Six degrees of Harvey Weinstein
What does the downfall of one of the film industry’s most powerful men tell us? Paul Demarty investigates
So, farewell then, Harvey Weinstein - a man not yet convicted of any crime, but accused of so many misdeeds across so small a territory in the vast open space of human viciousness that nobody will ever believe he is innocent of all of it.
The roll call of alleged victims is striking first of all for its length - dozens of accusers have come forward in the wake of the initial news stories in the New York Times and New Yorker, just as a single hole in the dyke yields to a great flood. Among them are Hollywood A-listers such as Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, begging the question of how many more women found that their path to stardom led through Weinstein and his greasy paws. Several told the New Yorker that they strongly suspected they were dropped from films after raising the alarm about Weinstein’s appetites, and Rose MacGowan claimed that Amazon’s production department canned a project of hers after she reported that Weinstein had raped her.
The primary difficulty we face with this matter is finding an appropriately wide canvas to understand its true significance. You could visualise a crime - any crime - as the point at the centre of a series of concentric circles, in which ever more of the causative material is encompassed. The innermost ring is the criminal’s immediate motives; the outermost the Big Bang. How far must we allow ourselves to travel?
Not too terribly far, if we are caught up among the furious reactions that have poured forth from mainstream media outlets and the like. There is first of all the sight of that most trusty of modern folk-devils, the sex-pest, the rapist indeed - evil, if anything can be so called. There are demands for justice on that individual level, and it is hardly surprising. At this level, if in nothing else, TheSun stands in principled solidarity with Vagenda.
The most vulgar of the rightwing press make it no further than here; but it is hard indeed not to take the additional step of placing the Weinstein affair within the very slightly wider context of the ‘casting couch’ practices endemic to the film industry and similar high-profile culture scenarios. Many indeed are the people aspiring to make a life for themselves on stage and screen - mostly women, but sometimes also men - who find success at least in part a matter of ‘how much you want it’ (double entendre intended). So far as the law is concerned, the vast majority of such activity is consensual; but those whose moral scruples do not advance so far as to denounce it may be assumed to benefit from it from time to time.
Cinema remains a very centralised business, in spite of the relatively modest material costs associated with putting together two hours of video in the contemporary era. Weinstein, along with his brother Bob, are central figures in the last three decades of the industry; it was their company Miramax that (in concert with Robert Redford’s Sundance festival) turned independent film into a sub-industry in its own right, with its own financing channels, distribution networks and aesthetic sensibilities, overlapping with the studio system, but not absorbed by it. It made Weinstein famous in his own right, and very rich - Miramax sold to Disney for $60 million, after which the other major studios noticed that there was money in ‘independent’ films, even if their independence was strictly relative. A strong performance in a well-received indie film is a big leg-up. (See, for instance, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s bone: a fine audition reel for the money-machine that is The hunger games franchise.)
At the gates of such opportunities lurk men like Weinstein - a few women, but mostly men. They are immensely wealthy, and they have droit du seigneur over all they survey. It is perhaps the case that Weinstein’s individual appetites stand out in their depravity, but maybe he has merely been busier or less careful than his peers. We should be astonished if nobody else at all is sucked along into ignominy in Weinstein’s slipstream.
At this point, the matter is settled for a great many others - Hollywood is Hollywood, and full to bursting with people who will take advantage of you, one way or the other. Why should a psychopath not find a comfortable home there? But that is not enough, at least, for yet a further set of fellow travellers, above all the feminists, for whom this is merely a single example among countless other indignities inflicted upon women on account of the persistent male pre-eminence in society’s upper reaches.
The difference, so far as Weinstein is concerned, consists in the glamour of stardom, which amplifies the voice of Angelina Jolie far beyond those of all the world’s obscure actresses, wannabe pop stars, aspirant politicians and professionals, etc - never mind those in random white- and blue-collar jobs. Dov Charney - the similarly disgraced CEO of the unlamented clothing brand, American Apparel - made a point of plucking AA’s models direct from his California factory floor, in the course of which we are given to understand that Weinsteinian methods of recruitment were employed. In our own line of reportage, we note a letter to Socialist Worker on the subject of Weinstein’s crimes and the systematic sexism of society, which will no doubt provoke a grim grunt of laughter from anyone who still remembers the Socialist Workers Party’s own rape scandal a few years back (that is, more people than you think, comrades).1
How this works today is a little complicated by the fact that it is official ideology that sexual harassment (never mind sexual assault and rape) is a very bad thing, that women should be afforded the same opportunities as men, that employers should (and do) adopt right-on diversity policies ... Yet - for reasons we will defer for a moment - it does not actually seem to have worked terribly well, so far as ensuring the kind of roughly equal gender distribution at all levels of the corporate and state hierarchies is concerned, or for stamping out sexual assault and the like.
The result is first of all that a story like Weinstein’s shall inevitably arise; and secondly that there is plenty of opprobrium to throw at the matter when it does. It will be remembered that the word ‘scapegoat’ comes ultimately from the practice of Second Temple Judaism (and after) of expelling a goat into the desert as a symbolic host of the community’s sins. The goat, of course, is innocent, whereas Weinstein appears not to be. Nonetheless, the fire with which he is being roasted is based on the same logic - because we have failed to abolish crimes like his, we must all the more obsessively denounce him.
The problem, then, with these periodic orgies of expiation, is in the end a matter of what they leave out, rather than what they include. The subordination of women is such a difficult ghost to exorcise, even when every establishment worthy available is on hand to tell us that it is unacceptable, because social subordination in general is inherent to class society. Rage at the crimes of a vicious individual comes at a cost - the cost of underestimating how ordinary such activities are in a wider sense, how, just as the threat of rape lurks within routine sexual harassment, so ugly violence is the last resort at keeping the machinery going which feeds us all.
A neat symbol of all this is the rather awkward position Hillary Clinton finds herself in, having accepted generous donations from the Weinsteins and also posed as womankind’s last bastion against the tangerine nightmare who would grab them by the you-know-what. She claims to be shocked - shocked! - at all the recent revelations, but it is barely credible, any more than if she had claimed to be shocked about Monica Lewinsky, after Gennifer Flowers and all the rest.
Clinton knows full well that such abuse arises fundamentally out of the power relations endemic to the system of capital. Men (and women) at the top are frequently in a position where they are able to force underlings to act in a way they do not wish. Her feminism is in the end a matter of making sure women like her get ahead; but to accept the fundamental, economic form of social inequality is to hamstring the fight against any of the rest.
1. Socialist Worker October 17. The letter’s author, Emma Davis, is a frequent Socialist Worker contributor, dating back many years, and presumably an SWPer. Why no article? Is that the still small voice of conscience at work?