Monday, April 21, 2008


As if to prove Jean-Luc Godard's point that the bourgeoisie is so calmly barbaric that it will buy off mass brutality with the price of designer handbags and weekends with James Bond, the only scene in Week-End that made the NFT audience gasp the other night was the slaughtering of the pig. The rape of the woman in the ditch didn't seem to bother anybody in the slightest - no more, in fact, than it bothered her husband.

Is this merely because we don't see the rape? Because even if we did we would know it was only acted? Is it only the whack of the carving knife which carves open the pig's stomach, the unshieldedness, the unavoidability of seeing the slaughter face-on, its reality (the pig, after all, cannot act) that disgusts us?

Or is it because, as an animal, the pig is innocent, blameless for its own death, whereas as humans, we deserve whatever we get?

This latter idea is dominant today. It may explain why we give more to charities which support lame donkeys than those which combat abuse against women. Psychologically, it is based on a behaviouralist conception of being, according to which everything that happens to us, everything we do, every choice we make, is determined by our own individual behaviours. Economically, it is shaped by, indeed is a necessary condition of, capitalism. Our extreme version of capitalism, based on the American dream (so called, says George Carlin, because you have to be asleep to believe in it), entrenches the idea that our lives are entirely in our own hands. If we are successful, we deserve rich rewards. If we fail, we have nobody but ourselves to blame.

Godard shows this beautifully in the best scene of Week-End, that with the African binmen. Corinne and Roland sit on the workers' truck, their jaded, condemning faces showing the bourgeois viewpoint in all its finery. They see that these men are binmen because they are uncouth, uncivilised, uneducated, lazy, because they eat their rotten baguettes so noisily, and because they make our middle-class heroes sit in festering garbage. Corinne and Roland cannot see through this myth because it is not in their interests to see the truth: the Algerian and the Congolese in Weekend are not binmen because of a lack of gumption or initiative: they are binmen because they are Algerian and Congolese.

Such attitudes are subtly reinforced, structurally and ideologically, every day the gap between the wealthy and poor increases - and that means each and every day of the vast majority of my life. This week Gordon Brown told the Scottish TUC, "We have done more as a government in the last 50 years for poverty than any other government." Yet last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found the gap between rich and poor was at its highest for 40 years, and that the number of "poor households" had risen in the last 15 years. The government believes that the way to address this is with a stick: we recall Caroline Flint's suggestion earlier in the year that Council tenants should "work or lose their home". Meanwhile, the abolition of the 10p starting rate of tax and the reduction of corporation tax to 28% (the lowest in the G7) further tilts the scales in favour of the rich.

The ideas we commonly hold about opportunity and personal agency are mistaken. We cannot all line up in a row, demonstrate our worth to the best of our abilities and get rewarded accordingly, like some benevolent episode of The Apprentice. Contrary to what Caroline Flint might believe, social housing tenants do not live on the breadline because they are bone idle and will only lift a finger to sponge what they can from the state, but because the party which is supposed to represent them scythes away at their incomes. Those who work often fare little better: this excellent article on "the London poor" shows that 1 in 7 Londoners earns a wage which is sub-poverty level.

So where does that leave us?

Corinne: It's rotten of us, isn't it? We've no right to burn even a philosopher.
Balsalmo: Can't you see they're only imaginary characters?
Corinne: Why is she crying, then?
Balsalmo: No idea. Let's go.
Corinne: We're little more than that ourselves.


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