issue 319 - December 1999
Like The Milk
by Mr McFall’s Chamber
(Discipline Global Mobile DGM 9809 CD)
Harry’s Gone Fishing
by Leon Rosselson
(Fuse Records CFCD/CFC 007 CD/MC)
The application of classical methods in the pursuit of popular appeal in music is not a new technique. Indeed, there’s a much larger merging or crossover between the two areas than some purists might admit. But it rarely finds a better niche than with the magnificently weird Scotland-based Mr McFall’s Chamber who gained their name from an error in a local newspaper. Like The Milk contains the broad spread with which the eight-strong chamber orchestra, including percussion and bass guitar, have made their name. Smooth and elegant arrangements of tangos from Piazzola and galliards from John Dowland are balanced by covers of songs from Janis Joplin and Elvis Costello. A blistering version of Robert Burns’ text on ‘Sic a Parcel of Rogues’ commits the band to Scotland, while Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ and Kay Sutcliffe’s ‘Coal Not Dole’ are heartrending calls for an inclusive social fabric.
The delight of the album is its counterpoints: the intentionally rough edges of Dave Brady’s vocals sit against the lean precision of the band, who, make no mistake, can really play. Its members have a clutch of top-flight classical prizes, and the band were entrusted by Californian composer John Adams with the British première of his Alleged Dances last year. Although McFall’s have played everything from Arvo Pärt to the Sex Pistols in other arenas, a certain talking point on Like The Milk will be their faithful rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’. The Kronos Quartet and Nigel Kennedy have both tackled Hendrix’s flamboyant style in the past, but this stands apart from the blissed-out madness of ‘Purple Haze’. Quietly and thoughtfully worked out, it quivers with a sense of space and vitality that owes something in its translation to Gaelic ballads. Strange, but very lovely.
Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span founder and half of the peerless Waterstone-Carthy duo, is a link of sorts between the Scots contingent and the unique Leon Rosselson. Carthy worked with the aforementioned Brady in the 1960s, but he crops up with a real presence, as a second guitar and voice, on Harry’s Gone Fishing. A veteran of the folk-revival scene, Rosselson’s singular songs are inspired by an English tradition and provoked by a sharp sense of protest. The Harry of the album’s title is the personification of a mythic retaliation against injustice: one thinks of the Chartists and early trade-union songs; there’s even a most rousing version of ‘You Noble Diggers All’ to drive the point home.
For the other ten songs that make up Harry’s Gone Fishing, Rosselson turns his attention to mercenaries, to Cuba (less ‘viva the revolution’, more, ‘where is the revolution?’), to American gun law and the country’s specious role as self-appointed protector of freedom and democracy. The songs may be gentle in their presentation, but Rosselson fairly burns with a righteous indignation. These are not, as far as the music industry’s market place is concerned, sexy subjects: as Rosselson himself sings on ‘Encore’: I’ve been writing songs for over 35 years but I don’t seem to have got very far/I’ve never been nominated for a Nobel prize and I can’t say I’m a superstar. Maybe not, but voices in the wilderness should never be dismissed.
Harry’s Gone Fishing is available by mail order from: Fuse Records, 28 Park Chase, Wembley Park, Middlesex, HA9 8EH, UK.
Big Business, Poor Peoples:
The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor
by John Madeley
(Zed Books, ISBN 1 85649 672 4)
The Lugano Report:
On Preserving Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century
by Susan George
(Pluto Press, ISBN 0 7453 1537 2)
British Prime Minister Tony Blair remarked recently, à propos of globalization, that it ‘seems to be the way things are going’, implying that the process was a natural, beneficent one and it would be foolish and futile for individual governments to resist the tide. This complacent view – one shared by far too many politicians – is challenged by John Madeley’s timely and cogent examination of transnational corporations, the engines that drive globalization.
Madeley’s book, Big Business, Poor Peoples, tackles the claims made by supporters of globalization that there is no alternative to its unvarying prescription of deregulation, privatization, welfare cuts and ‘free trade’. Madeley traces the effects of this juggernaut on the people to whom it claims to be bringing prosperity: the world’s poor. He shows how, in sector after sector, transnational corporations plunder resources and despoil eco-systems and how their entry into a nation’s economy fuels a destructive ‘race to the bottom’ in which governments ‘abandon their commitment to local communities and sustainable development in their scramble to attract foreign investment’. From Shell in Nigeria to Mitsubishi in the Philippines; in logging, fishing, manufacturing, mining, globalization is revealed as a rapacious sham, a front behind which profits are expatriated and corporate neo-colonialism replaces national sovereignty and local decision-making.
In the concluding chapter of his readable and persuasive book, Madeley calls for a locally organized global network of producers, consumers, communities and shareholders to rein in this behemoth and prevent the inevitable outcome of neo-liberal policies; economic, ecological and social meltdown.
In The Lugano Report, Susan George approaches this doomsday scenario from a novel direction. Assuming that the managers of globalization are well aware of the catastrophic consequences of their policies, she imagines that a secret Working Party is convened to consider the crisis and suggest ways in which capitalism – and the beneficiaries of the globalization swindle – can be preserved in the next century. The opening chapters reveal the timebomb created by the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization and all the other embryonic elements of a ‘world government’ designed to protect capitalism against people. Forced by sheer weight of evidence to accept the unsustainability of global capitalism in its present form, the report’s authors pursue their argument to its logical conclusion: if global capitalism is unable to meet the needs of the projected 8-12 billion world population, then steps need to be taken – in secret, of course – to ensure that the population does not reach 8-12 billion. By happy chance (or perhaps not), this Grand Population Reduction Scheme can be set in motion using the very levers and tools of control of globalization. Thus, for instance, higher death rates in countries subject to structural adjustment are a welcome contribution to the reduction of the population and the international financial institutions are to be vital collaborators in this war of a system against humanity.
This is grim and terrifying stuff indeed; all the more so in the light of its presentation as an inevitable and desirable cure for the endemic ills of the global economy. Susan George’s intimate knowledge of the bureaucratic mindset means that the book works superbly as a satire – following the example of Swift’s Modest Proposal – but her greater aim is to show that there are viable alternatives to this nightmare. The answers to the baleful questions posed by the Working Party lie, as always, in places they choose not to look: the removal of sovereignty from corporate hands and a resolve to build on the network of local organizations outlined by John Madeley to create a ‘co-operative globalization’ in which the world economy is founded on healthier, more equitable societies. We can still build a system in the service of people rather than sacrifice untold millions in the preservation of the system. That is the challenge that awaits us in the twenty-first century.
directed by Deepa Mehta
Eight-year-old Lenny (Maia Sethna), daughter of a wealthy Parsee couple in Lahore deliberately drops a plate to watch it smash to the floor. When her mother comes running to see what all the fuss is about, the child turns to her to enquire: ‘Mummy, can one break a country?’
Writer and director Deepa Mehta’s follow-up to the passionate Fire is a brilliant and painfully evocative recreation of the 1947 partition of India and the barbarism it unleashed between Sikh, Hindu and Muslim. Based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s autobiographical Cracking India (Sidhwa’s narration bookends the film), the dreadful ramifications of international and national political decisions on the lives of ordinary people are captured by focusing on the small group of individuals with whom ‘Lenny-Baby’ shares her life. Her beautiful ayah Shanta (Fire’s luminous Nandita Das) is the glowing hub of a multi-faith gaggle of young men who playfully vie for her attention. But the holocaust which grips the splintered subcontinent is tragically mirrored in this once loving network of friends.
The vibrant scarlets, oranges and yellows of twirling kites and the dusty golden glow of sunlight streaming throughout Lenny’s household later blend into a citywide wash of earth browns and clays as hatred, fear and the desire for revenge grip people’s souls. It is personified in Lenny’s hero the ‘Ice Candy Man’, a Muslim charmer called Dil Navez whose heart freezes when his sisters are butchered.
Earth does not shy from depicting the obscenities carried out in the name of religion: early episodes of Bollywood frothiness – there are two romantic duets – rightly jar with the violence to come. The entrance of the steam train from Gurdaspur into Lahore railway station, 12 hours late, amid rumours of a massacre is reminiscent of other trains making similar grisly journeys across Europe only a few years earlier. That this train is, of course, a feat of British engineering filled with the slain is a pertinent comment on colonial policy.
Mehta’s perspective from Canada, where she now lives, seems to enable her to express an all-encompassing compassion for everyone caught up in the fury. Any ire she might have is reserved for the bureaucrats and politicians ‘playing God under the ceiling fans of Lahore Hotel, distributing Indian cities like packs of cards’ while the nation goes to war with itself. Over a million people were killed. Seven million Muslims and five million Hindus and Sikhs were uprooted from their homes.
It is only when individuals such as the gentle Muslim Hasan (Rahul Khama) recognize a love greater than religious differences – he hides a Sikh family in his home, and is prepared to convert to Hinduism for the love of Shanta – that we see any sign of hope.
This film is a real tour de force: political, emotional and utterly gripping.
Reviewers: Louise Gray, Peter Whitaker, Catherine von Ruhland.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
These days, the fashion for postmodernism is wearing pretty thin. Too many counterintuitive claims have been made in its name, too many hostages have been offered up to its political misfortunes. To recap: the intellectual world of the late 1970s, if not exactly ablaze, at least tingled pleasantly thanks to translations of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Come the 1980s and Foucault dies tragically of aids while Jacques Derrida’s leading exponent (Paul de Man) turns out to have a hidden past as a nazi-sympathizer.
So far we are still in the realms of Greek tragedy – the farce is yet to come. In 1991 Jean Baudrillard, heir to the postmodern crown, writes a series of articles for Libération announcing that ‘the Gulf War is not taking place’. The argument is silly, incredibly silly, but its postmodern credentials are impeccable: human knowledge of a world transcending discourse is a fiction, therefore human knowledge of a war that takes place beyond the bounds of discourse must also be a fiction.
More recently two academics, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, who clearly have too much time on their hands, decide to write a hoax article containing as many humorously outrageous postmodernisms as possible, but dressed up in appropriately serious language, with all the right references. The prominent American journal Social Text accepts it gladly and publishes the piece as another important contribution to the discourse. The editors cringe when the hoax is revealed. Around the world eyebrows are raised, questions are asked.
But while postmodernism has lost a great deal of its lustre as an intellectual fashion, some of the individual works which were central to its emergence retain a freshness and strength. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish stands out as one example, but it does so precisely because of the claims that it makes about the world and about broader social significance of the birth of the prison.
Foucault’s argument begins with the spectacle of the scaffold and the public execution of the offender. But during the second half of the eighteenth century, humanist abhorrence of the infliction of pain was to triumph and there followed calls for penal reform.
Whereas the medieval dungeon obscured visibility in both directions, the modern prison would control subjects, render them cautious, force them to internalize the discipline and become, in effect, their own jailors. Isolation and surveillance were to create an authoritarian utopia, forming good little individuals ready to take up their places in society.
Humanist schemes such as Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ promised to end criminality and provide surefire ways of ‘grinding rogues good’, but they were not acted upon. For example, in the modern prison there is no attempt to instill an automatic association between particular crimes and particular punishments. Incarceration has become the common answer to everything, varying in length but not greatly in character. Prison discipline has been drawn from a collection of diverse tactics rather than a single overarching rationality. It was through the disciplines of the barracks, the workshop, the schoolroom and the hospital, that the modern prison system became possible.
One important consequence of this fragmentary logic is that there is no serious possibility of the prison system reducing overall levels of criminality. Punishment is not geared towards the production of Bentham’s new model citizens, it tends instead to function as a school for crime, taking in offenders and grinding out delinquents. Failure was built in from the start.
But here Foucault asks an important question: what is served by this failure? He answers by pointing to the production of a seemingly marginal, but supervised milieu of criminals. Such delinquency allows illegality to be localized and it allows the criminal group to be used by the justice system in order to survey the entire social field. Criminality becomes an instrument of power.
In addition, crime becomes gauged by degrees of anomaly and normality. The disciplinary society – the school, the court, the asylum and the prison – is set in a struggle against all forms of anomaly. Prison grinds society uniform.
Foucault’s own view of his genealogy of the prison and other disciplinary mechanisms was that they were to be regarded as elaborate fictions. This is not a view that intrudes too much into the text itself; there are no paragraphs ending ‘this is, of course, a fiction’. What we are left with is an interesting but debatable framework, coupled with a searing criticism of the mechanisms of discipline and punishment. This may well ensure the book’s continuing success long after postmodernism has finally gone the way of all fashions.
Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison is published by Penguin Books, (ISBN 0-14-013722-X).
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