John Pilger: Writing the workers out of the plot

Submitted by cathy n on 26 July, 2007 - 12:59

Ed Maltby reviews the War on Democracy

John Pilger has created a film which is informative, shocking and timely. The sheer amount of footwork involved in the production is impressive — he has travelled the length and breadth of Latin America to film it — and the constant stream of interviews Pilger throws at the viewer gives the film a fresh and authoritative feel. And yet somehow, despite it all, Pilger has managed to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory. He has taken solid research, verve and wit and put them together to create a flabby, directionless disappointment of a film.

Pilger’s film is a potted history of US imperialism in Latin America. Starting with a lengthy look at Venezuela, Pilger takes us on a whirlwind tour through some of the brutal coups d’états engineered by the CIA in Latin America: from the 2002 coup which briefly ousted Chávez in Venezuela, to Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile; from the 1954 coup in Guatemala to the Contras’ war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It ends on the upheaval surrounding the attempted privatisation of Bolivia’s natural resources. The film’s great strength lies in its interviews, in which spies, activists and slum-dwellers tell the story of American intervention in Latin America with breathtaking power and immediacy. A torture victim recounts his time spent in one of Pinochet’s concentration camps. The events of the anti-Chávez coup are related to us by inhabitants of Caracas slums whom Pilger meets in one of Chávez’s new Misiones. We are talked through coups in Central America by a CIA agent who speaks with unexpected candour about Washington’s attitude towards democracy (“that’s just silly”) and a teacher from the infamous School of the Americas.

In fact, Pilger’s film does a very good line in grotesques: the filthy rich bourgeois Venezuelan who fawns over his chandeliers and the greasy Washington spin doctor who lies through his teeth about the 2002 coup (“The United States did not support that coup”) hold a particular grim fascination as does the ageing CIA operative who spits bile at Pilger and declares, “We will intervene whenever we decide it’s in our… interest to intervene, and if you don’t like it — lump it.”

The problem with it all is, though, that grotesques, horror stories and disapproval of America is all that the film offers. Pilger’s film claims to be celebrating popular resistance to American imperialism, but it’s rather hard to take it seriously on that front. For one thing, he never mentions the working class. He talks about “the invisible people of Latin America”, he mentions “the poor” and people sleeping rough and living in slums. He romanticises the indigenous peoples in Bolivia, to the point where he would seem to suggest that Evo Morales’ greatest virtue as a politician lies in his being of indigenous descent. Indeed, Pilger’s studied failure to see the centrality of working-class struggle in the social upheavals he documents is quite impressive. According to Pilger, the Venezuelan people defeated the 2002 coup by having a big demonstration, whereupon he heavily armed bourgeoisie gave in. Strikes, and the response of organised labour to the coup is passed over. The heroic efforts of the Venezuelan oil workers to keep the oil flowing despite management paralysing the computer system, for example, didn’t get a mention. Pilger performs a similar operation on the workers’ movement in Bolivia. He prefers to think of it as a “people’s movement”. The COB’s general strike in September 2003, the regional strike committees which co-ordinated armed resistance against soldiers and police during the blockade of La Paz, the miners who led the movement in El Alto, all take a back seat. Instead, we are treated to lots of shots of Aymara flags, people in traditional costume, and, as in Venezuela, big demonstrations which miraculously topple a government, with not a union banner in sight.

It is this political weakness which scuppers the whole film. Pilger refuses to look at the class dynamic of grassroots movements in Latin America, seeing only an amorphous, “popular” mass which occasionally goes on big marches. For this reason, he cannot criticise Morales or Chávez – he sees them as being a part of the great, undifferentiated ‘resistance movement’.

For Pilger, the story of Latin America is not one of the self-organisation of the working class, but of people’s movements against imperialism. We can’t interrogate their class character or intervene ourselves, all we can do is cheer them on, and feel outraged and guilty about, as he puts it, “the misery to which we in the West have consigned them”. Pilger’s film thus degenerates into an extended hand-wringing session about the evils of American imperialism (while capitalism and bourgeois democracy get off scot-free) without positing any kind of positive class-struggle programme. Funny, I watched this straight after leaving the SWP’s Marxism event, and it all seemed oddly familiar…

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