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Saramago, José
School of the Americas Watch, The
Seeing Like A State
Seventh Bullet, The
Slogans To Be Spread Now By Every Means
Social Fascists
Social-ism
Socialist Register
Solidarity Forever!
Starship Troopers

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Saramago, José

Readers of the Turtle have occasionally been known to put down their well- thumbed copies of Capital, and read works of fiction instead. Few contemporary authors deserve to be higher on summer reading lists than José Saramago.

After an abortive couple of novels written in his twenties, Saramago decided his writing career was over. For 20 years, between 1947 and 1966, Saramago didn't write a single fictive word, and worked as a clerk in a hospital. He joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969, in April 1974 he became the editor of the official Communist newspaper, and remained so until November 1975 when the incumbent centre-right regime purged him from his job. Faced with the prospect of unemployment, he started to write again, and with Raised From the Floor (1977) he finally found the fluid, disarming and richly simple voice which won him the Nobel prize for literature in 1998.

Saramago is a bit of a late bloomer -- he was 60 when he first won widespread critical acclaim for his Baltasar and Blimunda. To date he has written fewer than ten volumes, including two collections of poetry. But while his canon may not be large, it is certainly well charged. After hitting the big time with Baltasar and Blimunda, his second book won him notoriety: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ tells the of an all too human Jesus, conceived far from immaculately, and living the life of a not terribly talented shepherd. The result is a darkly funny, and poignant, revisiting of the origins of Christianity. Unfortunately, neither the Vatican nor the Portuguese government quite saw it like that, and the book was banned for blasphemy. In protest, Saramago left Portugal and now lives in Lanzarote. The book has since been translated into twelve languages and has earned Saramago a reputation as a world class author. Saramago: 1, Church of Rome: Nil.

The Turtle's aesthetic sensibility is not, however, affected solely by the virtue and credentials of the writer. Happily, Saramago writes like an angel. His most recent book, Blindness, is an elegiac and haunting fable of a country savaged by an epidemic of blindness. One day, and all of a sudden, the sight of some of the citizens dissolves into 'a milky whiteness'. In an attempt to control the spread of the disease, the blind are sent to an asylum, guarded by a frightened army, while the government figures out what to do with them. Only one character's sight is unaffected throughout all this: the optician's wife. (There are no proper names in the book at all - we only come to know characters by the names of their relationships with each other - the wife, the thief who visited the optician, the policeman who caught him, etc.) In this key passage, the doctor's wife passes some of the blind citizens:

"They crossed a square where groups of blind people entertained themselves by listening to speeches from other blind people, and at first sight neither group seemed to be blind, the speakers turned their heads excitedly towards the listeners and the listeners turned their heads attentively to the speakers. They were extolling the virtues of the fundamental principles of the great organised systems, private property, a free currency market, the market economy, the stock exchange, taxation, interest, expropriation and appropriation, production, distribution, consumption, supply and demand, poverty and wealth, communication, repression and delinquency, lotteries, prisons, of the penal code, the Seville code, the highway code, dictionaries, the telephone directory, networks of prostitution, of armaments factories, the Armed Forces, cemeteries, the police, smuggling, drugs, permitted illegal traffic, pharmaceutical research, gambling, the price of priests and funerals, justice, borrowing, political parties, collections, Parliaments, governments, complex, concave, horizontal, vertical, slotted, concentrated, diffuse, fleeting thoughts, the fraying of the vocal cords, the death of the word."

In this lyrical prose, the book follows the optician's wife, from her decision to feign blindness in order to follow her husband into the asylum, through the terror of the degenerating conditions there, and into the deserted city beyond. It is a powerful story, told with the compassion of Primo Levi's If this Is A Man, with the withering (and occasionally heavy handed) humour of Nineteen Eighty Four and raising, albeit far more subtly, some of the issues broached in The Lord of the Flies. Indeed, Blindness has started to creep on to undergraduate syllabi for precisely these reasons.

Meanwhile, Saramago continues to write and has just completed a short story, set off the northern coast of South America, "El Cuento de la Isla Desconocida" (The Tale of the Unknown Island), and he'll be giving 100% of the profits from it to the Colombian earthquake disaster relief fund. It is because of writing and gestures such as these that Saramago has become one of the Turtle's favourite Portuguese.

You can find Saramago's works in your local library.

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School of the Americas Watch, The

Read about the heroic activities of the School of the Americas Watch and its founder, Father Roy Bourgeois, in the Turtle's November Salute. The SOAW webpage is itself packed with useful information about the nefarious activities of the School of the Americas, and is highly recommended.

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Seeing Like A State

James C. Scott's Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, published by Yale University Press in 1998 as a part of its Agrarian Studies Series, is the subject of the first Symposium of the Turtle, the heart of the Autumn Literary Harvest Festival of 1999.

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Seventh Bullet, The

(directed by Ali Khamraev, USSR, 1972, 85 mins, starring Dilorom Kambarova, Suimenkul Chokmorov, Bolot Bejshenaliyev, Talgat Nigmatulin)

Deeply obscure (as of June 2002, the Internet Movie Database has yet to receive five votes on its stature) but nonetheless fascinating, the mere fact that this is an Uzbek spaghetti western is noteworthy in itself.

The films of Sergio Leone and his contemporaries were hugely successful in the Soviet Union, where they were acclaimed (rightly in some cases, fortuitously in others) as incisive Marxist deconstructions of American history. So it comes as no surprise that there were also Soviet imitations, usually set during the civil war of the early 1920s in some far-flung mountainous region. The best known of these is probably Nikita 'Burnt By The Sun' Mikhalkov's At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger Among His Own (1974), but Ali Khamraev's 1972 opus (co-scripted by Mikhalkov's brother Andrei Konchalovsky) is rather more upfront in terms of its ideology, and remarkably topical in the light of recent events.

The central storyline features a Red Army officer stationed near the Afghan border and his attempts to dissuade his former comrades from turning towards Mecca. Although the film's own stance is never in doubt, the argument is commendably balanced, stating the case for both Marx and Mohammed as the one true prophet -- and while its considerable domestic success (twenty two million admissions) was undoubtedly thanks to shootouts and horseback chases every five minutes, it's an excellent example of a popular melodrama offering genuine food for thought.

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Slogans To Be Spread Now By Every Means

A celebrated document of May 1968, reproduced here in full.

(Leaflets, announcements over microphones, comic strips, songs, graffiti, balloons on paintings in the Sorbonne, announcements in theaters during films or while disrupting them, balloons on subway billboards, before making love, after making love, in elevators, each time you raise your glass in a bar):

OCCUPY THE FACTORIES

POWER TO THE WORKERS COUNCILS

ABOLISH CLASS SOCIETY

DOWN WITH SPECTACLE-COMMODITY SOCIETY

ABOLISH ALIENATION

TERMINATE THE UNIVERSITY

HUMANITY WON'T BE HAPPY TILL THE LAST BUREAUCRAT IS HUNG WITH THE GUTS OF THE LAST CAPITALIST

DEATH TO THE COPS

FREE ALSO THE 4 GUYS CONVICTED FOR LOOTING DURING THE MAY 6TH RIOT

 

OCCUPATION COMMITTEE OF THE
PEOPLE'S FREE SORBONNE UNIVERSITY
16 May 1968, 7:00 pm

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Social Fascists

"Kick the little social fascists out of the kindergarten!" was a slogan of the German Communist Party (KPD) during the period of the so-called "left turn" of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the Comintern decreed that the main opponents to the Communist Parties of Western Europe were the Social Democrats, that these parties were objectively the acceptable face of fascism, and that they were therefore "Social Fascists". It was not a sensible line to take, and after the Nazi takeover of Germany and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War a worried Stalin reversed course and ushered in the period of the popular fronts.

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Social-ism

For about a year after his election as leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair would refer to his "social-ism" in public lectures on political ideology (although how he pronounced this word is not altogether clear). The term was originally coined by anti-socialist critic David Selbourne, in his communitarian tract The Principle of Duty (1994), which no doubt appealed to Blair on account of its trenchant assault on the notion of a "dutyless right". Blair seems to have first used the term in a June 1994 speech to a Guardian/Whatever Next? conference, which was later issued as Fabian Tract 565 (called simply "Socialism", with no hyphen). The last sighting of it in print may have been a year later, in his lecture on the 50th anniversary of the Labour landslide of 1945 (a piece in which he prophetically warns Michael Portillo that his Enfield seat is not safe). But he seems to have tired of the concept, for we are not sure that it has been heard of since. "Social-ism" was followed by a brief flirtation with Will Hutton's slogan of a "stakeholding society" before he settled down on the more nebulous concept of the "Third Way".

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Socialist Register

Ralph Miliband and John Saville founded the Socialist Register (whose website is here) in 1964, after disgruntlement at Perry Anderson's takeover of the New Left Review. An annual publication published by the Merlin Press, Socialist Register was edited by Miliband and Saville for many years, and, following Saville's retirement and Miliband's death, is now edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys in Toronto. Distinguished contributors have included Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Mandel, Maurice Godelier, Eric Hobsbawm, and articles by a very old Georg Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre. The Register is the home of E. P. Thompson's "Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski" (1973), as well as to the latter's response the following year, "My Correct Views on Everything". Soviet politics, imperialist politics and questions in Marxist theory were recurrent themes in the journal, and in the late 1970s it hosted a sustained debate on the possibility of building a new socialist party in Britain. In a 1994 retrospective, which must also stand as his farewell to his creation, for he died in the same year, Miliband highlighted the Register's theoretical contributions but conceded that "we did not address the question of socialist construction with anything like the rigorous and detailed concern which it requires". Annual issues are now organised around a central theme: the 1998 volume celebrates 150 years of the Communist Manifesto.

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Solidarity Forever!

For a long time one of the Turtle's favourite songs, Solidarity Forever! is the greatest of all the American labour anthems. Written around 1914 by Ralph Chaplin and sung to tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the song is a rare mixture of intelligent words, stirring music and admirable political aspiration.

We reproduce all six verses below.

When the union's inspirations through the workers' blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun,
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble power of one?
But the union makes us strong!

Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
For the union makes us strong!

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our strength and muscle not a single wheel would turn,
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong!

It is we who ploughed the prairies, built the cities where they trade,
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid,
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made,
But the union makes us strong!

All the world that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone,
We have laid the wide foundations, built it skyward stone by stone,
It is ours not to toil in, but to master and to own,
For the union makes us strong!

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite?
Who would lash us into bondage, who would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organise and fight?
For the union makes us strong!

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousandfold,
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,
For the union makes us strong!

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Starship Troopers

(directed by Paul Verhoeven, US, 1997, 129 mins, starring Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside)

Probably the most subversive Hollywood film of recent years, Starship Troopers can best be viewed as a head-on collision between American conservatism and European liberalism, as the values underlying Robert A Heinlein's sci-fi novel are ruthlessly satirised by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (whose PhD makes him one of Hollywood's few genuine intellectuals). Although made in 1997, it's gained even more resonance post-September 11 -- if you replace the word "bug" with "terrorist" and Buenos Aires with New York, the film becomes an uncannily prescient depiction of the isolationist and xenophobic mentality behind George W Bush's so-called "war on terrorism", as young men and women brainwashed by a curriculum devoted to the pursuit of physical perfection and the advocation of violence as a one-size-fits-all political solution are pressured into joining the armed forces (the only way to become a "citizen" as opposed to a mere "civilian") and sent to fight a war whose motives they unquestioningly accept. Their passivity is unsurprising, since their entire lives are spent bombarded by government propaganda -- and the film's masterstroke is to base its style and content on similar messages from the 1940s and 1950s, fusing the aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl with the ideology of Joseph McCarthy and hinting that there wasn't much difference between Stalin and Eisenhower when it came to social and cultural conditioning. The fact that the film was dubbed Starshit Poopers within hours of its US release reveals that it went way over the head of much of its target audience -- tellingly, the European reaction was vastly more sympathetic.

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