Monday, February 6, 2012

Clint Eastwood and "Halftime in America"

If you watched the Super Bowl last night, you couldn't have missed the nationalistic theme running through all of the commercials for the "Big Three" US car manufacturers: Ford, GM and Chrysler. A particularly striking example of this was Chrylser's halftime advertisement which consisted of little more than a two-minute monologue by Clint Eastwood. View it here. A Chicago Tribune article described the halftime ad as follows:
Is what is good for Chrysler good for America?

The auto maker courted controversy and won kudos for a two-minute Super Bowl advertisement that was less a car sales pitch than a political message in a presidential election year.

Rugged Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood proclaimed it was "Halftime in America" in the spot that did not mention a Chrysler car or truck but intoned that the automaker's successful turnaround could be used as an example for the United States as it struggles with high unemployment and a slow economic growth rate.

"Detroit's showing us it can be done," Eastwood said.

Traffic on Twitter showed overwhelmingly positive comments for the advertisement. The "Dirty Harry" star and Academy Award-winning director spoke to Americans as if he were a football coach making a halftime speech encouraging his team to work together to win in the second half.

"This country can't be knocked out with one punch," Eastwood said in the ad. "We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it's halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin."
The beginning of the ad says little specifically about cars but describes the sense in which it is "halftime in America", adding that "people are out of work and they're hurting. And they're all wondering what they're going to do to make a comeback." Later, Eastwood adds that "the people of Detroit know a little something about [hardship]...they almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again." Eastwood also toes the post-political bipartisanship-consensus line, adding a few remarks impugning "the fog of division, discord and blame" which prevent us from "coming together as one".

What should we make of this? Various hysterical right-wingers are upset by the advertisement (e.g. evidently Karl Rove is "offended") since it appears to give cover to the Obama administration's bailout of the auto manufacturers in 2009 (which, of course, the Republicans would have carried out just the same had they been in power). Although some Obama apologists—as well as car industry higher-ups—will counter this charge by dismissing the idea that the advertisement is political at all, the right-wingers actually have a point here. The ad is deeply political. And it is also—despite numerous claims to the contrary—still very much a car advertisement. The politics go hand-in-hand with the hard argument to buy what Chrysler is selling.

The right-wingers are wrong, of course, to object to the content of the politics of the ad since they are basically right-wing politics (more on that below). If the Right thought twice about it, they'd realize that the message is in fundamental harmony with their outlook (even if it it appears to lend support to the "wrong faction" of the ruling class). But the claim that the ad has political significance is quite right. In fact, the ad is simply unintelligible unless it is set against the backdrop of political ideas of such as the Nation, of being "American", or the "National interest" and so on. If you weren't already familiar with these political concepts you would not have understood what was going on in the ad at all.

On the surface, the ad strikes a populist note. It begins by noting that lots of ordinary people are hurting, that the economy is bad, that jobs are scarce. All of that is, of course, quite true. But rather than connect the source of the economic misery of the 99% to the actions of the 1% (and the policies of their servants in Government), the advertisement takes a stridently nationalistic approach to these problems. Suddenly the 1% is no longer the culprit and its time for us to link arms with our wealthy rulers and unite for a "better America".

The basic premise underlying this nationalistic message is that all living in the US—the very richest and the very poorest—have the same basic interests. The idea is that everyone does well when the 1% does well, so we all have an interest in learning to love and trust the 1%. The only obstacle to success becomes, as Eastwood puts it, "division, discord and blame". The message is clear: stop complaining that the 1% dominates the political and economic system, stop creating discord and division by fighting against racism. Embrace your corporate overlords and unite under the banner of "the Nation" and then "we" can rise up together and "win the game in the second half."

According to Eastwood, America's "second half" is just beginning. It's time for "The Nation" to bounce back and start scoring some goddamn touchdowns. This sports metaphor transforms all US residents to equal teammates, all engaged in a common project, all agreeing that we want to "win" (as if it's clear what that means).

But there's more to the sports metaphor: we are also encouraged to think that the interests of the 99% coincide with the interests of the ownership of the Big Three. As the Chicago Tribune article points out, the idea is that "what is good for Chrysler is good for America". Of course, it's no secret that from the perspective of the US auto industry, the "team" has not been doing well for the last 30 years. "We've" been knocked down and "beaten by competing teams". The obvious solution, then, jumps out at us: "our team" needs to get back up, unite, and pull off a come-from-behind win. "We" have to set aside our "petty differences" and stop "blaming" other "teammates" with all these complaints about the dominance of the 1%. "We" have to stop "pitting Americans against other Americans". "We" have to come together and "win the future" before the Chinese beat "us". This is a line toed by the Democrats every bit as much as the Republicans.

Of course, this whole nationalist message is rotten to the core. It rests on a fundamental fantasy: the myth of the "Nation", an imagined community of people who all more or less have the same basic interests, who all live in a closed society designed to enable everyone in that society to flourish equally. The only real threats to the "National Interest" are in-fighting and "attacks" from without. Thus a "strong" Nation pushes other nations around and demands unity at home.

Watch the ad and you'll notice that Eastwood, on behalf of the Chrysler Corporation, talks a lot about "us" and "we". But who does this "we" refer to? And who the hell authorized him, or Chrysler for that matter, to speak on behalf of everyone? Evidently the "we" refers to everyone who is properly considered "American" (we can leave aside for the moment the question of who decides who's "American" and who's not).

This idea of the "National interest" is part and parcel of this message of "let's all band together as Americans
regardless of class positionand pull together." The trouble, however, is that the idea of a "National interest" is a myth. The concept assumes that everyone who is properly called an "American", regardless of class divisions, shares some core set of interests so that what's good for the 1% is good for the 99%. It'd be nice it were true, but it's "radically false" as Noam Chomsky puts it:
The whole framework of discussion is misleading. We’re sort of taught to talk about the world as a world of states, which, if you study international relations theory, there’s what’s called “realist international relations theory,” which says there is an anarchic world of states, and states pursue their national interest. It’s all mythology. The interests of the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same. There are a few common interests, like we don’t want to be destroyed. But for the most part they have very different interests. Part of the doctrinal system in the U.S. is to pretend that we’re all a happy family, there are no class divisions, and everybody is working together in harmony. But that’s radically false.
The Chrysler ad pushes this radically false claim to its breaking point. It conflates the interests of the ownership of Chrysler with the interests of ordinary working people. It also pits those considered "American" against "foreign competitors" rather than against our own 1% right here at home. The effect is to make it appear as though those in power are benevolent parental figures—like NFL coaches—who just need our cooperation so that we can pull together and just fucking win goddammit.

Of course it's not hard to spin xenophobic, racist (esp. sinophobic and islamophobic) and anti-immigrant conclusions from this outlook. Moreover, the close identification of the interests of "the Nation" and the interests of Big Business, combined with this xenophobic element, is reminiscent of Fascism. This isn't to say that the Chrysler ad is fascist; it is not. It is an opportunistic employment of the language of the "Nation" to put a positive spin on the interests of the owners of the Auto Industry. But it is no exaggeration to say the basic drift of this nationalistic political approach, if taken seriously, points us in the direction of fascist politics.

The most insidious part of this nationalist argument is that gathers surface-level plausibility from its sober acknowledgement of the economic suffering of the 99%. It's not false that the people of Detroit have been hit extremely hard by the decline of the auto industry. But this decline isn't the result of anything the 99% did or didn't do. The decline, disinvestment, layoffs, and economic misery that has plagued the Rustbelt is 100% due to the choices of the 1%—at home and abroad.

The bottom line is this: the Chrysler ad turns our ire away from the 1% and, cloaked in the flag, advises us to love and trust our oppressors.

The fact that the Big Three are exploiting the economic misery of the Rustbelt in a multi-million dollar ad designed to strengthen their political and economic clout is more than just a little twisted. After all, the ultra-rich investors of the 1% who own the auto industry are the ones to blame for all of the Rustbelt's economic misery in the first place. They are the ones who decided to downsize, close plants, and disinvest
—all in an effort to keep profits high so that they could continue to line their pockets. And let's not forget that even amidst declining profits, the owners of the Big Three have been doing quite well—at the same time that the living standards of everyone living in the Rustbelt have sharply plummeted. Even during their worst quarters as business owners, the owners still live in fabulous wealth, 100% insulated from the decline and economic misery forced upon millions of working people. They don't deal with the reality of hospital bills, unemployment, school closings, soaring crime rates, foreclosures and lots retirement. Even when things look "bad" for the industry, they live lives of plenty. It is sickening to think that these assholes can get away with selling themselves as humanitarians in the struggle to help "America win in the second half". They are the cause of the misery they say they want to help mitigate.

Of course, the reasons for the decline of US auto manufacturing are complex, but it is no exaggeration to say that the decline has everything to do with ruling class missteps and anxieties about profitability, and nothing whatsoever to do with ordinary working people. But, predictably, the industry's owners have an interest in externalizing all culpability and blaming everything on "high labor costs" forced on owners by the UAW. Never mind that auto workers everywhere else in the world are better paid and enjoy stronger unions than in the US (we can also set aside the fact that the Chrysler ad evidently edited out Wisconsin pro-union signs from one of the clips in the montage). It's nuts to think that the Big Three would do anything except try to manage public relations to their benefit by hammering away at was once one of the strongest unions in the US.

The "high labor costs" argument is repeated over and over by industry ideologues in the Wikipedia article on the auto industry. The narrative coming from the self-serving owners of the auto companies is simple: If only those pesky workers had just given in to the owners' violent campaign against unionization back in 1937, then the Big Three would be sitting on top of the world right now!

But, of course, the answer to our economic woes, to mass unemployment, to the sharp decline of once prosperous industrial centers, isn't to put our faith in the 1% and the imaginary community of "the Nation". The answer is for ordinary working people to take direct control of our massive industrial capacity and put it to use meeting human needs and developing human being's capacities and talents.

For example, it is far from obvious that the US auto industry needs to be producing more cars right now. Set aside the fact that effective demand does not exist right now for an expansion of car sales. What's more, environmentally speaking it simply makes no sense to continue to manufacture tons of cars (most of which aren't even designed to last more than 4-5 years) in a world where global temperatures are rising and oil reserves are shrinking. Building millions of personal automobiles a year is wasteful, inefficient, and unsustainable. The workforce in Detroit would be far better employed building buses, train cars, wind turbines and other green technologies that the country desperately needs. Every single city in the United States has a substandard and inadequate fleet of public transportation vehicles. Equipping every city with a vastly enlarged fleet of modern, state of the art hybrid buses manufactured in Detroit would be a huge step forward for everyone. This would put surplus labor and surplus industrial capacity together to meet human needs in a sustainable way. It seems like a no-brainer although, to be sure, it is hardly a feasible short-term goal.

Of course, the owners will retort: but none of this is profitable. All of the research and long-term planning brushes against the grain of our stock-holder's demand for short-run profits. These measures would also require big capital investments up front, which could cut into short-run profit. What's more, these projects would require a larger paid workforce, but employing more people increases labor costs and reduces profit. Moreover, if we build buses and vehicles that are made to last, this will reduce yearly sales and cut into profits as well. The owners therefore have every incentive to resist doing this.

My response to the owner's complaints are simple: I don't care what they think, because we really have no use for them. They do nothing except skim off the top for themselves and keep willing workers from using existing capacity to meet human need.

It's true that profit-seeking owners have no interest in combining excess industrial capacity and excess labor to meet human needs. But that's not an argument against my proposal. That's an argument against private ownership of the auto industry. Cut out the owners 100% and let those on the shop floor hire new co-workers to work on this project with them. All of the worries about profitability melt away.

By letting workers run production democratically, pay scales become more egalitarian. By cutting out profiteers, wages may be raised and the working day can be shortened. In order to maintain high productivity alongside shortened work hours, more workers are brought aboard and employment levels soar. Previously unemployed workers are brought back into the fold. And instead of producing overpriced shit that we don't need, we would be able to efficiently meet human needs in a sustainable way. Rather than wasting surplus labor and surplus industrial capacity, both would be utilized their fullest extent.


While doing a bit of research for this post, I wanted at one point to find some figures on how rich the owners of the auto companies are. First, I searched "Chrysler CEO wealth" in Google. The first 20 results were scary. They all offered different links to articles with the title "Business must address wealth gap, Chrysler CEO says". Next, I searched "Chrysler CEO rich", and the first 30 hits all had the headline "Rivals' UAW deals too rich for Chrysler, CEO says". It's not easy to stumble upon any facts about how much money the owners make. If you search "Chrysler CEO earnings" the first hit is "Chrysler CEO receives no salary for 2010: filing | Reuters". They have clearly invested a lot of money and energy manicuring their online image so that enraged citizens can't look up how much money they're raking in (much of it tax-payer subsidized) at a time when we Democrats and Republicans are harping on the "need" to tighten "our" belts and accept austerity. The ruling class is clearly worried about the class consciousness raised by the Occupy movement. We should see ever imaginable aspect of their public image as calculated moves to mitigate the effects of the political atmosphere created by Occupy.


Anonymous said...

Great post. There's also the implication that if you care about the suffering of Detroit, you are doing something wrong if you don't buy a detroit-made car. This ropes in many consumerist-oriented liberals who care about the workers, but remain trapped inside the logic of "we are what we buy". Many of the US car ads tried to, in effect, make you feel bad if you considered "betraying your people" and buying a "foreign" car.

Also, GE and Budwiser had stridently nationalistic ads, painting themselves as guardians of interests of ordinary working people. It's almost as if they are on the defensive after the rise of the Occupy movement... interesting stuff!

-sf said...

I was going to write a comment along the lines of "pro-America? yea its the super bowl..." (with the assumption that pro-America means pro-capitalism), but then I got to watching some more ads. I'm sure someone's already written a feminist critique of this gem:

davidly said...

Really great piece all around: analysis, diagnosis, and prescription.

I would only add that had there not been the all-in approach towards highways, oil, and automobiles in the first place, the companies might have been forced to compete with regional and national rail and the US would not have had a big three dictating such a disproportionate influence upon national economic well-being.

Hank said...

"Also, GE and Budwiser had stridently nationalistic ads, painting themselves as guardians of interests of ordinary working people."

Budweiser isn't even an American-owned company anymore! In 2008 after ownership was transferred to InBev, they laid off a lot of their workers.