Caoimhghin O Croidheain

Caoimhghin O Croidheain

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. 

Captain Rock: The symbol of a risen people
Wednesday, 11 October 2023 09:58

Captain Rock: The symbol of a risen people

Published in Visual Arts

Image above: Ralph Chaplin - Cartoon published in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) journal Solidarity on June 30, 1917.

"My unlucky countrymen have always had a taste for justice, a taste as inconvenient to them, situated as they always have been, as a fancy for horse-racing would be to a Venetian."
Thomas Moore (1779–1852) - Memoirs of Captain Rock: The Celebrated Irish Chieftain, with Some Account of His Ancestors (1824)

The raised or clenched fist is a symbol of unity and solidarity that became associated with trade unionism and the labour movement, going back to the 1910s in Europe and the USA. Soon after, it was taken up as a symbol of political unity by socialist, communist and various other revolutionary social movements. The clenched fist is much more powerful than the individual fingers, and in art it has been used as a metaphor for strength in unity of the peoples' movements.

The painting, Le Soulèvement (The Uprising) by Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) of the French Revolution of 1848 includes a possible early example of a "political clenched fist," according to curator Francesca Seravalle. She writes: "A raised fist appeared for the first time as a political sign in a painting in 1848 by Daumier representing a woman during the Third French Revolution, until that time fists were just expressions of human nature."

CoC2 Honore Daumier The Uprising

Le Soulèvement (The Uprising) by Honoré Daumier

However, another painting, The Installation of Captain Rock (1834), by the Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806–1870) in the National Gallery of Ireland, depicts the protagonist with a raised, clenched fist as a political sign fourteen years earlier than Daumier's revolutionary painting. This surely shows that the depth of oppressive colonialism in Ireland had already produced class-conscious radical political groups.

Captain Rock was a fictitious figure that was associated with the militant agrarian organisations in Ireland known as the 'Whiteboys', the 'Ribbonmen', and the followers of 'Captain Steel' or 'Captain Right'.

CoC3 captainRockweb res

The Installation of Captain Rock (1834) by Daniel Maclise (1806–1870)

These agrarian groups "issued warnings of violent reprisals against landlords and their agents who tried to arbitrarily put up rents; collectors of tithes for the Anglican Church of Ireland; government magistrates who tried to evict tenants; and informers who fingered out Rockites to the authorities," and involved many incidents of murder, arson, beatings and mutilation of cattle.

The source of the unrest was the hunger and death suffered by Irish families while their landlords shipped harvests and cattle to the English markets. Peter Berresford Ellis writes:

This was the cause of the agrarian unrest among the rural population. Indeed, in 1822 a major artificial famine was about to occur. We have William Cobbett's horrendous picture of people starving in the midst of plenty in that year. In June, 1822, in Cork alone, 122,000 were on the verge of starvation and existing on charity. How many people died is hard to say. A minimum figure of 100,000 has been proposed. Most likely around 250,000. At the same time, landowners were able to ship 7 million pounds (weight) of grain and countless herds of cattle, sheep and swine to the markets in England.

CoC4 Captain Rock 1260x905

Captain Rock's Banditti - Swearing in a new member.

Insurrections occurred in 1822 that involved many thousands of 'Rockites' that had armed themselves with pikes and confronted British garrisons. According to Berresford Ellis:

Colonel James Barry, commanding the garrison at Millstreet, reported that upwards of 5,000 'rebels' had surrounded the town and many houses of loyalists between Inchigeelagh and Macroom were destroyed. The local Millstreet magistrate, E McCarty, added: 'The people are all risen with what arms they possess and crown all the heights close to the town ...' Cork City and Tralee were cut off for two days before troops fought their way through.

'Captain Rock' had already made it into Irish literary history in the fictitious book, Memoirs of Captain Rock: The Celebrated Irish Chieftain, with Some Account of His Ancestors (1824) written by the Irish writer, poet, and lyricist Thomas Moore (1779–1852). In these 'memoirs' Captain Rock is depicted in a folkloric way, a character who brushes off lightly the dangers of his profession, as he states:

Discord is, indeed, our natural element ; like that storm-loving animal, the seal, we are comfortable only in a tempest; and the object of the following historical and biographical sketch is to show how kindly the English government has at all times consulted our taste in this particular ministering to our love of riot through every successive reign, from the invasion of Henry II. down to the present day, so as to leave scarcely an interval during the whole six hundred years in which the Captain Rock for the time might not exclaim "Quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris?"
or, as it has been translated by one of my family : — “Through Leinster, Ulster, Connaught, Munster, Rock 's the boy to make the fun stir!"

Similar comparisons can be made with the contemporary Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, who combines social realism of contemporary society with mythical elements as a way of illustrating his radical themes. For example in Devil on the Cross (1980), Jacinta Wariinga, is invited to a Devil's Feast by a mysterious  figure called Munti that turns out to be a business meeting for the Organization for Modern Theft and Robbery.

CoC5 Devil on the Cross book cover

Devil on the Cross (1980) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

The high educational level of 'Captain Rock' is attributed to his associations with the teachers of the Irish 'hedge schools', which were small informal secret and illegal schools set up in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to provide primary education to children of 'non-conforming' Catholic and Presbyterian faiths. According to Maeve Casserly:

The hedge schoolmaster played a pivotal role, as both an educator and prominent member in agrarian society, in encouraging the militant political and social sentiments" and that "in an age which promoted the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and emphasised 'useful learning' that subjects like Greek, Latin and Hebrew, which formed an intrinsic part of the hedge school curriculum, were wastefully taught instead of necessary vocation skills." To direct attention away from their militant leadership roles, the hedge schoolmasters used poor grammar and mis-spelled words. She notes that "William Carleton was of a similar opinion that many of the letters, oaths and catechisms of the Rockite insurrectionists, were the work of village schoolmasters.

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depiction of a 19th century hedge school.

Thus, the very public 'Installation of Captain Rock' in Maclise's painting points to the symbolism of the patriotic movement rather than its reality. The clenched fist represents not only the unity of the gathered crowd but also the passing of responsibility for radical social and political change from the deceased elder leaders to the vigorous, radical youth.

In the painting, Maclise depicts the scene as a joyous occasion within a hall where many groups of ordinary people are busy getting on with life, yet plotting revolution. To the left a group is making a pact signified by their collective hand grasp, while behind them in a dark alcove appears to be a hedge schoolmaster surrounded by listeners and readers. To the right of the hall there is much merriment as a man and a woman dance wildly. Our eyes are drawn around a distracting group of young lovers as we suddenly realise that a gun is being pointed right at us by a young man in front who is just about to shoot (signified by a girl putting her hands to her ears), demonstrating that youthful 'fun' should never be underestimated and can suddenly turn deadly serious.

The background to Maclise's painting looks more like a group of people digging their way down to the hall where the secret ceremony is taking place. This signifies the working-class aspect of the dangers of mining work (often carried out by children in the nineteenth century), as well as the necessity for literal and metaphorical underground bunkers to hide from the often overwhelming force of the oppressor.

Overall, the people in the painting are portrayed as active, animated, excited, and fearless.

 CoC7 Daniel Maclise1857Lithograph

1857 lithograph of Daniel Maclise by Charles Baugniet

Maclise excelled in paintings of large groups of people engaged in various activities grouped around a theme. Maclise had an ongoing interest in the ideology, history, and traditions of ordinary people as can be seen in the subject matter of some of his paintings, forexample, Snap-Apple Night (1833) [Hallowe'en traditions], Merry Christmas in the Baron's Hall (1838) [containing many figures of various ranks and degrees and depicts aspects of the declining traditional Christmas festivities of his time, see my article A Poem for Christmas: Christmas Revels (1838)], The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854) [depiction of the Norman conquest of Ireland and the death of Gaelic Ireland].

Maclise's positive portrayal of people is in contrast with the often melancholy depictions of oppressed people around the world, an unfortunate side effect of Social Realism which tried to show the treatment of the poor in all its brutality.

However, depictions of the moment of uprising also sows the seeds of hope for a better future, while at the same time providing a fair warning to all elites to beware of the retaliation of a community which has nothing left to lose.

Warriors and Domestics: Plotting a New Class-Conscious Course in Cinema
Sunday, 27 August 2023 08:42

Warriors and Domestics: Plotting a New Class-Conscious Course in Cinema

Published in Films
 Image above: Che (2008 film) directed by Steven Soderbergh. 

"Just a short time ago it would have seemed like a Quixotic adventure in the colonised, neocolonised, or even the imperialist nations themselves to make any attempt to create films of decolonisation that turned their back on or actively opposed the System."

- Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino - 'Towards a Third Cinema'

From the short black and white films of the Lumiére brothers to the technically superb blockbusters of today, cinema has been analysed from every kind of social and political perspective. Yet, it is still a relatively young art, and its technical and narrative forms have made it a rich source of discussion and speculation, and one has the feeling that we are still only grappling with a crude understanding of its complexity.

'The director gets first cut' is a well-known statement that shows the business interest of the investors in making a profit or, at the very least, getting their money back. The ever-growing costs involved in making films have been an influential factor in their form and content.

There is no doubt that the realism of the reflected world in cinema fundamentally, consciously or unconsciously, reflects the structures of society itself. This is not always obvious, and commentary can be added to explain what is not instantly apparent from what is, after all, a visual medium, unlike in literature for example, where underlying societal hierarchies and structures can be explained as part of the narrative.

Films opposed to the status quo 

From a political perspective, the conservative forces that determine what films get made, publicised, and exhibited, also make it difficult to produce cinema that is opposed to the general status quo. Yet such films do get made from time to time. Even though we can see that films generally reflect the dominant order of society, there are also narratives that go beyond the conservative order to try and change it or, in some cases, even advocate overthrowing it.

The norm in visual art for centuries has been the representation of people who accept the hierarchies in society. In general, over the years the forms change but the content remains the same, right up to today's modern cinema. Attempts made to create a new type of radical narrative in cinema history have produced some memorable works, but they have not managed to compete with the commercial, popular, 'bread and circuses', action-based, globalised contemporary cinema.

The different 'movements' for change in cinema have tried to show the problem of class interests and who benefits from 'the System'. The more radical films highlight problems of neo-colonialism and imperialism, and their aims range from exposing how elites operate and manipulate people, to producing 'revolutionary cinema' that seeks to inspire more profound change in society. For example, the social realist films of Frank Capra during the 1930s and 1940s, Italian neo-realism in the 1940s and 1950s, the Third cinema of the 1960s and 1970s were all attempts to go beyond the commercialisation of cinema and turn it into a force for social change.

Films and class consciousness

Why does cinema provide mass catharsis yet effect no real change in the multi-faceted problems of society? What kinds of films make us conscious of our socio-economic predicament? I will look at these questions about cinema from the perspective of class interests and elite manipulation of culture to maintain the status quo.

Linear action: 'serving the Man'

Van Eyck The Crucifixion The Last Judgmentweb

 Van Eyck, Crucifixion and Last Judgement

To refer back to the human predicament of slavery (in its different forms) I am using the same metaphor from my previous articles [see Origins of Violence and Resistance Culture] based on Jan van Eyck's (c. 1390 – 1441) painting, Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych (c. 1430–1440) where we see Christ as 'Martyr' and 'Master':

In Christianity the rulers had a religion that assured their objectives. The warring adventurism of the new rulers needed soldiers for their campaigns and slaves to produce their food and mine their metals for their armaments and wealth. Thus, Christ was portrayed as Martyr and Master. In his own crucifixion as Martyr he provided a brave example to the soldiers, and as Master he would reward or punish the slaves according to how well they had behaved.

The 'warriors' and the 'domestics' are watched over by the 'lord' (the all-seeing eye). This basic scenario is common to much of cinema narratives from early cinema to today's blockbusters. The 'warrior' is the active protagonist upon which the narrative is focused, while the domestics in general facilitate or impede the progress of the 'warrior' protagonist. The important point in this scenario is that the protagonist is ultimately working for the 'man', e.g., criminal gangs, mafia dons, the bourgeois government, the deep state, secret services etc. - to defend the state, not to overthrow it.

His/her role has become more complex over time, and he/she is used to maintain or expand the dominant position of the 'lord', or the all-seeing eye that surveys and controls the action. The ultimate holders of power are not necessarily present or seen but operate in the background controlling the action. The action contained within the film contains the range of sight of the 'all-seeing eye' but is presumed to 'see' before and after the film narrative. The action of the 'warrior' is linear because it does not change or threaten the position of the 'lord'.

Linear action

Linear action (Illustration by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
Early cinema
An early example of such a structure is the Bataille de boules de neige (Snow Fight) recorded by the Lumiére brothers in 1896. It is believed that the people throwing the snowballs at each other were from the local factory. A cyclist comes upon the scene, cycles into the centre of the group and is knocked off his bicycle by the snowball throwers and his hat falls on the ground. He gets up, grabs his bike, and cycles off without his hat. This short scene has all the elements of a movie: documentary (people throwing snowballs) combined with a narrative/story (cyclist cycles into scene and leaves), combined with drama/action (cyclist falls off his bicycle, loses his hat).

Thus, in this scenario the cyclist is the 'warrior' and the people throwing the snowballs from the local factory are the 'domestics'. There is the interplay of the two worlds of the 'warrior' and the 'domestics' as the cyclist protagonist enters and leaves again in this short 'story' (he arrives / he falls off / he leaves). The 'lord' is not included in the film (except as the all-seeing eye of the camera itself).


Bataille de boules de neige (Snow Fight) (1896), a short silent film produced by the Lumiére brothers. (See video here)

Italian Neo-Realism

The same type of action is played out in the later Italian Neo-Realist film, The Bicycle Thieves (1948). The protagonist meets with his wife telling her he needs to get a bicycle to secure his new job offer. He marches on ahead of her, only stopping when his wife (who is carrying two buckets of water) needs help to walk down a small incline, and then marches off forcefully again. As the 'warrior', he engages with the 'domestic' only when his help/action is needed but he is mainly concerned with his problem of securing a bike so he can secure a wage and an income for his family. The drudgery of her 'domestic' role is in sharp contrast to the 'action' of his linear 'warrior' role.


Bicycle Thieves (Italian: Ladri di biciclette) (1948), Italian neorealist drama film directed by Vittorio De Sica.
If a 'domestic' ever becomes active, he/she switches over to become a 'warrior' protagonist. Over time the 'warriors' expanded to include different ethnicities and sexualities. The 'warriors' are often alienated from the 'domestics' as they are often shown in cinema as a loner, undomesticated, and/or a whisky drinking hero. 

Fundamentally, the 'warrior' is active for himself or for the needs of the elites but is never threatening to the system itself. This basic format can be seen repeatedly in films from early cowboy movies, James Bond, Mission Impossible (Ethan Hunt), Jack Reacher, The Matrix (Neo), John Wick, etc.

Dialectical Action: 'sticking it to the Man'

However, there are films where the 'warrior' narrative changes from a linear type of thinking to a dialectical consciousness whereby he/she slowly becomes aware of his/her entrapment, oppression, or enslavement. This awareness gradually develops until eventually the protagonist confronts the 'lord' and throws off his/her oppression. The power of the 'all-seeing eye' breaks down and the protagonist escapes or changes the world, while at the same time breaking the hold of the vanquished overlord.

Dialectical Action (Illustration by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

The film The Truman Show (1998) depicts such a journey on a personal and philosophical level. As Truman Burbank becomes gradually aware of the limitations of his artificial world, the prospect of freedom is too powerful, and he decides to go through his dome door and leave the monitored world forever.  He is given the opportunity to talk directly to the 'all-seeing eye', his 'lord', Christof (the show's creator and executive producer) but ultimately, he rejects Christof's pleas to return to the 'familiar' world of total control. While this is not a political film, the dialectics of growing consciousness are well illustrated, in that returning to his previous unconscious state is an impossibility.

Over the years popular cinema has produced films of varying degrees of opposition to the boss, the lord, or the 'the System', for example, Salt of the Earth (1954), Spartacus (1960), The Battle of Algiers (1966), Che (2008), The White Tiger (2021), etc. and wherein there is a profound change in the consciousness of the protagonist/s.

Spartacus 1960 posterjpg


Poster for the film Spartacus (1960) directed by Stanley Kubrick

Salt of the Earth (1954)

In  Salt of the Earth (1954), the story of a mining community where the unionized workers go on strike, the miners wives take the place of their husbands on the picket line due to an injunction on the union. The wives face opposition from their menfolk who take conservative positions on the role of women in society. The ensuing arguments with their husbands and actions taken against them by the state create the dialectics in the narrative that result in a stronger community where the women's role is finally accepted. Ultimately the power of the company and the anti-union laws of the state are broken when the company admits defeat and plans to negotiate.

Spartacus (1960)

The film narrative is  based on the rebellious slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), "who had done only manual labour since childhood; his life changes when he is purchased and trained as a gladiator. Spartacus gradually comes to not only hate his own servitude but to despise the institution of slavery, and to see it as an offence against human dignity. A chance opportunity to escape leads to a massive slave revolt, one which threatened the significant power of Rome."

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

In this film about the Algerian war of the French colonists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiers, the narrative ranges from the growing consciousness of an individual like Ali La Pointe, who goes from being an informal gambler to FLN leader, to the growing politicization of the whole Arab community itself in their struggle against French colonialism which is eventually defeated.

Che (2008)

The dialectical process of transformation is clear in the change of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio del Toro) from intellectual and doctor to a Latin America revolutionary. Che joined forces with Cuban exile Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and starts a revolution that eventually brings an end to the Batista regime in Cuba.

The White Tiger (2021)

The writer of the original novel (The White Tiger, p254, 2008) Aravind Adiga, noted in the novel that:

I won't be saying anything new if I say that the history of the world is the history of a ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side: and it has been this way since the start of time. The poor win a few battles (the peeing in the potted plants, the kicking of the pet dogs, etc.) but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years.

Balram's escape from slavery, his resistance to and eventual murder of his master, leads him to go to another city in India and set up his own taxi business but with a conscious workforce, not another set of workers with a slave mentality. He believes that he is a White Tiger, a symbol of freedom, because he escaped slavery and ultimately encourages his own employees to do the same.

First, Second and Third Cinema

The idea of using cinema to promote social change has been around for a long time. The social realism in the films of Frank Capra, or the cinema of the Italian Neo-Realists tend to represent the reality of poverty, but not necessarily the kind of social consciousness needed to question the hierarchy. In other words, they reflect the system but do not change it.

The Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (members of the Grupo Cine Liberación) reflected on these types of problems when they wrote their manifesto 'Hacia un tercer cine' ('Toward a Third Cinema') in the late 1960s:

Solanas and Getino's manifesto considers 'First Cinema' to be the Hollywood production model that idealizes bourgeois values to a passive audience through escapist spectacle and individual characters. 'Second Cinema' is the European art film, which rejects Hollywood conventions but is centred on the individual expression of the auteur director. Third Cinema is meant to be non-commercialized, challenging Hollywood's model. Third Cinema rejects the view of cinema as a vehicle for personal expression, seeing the director instead as part of a collective; it appeals to the masses by presenting the truth and inspiring revolutionary activism.

The aim of Third Cinema was to go straight for the jugular, and to try and unite 'Third World' peoples experiencing oppression by depicting subjects in such a way as to inspire critical thinking and a revolutionary attitude. Both form and content were affected by Third Cinema principles, by emphasizing the drama of everyday life over dramatic narratives, and by using amateur styles and not relying on expensive action set pieces.

Examples are:

Vidas Secas (A poor peasant family from the Northeast region of Brazil flees drought and famine. Brazil, 1963),

La Hora de Los Hornos (The Hour of Furnaces captures many of struggles and issues of the Argentinians, as well as the role of mass communication in either silencing or activating populations. Argentina, 1968),

Memorias del Subdesarrollo(Sergio, a wealthy bourgeois aspiring writer, decides to stay in Cuba even though his wife and friends flee to Miami. Sergio looks back over the changes in Cuba, from the Cuban Revolution to the missile crisis, the effect of living in what he calls an underdeveloped country, and his relations with his girlfriends Elena and Hanna. Cuba, 1968),

Antonio das Mortes (A group of impoverished peasant mystics (beatos) gathered around Dona Santa (Rosa Maria Penna), a female spiritual figure, join in veneration of Saint George with an obscure figure named Coirana (Lorival Pariz). Coirana claims to have restarted the cangaço and seeks to take the revenge of Lampião and other cangaceiro martyrs, presenting the tale of Saint George and the Dragon in a contemporary class conflict context. Brazil, 1969),

Blood of the Condor
 (An indigenous Bolivian community receiving medical care from the Peace Corps-like American agency Cuerpo del Progreso ("Progress Corps") which is secretly sterilising local women. Bolivia, 1969),

Mandabi (Ibrahima faces numerous difficulties trying to obtain a money order. Not having an ID, Ibrahima must go through several levels of Senegalese bureaucracy to try to get one, only to fail after spending money he does not have. The film explores themes of neocolonialism, religion, corruption, and relationships in Senegalese society. Senegal, 1969),

México, la revolución congelada (An Argentine documentary film, which details the history and progress of the Mexican Revolution (1911-1917). Argentina, 1971).

As these films are written to be polemical and didactic (thought and revolution-provoking) the process of conscientization is a fundamental theme and important part of the narrative structure.

Poster The Hour of the Furnaces

Cover of La Hora de Los Hornos (Argentina, 1968) directed by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas.

However, if the aim is to depict a growing socio-political consciousness, resulting in radical or revolutionary change or even an attempt at such change, then the films of First and Second Cinema can be just as effective as the films of Third cinema. The heroic, dramatic style of Hollywood in Spartacus (1960) made for a popular, successful film. The difficulty lies with the conservative, elite control of an expensive medium, coupled with elite control of conservative content.

Second Cinema is often described as European art cinema, which in the case of socio-political content is perceived to blunt any political message. Yet, the 'art' effects used in Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) were perceived to add to its sense of historical authenticity:

Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti filmed [The Battle of Algiers] in black and white and experimented with various techniques to give the film the look of newsreel and documentary film. The effect was so convincing that American releases carried a notice that "not one foot" of newsreel was used.

The Battle of Algiers poster 

The Battle of Algiers (1966), Italian-Algerian war film co-written and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

That authenticity added to its negative reception and temporary banning in France, yet acclaim among academics and continued popularity to this day.

A new force for radical change?

The negative side of Second Cinema comes down to what Solanas and Getino described as its inability to go beyond being merely the 'progressive' wing of Establishment cinema. They write:

The most daring attempts of those film-makers who strove to conquer the fortress of official cinema ended, as Jean-Luc Godard eloquently put it, with the filmmakers themselves 'trapped inside the fortress.'

Thus, the strictures of Second Cinema were believed to have led to the concept of a militant new Third cinema that would develop new styles, forms and means of production and distribution that would break down the fortress walls. One could argue that the auteurs of Third Cinema had a Gramscian idea of a counter-hegemonic culture: if bourgeois values represented natural or normal values for society, then the working-class needed to develop a culture of its own. While Lenin would have argued that "culture was ancillary to political objectives", Gramsci saw "culture as fundamental to the attainment of power" and "that cultural hegemony be achieved first."

There is no doubt that the expense and control of distribution in the past led to the frustration of radical filmmakers and their desire to overcome these difficulties with various alternative models of filmmaking and distribution. However, times have changed and the rise of cheaper digital cameras, editing software, and the internet itself as a means of distribution have changed the accessibility of filmmaking and film viewing. Films can be made now using phones and viewed using phones. Life experience in the 'system' can be turned into art by almost anyone now. The question is: will such contemporary cinema simply supply more reflections of the status quo, or will it rise above the media cacophony and become a new cinematic force for radical change?

Succession: The Art of Deception and Learning to Speak One-Percent
Tuesday, 02 May 2023 09:05

Succession: The Art of Deception and Learning to Speak One-Percent

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin reviews Succession (contains spoilers)

"In ancient Rome, at one point, they wanted to make all the slaves wear something so they could identify them. Like a cloak or whatever. But then they decided not to do it. And do you know why? Hmm? Because they realized if all the slaves dressed the same, they would see how many of them there were, and they'd rise up and kill their masters. But the point is, if-if we wanna survive, you and I, then... we need a hell of a lot of little folks running around shitting us data, you know, for the eyeballs, for the revenue, for the scale."
(Succession S3 E9)

The popular series Succession is nearing its final episodes as the battle for control of a conglomerate heats up. The story centres around an ageing father and his children who are in a battle for succession. The series is well made with sharp dialogue that demonstrates the ruthless attitudes of the Roy family. The use of deception in their struggle for power is straight out of the Sun Tzu and Machiavelli playbooks of old. However, differences arise over who should have access to these playbooks when we examine the political ideas and philosophy of Leo Strauss who has a very different perspective on what the public should know and not know.

Tom: Greg, this is not fucking Charles Dickens world, okay? You don't go around talking about principles. We're all trying to do the right thing, of course we are. But come on, man! Man the fuck up!
Succession S2 E2
Succession is into its fourth and final season now and has proved to be a very successful series showing the life of a billionaire family in the USA. The family is headed up by Logan Roy ("king") who is aging but cannot decide which of his offspring he wants to take over his position in the company.

S1 Brian Cox 2016 01web
Brian Denis Cox, who plays Logan Roy
Three of Logan's children, Kendall, Roman, and Siobhan (Shiv), are employed by the company, Waystar RoyCo, a global media and entertainment conglomerate. There is also Connor, Logan's oldest son; Marcia Roy, Logan's third and current wife; Tom Wambsgans, Shiv's husband and Waystar executive; and Greg Hirsch, Logan's grandnephew who is also employed by the company.

The family has an extraordinarily rich lifestyle with 'PJs' (Private Jets), helicopters and fast boats taking them to their meetings, offices and houses around the world. They have their every whim catered to and take it all for granted as they maneuver and jockey for position to be the next leader of the company. Their emotional and physical distance from ordinary people and their own workers is shown by their callous attitudes and obnoxious language that is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the series. The other characters of this series Connor, Tom, and Greg, are shown to regularly vacillate from greed to obsequiousness as they also try to retain their powerful positions in the constantly changing battle scenarios of the corporate wars.

Thus, none of the main characters of Succession are sympathetic. The audience may briefly empathise with some of the personal aspects of their lives but then their egoistic behaviour and ruthless attitudes soon destroy what little pity and care they may have aroused in the viewers.  The Roy kids have learned every trick in the book on how to manipulate, deceive, and use divide and rule tactics from their merciless father.

The rich dialogue of Succession is full of the language of the one-percent. For example, Roman tries to impress his father in a meeting with a combination of the latest jargon and his familiarity with the methods of elite maneuvering for profit:

Rom: I actually do have a pitch on this, Dad. Financialization. Float hot. I mean, keep news for political power, for market manipulation capability. But the rest, we play the markets with you and me up in a little pod above the city, fucking start ups and shitting on pension funds. Highly maneuverable, highly mobile.
Logan: And in terms of getting rid of Sandy and Stewy?
Rom: Oh, fuck 'em. Scare 'em off.
Logan: As in?
Rom: As in, you know...Scooby Doo it, Dad. You just dress up as ghosts in the theme park. Um, you know, we just use the lawyers, the PIs, the honey-trap hookers, all the unpleasant people at our disposal. Call in all the favors. Fucking President Raisin, all the Senate cock sucks who owe us. Fucking kill, kill, kill."
- Succession S2 E1

The professionals and unprofessionals that they have 'at their disposal' are due to the use of unlimited wealth to determine a positive outcome for their ambitions. Apart from the obvious bullyboy tactics, deception is a major element in their strategies to maintain and grow their influence and power. For example in the case of Vaulter, a media website that is acquired by Waystar RoyCo, Kendall and Roman are tasked by their father to review Vaulter's performance. They use different types of deception to learn about the company. Roman 'slums' it and goes drinking with some of the staff:

Rom: Speaking of hiding shit, I took a couple of their staffers out, I got them shitfaced, and apparently, they're looking to unionize, and fucking soon.
-Oh, yeah?
Rom: Pay transparency, bargaining rights. Just nasty, tangly shit. And it's not a body pit, whatever the fuck a body pit is. It's a fucking muesli pit, and doesn't fit with our core, you know... values. So now I'm thinking we just shutter the fucker.

Succession S2 E2

Ken pretends all is fine to Lawrence Yee, the founder of Vaulter, but then suddenly announces to the floor his real intentions:

Ken: Yeah. You're... You're all fired. So, if you can leave your laptops where they are, and hand in your passes, security will be coming around now. I've been through everything you've shown me. Food and weed, those are the only two verticals driving revenue, so we're folding them in and, uh, yeah, you're all free to leave.
-This is a joke.
Ken: You have 15 minutes to gather your belongings and exit the building. Separation agreements will be handed around shortly. One week of severance per year served, with full non-disclosure. Post your little videos. You get three days.
-What the f...
Ken: Unused vacation days will not be reimbursed. Health benefits will be terminated at the end of the month. That's it. I'd like to thank you all for your hard work.
Yee: What the fuck is going on?
Ken: Yeah, sorry about the, uh, cloak and dagger. I just needed some time to untangle all your shit, find the profit centers, keep the union off our back. We're already fully operational on seven.
Yee: Why?
Ken: Because my dad told me to.
Succession S2 E2

Suddenly the real side of Kendall is exposed as his familiarity with the language of corporate tricks and laws  rolls off his tongue. The patriarchal, hierarchical aspect is interesting to note as he tells Yee he did it because his dad told him too. Reporting his deed back to Logan, he discusses his deception of the Vaulter staff and dealing with press coverage:

Ken: Okay, it's done. Vaulter's dead. Four-hundred and seventy-six off the payroll, full-timers, freelance... I, uh, negotiated an early break from the lease and hired an editor and five interns for the two remaining verticals, the rest will be user-generated, reviews, upload pics, all that stuff.
Also, I harvested a ton of ideas from the Vaulter staff before they left. IP and start-up ideas. Most of it's, you know, bullshit but... you never know.
Logan: We'll say you tried to keep it alive. Valiant efforts, et cetera.
Ken: I'm good. I'll wear it.
Succession S2 E2

All in a day's work, with very little consideration of the disastrous effects that sudden unemployment could have on the Vaulter staff. The consolidation of profit and power is primary, and the ruthlessness of the process does not enter into the minds of Logan and Kendall. Thus, we are shown how the one percent operate and any empathy with the characters is pointless. Some reviewers criticised the series because there were no sympathetic characters, missing the point that Succession is a kind of exposé of contemporary elite behaviour, similar in some ways to Machiavelli's sixteenth century book, The Prince (1513).

In his loafers made from the skin of... I don't know, what is that? Human rights activists?
Succession S2 E6
Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469–1527), was an Italian diplomat, author, philosopher and historian who lived during the Renaissance. He wrote The Prince (Il Principe) around 1513 as a political treatise on how to gain and retain power.
S3 Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelliweb

Portrait of Machiavelli (1469-1527) by Santi di Tito
Machiavelli's advocacy of fraud and deceit in the process of gaining power ensured his fame as a ruthless advisor to the elite classes. However, while many would see Machiavelli as a self-serving immoral opportunist, this may not have been the case. Erica Benner writes:

Just a year before he finished the first draft of his "little book", the Medici swept into Florence in a foreign-backed coup after spending years in exile. They were deeply suspicious of his loyalties, dismissed him from his posts, then had him imprisoned and tortured under suspicion of plotting against them.

She notes that:
Machiavelli's writings speak in different voices at different times" and that "Francis Bacon [1561–1626)], Spinoza [1632–1677] and Rousseau [1712–1778] – had no doubt the book was a cunning exposé of princely snares, a self-defence manual for citizens. "The book of republicans," Rousseau dubbed it.

Machiavelli emphasized the importance of deception in the tactical toolbox of the power-hungry elites. He urges never to "attempt to win by force what can be won by deception" and that the "vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar." But deception is only part of the strategy, it is also important that "people should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance."

In Succession, the careful planning of the Roy boys is climaxed with a sudden coup de grace ensuring that the Vaulter staff are reeling and have no avenue left open for action:

Logan: Will you sit out front today, Kerry? I need to know what the temperature is amongst the shit-munchers.
Succession S3 E5
Sun Tzu
Machiavelli updated elite strategies that had been around a long time. For example, writing in The Art of War, Sun Tzu declared that "All warfare is based on deception."
S5 吴司马孙武

Qing-era representation of Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, strategist, philosopher, and writer who lived during the Eastern Zhou period of 771 to 256 BCE. He is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, an influential work of military strategy that has affected both Western and East Asian philosophy and military thinking. Sun Tzu is revered in Chinese and East Asian culture as a legendary historical and military figure. While there has been much debate over the historicity of Sun Tzu, there is no doubt over the influence of The Art of War over the centuries on generals and theorists like, for example, the influence it had on Mao's writings about guerrilla warfare.

Sun Tzu's advice on deception is comprehensive: "Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him."
Whoever Sun Tzu was, he was writing at a time when knowledge was pretty much the monopoly of the elites. Machiavelli, on the other hand, lived during a revolutionary time for knowledge dissemination. For example, "before the invention of printing, the number of manuscript books in Europe could be counted in thousands. By 1500, after only 50 years of printing, there were more than 9,000,000 books."

This was why the philosophers of the The Scientific Revolution (c16-c17) and the Age of Enlightenment/Reason (c17-c19)  saw The Prince as 'a cunning exposé of princely snares, a self-defence manual for citizens'. However, this exposé did not go down well with Leo Strauss, the most popular twentieth century philosopher of the new conservative elites.

Connor: Oh, no, no, no, no. I can pull out the old megaphone anytime I want and I can say, "Hey! Guess what? I recall my father was a nasty, racist, neglectful individual. What was it that they used to say around here? No Blacks, no Jews, no women above the fourth floor.
Succession S3 E4
Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss (1899–1973) was a German professor who emigrated from Germany to the United States where he wrote many books on philosophy, and taught classical political philosophy, mainly at the University of Chicago. His conservative ideas struck a chord with many public intellectuals, politicians and think tank professionals, some of whom were ex-students of his. His work has been the subject of much debate on his ideas and intentions. For example, Shadia Drury, analyses his work and style of writing as intentionally obscure to ensure that his ideas on political power would only be understood by the few. In The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, Drury writes that Strauss was "an atheist and moral nihilist who advocated the use of religion, morality, and family values as useful political tools by which to placate and manipulate the masses [and] believed that the best form of government is the absolute but covert rule of a 'wise' elite independent of the law". 
S2 LeoStrauss

Photo of Leo Strauss (1899–1973)

To do this Strauss called for "a reconsideration of the "distinction between exoteric (or public) and esoteric (or secret) teaching". He argued "that serious writers write esoterically, that is, with multiple or layered meanings, often disguised within irony or paradox, obscure references, even deliberate self-contradiction." He believed that this protected the philosopher from "the retribution of the regime", but it could be argued that it was more likely to protect the philosopher from the retribution of the masses - as Shadia P. Drury sets out to show in The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. Drury notes that Strauss is critical of Machiavelli because "by abandoning the esoteric nature of philosophy, Machiavelli undermines philosophy itself" and turns "it into an object of mass consumption". This opened the way to the Enlightenment which Strauss is critical of because enlightenment leads people to think for themselves and this is not good for the powers-that-be. Drury writes:
Machiavelli's dissemination of philosophy to the masses opens the way to the Enlightenment, nay, it is identical with the Enlightenment. Enlightenment is 'the project' of modernity par excellence: its goal is to fight against the Kingdom of Darkness. It believes falsely, that mass enlightenment is the solution to man's political dilemmas. Moreover,this modern project is conceived as a conscious and heroic effort on man's part to take control of his destiny and to master Fortuna. According to Strauss, Machiavelli replaces the biblical God with Fortuna, and the Christian idea of providence with the modern idea of not trusting to chance, and taking one's fate in one's own hands.

Even though Strauss rejected revelation he did not want to undermine religion because "religion is necessary to maintain order by ensuring that citizens obey the laws". 

For Strauss religion and philosophy are two opposites with very different aims. Drury states that:

[I]n Strauss's view religion and philosophy are opposites that cannot and should not be reconciled. The life of faith is the life of blind unquestioning surrender, whereas the life of philosophy is that of free enquiry. The faithful are steeped in delusions whereas the philosophers rejoice in the truth. Religion prohibits contemplation because it knows as soon as one reflects, one will recognize that religion is a fraud. However, if one reflects further, one will realise the necessity of such swindles and the wisdom of the prophets who create them for love of mankind. Realizing this, the philosophers must keep their atheistic truth hidden; they must live a dual life endorsing publicly what they know is a noble fiction. [...] [T]his dual life causes them no grief; on the contrary it fills their life with laughter, inside jokes, subtle winks and pregnant pauses.j

Thus, it seems that while Machiavelli wrote to reveal power, Strauss wrote to conceal power. Strauss criticises Machiavelli for making public the strategies of the elites, risking the enlightenment and possible revolt of the people.

Strauss liked to keep it simple. Adam Curtis shows in his documentaryThe Power of Nightmares, that Strauss liked the TV series Gunsmoke because: "The hero has a white hat; he's faster on the draw than the bad man; the good guy wins. And it's not just that the good guy wins, but that values are clear. [...] Good and evil." [Professor Stanley Rosen, Pupil of Leo Strauss 1949]

Strauss also liked Perry Mason, the TV series about a lawyer: "The extremely cunning man who, as far as we can see, is very virtuous and uses his great intelligence and quickness of mind to rescue his clients from dangers, but who could be fooling us—because he's cleverer than we are. Is he really telling the truth? Maybe his client is guilty!" [Rosen]

Therefore the masses could be taught to unite "against a common evil, and set about creating a mythical enemy", which in the USA, for example, under Reagan was the Soviet Union, while at the same time never really knowing if what they are being told is the full story. Drury argues that Strauss teaches that "perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what's good for them".
The creation of myths that divert the anger of the masses away from their own elite perpetrators is balanced by positive myths that puff up the nation's pride in the very same elites. This is the rule of the wise, and revealing its inner workings was frowned upon by Strauss.

Rom: Hail, my fellow toilerman. I have returned from real America, bearing the gift of sight.
Shiv: How was summer camp?
Rom: Hmm? What's that? Didn't catch that. I've been down in the salt mines so long with my fellow Johnny Lunchpails, I no longer speak One-Percent."
Succession S2 E5

Succession is one story about the real America. It shows the workings of a society at its highest levels. It is self conscious in that it has no illusions about the American Dream. Instead it shows a society that is brutalised by its own successes that are leading to a greater disparity between wealth and poverty. It shows the growing distance between the masses and the elites that has developed over the last few decades, the contradiction between the idea of the nation and its reality. The ideal nation promoted by the elites is being split apart by global agendas that are consuming more and more of the nations resources to the detriment of its citizens:

Ken: Okay, big picture... we're at the end of a long American century. Our company is a declining empire - inside a declining empire.
Connor: Amen, brother."
- Succession [23] S3 E2
Nobody knows where the extremes and contradictions of the USA will result in but I feel that the wise men [the Straussians] would be working on new ways to make the state policies acceptable to the masses ...[eg maybe China as the new 'evil empire'?]

The verdict on Succession? Machiavelli would probably have loved it; Strauss would most likely have hated it.
Dubai Superlatives: The Power of Excessive Wealth
Monday, 10 April 2023 11:11

Dubai Superlatives: The Power of Excessive Wealth

Published in Architecture
Questions From a Worker Who Reads (by Bertolt Brecht, 1935)

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?

Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
Maybe the closest we can get to Elon Musk's vision of Mars is a visit to Dubai. Imagine an alien planet where you can only live in the base settlement with a breathable atmosphere: a comfortable place and a comfortable temperature. In the hottest months of the year in Dubai, temperatures rise to 50 degrees so people move from air-conditioned apartments to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned offices to air-conditioned shopping malls.

Of course, they are very nice cars, apartments, offices and shopping malls. Dubai deals in expensive property and large scales: the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa (829.8m, 2,722ft), the tallest hotel in the world under construction (Ciel), and the foundations laid for the tallest construction in the world - the Dubai Creek observation tower which will be 1.3km (1,300m, 4,300ft) high.
2 workersDubaiBurjkhalifa

Workers gardening near Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
This should keep Dubai on the superlative lists into the next decade. Here the hierarchies of height determine your wealth. For example, the entrance to the Burj Khalifa is a luxurious shopping mall which also contains a massive food hall for the workers, servers and shop workers. The more money you have to spend, the higher up the Burj Khalifa you can go. The extremes of wealth mean that it is likely that most of the people who work in the mall have never been up the lifts into the stratospheric heights of the tallest building in the world. While many eat in the cheap food mall at the base, only a few have tea and coffee in the lounge and outdoor observation deck on the 148th floor (named At the Top) which is so high that it is more like looking down on Dubai from a plane than from a building. This contrast is certainly symbolic of the incredible extremes of wealth that exist in Dubai.

Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph?


I read a comment somewhere that if Dubai were described as a book then the front cover would be Cosmopolitan Magazine and the inside would be The Big Issue (homeless magazine). Starting life as a poor village in the desert beside the sea, Dubai has come on in leaps and bounds ever since. For example, "in 1822, a British naval surveyor noted that Dubai was at that time populated with a thousand people living in an oval-shaped town surrounded by a mud wall, scattered with goats and camels." By the 1930s Dubai was known for its pearl exports but "the pearl trade was damaged irreparably by the 1929 Great Depression and the innovation of cultured pearls. With the collapse of the pearling industry, Dubai fell into a deep depression and many residents lived in poverty or migrated to other parts of the Persian Gulf."
However, oil was struck in 1966 and this all changed. While Dubai had already started a period of infrastructural development and expansion in the 1950s based on revenue from trading activities (such as the trade in gold), the discovery of oil offshore set the tone for a new rapid growth in building projects during the 1970s. This growth was fueled by revenues from oil and gold but depended mainly on cheap labour from developing countries. The treatment of the many thousands of workers in Dubai has been the subject of many reports and documentaries, such as Human Rights Watch (living conditions described as being "less than humane") and the documentary, Slaves of Dubai (2009). In an article titled  "What is Modern Slavery in Dubai and How Does it Affect You?" it is stated:

"More than 88.5% of UAE residents are foreign workers, with South Asian migrants constituting 42.5% of the UAE's workforce. [...] These migrants, usually illiterate and from impoverished, rural communities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh [...] Eager to move to Dubai and begin earning money that they can send home to their families, they take out loans of up to $3000 from unscrupulous recruitment agencies to pay the exorbitant 'visa fees' (which is actually illegal – the recruitment agencies are supposed to cover these fees) and board flights to Dubai, excited for a new life in the glitzy Emirate. When they touch down in Dubai, however, it's a different story. Driven to squalid shanty towns on the outskirts of Dubai, where 45 men share one outdoor bathroom and 10 or more people sleep in a room, their passports are confiscated and they are told that they will actually be working 14 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, in the desert sun."

The cramped living conditions and low wages has led to high suicide rates too.

City Centre Deira, mall worker, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

The International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis has reported that the kafala sponsorship system has played an important part in the exploitation of workers:

"Kafala is a system popular in Gulf countries that gives private citizens and companies responsibility and oversight over workers. The kafala sponsorship system is used to monitor migrant labourers, working primarily in the construction and domestic sectors in Gulf Cooperation Council member states. The kafala system involves withholding labourers' passports to regulate their residency and employment, which gives employers near-total control over migrant workers' salary, living conditions, nutrition, ability to work elsewhere, and even their ability to return home."

The treatment of citizens is very different to the situation for expatriate workers:

"It is estimated that in 2018, there were seven million workers in the UAE alone. Over 90 per cent of the private-sector labour force is comprised of expatriates while UAE nationals continue to be employed in stable and relatively well-paying jobs in the country's vast public sector. Although citizens face restrictions on their human rights, the state offers them a wide range of social benefits, including generous housing benefits, access to free education and medical services, preferential treatment in the workforce and higher salaries."

It was also reported that "domestic workers are exposed to multiple forms of exploitation and violence, including sexual, physical and psychological abuse".

Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?

The conditions for workers and the rapid building growth and expansion of Dubai is tied in with tourism as many projects are dependent on sales to foreign tourists and investors. However, many apartments are also sold off the plans, and then resold upon completion without the investor even visiting Dubai. Every shopping mall has selling points with sophisticated screens using 3D maps of Dubai and the properties for sale. The sales assistants are usually from Eastern Europe. There is no shortage of potential customers as Dubai has become one of the "world's leading tourism destinations" and tourism is now one of Dubai's main sources of revenue. The city "hosted 14.9 million overnight visitors in 2016" and "in 2018, Dubai was the fourth most-visited city in the world based on the number of international visitors."
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?  
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

Workers' districts

By far the most interesting areas of Dubai are the areas where the workers themselves live, work, and shop. Deira, for example, is a historic district where the population consists mainly of Pakistan and India natives. Deira has many markets: Murshid Souk, Spice Souk, Deira Covered Souk, and Gold Souk. There are leather shops, shoe shops, supermarkets, barbers, butchers, cafes and family restaurants with dining areas on the city pavements. Compared to the soulless atmosphere of the wealthier districts, Deira is full of life with friendly shop assistants and large groups of African, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers and their families enjoying the convivial atmosphere of the restaurants indoors and outdoors.

Deira, Creek, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

So many reports.  
So many questions.

The Future of Dubai
There is no doubt that Dubai is the creation of a particular set of circumstances economically, geographically and geopolitically. It has made good use of its central position in relation to Europe, Africa and Asia as a cosmopolitan meeting point for international trade and travel. Dubai has benefitted from the UAE's diplomatic moves to play down differences regionally:

"The UAE is revisiting its foreign policy goals with the aim of boosting its global trade partnerships and ensuring its security and political stability, by replacing robust military intervention and proxy politics with dialogue and diplomacy.[...] Differences between the UAE on the one hand and Iran, Turkey, and Qatar on the other remain strong. However, the UAE is beginning to realize that the lack of a healthy bilateral dialogue with regional powers will make progress towards de-escalation much harder. The country acknowledges, after a decade of regional conflict and proxy politics, that the divergent policies of regional players should not prevent diplomatic cooperation."
However, in an era of rising temperatures and rising seas, it must be asked how much hotter can Dubai get, and how will this coastal city deal with erosion and flooding? The continued existence of Dubai is dependent on heavy power consumption to maintain air conditioning, trains and services for very large buildings, many more of which are being planned at the moment for future development.
Deira, Creek, Dubai, UAE (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)
Even the locals have always had an uncomfortable feeling about the future of Dubai. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum (ruler from 1958 till 1990) is believed to have said: "My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel".

One cannot help but feel that a major collapse of oil prices and/or the economies of the West will have a profound effect on the future of Dubai. As the quote (with as obscure an origin as Dubai itself) that 'the Stone Age didn't end for lack of stones' has noted, new technologies will substantially decrease our reliance on fossil fuels in the future. All these potential changes do not augur well for the future of Dubai's dependence on trade in tourism, oil and gold. If Dubai is ultimately an unsustainable vanity project instigated by a tiny minority of the super rich, as some believe, then the city could be deserted (in more ways than one), and Dubai itself could become the largest open-air museum in the world.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.

Changing Society: Nature, Life, and Resistance in Culture Today
Saturday, 01 April 2023 08:57

Changing Society: Nature, Life, and Resistance in Culture Today

Published in Films

Caoimhghin O Croidheain reviews Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022) and White Tiger (2021)  

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free
― Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe,  (Elective Affinities, Die Wahlverwandtschaften, 1809)
What kind of culture do we want? What kind of culture do we need? Our culture reflects our fundamental ideologies and these ideologies are rooted in patriarchal religion and neoliberal politics in the main. It's a culture that depicts the class system, war, and in general, people dealing with the system in its many different facets, through drama, adventure, comedy, terror, horror, etc.

The origins of our culture are thought to go back thousands of years when, for example, (in the ideas of James DeMeo) "climatic changes caused drought, desertification and famine in North Africa, the Near East, and Central Asia (collectively Saharasia) and this trauma caused the development of patriarchal, authoritarian and violent characteristics" about six thousand years ago.  

The coming of the Kurgan peoples across Europe from c. 4000 to 1000 BC is believed to have been a tumultuous and disastrous time for the peoples of Old Europe. The Old European culture is believed to have centred around nature-based pagan ideologies. Some believe the rise of patriarchy was due to the sexual division of labour about 2 million years ago, while others believe it was due to the later development of agriculture and private property.
Van Eyck The Crucifixion The Last Judgmentweb

Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych, by Jan van Eyck, c. 1430–1440.

However, these changes led to the growth of patriarchal religions that underpinned the ambitions of warring rulers, for example:

"In Christianity the rulers had a religion that assured their objectives. The warring adventurism of the new rulers needed soldiers for their campaigns and slaves to produce their food and mine their metals for their armaments and wealth. Thus, Christ was portrayed as Martyr and Master. In his own crucifixion as Martyr he provided a brave example to the soldiers, and as Master he would reward or punish the slaves according to how well they had behaved."

The privatisation of property, extractivism, the necessity for food-producing slaves and a warrior class sustained and further extended the aims of elites throughout feudalism and capitalism up to the wars of today, and who are now competing for power and resources on a global scale. The terminology has changed but the fundamentals have not.

The exploitation of nature continues unabated with the ongoing destruction of the Amazon and wildlife, the global and mass use and abuse of animals, transnational polluting industries, chemical-driven industrial crop land, and factory ship over-fishing emptying our seas. The wars have also gotten greater with two world wars in the twentieth century and a third one hanging over our heads constantly threatening our very existence. The elites are a smaller group of people now but control ever-growing global monopolies.

Thus, looking at culture in general from this perspective, there are two important aspects of modern culture: the destruction of nature combined with death (war) and a culture of slavery (escapism, diversion, etc.). The antithesis of these two aspects are respect for nature and life, and resistance to slavery in all of its forms. While we are surrounded by the culture of war and escapism, it is not easy to find an oppositional culture.

Yet it does exist, and two good recent examples are the Korean TV series Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022) (pro-nature), and White Tiger (2021) (anti-slavery), a film based on an adaptation of Aravind Adiga's 2008 novel of the same name. These two fine dramas show us that alternatives to the current system and ideology can be produced.

Nature and life - Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022)

Extraordinary Attorney Woo is the story of Woo Young-woo, an autistic lawyer who is raised by her single father. She finds it difficult to get a job despite graduating with the highest distinction. However, she eventually gets a job in a top Seoul law firm, Hanbada, using her father's connections. Over time she learns to become an excellent lawyer and her colleagues grow to respect her. The series becomes a platform for progressive social, political, environmental and ethical issues fought out through the courts. Furthermore, the environmental theme is highlighted by her love of whales and dolphins especially when she "analogizes situations she faces in her professional and private life with the lives and characteristics of whales and dolphins [that] often surprises and confounds the people who surround her."
Strange Lawyer Woo Young woo
Promotional poster for Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022) by Naver

These situations are often combined with beautiful, if surreal, photography of whales swimming past windows or combined with court scenes. Woo is also seen demonstrating with a colleague against the treatment of dolphins in a local aquarium. However, Attorney Woo's fellow rookie colleague, Kwon Min-woo, approaches their supervising lawyer Jung Myung-seok, angry at her sometimes unorthodox behaviour which he feels she is getting away with because of her disability. Jung Myung-seok reacts in a slightly annoyed tone:

"Attorney Kwon, you must really like penalties. [...] When you experience a difference of opinion or a conflict at work, you need to talk with your colleagues and solve it.  Giving rewards or punishment over who is right or wrong for every single thing, that's not like how I like to work."

Here Myung-seok advises that conflict in life must be resolved through discussion, not by 'giving rewards or penalties', moving away from the authoritarian methods of the master. Attorney Woo naturally reacts to selfishness, corruption and discrimination but she gradually learns that the pursuit of truth is a difficult path to carve out. Apart from Woo being a symbol of logic and reasoning in the service of truth, her connection with nature is direct and not mediated by a negative, consumer-orientated culture.

Resistance to slavery - White Tiger (2021)

White Tiger tells the story of Balram Halwai who relates the ups and downs of his life in a letter to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Balram was an intelligent young boy in an isolated village who aspires to work as a chauffeur for the son of the rich village landowner, Ashok, who has just returned from America with his American-Indian wife, Pinky. Ashok and Pinky go to Delhi to bribe politicians to reduce his family's taxes and Balram joins them as their driver. Although they have liberal ideas about their servants, as soon as things turn bad they treat him like any other wealthy, entitled masters. Balram is asked to drive Ashok with a huge sum of money for a bribe and then decides to escape his servitude by murdering Ashok and stealing the money to make a better life for himself. He then sets up a taxi company in a different city where he treats his drivers well and helps them when they get into the kind of troubles he experienced himself as a servant.
The White Tiger film poster

Promotional poster for
The White Tiger (2021)

Balram believes "that the Indian underclass is trapped in a perpetual state of servitude, like chickens in a chicken coop."

He states that "The greatest thing to come out of this country in its ten thousand year history: The Rooster Coop. They can see and smell the blood. They know they're next. Yet they don't rebel, they don't try and get out of the coop." He asks why the workers are so honest in their relations with their masters. "Why? Because Indians are the world's most honest and spiritual people? No. It's because 99.9 percent of us are caught in the Rooster Coop. The trustworthiness of servants is so strong that you can put the key of emancipation in a man's hand and he will throw it back at you with a curse." He describes the main problem of Indian society: "In the old days, when India was the richest nation on earth, there were one thousand castes and destinies. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies."

The writer of the original novel (The White Tiger, p254, 2008) Aravind Adiga, noted in the novel that:

"I won't be saying anything new if I say that the history of the world is the history of a ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side: and it has been this way since the start of time. The poor win a few battles (the peeing in the potted plants, the kicking of the pet dogs, etc.) but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years."

Balram's escape from slavery, his resistance to the master, comes with tragedy as his extended family is murdered by the village landlord. He believes that he is a White Tiger, a symbol of freedom, because he escaped slavery and ultimately encourages his own employees to do the same. Here is a monologue and description from the screenplay:

"Balram speaks directly to his Drivers as he gathers them and brings them outside to the front of his business.
BALRAM - Now, what happens in your typical Hindi film about murder? A poor man kills a rich man and then gets nightmares of the dead man pursuing him screaming: "Murderer! Shame!" It doesn't happen like that. The real nightmare is the other kind - where you didn't do it, that you didn't kill your master, that you
lost your nerve, and that you're still a servant to another man. But then you wake up, the sweating
stops, your heartbeat slows. The nightmare is over. You did do it. You killed your master.
Balram steps away from them and speaks directly into the camera:
BALRAM (TO CAMERA) - I have switched sides. I've made it. I've broken out of the coop.
He exits frame, leaving a wall of drivers, servants, perhaps new White Tigers, ready to strike, confronting the camera, confronting the audience..."

Balram takes chances and resists slavery. He may be wealthy now but he does not feel part of the wealthy class. He has broken out of the coop and 'switched sides', and he has no problem enlightening and even encouraging his drivers to do the same. In a way he plays the rich at their own game: using their tactics of murder and disloyalty to escape from their binds.

Of diets and glaciers

Given the current state of the political and financial crises of late capitalism. i.e., the possibility of an all-out global war and the worsening destruction of the environment (upon which our sustenance is based), the constant re-examination of our culture is of utmost importance. For many people the movement for change seems glacial and leads them to live out their lives on the cultural diet created mainly by producers whose primary motive is profit, not social and political change.

However, the illusion of peace and freedom created by this timeless culture is situated in real historical conditions that are constantly changing. Over time and with different forces underneath, even the slowest of glaciers can suddenly break apart and form cracks. The greatest aspiration of cultural producers today would be to show that happiness does not consist in diversion from worry but in confronting the sources of our current ills instead, and to remember what Leonard Cohen wrote, "Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

Every St Patrick's Day, Everywhere, All at Once: A Disaster for Ireland
Thursday, 16 March 2023 21:13

Every St Patrick's Day, Everywhere, All at Once: A Disaster for Ireland

Published in Cultural Commentary
 March 17 is traditionally St Patrick's Day, a day when 'Irishness' is celebrated all over the world. This date is traditionally held to be the date of the death of St Patrick  (c. 385 – c. 461), the patron saint of Ireland. It is marked by parades through the main cities and towns of Ireland, and in recent years it has become popular as a festival around the world with famous buildings being lit up green and major rivers being dyed green.

However, in recent decades the symbolism of St Patrick's Day has changed dramatically and promotes negative stereotypes (e.g. leprechauns) of the Irish people to a world audience. This is not good for Ireland or the Irish people. It must also be noted that St Patrick is seen as the patron saint of Ireland because he defeated pagan ideology in favour of Christianity. However, pagan ideology had a strong connection with nature and the cycles of nature that resulted in seasonal festivals such as Beltaine (1 May), Lughnasadh (1 August), Samhain (1 November) and Imbolc (1 February).

St Patrick

Not a lot is known about Saint Patrick except he is believed to have been a Romano-British Christian missionary who was kidnapped by Irish raiders and brought to Ireland as a slave. After six years as a shepherd he went home and became a priest. He then returned to Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. He is famously believed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland despite the fact there is no record that Ireland ever had snakes. It is more likely that the snakes refer to the pagans themselves:

"Scholars suggest the tale is allegorical. Serpents are symbols of evil in the Judeo-Christian tradition—the Bible, for example, portrays a snake as the hissing agent of Adam and Eve's fall from grace. The animals were also linked to heathen practices—so St. Patrick's dramatic act of snake eradication can be seen as a metaphor for his Christianizing influence."

It is believed that he died on 17 March and was buried at Downpatrick. It is also believed that the date is suspiciously close to Ostara, a pagan holiday:

"It wasn't arbitrary that the day honouring Saint Patrick was placed on the 17th of March. The festival was designed to coincide, and, it was hoped, to replace the Pagan holiday known as Ostara; the second spring festival which occurs each year, which celebrates the rebirth of nature, the balance of the universe when the day and night are equal in length, and which takes place at the Spring Equinox (March 22nd this year). In other words, Saint Patrick's Day is yet another Christian replacement for a much older, ancient Pagan holiday; although generally speaking Ostara was most prominently replaced by the Christian celebration of Easter (the eggs and the bunny come from Ostara traditions, and the name "Easter" comes from the Pagan goddess Eostre)."

St Patrick's Day Parade

As a child I remember being brought to the parade and seeing a very dignified parade of marching pipe bands and symbols of the Irish state and nation such as the Irish army. By the 1980s it had been reduced to low levels of commercialisation (such as multiple floats advertising a major security firm). Later, the influence of Macnas took over and a kind of Celtic primitivism became very influential.


St Patrick's Day, Downpatrick, March 2011

The commercialism of the St Patrick's Day Parade also resulted in Irish people dressing up as red-bearded and green-hatted leprechauns:

"Films, television cartoons and advertising have popularised a specific image of leprechauns which bears little resemblance to anything found in the cycles of Irish folklore. It has been argued that the popularised image of a leprechaun is little more than a series of stereotypes based on derogatory 19th-century caricatures."

Along with this negative stereotype came a change in terminology as St Patrick's day became known as Paddy's Day, a derogatory term for Irish people (Paddy). The festival has become an excuse for all-day drinking and riotous behaviour, feeding into the negative stereotypes of 'drunken Paddys'.
St Patricks day Parade 1909 3

St. Patrick Parade, Fifth Ave., New York 1909

In a way the St Patrick's Day parade of recent years does symbolise the Ireland of today just as the content of past parades represented the prevalent ideologies of their day too. The colorful, brash, internationalism of the parade now is similar to other major festivals around the world (such as Brazilian Carnival) and, similarly, has more of a feeling of public catharsis than a celebration of national identity.

The kind of drinking and self-mocking celebrated now on St Patrick's Day has more in common with the work of the Roman satirical poet, Juvenal (c. 100 CE), who wrote that "the People have abdicated our duties [and] now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."  Public palliatives for societal woes only temporarily cover up the real problems facing Irish people today as the housing, energy and financial crises deepen.

Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. This is what is really needed now, the rebirth of the politics of social justice, and the renewal of our deep connection with nature and life - a movement away from the theology of death.
Romantic Heroes: Ameliorating the Dark Side of Capitalism
Friday, 04 November 2022 13:35

Romantic Heroes: Ameliorating the Dark Side of Capitalism

Published in Cultural Commentary

The rapid spread of the science-based Enlightenment (c1687-c1804) across Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a cause of much dismay to the reigning monarchies of the time. The source of their anxiety, the philosophes,  were propagating a radical new range of ideas "centered on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, and constitutional government."

The conservative reaction to such ideas was to declare the power of nature and the primacy of God as the controlling force in the universe. This hierarchical relationship justified the chain of hierarchical order and authority on earth that "connected subjects to rulers and to god" thereby revalidating feudal society and monarchy. On an individual level, emotions and spirituality were asserted to be more important than science and reason.

This early reaction to the Enlightenment, i.e., the emphasis on capricious feeling or overwhelmed emotions ('the inflamed passions') as described in the works of the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797, see image above), and later in the Romanticist (c1790s-c1850) movement, turned culture into a burden on society. This is because, from the idea of the cathartic terror of nature, to the Byronic romantic hero, and on to the superheroes of today, Romanticism has diverted people away from real change and real working-class heroes.

The Romanticist escape to Utopia, the remote, the exotic, and the unknown, is in stark contrast with the real lives of past leaders of communitarian movements who suffered, struggled, and died for real social change. Now we live in stark, dark times, surrounded by media that is saturated with the Romanticist gloop of horror, terror, fantasy, science fiction, romantic egoism, etc., that threatens to slow society down and trap us into infinite and endless imagination to the detriment of any progressive forms of social consciousness and societal change.

Edmund Burke's sublime: "by the contagion of our passions"

Edmund Burke set out a new way of looking at nature not as a 'demonstration of order but an invitation of reverence'. For example, this reverence can be seen in the language used by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) in his book The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Goethe wrote: 'From the forbidding mountain range across the barren plain untrodden by the foot of man, to the end of the unknown seas, the spirit of the Eternal Creator can be felt rejoicing over every grain of dust' emphasising the fearful, the mysterious and the unsure.

This new emphasis on reverence for the Creator and fear of nature was a reaction to the Enlightenment desire to refocus society on man and an understanding of nature. In the writing of the Enlightenment philosophes, Nature was given meaning in relation to man, not abstracted into the anger of a revengeful god. For Diderot,

a picture of high mountains, ancient forests and immense ruins evoked episodes of classical or religious history. The roar of an invisible torrent led him to speculate on human calamities. Everything in nature was referred to man in society: 'Man is born for society ... put a man in a forest and he will become ferocious.' For Rousseau, man only reached his highest insights when alone and humbled by the savage force of nature. Both were alike in their search for natural spontaneity, but what turned one towards society drove the other into solitude.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) had also rejected the rationalism of the Enlightenment philosophes (the development of knowledge and the intellect), "in favor of a form of nonrational, spiritual "enlightenment" centered on the "holy and beneficent" inner voice of conscience engraved on our hearts by God." 
 Allan Ramsay Jean Jacques Rousseau 1712 1778 resized

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1766 portrait of Rousseau wearing an Armenian papakha and costume by Allan Ramsay

Thus Rousseau moved "away from the Enlightenment's reliance on empiricism, reason, and knowledge towards a stress on the active nature of the mind and the inner spiritual life of the individual''. By doing this, "he helped to launch what would eventually develop into a full-blown revolt against the rationalism and intellectualism of the eighteenth century in the name of religion, emotion, imagination, and the heart, themes central to the thought of the Romantic period that Rousseau helped to inspire." 

Burke developed the concept of the sublime (great, elevated, or lofty thought or language) in his book, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin Of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He wrote:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

Burke changed the emphasis from description to drama, especially in his emphasis on passionate language to 'inflame the heart'. He writes:

We yield to sympathy what we refuse to description. The truth is, all verbal description, merely as naked description, though never so exact, conveys so poor and insufficient an idea of the thing described, that it could scarcely have the smallest effect, if the speaker did not call in to his aid those modes of speech that mark a strong and lively feeling in himself. Then, by the contagion of our passions, we catch a fire already kindled in another, which probably might never have been struck out by the object described.

Thus, the power of rhetoric (using 'modes of speech' combined with 'strong and lively feeling', 'we catch a fire already kindled in another') takes over from reality itself: "The influence of most things on our passions is not so much from the things themselves, as from our opinions concerning them; and these again depend very much on the opinions of other men, conveyed for the most part by words only."

In this way the passions of men can be inflamed by a strong use of imaginative rhetoric. As reason is secondary, the implications of such behaviour, such an idea, on a mass scale (passions creating a wildfire across nations) can later be seen in the wars of the twentieth century (nation set against nation in WWI, Hitler's strident speeches of WWII).

Also, to overemphasise the passions diminished the role of reason and rationalisation in individual acts. For example, as Diderot claimed,
it is wrong to attribute the crimes of men to their passions: it is their false judgements which are at fault. The passions always inspire us rightly, for they inspire us only with the desire for happiness. It is the mind that misleads us and makes us take false roads.

Romantic heroes: "misery in his heart"

If we combine Burke's "ideas of pain, and danger," with Rousseau's "inner voice of conscience engraved on our hearts" we can see the beginnings of the construction of the Romantic hero in pursuit of his/her own passions, and who can be described thus:

A romantic hero is an exceptional and often mysterious person, usually in exceptional circumstances. The collision of external events is transferred to the inner world of the hero, in whose soul there is a struggle of contradictions. As a result of this kind of reproduction, romanticism has extremely highlighted the value of the personality, inexhaustible in their inner depths, revealing its unique inner world.

The characteristics of the Romantic hero tend to emphasise someone who has been "rejected by society and has themselves at the center of their own existence", with various combinations of introspection, wanderlust, melancholy, misanthropy, alienation, and isolation.

Byron 1813 by Phillips

The Lord Byron FRS. Portrait by Thomas Phillips, c. 1813

The Byronic hero was popularised in Byron's poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–1818) with the passions emphasised as "misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection". A solitary figure and resigned to suffering which was reflected in the trials and tribulations of Byron's own life and death in Italy and Greece.

The Romantic hero can be seen as an individualist who suffers from psychological traumas associated with alienation from society and life itself.

Working-class heroes: "complaints of the hungry proletariat"

As with the Romantic movement, the Romantic hero was a reaction to the new bourgeois social order as the ancien regime's control and rule through aristocracy and monarchy diminished. The rediscovered and popularised collectivist ideologies of republicanism, democracy and socialism took to the stage and soon gathered momentum.

As Otto Grotewohl noted in 1948:
Romanticism sought models in the dark mysticism of the Middle Ages and viewed with complete contempt not only democracy and revolution but also the emancipation of the people.

And although many of the romantics fled to the mountains or the sea to escape burgeoning capitalism, Pyotr Semyonovich Kogan wrote that:
inevitably even in the work of such a poet as Hugo, the noise of the street and the complaints of the hungry proletariat burst in and drowned out the gloomy sounds of medieval organs and the tender songs of Oriental odalisques.

Kogan criticises the Romantic interest in melancholic music and the other-worldly exoticism of Orientalism. As the practical materialism (science-based) of the proletariat excluded Romanticism (irrationalism), the anti-social individualism of the Romantics was replaced with the collectivism of the working classes.

The many aspects of the working-class condition e.g. hunger, loneliness, alienation, poverty, joblessness, depression or lacking in health care (some aspects actually glorified in the Romantic hero) are reversed in the common aim of working-class solidarity and activism. While the Romantic hero looked to the past, the working class looked to the future.
The characteristics of the working-class hero (positive, conscious, rational, philanthropic) starkly contrasted with the idea of the highly individualistic, alienated Romantic hero (negative, anti-conscious, irrational, misanthropic).

The male and female working-class heroes given to us by history are ordinary people who rose above their living and social conditions to create a better world for all, fighting for better wages and working conditions, birth control and health services for both workers and migrants. Some examples:

Mother Jones (1837 – 1930) Mary 'Mother' Jones was a trade union activist who helped to organise strikes to campaign for better pay and conditions for workers. She was an organiser for "The Knights of Labor" and the American Mine Workers Union. She sought to enforce child labour laws. Referred to as 'the most dangerous women in America' she revelled in her cause to liberate the working class of America.
 Mother Jones 1902 11 04

Mother Jones, American labour activist.
Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966) Sanger was a member of the New York Socialist Party and supported striking workers in the early 1910s. She published her first articles on birth control in a socialist magazine. After the First World War, she concentrated on promoting birth control and allowed her socialist policies to elapse.

Aneurin Bevan (1897–1960) Bevan was the son of a miner and left school at the age of 13 to work in the mines himself. He became active in local union politics and rose in the Labour Movement to become a key figure of the Party. After the 1945 election, he set up the new National Health Service, which offered universal health care.

Walter Reuther (1907 – 1970) Reuther was an influential trade union leader who took on the major car firms and gained recognition for unions. Under his leadership, UAW became a major force, gaining substantial concessions from car companies. For his campaign to win workers rights, he was beaten up by Ford's men and subject to two assassination attempts.

Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993) Chavez was the son of Latino-immigrants and started life working for very low wages as an agricultural labourer. He became an American labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. Chavez sought to create better working conditions for migrant farm workers."

Modern romantics: From Ziggy Stardust to Harry Potter

There are many contemporary working-class heroes that we don't hear about as the mass media will inevitably exclude anyone that opposes the current global dominance of neo-liberal ideology. What is promoted in mass culture is the abstracted, alienated, other-worldly characters such as superheroes: bourgeois heroes, guilt-ridden for not carrying out the claims of universality of their class (libertéégalitéfraternité), that can only try to ameliorate the down side of capitalism: the proliferation of criminality (Batman in Gotham City, Superman in Metropolis).

The Romantic heroes of today have not changed much from those of the nineteenth century. They still have the same aloof characteristics of difference, alienation, and disillusionment with the same desires:

A longing for home and a longing for what is far off - these are the feelings by which the romantics are torn hither and thither; they miss the near-at-hand, suffer from their isolation from men, but, at the same time they avoid the other men and and seek zealously for the remote, the exotic and the unknown. They suffer from their estrangement from the world, but they also accept and desire it. Thus Novalis defines romantic poetry as the "the art of appearing strange in an attractive way, the art of making a subject remote and yet familiar and pleasant," and he asserts that everything becomes romantic and poetic, "if one removes it in a distance," that everything can be romanticized, if one "gives a mysterious appearance to the ordinary, the dignity of the unknown to the familiar and an infinite significance to the finite."

David Bowie Early

David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust at Newcastle City Hall in 1972.
The 'art of appearing strange in an attractive way' has not diminished. From Ziggy Stardust to Harry Potter, our modern-day Romantic heroes are also superheroes, so wide is their fame and following. Their alienation is now represented in science fiction and magic, 'remote and yet familiar and pleasant', as far away as possible from any form of collectivist ideology and solidarity. As Hauser writes:
The escape to Utopia and the fairy tale, to the unconscious and the fantastic, the uncanny and the mysterious, to childhood and nature, to dreams and madness, were all disguised and more or less sublimated forms of the same feeling, of the same yearning for irresponsibility and a life free from suffering and frustration - all attempts to escape into that chaos and anarchy against which the classicism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had fought at times with alarm and anger, at others with grace and wit, but always with the same determination."
 David Bowie Early

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The forces of reason and science - Classicism and the Enlightenment - opposed the attempted escapism of the day into 'chaos and anarchy'. While the determination of the philosophes to fight against darkness and irrationalism may have been a losing battle (with the eventual rise of Romanticism), it was not a completely lost battle as many of the reforms advocated by the philosophes are societal norms today, as the Enlightenment reshaped the ways people understood issues such as liberty, equality, and individual rights.
However, the role of the 'passions' (the heart over the head), the emphasis on emotion over reasoned thinking (which played such a huge role in the development of Romanticism) is still a worrying issue given the domination of Romanticism as the main ideology in the globalised culture of today. One could argue that the Romantic hero cannot exist without media attention, while the working-class hero must continue to organise deprived of it.
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.  He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG).
The Radical Enlightenment: The Role of Science in the Battle Between Christianity and Pantheism
Tuesday, 27 September 2022 08:40

The Radical Enlightenment: The Role of Science in the Battle Between Christianity and Pantheism

Published in Science & Technology
Image above: The French Academy of Sciences, 1698
Lest we forget, the birth of modern physics and cosmology was achieved by Galileo, Kepler and Newton breaking free not from the close confining prison of faith (all three were believing Christians, of one sort or another) but from the enormous burden of the millennial authority of Aristotelian science. The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not a revival of Hellenistic science but its final defeat.
- David Bentley Hart


We are all familiar with the Enlightenment (late 1600s to early 1800s), not least because we studied it in our history books in school. We also learned that before the Enlightenment - which brought about the gradual re-introduction of science into society - there were the medieval universities of philosophy, known as Scholasticism, that dominated education in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. What we don't hear much about is the transition between the two, how science came to dominate thinking, who was involved, and what was there before. The study of early science texts in the monastic schools contrasted with the superstitious and pantheistic thinking of ordinary people in the form of religious and political dissidents who also advocated early forms of communitarian ideology.
The Scientific Revolution (1543-1687), carried out by people such as Nicolaus Copernicus(1473–1543), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), René Descartes (1596–1650), Isaac Newton(1642–1727), etc., changed the way people thought about nature and created a profound crisis for the church, and the scientists themselves who had to figure out the role of god in this new way thinking, as well as deal with the dissidents who saw in the new science the basis for a democratic and socialist organisation of society itself. The legacy of the Enlightenment today, then, is the two traditions of liberal christianity and science on the one hand, and materialist pantheism, republicanism and socialism on the other. Both sides incorporated science as part of their ideology, but used it for very different ends.
 Science 2 John Tolandweb
 The only known image of Toland
He was an assertor of Liberty
A lover of all sorts of Learning
A speaker of Truth
But no man's follower, or dependant

- John Toland's self-composed epitaph emphasised his lifelong devotion to freedom,
knowledge, and individualism; a distinctly humanist approach to living.

From earliest times monasticism employed scientific learning to further the life of the monks and their understanding of the bible. Science was important for time-keeping and seasonal rites. Astronomy was particularly important for Christmas and the calculation of Easter dates each year. With the emergence of medieval universities in the 12th century much emphasis was laid on the rediscovered Aristotle and other scientific Greek thinkers. The monks even used the dialectical method in their discussions, a Greek method for establishing the truth through reasoned argumentation.

Dialectics were later on to become an important part of Marxist analysis of history in place of the determinism of the bible, whereby different opposing forces produce a revolutionary change after a long period of evolution, as opposed to the fixed aspect of god's creation since the beginning of time, as described in the book of Genesis, for example. However, the dialectic was used in Scholasticism to reconcile Christian theology with scientific philosophy, not to further the ends of science itself.

In a way it could be argued that the church was endeavouring to combat the rising new interest in science as it posed a threat to the basics of church thinking and teaching. The rise of Aristotelian ideas and their interpretation by the medieval Andalusian philosopher Averroes generated controversies in Christendom that led to the Catholic Church taking steps to deal with their implications, with Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) laying down an an acceptable interpretation of Aristotle, and the condemnation of Averroist doctrines in 1270 and 1277.

Thirteen propositions were listed as false and heretical, some related to Averroes' doctrine of the soul and others directed against Aristotle's theory of God as a passive unmoved mover. For example, the propositions "That human acts are not ruled by the providence of God", "That the world is eternal", and "That there was never a first human" had obvious signs of influence from scientific investigation and threatened basic tenets of Christian theology.

Moreover, Averroes argued that "scriptural text should be interpreted allegorically if it appeared to contradict conclusions reached by reason and philosophy."  The motive of Scholasticism then was to bring reason to the support of faith by using argumentation to silence all doubt and questioning while, at the same time, maintaining that faith was more important than reason.

On a political level Thomas Aquinas' ideas reflected the hierarchical thinking of the church in that he considered "monarchy is the best form of government, because a monarch does not have to form compromises with other persons. Aquinas, however, held that monarchy in only a very specific sense was the best form of government - only when the king was virtuous is it the best form; otherwise if the monarch is vicious it is the worst kind." Yet, "unless an agreement of all persons involved can be reached, a tyrant must be tolerated, as otherwise the political situation could deteriorate into anarchy, which would be even worse than tyranny."

John Toland (1670–1722), the Irish rationalist philosopher, threw a spanner into the works when he suggested in his bookChristianity Not Mysterious (which was ordered to be burnt), that "the divine revelation of the Bible contains no true mysteries; rather, all the dogmas of the faith can be understood and demonstrated by properly trained reason from natural principles", i.e., Natural Law - the "system of right or justice held to be common to all humans and derived from nature rather than from the rules of society." In this case, the rules set by the Church.

From a political perspective Toland took a pantheistic approach to religion, the idea that god was 'immanent' or 'in' nature and not ruling over nature. Therefore, if nature had no need of hierarchy, then man had no need either. Toland believed that there was no need for hierarchy in the church or the state, "bishops and kings, in other words, were as bad as each other, and monarchy had no God-given sanction as a form of government." 

Science 3 Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton 1689web res

Portrait of Newton at 46 by Godfrey Kneller, 1689

The Scientific Revolution

In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.
- Galileo Galilei

By the early 18th century the new science and mechanical philosophy initiated by the Scientific Revolution had profoundly changed society as "developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology (including human anatomy) and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature." An ideological battle developed between Christian philosophers like Leibniz who tried "to locate the origin of force in a vast spiritual universe, and ultimately therefore in God" and the Newtonians who believed in a "divine presence operated as an immaterial "aether" that offered no resistance to bodies, but could move them through the force of gravitation", that is, an immanent or omnipresent god that was simply a part of nature.

Out of this influence of Newton there arose Enlightenment Deism, the idea that the universe is "a vast machine, created and set in motion by a creator being that continues to operate according to natural law without any divine intervention". Deism would allow the scientists to continue doing science without the fear of excommunication from the Church, worried about the implications of mechanical philosophy on God's role in the universe. Leibniz, critical of this theological sleight of hand, quipped: "God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion."
Deism emphasized the concept of natural theology (that is, God's existence is revealed through nature). Therefore, "Enlightenment Deism consisted of two philosophical assertions: (1) reason, along with features of the natural world, is a valid source of religious knowledge, and (2) revelation is not a valid source of religious knowledge." In practice this meant the rejection of (1) all books (including the Bible) that claimed to contain divine revelation (2) the incomprehensible notion of the Trinity and other religious "mysteries", and (3) reports of miracles, prophecies, etc. Thus, as Margaret C. Jacob writes:
The new mechanical philosophy banished spiritual agencies, inherent tendencies, and anima from the universe. In their place were put explanations based upon those natural properties capable of mathematical calculation. Nature had to be observed and experienced, and wherever possible given mathematical expression. The physical universe became a place with spatial dimensions within which bodies moved at measurable speeds. Bodies moved one another by impulse, that is, my pushing one another and to explanations of the natural world based upon impulse we commonly ascribe the term 'mechanical'.

For Leibniz though, this was political, as he perceived the new naturalistic and materialistic explanations of the universe were being used by 'politically dangerous men' to "disestablish churches and weaken the power of kings and courts." 

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The trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition. Bronze relief by Ettore Ferrari, Campo de' Fiori, Rome.

Pantheism and Materialism

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

- Lollard priest John Ball
Of course, Toland's pantheism, Aquinas's fear of anarchy, and Leibniz's dread of politically dangerous men were all rooted in an awareness of "popular heresy and social protest coming from the lower orders of society." [4] There were rumblings of dissent associated with radical groups steeped in centuries of paganism that had never been fully overcome by Christian theology. Pantheistic ideas could be found in animistic beliefs and tribal religions globally "as an expression of unity with the divine, specifically in beliefs that have no central polytheist or monotheist personas." The idea of a distinct personal or anthropomorphic god was not recognised. The 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) popularised pantheism in the West through his book Ethics along with the earlier Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), an Italian friar who evangelized about a transcendent and infinite God, but was eventually burned at the stake in 1600 by the Roman Inquisition. As Jacob noted:

The pantheistic materialism of seventeenth-century radicals owed its origin to the magical and naturalistic view of the universe which Christian churchmen and theologians had laboured for centuries to defeat. At the heart of this natural philosophy lay the notion that nature is a sufficient explanation or cause for the existence and workings of man and his physical environment. In other words, the separation of God from Creation, creature from creator, of matter from spirit, so basic to Christian orthodoxy and such a powerful justification for social hierarchy and even for absolute monarchy,  crumbles in the face of animistic and naturalistic explanations. God does not create ex nihilo; nature simply is and all people (and their environment) are part of this greater All.

Indeed, the earlier pagan religious practices had co-existed with Christianity, many of which the church had co-opted but the worship of saints (and Mary) almost seemed almost like the continuation of polytheism. As Christopher Scott Thompson writes:

Paganism in this broader sense did not end with the Christian conversion, because it was never limited to "organized religion" in the first place. Regular people all over Europe continued to leave offerings for the fairies and the dead many centuries after the official conversion to Christianity. They didn't think of themselves as "pagans" in any formal sense, but they still thought of the world around them as being filled with spirits and their daily spiritual practices reflected this worldview. They still believed in local fairy queens and fairy kings, entities that would have been understood as gods before the Christian conversion. They also retained a semi-polytheistic worldview in the veneration of saints, many of which were not recognized as saints officially by the church and a few of which were originally pre-Christian gods.

Furthermore, the radical peasants used elements of paganism and and communitarian ideas in the bible to underpin their struggle against oppression by kings, queens, landowners and the aristocracy:

Peasants resisting feudalism sometimes turned to this tradition of magic and spirit worship for aid against their oppressors. For instance, Emma Wilby's The Visions of Isobel Gowdie documents how folk beliefs about fairy kings and the malevolent dead were used by magic practitioners in 17th century Scotland to curse feudal landowners. [...] These practices existed alongside organized religion yet distinct from it, before the Christian conversion and after it. People cultivated relationships with the spirits of nature, the dead and other entities for help with their practical daily problems — including how to effectively resist oppression.

In England, for example, the radicals organised in groups such as the Diggers, Ranters, Levellers, Muggletonians, Familists and Quakers, some of whom believed that the "Scripture foretold of a democratic order where property would be redistributed", for example, in Acts 2:  

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

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Woodcut from a Levellers document by William Everard
Materialism reflected the pagan, pantheistic worldview, as it "holds matter to be the fundamental substance in nature, and all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions" (The idea that man created god, in stark contrast to the idealist view that god created man). This materialism was eventually combined with the aforementioned dialectics to form the basis of Marxian philosophy and change radical group ideology from pantheistic communitarianism to atheistic socialism. Thus, the non-hierarchical aspect of pantheism found its natural home in radical communitarian thought which was rejected by conservative forces, as Jacob states:

At every turn they rejected mechanistic explanations that hinged upon the power of matter unassisted by spiritual forces separate from the natural order. To their mind, scientific materialism, whether mechanistic or pantheistic in its inclination, justified atheism, social levelling, political disorder, in short the turning of 'the world upside down'.

The desire to turn 'the world upside down' was exhibited most famously by the religious and political dissidents known as the Diggers. They put their ideas into practice when they took over some common land in Surrey:

The Council of State received a letter in April 1649 reporting that several individuals had begun to plant vegetables in common land on St George's Hill, Weybridge near Cobham, Surrey at a time when harvests were bad and food prices high. Sanders reported that they had invited "all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes." They intended to pull down all enclosures and cause the local populace to come and work with them. They claimed that their number would be several thousand within ten days. "It is feared they have some design in hand."

Their leader, Gerrard Winstanley (1609–1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer, political philosopher, and activist. The radical nature of the Diggers' ideology is demonstrated in the difference between the Diggers and the Levellers, as, while the Levellers sought to "level the laws" (while maintaining the right to the ownership of real property), Winstanley sought to level the ownership of real property itself, which is why he and his followers called themselves "True Levellers".

Winstanley underpinned this radical ideology in combined passages from the bible and pantheist thinking in his writings:

In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another. And the Reason is this, Every single man, Male and Female, is a perfect Creature of himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwels in man to govern the Globe; so that the flesh of man being subject to Reason, his Maker, hath him to be his Teacher and Ruler within himself, therefore needs not run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler without him, for he needs not that any man should teach him, for the same Anoynting that ruled in the Son of man, teacheth him all things... And so selfish imaginations taking possession of the Five Sences, and ruling as King in the room of Reason therein, and working with Covetousnesse, did set up one man to teach and rule over another; and thereby the Spirit was killed, and man was brought into bondage, and became a greater Slave to such of his own kind, then the Beasts of the field were to him.
The Diggers were harassed on St George's Hill by organised gangs. They endured beatings and an arson attack on one of their communal houses. They were taken to court (but not allowed to speak in their own defence) and when they lost their case they had to leave the land or risk the army moving in and evicting them. Other Digger colonies were set up around different parts of England as their influence spread. Winstanley had to flee but continued to advocate the redistribution of land.
While ultimately the Digger movement failed, the Enlightenment developed out of the Scientific Revolution as the 17th century bequeathed two contradictory traditions to the future. On the one hand there was the predominant "moderate and liberal Christianity wedded to the new science and supportive of strong monarchy within a constitutional framework" while, on the other hand, a republican tradition "in conformity with a pantheistic and materialistic understanding of nature." Two opposing traditions that are very much to the fore in politics today.
Woodstock '99: Feeling the Heat
Tuesday, 13 September 2022 09:48

Woodstock '99: Feeling the Heat

Published in Music
The Netflix documentary Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 was most decidedly a depiction of a catastrophe. Watching the concert progress (or regress) from excitement to disaster was a spine-chilling experience. Over time the problems depicted in the film got unbelievably worse. The concert's collapse into complete chaos as the hyped-up concert-goers set much of the event equipment on fire looked more like a depiction of hell on the walls of a medieval church.

The concert, designed to emulate the 30th anniversary of the original 1969 concert, was held in the former Griffiss Air Force Base in upstate New York, USA, with many popular acts of the time such as DMX, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alanis Morissette, Kid Rock, Metallica, and Creed.

The festival was held from July 22-25, 1999, and the heat was estimated to be 38°C (100°F) with little shade and swathes of concrete and asphalt magnifying the hot conditions. Very little shade and not enough grass meant that some festival-goers were even forced to camp on the asphalt.

2Rage Against The Machine burns the American flag onstage 1999
Bassist Tim Commerford (left) of Rage Against the Machine burns the American flag onstage during "Killing in the Name" at Woodstock '99.
While the first couple of days went fairly well the atmosphere declined after the Saturday night performance by Limp Bizkit. Fans who were already frustrated by the price gouging of water and food began to tear plywood off the walls and the audio tower. Thousands of candles, distributed during the day for a candlelight vigil, were used to start bonfires. By the time the last band had finished on stage the festival site looked post-apocalyptic with troopers and police moving the concert-goers away from the stage. The whole debacle had seen overflowing toilets, sexual assaults, ATMs and semi-tractor trailers looted and destroyed, three deaths and over 5,000 medical cases reported.

The bands were accused of inciting violence. Limp Bizkit's vocalist Fred Durst shouted out during their performance: "We already let all the negative energy out. It's time to reach down and bring that positive energy to this motherfucker. It's time to let yourself go right now, 'cause there are no motherfuckin' rules out there." The crowd were already a hyped-up, heaving mass of jumping, crowd-surfing and moshing humanity moving to the music which soon turned to violence and destruction of the event site itself. In other words, this was mass catharsis on a grand scale, an iconic symbol of the power of one large event to symbolise the contemporary feelings of a frustrated generation freed from the 'rules'.

3Woodstock poster

Promotional poster designed by Arnold Skolnick. Originally, the bird was perched on a flute
Woodstock '69
The original 1969 Woodstock similarly freed the audience-goers from the 'rules' of the time as the hippie generation smoked pot, took psychedelic drugs, and even lived in communes outside of the established system. What became known as the counterculture movement of the 1960s was formed in opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War and left "a lasting impact on philosophy, morality, music, art, alternative health and diet, lifestyle and fashion."

However, this counterculture also contained more serious elements that threatened the status quo itself. Young people were getting involved in revolutionary anarchist and socialist movements. Many gravitated towards the New Left: "a broad political movement mainly in the 1960s and 1970s consisting of activists in the Western world who campaigned for a broad range of social issues such as civil and political rights, environmentalism, feminism, gay rights, gender roles and drug policy reforms."
Others became involved in the political forms of Marxism and Marxism–Leninism, such as the New Communist movement  which "represented a diverse grouping of Marxist–Leninists and Maoists inspired by Cuban, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolutions. This movement emphasized opposition to racism and sexism, solidarity with oppressed peoples of the third-world, and the establishment of socialism by popular revolution." According to historian and NCM activist Max Elbaum, the movement had an estimated 10,000 cadre members at its peak influence.

With opposition growing to the Vietnam war in 1968 and student demonstrations taking place in Poland [March 1968 protests] and in France [May 1968 campus uprisings] the New Left ideology began to filter into music and cinema.

In 1967 Jean-Luc Godard directed the film La Chinoise about a group of young Maoist activists in Paris, and in 1968 the Beatles released their song 'Revolution' which contained the lyrics, "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't gone make it with anyone anyhow". The activism of the time was also reflected in the Rolling Stones single of 1968, 'Street Fighting Man'.

4Vietnam War protestors at the March on the Pentagonb

Vietnam War protestors march at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on October 21, 1967.

Turn on, tune in, drop out

By the time the Woodstock festival came around in 1969, the themes of love and peace were combined with Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out", an evocation to look into oneself (with the use of psychedelic drugs) rather than to look outwards and change society.

The importance of Woodstock is its iconic value as a symbol of revolt for a generation, as Elvis Presley, for example, was seen in the 1950s. One event, one individual, or one band can become elevated to a symbolic level representing something radical and even revolutionary to the people who were there, (and the people who wish they had been there). This can also be seen in the Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 interviewees who said that despite the chaos, they would go again, and that it had been the event of their lives. The huge numbers of fans involved in each concert, from 200,000 to 400,000 people, give these events cultural legitimacy and something to aspire to despite the fact that on an ideological level they work against the possibility of real change. 'Dropping out' in '69 or catharsis in '99 may have been satisfying in their times but little has changed politically since then.

Is it time now for a mass music festival celebrating identity politics as the new revolution in cultural thinking, and the ultimate in divide and rule politics?

America's 1940s Pro-Soviet films: Social Realist Cinema in the USA
Monday, 25 July 2022 10:12

America's 1940s Pro-Soviet films: Social Realist Cinema in the USA

Published in Films
There was a brief moment in time in the 1940s, when the USA was at one with Russia or as it was known then, the Soviet Union. During the Second World War, America entered into the war on the same side as the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, and Hollywood was rallied to the cause of victory against fascism.

In this article I will look at the cinema produced in the United States supporting the Allies during WWII, in this case the Soviet Union. After the war the political climate changed and HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) blacklisted actors, directors and screenwriters involved in making such films despite the fact that throughout the 1930s many films were  made in a style sympathetic to the American working class, the realist style known as social realism. Therefore, the pro-Soviet films were basically a shift in location and accent, but not any dramatic change in content. I will look at examples of these social realist films made in Hollywood in the 1930s, films that are a far cry from contemporary Hollywood output in their depictions of ordinary people's everyday struggles for survival.

First Red Scare

Initially the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had ignited the first Red Scare in the United States. Massive strikes and race riots added to the fear of communism in America. Films were made that depicted strikes and mail bombings as the work of Bolshevik activists, as external threats to a democratic nation, e.g. Virtuous Men (1919), Dangerous Hours (1919), and The Great Shadow (1920). The worldwide communist revolution failed to materialise, and the prosperity of the 1920s in the USA diminished criticism of the capitalist system. After the 1929 Great Crash, Hollywood made films which caricatured the Soviet Union, like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Ninotchka (1939).

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Film Poster for Ninotchka

However, things soon changed with the onset of the Second World War. According to Andrei Cojoc:

The United States' attitude towards the Soviet Union shifted on 22nd of June 1941, when Hitler began sending his Panzers towards Moscow, and after December '41 the alliance between the two opposite systems was a necessity. So, the American's perceptions of the Soviet Union had to be shaped overnight so that FDR could receive popular support for entering the war on the Soviet Union's side.

The OWI (Office of War Information) was set up by executive order on 12th of June 1942 and put in charge of "advising Hollywood about the means to support the war effort". A set of guidelines were formulated in a "Manual for the Motion Picture Industry" such as:

In a comprehensive third chapter of the handbook, called "Who are our allies", "Tinsel Town" is advised to learn more about their former enemy, the Soviet Union: We must €fight the unity lies about Russia (..), emphasize the might and heroism, the victory of the Russians. In a most surprising manner we find out that 'we Americans reject communism, but we do not reject our Russian ally' (United States, 1942).

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Film poster for Song of Russia

Thereafter, nearly every major studio made pro-Soviet movies, such as:
The North Star (1943) (Samuel Goldwin) [Watch online]. The film is about the resistance of Ukrainian villagers, through guerrilla tactics, against the German invaders of the Ukrainian SSR.
Song of Russia (1943) (MGM). American conductor John Meredith (Robert Taylor) and his manager, Hank Higgins (Robert Benchley), go to the Soviet Union shortly before the country is invaded by Germany. Meredith falls in love with beautiful Soviet pianist Nadya Stepanova (Susan Peters) while they travel throughout the country on a 40-city tour. Their bliss is destroyed by the German invasion.
Three Russian Girls (1943) (United Artists). The film depicts the life of a group of volunteer nurses for the Red Cross in 1941.
Mission to Moscow (1943) (Warner) [Watch online]. The film chronicles ambassador Davies' impressions of the Soviet Union, his meetings with Stalin, and his overall opinion of the Soviet Union and its ties with the United States.
Days of Glory (1944) (RKO). Tells the story of a group of Soviet guerrillas fighting back during the 1941 Nazi invasion of Russia.
The Boy from Stalingrad (1943) (Columbia). Five Russian youngsters and an English boy form a guerilla band which harasses the Germans stationed in their village.
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Film Poster for The North Star

In my research I have found 11 American pro-Soviet films altogether. In addition to the above mentioned films there is also:
Counter Attack (1945) [Watch online]. Two Russians trapped in a collapsed building with seven enemy German soldiers during World War II.
The Battle of Russia (1943) [Watch online].Documentary by Frank Capra
The film begins with an overview of previous failed attempts to conquer Russia.The vast natural resources of the Soviet Union are then described and show why the land is such a hot prize for conquerors. The film then covers the German conquests of the Balkans and ends with the Siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Stalingrad.
Miss V from Moscow (1942) [Watch online]
The Miss V of the title is Vera Marova, a Soviet spy sent to Paris to impersonate her lookalike, a German spy recently liquidated by the French Resistance.
Our Russian Front (1942). Documentary
Walter Huston narrates a World War II documentary intended to bolster United States support for the USSR's war efforts. Created using front line footage taken by Russian battlefield cameramen, and archive footage of Averell Harriman, Joseph Stalin, and Semyon Timoshenko, the film was edited in the US.
Russian Rhapsody (1944) [Watch online] (Merrie Melodies cartoon)
Infuriated by his soldiers' constant failure, Fuehrer Adolf Hitler announces his decision via a radio broadcast at a "New Odor" rally that he will personally fly a heavy bomber to attack the Russians. On the way to Moscow, Russian 'gremlins from the Kremlin' sneak onto the plane in flight and without Hitler's being aware of what's going on, begin to dismantle it.

A common theme of the narrative films is the depiction of Russians as similar to Americans. The villages could be villages in America with their independent cheerfulness and progress, and capped off with Russian accents and Russian names. The main theme is that, as Cojoc writes, "by diminishing differences between the two cultures, one can see that both are fighting for the same goals", fighting for humanity's sake with as little reference as possible to the communist government. Some of the films were particularly popular, with The North Star, for example, being nominated for six Oscars. They have been criticised as propaganda films which, of course, they were. All sides in the war made propaganda films. They were made to promote the Allies' view of the war, and some were successful and popular.

Documentaries were made to explain why a country which was ridiculed and dismissed, was now an ally. The Battle of Russia (1943), the fifth film in Frank Capra's Why We Fight documentary series, is the longest film of the series and has two parts. The series was originally made to explain to the US soldiers why they were involved in the war but was subsequently shown to the public as well. Capra's style was to let the footage speak for itself and so he used a lot of found or captured enemy footage. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and even popular in the Soviet Union itself.

While it might seem extraordinary that Hollywood was making such films about the Russians in the early 1940s, the emphasis on working-class values and solidarity was not new. During the 1930s, Hollywood had already been making pro-working class, social realist films. It didn't take much effort to make films with a similar ideology but set in Russia with Russian accents.

However, considering the hullabaloo surrounding the red scare of the "McCarthyism" era [1950-1954], these examples of American social realism cinema are rare indeed, if we take note that it is estimated that Hollywood made around 9,838 films in the 1930s, and about 7,900 films in the 1940s.

Social Realism

Social Realism was a popular art movement between the two wars, especially as a reaction to the hardship ordinary people faced as a result of the Great Crash in 1929. It was a style that went back to the Realism of French artists, like Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet in the 19th-century. In the USA, social realism was well established by a group of artists called the Ashcan school during the late 19th and early 20th century. They were not impressed by Impressionism and wanted to make art that was more engaged with life. Their paintings were based on the working class and the realities of urban life. Subjects included: street kids, prostitutes, alcoholics, subways, crowded tenements, washing hung out to dry, theaters, and wrestlers.
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Ashcan School: George Bellows, Cliff Dwellers, 1913, oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

After the Great Crash, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a series of programmes, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations between 1933 and 1939. In the arts, "the New Deal arts programs emphasized regionalism, social realism, class conflict, proletarian interpretations and audience participation. The unstoppable collective powers of the common man, contrasted to the failure of individualism, was a favourite theme." Like the Ashcan painters, social realist films depicted true-to-life characters and locations, with common themes of: social injustice, racial injustice, economic hardship, and the working class as heroes.

Frank Capra made a series of such films in the 1930s and 1940s which were very successful, such as:
Platinum Blonde (1931)
Stewart "Stew" Smith (Robert Williams), ace reporter for the Post, is assigned to get the story about the latest escapade of playboy Michael Schuyler. He marries the wealthy Anne Schuyler but then realises that he is no longer his own man.
American Madness (1932)
At the Union National Bank, the directors are concerned because they think that bank president Tom Dickson has loaned too much money to people who are bad risks during the Great Depression era, and they threaten to replace him.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The film is about a newly appointed United States Senator who fights against a corrupt political system.
Meet John Doe (1941)
The film is about a "grassroots" political campaign created unwittingly by a newspaper columnist with the involvement of a hired homeless man and pursued by the paper's wealthy owner.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
George Bailey, a man who has given up his personal dreams in order to help others in his community, and whose thoughts of suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody.
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Film Poster for The Sin of Nora Moran

Other examples of social realist films of the time were:
Nora Moran, a young woman with a difficult and tragic past, is sentenced to die for a murder that she did not commit. She could easily reveal the truth and save her own life, if only it would not damage the lives, careers and reputations of those whom she loves.
Success at Any Price (1934)
Joe, an amoral capitalist and boyfriend of Sarah Griswold, gets a job as a clerk in a New York City advertising agency and starts to work his way to the top.
Riffraff (1936)
Fisherman Dutch Muller organizes a strike with his fellow thugs from the fishery, including the beautiful but tough Hattie Tuttle, against the owners of a tuna cannery.
The President's Mystery (1936)
The film deals with a "problem Mr. Roosevelt submitted ... whether it was possible for a man, weary of faithless friends and a wasted life, to convert a $5,000,000 estate into cash, disappear and start anew in some worth-while activity."
The General Died at Dawn (1936)
Tells the story of a mercenary who meets a beautiful girl while trying to keep arms from getting to a vicious warlord in war-torn China.
Marked Woman (1937)
Tells the story of a woman who dares to stand up to one of the city's most powerful gangsters.
Blockade (1938)
During the Spanish Civil War a farmer takes up arms to fight for the Republican side.
Dust Be My Destiny (1939)
Joe Bell (John Garfield) becomes embittered after he is jailed for 16 months for something he did not do. He grew up a homless man who is tried for murder and changes courts attitude to vagrant drifters.
The Man I Married (alternative title I Married a Nazi) (1940)
A successful, and yet naive American woman, art critic Carol Cabbott (Joan Bennett), is married to German Eric Hoffman (Francis Lederer) who turns out to be an active and enthusiastic Nazi.
We Who Are Young (1940)
Two young office workers working at the same large firm secretly marry and defy their employer's policy against coworker fraternization. When the marriage is discovered, Margy (Turner) is fired. This causes the newlyweds to face serious financial struggles and Bill (Shelton) pursues desperate, perhaps even illegal, measures to make ends meet.
Tom, Dick and Harry (1941)
Janie (Ginger Rogers) is a telephone operator and a daydreamer. Her fondest wish is to land a rich husband. She gets engaged to three men from different socio-economic backgrounds and has to make a choice of which one to marry.

House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)

By the late 1940s, things had changed dramatically and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), set up in 1938 by the United States House of Representatives, began to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens. In 1947, the committee:

held nine days of hearings into alleged communist propaganda and influence in the Hollywood motion picture industry. After conviction on contempt of Congress charges for refusal to answer some questions posed by committee members, "The Hollywood Ten" were blacklisted by the industry. Eventually, more than 300 artists – including directors, radio commentators, actors, and particularly screenwriters – were boycotted by the studios. Some, like Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Alan Lomax, Paul Robeson, and Yip Harburg, left the U.S. or went underground to find work. Others like Dalton Trumbo wrote under pseudonyms or the names of colleagues.
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Anticommunist tract from the 1950s, decrying the "REDS of Hollywood and Broadway"

Abraham Polonsky, screenwriter and director of Body and Soul (1947), Force of Evil (with Ira Wolfert) (1948) (also Director), I Can Get It for You Wholesale (with Vera Caspary) (1951), Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) (also Director), was blacklisted after June 1950. In an interview in Red Hollywood he stated:

There was no plot to put social content into pictures. The plot was intellectual. Social content is what pictures are about. You can't make a picture about human life without social content, and social content meant, in fact, the social content of these people: how the world was divided up, how it worked economically, socially, morally, and so on. You gotta show the rich are shitty and the poor are beautiful, its important that you gotta show that anybody who works as being exploited: those are general professional ideas that are current among the least educated among the radicals. But there is the social content that comes from a general philosphical attitude towards the world, of society. That's what counts.

In the overall scheme of things these films were a tiny percentage of the general Hollywood output of the time. Furthermore, their content tended to revolve around working-class issues and struggles against social and economic injustice, that is, typical content of social realism, as opposed to the direct pro-socialist and revolutionary content of socialist realism.

The struggling movement of social realism in cinema met a similar fate to the Ashcan school of artists in the 1910s. The 'advent of modernism in the United States spelled the end of the Ashcan school's provocative reputation. With the Armory Show of 1913 and the opening of more galleries in the 1910s promoting the work of Cubists, Fauves, and Expressionists', the radical social realism of the Ashcan school was swamped by Romanticism (in the form of Modernism) and another movement critical of the status quo was killed off.

Ultimately though, the social realist films of the 1930s and 1940s serve as examples of a cinema that treated humans with dignity and promoted solidarity in times of war and peace, which makes them as watchable today as in the times when they were created.

Films about Hollywood on trial:

1/ The Hollywood Ten (1950)
2/ Hollywood on Trial (1976
3/ Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial (1995) (AMC Documentary) 
4/ Red Hollywood (1996)
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