Green Party candidate launches US presidential campaign


By Patrick Martin
27 June 2015

Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate in 2012, announced June 22 that she will seek the party’s nomination for president in 2016. Stein made the announcement on the “Democracy Now” radio program in an interview with host Amy Goodman. This was followed by a formal declaration the next day in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

Stein is not a socialist, and the word “socialist” was never spoken in the interview or speech and appears nowhere in her campaign literature. She is running as a capitalist candidate seeking to reform American capitalism. She uses the language traditional to American populism, both right and left, contrasting Main Street to Wall Street.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Stein’s campaign is its parochialism. The world outside the borders of the United States might as well be invisible. In her interview, speech and campaign program, the words Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Ukraine do not appear. China, Russia, Europe and Africa do not rate a mention. There are a few references to immigrants, but not to any of the countries they come from, or what drives them to seek refuge in the US.

There is no assessment made of the wars and military provocations which US imperialism has conducted for the past 25 years along the periphery of the former Soviet Union, from the Baltic States to Afghanistan. Insofar as Stein even addresses the question of military spending—she advocates a 50 percent reduction—it is essentially as a budgetary issue, not because the wars waged by the Pentagon are reactionary and criminal in character. Significantly, she brands Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a war criminal, but makes no such characterization of Barack Obama or George W. Bush, who have far more blood on their hands.

This exclusive focus on US domestic issues has a practical political benefit for the Green candidate, since she can pass in diplomatic silence over the reactionary record of fellow Green Party leaders who have entered capitalist governments around the world. From Germany to Australia, Greens have carried out capitalist policies of austerity, cutting jobs and social spending—the exact reverse of what the Green Party candidate claims to stand for in the United States.

The Green record on foreign policy is even worse. The German Greens opened the door to the reemergence of German imperialism, spearheading the deployment of German troops to the Balkans and Afghanistan. Green politicians are supporting imperialist intervention in Iraq and Syria, the US “pivot to Asia” against China, the preparations of NATO for military conflict with Russia over Ukraine, and the impoverishment of the Greek working people under the boot of the IMF and European Union.

More fundamentally, Stein’s silence on virtually all foreign policy questions is a signal to the US ruling class. The US Green Party will do nothing to challenge the global interests of American imperialism. Like its counterparts worldwide, the US Greens seek to gain access to the halls of power by reassuring those who really call the shots in American politics—Wall Street and the military-intelligence apparatus.

There is much in Stein’s domestic program that could attract popular support among American workers and youth. “Guarantee economic human rights, including access to food, water, housing, and utilities,” she urges, along with “economic rights for everyone—the right to a job, the right to complete healthcare through a Medicare for All… the right to quality education, from preschool through college, and that includes free public higher education and abolishing student debt.”

But like a snazzy car that unfortunately lacks an engine, the Green candidate fails to explain how such a program of social rights can be realized economically. Apparently, according to the Greens, this program can be accomplished within the framework of capitalism, without disturbing or even greatly inconveniencing the capitalist ruling elite.

The Socialist Equality Party calls for the realization of basic social rights: to a job, a living wage, health care, education, housing, a secure retirement. But we make clear that these rights, essential for a decent life in an advanced society, are incompatible with capitalist property relations. These rights can be achieved only through the confiscation of the wealth of the financial aristocracy, the nationalization of the major corporations and banks, and the reorganization of economic life under the democratic control of working people.

For the Green Party, however, these social rights are pie in the sky promises to workers that can be achieved without overthrowing the profit system, and even without any significant struggle, other than voting for Green candidates.

Stein declares, “Our Power to the People Plan lays out these solutions in a blueprint to move our economy from the greed and exploitation of corporate capitalism to a human-centered system that puts people, planet and peace over profit.” But when spelled out in detail, this “blueprint” consists of nothing more radical than breaking up the largest banks and supporting the development of cooperatives and small businesses, as well as efforts to “make Wall Street, big corporations, and the rich pay their fair share of taxes.”

There is no reference to wealth redistribution, a staple even of liberal Democratic Party candidates in the era of the New Deal and Great Society, but now banned from official capitalist politics, which includes the Greens. This reveals something about the class foundation of the Green Party. It is a creation of layers of the upper-middle class, living in comfortable circumstances and possessed of a certain degree of private wealth. The Greens are motivated largely by environmental and lifestyle concerns, not by the desperate struggle for economic survival that confronts the vast majority of working class families.

Much of Stein’s interview with Amy Goodman was taken up with discussion of her attitude to “left” Democratic candidates such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is challenging frontrunner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

Sanders, despite his occasional misuse of the label “socialist,” is nothing more than a liberal Democrat with conventional views about setting modest limits on the power of the biggest banks and corporations, while supporting the worldwide military operations of American imperialism and its client states such as Israel.

Stein hailed the initial support won by Sanders, declaring, “It’s wonderful, and I wish him well. I wish him the best.” She dodged a direct question about whether she would support Sanders if he should run as an independent candidate for president, suggesting instead, “If we were both running as Greens, you know, we would have probably been in a Green primary, which would have been wonderful.”

She continued, “I wish that he had run outside the Democratic Party. There are many similarities, obviously, between his vision and my vision…” She added that “in the Democratic Party, we’ve seen wonderful efforts—Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton—who had extremely vigorous, spirited, visionary campaigns.”

The problem with these campaigns, Stein concluded, was that “It’s very hard to beat the system inside of the Democratic Party. And, you know, when those efforts ended, that was the end. Ours will keep going, and it will continue into the general election. And when it’s over, we’re building a party that’s not going away.”

What is most noteworthy here is that Stein does not distinguish herself or the Greens from Sanders, Jackson, Kucinich or Sharpton in terms of political program. They are bourgeois politicians who defend capitalism and American imperialism, and so is she. The difference is that they do so within the framework of the Democratic Party, one of the two traditional parties of bourgeois rule in America, while Stein seeks to create a new political prop for bourgeois rule outside the two-party system.

Pressed by Goodman to elaborate on policy differences with Sanders, Stein exhibited a bad conscience, first conceding that the differences were small, then trying to correct herself.

“You know, certainly I have more in common with Bernie Sanders than differences,” she said. “I think if you had to look for differences, you would find them in foreign policy, where my campaign is perhaps more critical—I would say definitely more critical—of funding for regimes like that of the Netanyahu government, which are clearly war criminals.”

She continued, “These are, you know, small, big. I mean, foreign policy, I think, is big. It tends to be one issue among many, but it is the majority of our discretionary expenditures, and it’s really inseparable from all the other critical issues that we’re trying to solve.”

Stein spelled out in her interview with Goodman the essential perspective of middle-class “radical” politics in the United States: that protest in the streets and pressure from ethnic minorities, gays, women, trade unionists and others can compel the Democratic Party—or even the Republicans—to enact meaningful reforms.

“It’s important to remember what we did under Richard Nixon, as demonic a Republican as any,” she said. “We did amazing things: on women’s rights, the war, establishing the EPA and the Clean Air Act. We did that because we mobilized, and political activism became a way of life. It’s going to have to be again.”

Stein also revealed how the aspirations of the US Greens have been whetted by the electoral success of the Syriza party in Greece, a coalition of Stalinist and pseudo-left groups, including the Greens. “We wouldn’t presume that the odds are in our favor at this point, but the odds are shifting,” she told Goodman. “Let’s test those waters! Let’s find out! Who would have thought that Syriza would go from 3 percent to 70 percent in five years? We need to get started.”

Neither Stein nor Goodman mentioned that Syriza has cruelly betrayed those who voted for it, capitulating to the austerity demands of the European Union and the IMF and imposing cut after cut on Greek workers, youth and pensioners.

Just after this reference to Syriza, Stein said, “At some point, the tide is going to turn, and it may turn after there are 100 Katrinas up and down all of our coasts, but it’s somewhere along the line.”

What a perspective! Perhaps after 100 Katrinas—destroying 100 American cities, killing tens of thousands and displacing millions—the American people will finally be jolted from their political lethargy. Here, in unvarnished form, is the reactionary pessimism of the upper-middle class ex-radical, disappointed that nothing has come of their decades of engagement in protest politics. The underlying premise is that the fault lies with the workers, who haven’t suffered enough.

There is no question that as a mass movement against capitalism emerges in the United States, rooted in the working class, the attitude of groups like the Greens will be fundamentally hostile. They will prop up the left wing of the Democratic Party, or, failing that, seek to divert the workers into some new bourgeois political trap, such as Syriza in Greece.

The fight to establish the political independence of the working class from all forms of capitalist politics requires an intransigent struggle to unmask the political representatives of the upper-middle class, including the Greens.

Study finds that one in six species are in danger of extinction due to climate change


By Philip Guelpa
25 June 2015

An article published this past April in the journal Science predicts that up to one in six animal and plant species on earth are in danger of extinction due to climate change. The study, authored by Mark Urban, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut, concludes that as the global climate warms, the rate of extinction, already high, will accelerate.

Previous studies, dating back more than a decade, have already shown that global warming, which has increased earth’s temperature by an average of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) since the Industrial Revolution, has had notable effects on species distributions. It pushes species to higher latitudes and higher altitudes, following the cooler temperatures to which they are adapted. Scientific projections indicate that the rate of warming is accelerating, and global temperatures may rise at least 8 degrees F. (4.5 degrees C.), if present trends continue.

Such drastic changes in climate would far outpace the rate at which species could adapt by evolutionary mechanisms. Many would, quite literally, run out of room, reaching the tops of mountains or the far reaches of the northern and southern hemispheres, where ecological crowding and differing environmental settings would drive many to extinction.

Urban’s research was based on a reanalysis (known as a meta-analysis) of data from 131 previous studies of species extinction from around the world. He concludes that the rate of increase in extinctions would be greater if temperatures reach the higher end of predicted ranges. With a rise of 3.6 degrees F. (2.0 C.), 5.2 percent of species would become extinct, but with an increase of 7.7 degrees F. (4.3 C.) the extinction rate would rise to 16 percent. Larger changes in temperature can be expected to have even more severe consequences.

It must be remembered that these estimates represent global averages. Regional variations are likely to produce a range of results. For example, studies have revealed that the polar regions are warming at notably more rapid rates than are the lower latitudes. As temperatures in these areas increase, cold-adapted species will simply have no place to go.

Another complicating factor is that there are likely to be synergistic effects. Complex, dialectical interrelationships exist between species in a given ecological setting. In- or out-migration, differing migration rates, or local extermination of key species would quite probably disrupt delicate balances of interdependence, causing a downward cascade of consequences for other species, likely making their situations more fragile and prone to extinction.

Less mobile species and those limited to restricted geographic ranges will be especially vulnerable. According to Urban, the highest rates of extinction are likely to occur in South America (23 percent), and Australia and New Zealand (14 percent each).

The danger is not merely that of the loss of individual species, or even large numbers of species, but of the collapse of entire ecosystems, with incalculable, but no doubt very severe consequences for humans.

Urban’s study clearly demonstrates the need for a substantial increase in research on the effects of climate change on species and ecosystems. However, no amount of such research will ameliorate the causes of these extinctions. Furthermore, Urban points out that even species that do not go extinct will suffer major, mostly detrimental consequences due to climate change.

Massive extinctions due to naturally induced climate changes have occurred repeatedly in the past (see: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert). There is a widespread scientific consensus that human activity, if present trends continue, is likely to cause disruptions on a similar scale.

However, despite clear warnings of dire consequences, including massive disruptions to human society, business interests and the political structures that represent them have prevented any meaningful efforts to address the activities that are driving the process (see: Climate report warns of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts”).

A massive, coordinated scientific and technological effort is needed to avert an otherwise inevitable environmental disaster. That will only be possible, however, if control of the economy is taken away from super-rich corporate interests, whose overriding motivation is short-term profit regardless of the consequences. Only a rationally planned program based on the interests of the working class, including the need for a livable planet, can address this crisis.


Recycling Is Dying

Aaron C. Davis writes in the Washington Post that recycling, once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, has become a money-sucking enterprise. Almost every recycling facility in the country is running in the red and recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around. “If people feel that recycling is important — and I think they do, increasingly — then we are talking about a nationwide crisis,” says David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, the nation’s largest recycler.

The problem with recylcing is that a storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide. Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system. “We kind of got everyone thinking that recycling was free,” says Bill Moore. “It’s never really been free, and in fact, it’s getting more expensive.”

One big problem is that China doesn’t want to buy our garbage anymore. In the past China had sent so many consumer goods to the United States that all the shipping containers were coming back empty. So US companies began stuffing the return-trip containers with recycled cardboard boxes, waste paper and other scrap. China could, in turn, harvest the raw materials. Everyone won. But China has launched “Operation Green Fence” — a policy to prohibit the import of unwashed post-consumer plastics and other “contaminated” waste shipments. In China, containerboard, a common packaging product from recycled American paper, is trading at just over $400 a metric ton, down from nearly $1,000 in 2010. China also needs less recycled newsprint; the last paper mill in Shanghai closed this year. “If the materials we are exporting are so contaminated that they are being rejected by those we sell to,” says Valerie Androutsopoulos, “maybe it’s time to take another look at dual stream recycling.”

Jurassic World, summer blockbuster

By Christine Schofelt
23 June 2015

Directed by Colin Trevorrow; written by Trevorrow, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly

Twenty-two years after the events in the original Jurassic Park (1993), the dreams of that film’s dinosaur-resurrecting scientist John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) have been fulfilled with the establishment of Jurassic World in the new film of the same name.

Jurassic World

The island (fictionally located off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica) on which the original, failed park was built is now the home of the wildly popular dinosaur theme park, laboratory, hotels and shopping complex. In order to keep customers returning, increase profits and thereby satisfy corporate backers, new attractions in the form of different—and bigger—dinosaurs have to be constantly introduced.

This leads to the splicing of genes from various extinct specimens and the introduction of elements of reptiles from the present era. In typical Hollywood fashion, despite the most advanced laboratories and equipment, scientists fail to look far enough ahead and predictably “unpredictable” side effects take hold making the new creatures smarter and more deadly than their component parts … and the chase is on.

Though largely formulaic, Jurassic World is not without its charms and does touch on some interesting questions.

The film centers on two brothers, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), as well as on the relationship between their aunt, a driven businesswoman, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), and Owen (Chris Pratt), an expert on Velociraptors.

The latter pair have dated, fought and parted company, deciding they were “too different.” Owen, an ex-Navy war veteran, has been training some of the raptors, becoming in essence their “alpha.” His acquaintance and nominal boss, Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), sees a military application for the raptors, and indeed for all the dinosaurs (“Imagine if we’d had them in Tora Bora”). He is determined to find a way to adapt them to this end. Owen disagrees with the plan.

Jurassic World

When the inevitable escape of a new, smart, enormous dinosaur occurs, Hoskins’ company, InGen Security, sends in its private troops alongside Owen’s raptors. The classified “contents” of the rogue lizard, Indominus rex, are revealed to include some raptor, which poses problems. Questions of loyalty on the part of Owen’s raptors come into the picture and the struggle between nature and nurture/training plays out. The troops are largely killed off, and the saving of the island and the 20,000 park guests is then down to Owen, Claire, and the “good” dinosaurs.

The machinations of Hoskins, presented in a very straightforward—one might say simplistic—manner as the villain here, include working with the top scientist to develop dinosaurs especially for use in warfare. More time could have been spent on this, to be sure, but the fact that this element is even presented in a negative light in a blockbuster summer release bears noting.

One would like to consider this a let-up in the relentless drumbeat for war that Hollywood has been only too glad to take part in. That might be premature, though the failure of the mercenaries and their firepower to contain (or survive) their fight against the rogue Indominus, who succumbs to the mighty bites of other resurrected/created creatures instead, seems a step in the right direction.

Jurassic World

Co-produced by Steven Spielberg (who directed the first two Jurassic films),Jurassic World seems to want to make some metaphorical points about the dog-eat-dog character of present-day social and corporate life. Director Colin Trevorrow, for example, told Entertainment Weekly: “The Indominus was meant to embody our worst tendencies. We’re surrounded by wonder and yet we want more. And we want it bigger, faster, louder, better. And in the world of the movie the animal is designed based on a series of corporate focus groups.”

And Trevorrow commented to, “There’s something in the film about our greed and our desire for profit … The Indominus Rex, to me, is very much that desire, that need to be satisfied.” Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of Ron Howard, told the same news outlet about her character: “The quest for profit has compromised her own humanity.”

Of course, all of this, as sincere as it may be, has to be taken with a large grain of salt. The mild criticisms occur in a film that is very much an integral part of the Hollywood blockbuster phenomenon, which largely obstructs reflecting seriously on anything.

Throughout the film, which is well on its way to raking in a billion dollars in its first two weeks, one is struck by both the simultaneous gratuitous and near constant product placements (everything from Starbucks to Coca-Cola) and the questions raised directly about the ethics of putting science in the service of the “shareholders.” Formulaic as the subplots may be, to its credit the film does come down against the practice. However, unlike recent films such asChappie or Ex Machina, humanity’s scientific abilities themselves are less of a focus, and so the ethical questions are not terribly developed—instead the emphasis is on the chase, escape and the happy ending.

All in all, unfortunately, Jurassic World does what it was designed to do: entertain without demanding too much of the audience.

Pope Francis Versus Vampire Capitalism

The real reason why his climate-change encyclical is revolutionary.

Pope Francis greets the crowd from the popemobile after a papal mass for the beatification of Paul VI, in St Peter’s Square on October 19, 2014 at the Vatican

Leave it to  Pope Francis, a  Jesuit trained as a chemist, who has only one lung, to breath new life into a tired global environmental debate.

It has been droning on for so long now that it has become background noise, easily drowned out in the din of the 24-hour news cycle. While the glaciers melt, and close to 2,500 people in India are killed by a heat wave that produced a 118 degree ambient air temperature, we’d much rather dissect the twists and turns of “Game of Thrones” in our air conditioned parallel universe. The brutality of a make-believe place is so much easier to cope with than confronting the cruelty that defines so much of our own real world.

What’s so powerful about the Pope’s Encyclical on climate change is that it does not flinch from doing so. Pope Francis challenges wealthy nations, who use the lion’s share of the earth’s fossil fuels, to take responsibility for the ecological impact of their consumption by becoming mindful of the collateral damage it does to planet’s atmosphere and the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. These are populations already feeling the impacts of global warming.

Several weeks ago, today’s Encyclical was presaged by Pope Francis’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which convened an  inter-disciplinary  conference of over 60 of the planet’s top scientists and thinkers under the banner, “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity. the Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity.” An open letter from the conference participants on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences website linked the trend of growing global income inequality and the planet’s continued reliance on fossil fuels, predicting that if current trends continue, we will see “unprecedented climate changes and ecosystem destruction that will severely impact us all.”

Here’s the bumper sticker take away: 55 percent of the available world’s energy is used by just 1 billion of the world’s 7.2 billion people. “Yet the negative impacts on the environment are being felt by 3 billion who have no access to energy,” the panel of experts asserted.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University was one of the panel’s participants. Sachs wrote recently that the group “included not only the world-leading climate scientists and Nobel laureates, but also  senior representatives of the Protestant, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim faiths.” He continued: “Like Francis, religious leaders of all the world’s major religions are urging us to take wisdom from faith and climate science in order to fulfill our moral responsibilities to humanity and to the future of Earth. We should heed their call.”

The biggest challenge to the current world order posed by Pope Francis’s Encyclical is that it calls into question the basic way we measure our success and our accomplishment, the very yardsticks we use. “Problems have been exacerbated by the fact that economic activity is currently measured solely in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and therefore does not record the degradation of Earth that accompanies it nor the abject inequities between countries and within each country,” concluded Pope Francis’s expert panel.

One of the nation’s leading global market analysts, who describes himself as a practicing Catholic, active in his local church, tells Salon that Pope Francis’s Encyclical is a major reset for a global institution that has been a principal beneficiary of capitalism. “It harnessed the revenue growth of capitalism to effectively finance a whole host of institutions around the world.” At the same time it found itself mired in scandals over its finances and the way it handled an epidemic of criminal sexual molestation by priests.

The devout Catholic analyst asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized by his employer to speak publicly about his religious convictions with the media. He says Pope Francis’s Climate Change encyclical “will not have an impact on the markets” in the short term  ”but will add some marginal support for developing alternative energy” that reduces the planet’s global carbon foot print.

But he says it will be seismic in compelling a long over due “global conversation of, how do we even define prosperity? Is it just accumulating more dollars or do we have to factor in being accountable for our impact on the planet and all people that live on it?”

For the veteran Catholic market watcher, the Pope’s long term play is to the broader mass audience he’s reaching around the world to see their consumer choices as a way to force markets to factor in sustainability in their profit loss equation.

“If we live in the United States, do we really need tomatoes from New Zealand?,” he asked.

Historically, manufacturing and extraction industries like mining, as well as oil and gas production, could look at the pollution they generated in our air, water and land as so called cost externalities that in essence acted as a huge subsidy. The transaction was simple. The companies generated massive profits, some people got jobs, society got fuel and the earth got screwed.

Pope Francis’s climate change teaching should increase the pressure for internalizing the cost of production to include the impact of the toxic exhaust and discharges in a truly comprehensive cost benefit analysis that gives planetary well being as much standing as the bottom line.

Even before the Encyclical was released Pope Francis was getting major pushback from prominent Catholics like former Governor Jeb Bush, who converted. Bush likes his religious clerics to stay in the abstract world of soul saving and to avoid the nitty gritty of sorting out the inequities of the real world. The presidential contender was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I think religion ought to be about making us better people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

No doubt conservative free market Catholics will be upset the Pope is being so muscular in the world of the living. He is so much more useful to them when he focuses on the afterlife. This crowd wants religion to be a form of social control, not transformation. This is what got the liberation theologists in trouble, being so passionate and righteous about the here and now. It even got some of them killed.

What it all revolves around is how, in a world increasingly connected by mass communication, do you confront the issue  of scarcity and planetary limits? We seem to have at least two approaches here: Deny it is a problem and contend if undermines America’s innate “optimism,” or do a head fake, insisting that you are really concerned about it, but continue to do business the same way.

Part of America’s problem here is that our country was founded by men who thought the natural world had no limits. Sitting on the East Coast in one of the 13 colonies, on a vast continent still unmapped, you could understand how they might think that. Back then it was the Catholic Church that sided with the powers that be, telling  them they had God on their side, and the right to take as a slave the “non-believer” native Americans they encountered. It was this Doctrine of Christian Discovery that grew out of several Papal Bulls issued to insure European rulers respected each others claims as they divided up the “new world.”

Talk about evolution. Now almost 500 hundred years later, a Pope that leads that same church is trying something very different.

Mad Max: Fury Road: A “feminist” demolition derby

By Kevin Martinez
15 June 2015

Directed by George Miller; written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris

Mad Max: Fury Road is the latest installment in Australian director George Miller’s Mad Max series, and the first one in almost 30 years. This reviewer has only seen Mad Max 2 (1981) starring Mel Gibson, which resembles a work of art in comparison to the new film.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Every summer, audiences worldwide are subjected to the latest bombastic Hollywood fare and Fury Road is no exception. When reviewing these films it is all too easy to say the same things over and over again, but they are worth repeating. First, there is the stagnant material to deal with, usually a well established franchise that can guarantee the major studios easy money. In this case, a post-apocalyptic trilogy that resonated with audiences because of the oil shocks of the 1970s and fears of nuclear and ecological disaster.

Then there is the requisite and over-the-top computer-generated spectacle that takes the place of things like plot, believable characters and dialogue. And of course, there are sops to satisfy the more critically inclined audiences that are disturbingly satisfied with so little. In this case, a plot that “criticizes” patriarchy and supports a watered-down and harmless version of modern-day “feminism.” Needless to say, sequels are already in the works.

What little plot there is in Fury Road proceeds as follows: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a lone survivor from a nuclear holocaust that takes place before the film. He is captured by the chalk-covered War Boys who use him as a blood donor when they take him back to their leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who rules over a colony of mutants and subhumans called the Citadel. What little water and gasoline exists is hoarded over by Immortan Joe and his War Boys who engage in a death cult surrounding cars and guns. Women are kept solely for their milk or as “breeders,” i.e. sex slaves for Immortan Joe.

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the only woman who for some reason is allowed equal status as the War Boys, drives a truck in search of gasoline for Immortan Joe. This in reality is a Trojan horse, with Joe’s five wives inside. Furiosa’s plan is to reach her childhood home which she believes still has water and civilization. The War Boys, with Max as a hood ornament, drive to capture Furiosa and the women. The rest of the film is essentially an hour-and-a-half car ride with circus performers trying to kill each other.

There are no real themes in Fury Road, or at least no themes that are seriously explored. This is the sort of movie that prevents or at least slows down thinking. One overwrought action scene leads to the next without allowing the audience any time to consider what just happened. It is a nasty and dehumanizing process. The rare moments when the on-screen characters are not shooting or stabbing one another we are subjected to dialogue like this:

Furiosa: You’re never gonna have a better chance.

Max: At what?

Furiosa: Redemption.

Or in another scene Max muses, “You know, hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

Perhaps the action and special effects should be commended, yet even here the film strains. The cinematography is straight out of a comic book, with all the characters and action neatly arranged in the frame to drown out any subtlety. The same can be said of the colors, which ironically beautify the wasteland, but the images themselves say nothing and pure action will only keep you on the edge of your seat if you actually care about the characters.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director George Miller in an interview explained what he thought the themes ofFury Road were, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that some part of me does feel more pessimistic than I did 30 years ago. But I also think that the behavior we see is the repetition of behavior that has gone back across every era of time. The dominant hierarchy. The rise of the tyrant who, in whatever form, controls all the resources. The citadel. The water. The gasoline from gas town. The ammunition from bullet town. He uses all the methods standardly [sic] used by tyrants to dominate his people. He gives them the idea that they can ride with him eternal on the highways in Valhalla. You go to any citadel in any part of the world and look at the history. They never knew each other and yet they have the same structure and architecture.”

This ahistorical and gloomy reading of the last three decades explains much of the weakness of Fury Road. Miller, and a whole generation of artists, have reacted to the global crisis of capitalism by arguing that things can give way to something even worse. Even after a nuclear war, class society with all its privations and hierarchies will continue since after all this is the essence of humanity.

To those who say this is a modern “Western” or even a “feminist” film, what sheer nonsense. Some have compared Fury Road to John Ford’s Stagecoach(1939), which would make sense if John Ford hated life and was into S&M bondage. As for the feminist arguments in support of the film … apparently if women do the majority of killing and maiming that makes it a feminist film, like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. The culture of death and sadism is never questioned, but is taken at face value.

Miller even asked playwright Eve Ensler to be a consultant on the film. She was in her own words, “blown away” by the script and said, “This movie takes those issues [rape and sexual violence] head-on. I think George Miller is a feminist, and he made a feminist action film. It was really amazing of him to know that he needed a woman to come in who had experience with this.”

It is a shame really. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are talented actors, and no small number of talented people had to have worked on this and yet what is the end result? Is this really the best Hollywood can come up with? Fury Road leads to nowhere.

Painter Kehinde Wiley at the Brooklyn Museum: Trappings of empire and power

By Clare Hurley
6 June 2015

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, February 20–May 24, 2015

A New Republic, a retrospective exhibition of American painter Kehinde Wiley’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, accorded the highly successful, 38-year-old artist an exaggerated importance similar to the exaggeration that characterizes his lavishly decorative portraits. In the latter, Wiley copies European Old Masters paintings, substituting African Americans in contemporary, hip hop street garb in the poses of aristocrats and other wealthy figures of power and privilege.

For example, in Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005), based on Jacques-Louis David’s equestrian portrait of Napoleon I (1801), an African American “urban warrior” in camouflage pants is substituted for the French general and subsequent emperor. Marx famously observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte(1852) that “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” One might add in the case of Wiley’s painting: the third time as kitsch.

Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005)

Wiley describes how growing up in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, he would spend weekends in the Huntington Museum of Art studying Reynolds, Gainsborough, Rembrandt, van Dyck and others without seeing anyone that “looked like me.” By painting “black and brown” people into the canon of European paintings, Wiley set out to “confront and critique historical traditions that do not acknowledge Black cultural experience.”

However, this approach is thoroughly off base. The reason why one doesn’t find “black and brown” people as the subjects of Old Masters paintings is a historical and social question bound up with the development of world capitalism and bourgeois culture, and not simply a supra-historical manifestation of racial prejudice and exclusion of black cultural experience. Furthermore, how many “average” white art students look at 17th and 18th century paintings of kings and aristocrats, Dutch burghers and prelates and see people that look like themselves in an immediate or superficial sense?

Great artwork, and particularly portraits like those by Rembrandt or van Dyck, Velazquez or van Gogh do resonate across the centuries because they communicate some essential insight into the person and social relations depicted, which are at once historically specific while maintaining an intimate familiarity and meaning to contemporary viewers. To relate to a portrait only on the basis of the color or gender of the sitter is woefully purblind. That Wiley does not see anyone “like himself” in great paintings of the past is a comment on his obtuseness and narrow view. But then, one doesn’t get the impression that Wiley is a terribly profound artist, rather that he hit upon a gimmick and has been handsomely rewarded for it.

He began his semi-controversial “street-casting” method of approaching young, working class African American men in the streets of Harlem and asking them to model based on a historical painting or sculpture of their choosing during an artist residency at the Studio Museum of Harlem after he received an M.F.A. from Yale University in 2001.

Many of these paintings are homoerotic; perfectly polished male subjects gaze at the viewer with languid, come-hither expressions. Often based on a female original, as in Femme piquée par un serpent (2008), this queer “subversion of the male gaze” has won Wiley additional kudos in the sphere of identity politics.

Femme piquee par un serpent (2008)

As repainting the canon of Old Masters to include “people of color” grew stale, Wiley expanded his format to include faux gold leaf religious icons and stained glass windows, all featuring young African American men in contemporary street gear in place of the original subject.

Beginning in 2006, he then took his show onto the “World Stage,” traveling to Jamaica, France, Israel, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Nigeria, Senegal and China to find an expanded range of “black and brown” subjects. With an entourage of photographers, art apprentices and other assistants, Wiley went into small villages or favelas [Brazilian slums] asking people to adopt poses based not only on art from the Western European tradition, but also from their own cultures, as in Dogon Couple (2008) based on an 18th-19th century wooden statuette from Mali. In Wiley’s painting, the figures are transformed from an archetypal male and female to a pair of men.

In the “World Stage” paintings, the sitters often wear sports shirts, caps and sneakers that were likely mass-produced in their own countries for Western markets. They are placed against backgrounds based on textiles or other indigenous decorative patterns, which reach around to encompass the sitters like overgrown vines. In The White Slave (2010), a young Sri Lankan man sits in a lotus pose, while the background reproduces a 19th century European painting of a white concubine, in case we missed the anti-orientalist message.

Even aside from the simplistic and reactionary identity politics, there are problematic aspects of Wiley’s prolific artistic output. The paintings are repetitive to the point of being formulaic and tedious. Some of them could, and may well be, painted largely by assistants who allegedly work in undercompensated conditions, though Wiley would not be the only contemporary artist to operate an “art factory” to churn out his lucrative work—Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei all do, too.

Shantavia Beale II (2012)

From an aesthetic standpoint, the artificiality of embedding the sitters within the floral background tends to reduce the figures to another decorative element, and with few exceptions, one gets little sense of connection to the actual person portrayed, as one would with a truly compelling portrait from any time period. Without their own context, the sitters lose cultural and historic specificity. Although they may take pride in being the subject of a painting in a museum, they are not present under their own names or identities.

Conceptually, the idea that removed from their actual surroundings and placed in positions of power, Wiley’s sitters are “empowered” is hogwash. At the end of the day, the sitters return to their streets, villages and favelas, perhaps having received some compensation, while Wiley sells their portraits to wealthy collectors starting at $40,000 for the smaller paintings and up to $150,000 for the large ones.

Nor is Wiley particularly original in painting contemporary people and subjects into Old Masters artwork. Postmodernist painting has employed historical pastiche to various ends, some more, some less successful. In the 1990s, a fellow native of Los Angeles, Sandow Birk painted Death of Manuel of an LA gang leader using the composition of Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of the French Revolution Death of Marat (1793) and transposed scenes of urban conflict into other 19th century Romantic paintings, including Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830).

Another African American artist, Titus Kaphar, recently exhibited The Jerome Project at the Studio Museum of Harlem, a series of portraits of black men all of whom were named Jerome, like Kaphar’s father and who, like him, had been incarcerated. The portraits are on gold leaf panels recalling icons and dipped in tar to cover their mouths, indicating their silencing and disenfranchisement.

Wiley’s portraits have a definite appeal to a certain audience because they show a large range of working class youth who are rarely, if ever, depicted in art. His portraits of women, which he started painting after being criticized for only showing men in positions of power, tend to be more memorable, as are his bronze busts.

Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew (2013)

Still, one can’t help but ask, what social conditions are these men on horses with their swords or hoodies like cowls, and women in designer gowns aspiring to? As the world’s handful of international High Net Worth Individuals increasingly resembles the aristocracy of the ancien regime, to what social instincts do Wiley’s paintings appeal? Envy seems a reasonable word to introduce into the discussion.

The presentation of “people of color” as noble and beautiful, graceful and confident has been welcomed as “affirmative,” particularly by elements of the aspiring black American middle class. There is nothing remotely “revolutionary” or subversive in Wiley’s paintings. Napoleon, the product of the bourgeois French Revolution, stood for something greater than himself; he represented social relationships and a “cause” that were frightening to feudal Europe. In the way that Wiley has painted his subjects, without social context, they are entirely isolated, self-referential, unthreatening in any important sense. The painter manages to remove everything penetrating and even critical from the originals.

Whereas the revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries “required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content” (Marx), the revolutions of the 21st century will have no use for the “trappings of empire and power” that Kehinde Wiley’s paintings celebrate. The challenge that confronts today’s artists of every color and gender is to find meaningful ways to make use of the cultural developments of the past, in order to create something urgent, contemporary and enlightening.