MOTHER! * WTF


THERE MUST BE a perfectly sound, logical explanation for why actors of such talent as Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Badem, not to mention Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris would want to lend their talents and good names to such unspeakable bad, mind foggingly nonsensical gibberish as “Mother!”

And note the exclamation mark please. In the blood red graphics that announce the film, the exclamation becomes a dagger. Oh, murderous punctuation, what monsters hast thou wrought!

They (who remain -creatively – unnamed) are a newly married couple. But not such a happily married one. She’s devoted to him; so much so that she is painstakingly reconstructing his old -haunted- family chateau after a dreadful fire (reconnecting with his past etc); and she sits in trembling awe at his feet (he’s a celebrated poet) as he ponders the blank page in front of him. He loves that she loves him so. For she is no mere wife. She is his muse! a paragon of beauty and lithe eroticism!

But here’s the rub: they’re not shagging! His writer’s block is a sexual one too. It will take the trauma of unannounced strangers (Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris) who appear from nowhere one night, dragging their troubles, their haughty indifference to her and her home, their open carnality and their destructive physical violence, to unleash the ravenous bull in him…ravenous enough to rape her (which she loves of course).

And there’s nothing like a heated rape to open up those creative juices, not to mention impregnate an adoring wife. For creativity can never be constrained. Its fruit, like her child belongs to all. There is a mystical symbiosis between the artist, his art and its devotees.

We know this because thousands of fans, bearing candles, rock-concert style, swarm into his home, make out in various rooms, hold sacred vigils, dance to thumping music, even steal and sacrifice her newborn (Please don’t see this movie if you’re pregnant. OK, please don’t see it anyway), whose flesh they of course eat.

She should of course have known something like this would happen. Certainly if I were in her position, and had seen a bulb fill with blood, witnessed bleeding walls, doors that close of their own accord, hear ghostly thumps in the night, see a beating heart being flushed down the loo, and tried to cover up a bloody suppurating wound in the floorboards, I’d definitely have suspected that something was amiss.

But that’s just me.

As for Ms Lawrence, even “Passengers” does not demand the atonement of “Mother!”. With or without its exclamation!

 

MOTHER! Director/writer: Darren Aronofsky (“Noah”, “Black Swan”). With: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Badem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson. Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique (“Cowboys and Aliens”) Production Designer: Philip Messina (“Free State of Jones” “The Hunger Games”)

 

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WIND RIVER**** Superb Sheridan


A NATIVE AMERICAN woman runs for her life, bloodied and barefooted through dense snow. She finally succumbs to the cold, the exhaustion, perhaps the fear. So begins this magnificent tale of loss, grief, survival and racism.

The arc of the story follows a sort of whodunnit: Jane Banner, an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen), is sent to investigate the crime. She is clearly out of her depth (signaled by the inappropriateness of her clothes). It’s a reflection of the contempt the FBI (here a stand in for US authorities) have for Native American affairs. From the coroner’s perspective, it looks like a crime (the woman’s been raped), but the death – essentially her lungs bled due to the freezing air- was that of natural causes. This means that agent Banner can’t send for back up (and more experienced assistance). And as she’s counseled by the local tribal police chief, Ben (Graham Greene), “This isn’t a place where you get back up. This is a place where you’re on your own”. She and Ben marshal the forces of the local Indian law enforcement officers and rope in the tracking skills of a local hunter, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner).

And so begins the chase, in whirling ceaseless snow, to track down the killer, or killers.

The tracking, the usual police procedural, the piecing together of clues and witnesses are really just the frame upon which writer/director Taylor Sheridan hangs a much richer meditation on the human spirit’s will to survive even in the face of agonizing loss. And the losses in “Wind River” multiple and echo each other, laddering up from the personal to the tribal. The murder of the woman, Natalie (Kelly Asbille) and the resultant loss to her family seem to parallel a similar loss experienced by Cory and his – now estranged – wife, Wilma (Julia Jones; “Twilight Saga”). Each family faces its own agony and disintegration due to these personal losses, in the same way that the community itself begins to fall apart (drugs, petty crime etc) from the bigger losses of land and self worth.

“They took everything from us” Martin (Gil Birmingham), Natalie’s dad tells Corey, “And all we’re left with is the silence and the snow”. They’re not even left with the bonds of history, as these identity-forming building blocks themselves are slowly beginning to dissolve. There’s a haunting moment when Martin sits alone in the bleak coldness, his face painted in an approximation of “Indian war paint”. Why? What does the pattern he’s painted mean? He doesn’t know. “There’s no one around any more to instruct you about this shit” he tells Corey.

And yet… for the inhabitants of this God-forsaken part of Wyoming, the Wind River Indian Reservation, there’s a real feeling of community.

Nature is as hostile, or at least indifferent to them as the Government. You just have to stoically understand its idiosyncrasies and survive it…with dignity and grace. Not so the other group of people we’re introduced to: a group of White oil men, living in a bunker. If the Indians have been denied the fruits of the bigger society, this group has been freed from its constraints. Like the wild wolves and the sheep-killing lions Corey tracks, they too are a feral pack for whom attractive, Native American women are fair game.
For director Sheridan, “natural causes” and this element of an indifferent, racist White society are the same. Both need to be, at best, outwitted and survived.

The movie ends with a chilling coda: “Statistics are kept for every group of missing people except native American women. Nobody knows how many may be missing.”

Jeremy Renner is as engagingly credible as he always is. He is an empathetic, tender-hearted loner; a man adjusting to his own terrible loss. But he’s also a hunter; a man who can be one with the snowy silences, the blank white absence of color, and ever ready to unleash his hounds of war as needs be. As Jane, Elizabeth Olsen (a genuine talent, lost to the cannibalistic Avengers monster) reminds me of a young Jodie Foster; she’s a Clarice Starling in no man’s land: hesitant, naive and fearful, but resolute and with enough spirit to take on whatever nature and feral man can throw at her.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson (“The Fault in our Stars”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) builds layers of white with shadows and blackness to create this distinct, menacing world…so that even in some of the slower moments (the movie starts at a very measured pace), there is a visual sense of danger.

But this is Taylor Sheridan’s minor masterpiece. He wrote and directed it (This is only his second major movie); and is emerging as one of the better, more interesting writers (and now director) around. Before this, he penned the superb “Sicario” and the Oscar nominated “Hell or High Water”. Oh, and just to round off his resume, he’s been acting in movies for the last twenty years.

In development is his next venture as writer/director, “Olympus” about a decorated soldier who may be a god. Can’t wait.

 

WIND RIVER: Director/Writter: Taylor Sheridan. With: Jeremy Renner, Elisabeth Olsen, Julia Jones, Graham Greene. Cinematographer: Ben Richardson. Production Designer: Neil Spisak (“Terminator Genisys”)

 

 

 

AMERICAN MADE*** Cruise in Control


THIS, SURPRISINGLY EXCITING, well-made and absolutely compelling movie comes with an outstanding pedigree: the director is Dough Lyman, the man who introduced us to Jason Bourne; and the exec producer is Brian Glazer, who produces Ron Howard’s movies. Oh, and it stars Tom Cruise. And Cruise is absolutely (surprisingly even) compelling as the cocky, not terribly bright, high flying low life who finds himself way over his head as a drug dealing, gun running CIA operative caught up in the seedy arrangements that the world came to know as the Iran-Contra affair.

Supposedly based on a real story, and the diaries compiled by him, it tells the tale of a hot shot TWA pilot, Barry Seal, who in the 80’s, is caught by the DEA (in the person of Domhall Gleeson from “the Revenant”) smuggling cigars. He’s blackmailed by them to use his talents for the national good: to fly undercover and take photos of covert guerilla and drug activities in Latin America; and he’s so good at this that he’s promoted to being the CIA bag man to Noriega. That ‘harmless’ activity only lasts a short while before Jorge Ochoa and Pablo Escobar and their newly formed Medellin Cartel force him (in exchange for his life) to start flying for them. It’s a good gig: to use CIA aircraft under cover of the CIA while also running drugs (and raking in suitcases of cash) for the cartel.

But this isn’t a case of bad guy (cigar smuggling) turned good guy (working for the CIA) turned bad again (running drugs for the Colombians). The twists and turns get ever more complicated. The good guys turn out to be as morally compromised as the bad. For them the ends (whatever those are) justify the means; and we see the wink and nod acceptance of Seal’s drug dealing along with the pious footage of Nancy Reagan urging the nation to “Just say no”. Talk about moral equivalency.

Through the use of news footage, Liman seems to suggest (very strongly) that the interconnections between the drug barons, the Sandinistas, the Contras, the CIA, Bush, Reagan, Clinton and, of course our out of his depth, but by now fabulously wealthy aviator, are thoroughly interwoven.
It’s just “based on a true story”. But Liman makes a good case that though the Hollywood drama might be ‘mere’ fiction, the bones of the plot are as solid as they are sordid.
If you liked the Netflix series “Narcos”, you’ll love this. Drugs, money, and corruption! (Not much sex. It is after all, Tom Cruise).

Liman (who Matt Damon refused to work with again after “The Bourne Identity”) has worked with Cruise before: in Cruise’s last halfway decent film: “Edge of Tomorrow”. This is clearly a partnership that works for the two of them. He’s managed to capitalize on Cruise’s annoying “look at me, aren’t I cute” smile and make it work for the plot. He’s also managed to neutralize Cruise’s self-conscious over acting. Just as well as Cruise is in every scene. It’s totally his movie, and boy does he carry it. Here is the world’s A list actor, finally earning the accolade.

It’s not a particularly deep movie. Once he’s mapped out the parallel amoralities of the US Government and the cartels, he runs out of (intellectual) road.

But, that said, this is for me the surprise movie of the season

 

AMERICAN MADE: Doug Liman. With: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhall Gleeson. Writer: Gary Spinelli. Cinematographer: César Charlone

 

 

LOGAN LUCKY** Oceans Away from Good


THIS IS A cut-price, cynical, warmed up re-hash of “Oceans Eleven”, without the wit. In its stead is a miscellany of dull, uninteresting characters who entirely fail to convince that they could pull off a heist of such complexity.

The all froth without substance plot, revolves around Jimmy Logan, a good dad and decent man who’s been unfairly laid off by his construction firm (some vague, generally irrelevant back story about the Logan –lack of – luck). So, along with his one-armed brother (apart from a few corny gags, the one armed sthick – the Logan lack of luck?- is just part of that froth) they decide to rob the construction firm. Oops, that would have made too much sense. They decide to steal the takings at the premier NASCAR event of the year.

And to help them do this, they persuade explosive expert, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig as a bleached blond redneck, and the one point of exuberant fun in the movie) to help them. That Bang’s in jail is, for these completely inexperienced crooks, no biggie. They arrange enough of a diversion to sneak him out, execute the heist, and sneak him back in before anyone notices. Bang brings along his two imbecile brothers for the ride. Sounds like it shoulda, coulda been fun.

It isn’t.

“Oceans Eleven” worked because it felt clever; and the glitteringly watchable cast seemed to have the nous, not to mention the charm and the deep pockets to be able to pull off their heist. That movie also has a sparklingly funny script (by George Johnson and four others). “Logan Lucky” has none of these attractions. These numbskulls couldn’t pull off a 711 hold up, far less a sophisticated heist. Soderbergh is so careful to avoid insulting redneck America that he tip-toes around their Three Stooges idiocies as if afraid of being sued. As Jimmy Logan, Channing Tatum is bland and as the brother, Adam Driver is dour throughout. There are a few women in the support cast (Riley Keough of “American Honey” and Katie Homes). But they’re no match for Julia Roberts. Just more fluff. “Logan…” was written by one Rebecca Blunt, who no one has heard of (i.e either some sly inside joke from Soderbergh or someone who, rightly, sought to hide their name).

This is what he came out of retirement for? The money must be running dry.

 

LOGAN LUCKY. Dir: Steve Soderbergh. With Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough. Writer: Rebecca Blunt. Cinematographer: Steven Soderbergh

 

DETROIT***** Outstanding


“DETROIT” THE NEW movie from Katherine Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark”) is such a viscerally powerful, emotionally draining movie that you leave the cinema feeling as though you’ve been kicked in the guts. And wanting to fling your griefs in the face of the newly unleashed racist America.
The story is based on interviews and transcripts of a real event, and it traces the burning path of the riots (civil war really) in Detroit in the 60’s, from its ignition to its burnt out end. It zeroes in on the events of one night in the Algiers Motel, when three pumped-up, racist policemen in search of a sniper beat up the (mainly male, mainly black) guests there and murdered three of them.

Without for a moment compromising on the ever-building tension, Bigelow pulls off a wonderful juggling act. Within its simple narrative arc (two young musicians fleeing the riots find themselves in an oasis of safety, dancing and – white – girls, only for the trigger happy – and eventually exonerated – cops to burst in and explode a century of racist rage) she balances three distinct, but interwoven ontologies.

It’s a clever structural device that allows Bigelow to explore what is her central intent: the nature of viewpoint.

The trauma of the murders is bordered by two perspectives. There’s a broad quasi-documentary overview initially using animation to map out the Great Migration during World War 1 and the rise of urban segregation. This is followed by cleverly intercut news footage of the riots with shocking, in your face, street level action: the police brutality, the group anger, the fear, the looting, the burning buildings, the tear gas, the panic and the battalions of army and National Guard troops that storm in, like an invading force.
Almost at the same time, we’re lifted away from these scenes of chaos and violence to be part of another perspective of Detroit: the Detroit of Tamla Mowtown, the Supremes, Martha Reese and the Vandellas and the twirling happy moves of soul music. One band (The Dramatics, still performing), whose shot of fame is wrenched away when a concert is cancelled due to the riots, and in particular two of its members, form the bridge between these two worlds of war and peace. Bigelow focuses in on two band members to unspool her tale of a country adrift, through an intimate snapshot of that night of trauma.

The two young musicians who find themselves in the Algiers Motel are, like young men everywhere, seeking fame, fun and, at the sight of two pretty girls, a night of ‘romance’. Their viewpoint of the riots is that it’s something you need to get as far away from as possible. The cops who smash in the hotel doors are seeking a would-be sniper. From their view, what they see isn’t a group of young guys, but a gang of blacks, who, clearly must be guilty and who needs to be taught a lesson. That there are white women on the scene can only mean one thing: the women are whores (and therefore fit to be slapped around) and the oldest of the men (an ex Air force pilot) must be their pimp.

There’s no presumption of innocence. They quickly assume that torture is the easiest route to “the truth”. But their torture “games” go wrong and result in murder.

War. Torture. Reminding blacks of their place. It’s the American way.

In the centre of this maelstrom is a young security guard, Dismukes (John Boyega channeling Denzell Washington). He tries to be the voice of calm; the one who reaches out to and befriends some of the patrolling National Guard. But, wrong time and wrong place. He’s an unwitting witness to the murders. And, as usual, to the white authorities, that he is black matters more than “the content of his character”. He becomes the scapegoat cover-up for the racist police crimes. This “good” black, who to other blacks is the Uncle Tom black, quickly and conveniently becomes the “suspect” black.

In the court case that follows, the racist policemen are repositioned as merely young enthusiastic officers trying to do a job under trying circumstances. Because all the witnesses (those who were beaten up by the policemen) are all black, they’re presented to a white jury as ex-cons and untrustworthy witnesses; the girls are just loose women who would sleep around with black men.

Bigelow tries hard to avoid open proselytizing and the movie (written and shot pre-Trump) ends on a potentially positive note: that the music with which the movie begun could be the route back to some semblance of healing; that the nasty aggression of the racist cops doesn’t define the city, the country, but may be but one (anomalous?) dimension.

Boyega (Finn in “Star Wars: the Force Awakens”) is the ‘big’ name in the movie. But, as the racist cop, this is Will Poluter’s Oscar-contending, show. Poulter had his big break-out moments as the gay dancing son in “We’re The Millers” and as one of the scumbags in “The Revenant”. As they say in serious literary circles, “This dude can act!”. And, as a GOT fan, it was nice to see Hannah Murray – intimidated, scared, furious, feisty, fearless – as one of the two girls in the motel. Ms. Murray is Gilly, Samwell Tarley’s partner in GOT

I wish this movie had been released a year ago. Then I – we – could all pretend this was Bigelow’s grand, well crafted, Spielbergian recreation of a moment of American history. Sadly this is probably less a piece of history…more a story of a future soon to be realized.

 

DETROIT. Dir: Katherine Bigelow. With: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Will Poulter. Written by: Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”, “The Hurt Locker”, “In the Valley of Elah”). Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd (“Jason Bourne”, “The Big Short”, “Captain Phillips”)

 

FINAL PORTRAIT*** The Artist as Obsessive


THIS IS A small, carefully crafted, nicely written movie about the making of art. The story is centered on Alberto Giacometti’s execution of a portrait of an American writer, James Lord (Armie Hammer who has clearly survived “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” and “The Lone Ranger”) whose book of the experience was director Stanley Tucci’s source material.  Lord had been assured that his sitting would take two or three days. It took over a month as the obsessed artist painted, erased, painted again and erased again Lord’s face, all the while cursing himself, cursing the canvas, oblivious of Lord’s deadlines. Indeed, oblivious of Lord himself.

Lord may have seen himself as the subject of the painting. But really, he was just its catalyst; mere fodder, like the artist’s mistress, Caroline, and his wife Annette, for Giacometti’s devouring obsessiveness. Tucci (who also wrote the script) offers us a portrait of the artist as a man outside the boundaries of time, of – sensitive – human relationships, of any of the rules and codes of bourgeois life. For the artist, the only relationship that really mattered was the one between himself and the art he was making. He was indifferent to Lord’s needs, to any trace of fidelity to his wife, to her emotional needs, to his mistress, beyond that of ‘muse’ and lover, to money (bags and bags of cash stashed under beds, in attics, wherever), even to himself.

All that mattered was the art.

He was its servant, as much as he assumed that those close to him would be his’.

He may have been a great artist, but (like so many others), this unyielding dedication to his art clearly demanded its own very special kind of relationships…he was a bit of a shit in other words. But as Giacometti, Geoffrey Rush (“a bit of a ham” Tucci calls him) offers up an engaging, otherworldly, unflattering but ultimately, sympathetic portrait. (The meta fiction of an artist creating a portrait of an artist painting one).

The small cast complements and counterbalances Rush’s at times, over-the-top style nicely. Tony Shalhoub is a quiet, solid presence as Giacometti’s brother, Diego, the voice of whispered reason amidst the chaos and clutter of the artist’s studio…and life. As his long-suffering wife, Sylvia Testud evokes a gentle dignity despite her husband’s unthinking assaults on it. And as his mistress and muse Clémence Poésy (so brilliant as the autistic detective in “The Tunnel”) flits in and out of his studio like a glowing fairy (To which you’d be tempted to remind the director that she was after all a whore. Where was the grim reality beneath the glamour?)

There’s not much of a narrative arc in the story, other than the evolution of the portrait from a few dabs of paint to, eventually, the finished object (though the artist felt his art was never really finished). But the world that’s created, due in no small part to James Merifield’s meticulous recreation of Giacometti’s cramped, untidy, shoddy studio and the restless, roving camera work of master cinematographer Danny Cohen (“Florence Foster Jenkins”; “The Danish Girl”), is watchably credible.

The flaw in the movie is that it often feels thin; its shoe-budget financing is often obvious. Tucci felt the need to bring such a degree focus and fat-free precision to his storytelling that as a result there’s no room for interesting asides. I missed the (further) exploration of the nature of observation (hinted at, but underdeveloped), the underlying roots of Lord’s acceptance of Giacometti’s Bohemian lifestyle (He was himself a homosexual fleeing the homophobia of 40’s USA), the tension between Giacometti’s wealth and the seeming poverty of his lifestyle (he wouldn’t buy his wife a new coat, but would lavish money on his mistress) etc.

It’s one of those rare movies that actually comes in just under 90 minutes. Maybe 30 minutes more would have created a more nuanced portrait

 

FINAL PORTRAIT. Dir: Stanley Tucci. With: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Clémence Poésy, Tony Shalhoub. Cinematgorapher: Danny Cohen. Production Designer: James Merifield

 

DEMOCRACY IN CHAINS. Nancy MacLean**** Absolutely compelling


NANCY MACLEAN’S BOOK, “Democracy in Chains” is a frightening look at the intellectual and ideological base of what she concludes is a long history by the Right to subvert democracy in the U.S.

The book argues that the recent antagonistic, self destructive politics of Washington – where cross-party compromises have been replaced by an ugly politics of obstruction (government shutdowns, the ideological rejection of anything Obama proposed etc.) and the consistent attacks on swaths of increasingly disenfranchised Americans – is the result of a party (the Republicans) co-opted by an ideological base controlled by the Koch brothers and intent on crippling the government. This, in the pursuit of unrestrained wealth, or “economic liberty” as they regard it. The “free” referred to in the U.S.’ boast that it’s “the Land of the free” to them, refers not to the idea freedom v slavery, but to the freedom to make as much money as possible without government interference [or what in the U.K. is called an “open economy”]. What we’re witnessing now, led by these brothers is, MacLean contends, a stealth take over of the Constitution…a Fifth Column* assault on democracy.

Taxation is nominally at the heart of it all [I am reminded of Trump’s boast that only fools pay taxes].
And ‘it’ – the battle lines – began some time ago, even before the ink on the Constitution was dry. For John Wendell Holmes Jr., taxes were, “the price we pay for civilization”. His opposition was John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina cotton planter, who saw taxation as a form of government-sanctioned theft. “A government based on the naked principle that the majority ought to govern” he wrote, was sure to filch other men’s property.

This line of thinking was codified and formulated into a strategic program by James Buchanan (whose career and thinking much of the book is about). Buchanan was a Nobel laureate, brilliant economist and academic (initially) at various universities, who helped legitimize the libertarian cause: a dream society where there were few rules to constrain how a man might get wealthy, and where there would be “great restraints on the government in asking for some part of that wealth, other than for the maintenance of order and military defense.”

Buchanan could not abide the idea that, through taxation, individuals of wealth had to pay for those public goods and social programs (schools, courses for black students, textbooks, medical care etc.) they had no personal say in approving. Why, he argued, should I have to pay for services that ‘they’ should be paying for themselves? Fellow economist, Milton Freedman, went one step further. “The full burden of education should be borne by the patents of children”, not the state, he argued. “That would promote personal responsibility…through birth control”

Buchanan’s papers and books were the ones that led the chorus which divided the population into the “takers” v the “makers”; between the hardworking people who are forced to pay taxes and the layabouts who spent them; or as the Tea Party ideologues refer to them, the “moocher class”…part of the “parasite economy”. [The present Conservative party in the U.K. – who seems to have swallowed Buchanan’s thinking entirely – divides their electorate similarly: between the “strivers” and the “shirkers”].

Buchanan amplified this ideological perspective in an (quasi) economics theory (he offered no tangible proof for these theories) in his highly lauded book, “The Calculus of Consent”. There he ‘proved’ that majority voting favored politicians who would keep spending (and taxing) in order to ensure reelection. This, he wrote, held down private capital accumulation and therefore the overall economy. And since the problem was systemic, the only brake on such willy-nilly public spending was a curtailment of majority rule.

Democracy as we know it was counterproductive to the accumulation of capital. As John C. Calhoun noted a hundred years before: “Democracy is a threat to economic liberty”.

The problem Buchanan faced was that of execution. How could an academic ensure that his ideas saw the light of day? His initial champions – politicians such as George Wallace and Barry Goldwater (the man who said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”) – proved useless. They were defeated by voters who actually benefitted from these programs. The same voters who Buchanan felt voted themselves into a living instead of having to earn it.

No matter; this kind of thinking struck a chord with Charles and his brother, David Koch, two entrepreneurial billionaire geniuses** who Buchanan got to know when he taught at Virginia Tech. The Koch’s realized that in order to ensure the absolute, unquestioned supremacy of capital, they would have to put in place the long game and operate outside what they regarded as “the prying eyes of the media.”

To start with, they would need to eliminate the poor (whose electoral clout too often shaped the voting patterns of their Representatives and Congressmen) from the equation. These poor would need to be disenfranchised, a process that’s now as much a reality as during the days of the Jim Crow South. For, as Buchanan concluded, too large an electorate was a problem for the white, property owning class of men like himself, especially in the South where popular voting rights would put “colored heels upon white necks” and create “negro supremacy” (and let’s face it. All American citizens weren’t allowed their full voting rights until 1965. Even today the U.S is still 138th of 172 democracies in terms of voter participation.)

No wonder Obama was such an existential threat. No wonder also “the cadre” (as Koch’s army refers to itself) continues to kindle the irrational conviction that he won through massive voter fraud. Indeed, so avidly has this lie been perpetuated that nearly half of registered voters and even federal judges and Supreme Court justices have come to believe that voter fraud is a big problem.

And it was no surprise that the brothers poured more than $100M into opposing him. They now employ more than three times as many people as the Republican committees have on their payrolls. Their ever expanding network, knitted together to fund this “long game” include the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise, the Tax Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Leadership Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation.

Their first, and so far, according to MacLean, successful mission was to wrest control of the Republican Party (as evidenced not only by the money each of last year’s Republican presidential hopefuls received from them, but also in the debates, when every contender paid allegiance to the Koch agenda: climate change denial, the sanctity of gun ownership, antipathy toward public education and teachers’ unions – indeed all unions – the need for radical tax changes (i.e. a Flat tax whereby both rich and poor pay the same tax rate…Trump’s present mission) the need to discontinue Medicaid (and later Obamacare) and the need to privatize what they reframe as a looming crisis facing Social Security (salvageable only via private, Wall Street-led investments).

Only then – with a chastened and corralled Republican party – could there be the beginnings of true “liberty”, which is seen as the insulation of private property rights from the government and the takeover of what was long public (such as schools, prisons, state lands etc.) by corporations.

For MacLean, the ideological schism seeded so long ago and actively encouraged by the Koch’s has hardened into two clear world views: collective security (“we the people”) v individual liberty. Collectivism was seen as the key menace to liberty, one that “undermines individual responsibility…and weakens the moral fiber of the people” (Milton Friedman)

The “I” v “we” dichotomy has an even darker twin: the white majority, the forebears who made the country…the ‘real’ Americans v the ‘others’…in Virginia’s J. Addison Hagan’s words, “the minorities such as Farmers, Unions, Negroes and Jews”. Individuality (or the right to discriminate) was seen as a higher good than racial equality.

The problem however remained. The reductions (or, rather, abolishment) they sought in government taxes, social programs, even public owned and enjoyed parks and open spaces, would never be voted in by the majority of people (who actually enjoy these programs). One of Buchanan’s later books, “The Limits of Liberty” made the point abundantly clear: there was simply no way to reconcile individual property rights with universal voting rights.

Democracy was inimical to individual liberty.

What was needed was a program or programs that would accelerate the pace of disenfranchisement and would ‘mainstream’ these ideas. What was needed was more akin to a revolution. Indeed, Koch’s Cato Institute alluded to Cato the Elder, famed for his declaration that, “Carthage must be destroyed”. The Cato Institute’s mission was one of demolition: it sought nothing less than the annihilation of statism in America. And while that radical long game was put in place, another Koch enterprise, the Reason Foundation proceeded along more covert lines.

It’s director Robert Poole Jr. mapped out the strategy clearly.

Revolution by incrementalism.

“You can hack away at government” he said, “by privatizing one function after another, selling each move as justified for its own sake rather than waiting until the majority of the population is convinced of the case…” [This neatly summarizes the ideology of the present U.S. ‘corporatizing’ of public lands…and here in the UK, of the Conservative sell off of anything they can get their hands on, from the Post Office to prisons to NHS properties to policing]

It was in 1973, when these ideas were initially fully put into action…in Chile. 1973 was the year General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Impressed by his ideas, a devotee of the Virginia school, one José Piñera, later Pinochet’s Minister of Labour (and still later an executive of the Cato Institute) invited Buchanan to advise and guide the new dictatorship in helping to rewrite the Chilean constitution. The rewritten constitution defined, and codified into law, Buchanan’s mandates on how to limit the reach of democracy, the role of privatization, deregulation and the state-induced fragmentation of group power. Chile’s dictatorship became the American libertarians’ play school.
Back home, the Koch’s expanded the role of their think tanks (referred to as the “Kochtopus”) to become “think and do” tanks: their strategic mission evolved as one that would begin to train as vast a cadre of ‘foot soldiers’ as possible via the universities and academics funded by them.

Call them the “message multipliers”.

He also by then decided on a strategy of dissimulation and misinformation. His programs (such as, for example, the removal of Medicaid and Social Security) would be presented to the public as the opposite of what they were; they’d be framed as intending to reform and shore up these services when the intent was to kill them.

Their (familiar) targets (all of which were seen as interfering with business) were clear: government regulations, environmentalists (who had to be defamed not only defeated – mainly by insinuating they were only interested in monetary rewards -, government backed heath and welfare, education (“the most socialized industry in the world”), the graduated income tax and feminists (“heavily socialistic for no apparent reason”)

This approach, exemplified by the likes of Koch-funded Dick Armey, the man who, with Newt Gingrich wrote the infamous “Contract with America” has been so successful that by 1990, 40% of the US federal judiciary had been treated to a Koch-based curriculum. Koch’s “think and do” tanks now exist in all 50 states.

The Koch’s anti-environment funding is also now beginning to pay off big time. Only 8 of 287 Republicans in Congress acknowledge that man-made climate change is real. The number of Americas who believe in man-made climate change has fallen from 71% in 2007 to about 40%. Koch and his paid-for Congress would rather invite global catastrophe than allow regulatory restrictions on economic liberty.

Public health budgets have been systematically cut. The result has been disasters like Flint, Michigan, where the Koch-funded Mackinac Centre (“When the Mackinac Centre speaks, we listen” said Michigan governor John Engler) ensured that their proxies saved money by switching the source of the city water supply to the polluted Flint River. For 18 months, 100,000 residents (mainly Black) were systematically poisoned.

The Koch-funded State Policy Network have also been able to convince a sizable segment of the American population that the problems in schools today are the result of teachers’ unions. The result is a gutting of schools’ budgets [or… Betsy Devoss!]. Where is the money going? To a new education industry of private schools (following the same rule book that has corporatized the prison service)

Following the Pinochet-trialed formula, over the last decade, multiple laws have been put into place up and down the country to hobble Labour unions

Remember their mantra: Collectivism or anything that smacks of collectivist action is bad. Remember also their stealth strategy to force disenfranchisement at all fronts.

MacLean quotes an investigation by the New York Times which examined the increasingly far-reaching power-play by American corporations. The articles point out that included in the fine print of applications for, say, employment, credit cards, cell phone service, medical practices or long term care, is language that prevents the signers from participating in any form of collective action, such as class action lawsuits over corporate malpractice. Consumers have willingly and unknowingly signed away their constitutional rights to sue in court.

As one Reagan-appointed federal judge summarized, “Ominously, business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach”

It is here, at the point of the law that the rubber hits the road. As one North Carolina insider summarized: “Lose the courts, lose the war”

The Koch’s clearly see control of the courts as the critical key to getting around the intractable problem of voter majorities. As a result, their donor network has pumped hitherto unheard-of sums into state judicial races. The intent was to deny municipal governments the right to make their own policies. In other words, should a democratically elected Congress pass laws inimical to any of Koch’s programs, they’d have the power to bypass those laws locally. GOP –controlled states have been passing what are called “pre-emption laws”. These deny localities the right to adopt policies that depart from an imposed model; as a result, GOP states’ governments are preventing city and state governments from enacting such measures as raising local minimum wages, protecting the environment or enacting antidiscrimination measures that would protect LGBT citizens.

Worse than this, the disenfranchisement program continues to be a wide spreading victory for “the cadre”. By 2012, Republican legislators in fourty-one states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how…mainly affecting low-income voters, young people and Blacks. This is the most aggressive attack on universal franchise in the U.S since the mass disenfranchisement instituted by southern states a century ago.

Two journalists, Jane Mayer and David Daley (hounded by Koch’s investigators intent on finding dirt on them…or what is referred to as “upping the transaction costs on the other side”) further have pointed to a plan called the Redistricting Majority Project or REDMAP. This has been what MacLean describes as a cunning plan aimed at boosting the power of Republicans even where majorities backed Democrats.

Author and magazine editor (of The Salon) David Daley has made the ‘state of the union’ abundantly clear: the GOP is an election away, he wrote, “from achieving an unimaginable goal in a country that sees itself as a beacon of democracy: a veto-proof supermajority operating without majority support” [Indeed Trump is the second president in the last ten years to have been elected with a minority vote]

MacLean’s conclusion is sobering.

The U.S has reached a point, she contends, where it is being run by an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form. Its leaders, she notes [and which we’ve recently witnessed in Charlottesville] “have no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy….And today, knowing that the majority does not share their goals and would stop them if they understood the endgame, the team of paid operatives seek to win by stealth”

“Is this the country we want to live in? If we delay much longer” she laments, “those who are imposing their stark utopia will choose for us”

* The Fifth Column refers to the covert insiders who align with outside forces to destabilize the status quo
** Charles Koch turned his dad’s $70M oil company into one now that has annual revenues of over $115b and employs over 67,000 people in 60 countries.