Issue 182 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Clare Fermont in 'Hidden Depth' (November SR) was quite right to point to the hidden struggle taking place in workplaces. But there is more explanation required.
Resentment in workplaces throughout the country has got a lot to do with new management practices. How many of us have had to put up with Human Resource Management? We all now 'own' our own jobs. In other words we are blamed for every little thing that goes wrong. We are flexible, meaning we do more work for less money. We work in teams, meaning we are supposed to shop our workmates and screw each other into the ground. All this means, of course, is that we are empowered, in other words stressed out of our minds and exhausted. The new culture is supposed to be about overcoming the outdated conflicts of the past, but in fact is simply management by stress obscured by cuddly language.
The important point is that the 'we are all in it together' philosophy is obviously phoney, hypocritical and utterly transparent, and everybody knows it. As economic recovery, sleaze and tax rises fuel people's confidence and anger, the situation may change. This will be fuelled by another effect, and that is one of the real changes that have taken place in many organisations in recent years--decentralisation.
Both in the public and private sectors there has been a tendency for top management to retain a tight rein over what are seen as strategic elements of control and then devolve responsibility for other functions down to plant or unit management. This is done in the name of flexibility and competition and is partly driven by a desire to undermine national collective bargaining.
It can lead, as we have seen in a number of authorities, to groups of workers acting independently and immediately (often ignoring the law). The action will usually be brief, bright and bitter, not always strike action, and thus hardly ever showing up in strike statistics (or even the local paper). These disputes will also act as training grounds for a new layer of militants willing to take action at a local level.
Crucially, such small scale unofficial actions are a nightmare for the union bureaucracy because they are difficult enough to control on their own, but also have the potential of spreading like a forest fire. The professional managers of discontent, the union leaders, cannot use the age old tactic of stifling action in procedure or taking resolutions to national level and then ignoring them.
Finally, the restructuring, decentralisation and resentments have another element. They are highly vulnerable to the actions of small numbers of strategically placed workers. Thus small groups of workers can not only bring whole plants to a halt quickly, but they can also bring whole interplant production systems to a halt very quickly. Small, bitter disputes can have devastating consequences.
At a time when right wing moralists in the US and Britain are trying to impose their stifling values on popular culture it seems odd for a socialist to ask a film maker to tone his material down, for fear of providing 'fodder for the law and order lobby'. But this is just what Sabby Sagall does in his review of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (December SR). Surely Sabby should be asking why a director like Tarantino should find himself so reviled by certain sections of the ruling class that his work is denied a video release in Britain and he is condemned as a corrupter of youth on both sides of the Atlantic.
This has got nothing to do with violence in itself, after all Arnold Schwarzenegger's True Lies has a body count which leaves Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs standing. It is because Tarantino's characters, and the violence they perpetrate, do not conform to the stereotypes favoured by the establishment that Tarantino is held up as a bad example. His hit men are articulate and witty and they kill with a sense of professional detachment. In Pulp Fiction this takes place in a world painted in the garish colours of cheap crime and horror novels. It is also a vision of American society trapped in a morbid fascination for its own past culture of rock stars, movie idols and gas guzzling automobiles.
This is clearly a troubled world and whilst Tarantino can't make up his mind whether to be mesmerised or appalled by this vision, he certainly gives us some fascinating insights into the real state of American life.
His eccentric style is certainly not naturalistic, nor is it meant to be, but it is close enough to the truth to upset his right wing critics.
Of course Tarantino isn't the perfect film maker. His casual acceptance of the prejudices of his characters, for instance, lapses into an uncritical acceptance of the sickness he so brilliantly portrays. But why condemn him for not shooting a remake of Goodfellas or The Godfather? He refuses to rehash the predictable dramatic forms which Sabby obviously admires, but his irreverent and critical perspectives on contemporary life and modern culture are to be applauded.
Sabby Sagall's humourless review of Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction (December SR) was a crude caricature of the attitude socialists should take towards cinema and the arts more generally.
Of course we have a political preference for Francis Coppola's treatment of the violence of organised crime, but to compare Pulp Fiction with the Godfather films is more than a little disingenuous. In saying that Tarantino's films 'risk reinforcing current fears of contemporary urban violence stoked up in the popular media', Sabby not only hugely overstates the case but misses the point as well.
Pulp Fiction is not primarily a film about organised crime in America, it is concerned with the mass media's portrayal of gangland violence. Tarantino has produced a very funny, very human film which caricatures US society by holding a slightly distorted mirror up to its cinema and television industries.
Probably the best thing about Pulp Fiction is its absolute rejection of the still prevalent right wing idea of inherent evil. Tarantino's gangland killers are utter lowlifes, but nevertheless their humour and their loyalty to their somewhat warped value systems reflect a basic humanity common to us all, no matter how much capitalist society might pervert that humanity.
Violence has always been used in a humorous way in cinema, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. A comic murder is funny precisely because it seems so far removed from ordinary life--and people still feel that it is, despite the 'crime wave' hysteria.
The Belgian black comedy Man Bites Dog, which included a comic murder and a rape scene, was much more problematic than Pulp Fiction. Audiences laughed at the murder, fell silent at the rape. This is obviously because the reality of rape cannot be abstracted and made funny.
Of course Quentin Tarantino offers no deep, revolutionary analysis of US society, but in saying that he therefore 'has nothing significant to say about contemporary America' Sabby Sagall risks sounding like a left wing version of Mary Whitehouse.
Sabby Sagall's attack on Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino, would in our view be more at home in the pages of the Daily Express than a socialist journal.
To claim that small time gangsters in Pulp Fiction are 'portrayed as rather dashing figures' does betray rather a dubious concept of 'dashing'. After all, Vincent is a hopeless heroin addict who after a trip around Europe can only talk about the French name for Big Macs! He eventually dies in anything but a glamorous way!
Who 'trivialises violence' in capitalist society? Is it the film maker daring to show it on screen or the capitalist media, which denies the reality of violence imposed economically, socially and politically on working class lives.
In our view the quality of Tarantino's films lies precisely in his ability to expose the full horror of gun toting violence.
Reservoir Dogs is set in a warehouse with a diamond robber bleeding to death in real time. His spasms of pain are the recurring theme of the film. In Pulp Fiction the accidental shooting of a teenager in the back of Jules and Vincent's car disturbingly shows the consequences of loaded weapons. Both characters are splattered with blood and have to try to clean brains and skull out of the car. Glamorising this is not!
The idea that Tarantino has nothing to say, other than that America's 'inner cities have become cesspits of violence' is simply wrong. Firstly, a common feature of his films, including True Romance, for which he wrote the screenplay, is that they are located in the white suburbs as opposed to the inner cities. The alienation, social dislocation and sheer corruption woven into his films reveal a society disintegrating at all points.
Sabby decries the 'snappy dialogue' which is the whole point of these films. The screenplay is so sharp that you identify each character as completely human. So just as Vince and Jules are about to execute some youths, they walk to the room discussing foot massage and then continue their discussion realising that they are 11 minutes early--just doing their job, like any worker. Equally, it is easy to identify with Honeybunny and Pumpkin(!) who panic wildly whilst committing a robbery. If a Tarantino has a genius, it is to contrast vicious scenarios with thoroughly believable dialogue and to alternate the comic with the horrific very quickly.
The final point of Sabby's attack that we contest is his yearning for the good old days of The Godfather. Reality has moved on from the old style Mafia families.
The whole emphasis of Tarantino films is that organised crime is fragmenting in the US as much established ruling class organisation is.
Both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction have caught the imagination of working class people in Britain because they say a lot about the 1990s. If Sabby Sagall recoils from films that confront reality head on, perhaps he should seek refuge in Forrest Gump and its beloved 'feel good factor'!
I was astonished to read Jamie Rankin's letter (December SR) defending the actions of French Tories and Nazis.
It is false to say that French schools are havens against racial and sexual oppression. The values of French imperialism have always been taught in French schools. During the 1980s the national anthem was reintroduced by the so called Socialist government.
Neither is it true, as Jamie Rankin claims, that religion is kept out of schools in France. Catholic pupils have always worn crosses around their necks. This means that to deny Muslims the right to wear religious symbols is simply racist. It is part of a generalised racist offensive by the right.
It is also wrong to say, as Jamie Rankin does, that the veil is no more than a symbol of 'female submission'. Consider the 14 Muslim women excluded from the Lycée Saint-Exupéry. Recently they led demos against the Tories' education policy. Other students who fought with them are now defending their right to wear the headscarf. Two demos have taken place which were attacked by the notoriously racist CRS riot police. Would Jamie Rankin have supported the CRS, since the students were rebelling against the supposedly secular education he defends?
The CRS were clearly illustrating what Jamie Rankin has failed to understand: that the French state is the oppressor of Muslims in France. It can never be their liberator. The 14 Muslim women of the Lycée Saint-Exupéry have shown by their fight against Tory policies that their liberation will come through their own struggle, not be imposed on them by the racist state.
May I take issue with a point made by Chris Nineham (October SR) on the benefits of the 'green revolution' and his argument that modern technology is not in itself destructive. This misses the point that the 'green revolution' was designed by agribusiness capital to drive small farmers off the land and make the remainder dependent on expensive fertilisers and high-tech inputs. The result has been more famine as the victims have been driven into poverty and destitution rather than liberation from peasant drudgery.
Market economics and not technology has always been the main limiting factor to food production. During the great Irish famines of the 19th century, Ireland exported four times the food it needed to pay the landlords' rents. The famines were not caused by the technical problem of potato blight. Likewise it was not the introduction of the tractor but the partial redistribution of the land following the magnificent struggles of the land war which did most to liberate the small farmers.
Nowadays, in the midst of famine, Lonrho boasts of the profits it makes exporting food from Africa, and in Europe the EC pays farmers to set aside land and poison it, while the children of the small farmers emigrate from here in search of work.
What we need is a red revolution, not a green one.
Co Roscommon, Ireland
We welcome letters and contributions on all issues raised in Socialist Review. Please keep your contributions as short as possible, typed, double spaced if you can, and on one side of paper only.
Send to: Socialist Review, PO Box 82, London E3 3LH