The Deplorables: The 400-Year History of the US Working Class

White Trash

Talk by Nancy Isenberg (2015)

Film Review

In this talk about White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America, author Nancy Isenberg begins by exploring British attitudes towards poverty and vagrancy. The latter would heavily influence attitudes towards the landless poor in colonial America.

Prior to colonization, according to Isenberg, British elite viewed the New World as a vast wasteland they could use to construct a giant workhouse for Britain’s landless vagrants.* For several decades, the British government kidnapped vagrants (including street children) off the street, branded them, and involuntarily shipped them to North America as indentured servants.

Adopted by wealthy colonists, these attitudes provided a major impetus for opening the American West to settlement. In the eyes of the founding fathers, the supposedly “empty” lands of the western continent provided an opportunity for Eastern settlements to rid themselves of “human garbage.”

Like the British aristocracy, New World colonists were obsessed with the so-called “idleness” of the landless poor. which they viewed as hereditary. They took their physical appearance (with pervasive malnourishment leading to white hair, and yellow, prematurely shriveled skin) as evidence that their condition was congenital.

In 1790, 70% of Kentuckians were landless poor whites. By the 1850s, 35-40% of the population of most Southern states consisted of landless poor whites.

The 1950s economic boom, which would lead to the rise of the middle class and the myth of America’s classless society. This period would see the rise of trailer parks in most cities, enabling the transformation of “white trash” to “trailer trash.”

Today Reality TV, which Isenberg describes as “white trash voyeurism” is the best known cultural outlet for US working poor.


* Vagrancy was a new phenomenon in the 17th century, brought on by a series of enclosure acts between 1604 and 1814. This would drive hundreds of thousands of peasants off land that had always been held communally.

 

Kate Raworth: A New Economic Model Based on Planetary Boundaries Instead of Continual Growth

Donut Economics

VPRO (2017)

Film Review

In this documentary, Dutch filmmakers interview British economist Kate Raworth about her proposal to create a new economics that focuses on planetary boundaries instead of continual economic growth. Raworth argues that the world already has all the technological know-how we need to transition from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy. However our archaic economic models will continue to favor massive resource extraction and waste accumulation so long as government policies continue to favor growth over sustainability.

She believes that state intervention is needed to develop a new circular economy that will minimize resource extraction and waste production. Her ideal is to establish collaborative networks between manufacturers that enable them to recycle their products when they wear out or break down of dumping them in landfills and the ocean. The “donut” Raworth uses to illustrate her economic model calls for sufficient economic activity to lift people in the donut hole out of extreme poverty and oppression without overshooting planetary boundaries (by increasing carbon, particulate, and toxic pollution and exacerbating species extinction).

The filmmakers ask her to comment on two existing manufacturers that incorporate this circular approach to waste. The first is a Dutch company that “rents” jeans instead of “selling” them. When they wear out, the customer returns them to the factory to be recycled into new jeans. The second profiles a  Dutch company that reclaims gold, silver and scarce earth minerals from used cellphones and circuit boards.

 

 

The Roots of Gun Violence in Houston

Tears in the Bayou

Directed by Rico King (2017)

Film Review

This documentary is about gun violence in Houston’s African American Third Ward. Houston, the fourth largest US city, is home to more than a dozen multibillion dollar companies. It also experienced 4,194 murders between 2003-2017.

The film begins by tracing the history of Houston’s once thriving African American community with its strong African American businesses. Beginning in the1980s, the Third Ward collapsed economically, with the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs and many small businesses. As in many other cities, as men lost their jobs, more and more households were headed by single mothers supporting their families on low-wage caretaking jobs. And growing numbers of teenagers and young adults turned to drug dealing to help their families put food on the table.

The film profiles numerous local gang members, families of young people killed by gun violence, religious leaders and community activists and organizers.

For me, hearing gang members describing their own individual experiences was the most valuable part of the film. They talk at length about their parents being continuously away from home (at work) and having nothing to show for it; their own inability to find work; the pressure and stress of providing for their families through drug dealing, hustling, stealing and even armed robbery; their regard of fellow gang members as “family”; their genuine fear of being out on the street unarmed; and their horrific experience of recovering from multiple gunshot wounds.

Although the filmmakers cite research regarding the direct correlation between poverty, lack of economic opportunity and death by gun violence, none of the solutions the film proposes to to address the main underlying problem. This, in my view, is the documentary’s major weakness. I was also disappointed that they failed to address the Third Ward’s high rate of youth suicide – which apparently is even higher than the rate of death by gun violence.

 

America’s 1.4 Million Homeless Veterans

Shelter: America’s Homeless Veterans

Al Jazeeera (Barbara Koppel) 2017

Film Review

This heartbreaking documentary is about the  1.4 million US veterans who are either homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness, due to poverty, mental illness, alcoholism and/or drug addiction. An American vet commits suicide every 61 seconds.

With the demise of nearly all Veterans Administration programs (eg GI Bill of Rights) that helped World War II vets reintegrate into society, veterans of America’s permanent War on Terror are mostly left to their own devices.

Owing to an extreme shortage of female shelter beds, homeless female veterans are the most underserved. Many homeless female vets were raped while serving, some multiple times. Those who report their sexual assault to superior officers are frequently kicked out of the military.

Still Dreaming of Racial Justice in St Louis’ Black Neighborhoods

Black Lives: Struggle, Still Dreaming of Racial Justice in St Louis’ Black Neighborhoods

RT (2018)

Film Review

This RT documentary provides a brief glimpse into the lives of Ferguson residents since the murder of Michael Brown in 2015. It highlights the extreme poverty, homelessness, absence of services or jobs (in contrast to white St Louis) and the staggering number of abandoned homes. Reportedly St Louis has the highest proportion of abandoned homes of any US city.

The documentary also highlights a half dozen activists who are organizing to improve conditions in the African American community. Some have begun arming themselves in self-defense. In addition to harassment and arbitrary shootings by St Louis cops, a growing number of African American men (activists especially) are being targeted by the KKK and other white supremacist groups. Few of these homicides are investigated or prosecuted by police, resulting in a mounting number of unsolved murders.

 

 

 

 

 

Hong Kong: Aged and Abandoned

Hong Kong: Aged and Abandoned

Al Jazeera (2016)

Film Review

This shocking Al Jazeera documentary concerns Hong Kong’s 500,000 elderly residents who live in abject poverty in a city with 65 billionaires.

At present, Hong Kong seniors can’t qualify to receive a pension unless their adult children sign a document affirming their inability to look after them. Many refuse to sign out of shame for their failure to provide for their parents.

Hong Kong elders who qualify for pensions find $100 a month totally inadequate to meet their basic needs. Thus they supplement their income by scavenging rubbish bins for cardboard and items they can hawk at street markets.

Many live in so-called “coffin homes” – in warehouses of large beds stacked on top of one another.

The Myths of Capitalism

In The Myths of Capitalism, Michael Parenti explodes the most prevalent myths the ruling elite perpetuates regarding capitalism. Examples include

  • Capitalism produces prosperity – in truth capitalism produces prosperity for a handful of people and poverty for nearly everyone else. Parenti gives numerous examples of this.
  • The poor are responsible for their own poverty and are always looking for handouts – in reality, poverty occurs when the ruling elite privatize resources and public services to increase profits. Wherever capitalism is introduced, poverty follows.
  • Privately run businesses are always more efficient than those that are publicly run – Parenti gives number examples (including the post office, Medicare and Social Security) of government-run operations that have far less bureaucracy and far lower administrative costs than their private counterparts.
  • Capitalism fosters democracy – Parenti demonstrates quite ably how the exact opposite is true. A well educated working class that resists exploitation by exercising their democratic rights is an enormous threat to private profit. The US ruling elite fully supported the Bush/Obama suspension of basic civil liberties, the routine surveillance of the citizenry and the introduction of torture.

Most of the presentation focuses on the corporate crime and corruption and routine economic instability inherent in a capitalist economic system. Under modern industrial capitalism the only way to keep the economy from collapsing is to undertake a permanent state of perpetual war.

Demolishing the Myth of Perpetual Growth

Life After Growth: Economics for Everyone

Leah Temper and Claudia Medina (2010)

Film Review

The purpose of Life After Growth is to challenge the perpetual growth paradigm in an era in which markets have taken the place of religion in determining major social values.

At present media pundits and policy makers champion continual economic growth as an unquestioned fact of life. In reality, it’s a fairly new phenomenon. Prior to the 19th century and the industrial revolution, all human civilization was characterized by a steady state economy in which both population and productive capacity grew very slowly.

The documentary argues that the urgent crises of poverty, inequality, shortages of water and energy and ecological destruction mean the time has come to explore better ways to design the economy other than infinite growth – especially as the latter is impossible on a finite planet.

At present a “healthy” economy is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 3% a year. At that rate, the size of the economy doubles every 23 years, as do carbon emissions and resource depletion.

Filmmakers also explore what the transition from a growth economy back to a steady state economy might look like. They do so by profiling a number of “DeGrowth” groups that have opted out of “corporate” society:

• The voluntary simplicity (aka voluntary simplicity) movement launched by Vicki Robin’s 1992 book Your Money or Your Life – where members vastly improve their quality of life by working 1-2 days a week, living more simply and consuming less.
• The Transition Towns movement – involving communities throughout the industrialized world collectively organizing to downsize their lifestyle and reduce their carbon footprint.
• The Catalan Integral Collective in Spain – funded by the civil disobedience of Enric Duran, in which he used credit cards to “borrow” 492,000 euros from 39 banks, an amount he couldn’t possibly repay. (See Spain’s Modern Day Robin Hood )
• Ecuador’s Keep the Oil in the Soil campaign – in which the president of Ecuador pledges to not to mine Yasuni National Park (one of the most biodiverse places on earth) for oil provided developing countries commit to replace Ecuador’s lost income.
• Bhutan’s decision to measure their country’s success through Gross Happiness Index (GHI) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
• The Church of England’s God is Green program dedicated to reducing Britain’s carbon footprint.

The Origin of Poverty

Poor Us: An Animated of Poverty

Ben Lewis (2012)

Film Review

This documentary divides the history of poverty into six broad areas: pre-civilization, “early civilization” (8000 – 800 BC), Greece and Rome (800 BC – 400 AD), the Middle Ages (400 – 1500), European colonial era (1500 -1850) and industrial civilization (1850 – present). The use of animation is surprisingly effective in painting an overview of the lifestyles typical of these different periods.

Prior to the agricultural revolution that marked the advent of civilization, no one was poor. In a hunter-gatherer society, very little work is required to procure adequate food and water. Leisure time is plentiful. The downside of being a hunter gatherer is that life is very precarious and there’s was no way of planning for sudden climate change and other natural events that periodically wipe out the food supply.

During early civilization, everyone was poor except for rich kings and priests who ran everything. There were repeated famines and the average life expectancy was 35 years.

Greek civilization produced historians and philosophers who, for the first time, tried to identify the causes of poverty. They concluded that poverty was essential to civilization because it induces people to work.

The concept of charity first arose in the early Middle Ages and is a key component of all the world religions, which emerged during this period.

The film maintains that all modern poverty results from plunder and force, mainly at the hands of European colonizers. In the early 1500s, Europe was much poorer than contemporaneous civilizations in China, Africa and the Americans. In medieval China, for example, the government was responsible for flood control and vast granaries that fed the entire population during famines.

Europeans systematically plundered and destroyed the advanced pre-European civilizations in China, Africa and North and South America. Then the European elite used this wealth and power to drive their own peasants off their communally farmed lands. Those who didn’t end up in jail or the workhouse, ended up in squalid city slums and worked in early factories.

Prior to the industrial revolution, 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 1948, this percentage had dropped to 50%. By the 1970s, it was down to 15%. At present most extreme poverty is in third world countries that have been systematically exploited by the industrial North for their resources and cheap labor.

The film features a number of economic analysts with differing perspectives on why industrialization caused the rate of extreme poverty to drop. Most agree it was a combination of fossil fuel-based technology and successful revolutionary and union activity which allowed workers to keep a bigger share of the wealth they produce.

Over the last few decades, the relative weakness of grassroots movements has led to significant increase in poverty within the supposedly wealthy industrialized countries.