March 08, 2008

Taxation in the Early Middle Ages

I know that this does not sound like the most glamorous of subjects- but actually I think that this is one of the more interesting findings that has recently come out of history. Its central to the way that we understand the evolution of the state. The Early Middle Ages see the creation of modern Europe, the division of the meditereanean between Christianity to the north and Islam to the south. By understanding what happened we can understand the reasons why our history looks the way it does. But more than that by understanding what happened we can see how different reactions to the downfall of imperialisation (the process of the break up of Empire) took effect and we can see how in this case tax effected the way that regimes evolved.

Chris Wickham's magisterial study of the later Roman Empire and early Middle Ages is a multi chapter work, each of whose segments deserve separate analysis. He explores so much that its hard to confine a discussion to a single blog post- so I hope that people do not mind me turning this into an intermittant series- given that it is in my opinion one of the more important books I have read recently, especially with regard to what I think is a neglected subject: the transition from the classical to the medieval. Tax in my view is also a neglected subject: its not sexy, but gritty. Regimes are often defined using the traditional taxonomy used by Aristotle- democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, but seldom do political theorists in the classical tradition turn to analysing the way that they produce revenue and use that revenue. Yet since Harrington (and perhaps Polybius and Machiavelli) the taxation basis of a society has been one of the ways that a social analyst can distinguish and understand a system best.

The early middle ages saw a vast change in the taxation systems across Europe. Basically at the beggining of the period- in say 400- the meditereanean and its European, Asian and African shores were dominated by the Roman Empire. From the Severn to the Euphrates, the Rhine to the Nile, a single political entity or two allied political entities ruled the entire meditereanean basin. That had consequences. Firstly a vast system of taxation was used to supply the two main cities of the Empire. Rome and Constantinople depended on the annona- supplies of grain taken from the agricultural lands of Egypt and Syria. Rome's population at its height was around a million citizens- and they received free handouts of food from the state. But food didn't merely move to the two main imperial capitals. Food and goods moved from Gaul and Britain towards the Rhine frontier, supporting a vast army there. From Egypt and Syria it moved to the Euphrates where a vast Roman army faced the Persians. From the Aegean supplies moved up to the Danube to supply the Roman army that faced the northern world over that river. The Empire denominated all this movement in coin and paid its soldiers a salary- it also channelled that emense wealth to the construction of a civil service which supported the Emperor and controlled and applied this complex system.

Everywhere in the Roman world we see complaints about the levels of taxation and even an Emperor, Valentinian III issued a law in 450 curbing the rapacity of his own taxation assessors. Imperial orders required accounts three times a year to be submitted from rural districts and relied on inspections by local governors. We can see from Egypt, admittedly the most economically developed and politically precocious Roman province, that tax collection was a violent and an insistant pressure on especially rural society. This had consequences for the Roman system of government- coup was the most common form of change of government, soldiers might mutiny for higher pay (as any reader of Tacitus will know) and the city mobs were both large and mutinous. On the other hand it also accounts for the Roman world's stability as an entity, it was centralised and subject to a regular bureacracy. The Roman world did not see, until its crisis, pressures to break up, rather as in the 3rd Century, Emperors rose and fell at the centre. The Roman system was not centrally controlled- but the resources it produced were centrally directed and linked up a vast area, making the defence of the Rhine say reliant upon incomes produced in Provence or the defence of the Euphrates on incomes from the Nile. This picture though becomes very different after the crisis of the 5th Century in the West and the crisis of the 7th Century in the East.

The results of these two crises were to unravel the central acheivement of the Roman Empire- its existance over so much territory. This had consequences in that in all the provinces of the Empire, the state turned more and more inwards and became more and more localised. In Africa after 439 for example no grain fleet sailed north to distribute free grain to the Roman population. The same was true of Egypt after the Arabic conquest in the 7th Century. The great armies for example on the Rhine disappeared completely at some time in the 5th Century, on the Euphrates at some point in the seventh. Defence became local: the provinces of Anatolia had to bear the entire burden of defence against the Arabs- the Byzantines even further localised their defence by basing armies in districts or themes whereby fertile parts of Anatolia were connected to an outer defensive rim. The province of Gaul had to maintain the Merovingian state on its own. Even in Arabic Egypt, it is the constriction of horizon that is most evident. You see that Arabic Egypt does not send income out to the other parts of the Caliphate but rather keeps it within itself. The localisation of the Roman world is a trend that militates against the kind of complex regime that had sat on that world beforehand. Simply put in many parts of the Empire by 800 were supporting themselves in a variety of different ways- variety had replaced uniformity.

All provinces though did not find that their rulers responded in the same way. There is an East-West division here- the Barbarion states of Western Europe, Visigothic Spain, Merovingian France and Vandal Africa were substantially different to the Byzantine Empire and Arabic caliphate which preserved more institutional continuity. In the West, the picture that emerges from Wickham's study is that there was no need for Western states to maintain taxation and consequently it fell away as a method of extracting revenue. The armies of the Barbarions were maintained through grants of land- that afterall was why the Vandals, Visigoths, Franks and others had come into the Roman Empire in the first place and consequently rulers felt no real need for the elaborate taxation systems that the Romans had constructed. In Spain for example such structures fell into disuse because of their unpopularity and the fact that they were not required to support an army whose loyalty was based on grants of land. The same picture is true of Merovingian Gaul. The point though about these regimes is that rather than being vulnerable to coup at the centre, they were vulnerable to revolt at the periphery. Carolingian Frankia was subject to massive splits- as was Visigothic Spain. The splits meant that armies were formed to contest and obtain new rewards and new plunder and the system worked. Once a polity had attained its maximum size it could not do anything save for feed on its own factions.

The situation in the East is different. What happened in the East was that there was more continuity. Institutionally the Roman Empire survived through the early middle ages in the East- and until 630 controlled pretty much the territories that the empire had controlled in the days of Augustus. After the Muslim conquest of Syria and Egypt, the Byzantine Empire was reduced to Anatolia and was forced to support itself from that province alone. The Byzantine method of coping with this change was dual- firstly the empire switched the places that provided it with goods. The city of Constantinople contracted- but still received grain from the Western provinces particularly Sicily until its conquest by the Arabs. It also though localised its military- Anatolia was divided into themes and those themes supported particular units which were recruited and supplied from them. The Emperors did maintain a central force- the tagmata- from the eighth century onwards- and that was supplied centrally by taxation and the army was still paid but we are getting the formation of a system of localisation. The scale of everything was reduced.

It was in Ummayad Egypt, curiously, that the tax system went under the least change. Here tax was still being paid right up till the end of the period that we are dealing with- and there are records which demonstrate the rapacity of governors and local officials in dealing with taxation. In Egypt, the Arabs invaded as a ruling military caste, refusing to be swallowed by the local population it took them a long time to begin to own land and even for the Egyptians to use Egyptian instead of Coptic or Greek. The Arabs segregated off their religion and their language from the Egyptian subject population and lived off the tax revenue that they could extract. Wickham surmises that this was one of the reasons why in Egypt Islam and Arab cultural identity was so strong, whereas in the West by the end of our period, a Frank was someone just born north of the Loire irrespective of their ancestry or language. The point is that the Arab commitment to a large non landed but salaried army meant that they became a separate elite which was supported by the non-Arab tax payer. Its also interesting that in Egypt this meant that there were few ways for the native population to protest effectively- there was no real aristocracy to appeal to and therefore tax rebellions and tax wars are a frequent feature of Egyptian politics running right up until the ninth century. Syria has a similar profile- though here the situation was more stable because of the fact that there were more Arabs who had been there before the conquest and hence were landed and therefore taxed and therefore could appeal to their brethren. Another facet of Ummayad rule was that the taxes collected in Egypt or Syria did not go outside those regions- this leant the provincial governments great wealth with respect to the centre. Whereas in the Roman world, the outer peripharies and the inner circles had been the places where taxes were collected and spent and consequently where power was, in the Ummayad empire there was more centralisation within a province and less without it.

This change in the direction of the tax yield and in the West, in the nature of the tax yield changed politics. It leant politics according to Wickham a much more centrifugal force. In the West maintaining authority was much harder because the business of tax collection had supplied some of the glue keeping the provinces and particularly armies together- the landed army now only wished for plunder and could easily turn into a local force raised for civil war. If the West tended to division and increased warfare, then in the East the old provinces of the Roman empire became more independent of each other. The Arabic empire was less cohesive than what it had succeeded. Curiously in this new localistic world it was smaller states like Byzantium and Lombardy in Italy which maintained more cohesiveness- they were able to because precisely of the move to localising tax revenues. Keeping societies together had become harder because they were no longer fiscal wholes. What we see therefore in the Early Middle Ages is a succession of attempts to maintain cohesion whether through inventing ceremonies- the Visigothic Spanish kingdom used church councils- or maintaining an intrusive legal apparatus as in Lombardy, the state was preoccupied with its own break up and obsessed with regional autonomy instead of local coup. If that autonomy was different in different regions- that related to the different taxation structures and if furthermore the social structure of Ummayad Egypt was different from Frankia that related to the way that its tax was structured.

Tax is obviously not the whole answer nor does it determine a society's complete history- but as I hope this brief survey of Wickham's work indicates it structures the reality to which rulers responded in the early middle ages. One cannot understand say the judicial activity of western Kings or their ceremony without seeing that they were in part attempting to maintain control over kingdoms that threatened to split apart at any point. In the West royal power was increasingly transferred through the aristocracy, in the East every peasant knew who his taxes went to. Simply put in the West the King moved further away from his subjects. Furthermore throughout the Western world, the state became vulnerable to splitting up. The Roman world of coups at the centre gave way to kingdoms who were liable to breaking up into regions. This was less true in the East where the provinces at least had an integrity thanks to the tax system but even there the lack of transfers between provinces created structural cleavages which could lead to regional independence. In the East the most common form of revolt remained the tax revolt, in the West it was a peasant rebellion against a Lord or a Lord's rebellion against his King. Its an interesting subject- and I will return to Wickham's thesis- I am not competent in reality to criticise it but its worth laying out in full, and my views I'm sure on it will evolve as I read more and think more about the issues involved.

March 07, 2008

Am I the only person in the world who thinks this...

but Barack Obama's celebrity supporters don't impress me at all. I'd be more impressed by people who know something about politics telling me about their opinions than by Jessica Alba and Ryan Phillipe. I'm sure Ms Alba and Mr Phillipe are intelligent, kind people but they have no recognised expertise in politics, there is no reason why I should presume that they know anything more than my next door neighbour. Politics is not a feel good enterprise, its a proffession which requires emense skill and intelligence. I have no doubt that Barack Obama could make a President of the United States: he has the intelligence and charisma to do the job. But I'd prefer to hear from the Samantha Powers of the world than the Jessica Albas, I'd prefer to hear from people with a cogent argument rather than people telling me that yes I can or citing vague and perhaps unacheivable aspirations for where the United States will be in eight years time. Afterall the business of politics is the art of the possible, to misquote Rab Butler (a man who really did know what he was talking about), the business of celebrity is the art of creating an illusion of glamour- the two proffessions may seem to have a lot in common, but at the cutting edge of them, they don't.

The dottiness of an ex-Cambridge don

The former Chancellor of Cambridge University, Lord Broers, yesterday morning, asked a question in the House of Lords. He said,

My Lords, have the Government considered increasing the age at which young people can buy alcohol to the level in the United States? I have observed in the university world that young American students coming to this country are amazed at the alcohol consumption of our undergraduates.

Lord Broers's solution is daft, just think for a moment about where that would leave the ages of consent. He seems to be saying that you should be able to vote (age, 18), drive a car (age, 17) and even have a child (age, 16) but that raising a pint in a pub at the age of 20 is somehow beyond your ken. Its interesting that Lord Broers seems to want to make childhood extend so long that it takes people into their twenties, thinks that a pint in a pub is a more serious act than voting for a government or even having a kid, and considers the best way to deal with a problem for some is to make something illegal for all. What's interesting about Lord Broer's comments is their paternalism: ultimately irresponsible people voting doesn't matter because voting doesn't matter, but irresponsible people getting drunk at midnight on the street does matter because one might be leaving the opera then. Furthermore if 10% of 19 year olds in the UK can't handle their drink, that's obviously a reason for the other 90% to have alcohol forcibly removed from them.

We will never solve the problem of young people drinking in this way- as the minister noted a prohibition would be deeply ineffective- it would also alienate teenagers rather than persuade them. Public information campaigns- the drink driving campaign is a great one to emmulate- even city centre planning regulations- are likely to be much more successful instruments in dealing with this problem. Raising the drinking age would merely criminalise a large segment of the population who are behaving perfectly sensibly and betrays an attitude of mind where the first response to a problem is what should be the last resort- having recourse to the statute book to ban someone from doing something.

March 06, 2008

British Foreign Policy

I published an article about British foreign policy over at the Liberal Conspiracy- and the reasons that Britain will inevitably weaken and that it is in our interests to weaken over the next few years. Essentially other countries will grow wealthier, which is a good thing for us as it will make us wealthier- through prices dropping, technical innovation and more demand for our services, but it will mean that absolutely the UK will slip behind countries like China, India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico etc. That's not neccessarily a bad thing but it does mean that the current debate say over the Iraq war is really a redundant one- Iraq is the end of the story not the beggining of one. Its far more likely that British troops will be intervening on a regional basis say in Kosovo or being part of a European effort to curb Russian expansion than to be intervening in the Middle East in the future. That means that a lot of the presumptions about UK foreign policy may have to change- we need to do more cultural and economic diplomacy, rely more on the fact that due to immigration we have great links say with the Indian subcontinent, and do less military activity. Furthermore we need to look at fortifying NATO and strengthening the internal cohesion of the alliance.

March 05, 2008

Rambo 4: the world's worst movie?

Some people think that there is no objectively bad art: well there is, its called Rambo and at 120 minutes long, it is 120 minutes too long. Put simply, nothing in this film is any good- a better budget means that it just passes the Hills have Eyes 2 in my refuse collection- but apart from that it has no redeeming features. Sylvester Stallone who stars in and directs this movie should be thoroughly ashamed of himself- he has stunningly managed to craft a film without the least shred of a redeeming feature, in which the contest for worst performance is only won by the actors playing the Burmese army because their depictions are comically racist, whereas his of Rambo is just comically crap. The film is awful- do not rent or buy this movie or go and see it- any popularity it gets demonstrates that Western civilisation is truly in trouble and deserves to decline and fall.

Rambo 4 tells the story of John Rambo, now out in Thailand strangling snakes for a living, who is hired by a group of Christians to escort them into Burma. He then is joined by a group of hired skinheads to go and rescue the said Christians from the Burmese prison camp in which they have been held. I'm sorry if this breaks the overwhelming suspense but Rambo does indeed rescue the Christians, just before the young pretty female one is about to be raped by an evil oriental (the wording is deliberate- this is a racist movie) and just as one of them is eaten by pigs- all the better to show you some graphic CGI blood, my friend. (Incidentally the budget for CGI blood was really large on this film, there are several wonderful CGI reconstructions of how a human body breaks up, wonderful apart from one fact, that they would be obvious to a one eyed village idiot!)

Sylvester Stallone in the title role acts badly, well that's inaccurate actually, he has one expression throughout the entire movie. When he is happy, Rambo scowls like a tough guy. Sad he scowls like a tough guy. Killing people he scowls like a tough guy. Even going home to a sentimental family reunion he scowls in exactly the same manner. He just scowls and stares- there is no hint here of growth or development in the character- when he, at the beggining of the film, is being unsuccessfully petitioned by the Christian group leader to take them down the river and when moments afterwards he is petitioned by the sexy girl to take them down the river, he looks exactly the same even though the lines show he has much more sympathy with the latter than the former.

Lines, yes, script. Ummm, most Hollywood films employ a scriptwriter. Sometimes they aren't that good. Art Monterastelli and Sylvester Stallone should never work again on dialogue or in films. The dialogue is incredible. Nobody speaks like they speak in this film. This is worse than a school play written by a bunch of five year olds. Poor Julie Benz has to at one point say "Maybe you've lost your faith in people. But you must still be faithfulto something. You must still care about something. Maybe we can'tchange what is. But trying to save a life isn't wasting your life, is it?" The lines don't really get better- but hey it doesn't matter because the quality of the acting would make up for the weaknesses in Sly's performance and the shit script, well they don't. Most of the actors get nothing to do- and when they do they do it badly. I never thought I'd see a worse Cockney tough guy than Vinnie Jones but Graham McTavish manages to make me regret they didn't cast a professional footballer in his role.

And as to the ethics of the film. Matt Sinclair thinks the film is pagan- I think Matt is being too kind by a long way. This film doesn't have an ethic beyond the utility of psycopathic murder- oh and the idea that its so much better to go in and kill people than be nice to them. Its an insult to paganism to describe the cretinous morality of the film as having anything to do with paganism. Mark Kermode got it right on Radio 5 recently- there is a lot of atrocity in order to make you feel happy when atrocious murders happen later on. The Burmese soldiers here have no character- they are just vicious thugs, who strip and rape girls (though only when Rambo turns up- so he can rescue her immediatly). They have no humanity. This is not a pagan film, this is a fascist film. It invites us to reject the other and enjoy the torture of the other. It wants us to enjoy the fact that the Burmese soldiers are killed in horrific ways. Furthermore the Burmese soldiers all have comedy evil sneers- this is racism combined with a revenge movie with the subtlety of a yob chanting insults. The film is filled with dodgy sexual imagery as well: its a paean to homosexual sado masochism (ah we're all brutish thugs together kind of thing) but its one female character is there as a literal adornment. She is a kind of Christian Scherahazde, good at persuading men with her sexy figure, but in battle or even in other scenes just too hysterical to be any use. Every time she is on the screen you can feel the film's sexism, and every time you see Rambo you can feel its prehistoric view of masculinity.

This movie is a disgrace- its the kind of film that did I not support free speech I would support laws against. It perpetuates the worst image of manhood around- the least interesting view of the world, the least interesting cinematographic skill, it is quite simply atrocious and has no redeeming image apart from its budget. This film is quite simply shit.

Crossposted at Bits of News.

The Political Compass

Courtesy of James, I just did this test for fun to see where I come out- this was the result

Economic Left/Right: -1.50
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.64

As always with such things, its imperfect but that actually captures my position- at least with regard to my segment- fairly accurately- I am quite surprised. On these kind of things I've ended up being told I beleive in all sorts of things- normally because the questions are badly drafted. Anyway have a go yourself...

March 04, 2008

There will be Blood: the loneliness of creating a nation.

I am still digesting 'There will be Blood' which I saw last night at the Odeon in Covent Garden. I am not entirely sure about what to say about the film- save that I agree with Roger Ebert's review that it is a portrait of madness. There is something else though that the film really is about: the creation of the United States- and I think those two themes- madness and creation- are tied together in this film in an interesting provocative way. Madness becomes the impulse towards creation- and authority follows the mad lust for gold or for oil.

In Citizen Kane, Mr Bernstein says to his interviewer that 'It's easy to make a lot of money, if that's all you want to do is make a lot of money.' He is talking about the banker Thatcher but also about Kane himself and the way that Kane didn't seek to make a lot of money but rather spent it. Kane afterall is the generation after the great oil profiteers and all of Kane's ambitions from running newspapers to running for office are aspirations within a civilised society. The interesting thing about this film is that it is set in the generation before Charles Foster Kane- the generation who made the wealth upon which Kane lived. The generation who were out in the oil fields and gold mines physically hewing out of the ground what turned into the fuel for the industrial super power that was the United States by 1920. This film begins with the end of the gold rushes of the 19th Century in the 1890s and ends in the great crash of 1929.

Its hero is a character who creates a civilisation therefore. We are in early California- a sparcely populated area of the United States whose population hovered around the million mark at the turn of the twentieth century. We don't see an officer of the government at all- and law out here is a cursory thing enforced merely in the buying and selling of land. Rather what we see is the two great traditional powers of pre-civil states- the Church and the coin. The Church is represented by Eli Sunday- a charismatic preacher who inspires his flock and purports to drive devils out of them and drive their illnesses away. The coin is represented by Daniel Plainview- our hero- whose hands and money are creating oil fields around the town- and in the Sunday ranch. His power is the sucking out of resources from the land- whereas Eli sucks out the inspiration from his parishioners. The two men are involved in a confrontation; a confrontation that takes us through the whole film. But its a confrontation that in many ways merely exemplifies the real underlying theme of the film- both men are utterly vicious and ruthless, both are willing to humiliate the other and both are unpleasant to the extreme- it is that unpleasantness that lies at the centre of the film.

Daniel Plainview is a hero. He is the kind of man who founds towns and schools- but he is also immoral and angry. He hates almost everyone in the world he confesses at one point. He has no friends- he even alienates, abandons and attacks his adopted son. He is also grows in madness through the film- his meglamonia becomes more and more pronounced as the film proceeds. His anger and loneliness reflect each other. This is the type of man who makes a state- the type of man who thrives when everything comes down to his own talents. Plainview is virtu personified- he shapes history by despising all of its frontiers- in many ways he mirrors the Russian oligarchs of today or the British industrialists of the 18th Century. What the film invites us to do is to judge him as a human being- to weigh him in the balance and find him wanting.

But it also invites us to observe his trajectory- as the inspired prospector turns from man into monster. It invites us to see the personal consequences of overbearing wealth- like Kane, Plainview ends up alone in Xanadu, alone in a palace of pleasures, strolling empty corridors and whipping out in drunken rages at subordinates or indeed anyone who comes near. That madness is born of loneliness: Plainview has created a nation, there is none like him. It seems to me watching the film that as the movie progresses increasingly Plainview has less and less to do with lives around him- the world of civility leaves him behind. By 1927 as the film ends, the world is made for men like his son, the Kanes of the world, who have adjusted to civility and its constraints- who don't murder in their rages, who don't drink whisky by the gallon, who don't hate the world and all who live in it. The last scenes of the movie are crucial because- and I won't let on to what happens, they bring Plainview's last rejection of any collegiality, any claim of affection, they show his final decline into madness- like Gloria Swansson at the end of Sunset Boulevard, the lights focus as the character dies.

Plainview's character evolves as the movie goes on- but he is always lonely and never demonstrates wide degrees of affection- possibly he does towards his son but mostly he seems impassive to others but emotional about himself. He is a competitive man- lives for and through competition- and that is his incentive to develop his oil wells. The same goes for the preacher Eli- who is also fueled by rage- a sublimated rage as opposed to Plainview's overt alcoholic rage. Both though are the type of man who forms a world, who creates a nation. This story is their story and it demonstrates the unattractiveness and the neccessity of that type of person. This review is incomplete because my thoughts about the film are incomplete- but ultimately there is something here of the loneliness, rage and hatred that fueled men who wanted to create power, to create states. That rage promoted by some old injustice, or as in this case inequality in settled society, leads to the creation of great things- at great personal costs. This film is not about present society because its not about civil society- it is about the creation of civil society. Its not about the brutality of capitalism or the brutality of evangelical christianity but about the brutality of both before the state- when gold and God are there to reinforce authority instead of existing within the bounds set by authority.

The roar and coat of the a lion is beautiful viewed from afar through the prism of history, but come up close and the blood dripping from its fangs and the loneliness of its supremacy are far less impressive.

March 03, 2008

The Conformist: Fascism's beauty and Liberalism's untidy charm

The Conformist has just been re-released in the UK- it was made in 1970, one of the first films of the Italian director, and now elder statesman of cinema, Bernard Bertolucci. It is about the career trajectory of a Fascist secret policeman in the Italy of the 30s and 40s, the reasons for his Fascism and the things that he has to do- including murder his old Professor- in order to maintain his career in the secret police. Its a fascinating film on many levels- for what it reveals about the cod-Freudianism of the 1970s for example- and it is a beautiful film, with some truly spectacular shots. It is this beauty which actually is the point at which the film reaches profundity and says something which is important about Fascism as a concept and conformity as an ideal. Bertolucci was trying to say something about the aesthetic of the movement in the 20s and 30s and also about the aesthetic of liberalism, he was trying to demonstrate to us something about different kinds of beauty and their political value and through the film, through the use of different shots to deal with different characters and the use of situation, he manages to demonstrate this approach.

The first scenes of the film involve mainly our fascist character, Marcello Clerici, crossing vacant corridors, saluting pristine guards etc. Dressed in a sharp suit, and moving at a comically fast pace, reminiscent of some film noir sequences- the character embodies a certain aesthetic. Bertolucci is keen to photograph Clerici's fascist period at oblique angles- in one sequence a car drive is photographed diagonally upwards from the wheel. He dwells on the long corridors and lines of the Fascist aesthetic. When Clerici meets his future wife, Giulia, she is dressed in a skirt which is crossed by black and white lines. You get the sense that the Fascist aesthetic is about forcing the natural curves of a woman's body into lines, into the strict artificiality of a political system. The point is of course that the same could be said of Clerici's conscience, he too is being forced from curves into lines, from complication into loyalty by dictatorship. You see the image repeated all over the place. Clerici's father confined to a mental asylum repeats a description of freedom endlessly, but repeats it in a stark void. A white prison, sanitised, whose benches stretch out in seemingly endless lines without a break for an individual to sit upon them. The white artificiality of the scene reminds us of the purification that Fascism involves- a single solution to every problem- and a diagnosis of madness for those who do not adhere exactly- for those that maintain their individuality.

However the film does not merely portray fascism, it also portrays liberalism. Clerici is sent by his Fascist bosses to assacinate his old Professor who lives in Paris. When he goes to see his old Professor, he goes with his newly wed wife, Giulia, and meets the Professor's wife, Anna. In reality the meeting with the Professor turns into a complicated sexual game- as Anna seduces Clerici and spiritually seduces Giulia, the Professor spiritually seduces Giulia and the two men fence ideologically. But the key point here is the conception of beauty. Counterposing Anna, in her classical dress- looking very like Anna Karina in Goddard, to Giulia in the first scene she appears in is intriguing and demonstrative (Giulia eventually ends up dressing like Anna more and more, a conversion to liberalism in sartorial form). Anna's dresses are elegant but they run with her body not against it- they emphasize her shape, they don't tyrannise over it. We could mention other things too- the aesthetic of the places that they go in Paris is again different to the aesthetic of the long corridors and lonely saluting functionaries of Italy. Firstly Paris is filled with people- people are always everywhere- even when the Professor's colleagues (and ideological sympathisers) escort Clerici to see him, these are people dressed not in uniform but their own style. Secondly Parisian architecture is not so bleak and linear- but curves and the spaces are confined.

Perhaps the most important element in which Paris and Italy differ in the film is sexual though. In liberal Paris sex is available and emotional. The sexual escape that Clerici finds with Anna is an expression of freedom, desire and emotional commitment. Clerici, Anna tells us is a coward, we know that though already for he is getting married in order to avoid sexual commitment. He is getting married precisely to fulfil the bourgeois ideal, a family uncontaminated with the dirt of sex, with the difficulties of emotional entanglement. For Clerici there is only the relationship with the prostitute and the wife- both of them clean of entanglement- both of which are endorsed by the Catholic priest in confession and both of which are imprisoning. Anna though and her husband offer something different: sex for them is something to be enjoyed, to be sensed and to be welcomed. The liberal aesthetic is liberating literally- and it is hedonistic. The Fascist aesthetic is repressive. Nowhere is this less evident than in a scene at the end of the Parisian phase of the movie. The four characters go to a dance and the two women- Anna and Giulia- dance together in an exceedingly sensual and sexual manner- they then lead a conga off from the dance hall, leaving Clerici and his fascist 'minder' alone together for a moment. Clerici walks into the middle of the hall and the conga returns surrounding him in his confusion. While everyone else in the room is filled with joie de vivre, Clerici is upset and confused by the spectacle of the joy of other people, by the liberating neglect of persona to fulfil personal happiness.

In a sense, Bertolucci offers us an aesthetic commentary on Orwell. Orwell, in 1984, tells us that for Julia and Winston Smith the ultimate act of liberation was no holds barred sex- the act in itself, purged of the misplaced purity that Big Brother granted it, was the ultimate revolution against totalitarianism. For Bertolucci, that much is true as well. But Bertolucci is making a more subtle aesthetic point- the Fascist aesthetic confines and requires conformity. Requires a man to marry a wife he does not love, to abandon the principal of enjoyment for a spurious sacrafice to the desires of society, requires strict linear fashion. The liberal aesthetic is more natural and based on pleasure- like C.S. Lewis's God, the Liberal is a hedonist at heart, promising pleasures evermore. The point of the film is not so much about the origins of conformity- as about its nature. Conformity by its very nature is forced and requires a human being to give up their own desire in pursuit of that which society offers- salutes, huge offices and long corridors. Bertolucci is keen to make us realise that of course this is suppression- the Fascists have mistresses- and it leads to unhappiness and to mental asylums confining those who talk of freedom. What it doesn't lead to is spontaneity, pleasure and happiness, what it doesn't lead to is all the quirky, difficult and different relationships that humans construct in order to help themselves live in comfort on this planet. What it doesn't lead to is the emotional entanglements of actual life- in attempting to reduce life, art and sex to the prism of perfection, it drains them of their meaning and imposes upon the world a falsehood that the world eventually cannot bear. The conformist finds a conga- an expression of undiluted pleasure- a scary revelation of the fact that pleasure is both spontaneous and untidy.

In the film, we see Fascism's endpoint as well as its beggining. The conformist uses that end point of course to reveal to the new authorities- a mob singing revolutionary songs- the Fascist careers of others. But in reality he has not changed- he has not discovered the essence of liberalism- the spontaneous untidiness of life, rather he wants to force people into a new line. Unforgiving he is the puritan inquisitor, the communist show trial prosecutor, the fascist secret policeman, forever worried about what society demands as social or sexual or aesthetic tithe. But he cannot acheive either happiness or spontaneity!

Film Classification

Over at the cornerstone blog, Julian Brazier, the Conservative MP, has called for a tightening of the law on Video Nasties. He describes his bill in this passage

My bill aims to make the British Board of Film Classification accountable to Parliament. It would give a Parliamentary committee the power to review and veto key appointments and the guidelines the BBFC works to. It would also introduce a new Parliamentary appeal against videos - at the moment the only appeals allowed are by the industry in favour of them. In Australia anyone can appeal.
I can see what he wants to do and appreciate why. Films have an effect on their audience- and if they didn't, they wouldn't be made. I have said before that I think we worry far too much about sex and too little about violence in the cinema- but also Mr Brazier needs to worry about context. I've said before that in some films violence is clearly indefensible but in some films, it is neccessary to make a point or to illustrate something that I need to see. For instance, the film Downfall is so powerful because it shows the violence produced as a result of Hitler's unreal refusal to surrender, Saving Private Ryan's realism illuminates the horrors of even a virtuous war, Goodfellas demonstrates the poverty of life as a mafiosi through the use of violence: other films use graphic sexual content to make points- I've just seen the Bertolucci film- the Conformist- where the sexual relations between a man and his wife and mistress illustrate the fundemental realities of Fascism. Context is all important in deciding what kind of violence or sexual image is being used and whether it should be banned.

But is Parliament the right place to handle this kind of issue. Mr Brazier forgets, what Conservatives in the past would never have forgot, that Parliament has defects as well as perfections. MPs often react on the basis of an emotive tabloid headline and not from a reasoned appreciation of the issues. Furthermore Parliament is overloaded with business at the moment- it often spends far too little time on major issues- and probably wouldn't have the time to really consider this kind of thing adequately. Parliamentary oversight, if it meant anything, could easily lead to a more puritanical restatement of what we already have- which is not the direction I think we need to go in. I think we need to adjust the balance between violence and sex and also need to adjust the balance against purposeless nudity or violence on screen- Parliament is more likely to keep the balances the same in all instance and tighten up. And furthermore it is likely to do that on an adhoc basis- paying attention only when the media pays attention. There is a whole argument about standards of censorship- but I'm not sure that Parliament is the appropriate place to make decisions about the minutiae or hear appeals.

Furthermore in setting guidelines, I think its right to err on the side of liberty. The problem is that MPs are more likely to err on the side of caution and make the guidelines stricter than they need be. I wonder whether the natural authoritarianism of politicians and the press might create a real problem here of censorship- it would be a real loss if for instance Casino or Goodfellas were not allowed to be shown in the UK because of the decision of various members of Parliament. Of course this is an argument against all regulation- and it doesn't work all the time- but speech is a central and important freedom, without which democracy becomes difficult to secure. It isn't easy to censor speech- that's why personally I prefer a voluntary code that says more about who can watch a film (depending on age) than on what everyone should watch. This is not an easy issue- but I'd prefer that we have to endure a couple Hills have Eyes Two, if the choice is between that and Parliamentary regulation of what can be said on film, lets err on the side of free speech.