The Vast Wasteland of Series TV, and the Writers' Strike against Corporate Juggernauts
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

The Vast Wasteland of Series TV, and the Writers' Strike against Corporate Juggernauts

What is the state of TV streaming TV Serial Series, in the wake of last year’s Netflix devaluation and this year’s bank crisis in the U.S? That was a question that was not mentioned much at Lille in Northern France at this year’s Series Mania. It’s perhaps the world’s largest television festival, boasting 55 series from 24 countries, including for the first time series from Iran (The Actor) and a Pakistani/Indian co-production (Limboland).

The question of how to survive in an industry in retreat however did surface in disguised form repeatedly. This seeming global cornucopia and abundance of series TV is belied by the fact that financing is shrinking in the wake of another bank collapse. This time it’s Silicon Valley Bank, which made loans to digital companies of which streaming is now a part including bankrolling the streaming service Roku, as well as the collapse on the international level of Credit Suisse.

Not to mention another U.S. mid-level bank failure, that of First Republic, equally crucial to the digital economy on both coasts, which lost 102 billion in deposits in the first quarter of 2023 and needed a 30 billion bailout just to stay alive. The net effect of a run on mid-level banks in the U.S. was that money fled to the supposedly safer, larger banks, in particular J.P. Morgan (whose profits jumped 52% for the first quarter of 2023) and Citibank. J.P. Morgan also has now absorbed First Republic.

These banks will be much more conservative financiers of a largely debt-ridden industry which has yet to turn a profit. Warner Bros., operator of HBO Max, which recently became just Max, is 50 billion in debt, having lost 217 million in the first quarter, claiming that loss is actually a victory since it was far less than the previous quarter, while Disney+ is hoping to be profitable by 2024.

First r 

First Republic Bank, now wholly owned by J.P. Morgan

So there will be less money to go around, and the money that is available will be coming from more conservative sources which will want more guarantees that the money invested will be profitable. All this in the wake of last year’s market devaluation of Netflix, based on subscribers declining for one quarter and a new emphasis on overall company profitability rather than on number of new subscribers, as the market becomes more suspicious of the streaming ‘house of cards’.

The retrenchment was an unacknowledged topic at the conference, with everyone realizing that budgets will be leaner and fewer series will be commissioned. There is also in the industry a new conservatism in programming, which likely dates from Reed Hastings’ comment in 2019, at that time as the head of the most influential streamer Netflix, about not opposing Saudi cuts in his company’s documentary because “We’re not in the news business. We’re not trying to do truth to power. We’re trying to entertain.”

This purposeful abnegation of any larger social role for the streaming industry was like the statement attributed to Jack Warner in 1947 in the wake of a strike against his studio, that “I will never again make a film about the common man.”

The renouncement of social content was touched upon by Series Mania director Laurence Herszberg, who candidly declared before the festival that “Today Netflix is more conservative than TF1” (TF1 is a commercial French on-air station, the equivalent in the U.S. perhaps to CBS).

The result of this retrenchment, which is already apparent, is a cutting back not only on the number of series and/or on the budgets of commissioned series, but also the failure of some of the streaming services. If they survive, it will be by making cheaper series, usually meaning unscripted or reality series which means a general diminution in quality.

Last year the French streamer Salto collapsed, while the merger of Warner Bros. and the documentary service Discovery meant that the resulting streamer, now simply titled Max, having shed the name of HBO, is now about saturation – but with cheaper reality series from the Discovery label, with the emphasis on more bottom feeder series such as Gold Rush, Deadliest Catch, and Moonshiners.

The End of Peak TV

This new state of affairs was described by the online service Slate as no longer “Peak TV” but rather “Trough” or bottom-of-the barrel TV. Two years ago, 2021, was probably the height of series abundance with 559 series produced in the U.S. By contrast, in the current climate, Sky, one of the leaders in European series, has invested in 200 series but only about 10 percent of them are scripted.

All over the world consumers, led by the U.S. and now labelled ‘cord cutters’, are cancelling expensive cable services for cheaper streamers. The problem for the streamers is that inflation and an austerity-driven global attack on working class income such as the French raising of the pension age from 62 to 64, and global central banks’ raising of interest rates which makes borrowing prohibitive, means that cord cutters are subscribing to fewer streaming services.

Meanwhile, as Herszberg says, streaming services across the globe are growing and have now reached by her count 700, which means the competition for viewers is increasing.

 nordland 99 rev

Nordland '99

All this new penny pinching has prompted a return by the streaming industry to many of the practices of the older era of network TV, practices which for a decade or so the streamers had claimed had been surpassed in a frenzy of creative activity. Series are being cancelled sooner with some now cancelled in production before they reach the air.

This practice is more in line with the usual mid-season casualty list of network TV which used to announce after Christmas a fresh second season, having replaced fall series that were duds and ratings failures with spring series, many of which, a few months later, shared the same fate.

Budgets for series are being reduced and canny showrunners are already adapting to the new austerity. One of the best series in the festival was Nordland ’99 from Danish public television, in a shortened but tight half-hour rather than the usual hour format. The showrunner, Kasper Møller Rask, has fashioned a low-budget, rural series with a cast of mostly newcomers, filmed cheaply in the Danish countryside whose dark forests are alive with the eerie intonations of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks while also echoing the themes of Lynch’s series. Here, three teens search for their missing friend and discover the evil of an adult world which itself has been left for dead by the systemic brutality of what in the West can now be labelled authoritarian neoliberalism.

Freedom to choose bland TV

Another accommodation to the network TV era is the adoption of the dreaded strategy of advertising, which Netflix previously was famous for shunning, instead claiming it was viewer-sponsored with its revenue coming exclusively from subscriptions. All streamers now though have instituted “two-tiered” pricing, with a lower price that includes advertising and a higher price that excludes it. Advertising of course also opens the door to sponsors having a say in content and particularly in the atmosphere that the program surrounding their product sets up – yet another infringement on creativity that means blander content. This new austerity, control, and limiting of the range of content is presented as “freedom of choice” for the consumer.

To appeal to lenders wanting to be assured their money will prosper, the buzzword in streaming is now “IP,” Intellectual Property, which does not mean more thoughtful challenging work but rather the opposite. IP denotes utilization of a previously successful property. In the Hollywood studio sense this could mean that the series already has an audience in another medium, thus the recent television remakes of the novels Great Expectations and Tom Jones and Drops of God, an international co-production from a popular Japanese manga about competition between wine growers in France and Japan.

More often though IP means the extension of one hit series into a franchise, the business term, or “universe,” its creative equivalent.  With the success of the very conservative Yellowstone, a kind of modern-day cross between Bonanza and Dynasty, about a rancher and his family holding onto their land, aided by the fading star quality of Kevin Costner, Paramount+ has now gone back in time and created two copycat series about the origin of the dynasty titled 1883 and 1923.

This trend is further magnified by the ratings success of the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, which despite a lacklustre final season for the origin series has proven to be an enormous hit and which has prompted the development of six more GOT series. You can never have too much of a good thing even if that good thing ended by exhausting itself.

A mountainous abundance of ****

The general quality of the streamers’ stables is declining. Once upon a time television was referred to as “the vast wasteland” with that phrase then superseded by the labelling of the streaming era as a new “Golden Age,” harkening back to socially inflected anthology dramas of television’s early years. Today’s budget-conscious streamers, in an era of increasing competition, each stressed at the conference their desire to be all things to all audiences, a one-stop shop for entertainment, given that much of the audience can now only afford one stop.

This Noah’s Ark approach – comedy, drama, family, quality entertainment all in the same bundle – stressed the element of abundance, but the truth is there is now mostly an abundance of shows without much merit, so that, to find quality series it is now necessary to scour all the streamers to find the one or two relevant series on each.

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Sylvester Stallone’s Tulsa, part of the Paramount+ “Mountain of Entertainment

Paramount+, for example, a newcomer to European markets, in line with its old studio logo featuring a snow-capped peak, described its offerings as “a mountain of entertainment,” a “popular array of content” that presented a range of series with each being “best in class.” The streamer’s “sizzle reel,” a montage of its various offerings, with the tagline “The Stars Are Streaming,” belied these claims, featuring the almost comatose Costner in Yellowstone, Sylvester Stallone in his beyond-cliched gangster series Tulsa, a coming extension of Dexter about a vengeful serial killer and NCIS Sydney, the overseas expansion of that tired franchise. This is surely a mountain of something, but I’m not sure the correct name for it is entertainment.

There are three ways that both globally and locally the power of the streamers is being challenged. The first, in Europe, is still the possibility of government intervention to level the playing field, though as in many forms of the digital economy, with the EU already currently behind in the race for Artificial Intelligence (AI) as exemplified in ChatGPT, this intervention often comes in the ‘too little, too late’ variety.

There is a European mandate that the American streamers’ content must be at least 30 percent local. Despite or perhaps to surmount this mandate, the streamers are pilfering the best European series talent, with Netflix, for example, recently having hired Eleonora Andreatta, formerly the head of the drama department of the Italian public television network RAI and with the producers of the French espionage series Bureau of Legends, which has now become a global franchise, currently working for Disney+.  

In France, though, following the Chinese model, each co-pro with an American streamer now must have a delegated French producer. The idea here is that the producer then absorbs the American model and can instill it into French production, the way the Chinese allowed foreign companies to set up in China but then absorbed their know-how.

The writers are striking!

The most impactful challenge though at the moment is located in the belly of the beast. As this article goes to press, the biggest story in series and film production is the looming writers’ strike, which is now almost a certainty and will commence in May.

Since 2007, with a contract won in the wake of the last strike, the writers have been watching those gains steadily erode as their salaries declined by on average 4 percent while profits in the entertainment industry as a whole, despite the debt, have soared. The streaming companies on the other hand, now more budget-conscious, have not budged in negotiations, trying to extract as much profit as possible from writers who have a crucial role in the establishment of series TV and whose hiring is now more precarious since series have shorter time spans, 8 to 12 episodes as opposed to the former network model of 22.

Those 8 to 12 episodes now also take longer to produce in the era of “quality TV” but writers are being paid the same amount per show and thus are forced, as are workers everywhere, to work longer hours for less pay.

One of the points of contention in the writer’s contract is the use of AI, with producers threatening to employ this latest technological breakthrough to author scripts and the writers campaigning to keep AI out of the writing process. The problem here is that because of the declining quality which this article has mapped, and the whole history of Hollywood film and television production as rolling off an assembly line, some of the recent series look like they have already been written by programs like ChatGPT.

However, this assembly line production can never replace well-written series. One need only look at two recent series, released within a day of each other, to observe this. Amazon’s bloated, utterly unoriginal John Wick/True Lies/Jason Bourne paint-by-numbers Citadel, which will become a global franchise with new entries in India and Italy, sounds like it has been spun off a machine. To use the language of AI, the script, lacking an ounce of originality, is simply recombinatory.

On the other hand, David E. Kelley’s Love and Death, an extraordinary, minute examination of how unmet desires in a suburb of Texas at the dawn of the repressive Reagan “Revolution” erupt into violence, is not a machine-like spitting out of past cliches but a highly original work.

The third challenge to the power of the streamers is in the global content of showrunners willing to buck the trend of “pure entertainment” and create socially relevant series, which admittedly are in the vast minority.

The anti-capitalist alternative to wealth porn like Succession

An India/Pakistani production Limboland, although much more Pakistani centered, being shot amid the breathtaking peaks and lowlands of the Hunza Valley in Karachi, is a Succession themed series but unlike that series – which is simply wealth porn – has an anti-capitalist point.

Limboland centers on the decisions an old man, now a wealthy hotel owner, made in his life, shutting out the woman he loved in favor of the pursuit of money with a non-Western pace that equally belies the frantic pursuit of profit evidenced even in the editing of its American cousin.

Equally, Black Santiago Club, from Benin, describes the fellow-feeling around a jazz club that is being threatened by a developer who wants to gut the club and turn it into condo apartments. The film is crystal clear on both the communal sprit engendered by the club and the attempt to destroy that spirit by privatizing for profit what is a neighborhood treasure.

 Little bird

Little Bird

Finally, two other series highlighted racial inequality. The first was Canada’s Little Bird, voted the audience favourite at the festival, which situated itself first in the present as it follows the path of a Native American ripped away from her family and inserted into a Jewish professional milieu in which she has thrived. Then it flashes back to her painful abduction by the Canadian state and highlights the attitude of superiority that allowed that state to break up families in the name of “progress.”

Netflix’s Thicker Than Water, currently streaming on the network, a tour-de-force by showrunner, writer and series lead Nawell Madani, highlights the racism of the French professional classes. An Algerian female reporter must claw her way onto the set of French TV as an anchor woman, all the while dealing with her brother who is connected to a gang, while cooperating with her sisters as their family is caught up in trying to rescue the brother. As a reporter Fara is allowed her own curly black hair, a physical mark of her Arab heritage, but as an anchor, to come into the living rooms of a white French public, she must straighten her hair and dye it blonde. After the changeover, she climbs into an elevator filled with nothing but dyed blonde French women, ascending to the top of the station hierarchy symbolically and physically.

Thicker than W 

Thicker Than Water

As Western economies everywhere decline, the streamers also find themselves in a precarious position with Peacock, Comcast’s streamer made up of content from NBC/Universal, now rumored to possibly lose its identity in a merger with Warner Bros.’s Discovery, and thus in danger of becoming the first of the major streamers to throw in the towel.

Opposing the corporate juggernauts

The struggle continues of writers, other creative workers in the creative industries, public stations, alternative streamers as well as audiences to oppose the corporate juggernauts. In the latest manifestation of this struggle, writers, never more important in the industry, attempt, through the time-honoured tool of a strike, to fight off these latest efforts to reduce their value both by a regressive movement back to “non-scripted” reality television and a coming attempt to supplant their work in general through the onslaught of AI and ChatGPT’s replacing of a writer’s sensibility with a machinic recombination of genres. Unfortunately, the decline in series quality, supposedly motivated by decreasing budgets, is playing its part by readying audiences to accept this degraded mode of production.

Dennis Broe’s articles are television are available on Substack at Cultural Politics For Those Who Care and on his website Bro On The Global Television Beat. His latest book on television is Diary Of A Digital Plague Year: Corona Culture, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services.

“The one where the whole thing nearly collapsed”: the business of streaming in 2022
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

“The one where the whole thing nearly collapsed”: the business of streaming in 2022

If the buzzword for corporate streaming in 2021, with life still centered online as COVID lingered, was “Expansion,” the key phrase in 2022, with nuclear war looming, inflation and rising interest rates deflating salaries, and climate destruction worsening, was “Retrenchment.”

The turnaround of what was once part of one of the last of the still thriving sectors of capitalist enterprise was so fast and so wide-ranging that in March Netflix’ rising subscription rates were still the toast of Wall Street, but by April a one-quarter decline brought on a 35 percent loss of valuation as the company shed $50 billion in one day.

The tech industry as a whole—and the entertainment industry is now a branch of that sector after the mass movement to online streaming during COVID—suffered huge losses with the most stark of these being the crypto company FTX which went in days from a valuation of $32 billion to bankruptcy and which was described in court documents by creditors trying to reclaim their money as “a Ponzi scheme” with $8 billion “accidentally” missing from the books.

The 30-year old owner, who at one point talked about buying Goldman Sachs, also contributed $1.5 million to the U.S. war in Ukraine as well as bankrolling, to the tune of $70 million, both Democratic and Republican candidates in the November election, and in that way spreading the fictitious wealth around.

The Big Three streaming companies, Disney+, Netflix and HBO, have all sustained losses in both subscribers and market valuation over the last year, to the point where Wall Street has now made a shift and no longer values simple gain in subscribers but instead is looking at the actual worth of these companies – are they actually profitable?

The answer to that is of course, no. They are hugely in debt and none of the streamers has as yet turned a profit. They are part of the debt driven inflated U.S. economy as a whole which is entirely dependent on the promise of the future and the willingness of investors to believe in that promise. All of which the social philosopher and political economist Karl Marx termed “fictitious capital,” noting that these enterprises created no real worth or value for society.

That is not entirely the case here since each is in the entertainment business which does create potentially socially useful products – in this case, serial series. The problem is the “use value” of these products, their potential to improve the lives of those who consume them, is always tempered, mitigated and often corrupted by their “exchange value,” that is, how many people they reach and new subscribers they appeal to and how that boosts the market value of the company.

TV Emily in Parisjpg 

Emily in Paris featuring a Paris that no longer exists

At the beginning of the streaming era, in the 2000s, a high price was put on “quality TV,” as “showrunners” carved out a place for more sophisticated, intelligent or “Complex TV” which replaced the morass of cheap “Reality TV.” But, as the bigger players entered the arena, they have brought with them an increased emphasis on the profit motive of the streaming company which has resulted in a reversion to past media formulas. Thus, we have new kinds of homogenization, where many of the shows, which viewers often find “unwatchable,” are simply designed to appeal to a faceless “middle class” where crass consumerist values dominate.

Just as in the television network era of old, but which is also still with us, when one series or genre happens to resound with some sector of the public, the streamers then rush to follow that trend and create their own version. With the success of Netflix’s Emily in Paris, a high-end fantasy view through the eyes of a young female American associated with the fashion industry of a Paris that looks nothing like that of the city today but which appeals to viewers’ dreams of the city, the second season of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, seeking the same demographic, became a globe-hopping travelogue of its female heroine in fashion hotspots in the U.S. and Europe.

This is especially true of the fantasy genre where each streamer has allocated more and more money to have its own in-house mega-production, following the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones. HBO has its sequel/prequel Throne of the Dragon, Disney+ has its Star Wars franchise and the George Lucas fantasy version of that myth Willow, Netflix its mediaeval Witcher and super-powered Sandman produced by Warner Television, and Amazon its Lord of the Rings prequel and origin story The Rings of Power. As the mutations proliferate, the originality of each series declines.

TV Willow tagging all the Fantasy bases 

Willow, tagging all the Fantasy bases 

The streaming backlash began in April after Netflix subscribers declined (by 200,000) for the first time in its 2022 first quarter report. The company lost 25 percent of its worth. In reaction, as is happening in all quarters of the tech industry, the company laid off 300 workers and eventually 3 percent of its work force. In addition, the streamer instituted advertising into a model where the company had boasted it would never do that and began cancelling series it would usually renew, such as Glow and She’s Gotta Have It.

Mouse in the House

The Disney+ shakeup, after the company reported $1.5 billion in losses from streaming in November, involved replacing the Disney head Bob Chapek with its former head Bob Iger and a supposed return to a more “creative friendly” environment. Chapek had attempted to install a more vicious cost-cutting regime throughout the magic kingdom where even its once profitable theme park customers were complaining of nickel and diming.

Probably the grandest fiasco though was Warner Bros where AT&T, once it had bought the company installed its own head, John Stankey as head of the entertainment complex. Stankey was a “no-nonsense” leader who proposed to take the company global by producing quantity not quality, with a tilt toward more inexpensive game shows and reality tv. He simply wanted more hours of entertainment which meant that HBO Max would dilute the HBO programming. The response of the HBO head Richard Pepler, who then left the company, was “more is not better, better is better.”

TV westowrld

Westworld, gone and already forgotten

AT&T botched the job so badly with its bottom-line uninspired programming that it had to spin Warners off and eventually merge it with the Discovery Channel, though the conservative Texas company still controls 71 percent of the stock. The Discovery Channel leader David Zaslav was appointed head of the enterprise not because he would add quality to the HBO Max stable but because, under his “frugal” boss the media baron John Malone, he too learned how to trim a budget and that is what he has done. He immediately cancelled the CNN streaming platform CNN+, the $90 million nearly-finished film Batgirl and did not renew the HBO series Westworld. He also tried to cancel the Warner Bros Screenwriting Program which selects and trains new writers, that is, the entertainment complex’s future, but the outcry was so great he had to rescind that decision.

These actions of course have consequences beyond the insular world of streaming. Warners is being sued for exaggerating its subscribers by Ohio pension funds, a stable of many teachers, who claim the funds have lost $25 million on the company’s inept shenanigans.

What is responsible for these losses? There are several factors limiting subscriptions but three figure prominently in the global macro picture since the streaming pool in the U.S. is saturated and the companies need foreign expansion to show profit. The same factors also limit expansion in the U.S. where at present an average household has an unsustainable four streaming subscriptions a month, plus cable.

Climate, capitalism and other catastrophes

The first factor is global warming, with summer 2022 being the hottest on record for Europe and China, approximately 25 percent of the global population, and ordinary weather catastrophes – droughts, fires, floods, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanos – have increased in magnitude. Needless to say, in the aftermath of these dire global disruptions, streaming TV is not the first thing on local residents’ minds. The anticipation of more dire weather changes to come has also prompted the programming response of apocalyptic TV series, many of which are about not trying to avert the disaster but coping with and accommodating to its inevitability.

TV Climate catastrophe begets Apocalyptic TV

Climate catastrophe begets Apocalyptic TV

The second major trend impinging on global audiences is the threat of global war, the disaster not only of the proxy war against Russia in the Ukraine but also the anticipation of new global conflicts as the U.S. and NATO up the ante, pursuing possible simultaneous wars with China, North Korea and Iran. All of which make more likely the possibility of nuclear war, since most of those countries have nuclear arsenals which they are potentially willing to use if the U.S. continues its drive for “regime change ” seeking a return to a unipolar world which it can dominate.

With the various embargos on these countries, and especially that on Russia, European and global consumers who now must choose between food, shelter and energy or electricity have less left over for streaming TV. Another result of these wars is the way the closing down of these potentially lucrative markets inhibits profits – one factor in triggering the Netflix crisis which started this collapse was losing 700,000 subscribers in Russia.

This points to an overall emphasis, as in the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany, on the heavy industries of weapons manufacture and energy, that is, oil and fracking, with a corresponding de-emphasis on light industry, communications in this instance, which thrives in open rather than closed borders. In the Germany of the late 1920s the dominance of heavy industry led to fascism.   

Third, the inflation crisis is just the most recent in a series of global economic shocks that began with the collapse of the housing market bubble in the U.S. in 2007-8, which eventually spilled over into the European state debt crisis of 2009-12. Covid then exacerbated what was already one of the capitalist economy’s periodic recessions and which was then followed by the current inflation crisis as greedy owners coming out of the lockdown raised prices far beyond those that would cover their loses. Wages however stagnated making consumers, having suffered through the effects of these sequential shocks, less likely to consider spending on streaming TV.. The way the U.S. tackled the problem, raising interest rates, which was then picked up by other central banks, increased the pain of those middle- and working-class audiences in the U.S. and beyond who then found borrowing more difficult for the ever- accelerating costs of college, health care and maintaining a suitable standard of living.

A final factor is that as the streamers cut costs and as they homogenize product in a competition where each is afraid to distinguish themselves too much from each other, the initial creativity unleashed at the outset of streaming serial TV suffers and people lose interest because the series do not speak to their lives but rather accelerate in a frenzy of, as the French term “entertainment,” divertissement or diversion. In other words, the series are not as good as they used to be.

All is not lost. Part 2 of this series will discuss those series which responded in various ways, some of them oblique and metaphorical, to how these crises affected their audiences. The future of corporate streaming though is most likely one of further retrenchment. For example, the Comcast/Universal/NBC streamer Peacock and the CBS/Paramount company Paramount+ in danger of drowning as audiences tire of an endless array of ever cheaper series whose “bread and circuses” are what is offered to them – as all around them Rome burns.

Culture for All: Why Digital Culture Matters
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

Culture for All: Why Digital Culture Matters

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why digital culture matters, by Adam Stoneman

Why Digital Culture Matters

by Adam Stoneman

During the Covid-19 pandemic, with cultural venues closed, the internet was a portal to a world of creativity; there was an explosion of initiatives offering free access to culture online, an acceleration of what had already been developing. Museums and galleries published virtual exhibitions; plays and concerts were made available to stream; thousands of ebooks could be downloaded for free as part of a ‘National Emergency Library’.

The internet has opened up new possibilities for culture to flourish. Never before has it been so easy to share music, video, text with people across the world in an instant. The digitisation of collections and archives has opened a level of access to culture and knowledge that would have been unimaginable only a generation or two ago.

Digital technology allows us to examine paintings in breathtaking detail, interact with museum objects in 3D, collaborate with others creatively to build systems, solve problems and experiment with new forms of digital media.

The internet does not replace physical experience - whether its enjoying a play with friends, visiting a museum, going to the cinema, when we have a cultural experience with others we create a sense of community. But digital technology can complement and enhance how we experience culture.

The principle of free access to information goes back to the earliest formation of the internet in the counterculture of the 1970s. It is a fundamental principle at the heart of the Open Access movement, which fights for transparency and to extend the public domain online.

Universal, democratic access through broadband communism

But ‘free culture’ internet ideology can also disguise unequal social relations, especially when it comes to production: digital giants offer free apps, email and content as bait to hook us and then sell our information to advertisers; and then struggling independent artists are expected to provide their work for next to nothing.

It is not illegal file-sharing that has made cultural workers so precarious, but a system designed to reward the shareholders of Spotify while it pays musicians as little as $0.0032 for every time their song is played. The promise of the digital era - a level playing field of universal, democratic access - turns out to offer little compensation to artists and cultural producers.

The distribution of culture is not equal either while the internet is dominated by five big tech firms that mediate our journeys online through hidden algorithms. The commercial logic of streaming services like Spotify and Netflix - now worth more than Exxon - privilege certain forms of culture to the detriment of others. Streaming is predicated on high consumption ‘bingeing’ and repeated playbacks and works better for creating certain moods (‘Netflix and chill?’) than widening access to more complex or intellectually demanding culture.

All this while so many in the UK continue to be excluded through lack of access to digital technologies. A recent survey found almost one in ten households with children did not have adequate home access to the internet. One solution is free fibreoptic broadband for all, paid for by a tax on tech giants, and implemented through the renationalisation of parts of the telecoms industry. The BBC calls this ‘Broadband communism’.

Culture wants to be free

Despite the limitations, we must draw on the possibilities opened up by the communal production and distribution of open-source software and systems of repudiated ownership to widen access to and participation in culture.

Cultural workers organising as part of the labour movement can ensure the post-pandemic world is one in which artists earn a decent and secure living. The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers recently organised worldwide demonstrations against Spotify, demanding increased royalty payments and transparency. Workers at Amazon are also fighting an uphill battle to unionise and achieve better, safer working conditions.

Alongside this, we must defend and extend publicly funded arts and arts institutions; privatised models of arts funding, reliant on philanthropy and sponsorship have been decimated by the pandemic while public institutions have been more resilient. Post-pandemic we have the opportunity to go further, to strengthen and extend public funding to ensure everyone has the same opportunities to participate or even make a career in the arts.

At local, regional and national level, public funding can provide artists with patronage that breaks from a commercial logic, allowing more radical and challenging forms of culture to emerge. Jennie Lee, Labour’s Minister for the Arts under Harold McMillan, wrote in her famous White Paper: “There is no reason why gaiety and colour, informality and experimentation should be left to those whose primary concern is with quantity and profitability.” Digital culture must not be beholden to the laws of the algorithm - the Netflixification of culture needs to be resisted.

‘Information wants to be free’, an expression used by technology activists to refer to the human urge to share information and collaborate freely. The digital domain is far too important to be left to private corporations; we must tackle the underlying forces that shape technologies and build a society in which culture and knowledge are shared for the common good. Culture too, wants to be free.

Culture for All: Why Television Matters
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

Culture for All: Why Television Matters

As part of the Culture for All series, Dennis Broe introduces another short film made with the support of the Communication Workers Union, on Why Television Matters.

 

Why Television Matters

by Dennis Broe

Hi I’m Dennis Broe, I write about film and television. I’m now writing a book about television watching in what for some is a lockdown and for others in a dangerous time where because of the virus just going to work can be risky, especially the kind of work, like that done by postal workers and engineers, that requires facing the public.

Previously I wrote a book on something you’re probably all familiar with, binge watching TV series. Where you watch the whole series in a weekend or a day.
Of course, part of this is pure addiction and you feel terrible afterwards, feel like the show just manipulated you into watching episode after episode, and that’s partly what it’s trying to do.

The satisfaction then may not be intrinsic to the show, that is a part of it, but rather the satisfaction is to have accomplished the feat of getting to the end of the show. Netflix was the first to design shows in this way, where they could be consumed all at once with shows such as House of Cards and the current addictive series The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit.

But there is another kind of satisfaction that for me comes from watching Serial TV Series, which is what I call this form, that have an actual point to them and teach some truths about the society we live in. I don’t know about you but when I have discovered one of these series, which are actually few and far between, instead of feeling empty afterwards I feel that my time was well spent, that I learned something or had my view of the world challenged in a way that allowed it to expand.

Most of these series deal either directly or symbolically with everyday struggles. A series from last year that was surprising in how it dealt directly with the struggle of black people in the U.S. with a criminal justice system that is always waiting to entrap them was For Life, produced by the rapper 50 Cent and based on a true story, available on YouTube and Hulu. The first season has the man imprisoned unjustly, framed by a District Attorney who used the defendant’s trial to climb the ladder to success. Rather than simply wallow in prison, the man becomes a lawyer and then takes on the attorney in court and in the media. The show then uses one of the oldest genres, or types of shows, the courtroom drama but updates it with the struggle for justice of a black prisoner who every week demonstrates his brilliance in court in front of judges, having each time to change out of his bright orange prison outfit into a business suit to plead his case and that of his fellow inmates. In the second season the show has become even more topical, taking on in one episode, prisoners dying of Covid and in another bringing a brutally violent cop to justice.

Snowpiercer

Another series, available on Netflix, is Snowpiercer. This series is set in the near future, which gives it some latitude in creating a metaphor for today’s situation. The characters are trapped aboard a train keeps travelling an earth frozen and uninhabitable because world leaders decided, a la Trump, that the way to prevent global warming was to fire nuclear weapons into the earth’s atmosphere.

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The train itself has three cars, the one in the front is peopled by the rich, in lavish clothes and served meals grown in the other sections. The middle section is workers also dedicated to serving the rich but perform jobs necessary to the train’s functioning. The back section is inhabited by “the tailies,” those left to die when the train took off who stormed the train to carve out their own place in it.

The first season charts the rebellion of the tailies who subsequently take over the train and make it a more equal place for all, while the second season is about the return of the owner of the train, Mr. Wilford, who wants to reinstate the old order and put everyone back in their place. This is a big budget action series but with a point to it, deliberately making a comment on the organization of today’s world and on today’s workers. We are watching more wealth, power and more of the world, here the train’s, bounty going to satisfy their lifestyle, with those in the middle cars, who in today’s world are still needed workers like engineers and the technical and communications workforce, shrinking and with those in the last car, who must degrade themselves merely to survive, expanding.

The producer of the series is the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho who directed the 2019 Oscar winning film Parasite, which you might have seen. It tells a similar tale, about contemporary Korea divided between a poor family living in a basement where they have to “steal” internet service and which often floods and a rich family who they go to work for and who live in a mansion surrounded by acres and acres of green lawn and a gate to keep others out.

What I wanted to show is that series can be both addictive and instructive and that it is important if we want to see more of an emphasis on the latter to watch and talk about those series which can be useful in shaping contemporary struggles.

Green Frontier and Wild District: The Bolivarian vs. The Bolsonarian Revolution
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

Green Frontier and Wild District: The Bolivarian vs. The Bolsonarian Revolution

Dennis Broe reviews Green Frontier and Wild District, two shockingly different approaches to South American struggles for political liberation. The image above is from Green Frontier

Two series from Colombia, Green Frontier and Wild District, both Netflix originals and both made by the same production house, Dynamo, stake out the left and right of Colombian politics.

The iconography of the progressive series, Green Frontier, links it with a history of Latin American films dealing with the continent’s indigenous peoples, a part of the tradition of Magical Realism which charts the expression of indigenous cultures in a colonized landscape. The theme of the series is the destruction of the Amazon on the Colombian-Brazilian border, and a lost tribe trying to ward off the loggers who would destroy them and the forest, along with the deeper, more insidious and more persistent menace of Western colonialism.

Wild District on the other hand employs the iconography of the American action film in its more reactionary and caricaturing forms. It depicts guerilla forces as savages, and its characterization of the slums of Bogota is racist and classist – just another jungle, as primitive and untamable as the actual jungle inhabited by the rebel group FARC, rather than the habitat of one of the continent’s poorest and most deprived populations.

Progressive ecological and political awareness

Since both series are Netflix originals, it would seem the streaming service is interested in covering all bases. With the more independent, left-field Green Frontier, whose pilot is directed by the superb Ciro Guerra, it’s trying to attract a progressive audience who are committed to the ecology of preserving the rainforest and the country’s indigenous people. With the straightforward action series, which boasts a superb performance by Juan Pablo Raba, veteran of Narcos, the service seems to be playing to the populist and far right, in a show that openly rationalizes the work of the death squads, an auxiliary of the former Uribe government.

The pilot of Green Frontier owes much to Guerra’s visual acuity and his thematic concerns. His first global success, the film Embrace of the Serpent, was about the relationship between two aging members of their respective civilizations. One was a German social scientist in the jungle at the turn of the last century, in the vanguard of what would become a pillaging and patenting of its secrets for Big Pharma, and the other was his guide, an indigenous last member of a tribe wiped out by the European colonizers. The indigenous guide recalled this devastation in a series of scattered images that operated more from an intuitive and unconscious logic than the Western scientist’s rational mapping of this world. In Green Frontier a warrior, one of the last members of his tribe, communicates with a female member both in this world and in another, with the otherworldly images shown in a negative silvery tint.

Guerra’s second film, Birds of Passage, adopts codes from the gangster film to recount how an Amazon tribe succumbs to the profit-making inducements of the drug trade and how the ensuing greed for material objects utterly demolishes their centuries-old customs and ways of life. It’s The Godfather or Scorsese’s Casino in the jungle, as it maps the changes wrought by money. It is even closer to Gangs of Wasseypur, a stunning Indian film about the changes in an Indian province over 40 years by the introduction of a profit-making gangster economy.

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The jungle under the heel of a Nazi demon in Green Frontier

Green Frontier also presents the jungle under attack from the loggers who are stripping its assets, from a mysterious white man who is a demon with a history that extends back to the Nazis, and from the local corrupt police whose leader “Uribe” orders the killing of the Bogota female agent who instinctively acts to protect the jungle.

The series opens with the slaughter of both an indigenous woman Ushe and a group of nuns and is in the present an investigation by the Bogota agent Helena and her partner Reynaldo, who has been outcast from his indigenous community, into the killings. A flashback narrative recounts the relationship of Ushe and Yua, the male protector of the jungle. The jungle itself is defined as both holder of the secret of life and as female.

The flashbacks are not so much backstory, as they would be in a more Euro-centered narrative, as they are a parallel world with the jungle itself acting to protect Yua and at times making him invisible. The series is elegantly filmed on the Colombian-Brazilian border and the loggers, whose boisterous chainsaw at one point interrupts a conversation between Ushe and Yua, are the visual and aural sign of the Bolsonaro-Trump assault on the environment, waged in the Brazilian case against the rainforest and in Trump’s case against public lands which he is now opening to drilling and mining.

The series ends with an epic battle between the Bogota agent Helena, now in touch with her roots in the earth and allied with the jungle, and the white demon Joseph, a remnant of the Nazis, the ultimate degradation of Western civilization. It’s a monumental struggle and one those who want to save the earth are engaged in each day.

Far-right nonsense

Wild District on the other hand is far-right nonsense that misses completely the changes that are going on in Colombia, a traditional bastion of Latin American conservatism and a U.S. ally which is in the process of attempting to get out from under the thumb of its history of violence and right-wing death squads. The recent arrest of the hit-squad aligned former president Alfaro Uribe for corruption is a sign of these changes.

The question in Colombia at the moment is the question of peace as the FARC, the revolutionary guerrillas, have been more than willing to lay down their arms and accept a peace deal in order to challenge the right wing at the polls as a political party. However, despite overwhelming popular support for the peace process, the current president Ivan Duque, a protégé of Uribe’s, opposes it and allows the guerrillas to be assassinated by still highly active right-wing killers as the former guerillas, having surrendered their weapons, are now defenseless.

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“Untamed savagery” in a poor section of Bogota

None of this is even hinted at in Wild District which is not much more than a sounding board and rationale for far-right sentiment and continued slaughter in the country. The FARC are portrayed as bloodthirsty kidnappers of children, ignoring any rooted connection they have with the peasantry, and as simply sadistic killers and grudge-bearing executioners of those who would desert them, forgetting that the FARC as a unit has pushed for peaceful disarmament. There is no mention of the far-right death squads who hunt them.

The series is so far right it would have difficulty even finding a place on the Fox Network, though it might fit comfortably in an evening slot on the Fox News Network between discredited Fox commentators Bill O’Reilly and Megan Kelly. This series makes Jack Webb, the McCarthyite-era creator of Dragnet, look like Bernie Sanders. It lacks the subtlety of even a 24 or a Homeland where at least the ideological message is more complicated, and subtly obscured.

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Juan Pablo Raba as an ex-guerilla fighter in Wild District

Its one positive feature is the lead character, Jhon Jeiver, a “light foot” FARC former assassin who creeps up on everyone but whose effort to insert himself into everyday life is touching and includes his attempt to reestablish a relationship with his son. In a well-drawn scene in the market where he has found work, Jhon tells a female customer seeking a solution for a burn to forget a pharmaceutical remedy, and instead shows her how to apply the healing plants aloe and calendula (marigold) that he learned in the jungle. His nemesis on the series is of course the snivelling, sadistic jungle revolutionary who wants to continue the fighting, the exact opposite of the contemporary Colombian reality.

The difference in the two series is strikingly apparent in the use of the names of the Colombian leaders. In the far-right Wild District, “Duque,” the current leader now accused in the press of corruption and who opposes the peace process, is the name of the tough on the outside but heart-of-gold female detective who is Jhon’s handler. In Green Frontier, “Uribe” is the corrupt head of the local police who orders the assassination of Helena, the eventual protector of the jungle and of the authentic Latin American heritage.

The ideological difference between the two series is shocking, although ultimately of course both series contribute to the profits of Netflix. However, there is still a stark contrast between two views of Latin America. Green Frontier is allied with the Bolivarian Revolution which attempts to redistribute wealth and raise the living standard of the continent’s poorest, often those with an indigenous or African background. Wild District aligns itself with the Bolsonarian Revolution which attempts to sell off both the natural and cultural heritage of the continent in its return of wealth back to the richest.

One revolution attempts, as does Helena, to preserve the continent. The other, which like Wild District characterizes all efforts at change as savage, instead attempts, as can be seen in the murderous spread of the coronavirus out from Brazil to its neighbours, to destroy the continent and keep it under the colonial heel.

Da 5 Bloods: Black Lives Matter Meets Rambo
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

Da 5 Bloods: Black Lives Matter Meets Rambo

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews Spike Lee's new film

Spike Lee’s new film for Netflix, Da 5 Bloods, about the effects of the Vietnam War on African-American soldiers, opens spectacularly. A documentary sequence begins with Muhammed Ali detailing why he chooses not to fight: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people... for big powerful America…..for what?..They never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me. They never robbed me of my nationality.”

Malcolm X explains the war as a continuation of a history of black exploitation in a country where “20 million Black people…fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and [you] never give them any recompense.” Over contrasting shots of the war and ’60s protests against it, comes the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” where the singer plaintively pleads for an end to a system where while “bills pile up sky high” the response of a supremacist government is to “send that boy off to die.”

The film also ends strongly in the present summoning the Black Lives Matter protests, which echo again Marvin Gaye’s still prescient words about “trigger happy policing.” In between, unfortunately, things get a lot muddier.

In the fiction, the five soldiers return to Vietnam to recover a treasure trove of gold they had hidden during the war. Each of them, and especially Paul (Delroy Lindo) has been in some way damaged and traumatized by the war. Vietnam is now a prosperous country – a sex worker under the American regime is, under an independent Vietnam, a financial broker – but to return to it for these ex-soldiers is to re-invoke painful memories.

The film is aware of the idiocy of the Rambo myth, where Sylvester Stallone returns to fight the war and this time to win. Nevertheless it falls into a similar trap, as it recycles classical Hollywood images with the racist and imperialist residue of those images still intact. Lee’s film summons Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with the Wagnerian “Flight of the Valkyries”, as the five travel upriver to find the gold. This is the least offensive of the references, because the original was cognizant of the lunacy of the war. Paul, wracked by guilt over what happened in battle, grows increasingly mad as they travel further upriver, suggesting that Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz and Coppola’s Brando character suffered from what would now be called PTSD –  not innately mad, but driven mad by war.   

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Bloods on the battlefield

Elsewhere though, the references are not so innocuous. Echoes of Treasure of Sierra Madre in the way the thirst for the gold divides the bloods give way to a direct quote in one scene which figures the Vietnamese as Sierra Madre’s scurrilous Mexicans, one of whom intones in a kind of Vietnamese/Hollywood/Spanish: “We don’t need no stinking official badges.”   

The film cannot acknowledge that the Vietnam War was won by the Viet Cong, freedom fighters whose struggle against US imperialism is the same struggle that African-Americans are engaged in today in the inner cities of the United States. Thus, one character, who can’t stop refighting the war, is executed in a way that depicts the Vietnamese as bloodthirsty bandits. The only male Vietnamese character the bloods trust is a bounty hunter, whose parents fought for the US puppet government of South Vietnam. A flashback to the ’60s battlefield continues the “othering” of the Vietnamese by showing them only in outline, an approach used in Oliver Stone’s far better Platoon and which has been criticised.

Finally, the film, since it positions itself within the traditions of the War Film and the Western, complete with the bloods in campfire scene (surrounded by hostile Indians/Vietnamese?), must end in a battle. This one features the bloods and their European NGO allies against Jean Reno’s bloated Frenchman, and again the nearly faceless Vietnamese are simply enlisted behind him in a way that suggests nothing has changed in Vietnam since the French were driven out in 1954.

With heavy casualties the bloods win the battle and so in a way replay the Vietnam War. We’ve come both a long way and not very far at all from Rambo.  

Twisting the truth: Bro on the Global TV beat
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

Twisting the truth: Bro on the Global TV beat

As more people have to stay home and watch TV, Dennis Broe reviews some current TV series from the U.S., Britain and Iceland, showing how they both expose and conceal real social and economic injustice

The best network series in what might be a season cut short by the coronavirus is ABC’s For Life, a combination prison/court room drama about an innocent African-American inmate sentenced to life imprisonment for being a drug kingpin. The series is based on the true story of Issac Wright Jr., a New Jersey inmate who used his time in prison to become a legal counsellor and claimed to have freed 20 unlawfully jailed prisoners.

DB4 Lawyer prisoner Aaron Wallace in For Life

Similarly, Aaron Wallace, a club owner – as Wright was a promoter who claimed he put together the Latina Girl Group The Cover Girls – is jailed by an ambitious and corrupt Illinois prosecutor, Glen Maskins, who is running for Chicago District Attorney. In order to free himself Wallace studies to become a lawyer, takes the bar, becomes the legal representative for the inmates and begins an aggressive campaign against the would-be DA, attempting to prove a pattern of faulty convictions.  

For Life is a brand new approach to the courtroom drama genre, by crossing it with the prison series and by emphasizing the unfairness of the legal system and the ways African-Americans, Hispanics, and poor whites are caught in the crosshairs of a system that presumes them guilty from the start. This is a system where tainted evidence and lack of investigation characterize the actions of both prejudiced police and politically ambitious prosecutors.

It is stirring to watch Aaron – who changes each week out of his orange prison jumpsuit into the tailored suit of a lawyer and then appears before a judge –masterfully arguing his cases. By being in prison and having access to the stories of inmates, and through his own interaction with the law, Aaron is able to take into court a point of view and perspective on the legal system the lawyers on the opposite side of the courtroom do not have.

He is also accused of cutting corners himself, in his defence of the inmates. On being confronted with this by a liberal female warden who is on his side he answers that with all the obstacles against him, it is up to him where to draw the line. The ultimate statement about his predicament occurs when he is reprimanded by a black cop who he asks to illegally obtain his police file, which he is barred from seeing. To Aaron’s declaration that the procedure is unfair, the cop replies “You should have thought of that before….” Aaron interrupts him with, “Before what, I decided to be black in America?” The cop folds under this logic and grants Aaron his request.

The show was produced by 50 Cent, Curtis James Jackson III, a victim and perpetrator of street violence who was arrested for dealing and was once shot nine times before establishing a highly successful career as a rapper. He wanted to tell Wright’s story and Wright himself is grateful he was able to address the wrong in his own situation. He hopes that the show will be “a beacon of hope and inspiration” for the “thousands of people” wrongly incarcerated that he left behind. .

DB3 Kelsey Grammers evil prosecutor in Proven Innocent

The series is tightly constructed and owes something not only, of course, in the prison context to the landmark HBO series Oz but also to a short-lived courtroom drama from last season called Proven Innocent, where the female Caucasian protagonist becomes a lawyer to escape her own wrongful conviction, and then after being freed becomes an advocate for the underprivileged. She is pursued by a bullying prosecutor (Frazier’s and Boss’s Kelsey Grammer), also running a political campaign, who put her in prison and wants to put her back behind bars. The character of the prosecutor especially owes much to this Fox series which that network quickly dropped. I wonder why?

For Life ups the ante by having its protagonist still in prison and battling to get out, and most crucially by adding the element of that most incarcerated class, black men. Their imprisonment is often not based on guilt or innocence but on a systemic need to discipline a recalcitrant and rebellious population, and to fill the jail cells of a multi-billion-dollar industry that has become a boondoggle for private enterprise. In the Bible, Aaron is the older brother of Moses, who leads the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt and to freedom. Each week this Aaron attempts the same for an large ethnic group within the American working class, for no reason other than prejudice and profit.

Twisting the truth through twists in the plot 

Alfred Hitchcock talked about the differences between what he called coincidence and suspense. Coincidence was the result of a poorly constructed plot, involving a mystery that seems to simply assemble random events and betrays its own shoddy construction. Suspense, on the other hand, meant involving the audience in a series of events that gripped them and made them a part of the plot because they knew what the characters were going through.

In the era of peak and binge TV, a contemporary buzzword is “twisty.” The word has a positive connotation and indicates not just a surprise ending (as in such films as The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense) but rather a continual series of surprises constantly shocking the audience.

DB5 Patriarchal Lineage in The Stranger

Two contemporary Netflix shows, the British series The Stranger and the Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders, are both “twisty” but for radically different ends. The Stranger’s “twists”, akin to coincidence, are simply the sparkplugs of an addictive plot driving the story forward for no reason other than propulsion. The Valhalla Murders, on the other hand, is made up of a series of twists akin to suspense, with each taking the audience deeper into and ripping the curtain off the layers of corruption that infect Icelandic society.

The Stranger is based on a Harlan Coben novel, with Coben as executive producer. The catalyst for the story is the appearance at that most quintessential bourgeois parenting event the kid’s soccer game of a mysterious woman in a baseball cap who reveals to the father of one of the participating boys that his wife has faked a pregnancy and that his two sons may not actually be his. The show centres around lineage, with the father the wronged one in this danger to the succession of patriarchal power.

This mini-series is indeed “twisty” with a new reveal coming not just at the end but generally at about every quarter of each episode. Without revealing these plot turns it is important to note that at the end of a supposed questioning of middle-class bourgeois customs, that order is restored and the sanctity of the bourgeois suburban marriage is reaffirmed even though much of the show has at least summarily questioned it. So they are addictive twists, for the purpose of dragging viewers along with them for commercial reasons, but with almost no interest in questioning what lies behind a trail of deception and violence.

DB2 Corruption in Iceland in The Valhalla Murders

 The Valhalla Murders on the other hand is the complete opposite, though it begins in much the same clichéd way. That most reliable of staples, the serial killer, is the antagonist in this drama about two Icelandic police officers tracking a bloody trail that leads to a now boarded-up boarding school, as the former instructors in the school are being gutted and the police have no clue why. The series is based on the first serial killer case in Iceland, and the first half of the series treads familiar Silence of the Lambs ground.

However, the serial killer plot is surprisingly resolved at the midpoint in the series and at this point it becomes much more interesting as the two cops investigate other possible roots of the violence of the boarding school and as the trail climbs ever higher in the judicial and state hierarchy. ‘Valhalla’ in Nordic mythology is a warriors’ heaven ruled over by Odin, wise but also a vicious warlike figure associated with death. The boarding house is a Valhalla where its young warriors are initiated into an unfair battle that has ruined their lives and made living corpses of them, as they die prematurely or wander aimlessly in jobs that simply occupy their time. They are casualties of a brutal abuse of power.

The twists and turns in The Valhalla Murders deepen the critique of a society that is willing to look at its flaws. In contrast, the twists in The Stranger work to conceal the flaws of an oppressive and exploitative society – instead of exposing and examining them, they are presented as an ever-spinning addictive spiral that obstructs the viewer's critical reflection.

After Life
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

After Life

Tony McKenna reviews After Life, the new black comedy-drama written by Ricky Gervais for Netflix

Ricky Gervais has two seminal qualities which make him a wonderful writer.  One, he has a capacity for cruelty, a hangover from his background as comedian, for good comedy is often cruel. Gervais does not suffer fools lightly and often raises up the stupidities of others in terms of the most lacerating satire and critique.  The other is a great capacity for humanism; to see how, at their depths, even people who appear on the surface to be arrogant and toxic, are often just bumbling along, ineptly, hopefully and without any real malice.   These two moments – a lacerating cruelty and a more fallible humanity – reached a perfect comic fusion with Gervais' most iconic creation, the office manager David Brent. 

Brent was, for all intents and purposes, a complete arsehole.  He was the type of man who was capable of saying things like 'What is the single most important thing for a company? Is it the building? Is it the stock? Is it the turnover? It's the people, investment in people' – with a straight face.  He was this horrific whirlwind of mangled motivational soundbite along with the type of cod philosophy haphazardly snatched from the most ghastly and saccharine self-help manual.  He would subject the people under him to his god-awful comedy routines, labouring under the delusion that he was witty and charismatic, and bolstered by a sense that, as their boss, the subordinates in the office were compelled to listen to him – quite literally a captive audience.

And yet, the most remarkable thing about Brent was that you, the viewer, could never really despise him.  You winced, as he embarrassed himself, as his often rather sleazy attempts to ingratiate himself with others crashed and burned, and you squirmed as he lurched between platitude and prejudice – but you could never really hate him because there was nothing of cruelty in what he was.  Just the opposite in fact.  Underneath all the twattish management twaddle, there lurked a confused but fundamentally well-intentioned personality desperately seeking some kind of connection with others.

Creating a character so finally finessed between the ghastly and the generous exhibited the scalpel-like fineness of Gervais' writing and was one of the reasons why I was looking forward to his new Netflix series After Life.  But here, however, Gervais is unable to walk that same fine line; for his protagonist is much more ghastly but far less generous. Tony is a middle-aged man who has just lost his wife to cancer.   In the aftermath of that event, he is plunged into abject hopelessness and this takes the form of a comic nihilism whereby he abandons any politeness or pretence and says to others – both close friends and strangers – exactly what he thinks all of the time.

The idea is that although Tony is impossibly cruel, sarcastic and hurtful to virtually everyone who comes into his orbit, this is because he is because he is so grief-stricken and devastated – that behind the irate anger at the world lives a fundamentally kind and generous soul.  It's a good premise, but it doesn't work because Gervais is never able to evoke any genuine sense of kindness or generosity on Tony's part.  He assures us that Tony does have these qualities, over and over in fact.  Tony spends some of his time watching videos his wife recorded for him before she passed away.   Every now and then she will describe him with a stoical chuckle as a 'fat twat' thus allowing the writer to state in very bald terms that these scenes are earthy and real rather than trite and sentimental.  But once that is got out the way, she harps on ad infinitum about what a truly remarkable, special, good person he is and how she knew it from the very first moment she laid eyes on him, how much he has to offer the world, and so on.  She is quite literally on her deathbed, so you wouldn't reasonably expect her to start ragging maliciously on her beloved, but what you get from these snippets is almost nothing about her character, who she was, and very little about the actual details and events of the relationship between them.  Rather she simply reveres him.  She becomes little more than a prop for his grief, a device to throw into relief just how worthy he is and how much he is suffering.

Edgy or unkind?

And the same is true with every other character.  They all, every single one of them, spend time riffing on how great, how kind, how funny and how good the Gervais lead is while remaining largely indifferent to the sheer cruelty of what he says and does.  He treats his co-worker, the photographer Lenny, with visceral contempt, harping on about how physically repulsive he is, encouraging others to ridicule the disgusting image of him consuming food, pinching the fat at the back of his neck, publically interrogating Lenny's partner as to what she could possibly see in someone so ridiculous, lacking and ugly.  This kind of stuff is, I guess, supposed to be edgy, but really it just comes across as unkind.  Lenny does not just absorb the insults Tony heaps upon him with muted bemusement, he also looks at Tony with wide-eyed and gormless adoration for he too understands how privileged he is to be in the same space as this remarkable yet damaged human being.

Tmck2

Tony's elderly father is perhaps the most depressing of all the props.  He is suffering from dementia and is living in a care home. Tony comes to visit him.  The comedy is derived from the fact that Tony's ailing dad, being old and demented, is extremely 'politically incorrect'.  So he will suddenly say something racist or inappropriately sexual, and a good laugh will be had by all. Tony's father's entire raison d'être seems to consist in this alone. And the fact that he provides the prop by which the crotchety Gervais is able to get to know the hardworking, stoical but warm-hearted Emma, a carer at the home. 

Here the stage is set for the Gervais character to emerge from his winter hibernation of despair and disillusion, warmed by the benevolent and giving nature of Emma, the inevitable romantic foil, for she too senses the almost infinite hidden depths which lie behind the brusque exterior. Despite all the loss and suffering she has come into contact with in her job, Tony himself is the 'saddest man' she has ever seen.

Part of the problem with Tony's character, I think, is that he is a product of Gervais' own wish-fulfilment.  Tony is a bitter rebuke to the world, a rebuke addressed to all the asinine morons out there wandering about in their fog of stupidity having not yet arrived at Gervais' astute political and cultural values.  So, for instance, yet another one-dimensional character is another of Tony's colleagues, Kath.  She is particularly gormless, empty-headed and spaced out, given to mull aimlessly and endlessly over the most trivial and vapid of subjects. 

And she also happens to be religious.  Which sets the stage for the Gervais character to provide a contemptuous and 'incisive' critique of her beliefs, which essentially comes down to Tony squealing, 'yeah, well if God made everything right, then who made him, eh?'  A practical and commonsensical retort for sure, and one which perfectly expresses the crude literalism of the kind of 'New Atheism' which Gervais has so relentlessly campaigned for – a critique which remains oblivious to the profound philosophical and cosmological themes which infuse great religions and which make them resonate with so many millions of people.  And while the whole 'well who made him' charge provides a significant and perhaps insurmountable obstacle to the theorisation of any deity, those of us who are atheist proponents of the Big Bang theory (the current writer included) are ourselves subject to a similar and no less thorny dilemma (if the Big Bang created the universe what caused it?)

Character or caricature?

Kath is yet another foil, an empty and asinine caricature which exists only to be pounded by Gervais' rather vulgar anti-religious fervour.  Yet more secondary characters are called into being to perform the same banal function.  Tony is walking down the street, only to be accosted by a couple of would-be muggers.  The two teenage boys are leery, belligerent and aggressive, their accents are almost a caricature of the sneering, mindless and hate-filled 'chav'.  Cue the Gervais character, to take action. He does not cower before them, and with fearless abandonment he strikes one and berates the other in a soft, calm voice which leads them to understand that here is a man who is little concerned for his own safety and will not be intimidated. 

Disorientated and ashamed, they shrink from him.  In another lifetime perhaps Gervais might have been tempted to derive some humour from the scene, but apart from the idea of the skanky 'chavs' getting their just deserts, the exchange is humourless.   It's rather odd too, because the whole tone has more in common with something like Death Wish, the humane and humanistic middle-aged, middle-class individual with his back to the wall, finally pushed into action by the dark protean forces stirring in the impoverished mob – the chaos and menace of the streets offering up a deadly threat to the civilised and respectable nostrums of law and order.

The scene Gervais has created here verges on the ridiculous, but it also provides us a glimpse into what Tony really represents, i.e. he becomes the means by which Gervais is able to exorcise his frustrations. Tony provides an almost Nietzschean-like riposte to the social ills of the modern world, very much from the elevated perspective of a middle-class man who is now unfettered by the niceties of bourgeois respectability, and can unleash the full force of his superiority and contempt against the trudging imbeciles, non-entities and miscreants of the herd. 

The only character who is impoverished and at the bottom, who is painted sympathetically rather than with derision – a character who doesn't feel the full force of Tony's loathing and disdain – is the figure of Daphne (aka Roxy), a sex-worker.  She is intriguing, witty, damaged, brash and thoughtful.  It is a shame she doesn't have a little more screen time.  Alas, like all the women in the piece she is afflicted by a severe condition of 'Tony worship,' understanding just how remarkable he is and how much he has to give. So as he goes off to take his first tentative steps into the dating world, she pines away wistfully on just what a lucky woman his prospective date is.

After Life is not unwatchable, the dialogue is often lively and the scenes are occasionally funny.  A writer of Gervais' calibre is incapable of producing something utterly boring or utterly bad.  But in After Life he has created a fundamentally synthetic world – a rather flimsy, clichéd set of secondary characters who remain underdeveloped, and who float around the protagonist like rubber balloons, drawn by the gravity of his egoism. They are empty props which exist only to validate Tony's wit, virtue and travails, lacking any real character or content in their own right.  When the time comes, as it inevitably must, for Tony to realise that his hatred at the world is misplaced and it is really rather a jolly place after all, the shift occurs not as result of a genuine engagement with the people around him on equal terms but rather from a hastily contrived moral epiphany, a saccharine speech on the joys and wonders of the colleagues and 'friends' whom he has spent all the other episodes pitilessly humiliating.   The tone of the piece thus shifts, moving from sour and unpleasant to gushing and sentimental in its conclusion.  Given the character dynamic Gervais has created, this has the feel of inevitability.

Uma Thurman at Series Mania
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

Serial TV: Platforms, Concentration and The Same Old Thing

Dennis Broe reports from the Series Mania festival, previews some of the new series due to hit our screens, and surveys trends in the ever-concentrating, hugely profitable industry of digital media

There certainly was mania, with over 60 series being screened, three days of industry panels, and with masterclasses (extended interviews) with Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s writer and Sharp Objects showrunner Marti Noxon and Uma Thurman presenting her new show Chambers, all at the Series Mania festival in Lille in Northern France last week. Series Mania has now become the leading international television gathering in the world and is staking a claim on being for television what the Cannes Festival is for film.

There was mania, but there was also anxiety as those in the European television industry readied themselves for the coming onslaught of the American streaming services which they greeted alternately as partners who would expand their options for producing series, or as moneymakers invading their market and against whom they could not compete.

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The streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the coming NBC Universal, Disney/Fox and Time Warner-AT&T as well as Apple and Facebook) have been challenged in various ways by governments, associations and unions. While the conference was underway the European Union passed a directive increasing the power of copyright holders affecting mainly print media, but perhaps applicable to television as well, which could aid local producers.

The directive was announced and celebrated by Pascal Rodard, Director of the French Society of Authors and Composers in a panel titled “Towards a New Balance Between Creators and Platforms.” Director Kaat Beels, of the Netflix series Beau Sejour, described a Danish work action against Netflix in which creative personnel were championing their right to be paid residuals from the streaming services, which tend to pay upfront and then build libraries as the main asset, which last in perpetuity and increase the value of the service – but the creators receive no more payments.

Howard Rodman, a former president of the American Writer’s Guild West, explained that the Guild had lost the right to residuals in the 1980s and 1990s on VHS/DVD sales and had subsequently staged one of the most important strikes in the history of telecommunications in 2008 when, after a 100-day walkout, Hollywood writers won the right to negotiate residuals with the streaming platforms. That power grew in 2017 when a threated strike forced the owners to increase residual rights by 15 percent.

Ominously, outside the festival the news was of profit accumulation being pushed within an ever narrowing concentration of players in moves to flatten the content of the streaming services in more of a big-tent approach, to attract wider audiences which would make these companies more like the networks of old. With cable services declining (subscribers in the US having gone from a peak of 100 million to 90 million today) the coming streaming services will grow more powerful. Last week, AT&T essentially forced out the heads of HBO and the Turner Networks and replaced them by an executive formerly from NBC, signaling that the coming AT&T/Time Warner service will move HBO and Turner from boutique audiences to more of a one-size-fits-all model.

The size and profit level of the existing services, particularly Netflix, is also daunting for European producers. In Britain, in order to compete, the BBC and ITV have formed a streaming service titled Britbox. However, the total funds available for production is around $184 million which is not small unless it is compared to the $13 billion Netflix spent last year. Both Amazon and Netflix promised increasing attention to telling local European stories but this drive toward what is becoming a streaming service buzzword – diversity – comes in the wake of a European law requiring that at least 30 percent of the product available on the streaming services come from European countries.

Perhaps the last word came from a European distributor who said that because of their global reach and budget, the streaming services were starting to treat European markets much like American television networks treated them in the 1980s and 1990s when their product was dominant on European screens.

Elsewhere Marti Noxon, who cut her feminist writing teeth on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, talked candidly about her career and her life and about the importance of putting imperfection on the TV screen. Her latest series is Sharp Objects, with Amy Adams as an alcoholic reporter who returns to her small hometown in Missouri to solve what might be the serial murder of young girls. Noxon described her own bout with alcohol, including an evening when she staggered out of an LA bar and passed out in her car in downtown LA without locking the doors, a scene that is replayed in the series.

Uma Thurman, however, was coy and tight-lipped about her life. At one point when asked if the working environment for women in studios was changing on account of Me Too, she dropped her guarded attitude for a moment and said that frankly the attitude had to change, that the environment couldn’t get any worse. But she quickly amended that to say more blandly that things were getting better. Her Netflix series Chambers premiering in late April, does though indicate a degree of self-awareness, presenting her tight-lipped, proper, Anglo-bourgeois mother as the terrifying villain of the series.

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Opener of the festival was The Red Line, one small step for Serial TV but one giant leap for its highly conservative network CBS. The series, set around the Red Line metro in Chicago which crosses several race and class boundaries concerns a black-white gay couple and their black daughter. Noah Wylie of Emergency stars as a high school teacher left with grief that he is for a while unable to express after his husband is shot and killed by the Chicago police. The best thing about the series, and the radical element for the older audiences on CBS, is the way it normalizes a gay school teacher making him compassionate and sensitive.

The series claims to present a cross-section of the city but actually there is really only about two degrees of separation between its characters and it does not explore in real depth, as did say Steve McQueen’s Widows, the history of class antagonism in that city. It adopts the “everyone has their reasons” cop-out in exploring the lives of the city’s white police force, while ignoring the structural reasons for the long history of race and class tensions in the city. It doesn’t help that the most charismatic and interesting character, the Afro-American gay husband, is killed in the opening sequence; but the series may get a boost with the recent election of Chicago’s first black, female, openly gay mayor.  

NBC checked in with Manifest, about a plane that is lost for five years. When it lands its members both sport unnatural powers and spout religious mumbo-jumbo about the miracle that is happening to them, a sign perhaps of the presence of the conservative owner of NBC Comcast. The plane somehow breached five years in time while actually in network time 15 years have elapsed between this series and its forebear Lost. Minus the heavily religious overlay, the series unfolds as an interesting mystery.

One of the most garish series of the festival was Showtime’s, which is CBS’s sinister cable side, Black Monday about the events leading to the 1987 stock market crash. The pilot is co-directed by Seth Rogan whose protégé Adam McKay directed The Big Short, all of which raises the expectations that the series will be an exposé of Wall Street. Nothing of the kind though. Instead it simply wallows in money and its largely black cast headed by Don Cheadle makes it simply the minority version of the other Showtime hit Billions. Both series amount to “wealth porn” in an era in which inequality, especially for black workers, continues to grow.

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The real exposé came in the form of a Norwegian series Exit, based on a fictionalized version of actual interviews with four financial magnates in banking, hedge-fund management, and investing. The financial violence they inflict on the society is mirrored by each of the four engaging in actual violence in the episode that centers on them including knifing a sex worker, beating senseless an annoying guest at a party, and kickboxing a passerby after a drunken spree. The lead character’s violence though is psychological, making his wife believe that she is the reason they can’t have kids by concealing his vasectomy. Exit was named best series in the Panorama, or Global, section of the festival by a student jury. The show is a tough-minded anti-Billions which no doubt benefitted from the student jury and it is unlikely that a more “mature” – meaning comfortably bourgeois – jury would have awarded the prize to this hard-hitting show.

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Another top series was HBO Asia’s Folklore, created by Singapore director Eric Khoo, who claimed at the screening that “Everyone in Asia believes in ghosts.” Folklore is a horror anthology with each episode in the Asian language of its origin. The first episode from Indonesian director Joko Anwar, titled “A Mother’s Love”, is a kind of Babadook exploration of an itinerant mother’s cloying affection, while also situating her haunting within the context of the street poverty of Jakarta.

In the second episode, directed by Khoo, the series hits its stride as a Singapore developer conceals the finding of the body of a victimized young girl because it will reflect badly on the construction complex, and then pays the price as the girl rises and haunts the site. This episode was very good on the migrant Chinese and Malay workers in Singapore, themselves victimized by the developer as was the young girl. An antidote to the remaking of Singapore into a Hollywood shopping complex ala Rodeo Drive that was Crazy Rich Asians.

Funniest and most satirical series of the festival was British actor and co-series creator Stephen Mangan’s Hang Ups, a remake of Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy, that sparkles not only with Mangan’s deadpan and hilarious reactions as an online therapist – this veteran of the Showtime series Episodes really is the modern Bob Newhart – but also with the wit to suggest that even instant therapy in the online era may no longer be possible, because personality has been evacuated. In the era of instant attention and gratification there is no ego for a therapist to work with – as exemplified by one client who is only using the supposed insights in the therapy session to increase her online followers.

Eerie in a different way is the horror series Chambers, which resuscitates the oldest horror story possible – stitching the parts of someone onto another, and then having that person take on or be threatened by the donor’s personality. This is the theme of the German Expressionist Hands of Orlac, the ’30s Hollwood Mad Love with Peter Lorre and Eric Red's Body Parts. The previous versions though, tended to have the upper-class artist threated by a lower-class criminal. Here that situation is reversed and the reversal adds a completely new dimension to the tale. An African-American/Native-American high school girl is given the heart of another female student from a wealthy suburban Arizona family. She and the uncle who raised her are then in various ways threatened by the New-Agey, Sinona-type, parents of the donor and most creepily by Uma Thurman’s perfect but nefarious upper-class wife with a closet full of secrets. Keeping the focus though on the young girl’s struggle against the class enemy that now inhabits her makes this a series to remember.

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Just awful was the big budget Chimerica, from the usually reliable British Channel 4. The muddle-headed, trivial, and simplistic conceit of the series is that China lost its chance at democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the US is losing its democracy under Trump. China retains socialist characteristics and collectivist tendencies within an autocracy, while in the US the oligarchy is replacing a democracy in decline long before Trump finished it off.

The series, which validates the supposed ethics of an objective journalism – a laugh in itself given the recent CNN/New York Times debacle over Russiagate – concerns the efforts of a discredited photojournalist to find a witness at Tiananmen called The Tank Man, who stood up to the Chinese army’s rousting of the square. When they find him, his colleague claims breathlessly that what she can’t wait to ask him is, “what he was carrying in his bags,” a perspective that exactly characterizes the trivialization and distortion of the truth by Western media that this show seems entirely unaware of.

Equally confused is the big budget splashy Netflix French series Osmosis, about a brother and sister team of entrepreneur and programmer who claim to match their clients with their soulmate. The series focuses on how this match supposedly will fix the troubles of the modern world as one young test subject hung-up on porn believes finding his mate will cure his addiction.

Capitalism often proposes that psychological problems caused by the increasing tensions of growing inequality can be fixed with a pill, but here the fix involves big data’s claim to have mapped the world’s personalities. The series though obscures the massive surveillance that is needed to build such a database as Netflix equally obscures its own surveillance of its customers, which has been used to construct projects like this one.  

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 04:28

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall

Dennis Broe compares the current attempts to overrule the principle of net neutrality with 18C French economists' rejection of bread price controls.

The U.S. regulatory body the Federal Communications Commission is set to overrule the principle of net neutrality where all speed on the internet is roughly equal and instead allow internet carriers and providers to themselves regulate speeds and charge more for what is now an internet right. This provision is happening at the same time as the Justice Department debates allowing a merger between one of the main content providers, Time Warner, and one of the major broadband companies providing access to the American home, AT&T. Trump's Justice Department is so far blocking the merger but this may amount to only a minor roadblock with Time Warner being forced to divest CNN as a penalty for that company’s attacks on Trump, since to attack him is a ratings booster.

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Overthrowing net neutrality and a new wave of media mergers are related. If the FCC ruling passes, content producers will seek alliances with internet providers so that their own services are not overpriced by this new unregulated “freedom” to slow speeds and then charge for what is now the internet standard. This is a massive merger since AT&T already owns DirecTV which reaches over one-third of American homes. The ruling will most likely further other mergers of this kind with, in the Serial TV arena, Amazon, Netflix and Hulu then needing to find internet providers to team with. These providers then may also exert direct or indirect pressure on their content and the mergers will also most likely result in increased monthly charges as well as a narrowing and stabilizing of the field to its current heavy-hitter participants. Television watching on the internet would then move closer to the high prices of cable which drove viewers to these content providers in the first place and content may become more stabilized so that the new services start to look more like the old television networks.   

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What will the internet itself look like if this ruling goes through? The New York Times claims it will look more like a mall and less like a community forum, though perhaps the more accurate assessment is that the internet already looks like a mall and with this ruling the last traces of the old idea of the internet as a community forum will be erased. It is possible to effectively block content by simply slowing down access to it since a Microsoft study shows that the average internet user’s attention span is 8 seconds between clicks. Longer than that and the content will often be abandoned, not to mention that the practice of training this short attention span means users are being conditioned to pay more not to have their attention interrupted. 

The overthrow of an internet open to all is being rationalized in the usual neoliberal way by claiming regulation is bad and evil, though the government is not really regulating, it is simply keeping an open internet and it may be much more involved in regulation under the new rules which pit everyone against everyone else. Net neutrality, the design of the internet since its inception, is now being branded “government micromanaging of your personal freedom.” The Republican head of the FCC promoting the end of net neutrality, Ajit Pai, says that competition, which is claimed as the only real way to lower prices, is being stifled by the government’s heavy hand. Of course this “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach is somewhat tempered by the fact that Pai himself worked at Verizon, one of not the thousand, but the three or four flowers, along with Comcast, Charter and AT&T, which will assuredly bloom in this new climate.

What I like to point out is that these arguments were rehearsed three centuries ago in the 18th Century France of Louis the 15th and are detailed in a book by Stephen L. Kaplan called Raisonner Sur Les Bles - that is, “Let’s think about wheat.” The title comes from Voltaire who said that while it is nice to discuss and discourse about poetry, tragedy, comedy, operas, novels, morality and theological disputes, it is in the end necessary to think about wheat, the lifegiving staple of the majority of the people in Louis’s time who lived on French bread.

The book details how many of the Enlightenment thinkers, the physiocrats, who in the 1740s and 1750s turned toward economics, claimed that liberty was the prime value in the society, and for them liberty was tied to property. They said the hidden hand of the free market which encouraged unbridled competition and which was opposed to the heavy hand of the government would triumph in all areas. The liberty of property owners to engage in free market competition was a natural law that was above the law of the state and consequently the king and the state should get out of the business of acting as a safety net to keep people from starving and should instead become a king entrepreneur, or player, in promoting the free market which would lead to lower prices through competition and increased wealth and abundance for all. France, instead of keeping wheat at home, would export it, establishing its global market dominance which at that point belonged to Spain and the Netherlands, and which would add to the prosperity of the entire country.

Growth then supplants security as there is then so much abundance for all that there is no need of the state providing a safety net, just as encouraging competition on the internet will supposedly lower prices for everyone. The abbés, the managers of church landowning property, defended this policy which benefited the largest landowners and growers of wheat, and claimed that needs were not rights, that the liberty granted by the right to own property superseded the people’s need to eat. And that feeding people in times of bad harvests or regulating the price of their staple product so they could afford daily bread meant property owners' rights were subordinate to people’s needs.

In the end, they maintained, as does the current Republican tax bill, what was good for the leading classes was what was good for France. One physiocrat, Lemarcier, whose wealth came from being a slave owner on French plantations, argued that no particular class should be favoured, meaning that the small landowning class should have equal rights and consideration with the vast majority of the poor. The minister Turgot claimed the poor peasant was indifferent to life and more interested in the price of a cow then in their own wife and son, neglecting to point out that the cow might well be the only thing that stood in the way of starvation for the peasant, his wife and his son.

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The policies were an utter disaster, as no doubt net reform will be, prompting riots both in the cities and the countryside and reducing the poorest peasants to begging, unemployment, and criminality, culminating in a slaughter of rioters in 1770 at the supposedly joyful celebration of the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who later was in favour of letting her countrymen eat cake but here opposed them eating bread. The response of the physiocrats was that these “reforms,” - as the overthrowing of net neutrality is also being described - failed not because they resulted in hoarding to raise prices, in monopoly price fixing, and in the export of wheat which deprived locals of the crop they helped grow, but because they did not go far enough and were ill administered, that the state was to blame not the free market doctrine. And of course that will be the response when prices start skyrocketing with the net neutrality “reform.”

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The last word though in both debates belongs to two actually enlightened members of the Enlightenment. Denis Diderot, the publisher of the encyclopedia, was the first in this circle to recognize the people’s right to existence, the real breakthrough in the Enlightenment. Diderot repudiated the physiocrats’ idea that their economic laws substituted abstract principles for any consideration of what the results of the imposition of these principles looked like. It was the Swiss Banker Jacques Necker though who finally took the people’s own thought seriously, countering Turgot by arguing that the people see wheat as a sacred right delivered from nature, akin to the air they breathe. In the symbolic economy, free access to the internet is equally that kind of sacred right.

Finally, Necker said, these claims to the divine right of free competition organized around who controls the market and the grain supply, as the new internet pricing will be organized by those who control access to the American home, were nothing more than the momentary conquest of one class of society of the future of another. That is, under the principle of property, justice and liberty, there is nothing left for the most numerous class of citizens. Necker knew a thing or two, not only about French bread, but also about where the overthrowing of net neutrality will lead.