in eastern Europe than I think) are aware that the Russian intervention is actually a reaction to eight years of Ukrainian neo-Nazi provocations.

It started with the broken promise not to push NATO “one inch” eastward beyond reunified Germany. Never a friend to Russia, NATO has absorbed many of the former SSRs, to the uncomfortable point of touching Russia’s borders at Latvia and Estonia. Belarus has held out, but the push to make Ukraine and Georgia join NATO means, if one day achieved, nuclear missiles can be placed in those countries and pointed at Russia, something this nuclear-armed country can never be expected to tolerate.

(It’s useful to compare such a predicament to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the USSR tried to give missiles to Cuba to point at the US. The Taiwanese might also want to consider how the people of China feel about the Trump administration’s sale of a billion dollars of weapons to Taiwan to be used one day on China. The Taiwanese see it as defence; China sees a threat.)

Tensions escalated in 2014 when the CIA helped to orchestrate a violent coup d’état in Ukraine, ousting the democratically-elected Viktor Yanukovych and replacing his government with one that includes neo-Nazis, as their military also includes. The eight years since that coup, leading to the war starting in late February of this year, have involved the neo-Nazis, in their bigoted hatred of the ethnic Russians of the Donbass regions, not only to pass legislation denying those Russians the right to use their language (naturally leading to Russian separatism in those regions), but also to violent attacks on those Russians, causing thousands of deaths.

Furthermore, in the few months leading up to the Russian invasion, the US was sending hoards of weapons to Ukraine, provoking Russia all the more. Attempts to negotiate peace (i.e., the Minsk Accords) were disregarded by the Ukrainian government. True, Zelenskyy campaigned and was elected on a platform of peace, but the neo-Nazis threatened to kill him if he tried to sue for peace with Russia. Also, the ‘democratic’ Ukrainian government has banned eleven opposition parties.

Finally, contrary to the nonsense and propaganda of the Western mainstream media, Ukraine is losing the warbadly. They haven’t the necessary equipment or organization, and Ukrainian soldiers are refusing to fight, knowing they face certain death if they try. The purpose of the MSM lies that Ukraine is ‘winning’ is to promote the US/NATO agenda of protracting the war, using Ukrainians as cannon fodder, in order to bleed Russia slowly, and thus weaken her, as the mujahideen in Afghanistan was successfully used in the 1980s to weaken the Soviet Union.

I bring up all of this in keeping with the paralleling of the Russia/Ukraine war with a possible China/Taiwan war, so the locals here can understand how the US plans to use Taiwan as cannon fodder to provoke such a war here, while lying in the media that a Chinese invasion will be ‘unprovoked.’ The Taiwanese typically think that China is going to invade Taiwan just because the CPC ‘wants to,’ or something (actually, China wants to reunite with Taiwan peacefully, and will use military force only if they have to). Similarly, the locals here usually buy into the Western media narrative that Russia invaded Ukraine just because Putin ‘wanted to.’

Since the Taiwanese are naturally terrified (as I, a resident here, am) of this island becoming a war zone, the first step toward preventing such a calamity is to see what’s happening in Russia/Ukraine and China/Taiwan in its proper geopolitical context, something the MSM (and therefore also the Taiwanese news media, part of the TV version of which, by the way, is aptly called TVBS!) will never allow us to see: that these conflicts are actually US/NATO moves on a global chessboard, if you will, to prevent the replacement of US unipolar hegemony with a much more sensible multipolar world, including Russia and China as emerging powers, which could create a balance of power that in turn could conceivably promote peace and end our decades-long plague of American imperialism.

It would be laughable (if it weren’t so infuriating) that the American government–whose Attila-the-Hun-conservative, Bible-thumping Supreme Court just overturned its women’s right to abortion–goes around judging Russia and China as ‘autocratic’ and ‘authoritarian.’ The government of the same country that spies on its citizens and censors its media left, right, and centre has the gall to judge Russia and China as infringing on human rights. The country’s government that has been invading and bombing countries all over the Middle East and occupying countries all over the world with its military bases, has the audacity to judge Russian and Chinese “aggression.” The government of the country that has, over and over again, interfered with the democratic and electoral processes in many countries has the cheek to accuse Russia, baselessly, with interfering in the 2016 US election to give it to Trump, who ended up putting sanctions on Russia anyway!

Still, the average Taiwanese knows little of these issues, since the local media largely doesn’t discuss them, and any time I discuss them with my adult English students here, they never mention any prior knowledge of the issues. They just parrot the mainstream opinions heard on the TV.

Granted, many–if not most–people in Western countries also parrot those mainstream opinions, but we also have access to alternative forms of media that can give us the news from different perspectives. To my knowledge, there isn’t any such alternative media here in Taiwan, and if there is, it must be extremely scant. If, on the other hand, anyone out there reading this knows of such alternatives, please give me some links in the comments; I’d really like to be proven wrong about this, though I don’t think I will be.

My theory for why such alternative media here is generally lacking ties in with what I was saying above about how most Taiwanese are conservative and conformist. Apart from accepting uncritically far too much of the American spin on world affairs, the locals here simply don’t have sufficient time to examine world events from different angles. This is not their fault.

Starting in childhood, they get up early and go to school or work, where they slave away all day until they finally get home, too exhausted for any deep thinking. To be sure, they’re just as capable of deep thinking as we are in the West, but their version of the capitalist system brainwashes them, from childhood, into being little more than obedient workers whose whole life objective is making as much money for the family as possible.

Of course, the notion of TINA has been spread around the world, not just here, thanks to the hateful neoliberal agenda; but at least there are significant pockets of leftist resistance to it in most of the rest of the world, to varying degrees. I’m aware of no such resistance here, to any significant degree. Again, this is not the fault of the locals. As I said above, their time is so consumed with work and the need to make money that they simply can’t make the needed level of commitment to doing such things as promoting workers’ rights, or opposing imperialism.

Indeed, I remember back in the 2010s when an attempt was made to set up an IWW union here, and it barely materialized beyond one meeting of us in Taipei on a Sunday afternoon. The leader, an American with, I’m sorry to say, an attitude far too abrasive for his own good, got frustrated with our inability to commit to regular union meetings. Two Taiwanese members emailed him a long message explaining, among other issues, how difficult and unpleasant it was for them (as it also was for me, by the way) to wipe out their one day off to go from their city of residence to Taipei for these monthly Sunday meetings (we often work on Saturdays here: that’s how bad capitalism can get in Taiwan).

People here are so tired from their long workweeks that long sleeps over the weekend are, for them, the highest bliss. There is simply far too little time for most locals to spend questioning the system that wears them out so much. That little bit of weekend free time is for family, exercise (often in the form of hiking in the hills), online games, or watching the latest, mindless Hollywood action or superhero movie. Free time is usually about escape, not fighting the Man.

And along with far too little time for political protest is far too little time for questioning mainstream media narratives, learning the historical background to things like the Ukrainian conflict, the real reason for NATO‘s existence, and US imperialism. Yet without this learning, how will the Taiwanese be prepared when the American empire starts increasing its provocations on China as they’ve done on Russia?

The locals naïvely think that the American weapons sold to Taiwan and the US military training given to the Taiwanese army are to protect them from a Chinese invasion, rather than part of a provocation of such an invasion. The CIA has been working with Ukraine in its war with Russia, and all those weapons were sent there. Far from being ‘protected,’ Ukraine is being crushed. The same will happen here if the Taiwanese continue to trust the perfidious American government.

I think many Taiwanese already realize, from NATO’s non-intervention in Ukraine to stop Russia (which otherwise would escalate into WWIII and could go nuclear), that the American army won’t intervene to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan (to avoid the same cataclysmic escalation). The locals are not that politically naïve.

Still, they must understand that the American government is a false friend; they’ll come to this understanding by studying the history of American interference in other countries’ affairs, the American ruling class’s contempt for the rights of American women, people of colour (including Asians!), the working class, etc. If the American capitalist class doesn’t care about the people of their own country, why would they care about the people of Taiwan?

Understanding these sobering realities will result from the Taiwanese coming out of their shell–not thinking of the rest of the world as some strange, far-away place that has no relevance to the locals’ lives–and learning about the rest of the world in depth. I’m not saying that the Taiwanese know nothing, or next to nothing, about the rest of the world, but to survive the danger of the American government luring them into becoming cannon fodder against China, they’ll need to do much more learning about the world than they’ve done so far.

Let’s all hope that, unless many of them have already done this kind of comprehensive study of these issues, and I’m therefore wrong in my assessment of what they know, they will do this thorough study, and do it soon. Our lives will depend on it.

What Might Save Us

Back in the 1980s, Sting wrote a song called “Russians.” Though powerful artistically and melodically (even incorporating a theme from Prokofiev‘s Lieutenant Kijé), the song was a typical liberal perspective on the Cold War of the time, taking a ‘neutral’ stance as far as political left and right are concerned, the kind of stance that only helped ensure that the right won by the 1990s.

The song ends with the line “what might save us, me and you/is if the Russians love their children too.” What might save us from MAD is something one would naturally assume that we all do, but do ‘them Russkies’ also do it? I’m not sure if Sting meant his words to be taken at face value, or if he was being ironic; but with all the Russophobia and anti-Putin hysteria going on since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many in the West seem to be doubting that the Russians love their children, among other things deemed natural for most of humanity.

It doesn’t seem to occur to these Russophobes that it’s actually the Western ruling classes that don’t seem to love their children…not those beyond their own immediate families, anyway. Consider all the billions that have gone into military spending and into prolonging the Ukrainian war with Russia, billions that could end homelessness in the US and feed American schoolchildren at lunchtime.

Sanctions against Russia largely haven’t harmed the country, which is now trading in rubles, as China is slowly trading in the yuan in foreign markets. The sanctions have backfired on the West, raising gas prices, causing food shortages, and hurting low-income families who were already struggling before the global economic meltdown of 2020, which was of course exacerbated by the pandemic.

Trading in other currencies is causing the petrodollar to go down in value. If this continues much more, it could crush the already-ailing American economy beyond repair. What we’re witnessing could be that final collapse of capitalism.

Now, in my post, The End of the World?, I was being extremely pessimistic, as the title indicates. I’m a little less pessimistic now, though, provided things continue on the trajectory on which I see them going; it’ll still be terribly painful, and there may still be no good end to the world’s troubles, but there is a faint hope that a nuclear WWIII between the West on the one side, and Russia and China on the other, could at least be prevented.

What might save us is the complete self-destruction of the United States and its war machine.

Allow me to clarify what I mean by the above, provocative statement. No, I’m not advocating a genocide of the American people. I’m referring rather to the ending of the warmongering, imperialist, white settler colonial state, replacing it with a federation of socialist entities, allowing full civil rights for people of all colours, but also owned and governed by the aboriginals, as I discussed here. Such a transformation of American society would be excruciating, a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes kind of thing, but it would be a necessary, growing pain, a death/rebirth. Recall what Gramsci once said: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Granted, I would hate to imagine the suffering of ordinary Americans from such an economic and civilizational collapse, but the reduction of the petrodollar to next to nothing could be the one thing that just might also cripple the ruling class and its ability to continue promoting wars for the defence contractors. Will the collapse of the petrodollar be extreme enough to reduce the value of the capitalist class’s billions to insignificance, an insignificance sufficient to nullify their ability to buy their way out of their problems, to pay for their protection?

I have no way of being able to answer my question with an assured affirmative, but if the masses of poor Americans suffer (and they already are, and will doubtless continue to for far too long a time), I hope the ruling class gets a good scathing, too. Another thing the aggravated suffering of the poor could (and should) provoke is revolution.

Rainer Shea has written a number of articles on how American leftists can organize, train, and protect their groups against infiltration by opportunists, wreckers, agent provocateurs, and anyone with an adventurist, gang mentality, as an anticipation of the civilizational collapse. Shea also wrote an article that made a reference to a rich man’s worries about not being able to pay his security men when, because of the anticipated economic and civilizational collapse, money will no longer have value. Hence, my speculation that the collapse of the petrodollar could wipe out the spending power of even the ruling class.

This collapse of the American economy, if it’s as extreme as I imagine it could be, would have a ripple effect on all the other countries of the world. Canada, with the US as our number one trading partner, will suffer. Europe is already suffering, not being able, due to the sanctions on Russia, to buy their ever-so-needed Russian oil, unless in rubles. The desperation all of this will cause could very well trigger revolutions in these areas and elsewhere, too.

Russia, in contrast, is doing well, at least for now. The ruble has gone up in value. In response to all of the Western businesses that have left the country, Russia has, for example, simply replaced McDonald’s with “Vkusno i tochka.” Elsewhere, China is considering buying Saudi oil in the yuan, which would be more bad news for the US dollar.

Far from slowly bleeding Russia dry, as had happened to the Soviet Union during the American proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, this new US/NATO proxy war in Ukraine is losing badly to the Russians (despite all the propaganda that Ukraine is winning), to the point of Ukrainians no longer being willing to fight. China is watching this debacle, not needing to do a thing: they’re calmly waiting for the self-destruction of the US to unfold.

If this American collapse happens, the failed Ukrainian proxy war just might deter the US from provoking a similarly disastrous Taiwanese proxy war with China. Taiwan could then peacefully rejoin China and benefit from the latter’s socialism. As a resident of the island, I’d no longer worry about my home being torn apart as a war zone; sensible Taiwanese would accept joining with China, as war is hardly a reasonable alternative. Xi Jinping could move China further leftward, eliminating the billionaire status of the country’s wealthiest and reduce its income inequality, a process that newly-joined Taiwan could enjoy, too.

A US as economically, and thus politically, crippled as I’m imagining it could become might have an even farther-reaching ripple effect. Latin American countries might be able to elect left-wing governments without fear of the kind of CIA coups of the Operation Condor years. US war criminals might no longer have the wealth to avoid being tried in the International Criminal Court. Without the wealth and influence of his persecutors, Assange might get freed. Leftists worldwide would be encouraged to pursue revolutionary change.

Now, I’m probably dreaming just a little too much here, and my predictions of the collapse of the petrodollar are probably wildly exaggerated, based on my own wish-fulfillment for the capitalist system to lose. After all, the economic experts are assuring everyone in the West that the petrodollar won’t be all that badly affected by all these recent upsets. I suspect, however, that these experts are reassuring everyone less because of what they objectively know than out of a wish-fulfillment of their own. They don’t want to see the West lose.

We must remember what a huge deficit the US has already had for many years: it’s a ticking time bomb that’s only grown larger and larger. Sooner or later, that debt–now in the trillions!–is going to have to be paid, and it will be a lot harder to pay if the value of the petrodollar plummets. Add to this all the grievances of an impoverished American people, many of whom have no jobs, who have crumbling infrastructure and increasingly trigger-happy desperation.

A major thing that will stop a communist revolution in the US is a probable takeover by fascists and their sympathizers–socialism, or barbarism. This is why American leftists must train hard when everything comes to a head…which will be sooner than we think.

To get back to Sting’s song, though, he recently re-recorded it with a cellist as a comment on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Predictably, he meant it as a liberal defence of Ukraine and a judgement on Putin, sympathizing with the “peaceful, unthreatening” Ukrainians.

It saddens me that a man as erudite, intelligent, and talented as Sting is could be so horribly wrong about a conflict that actually started in 2014, when a violent coup d’état replaced the democratically-elected Viktor Yanukovych with a government and military including neo-Nazis, who had been killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region for the eight years between the coup and the current war. This is a problem that the mainstream media acknowledged before the war, but is now either denying, downplaying, or rationalizing. (I go into these issues much more in these articles, so you can read about them there, as I don’t feel like going into it in detail here.)

I’m sure there’s a large peaceful, unthreatening portion of the Ukrainian population that opposes these neo-Nazis, but it’s apparent that far too many of another portion of Ukrainians do support them. In any case, Sting’s well-intended, but misguided support for them (his area of expertise is music, not politics) reminds me of what Stalin once said of similarly liberal-minded people: “Social-democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.”

To conclude, I’ll tie in Sting’s song with what I’ve been saying in the middle of this post, ending it by altering the last line of his song: What might save us, me and you, is if the richest lose their money, too.

Beds

I
fear
the end of the world.
We are on our death
beds, gasping for air.

A
dying
world is lying ill in her bed,
her nurses her murderers,
hastening her end with war.

A
ball
that is burning: her fever’s been
ignored by all of those who are
responsible, who made her bed.

I
will
die, as you will die, as will
everyone else, in our beds
beside our ailing Mother.

O,
break
in, you red revolutionaries!
Save us from these doctors
of death! Make the ill well.

O,
make
us rise up from our beds!
We’d swap the hospitals
for hope and happiness.

Analysis of ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’

I: Introduction

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (or to the Victims…whichever–in Polish, it’s Tren Ofiarom Hiroszimy) is an avant-garde composition for 52 string instruments by Krzysztof Penderecki (pronounced  [ˈkʂɨʂtɔf pɛndɛˈrɛt͡skʲi], the Polish c in his surname, like that of hanyu pinyin, being pronounced ‘ts’).

Composed and premiered in 1961, the piece was originally to be called 8’37”, after its length of performance, since the durations of the sound events of the piece are given in seconds, rather than through the use of, for example, the quarter and eighth notes of conventional notation. Indeed, Penderecki’s score is as experimental as is the music, using a variety of unorthodox ways to indicate how the music is to be played.

The piece was originally meant to be just an experiment with new musical ideas, as Penderecki said, to “develop a new musical language,” hence the original absolute music title. It was meant as an example of sonorism, focusing on timbre, texture, articulation, dynamics, counterpoint, and motion to create a form free of traditional ideas of “expressivity” in the playing of instruments. “It existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way,” he later said.

When he heard it performed, though, he was struck by the emotive power of what he had written. It was no longer just an abstract experiment with sounds. With what could he associate the feelings of terror evoked in the music?…the victims of Hiroshima, when the atomic bomb was dropped on them at the end of WWII. Hence, the piece’s new name, a threnody, or wailing ode of mourning for the victims’ suffering and deaths.

So though the piece was composed throughout with just the intention of experimenting with new ways to organize musical sound, its new name and dedication have given the piece a whole new dimension of meaning, a meaning that not only inspires compassion for the victims to whom it’s dedicated, but one that also makes the piece especially relevant for our troubled times today, with all the reckless nuclear brinksmanship of the US and NATO against Russia and China.

The 52 string instruments used in the piece are grouped into 24 violins, ten violas, ten cellos, and eight double basses. The unconventional sounds they are manipulated to make include tone clusters, faster and slower vibratos, slapping, and playing on the tailpiece and behind the bridge. While the sound durations are, as noted above, given precisely in seconds, other aspects of the music are aleatoric, allowing the players a choice of techniques. Nonetheless, specific note clusters are used, as well as quarter tones.

Such unorthodox techniques give the music its terrifying character, which is why the Threnody, as well as other avant-garde works by Penderecki–such as his Utrenja, The Awakening of Jacob, De Natura Sonoris, Kanon, and Polymorphia–have been used in such horror films and thrillers as The Shining, The Exorcist, and Children of Men. Purists in the world of avant-garde music may not like the, to them, excessive associations of experimental soundscapes with the horror genre, but Penderecki’s association of 8’37” with the suffering of the Japanese at the end of WWII was more than justified, as I will argue below.

II: The Historical Background of the Nuking

It is still believed by many that the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 200,000 people, was regrettable but necessary, so that a long, protracted ground assault, risking the lives of many American soldiers, could be avoided. A closer look, however, at the actual, historical circumstances surrounding the bombings will indicate how wrong this rationalization is.

At the time, Japan’s leaders were ready to surrender, though hoping for at least a conditional surrender, to save their emperor, Hirohito, from being harmed or removed, as a handful of high-ranking Nazis would be tried for war crimes. The US, however, still seething with virulent racial hatred for the Japanese over the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wanted nothing less than an unconditional surrender.

Pretty much the whole of the Japanese islands were being pummelled with conventional American bombs. The Japanese knew they’d lost. In fact, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese at first couldn’t tell the difference between the effect of the older and new kinds of bombs. The use of these two new bombs did not end the war, as many assume; therefore, where was the justification to use them?

A number of American generals dissented over the use of those awful bombs. So what was the real reason they were dropped on those two unfortunate cities? They were a demonstration of a new, deadly toy of the American military…not to intimidate Japan, but to frighten that nation that was already understood to be the new enemy of the US: the Soviet Union!

…and what really made Japan surrender, if it wasn’t the bomb? A convincing explanation comes from what the USSR did, not the US. Up until their surrender, the Japanese were holding out on the small hope that the USSR would mediate negotiations with the US and influence a conditional surrender, one that wouldn’t favour the US too much, to give Japan better terms for their surrender. The USSR, however, invaded Manchuria, clearly indicating no interest in siding with Japan in any way, meaning Japan would be forced to surrender unconditionally. In short, it was the Soviet Union, not the American nuking, that decisively stopped Japan.

Therefore, the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no redeeming moral justification of any kind. They were acts of mass murder on a mostly civilian population (the military portion of which was admittedly significant, but still a minority); in spite of the heinous war crimes of the Japanese military on Korea, China, the Philippines, etc., these victims had done no direct harm to Americans.

Granted, all Japanese were part of the war effort in some sense, as is the case with the people of other countries involved in WWII. Civilian Japanese helped in industry, making weapons, giving material support to the military, etc.; but to a great extent, this civilian support was for defence as well as offence–these particular people weren’t themselves raping and beheading their Asian neighbours, so the way they were killed was way out of proportion to their crime of equipping their soldiers to commit their ugly deeds. Japan’s loss of the war, with the conventional bombings that more accurately targeted military areas, should have been punishment enough for them.

As much as I abhor Nazi Germany, and I would never consider defensible the average “Aryan” civilian supporting Nazi ideology and helping out in their war effort, I would also never consider nuking any German city to be an acceptable way of forcing the fascists and fascist sympathizers to surrender. Similarly, though I detest the US military-industrial complex and wish wholeheartedly for its imminent defeat, I would never dream of such a defeat coming from nukes.

III: The Composition

Here is a link to a video of the Threnody, with footage of the aftermath of the bombing, with images of the destruction and the suffering of the surviving victims of radiation poisoning, and the doctors trying to help them.

And here is a link to a video of the piece with an animated score, so you can follow what is happening in the music, and you can see it broken down into its many parts.

The piece opens with fortissimo tone clusters played first on the first five of the ten violas, next on the first six of the twenty-four violins, then on the first four of the eight double basses, etc., until all of the subdivided groups of strings are playing their own set of clusters. This piling on of tone clusters lasts for fifteen seconds.

The cacophony of all of these clusters suggests the screaming of the residents of Hiroshima as they look up into the sky and see the Enola Gay flying over their city, knowing they’d be bombed, but not knowing the brand new nature of the horror they were about to experience.

After the first fifteen seconds, the music immediately comes down from fortissimo to forte (sub. f), and a slow vibrato is heard on the first six violins, and soon after on the third six, the second six, and the fourth six. This all goes on for the next eleven seconds.

The following four seconds has the first five of the celli doing the slow vibrato; and the last six of the violins switch from a slow vibrato to a fast one, as the two groups of violas have been doing from the previous eleven seconds until now. These vibratos, slow and fast, add an eeriness to the dark, terrifying atmosphere so unmistakably established.

Those violas will, during the next six seconds, immediately come down to pianissimissimo (sub. ppp), as will all the other strings at the beginning of the next thirty seconds. During the six-second section, the last five of the celli will play the slow vibratos as the strings hitherto playing slow vibratos are, group by group, replacing slow vibratos with fast ones.

The switch to ppp sounds especially scary, like a suspenseful scene in a horror movie right after an initial shock of terror. Small wonder Penderecki’s music is, rightly or wrongly, so associated with horror films. One senses, at this moment in the music, the trembling people of Hiroshima looking up at the bomber plane in all helplessness, waiting for “Little Boy” to be dropped.

Next come the experimental sound effects to be made on the strings. In the score, an arrow pointing up indicates the playing of a note of the highest, though indefinite, pitch (recall the aleatoric aspects of this music). An icon of four vertical lines with a horizontal arc crossing them represents, respectively, the instrument’s four strings and its bridge; the straight line under the arc indicates a four-note arpeggio to be played under the bridge.

Some notes are to be plucked (pizzicatopizz.), others bowed (arco). Again, if the straight line is below an arc, one is to play between the bridge and the tailpiece. Vertical lines intersected with short, upwardly diagonal lines indicate a percussion effect: striking the upper sounding board of the instrument with the nut or fingertips.

The symbol of a short, vertical line with a cone shape pointing to the right tells the last five cellists to bow the tailpiece. An umbrella-like symbol tells the first five cellists to play on the bridge.

These string effects are not required to be played at exact speeds. Only the order in which they are to be played matters. As Angus Lee explains in his video analysis of the Threnody, different performers will have varying levels of difficulty or ease in executing each different technique; so there will be considerable freedom in playing these parts, another example of the aleatoric aspects of Penderecki’s piece.

The result, when one hears the differing timing of each player, bowing, plucking, or tapping his or her instrument, is a rather chaotic flurry of sounds. Controlled chaos, yet chaos all the same. When we hear this chaotic texture of sounds, it suggests to us the frenzied panic of the people of Hiroshima, them all frenetically scrambling to run for cover and escape their doom.

Next, a pianissimo note in F is heard on the ten celli, which is briefly sustained, but soon after, some celli slide down to lower notes, others to higher ones (indeterminate pitches here, graphically presented in the score with a thick black line), while the remaining celli stay on the F. This results in another tone cluster; then those upwardly and downwardly straying notes return to the F. This goes on for fifteen seconds. It’s a moment of relative calm, as if some of the people of Hiroshima have found a place to protect themselves from the bomb, and are trying to reassure themselves that they are safe…at least for the moment.

Other strings do the same effect, with the first twelve violins sustaining a note on E and branching out upwards and downwards into a larger tone cluster, this time ppp. Then, the eight double basses, also ppp, do this on an E-flat, then bloat out into a huge dissonant chord before returning to that E-flat.

The ten violas, playing mezzo-forte, give out a huge cluster chord that decrescendos and slides into an A. The last twelve violins then play a sustained high B-flat in ppp, which fans out into a large tone cluster, which is accompanied by another mf cluster chord on the ten violas, which in turn decrescendos and slides into an A.

This shifting back and forth, from single notes to tone clusters and back again, on different groups of strings and at softer and louder dynamics, continues for some time. One senses during this moment that those people are trembling in suspense, waiting for the bombing to be over with.

There’s a brief silence, then groups of ppp tone clusters from all the strings are heard, the notation indicating all the pitches to be played. We’re almost halfway into the piece by now. The feeling one gets from all of these creepy dissonances is a sense of nausea from all those terrified Japanese, nausea from their despair.

Next, a fortissimo cluster chord is heard on the ten violas, notes ranging from about an F (above middle C) to about a c′′. This is soon followed by a similar tone cluster, also ff, on the last twelve of the violins, playing a range of notes from about c′′ to about f′′-sharp. Other groups of strings come in with their own loud cluster chords. It’s as though the bomb has now been released, and the people of Hiroshima are all screaming together as they watch it fall from the bomber and come closer and closer to the ground.

Eventually, all these cluster chords played on all the groups of strings decrescendo and do upward or downward glissandi. It’s as though terror among the people has been replaced with resignation to their fate, just as the bomb is about to hit the ground.

Next, we hear individual notes of distinct pitches played by each cello, notes that are sustained and that fan out upwards and downwards. These are played softly, and are followed by the same fanning out of individual notes played piano on the last twelve of the violins, then on the ten violas, and ultimately on all the strings, ending with each group playing loud tone clusters.

This fanning out of notes suggests the impact of the bomb on the ground, each individual note representing each piece of rock, concrete, brick, etc., that has been shattered from the blast. Again, the clusters represent the screams of those people not yet killed.

We then hear creepy glissandi in the cluster chords of the celli and double basses, suggesting the moaning and groaning of the traumatized survivors, many of whom won’t be survivors for very long. These clusters thin out into single tones and go from fff to f, then decrescendo from f to silence in the double basses, and to p in the celli, and to pp with slow vibrato, ending off with a ten-second decrescendo to pppp.

This slow fading to another brief silence suggests the dying-off of many hitherto survivors, leaving those still living to be doubly traumatized, from their own suffering and from the deaths of loved ones they’ve witnessed dying.

The string effects come back, including the one with the upward arrow symbol mentioned above, as well as certain pizzicato and arco notes of definite pitch. These are played by individual strings from all the groups. The tension in this section suggests the traumatic reaction of the survivors to the horrors just experienced.

The percussive effects remind us of those heard earlier, as if they are PTSD-like flashbacks of the panic felt before the bomb dropped. Sometimes we have individual players making the bowed, plucked, or percussive effects, as if we’re hearing the pain of lonely survivors with no living family or friends to mourn with. Sometimes we have players in groups, suggesting the mourning of living family and friends who are weeping and wailing together, trying to comfort each other in all futility.

A little later on, we get the string effects notated with the umbrella-like symbols mentioned earlier, as well as those with the vertical line going through a cone pointing to the right. These are played on the celli and the double basses. Other string effects are heard on groups of three or four violins, violas, and celli, accompanied by a sustained cluster chord on the violins. The ten violas will join in with a cluster chord of their own as those violins, having done a crescendo from mf to fortissimo, play another slow vibrato.

As the above continues, other strings come in with their own tone clusters. The dissonances pile up, with slow vibratos played on some groups. The dynamics go down to piano and pianissimo, but soon crescendo and abruptly stop, leaving a brief silence.

Next, a climactic cluster chord is played on all the groups of strings, a huge dissonance with notes ranging all the way from about a c to a c′′. The totality of it is like a culmination of all the preceding horrors, as well as of the suffering they caused. The slow decrescendo, fading to silence, suggests again the slow, painful dying-off of many more victims.

IV: Conclusion–What Can the Threnody Mean for Us Today?

Needless to say, this music is disturbing to listen to, especially on the YouTube video (link above) that combines the music with the footage of the aftermath of the bombing. It’s disturbing because it should be. Nuclear war is nothing other than disturbing, though some nut-jobs think it can be used to defeat Russia today.

Another one of the reasons that those two bombs should never have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it ushered in the nuclear age. Faced with the threat of such bombs being dropped on the USSR and, later, China and the DPRK, these socialist states were compelled to make their own nuclear arsenals.

…and look at where we are today.

Threatened with the loss of their unipolar global hegemony, the US and the extension of its imperialism, NATO, have been provoking Russia ever since the counterrevolutionary dissolution of the USSR, with the aid of Ukrainian neo-Nazis (and no, you don’t stop them from being fascists by a mere change of logo), culminating in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Even cold-blooded war criminal Henry Kissinger has enough sense to know that the only way out of this war is to give Putin what he wants: Ukrainian neutrality, no NATO membership for the country, and a reasonable amount of autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics…perfectly acceptable requests for the sake of Russian security, except that the US and NATO refuse to grant them.

That this war, if not ended, could escalate into a very nuclear WWIII (as could also happen when the US–via Taiwanprovokes China into a similar war), should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. Still, the US and NATO keep pressing their–and everyone else’s–luck…all because they don’t want to accept the emerging multipolar world with rising Russia and China, a world which, if handled well, could lead to a balance of power that could facilitate world peace.

(I go into more detail about these issues in these posts, if you’re interested, Dear Reader.)

The current-day threat of nuclear annihilation is what makes Penderecki’s Threnody not only relevant, but outright urgent to listen to. Let this terrifying music stir up your survival instinct and inspire you to do whatever we can do to stop the psychopaths in power from killing everyone and everything on our fragile planet.