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Revolution Tales (four reviews)

Revolution, Hollywood Style: From the Brutal to the Banal

There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organization, action that raises the cost of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change—and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future. (Noam Chomsky)

Mockingjay, Part 2

mockingjayThere are profound and important lessons embedded in the plot of The Hunger Games trilogy, and Mockingjay, Part 2 is no exception, as it tackles that most controversial human action of last resort, revolution. Where it disappoints is in the pat personalization of the issues, which makes for popular drama but not a satisfying political analysis.

Most telling is the “false flag” attack on the children, pivotal in turning Katniss against the revolution’s President Coin, even as she wanted to kill the “evil” Panem President Snow. With one stroke a massive public exposure is given to three of the most insidious tactics of the real world’s ruling empire: 1) staging attacks on one’s own people and blaming it on a supposed enemy; 2) after drone attacks, sending bombs on a second wave to kill rescuers and mourners from the first wave; 3) using torture and brainwashing to produce and control assets (Peeta) as “Manchurian candidates.” At the end of it all, however, the revolution succeeds: both evil presidents are dead, we have a black woman commander taking the helm, and there is peace in the land, babies at the breast.

How shallow the portrayal of the collapsing fascist state: it has no substance, only a genial aging Donald Sutherland, hardly the picture of evil; a corps of robot “peacekeepers”; and a legion of sewer “mutts” like a gaggle of golems swarming at the good guys. Oh, and another illuminating moment of transparency, when the smiling and coiffed TV host, Caesar Flickerman, delivers obvious false propaganda to Panem’s citizens—“Mandatory Viewing.”

Here are my quibbles with the movie’s take on revolution:

  • It assumes an armed revolution, and victory. I find this scenario theoretically improbable and in fact merely sketched in the background of the film.
  • Following Katniss, it points the finger of blame at one man, President Snow. One problem is that the film thus asks us to ignore the real sources of power and evil controlling imperial governments, making puppets and pawns of heads of state. Another problem is that Snow is made to seem warm, reasonable, human, even likable, though he does indeed bear responsibility for brutal policies such as the Hunger Games. That problem might be considered a virtue, presenting a rounded character; but I think in the balance Snow—or maybe it’s just the casting of Sutherland—is unconvincing.

Revolutionary success, in this film, comes so easy. Yes, there is hardship and death along the way, a protracted struggle. But then… such a seamless transfer of power to the commander. All is well in the Districts. This is a fairy tale transformation of dystopia to utopia, with the latter only presented as a final postcard and no clues as to how it magically transpired. Or maybe that’s just… another story.

Lila, The Revolutionary, by William T. Hathaway

lilia, the revolutionaryThis engaging tale takes the theme of revolution from a socialist perspective and advances it behind the fresh and unconditioned ethos of a child, eight-year-old Lila. Compared to the broad strokes (at least in the film version) of Mockingjay 2, it fleshes out the resistance, and shows also oppression but without much lethal force. Violent clashes consist mostly of police and protestors “clubbing” one another as in a street brawl of the 1930s. Contrast the contemporary scenario where any response short of absolute submission is liable to be met with gunfire.

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And how easily the guards, managers, and soldiers of the establishment turn against their superiors, when faced with the humane logic of Lila about natural justice. “You’re a worker just like us. The owners are keeping you down too. Join us,” Lila chirps, and they defy orders, walk away from jobs, and join the ranks of rebellion.

As a result of such conversions, barricades are overrun again and again. Even the mighty USA is brought to account, when Lila arrives from her unspecified foreign country and inspires a socialist election victory in the seat of empire. The trillions taken offshore before the fall? No matter. Real value, says Lila, comes not from such spurious funds, but from honest labor:

Not such a big problem.… We make new money. It’s the factories that make the money worth something. We own the factories, we own the money. Their money is nothing. We make the money and give it to the people. The world doesn’t use that old money anymore.… That money is dead.

As I write this, a news item appears on my feed, entitled “If You Want to Limit the Power of the Super-Wealthy, Stop Using their Money.”  Economist Charles Hugh Smith writes, “The only way to reverse rising inequality and break the power of the super-wealthy Financial Aristocracy is to stop using their central-bank issued national currencies. When the world ceases to use the Financial Aristocracy’s money, their power to accumulate more wealth at the expense of everyone else will disappear.”

totalitarian

As in Mockingjay 2, the final battle is fought for the presidential palace (the White House). We hear of the CIA and NATO (offstage) attempting to orchestrate and intervene, and of the manipulation of a national election. The context of Lila is realpolitik, yet in the face of such overwhelming odds we witness the “power of the people” fully engaged in the cause of economic equality.

Lila, like Mockingjay 2, ends with a pastoral scene of family contentment on a farm. Both stories dispense with the messy aftermath of revolution, leaving such details of restructuring, it seems, to the factory committees to work out, with trust in the intrinsic goodness of human nature when freed from the yoke of capitalism.

Despite the seeming naiveté of the denouement (Lila is billed as a “fable,” after all), one must take heart in facing the real-world powers that be, since, as we hear more than once in this story, “Where have piecemeal reforms gotten us over the years? Only into a deeper hole, while the owners got richer. Better to demand what’s ours now, than to die the slow death of a slave, in poverty.”

economic inequality

Far from naïve, Lila’s rejection of conventional wisdom is supported by history, witness to the fall of every empire. As Smith writes,

Everyone who is convinced that the current status quo is permanent and unbreakable should consider what happened to the super-wealthy private landholders of the Western Roman Empire. When the empire’s power to coerce broke down, the super-wealthy vanished into the dustbin of history. Few believed that possible in 475 AD, but history isn’t a matter of belief. Believing it isn’t possible doesn’t stop history.

The Dandelion Insurrection: Love and Revolution, by Rivera Sun

dandelion insurrectionThe Dandelion Insurrection supplies a more detailed version of the revolution. This time the focus is on a “politics of love” than on a socialist manifesto of equality and ownership of production. Still the books are remarkably similar, in their depiction of a social movement of struggle, activism, and nonviolent resistance. (Sun even includes an appendix from noted researcher Gene Sharp with his 198 methods of nonviolent action.) As in Lila, success hinges—both on the front lines of confrontation and in the overall power dynamics of a nation—on persuasion of the agents of repression (guards, soldiers, police) to convert to the side of justice and humanity, even as state violence is ratcheted up.

People think there must be some magical tactic, beyond the traditional ones — protests, demonstrations, vigils, civil disobedience—but there is no magical panacea, only persistence. (Howard Zinn)

We see the success of the Dandelion Insurrection only up to the ultimate moment of confrontation, when millions are marching on the capital, led by heroes Zadie and Charlie… targeted by approaching drones. As with Lila, we see that victory requires the ultimate sacrifice. That final pastoral scene of success and peace on the other side of revolution is missing from this tale, but by now we can see that when the tide of human struggle for change reaches massive proportions, a change in the power structure is inevitable. The more distant question of how that transfer of power actually takes shape is again (as in Mockingjay and Lila) deferred to the reader’s imagination.

false paradise

More concerning is the premise of all three revolutionary scenarios: that a population oppressed will rise to the challenge of sacrificing what comfort and normalcy remains in life, to take to the streets and risk life and limb, to mobilize that radical shift from tyranny to freedom, from fear to love. Will this transformation occur among the media-sedated masses of the Western world? Perhaps it is only a matter of time, before the oppression of war and poverty drives people to rise up and put bodies on the line, to take a stand and march for a truly new world order: decentralized, democratic, humane, and free.

Postscript: Gray Mountain, by John Grisham

grisham, gray mountainA pulp novel for the masses may seem an unlikely addition to the literature of revolution. John Grisham’s Gray Mountain, however, pulls no punches in outlining the abuses of Big Coal in Appalachia. The entire corrupt machinery of Corporate America is here exposed for all to see; the particular setting of this novel serves well as a microcosm. There is no mincing “objectivity” here: the coal companies and their minions are the bad guys, and heroine Samantha and her cadre of legal volunteers are the good guys.

Herein lies the contribution of Grisham’s approach. It portrays the full scope of an evil system that destroys crusaders like the maverick lawyer Donovan, and pushes survivors like his brother Jeff to solitary acts of revenge. Yet its realism keeps damaged workers in their place, hoping for small courtroom victories. Near the end of the book, protagonist Samantha Kofer sums up the battle lines:

“They cheated, they won, and they’ll do it again because they write the rules. I guess there’s no way to stop them. They got the money, the power, the doctors, and I guess the judges. Some system.”

“There’s no way to stop them, Samantha?” Mavis pleaded.

“A lawsuit, I guess.”

Here is the realpolitik of America: corporate greed unchecked except for isolated, fearless crusaders.

The real revolution in this book occurs within the character of Samantha, who migrates from a failed Wall Street model to a humble position in the boonies where she can have a positive impact on people’s lives. In the process, the system is validated by a sympathetic judge, a dedicated team of lawyers with social conscience, and small victories of incremental justice. This is not a radical vision, and no doubt it is an inadequate one; but as a bestseller Gray Mountain serves the public awakening to the truth of how the system works at the present time, and offers a personal model of transformation: from a life spent as part of the problem, to a new start as part of the solution.

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further reading:

Is vs. Should: The Quantum Paradox

The Politics of Life

Chris Hedges, The Illusion of Freedom

JimQ, The Odds Are Never in Your Favor

 

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