By Anthony Killick.
The election of Donald Trump is the latest occurrence signalling neoliberalism’s transformation into some form of neo-authoritarianism constituted by a renewed commitment to upholding corporate interests and a frightful endorsement of racism and misogyny. How should those involved in the production, distribution and exhibition of film culture respond? The answer is that the disintegration of social democracy and its accompanying narratives has created a gap that should be filled with an unapologetic, compassionate and conciliatory, socialism.
Providing spaces for discussion is something that is undertaken by film festivals the world over. However, the types of spaces in which films are shown have an impact on their interpretations. Typically, such cultural events are reserved for the middle classes, due to a variety of urban and cultural dynamics that exclude those at the lower end of the socio-economic strata from access to a commercialised arts scene. One of the major problems here is that socially stratified cities reduce the capacity for people to engage with others from different socio-economic-cultural backgrounds. Film festivals that program and exhibit films within theoretical and spatial contexts that are primarily oriented towards opposing neoliberalism seek out spaces within the city wherein social stratification can be alleviated, and often facilitate discussions that take anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal and even anti-capitalist perspectives as the baseline of potential solutions to local and global problems. This form of unity is important in an era where the identity politics that began with the New Left in the 1960s has been co-opted by business interests, and now exists either as an irreconcilable plurality of races, classes and genders, or as a politically neutered, niche market consumerism.
With that said, a distinction should be drawn between film festivals as political acts in themselves and activist forms that are either normalised within the sphere of day-to-day trade unionism, or take on a more confrontational shape via direct actions. To be more precise, there is a difference between film/film festivals as a medium of consciousness-raising, and protest as the human activity it inspires. While the two are held in a dialectical relationship, the distinction engenders greater clarity regarding how a festival views its role in relation to countering neoliberalism, as well as offering ways to identify and push against the limitations of the form. The Liverpool Radical Film Festival acts as node of resistance to neoliberal colonisation insofar as it provides a space in which anti-neoliberal discourses can take shape. It is one among a number of festivals that has been creating such spaces the world over. Given the history and potential of film as a subversive, consciousness-raising and therefore politically transformative medium, the question remains as to how we should move forward.
For a start, we should recognise that the political catastrophes of 2016 have been on the horizon for a long time. Trump is what happens when US Democrats try to reconcile the interests of finance capital with those of the working class, and in failing to do so simply abandon the latter – cutting healthcare, education, social programs, and basically declaring that the bottom 30% of society are now something to be policed while the 0.1% amass trillions. The same thing is happening across Europe, and one of the main reasons is that social democracy has failed to stand up for the constituency it used to represent. Instead, EU technocrats are walking a fine line between a constitutional commitment to upholding workers’ rights, eradicating racism etc., and instituting a set of policies that shit on workers and ferment the soil that gives rise to racism. Meanwhile, both social democracy and most Democrats in the US have been committed to crushing alternatives offered by the so-called “radical-left” (meaning anti-austerity and anti-neoliberalism, a position which also happens to be the consensus among the worlds’ economists, and has even led the “fucking IMF” to question neoliberalism). To imagine that holding the world in such a restrictive, miserable position for going on 40 years would/will not elicit a reaction has proven to be, at best, a dangerously irresponsible, lazy supposition. As former Greek finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis notes,
“European social democrats and American democrats In government were lured into a Faustian bargain with the bankers of Wall Street, the City of London, Frankfurt and Paris, who were only too pleased to let reformist politicians take a small cut of their loot as long as the politicians consented to the complete deregulation of financial markets.” (2016: 210)
“And so, when in 2008 the vast pyramids of financial capital came crashing down, Europe’s social democrats did not have the mental tools or the moral values with which to combat the bankers or subject the collapsing system to political scrutiny.” (211)
In short, Trump is not the problem. The problem is the lack of an anti-corporate left within the mainstream, as well as the unwillingness of social democrats on both sides of the Atlantic to back one where it exists (and as a result, if it wasn’t Trump this time round it would surely be someone just as nightmare-ish in the near future). The majority of PR people that constitute the “centre-ground” and “moderates” were stupid enough to get rid of Bernie Sanders, and they’re stupid enough to continue their attack on Jeremy Corbyn, without realising how much ground they concede to the right-wing in doing so.
Ideological concessions are reflected in government policy. Since New Labour, social democracy’s policies on the arts and culture have been dominated by rhetoric around the “creative industries,” which has played a role in the UK’s transition from a manufacturing to a services-based economy. Over the years, this has been referred to interchangeably as the “knowledge economy” or “creative economy,” in which information supposedly becomes a new form of social capital among a newly trained, tech-savvy population of university graduates with an entrepreneurial spirit. The reality, as pointed out by numerous academics, is that the creative industries have proven to be little more than a veneer for corporate business interests. Far from being the cornerstone of a sustainable economy, they are characterised by unpaid internships, precarious employment and peripheral or ancillary positions that have little if anything to do with creative endeavour.
According to social scientist, Toby Miller, what distinguishes the creative industries discourse from other forms of industrial deliberations is that, as opposed to the auto-industry or the textile-industry, creativity “refers to an input, not an output. This bizarre shift in adjectival meaning makes it possible for anything that makes money to be creative.” In other words, a person could be said to be working in the creative industries if they pour pints in a bar that happens to be in a theatre. The appearance that the creative industries make a significant contribution to GDP is due to the controversial inclusion of Information Technology (where the money is, according to Miller) in their original identification and mapping. This is not to say that the creative industries are completely populated by money minded profiteers, far from it. Obviously, there are many academics, industry heads and workers within the sector who sincerely care about the arts and culture, as well as the social health and well-being of their students, employees and co-workers. They constitute one of the strongest barriers to the complete instrumentalisation of the arts by the profit-incentives of neoliberalism. Nevertheless, it has to be recognised that the creative industries discourse is one that arises from social democracy, particularly New Labour, and that this has not only failed to deliver on its proverbial “third-way,” but social democracy itself is now existentially threatened.
With the election of the conservatives in 2010 and the increased revocation of public funding for the arts, artistic projects have to rely more than ever on private funders. Meanwhile, responses to questions of post-industrial urban regeneration have been limited by a single incentive to privatise and commercialise public space. Insofar as this is the only game in town, it can be seen as constituting a form of market-based censorship that is highly intangible because the market both sustains an appearance of cultural diversity (particularly as audiences continue to fragment) and filters out projects that yield more socialised benefits such as collective health and well-being. Governments therefore need to invest public funds into non-profit projects. A recent study by the Macroeconomic Policy Institute concludes that public investment within the EU/Eurozone is urgently required, and proposes the introduction of the traditional public finance golden rule into the EU/Eurozone fiscal framework. Furthermore, the study recommends that public investment in non-profit organisations should be counted within the golden investment rule. There is a strong link between austerity policies and the fragmentation of Europe on national and geo-political levels. Cultural producers – whether artists, academics, socialists or social democrats – can find common ground through opposing austerity and advocating public investment in the arts for the purpose of social health and well-being.
Though we lack any public funding, public health is a major concern of the Liverpool Radical Film Festival. Our aim is to provide a space for discussion in which people can come together and figure out how best to resist racism, misogyny and neoliberalism. As well as being an act of protest in itself, the festival hopes to facilitate processes and actions that, in the short term, work towards curtailing the power of corporations over governments, and, in the long term, allow for the creation of structures wherein people are able to live in dignity and respect.
This year’s festival has been divided into two themes. The first, “indigenous struggles, international resistance,” foregrounds the fact that indigenous people battling governments and multinational corporations over land and water rights raise the most urgent questions facing humanity, particularly climate change. For this reason, local struggles have global consequences. As well as screening Bakur (North), a film currently banned in Turkey for its representation of PKK resistance, the day culminates in a screening of Michael Chanan’s latest film Money Puzzles, which situates the days program in a context of finance capitalism, debt, austerity, and the radical responses being taken up by people across the world.
Sunday’s program is committed to workshops and discussions that draw on historic examples as well as contemporary activist campaigns to inform a discussion on pragmatic ways of resisting neoliberalism. The AKI (Artivism Knowledge Initiative) will be using film to explore issues around land dispossession and trauma, while Reel News, the longest running video activist news reel in UK history, will be running a workshop featuring their latest work on climate activism and the Veterans For Peace movement. Meanwhile, our radical histories strand celebrates the life and works of two revolutionary artists who often go under the radar. On the 40th anniversary of their deaths, LRFF 2016 pays tribute to folk singer, Phil Ochs, and Argentine filmmaker, Raymundo Gleyzer. We also have a curated program of short films recently shot from inside the Calais “jungle,” a refugee camp that was populated by Syrians fleeing war, and which was burned to the ground by French authorities. Sunday’s program highlights the importance of independent media, and can be viewed as part of a concerted effort by filmmakers, writers and journalists to create sustainable, alternative media structures, as emphasised most recently by the launch of the Media Fund, which aims to raise £10,000 by December 2016 in order to finance independent projects.
Colleagues and friends who, for the past thirty years, have been social democrats, must surely now recognise that social democracy will become vigorously anti-corporatist, or it will become irrelevant. The centre-ground it claims to hold has shifted so far to the right, and voter distrust in its candidates has become so endemic, that Donald Trump has become the president of the United States, and number 10 is populated by racist fanatics. Does this mean that social democrats need to become socialists? No. But it does mean that, at the very least, they need to stop calling socialists lunatics, and their enlightened liberal media needs to stop berating such a plurality of people as “militants” and “hard-left,” when in reality they simply advocate multi-form resistance to the neoliberal policies to which social democracy has acquiesced. In an age where elective candidates are reliant on funding and media coverage from billionaires and corporations, Sanders’ campaign at least highlighted the possibility of sacking off these so-called king-makers and their adjacent media. If the world has four more years before civilisation buckles under the weight of climate change, we must spend them on a concerted effort to end neoliberalism. This means supporting politicians who advocate curtailing the power of rampant finance capitalists. More immediately, it means working in our communities to set up independent structures and institutions around health, education, good food, independent media and a vibrant, non-profit arts and cultural scene.
Anthony Killick is a PhD candidate studying film festivals and politics at Edge Hill University and co-director of the Liverpool Radical Film Festival.
Varoufakis, Yanis (2016), And The Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability, New York: Random House.