Friday, March 14, 2008

A Serious Satirical Look at the Fall of Citizen Spitzer

by Norman Markowitz

The downfall of Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York has engulfed the media, pushing economic crisis, carnage in Iraq, and even the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination to the periphery. As the story unfolds, I think of old novels and movies.First Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter(which was revived as a national soap opera in the 1990s, with Monica Lewinsky as Hester Prynne, Bill Clinton as the Reverend Dimmesdale, and Kenneth Starr as Roger Chillingworth, in the 1990s revival the vengeance seeking rightwing Republican "special prosecutor," not the vengeance seeking former husband as in the original.

But we are living in the era of industrial capitalism, not the commercial capitalism of 17th century Puritan New England. Theodore Dreiser who wrote influential novels of social and economic forces beyond his characters control (and who at the end of his long life joined the Communist Party USA in 1945) first became famous in the United States more than a century ago for the novel, Sister Carrie. It is really as I see it the "master narrative" as contemporary literati might say, to the story that the media is pushing, even though I doubt that the CCN gang, Wyatt Cooper, even my fellow Dodger fan, Larry King, see it that way.

In Dreiser's novel, Carrie, a young girl from rural Wisconsin comes to Chicago, (rather like the girl in the present story who came from New Jersey to New York) without skills and education, but with hopes. After discovering the misery of factory work, she becomes the "kept woman" of a traveling salesman. Carrie though dreams of becoming a successful entertainer. From her beginnings at the "high end" of prostitution, she rises in the world by having an affair with an arrogant domineering and married Chicago saloon manager named Hurstwood.

The affair however doesn't do in Hurstwood. His embezzling from the bar does. He and Carrie then come to New York where he loses his money through gambling while Carrie begins to work in the New York theater. eventually becoming a star. After the very downwardly mobile Hurstwood becomes a scab streetcar driver during a transit workers strike, Carrie leaves him and he ends up sick and homeless, begging on the streets of New York, and finally taking his own life. Carrie goes on to stardom, but even that doesn't really her deep loneliness or give her a sense of personal worth.

Today the media is literally filled with accounts of the "rise" of the prostitute or "sex industry worker" who led to Spitzer's downfall. She has a song on the Internet, which is being downloaded today for 98 cents, a substantial rise from yesterday in the market. Her pictures are everywhere and there is talk of interviews, book deals. From "high class" sex worker she may be rapidly becoming high class virtual reality sex commodity. Lawyers, psychologists, even Hustler's Larry Flynt are popping up in television to give their interpretations of the morality play.

Will the girl who fled New Jersey to seek fame in show biz, only to become a commodity for the rich, follow the path of Sister Carrie and become a big money entertainment commodity? Will she end up like Sister Carrie lonely and unfulfilled in her success?

We can be sure that Eliot Spitzer won't end up like Hurstwood. First he is very very rich and no one has accused him of embezzlement. Even if he has to pay lawyers a fortune to get out of this scrape and another part of his fortune to get out of his marriage, he will still be very, very rich. There are homeless people on the streets of New York today, as there were a century ago, but Eliot Spitzer won't be one of them. There are beggers on the streets of New York but Spitzer won't be one of them. As for being a scab on the transportation system, the TWU, created, organized and led to victory as a recognized union by Mike Quill and his fellow Communist trade unionists at the time in the 1930s, is still way too strong to tolerate a scab driving a bus or running a subway train in a strike. No, there is no chance that Spitzer will end up like Hurstwood even though there is a reasonable chance that the woman in question will end up like Carrie.

Which gets us to the final plot, Orson Welles classic film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane has a huge amount of money and a desire for political fame and power. He creates a newspaper empire and poses as a champion of the little man and an enemy of corruption. Just as he is running for governor of New York(a pure coincidence) he is discovered to be having an affair with a "singer," Susan Alexander whom he is "keeping"(that old fashioned form of upper class prostitution) and his political career is ruined. He ends up withdrawing into his media empire after he marries Alexander and fails, even with his wealth and power, to make her star.

Although Kane was based largely on William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch rather than Spitzer most resembles Hearst today (Murdoch's press and television servants are of course part of the media mob milking this story for all that it is worth) Spitzer was notorious for his arrogance, his posing as the champion of the "little man" and honest government, and his ability to make a legion of enemies, even among those who agreed with his politics. Spitzer may end up like Charles Foster Kane, withdrawn and bitter and something of a rightwinger, as defending his fortune becomes his primary goal in life.

Let me conclude the "serious satirical" look at what is a non story with a few comments that really belong on a Marxist blog. Prostitution has existed throughout history and it has taken different institutional forms under different systems/modes of production. Both in pre capitalist and capitalist modes of production, it has served as form of conspicuous consumption for members of ruling groups, i.e., Spitzer can spend $4,000 plus traveling expenses to Washington for one brief sexual encounter with a woman, arranged as travel agents arrange a trip to a resort, because he has the money to do that. If he is a big business executive, a banker or broker, in short someone who doesn't have to answer to the general public in any serious way, it is a non issue. If he is an elected politician, where the power of people to vote give them a check over their political managers that they absolutely don't have over their economic managers, he is in very big trouble. The question that fills CNN, MSNBC, and perhaps even Fox News (I say perhaps because I cannot bring myself to watch Fox News without shouting Sieg Heil at the television set) is how could a man in his position have the bad judgment to do such a thing. I doubt anyone would ask such a question about a leading CE0 in a similar situation.

Prostitution, which is also getting a big play in the mass media, isn't about glamorous "high class" sex workers. It is about large numbers of women from poor countries, including the former Soviet Union, lured into sex slave rings by vicious criminals. It is about poor women working as street walkers in cities in the U.S. and throughout the world, brutalized by pimps. It is about women selling their bodies because of either coercion or choice because of the lack of real choices for them.

If there is a moral to this story, it is from the Communist Manifesto, the part where Marx and Engels sneer at the phony sexual morality of the bourgeoisie, who accuse the Communists of seeking to create a world of sexual promiscuity in which women will be collectively available to men, while promiscuity is what they and their class practice: "our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of our proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure at seducing each others is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women, springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private."

Now if I heard someone, just one person in "mainstream" U.S. media, make those points, I might take this story more seriously.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I made a small error. Marx and Engels wrote "their proletarians" not "our proletarians."

Norman Markowitz