Public Banking and Taxing the Wild Frontier: Part Two

Legalization Is Pushing Small Cannabis Farmers Out, So Lets Make the Pot Profits Work for Everyone

A large chunk of hippy counterculture took a turn toward a rural agrarian lifestyle in the 1970’s in a movement called ‘back-to-the-land’ and subsequently discovered a path to riches. Marijuana is illegal under federal law so smoking it became a mark of the renegade subculture — growing and selling it even more so. Growing cannabis was a way for the people of this movement who sought to reconnect with nature and disconnect from mainstream American society to support themselves. What began as a practice for supplementing an alternative lifestyle up in the secluded mountains of northern California blossomed into one of the most lucrative industries on the west coast today, with much of the cannabis heading east to find markets in the rest of the country. Within a single generation, the hippy subculture turned from gleefully impoverished idealists seeking self-sustenance to rich independent farmers when the full financial potential of this crop was inevitably realized.

Money was never the objective when hippies started cultivating cannabis in the mountains, but by the time President Reagan declared a war on drugs small-time farmers were making millions. It was a curious transformation riddled with irony: a people trying to escape individualistic materialism and found a communal ethic out in the woods suddenly found an easy path to riches. Just how much money changed the culture is debatable. What is undeniable though is that the marijuana that was grown in Northern California found its way into a vast unregulated market worth billions of dollars. It would only take a few decades for politicians to start eye-balling that black market money, especially with the negative perceptions of smoking marijuana cooling off nationwide.

As of January 1st, 2018, the law approved by a simple majority of all Californian voters are in effect, attempting to bring cannabis cultivators back into the fold of the taxable California State economy. No longer will the industry operate in a strictly core-periphery dynamic: the secluded hills and favorable climate where cannabis is grown are now heavily targeted by entrepreneurs. The old-school cannabis farmer lived in a community that developed a sense of freedom and independence while simultaneously feeling besieged by the federal government. Paranoia was a shared sentiment that reinforced defiant hippy beliefs about authoritative American culture and produced an ethic of mutual aid. High profits, a protected geography dubbed the “Redwood Curtain,” and a healthy degree of solidarity among cannabis farmers allowed for a mutated form of hippy counterculture to persist. But once the word got out around the mid-nineties more people started flowing into Humboldt, Mendocino and surrounding counties in what became known as the “Green Rush” (because cannabis is the new gold). The profit margin was just too darn high to keep people from jumping on the bandwagon that hippies inadvertently created and sustained.

It’s a story that has been told before and people started to notice the continuity of the back-to-the-land hippies with the American culture they initially broke off from. This perceived connection brought local author Ray Raphael into the study of the revolutionary America with his popular history books. [Ray Raphael] Having written books on nature, northern Californian geography and marijuana farmers in Cash Crop: An American Dream, he then went on to become a decorated heterodox historian of the revolutionary period with an eye towards everyday people and their struggles. Near the end of Cash Crop, Raphael writes, “As a rags-to-riches story, the marijuana boom goes straight to the heart of American mythology.”

“A heightened sense of individualism — that definitive ideal of Americanism, the theoretical hub of our social philosophy — is central to the ideology of marijuana growers. The flamboyant and free-spirited “do-your-own-thing” of the original back-to-the-land movement has evolved quite effortlessly into more traditional manifestations of American individualism: an obsession with private property and a conservative reaction against governmental intrusions into private affairs.” (p.160)

It’s as if hippies tried to escape America in their communes only to find more America. Instead of a utopia of liberation they found the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, an independent and self-sustaining landowner in a vibrant community. After the communes disintegrated, the spirit of communitarian values persisted and even thrived thanks to influx of bags full of greenback dollars. But were the new riches creating greater resiliency or altering the culture to one of materialistic wealth accumulation?

In a particularly ominous passage Raphael writes,

“From a democratic point of view, perhaps the biggest failure of the traditional capitalist system is its tendency for consolidation. Small businesses continually go under, either driven out or swallowed up by their larger competition. Even in agriculture, the family farm is no longer a viable unit; high-tech agribusiness drives prices down to where small, labor-intensive farmers can no longer compete. Apparently, consolidation is an inevitable feature of capitalism — except in the case of marijuana farming. In the marijuana industry there are structural forces which counteract the natural tendency toward centralization. The combination of illegality and geographic isolation provide built-in guarantees against consolidation. The larger the operation, the higher the risk — so there’s a strong incentive to stay small and decentralized.” (p.171)

With the protective barrier to consolidation and bigness gone, replaced by legal farms able to withstand the very high start-up costs, the pioneers of cannabis farmers face an uncertain future. The high taxes, lawyer and filing fees, new labeling requirements, and more have prevented most farmers from becoming legal compliant. As of March 2018, over 99% of cannabis farmers have not gotten through the onerous licensing process. [Report: 99% of Cannabis Growers Are Still Unlicensed] Especially onerous is the excise tax — just like Alexander Hamilton leveled on the whiskey distillers. The cannabis excise tax comes in at a whopping 15%, with multiple sales taxes accompanying it along the supply chain until retail. This has caused the price of legal cannabis to jump about 50% at the same time as the price of illegal cannabis sold on the street plummets. So many people began growing this plant during the green rush that it resulted in a glut in the market supply, without adequate means for those new farmers to go legal. After prop 64 took effect, people who once could live off of their marijuana crop now find themselves in dire straights.

At the time of writing this piece, politicians are signaling that they will attempt to lower the excise tax in a bid to draw more cannabis farmers into the fold. [California considers cut in marijuana taxes in bid to lure legal users] Such would be an act of mercy and justice for the pioneers of an industry that will net the state billions in additional tax revenue. In a contentious hearing at the board of supervisors meeting in Humboldt country (ground zero for early cannabis farming), citizens poured into the halls to plead for lower taxes and the end of corporate loopholes that favor the wealthy. [Frustration and Fear: Local Cannabis Farmers Ask for Help, Claim Measure S Could Put Them Out of Business and Deprive County of Their Tax Revenue] It’s still unclear whether the barriers to entry will remain so high, but people are pushing back and want to be a part of the legal economy. The demand is now for an easier way to join the state regulated economy rather than escape it. The pot growing community has come a long way since the idealistic days of nonconformity.

The desire for access into the regulated market is mainly to prevent the consolidation of industry that Ray Raphael wrote about in Cash Crop. People had always known that legalization would encourage big agribusiness to move into their backyard; without proper permits, law enforcement would end up taking down the smaller business instead of targeting the large ones like it did in the past. Legalization mixed with high taxes has meant that the scale of cannabis farms is getting bigger, a reversal of the tacit agreement between the community and federal drug enforcement that kept operations small. It is the fear of monopoly capitalism that supersedes fear of big government for the people out west — it is the Left Coast after all. The only game left in town is tweaking the rulers so that the law promotes a decentralized industry instead of one dominated by a few players. If we believe with Raphael that capitalism inevitably consolidates into monopoly power, then fair laws that protect small farmers are the only check cannabis farmers have left.

With the law kept as is, small farmers will likely be phased out of the market. Bigger farms tend to yield more product with fewer costs in what economists call “economies of scale” or, in other words, capitalist consolidation. Perhaps the back-to-the-landers are facing a reckoning for failing to curtail gangs from extracting as much black market profits from the region or for looking the other way when signs of environmental damage were all too apparent. [Outlaw Weed Comes into the Light] But there are forces at play that dwarf the collective power of this little haven that hippies found in Northern California. The next step for counterculture on the west coast will be to engage with those greater forces and follow the money instead of stash it.

If cannabis farmers (whoever ends up with the legal profits in the industry) could pool their money together into a bank that the entire state of California has access to as deposits for loans, a great victory would be achieved. A public bank would be the saving grace of the hippies and cement their legacy as a true force against American mainstream capitalism. This would complete the journey of the back-to-the-landers after their escape from American culture. They could take their place alongside the populist farmer movements like the NonPartisan League that willed the Bank of North Dakota into existence. [How the Nation’s Only State-Owned Bank Became the Envy of Wall Street]

The best part is, one doesn’t even have to be a cannabis farmer nor ever have been in the cannabis industry. All we have to do is educate people on the benefits of public banking and for those people to lobby California politicians. [Public Banking Institute] The crucial factor on this issue is linking cannabis profits with accessible deposits for the rest of California. [A Public Bank for Pot Entrepreneurs? How About the Rest of Us?] Such would be practical way to bring economic justice to everyone in the state (and galvanize a nationwide movement) instead of just those under the majestic Redwoods.

For the next installment, I’ll give a brief history of the controversy over the whisky tax in the 1790’s before moving on to public banking.

Public Banking and Taxing the Wild Frontier: Intro

What the Whiskey Rebellion Can Teach Us About Using Cannabis Money for Public Banking

Something big is stirring out west. Since the California voters passed Proposition 64, cannabis use and cultivation has been made legal for all adults over 21 years old and the consequences of this law are far reaching. When we contrast the history of cannabis cultivation with the new practices resulting from Prop 64, a story emerges that is at once new and old. What is new is a centralized, regulated, and taxed cannabis industry replacing the decentralized small farmers of the past, what is old is a story of taming frontier economies with high taxation. It’s a story that is liable to provoke romantic sentiments for the plight of the small-time farmer in the face of unstoppable capitalist progress but we can do better. With the right degree of activist lobbying the cannabis industry can lead the charge in demanding a California state public bank – a bank that would solidify the populist legacy of the outlaw pioneer cannabis farmer.

Something similar was accomplished in the first years of the republic. During the so-called ‘Whiskey Rebellion’ (a term invented to discredit the uprising) farmers on what was then the wild frontier formed militias to resist the new taxation policy of Alexander Hamilton. These rowdy ‘regulators’ protested against a financier-oriented tax plan that was onerous and unfair even though it ended up financing a beneficial new institution. Their anger was justified: western farmers had been targeted by the wealthy easterners before and now further economic burden would befall them where they could afford it the least. Protesting in those days had a different meaning than it does today. We haven’t seen someone tarred-and-feathered in centuries, nor have we seen spontaneous armed uprisings in quite some time. Instead, we should look at what all of this tax revenue generated by the whiskey tax was used for and what all of this money generated by the Cannabis industry could be used for now.

Despite the absence of tax-resisting militia-men today, the similarities between the changes taking place within the cannabis industry and the Pennsylvania regulation of 1794 are striking, especially when we look into the realm of banking. Although the new cannabis tax revenue for California can’t go towards funding a public bank (the funds generated by prop 64 will go into a special fund predesignating where the money will go), the cannabis industry needs a place to safely store its profits and a public bank is the only kind of bank that can fit the bill. Marijuana is still a schedule one illegal substance at the federal level (amazingly, given its proven medicinal properties), so businesses operating in cannabis do not have access to nationally chartered banks under FDIC requirements. A huge industry generating many billions of dollars is forced to operate with duffle bags full of cash. A state owned and operated bank, on the other hand, bypasses this oddity and creates a win-win for both Californians and the cannabis industry.

Public banks have an enormous benefit for the economy within which they operate. Hamilton conceived the first Bank of the United States and the means to fund it entirely on his own. It helped stabilize the finances of the nation in its infancy after it had accumulated massive war debts both foreign and domestic. By a stroke of genius, those debts were parlayed into a system that convinced investors to do business with the unproven new nation and continue to allow the government to borrow on favorable terms. War debts became the basis of the new economy under this program of ‘Assumption’ and bondholders would continue to hold confidence in doing business with the American government. The only problem was the start-up costs came from poor frontier farmers already beset by economic suppression. It was a giant slap in the face to the people who had fought for liberty and independence, but the bank that financed it stabilized a nascent country in precarious circumstances. Today we have much more willing tax base, in spite of the many resentful cannabis farmers getting edged out by the high cost of going legit, and with the help of persistent public banking advocates a Public Bank of California that benefits the entire state is within reach.

The differences between these two events separated by over 200 years are numerous but three important elements bring them together: a profitable yet unregulated agrarian economy suddenly besieged by taxes, a maligned commodity that is much more than what it seems, and the establishment of a public bank (potentially this time). Like the cannabis farmer on the west coast, the whiskey distiller on the frontier lands of western Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Kentucky and elsewhere used distilled spirits as a cost-effective means for earning an income. Whiskey was downed by almost everyone in America and the frontier people could sell it to the easterners with a fraction of the transportation costs compared with other goods. At their high points both whiskey and weed were so valuable that they were used as money. [see Terry Bouton, ‘William Findley, David Bradford, and the Pennsylvania Regulation of 1974’ in Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation]

The burdens of taxation hit communities like these particularly hard. The whiskey rebels turned to the traditional form of protest to try and stop the tax collectors from charging distillers: armed mob threats against tax collectors, shutting down courts, and erecting liberty poles for gathering points. We’re pretty far away from seeing people using such tactics in 2018. However, a public banking movement has been boiling up for years now in both cities and states from Oakland to New Jersey. [Public Banking Movement Gains Grounds in Cities and States across the US]  If the cannabis industry can rally for a bank that would accept its money as deposits it would be a complete game-changer, offering a beacon of light to the similar public banking projects already underway in 20 other states. [How Public Banking Is Winning the West]

Populist finance has seen a resurgence since the Occupy movement put the spotlight on the greed of private banks and the vast disparity in wealth between the rich and the rest of us. [link from occupy.com] While frontier regulators of the late-eighteenth century opposed all financial schemes, today progressives understand that dealing with massive wealth inequality will take drastic measures at the state and national levels. Taking on Wall Street will require more than agrarian regulators marching against the tax man or, in other words, good-old-fashioned direct action. California State Treasurer John Chiang has been conducting public hearings after the formation of the Cannabis Banking Working Group and there the public made its desire for public banking known. Instead of giving them the brush-off, Chiang responded positively and it seems the lobbying by public banking advocates has been met with some success. [Activists Urge California Public Bank not Limit to Cannabis Revenue] The issue now is whether or not the prospective new bank will be extended beyond just the cannabis industry to cover the needs of general California business.

These developments are encouraging for populist finance. In an era beset by financial parasitism and high private debt levels, public-based solutions to money and banking point the way towards prosperity and equality. What will follow is a story about two moments in American history that connects the populist practices of the whiskey-fueled past with our pot-blazing present.

The Dude and the New Left in the Post-Cold War Era

It would be hard to overstate the impact that the Coen brother’s 1998 movie The Big Lebowski has had on contemporary pop culture. Social gatherings often fall into competitions for who can quote more lines from memory, cosplay for the movie’s characters is frequent, and twenty years after its release one can still find late-night screenings at the cinema packed with viewers. The fan base for The Big Lebowski has shown remarkable endurance and this may or may not be because of the points I will make in the following exposition, but shot throughout the film are references to the predicaments facing leftists in the post-Cold War period. Though the film is a patchwork of styles, genres, and character types often labeled ‘postmodern’ for being such a hodge-podge, but there are clues running through the story that allow for the viewer to put together an over-arching message – like a puzzle. With the shear amount of interest in and admiration for this movie, a large chunk of the population has a chance to learn about the perils of leftists political activity and the difficulty in maintaining it.

The Big Lebowski has already been subjected to numerous studies and cultural analysis on a variety of topics and its popularity will see to it that it will remain fertile grounds for diverse interpretations. The old-Hollywood style musical dream sequences filled with Valkyrie women, phallic bowling ball pins, giant scissor-wielding nihilists, and Saddam Hussein ensure that Freudian takes will crop up and references to the dude’s youthful activity as a New Left radical in the sixties ensure that its political context can’t be ignored either. It’s in taking stock of the images popping up throughout the film that we can detect a firm connection between both: The Dude’s predicament and the greater predicament facing America in the 1990’s overlap, so that the anxieties and concerns of the dude are a reflection of the time-period. The dude’s unconscious desires are not merely private, they resonate with his own Baby-Boomer generation rolling along past the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the movie has struck the greatest cord among their children. Those who came of age in the nineties or “Gen-Xers” and those proceeding them as “Millennials” are the people who have taken Lebowski most close to heart. It’s not the older generations who are putting on their best Walter impressions and acting out scenes over drinks; the youth have embraced the rich personalities in The Big Lebowski while, both curiously and provocatively, they reflect the anxieties of an older generation. What results is an odd kind of inter-generational transference of the afflictions of Baby-Boomer leftists onto the younger, post-Cold War babies. It’s not an accident that Maude Lebowski doesn’t want The Dude to father the child she has conceived with him: the problems of the left will be transferred to the next generation by a non-familial medium, like a film.

There are many ways to interpret a film so off-the-wall and popular, but I want to stick with the one involving politics and inter-generational relations. For this purpose I will draw on the assistance of particularly thoughtful work of film studies edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe in The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, particularly in the essays by Stacy Thompson and David Martin-Jones. Thompson helps highlight the significance of The Dude’s history as a member of the New Left during his heyday, while Martin-Jones helps draw the connection between the film’s motifs and American national policy since it has emerged as the dominant world power after World War II. Though the conclusions drawn by the latter remain more convincing to me but together they demonstrate how the Dude and Walter’s adventure has a significance that stretches deep into the American national psyche.

Lebowski Studies

We are told at the outset of the film by a deep-voiced cowboy narrator that its main character will be “The Dude.”He says of the Dude: “I won’t say a hero, because what’s that?”, but a protagonist nonetheless. The mystic cowboy that sandwiches our story doesn’t have much to say about the Dude aside from the fact that he has a certain fondness for him and that he is quite possibly one of the laziest people in the world. The crucial point that he works himself up to saying is that, aside from labeling him as a sort of anti-hero, “he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the dude.” So, despite the fact that the monologue is delivered in a sleepy tone that wanders without urgency, we learn from the get-go that somehow (without explicitly explaining why) the Dude has a special significance for the city of Los Angeles. More broadly speaking, he also mentions the era in America in the time of the first Gulf War or Operation Desert Storm. The opening remarks trail off with: “[s]ometimes there is a man, sometimes, there is a man…” before he abruptly cuts himself off, not sure where all of this talk about “a man” is really going.

As The Dude floats through a big-box grocery market to buy the one missing ingredient for his favorite cocktail, the ‘White Russian,’ he catches a glimpse of the former CIA director and current commander-in-chief George H.W. Bush giving quick justification for his sending the United States military into battle to fight against Iraq: “this aggression … will not stand.” It’s this phrase that will set off The Dude on his quest and offers us the closest thing to a motive. When his house is broken into and his rug soiled, it’s this feeling of being violated that works him up into seeking a replacement rug. Without this sentiment – that unwarranted aggression is unacceptable and must be challenged – the oft-repeated desire for a new rug will be a red-herring. Even when The Dude gets a new rug, he isn’t particular about which one it is, and the rug’s desirability is only to “tie the room together.” The rug only serves as an object on which to focus his sense of injustice – The Dude has been wronged and something must be done in response.

It’s only after some inflammatory conversation with his friend Walter at the bowling alley that The Dude has his sense of injustice flared up enough into doing something about it. The conversation that provokes him into action is confusing and multi-layered (“you have no frame of reference Donny”), having become something of an infamous point of reference for film critics and others. I’ll leave comments on this conversation for another time, but what’s important for the point I am trying to illustrate here is at the end of this jumble of contentious words is that Walter eventually wins out and convinced the Dude to retaliate for this wrongdoing.

Walter provides much of The Dude’s support throughout the film by egging him on. He’s a persistent instigator who often wrecks havoc on the situation, more bravado and impulse than a helpful collaborator. As a stereotypical Vietnam War veteran, Walter’s outbursts give the film tension-filled comic relief that makes him out into a buffoon. His personality is a perfect contrast to the Dude’s lazing-about attitude, but the point here is that the two of them are both in agreement that something must be done to right the wrong of The Dude’s soiled rug. People just can’t go around destroying the property of others in America according to Walter’s inflated sense of righteousness and he becomes The Dude’s partner in the quest for retribution because, ultimately, he’s right. His methods look like taking a bulldozer to a garden party, but there always remains the possibility that he really is “calmer than you are.”

After taking the initial action in the name of retribution, The Dude is strung along by hopes for a big pay-out from the big Lebowski, an apparently rich man who touts his own achievements as a wealthy businessman. And this further demonstrates how the rug is a red herring: the Dude allows himself to stumble into the scheme of another for the sake of quick cash. Having gotten himself caught up in a rat race for a briefcase full of lost money, our “man for his time and place” must now figure out what’s going on with the big Lebowski’s money. What began as play for compensation following an injustice will result in something much more complicated.

Eventually, we learn that The Dude had quite an interesting early career. He did go to college but spent most of his “time uh,  occupying various administration buildings,” “breaking into the ROTC,” and playing the part of the rabble-rousing young man of the New Left era. He claims to be one of the authors of the “original” Port Huron statement (“…the original Port Huron Statement, not the compromised second draft.”) and a member of the Seattle Seven. All of these claims place him firmly in the tradition of the New Left – more of a phenomenon than a coherent movement in which young students engaged in civil disobedience in large numbers to protest and disrupt the imperialist policies of mid-century America. The Coen brothers have admitted that their character The Dude is inspired by a real-life person named Jeff Dowd, himself one of the members of the Seattle Seven and the Seattle Liberation Front. Dowd himself went on to be a film producer and not the casual lay-about, so the image of The Dude as an intentionally lazy single man is a product of the Coen brother’s imagination. He represents the retreat from the wild political activity of the 60’s and 70’s into individualistic tranquility. Whether by physical exhaustion and burnout, disillusionment with the cause, reactionary suppression, or some other reason, the New Left fizzled out before the Reagan revolution swept into power. Both The Dude and Walter are contrasting character profiles in coping with the trauma of that time period, with Walter having fought in the Vietnam War and The Dude undoubtedly having protested against it.

Port Huron

The New Left generation was inspired by Martin Luther King’s sustained movement of civil disobedience in the Jim-Crow South for a morally righteous cause. They sought alternative forms of political participation because they felt marginalized by the towering bureaucracy of Washington and looked towards adult professional life with dread. Gravely concerned that their nation was becoming a malevolent empire, students created their own cultural shift to ward off the banality of American life in the early 1960’s. The movement was given a foundation by a group of students with aspirations toward building a greater body of activists throughout the country, calling themselves The Students for a Democratic Society or SDS. The Port Huron statement was crafted by a charged-up party of students sequestered in a camp retreat that was owned by labor unions. Dozens of students would all participate in a group-writing process that crystallized their hopes and beliefs for reinvigorating democracy in America. Suddenly it felt like they had a voice in creating a new founding document, a document that carefully covered all of their ideological bases but kept their vision for the future vague. In that exciting atmosphere, a guy like Jeffrey Lebowski was pushing for the more militant version (on which there is some contention over its historical existence), staking out his claim as a revolutionary.

The protests and street demonstrations that flowed from the positions of the SDS gave a generation the radical sense of possibility. With young people swarming together over principled concerns and unified in a sense of outrage over an unjust war it felt like something new and better was emerging within American culture. The activists within and around the SDS wanted to stop their own nation’s turn towards imperialism and they weren’t shy from instigating mob actions to do it. Someone like a pre-Dude Jeff Lebowski would fit in nicely with the radical wing of this milieu.

Initially met by some success, the SDS had immense difficulty scaling-up its direct democracy practice (or ‘participatory democracy’) to cover its expanding base. Attempts were made to streamline the process for a more centralized organization but these were never brought to consensus. Alas, the organization was taken over by “Old Left” sectarian Marxists that the New Left had tried to distance itself from from the get-go. The movement could not sustain itself and the SDS splintered into individually driven campaigns and initiatives, some of which turned out successful. It’s hard to know where to place the character of Jeffrey Lebowski in all of this, but it’s made fairly clear that The Dude has achieved a kind of happiness, or at least comfort, after a flurry of contentious political activity in his youth. The image of the dashing protester fighting for a just cause and coming from the New, resurgent Left has now been transformed into an aimless man of leisure.

This is thrown into The Dude’s face early on in the movie by the businessman he decides to confront. After getting the brush off, he stands firm: “The Dude minds man!”, “This aggression will not stand, man!”, and he takes the wealthy mans rug by deceit. This is not before The Big Lebowski gets in a few pointed lines: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost!” The Dude takes it all in stride. Unfazed, he gets what he wants, but on his way out he comes into contact with some other characters trying to take a piece out of the Big Lebowski: Bunny Lebowski and her accomplices, the nihilists. They too want a piece of his fortune and so have similar objectives. A few scenes later we learn that Bunny Lebowski has been kidnapped and The Dude is tasked with delivering the ransom money for a hefty reward. At first glance, it appears that the nihilists are behind the kidnapping. After The Dude can feel smugly satisfied in replacing his soiled rug, he allows himself to be dragged into a ransom affair. At this point, The Dude and the nihilists share a goal of purely monetary gain.

The nihilist are the true foil for The Dude, not simply because they are his competition but because they represent an extreme version of a potential path for him. The Dude’s laziness is ever at risk of falling into a passive nihilism whose ideological content is nearly identical to the film’s active nihilists who threaten to “cut off your Johnson!” They abuse their (non)ideological affiliation as a justification for behaving like thugs. As with every other character in The Big Lebowski, the nihilists are stereotypes. Lacking any real presence as criminals, they place all of their weight behind their ideological attachment to inspire fear. After all, what is so intimidating about a pet marmot?

The nihilists are made to look utterly ridiculous by the end of the film. Their empty exclamations (“We believe in nothing Lebowski!”) aren’t what worries The Dude so much as having his dick cut off. But they represent one of the many challenges for The Dude’s mind – the fate of his lifestyle and whoever else takes it up (and there are many out there, just read about Dudeism). In a truly care-free world without rules or beliefs of any kind, anything goes and everything is justified. Murder and the disintegration of the world can be met with a shrug, apathy and anti-politics can wash over the left, aggression can go unchecked. While the criminal nihilists are another colorful exaggeration of the film, the children of the New Lefties were widely derided in the 90’s for their apathy and non-involvement in politics. The serious viewer of The Big Lebowski must face the possibility that the Dude and his type has brought on a period of nihilism and political quiescence – exactly what The Port Huron Statement tried to fight off. It is certainly feasible that in 1998 the Coen brothers are provoking their viewers with the question of The Dude’s nihilism, or, in other words, how does our lovable aging hippy in The Dude separate himself from nihilism?

It’s in facing this question that we can turn towards Stacy Thompson’s essay ‘The Dude and the New Left.’ There is much digression into Lacanian psychoanalysis and terminology borrowed from Badiou, but she sketches an intriguing image of The Dude as a faithful adherent of New Left ideology. The founding document of the New Left is rather wordy and vague, standing primarily on principle but adding heaps of quick analysis on top of it. The Port Huron Statement shows signs an intense collaborative writing process by beginning with a shared sentiment, that American society is deteriorating into empire and meaningless work, and aggregates on top of that sentiment a multiplicity of responses by numerous participants. It’s the product of committed individuals trying to act out their dreams for a better society by including as many voices as they can, leaving no stone of their political anxiety unturned. It’s publication marks a turning point for the left, but one that left the organization (and perhaps a generation?) without a clear plan, only vague expressions of a desire for “more democracy.”

It is the Dude who maintains a fidelity to the [Port Huron] Statement as an event that shattered and reorganized the situation of his mid- to late-1960’s California life.

But where does laziness (as a sign of a failed New Left) fit into the SDS, the Statement, and fidelity? A clue can be found in the fact that the Port Huron Statement can be read as a lazy Communist Manifesto, where its laziness is precisely what allows for the Dude’s apparent shiftlessness. Where Marx and Engels list the famous Ten Steps Necessary to Move from Capitalism to Socialism and insist upon the “[e]qual liability of all to labour” (490), the Statement lists a series of “root principles” that must be implemented to move from a “domineering complex of corporate, military, and political power” to a “participatory democracy.” In relation to labor, the Statement argues that “work should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed, not manipulated, encouraging independence, a respect for others, a sense of dignity, and a willingness to accept social responsibility.” Isn’t it possible, then, that in the context of the Statement laziness can be something more than itself? Perhaps the Dude is not lazy but refuses to work at stultifying, non-creative tasks. The Dude takes the Statement at its word and refuses work (or refuses to look for work) that doesn’t interest him. Only when the Big Lebowski offers the Dude a sleuth gig, ironically recently upbraiding him for laziness, does the Dude, intrigued, accept the job.”

-Thompson

On this take, the Dude is actually faithful to The New Left and the Port Huron Statement by being lazy. It was a lazy document lacking discipline and so the Dude is the long-term consequence of this moment, considered within the hindsight of the 1990’s. Considering that the New Left was marked by a surge of activity both aggressive and morally inspired, the Dude is its natural product. This feature of the Dude could be read negatively because the New Left is regarded as a failure that withered away but it could also be read generously; in a world where work indeed is largely unfulfilling and tedious, the Dude is a shining example of living comfortably and as he wishes. The Dude is beholden to nobody, does what he pleases, and isn’t forced to compromise his beliefs for a boss. Living like the Dude is something many people around the world can only dream about. A legion of fans can attest to the Dude’s status as a cultural icon of doing as one pleases, a west coast superstar of hippy hedonism.

But the Dude’s celebrity has a blemish: he is the loyal inheritor of a failed movement. As a lovable sage for a new generation of citizens he risks becoming the champion of blissful, self-indulgent apathy. This is why the Coen brothers must have him do battle with the nihilists or… at least confront them. The Dude does believe in something and it is a widely shared belief operative throughout the international community: aggression cannot go unchecked. A nation or a person should not be allowed to attack and steal from another unprovoked. The Nazis can’t just invade all of Europe and thugs can’t just walk into someone’s house and pee on a stranger’s rug. The Dude and the New Left’s formula for how to remake the world into a more principled one might not have been well-defined enough to persist but they do reflect a commitment to justice – a commitment perhaps too fleeting to be carried on all by itself.

And here is where Walter Sobchak must enter the picture. Just as the Dude is the caricature of the aging New Left radical, so Walter is a blatant caricature of the traumatized Vietnam War veteran. Walter is obsessed with upholding a principled order of civil liberties and civil rights in a world he believes is letting them slip away. And that’s putting it mildly. No incident and no encounter is too small for Walter to miss a chance to get on his high horse and rant about how he risked his life for the liberties they enjoy. He says, “Lady, I got buddies who died face down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!” – apparently believing that Vietnam was a defensive war. Given the Dude’s extreme care-free attitude, it makes sense that his buddy is such a complete opposite on the spectrum of assertiveness. This all measured on scales of personality and not on the scales of belief mind you: we assume that they don’t have glaring differences in opinion because they are such good friends. This means that the Dude has actually accomplished something that the New Left wanted to do but couldn’t bridge the cultural gap to achieve: binding the anti-war protester with the war veteran. Despite the demonstrations and the large publicity, the New Left was unable to end the Vietnam War and it wasn’t until internal sentiments of the troops reached such a high pitch that true pressure was felt by the high command. It was the grunt soldiers that fragged their commanding officers and the military disobedience that forced the US to exit Vietnam without victory, not the civil disobedience. There is no indication that Walter knew anything about this, or even the thought that the war itself was anything but noble, but Vietnam isn’t a point of contention that has ripped through his friendship with the Dude either. It is more likely that their friendship is bound by their shared ethnic background in being Polish. Sobchak and Lebowski are both Polish names and it is another well-hidden clue from the Coen brothers that ethnicity is what brings an old leftist and a wing-nut libertarian together.

Walter believes with far more zeal than the Dude can muster that aggression cannot go unchecked. He’s carried it down to the smallest of places in LA, like in coffee shop etiquette or bowling rules, well, “league games” at least. He sees himself as a knight that must protect the order of society through force and determination. But he’s not your typical law-and-order conservative at all, certainly not when carrying a machine gun to… help the Dude perform his task as a bag-man in the ransom episode. His type is that of the civil libertarian watchdog, putting up a fight against all the forces that would conspire to erode our “basic freedoms.” His disproportionate use of force against Smokey at the bowling alley for stepping over the line and committing a fault gives us everything we need to know: “Has the whole world gone crazy?! Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?! Mark it zero Dude!” Walter is easily agitated because he thinks that nobody has the backbone to defend their rights anymore. He sees himself as the last defense against a world without a purpose, a world that will let its liberties slip away with a shrug, he’s the last defense against, in other words, nihilism.

It’s no accident that Walter knocks out the nihilists all by himself, while the Dude is trying to hand them a few dollars to make them go away. He calls them out for being toothless and puts his foot down on the same principle that sparked the Dude initially: “what’s mine is mine” whether what is owned is a rug or the contents of his wallet. It’s not so much a question of guarding one’s private property that is the issue here (nor is it “the Chinaman”), the issue is “unchecked aggression”, a sense of injustice that must be righted. This is a unifying sentiment for the Left and no person or group of people is spared from reproach for committing an unjust act. The sense that insufferable harm is being systematically inflicted on people anywhere around the world is partially what defines the left. The Dude senses this too but he has left his activism days behind as he attempts to revive his own personal dignity, hence, the nihilists are a threat to his manhood. Walter, on the other hand, has no lack of confidence and he ejaculates his frustration all over every situation. That the two have buddyed-up is a little glimpse of a representation of both the left and the right coming together in a tense but not exactly dysfunctional relationship.

the-big-lebowski

Walter represents more than just an over-correction to the Dude’s placid character. He’s also a converted Jew who at one point loudly quotes Theodore Herzl, the father of Israeli political Zionism (“If you will it, it is no dream”). His constant effort at staving off cultural complacency has led him zealously hold onto a belief in Judaism, a belief that he gained when he married his now ex-wife. The Dude calls him out near the end of the movie by saying, “your not even fucking Jewish man!” but Walter follows the rituals and takes his religion seriously, so its not his commitment that is at stake here. What matters is that his devotion feels arbitrary and he comes off as desperate holding onto it with such ferocity.

Walter’s conversion and resolve is an allusion to the US’s unwavering attachment to the state of Israel. Support for Israel in the US is something of a political necessity in Washington, despite an ongoing occupation, slow-motion colonization of Palestinian lands, massive poverty, and disproportionate use of force. It’s gotten to the point where professors at universities are losing their jobs for their criticisms of Israel. It’s as if every question of the legality or morality of the actions of the state of Israel is met with a Walter shouting in your face to shut up. This is just one of The Big Lebowski’s foreign policy references and when put together they create an important world-political subtext that runs throughout the Dude and Walter’s adventure.

Our rambling cowboy friend who introduces us to the Dude from the outset of the movie also sets us within the stage of history. He informs us that this affair took place “just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis”, right before going on about how the Dude fits into this time and place. Saddam Hussein himself makes an appearance in one of the Dude’s trippy dream sequences (to complement George H.W. Bush’s t.v. appearance early on) and we are never spared from Walter going on and on about the Vietnam War. It’s within this loose association of early-nineties images that there is a connection (“not a literal connection Dude”) to the uneasy place that the left occupied – and perhaps still does. Walter persistently invokes Vietnam because of the trauma of his experience in the war no doubt, but on the world stage, the war tarnished the image of the United States as a benevolent global actor. The atrocities committed by soldiers, fruitless and destructive bombing campaigns, chemical warfare, and civilian murders all worked against the national image, provoking deep regret and soul searching among the American population. Opposition to the Vietnam War unified much of the left and helped confirm the worries of the SDS that their country was becoming an empire without conscience. Anti-war demonstrations were massive and inflammatory, no doubt where Jeffrey Lebowski cut his chops as a radical. The nation will forever live with that stain on its record but the perception of the nation shifts as time keeps a rollin on…

After the end of the Gulf War, the first president Bush was quoted privately saying, ““By God, weve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” It was the ease of achieving victory and the apparent righteousness of the American cause in operation Desert Storm that brought on a sort of reappraisal of the United States as the only remaining world power. The war faced almost no opposition at home, compared to Vietnam’s mass demonstrations, and Washington could portray the event as an assistance in Kuwaiti self-defense. Moreover, this was facilitated by images that well-depicted the US military’s might. New footage from a behind the cross-hairs perspective placed the viewer in the shoes of a soldier. The Soviet Union had collapsed, Americans could rejoice, and the world suddenly had a triumphant superpower winning wars it could be proud of. There was only one problem: nobody could figure out what the war was all about. The motive, the reason for engaging in such an expensive war couldn’t be pined down aside from a few catch phrases like “stabilizing the region” and “unchecked aggression.” But there was a nagging suspicion that this all had something to do with the huge reserves of oil in Kuwait, oil that Saddam had his eyes on and the US wouldn’t let him take.

Guf War Time

With these developments, the chip on America’s shoulder was removed, or it appeared to be removed at least. And that’s what matters in this context: the Walters of the world could suddenly be made out to be less crazy and more sympathetic. It would be difficult to counter the narrative of a benevolent American superpower “making the world safe for democracy” now. This sense of victory for tradition and militarism, combined with the disintegration of the communist bloc in eastern Europe, plagued the left throughout the 90’s and beyond. There wasn’t a good enough analysis for what had just happened to challenge the prevailing image of purely idealistic motive for the US. They would have to wait until the second Iraq war turned out to be such a disaster for that sense of possibility to return.

The confusion surrounding the First Gulf War, together with its revitalizing effect, remains in the background of the Dude’s story. Aside from images and name drops, the progressive destruction of the Dude’s car holds symbolic value. Martin-Jones brings the connection to light: “Far from “pop cultural potpourri,” The Big Lebowski uses its intertextual references and film buff-directed allusions to invite the viewer to make the connection between the life of the Dude, his car-oriented context, and the legacy of America’s past.” (p.210) Cars have been integral to American culture since the days of Henry Ford and the mass manufacturing of consumer products. The mass production of automobiles that the working class could both build and afford to buy marked a turning point in capitalist development, dubbed Fordism. Fordism “created a feedback loop in which interminably fed consumerism. Moreover, as this process began to spiral outward, car production also affected the spatial geography of the United States.” (p.211, Martin-Jones) As highways were built following WWII, Americans had a massively upgraded range of motion. With a car and freeways to drive them on one could travel across the country with ease – but only with a few tanks of gasoline. Oil became the primary strategic asset for American policy planners because it was and still is required to sustain the new economic program (really just a new version of capitalism) that kept consumers satisfied with their new automobiles. Sold as a ticket to freedom, these cars gave America a new image to replace the cowboy now occupying a frontier-less West, an everyman’s dream of self-mobility.

all america car 52

Our wistful cowboy friend in The Big Lebowski seems out of place at the bowling alley. His presence in late-90’s LA helps us bridge the jumble of background images related to US national policy with the Dude and his story. Located on the West Coast, Los Angeles could be read here as the termination of the frontier, or the final outpost in the wild west. The tumble weeds of the western plains blowing by the dueling gunman locked in a stare-down rolls its way into an LA beach. The auto-mobility now available to the American consumer means that everyone gets to don the image of the free and lonesome cowboy explore the open lands. The frontier is now anywhere in America. The cowboy becomes a symbol of freedom that see in the movies and romanticize. LA represents not only the advent of consumer-car culture but the Hollywood era of cinema. It was Hollywood films that gave us the image of the romantic cowboy to go along with its construction of highways and freeways for car owners. It is here that our Dude will have his car stolen, beaten and battered over the course of the story until finally the nihilists torch it. The Dude’s car is destroyed along with his freedom of mobility, his masculinity placed in jeopardy, his Johnson on the chopping block.

Right around the time SDS folded up and splintered off, a new international norm took shape that locked in US dependence on maintaining a steady supply of oil. Oil already was a vital aspect of any modern economy and the US was was outproducing all others with its steady stream of oil coming from various parts of the globe. Currency values were determined by the amount of a nation’s gold reserves, which also played a major role in the strength of an economy. With America bleeding gold in the early 1970’s and its relative economic strength diminishing, Nixon felt he had little choice but to end the gold backing of the dollar and let its value float. This means that dollars would not be redeemable in gold, instead changing in value relative to other currencies from day to day. As the 1970’s wore on and other nations began to challenge US economic superiority, a deal was struck with a Saudi Arabia that held more oil than any other nation on earth: Saudi Arabia agreed to accept only dollars, effectively forcing every other nation to borrow dollars to buy this necessary commodity. The result was effectively a new and bigger regime of imperialism, summarized under the term ‘petrodollar recycling,’ that was birthed right under everyone’s nose. A fractured left had no means to confront this development and the machinations of power politics eluded anti-imperialists, sending the US economy and others into a tailspin of oil shocks and high debt.

All of this had the effect of bolstering the US power position, but it was to the detriment of of domestic its domestic manufacturing base. The American automotive industry (and others) were no longer required to maintain economic supremacy. The Dude’s car could be smashed and burned, it didn’t matter. And as we turn back to the Dude in post-Fordist LA, we see that the New Leftists had the right enemy (US imperialism) but not the right mix of energy and discipline. His story takes place in LA because it “is perhaps the point of at which the westward expansion of the interstate necessitated by Fordism literally ran out of room.” (p.213, Martin-Jones) LA is a city of cars and highways, a place where America’s need for oil is best symbolized, and it is that most westward city in which US economic manufacturing gave way to another kind of economic management involving the rest of the world. The road of imperialism goes through LA and out to a new frontier, no longer on the American continent.

None of this is on the Dude’s radar, it fills the background of his quest initiated by his need to take a stand. He’s not so defeated that he cannot see it through to the end and discover that the money everyone is chasing around doesn’t exist. There is something potent in having the big revelation in The Big Lebowski be the moment when the Dude realizes he has been tricked by the wealthy businessman; in fact, the wealthy businessman isn’t actually wealthy or successful at all. It was all a con to make everyone think there was a lot of money where there was none. This doesn’t mean that dollars are all fake or that rich people aren’t rich, it means the source of their wealth is the result of a system based on a lesser-known trick: the diplomatic invention of one Henry Kissinger. That the Dude can see through the big Lebowski’s trick makes him a redeeming character: lazy people can be good detectives too.

cosplay-big-lebowski-2

The ultimate Irony of The Big Lebowski lies between it and its fan base. Just as the American Left stumbles along after the New Left pool of righteous anger dried up, so do its fans adore its characters without detecting the critical subtext. Just as ecstatic fans enjoy the movie without grasping it as a political commentary, so does the state of American political discourse continue fire-up or slough-off by turns without understanding the geopolitical dimensions of international politics that underwrite every important political decision. In a strange way, the themes of Lebowski are reflected in the cultural space its fans created, making the movie seem like it’s trolling its own fan base. Even film critics and scholarly commentary miss the significance of US militarism lurking underneath the plot. Everyone loves the movie, but nearly everyone misses the geopolitical aspect; the cheeky caricatures keep everyone coming back, while the political realities that move the world the most nestle their way into our unconscious desires, seemingly destined to remain their forever. Such is the way of the world that the New Left could not change for its children: our understanding of world powers and the man moving the levers behind the curtain are only brief images flashing before our eyes that sometimes persuade us what it is we should be getting angry about and without much effort.

We would do well to take heed of the wisdom of Hannah Arendt when she says in a late interview:

The New Left has borrowed the catchword of the third world form the arsenal of the Old Left. It has been taken in by the distinction made by the imperialists between colonial countries and colonizing powers… This imperialist leveling out of all differences is copied by the New Left, only with the labels reversed. It is always the same old story: being taken in by every catchword, the inability to think or else the unwillingness to see phenomena as they are, without applying categories to them in the belief that they can thereby be classified. It is just this that constitutes theoretical helplessness.” (p.210, ‘Thoughts on Politics and Revolution,’ from The Crisis of the Republic)

This situation is reflected in the script each time a character mimes the words of another. Even “the Dude abides” is taken from the big Lebowski’s line, “I will not abide another toe.” This persistent passing around of words and catchphrases in the movie focuses our attention on how the language we use is both passed down and manipulated by media.

The response to The Big Lebowski itself demonstrates this copying by the proliferation of catchwords and quoted lines. The Coen brothers could have more effectively conveyed these subtexts, a criticism Martin-Jones (citing Mike Wayne) brings up, but then it is doubtful that it would have achieved such a devoted following. That the script from The Big Lebowski has burned its way into the hipster lexicon means that these topics are ripe for discussion whenever the movie is brought up in a social setting. This is perhaps what has given the film its 20 year longevity as a cultural phenomenon: the viewer must think to tie the loose ends together, just like the Dude must straiten out the mess of competing actors trying to get their hands on the briefcase to learn the truth. This puts the Dude within that category of anti-hero detective which so prospered in Los Angeles for American cinema (think Jack Nicholson in Chinatown or Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep): the man who can move about a corrupt milieu and play the part but keeps his conscience intact. This savvy, grizzled stereotype is updated by the Coen brothers to include the man who has burned himself out of political activity early on but is still capable of discovering certain truths. This image of the Dude as anti-hero makes his shortcomings appear less fatal and his character more complex.

Fatherhood is not the Dude’s strength and he would agree. Luckily for him, when we learn that “a little Lebowski is on the way,” he will not have to do any child rearing, nor is he wanted to. Everyone seems to love the Dude like a puppy, not as an authority figure. The Coen brothers seem to be saying that the new generations of political leftists must navigate through the world without a father figure, as if the New Left could not manage to reproduce itself in the traditional familial manner. The New Left was born in rebellion not just of American society but of their Old Left ancestors. Now the question we are left with at the film’s ending is, what happens to the children born from rebels rebelling against rebels? Yet more rebellion? Is the vicious cycle is broken with the absence of a father, or does this only create more inter-generational strife? This is less of a lesson than a situation which confronts young people, a send off. Even if the Dudes of the world don’t handle authority very well they usually have good stories to tell, and occasionally we can learn something from them. They don’t take shit from “real reactionar[ies]” either.

The Old Left was united in a particular critique of capitalism that supplied the confidence necessary to interpret the ongoing developments of world history. It was when the explanatory power of this analysis broke down and the atrocities of the communist bloc became known in the west that the next generation felt it was time for a new beginning. The Dude’s passing reference to Lenin (“Vladimir Illanich Uleninov!”) suggests that he has (or at least he had) a critical understanding of the political economy of capitalism. Though the New Left was right to reject communism and the SDS folded when communist groups took it over, a new analysis of what was moving the great powers never filled the void. No doubt such analyses exist, but nothing that could function as a unifying current for the left as a whole has emerged. As we stand at the new frontiers of America, perhaps it would be wise to go back even farther than the Old Left and find out what it was that pushed so many onto the old frontiers. For no matter what becomes of the new in each generation, the continuity with the old must be reckoned with lest it haunt the new. But that’s just like, my opinion man.