Writings and Letters

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Tag: neo-liberalism

Getting Burned: A Review of ‘The Flamethrowers’ by Rachel Kushner

Because it takes me forever to do most things, I’m finally getting around to writing down my thoughts on Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. That’s it. G’night, folks!

 

Kidding.

 

For the uninitiated, The Flamethrowers came out three years ago and was quickly praised by critics (culminating in a second National Book Award nomination for Kushner—the only author to ever be a finalist for the award with their first two novels), and shared a run of success on the New York Times bestseller list, and is being sold around the world (I saw its German-translated hardcover while spending some time in Frankfurt last summer.)

So good for her. No, really. I’m glad to see this kind of literature being well-received and appreciated—at least relatively. There have been some people who have quibbles with its passive main character, and more aimless-at-times plot (there was a podcast of this argument on Slate: starting around 7 minutes or so: interesting to note that the two men didn’t enjoy the novel as much as Hanna Rosin—not writing any meta-narrative, just interesting), but I don’t really give a shit about that. Plot is great and all, but as many wonderful novelists have taught us over the years, a novel doesn’t always need to lean on a solid plot. So fuck plot. And the idea that a character (in this case the main character) is rather passive and allows things to happen to her/him somehow makes the book less appealing seems to rely heavily on personal taste—which is fine, but generally unhelpful when considering the larger merits of a work.

No, plot or character aren’t what I want to talk about at all. What spoke loudest to me, and it is not a revolutionary observation (many other critics have picked up on this, too, in one fashion or another), are the notions of exploitation, and the inflammatory quality of a globalized world dominated by capital. To me, that is where part of the brilliance of The Flamethrowers lies.

First, let’s look at this notion of exploitation, for it is perhaps the most prevalent (and therefore easiest) motif in the novel. The nameless main character (I will be referring to her as “Reno” for convenience) recounts her experiences from the art scene of 1970s New York, and a brief window of time in Italy during the violent, frightening epoch of the Years of Lead. The nameless main character allows for a universal quality, inviting the reader to implant her/himself into the character’s shoes. There is also a quality to this namelessness that allows the novel to focus on the events and other characters happening at this period, rather than about “Reno.” For the novel really does have larger ambitions than to tell the story of some 21 year old’s experiences during the 70s. This ubiquitous quality to the naming convention (or nameless convention) reminded me of Ellison’s Invisible Man—also another character who allows a great deal to be forced upon him and allows the world and characters surrounding “Invisible” to speak just as loudly (if not louder) than the main character/narrator.

In her long journey, vacillating between New York and Italy during this provocative period, “Reno” experiences the constant fetishism of her male counterparts. Whether it is former lovers, current boyfriends, or random strangers, “Reno” is never without a man who is “using” her for his personal gain. This certain “utilization” of her, over and over, is reflected in the other habits of exploitation occurring throughout the novel. The reader first witnesses it as “Reno” and other women are treated poorly in the “boys’ club” of the New York art scene, then it morphs into the form of violent suppression of workers and students by the Italian state (its important to note that some of those workers and students during the Years of Lead were murderous terrorists—a point Kushner does not ignore), and lastly mentioned in a story about how the natives of Brazil were duped into labor during WWII to extract rubber for the Brazilian state to be sold to the United States’s war effort, only to never be paid and furthermore never be told the war was over until thirty years later (no really, this shit happened; fuckers kept working the poor bastards letting them believe there was a fat check waiting for them in the end). As “Reno” continues on through the story, either flitting from New York to Italy and back again, the reader becomes aware of how the story, too, flits from one example of exploitation to the next.

Sticking with this idea of “flitting” draws to mind how capital flits from one location to the next in its constant search for new means of accumulation (often through appropriation). In the novel, the reader learns of “The Flamethrowers” in the Italian army who constantly charged their enemies flames a-throwin’, and had their lives ruled by these violent bursts. Stay with me now, because if we think of capital accumulation in this way, we can begin to see more connections being made throughout the book, and we can begin to see how the novel chronicles the ways in which capital bounces from location to location, generating new piles of wealth—often through exploitation—before hopping off to some newer untouched area, leaving a path of destruction behind it in its constant charge forward. [Going back to “Reno” and her passivity for a second, it begins to make more sense as a creative choice when the main character is understood as a universal stand-in for people who continue to be subjected to the “flamethrowing experience” that is capitalism.]

This, to me, is what stood out most in Kushner’s work. This idea: Violence is inherent (and key) to capital’s success: is present in almost each page of the book. From enslaving indigenous people in the jungles of Brazil, to violently suppressing workers and unionists in the streets of Italy, to objectifying and exploiting women in the “open-minded” circles of the New York art scene, all these translate one into the other. So we must bear this in mind, not only as we read this wonderful novel, but as we live our lives: in a land of flamethrowers, we can’t help but keep getting burned.

 

 

A View of the Past in the Future

The following is a post from the Local Los Angeles section of the June 24th, 2021 issue of the now defunct The New York-Los Angeles Times:

“EL SEGUNDO – Beaches during the summer in Los Angeles are usually filled with people. Locals and visitors flock to the sunny, white shores of the Los Angeles coastal towns to partake in swimming, surfing, sunbathing, or just getting away from the continuous record-breaking heat of climate change the inexplicable will of God. It is usually a great time for towns and neighborhoods such as Santa Monica, Venice, Malibu, and Manhattan Beach who rely on the influx of people and the money that comes with them for their local economies. However, recently the number of beach-goers has fallen precipitously sense the passage of the Let the American Land go Free Act (LALFA), signed into power by President Trump® a year earlier.Academy2 The impact of the new federal act has dramatically changed many of the seaside communities, perhaps none more than the small town of El Segundo.

‘It’s just not worth going there anymore,’ says Yorick Carson, 45, who lives in nearby Hawthorne. ‘I mean with all that was there before it wasn’t a great location, but now you can forget it.’ Previously, El Segundo’s beachfront suffered from planes coming and going out of the international airport in neighboring Playa Del Rey, and the unsightly locations of both its Water and Power facility, and the Chevron oil refinery, but it still managed to have a good stretch of clean coastline towards the southern end of its beach area that generated a steady flow of visitors. That is no longer the case, however, now with the oil company taking advantage of LALFA and purchasing the land from the municipality.

With the passage of LALFA, the federal act that eliminates the possibility of the public trust, companies can now purchase land previously controlled by municipalities, states, etc. Even if a sale is refused, companies or wealthy individuals can sue for the land and (based on the landmark Delaware v. American Eagle Outfitters, Inc. Supreme Court decision) if the courts decide the compensation for said land is fair and the purchasers’ reason ‘within the sound and good taste of the People,’ the land can still be purchased. El Segundo did not hesitate to sell the oceanfront to Chevron, though. Strapped for cash after five years of 2016 Trump Tax Cuts for the Better of America®, and a third recession, the city like every other city and state throughout the country, has had to sell off public-controlled entities to ready and willing private hands. ‘The city thought, like most, that this was best for the citizens,’ said professor of Economics and Chicano Studies and Space Science and Communications and Theology at UCLA-USC, Shirley Ziggarratt. ‘No city or state in this country can afford to balance budgets without privatizing most things and severely cutting their workforce. Throw a rock in any direction, it will land in a place where the government body is having some kind of fire sale.’

Privatized beaches have popped up all across the coastal United States,Academy2 and especially in California where the Governor, Regenerated, Taxidermal, Zombie Ronald Reagan (D), has vouched to balance the budget through ‘true grit and a-sleeve rolling’ which has translated to selling off nearly 70% of the Golden State’s beaches to corporations–mostly oil companies like Exxon/Mobil, BP, Chevron,

Saudi Aramco and PetroChina–and approximately 49% of government responsibilities such as: public transportation, oversight of highway/freeway systems, all toll roads, and outsourcing agencies like the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the Californian chapter of the Environmental Protection Agency (all legal sales under LALFA).

 

The purchase of the beach in El Segundo has not meant soaring profits for Chevron, though.

As the Trump-Arabian War® enters its fifth year and expands into Iran, much of the Middle Eastern oil remains embargoed from entering the United States. The Executive Order signed by President Trump® at the beginning of the year has set oil prices at a historic low, below $.60 in most parts of the country. The hope behind the low prices was that citizens would have more money in their pockets to spend. However, in the middle of this third recession in five years, most Americans are still heavily debt-incumbent and intrenched in the credit system; any money saved from cheap oil prices has been applied to paying down their own indebtedness. So with the sluggish economy remaining quite asthenic, the immediate and sustained impact the low prices have had is a net-negative for companies like Chevron. The corporation has seen a drop of 16% in its stock in the first quarter alone. Chevron, like many of its ilk doing business in the United States, have started dramatically cutting their workforce in order to generate more revenue and meliorate shareholder expectations.

In an added effort to combat their financial losses, Chevron has decided to implement a new technique for transferring its oil collected from the ocean to the land-based refineries, called ‘stranding.’ Stranding entails oil tankers carefully positioning themselves some half-mile away from the shoreline, and then through a series of highly-contemplated guessing algorithms, the tankers release over four million liters of oil into the ocean and allow it to simply wash up on the shore to be collected and sent to the refinery for processing.

El Segundo is the first location for testing and perfecting stranding for global implementation. If estimates are correct, stranding might save the company tens of hundreds of dollars over a 40-year period.

 

The initial results have been quite predictable: death of any sea and wildlife in the immediate area, shorelines not only in El Segundo but from Playa Del Rey to Manhattan Beach covered in toxic petroleum, flaming tidal waves, foul and noxious smells for up to a 10-mile radius affecting over 150,000 residents. ‘All manageable incidents,’ spokesperson for Chevron, Vanessa Quaruulioss, said in a typed response. ‘There is nothing Chevron is not prepared to handle to ensure the quality product it produces will continue to reach its customers in a safe, affordable fashion.’ She went on in a follow-up email: ‘We’ve been a part of this community since 1911 when the main product produced was kerosene for lamps. In fact, the City of El Segundo (Spanish for ‘the Second’) was named after the refinery, then Standard Oil’s second in California. Today, the El Segundo Refinery provides jobs for more than 1,100 450 Chevron employees and 500 50 contractors, covers approximately 1,000 1,5000 acres, has more than 1,100 2,560 miles of pipelines, and is capable of refining 290 534 thousand barrels of crude oil per day. Transportation fuels–gasoline, jet and diesel–are the primary products refined from the crude oil. We are responsible caretakers of our land and the

environment, we operate our own electricity, steam, and water treatment facilities, and even maintain one of the only two remaining preserves in the world for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly. Our quality improvement program is a large part of our commitment to produce the finest fuels. This refinery-wide program is designed to ensure that the transportation fuels we produce meet your expectations for performance, are delivered on time, and are manufactured safely and in an environmentally sound way. At its foundation is a climate of mutual respect and teamwork that fosters continual improvement.’ The same information could be found on their About page.

The erratic stretch of the ocean tides mean that the Chevron oil can land almost anywhere north or south of the intended target. However, the oil that reaches landfall is still property of the company, and so is that land it rests upon at least until Chevron can remove it. So there are parts of Santa Monica all the way down to Palos Verdes that belong to Chevron. And it does not just end there, the property rights extend beyond land.

Max Caydance, 35, and his daughter Nillie, 8, were walking along the beach in El Segundo when the oil started washing ashore.

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“Hail, Stephens!” (Paid for by The Academy of Art University National People’s Party SuperPAC)

Unaware of what was happening, the next thing Max knew, he and his daughter were covered in Chevron property. ‘It was everywhere,’ Max recalled. ‘One minute we were walking with our feet in the water, then this big black wave comes and knocks us both over. We were pulled into the ocean. It was so hard to get out. I fought so hard to keep Nillie’s head above water, and not swallow any of it. It was so thick. So damn black. When I finally got us back to shore this guy was waiting for us and said we had to get in the back of his truck. He worked for Chevron. I thought he was going to help get us cleaned up.’

What Max and Nillie did not realize was that under LALFA (and upheld in the other landmark Finn McFaddion v Pep Boys Manny, Moe & Jack Supreme Court decision) they were technically owned by Chevron until all the oil was removed from their bodies. ‘That was a real shock, yeah,’ according to Max. But he is not the only person this has happened to. A reported sixty people have been recently struck by as little as a dollop of Chevron oil, and are now property of the company. ‘They say they know it’s theirs, too, because they fitted all the oil with micro-trackers. That’s also how they can find you at anytime. You know, in case you decide to try and make a break for it.’ Like the oil that is on them, the ‘human-capital’ must remain on the premises of the refinery.

‘They’re not being held against their will,’ Vanessa Quaruulioss wanted to make perfectly clear.Academy2 ‘That’s definitely not happening here. They can leave whenever they want, just as long as they are no longer technically our property. Until then, the human-capital must remain in the possession of Chevron in order to ensure the protection and maintenance of the product.’

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American First! Don’t Fear the Reaper. (Paid for by the National Rifle Association)

She then sent another follow-up email within minutes: ‘We have the right to protect our assets. It’s in the LALFA. No one can hold it against Chevron if they want to protect their valuables. And like with any of our products, either with living tissue or the natural byproduct of an ancient organic compound, we have every right to exploit them to our fullest advantage, and since they are property and unequivocally not workers, we are not obliged to compensate them.’ And then minutes later, another: ‘We’ve been a part of this community since 1911 when the main product produced was kerosene for lamps. In fact, the City of El Segundo (Spanish for “the Second”) was named after the refinery, then Standard Oil’s second in California. Today, the El Segundo Refinery provides jobs for more than 1,100 450 500 Chevron employees and 500 50 60 contractors, covers approximately 1,000 1,5000 acres, has more than 1,100 2,560 miles of pipelines, and is capable of refining 290 534 thousand barrels of crude oil per day. Transportation fuels–gasoline, jet and diesel–are the primary products refined from the crude oil. We are responsible caretakers of our land and the

environment, we operate our own electricity, steam, and water treatment facilities, and even maintain one of the only two remaining preserves in the world for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly. Our quality improvement program is a large part of our commitment to produce the finest fuels. This refinery-wide program isAcademy2designed to ensure that the transportation fuels we produce meet your expectations for performance, are delivered on time, and are manufactured safely and in an environmentally sound way. At its foundation is a climate of mutual respect and teamwork that fosters continual improvement.’

 

These new slaves human-capital cannot leave the premises, cannot contact the outside world, are not allowed to speak or come in contact with any of the other workers at the refinery.

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‘It wouldn’t do us any good even if we could,’ Max informed. ‘Everyone there that isn’t marked doesn’t want to be touched. Because one touch, one drop of this stuff and you belong to them. So all the other workers are terrified of us. They don’t want nothing to do with us. They hate us really.’ The human-capital lives in what can be best described as a shanty town under-developed, squalid alternative housing units in the heart of the installation right next to the large hydrofluoric acid containers. ‘Fights break out at night because someone’s got something the other person wants. Food’s always short.

 

Or because someone is just pissed. You know it’s tough. They work us for hours, I don’t know how long. We can’t speak to anyone outside or that ain’t marked. It drives us crazy. And that’s not all. Some of us showed up with kids we haven’t seen since entering the facilities. They tell us they’re doing well and being taken care of, but I have no way of knowing.’

‘They’re fine. Everyone is fine,’ Vanessa wrote.Academy2 ‘The newer human-capital are just as valuable to the company as the older. There is absolutely zero age discrimination going on here at Chevron. It’s just, what with their smaller features and all, the newer human-capital are perfect for crawling up in pipes for cleanings and repairs, or larger machines to replace parts.

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Zynga University Online, in co-operation with The Academy of Art University National People’s Party–“Hail, Stephens!”

So obviously we keep them a little busier than the rest. But that’s not necessarily preferential treatment. We’re an equal opportunity company.’ Then about ten seconds later: ‘We’ve been a part of this community since 1911 when the main product produced was kerosene for lamps… …At its foundation is a climate of mutual respect and teamwork that fosters continual improvement.’

With its beaches covered in the dreggs of the Earth’s deep past, and threat of privatization of the individual a wave away, most people visiting the Los Angeles area are sure to stay away from the beaches south of Venice. New protocols have been put in place toAcademy2 set off alerts for oil sightings in the ocean, and have plenty of Dawn soap on hand. However, life guards equipped with the necessary oil-avoidance training are now freelance workers, so people must pay for the protection before deciding to go into the water, or risk being completely on their own.

Perhaps if Max and Nillie had someone Academy2 looking out for them, they might not have had to worry about a sludge wave barreling towards them, altering their futures entirely. This is something Max does not consider: ‘Yeah, it’s a real shame to be covered in tar and have to work for the company in perpetuity without ever seeing my family or friends again. But I guess it was my own fault in the first place for being on the beach. I should have known better. You know, Chevron has been a part of this community since 1911…’


Editor’s Note: In early-July, Chevron announced a new plan to sell more of its oil to foreign countries rather than the United States in order to generate more profits: Mexico and China are the largest buyers.”