Response to John Berger: Michael Moore is no marxist!

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The novelist and art critic John Berger wrote an article in the Guardian, 24 August, 'The beginning of history', praising Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in glowing terms. "The film, considered as a political act, may be a historical landmark. Yet to have a sense of this, a certain perspective for the future is required. Living only close up to the latest news, as most opinion-makers do, reduces one's perspective. The film is trying to make a small contribution towards the changing of world history. It is a work inspired by hope". For Berger, this is an attempt by an artist to intervene in world politics and has both an immediate and a deeper and wider aim. The immediate aim "is to stop Bush fixing the next election as he fixed the last. Its focus is on the totally unjustified war in Iraq. Yet its conclusion is larger than either of these issues. It declares that a political economy which creates colossally increasing wealth surrounded by disastrously increasing poverty needs - in order to survive - a continual war with some invented foreign enemy to maintain its own internal order and security. It requires ceaseless war.

"Thus, 15 years after the fall of communism, a decade after the declared end of history, one of the main theses of Marx's interpretation of history again becomes a debating point and a possible explanation of the catastrophes being lived. It is always the poor who make the most sacrifices, Fahrenheit 9/11 announces quietly during its last minutes. For how much longer?

"There is no future anywhere for any civilisation in the world today which ignores this question. And this is why the film was made and became what it became".

These are indeed the vital questions facing this civilisation, and Berger has sensed that these questions are being posed more and more widely today despite all the drivel about the end of history and the death of marxism. We can argue with part of Berger's interpretation of the marxist theory of capitalist war, since capitalist states don't have merely 'invented' enemies but real competitors for the domination of the world. Imperialist war is not (as in Orwell's 1984, for example) a massive fiction whose essential function is to divert the masses from challenging the present system. Capitalism's 'requirement' for ceaseless war derives from real inner contradictions and conflicts; but it remains true that the endlessness and ubiquity of warfare today can only be understood by seeing it as inherent to the present form of political economy; more precisely, to capitalist social relations in an epoch when they have become a barrier to human progress.

Berger sees no conflict between the posing of this fundamental question and the film's immediate aim - "to make it less likely that President Bush will be re-elected next November" by exposing Bush as "a political cretin" and by proposing that "the White House and the Pentagon were taken over in the first year of the millennium by a gang of thugs so that US power should henceforth serve the global interests of the corporations". But as our US comrades argued in their article 'Fahrenheit 9/11 obscures reality of war in Iraq' (Internationalism 131), the essential political function of the film is not to issue a call to class war but to boost the prospects of the anti-Bush camp in the next election. In other words, to serve the illusion that a change of personnel in the White House made a major difference in 2001 and that a further change could make a difference in November 2004. Kerry has already demonstrated the opposite. Bush has maintained the same militarist foreign policy as the Clinton administration, and Kerry would carry the baton round the next lap. This is precisely because global and continuous war is an unavoidable product of capitalism in decay, not of this or that politician or administration. This is why a revolution against the whole capitalist system is needed to stop the headlong flight into war, not further participation in the electoral charade, not the dead-end choice between political mouthpieces of the ruling class.

In this sense Michael Moore's references to class and capitalism are a demonstration not of any commitment to real change, but of the endless capacity of capitalism to take up the real questioning that is going on in the working class and return it in the sterile packaging of bourgeois politics. It is a total irrelevance whether Michael Moore is conscious of this or not. Capitalism needs its left wing mystifications, its false or partial critics, even more than it needs the "political cretinism" of the right; it therefore finds ways of creating them and giving them voice. Revolutionary film-making, the rallying of art to the revolution, will certainly return if the class war engulfs society as it did most powerfully after the First World War, but Fahrenheit 9/11 is not it.

Amos, 2/10/04.

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