Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Springtime For Joseph

"We shall not conceal from my lord that the silver has run out and the animal stocks are my Lord's! Nothing is left for our Lord but our carcasses and our farmland! Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our farmland! Take possession of us and our farmland in return for bread, and we and our farmland will be slaves to Pharaoh. And give us seed, that we may live and not die! And that our farmland not turn to desert!" 

And Joseph took possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharoah, for each Egyptian sold his field, as the land became Pharaoh's. And he reduced them to servitude, town by town, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other.
The Book of Genesis, Ch. 47 

In primary school, our Headmistress would tell us stories from the Old Testament with a fair amount of pizzazz (I also enjoyed anecdotes about her colonial experiences - shooting elephants, 'house boys' and all). Although obviously religious, she wasn't insistent that we accepted those wild tales (or British hegemony for that matter). To my impressionable mind, they were as believable as Marvel comics; but no less interesting for that. All that domestic skullduggery, apocalyptic punishment, imperial cruelty and confusing morality was just what the doctor ordered after an hour of maths. The stories were often a cue to work on some DaDa-esque mural, or papier mache installations soaked in glitter, red paint and PVA glue. Being an 'arty' kid, that part was easy. It was the 'moral' of the stories that was the tricky part. As we cut out fuzzyfelt Assyrians or sellotaped a Tower of Babel together, my mind would wander; frequently confused about God's peculiar hang-ups and hissy fits. Like if He was so annoyed with "the wickedness of the Human creature", why did He have to drown all the other creatures too (even the kittens? A bit harsh, surely...)? And if building an Ark was so urgent, why did He make old Noah do it by himself? Or, why were those angels so incensed about the Sodomites dropping by, merry and keen to 'know them'? Talk about unfriendly! Unfortunately, our Headmistress ruined my mental picture of Jacob's wrestling match - he didn't look like Giant Haystacks in the book, and he was definitely wearing the wrong boots. That said, it didn't prevent some of us from chanting 'the countdown' when it sounded like Jake was on the ropes.

Anyway, my mind's wandering again; so I'll get to the point. The Bible character who irritated me the most was Jacob's son, Joseph. He of the Incredibly Boring Coat; whiny spoiled brat and apple of his father's eye, fulfilling his part of the bargain by snitching on his fellow shepherds. Frankly, I don't blame his nasty brothers for throwing him in a ditch. His 'righteous' career made Jacob's youthful con-jobs appear benign in comparison. After being sold into slavery, he ingratiates his way into his master's affections by behaving like the most irritating prefect to ever patrol a bike shed. Piously rejecting his master's wife's sexual advances as an "offense to God", she promptly has him thrown in prison; where he follows a supposedly inoffensive trajectory of back-stabbing and arse-kissing: "... and God was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison-house warden" - he's definitely not Spartacus. Joseph manipulates his fellow slaves with some tabloid horoscope mumbo-jumbo, while driving up their productivity as an unpaid foreman ("are not solutions from God?" - do any recruitment agencies use that motto, I wonder?). He even gets a hapless inmate impaled, currying favour with Pharaoh. In short, he is the ultimate scab.

After Joseph brown-noses his way into being Pharaoh's personal trouble-shooter, reassuring his neurotic boss with further mumbo-jumbo, he emerges as a Biblical prototype of Milton Friedman. As the populace suffers devastating famine, Joseph seizes the opportunity to expropriate the 'best value' from the plight of Egypt and Canaan; a hostile takeover to consolidate a rentier monopoly and accumulate maximum surplus value from widespread starvation. Financializing the livestock, stockpiling the grain to increase its market value, demanding all the silver the starving populace can carry, enslaving the entire labour force, bonding them in inescapable debt, and confiscating their humble means of production: He's God's own 'shock doctrine' neoliberal. Even on his own terms he's a shitty economist. "Seven years of plenty" followed by "seven years of famine in all the lands" would make Norman Lamont look competent. Correctly predicting further famine doesn't let him off the hook either. It only confirms his insufferable smugness (making another nice little earner from it, it's his fault famine returns!). His claims to 'divine guidance' are dubious from the outset. His 'prophecies' have the smarmy, scheming, empty humility of a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. The Big Guy Himself is tellingly muted throughout these chapters. Which may be why Joseph makes a point of keeping the Priesthood sweet, despite fucking over everyone else. They probably had the fraud's number before his balls dropped.

After gaining even more power from his trans-national 'shock treatment' solution, Joseph goes on to play creepy emotional games with his desperate, starving father. Then, as Jacob and kin hit absolute rock bottom, Joseph has the sheer gall to expect a grateful hug from them, and a blessing from the ailing father he's humiliated to exhaustion. I was disappointed the legendary wrestler didn't remind his son that he wasn't too old for a world-class ass-whuppin'; giving him something to actually cry about (Joseph's ostentatious tears of self-pity occur quite regularly). If Jacob 'got Biblical' on his son's ass, instead of rewarding him with a colourful coat, he could have saved the Egyptian working class years of agonising poverty. To add insult to injury, our 'hero' dies at the ripe old age of 110; surrounded by wealth, slaves, and needy relatives - decades after dramatically asking them "I'm not God, am I?" Did he even make it to human? For a character from Genesis, Joseph is curiously asexual. One can only hope it was due to him being a eunuch. With a career like his, the little shit definitely had it coming...

So, despite being a junior 'Bible-buff', I can't say Joseph was worth my crayon labour. Besides his odious character, it was quite a boring saga anyway. Why does Genesis devote twelve whole chapters to this twerp - more column inches than the creation of the universe? As people, moralistic business gurus are hardly interesting. They could sum themselves up in three sentences: I'm rich. I'm a cunt. The end. Which brings us to the 1980s. Along with my 'unorthodox' (?) appetite for Bible stories, I was also partial to musicals; an apparently rare taste among heterosexual males under 60. For all the film-buffery of the male blogosphere, you'd think the history of Hollywood was largely made up of cowboys, gangsters, noir, sci-fi or horror. But that merely reflects an outlook of frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails. As a child, I'd lap up any movie on TV; and back when very old movies dominated schedules, quite a few show tunes embedded their way into my consciousness. However, by the 80s, the musical - be it stage or screen - was in the doldrums; and no one was more responsible for this degradation than Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber: Anti-Christ Superstar, Vampire of the Opera. Even 'West End' became an ominous term following its conquest by the most tone-deaf songwriter of the late 20th century. He turned the most Utopian of genres into the stuff of nightmares.

In between celebrating Fascist regimes (from a country then having thousands 'disappeared' by another Fascist regime), and vandalising modernist poetry or The Greatest Story Ever Told, Baron Webber was quite vocal in his support for Mrs. Thatcher. Like any number of plutocratic creeps, claiming "she did wonderful things for this country" easily translated into "she did wonderful things for me". His generous Conservative Party donations are his own grateful tribute to Pharaoh. This of course was honoured in kind with a peerage, though as one of the richest people in the UK that would be inevitable. It's not just Tory tax policies he represents. Rupert Murdoch's recent problems remind us of the cultural 'contribution' that Thatcherism (and moreover, neoliberalism) made to society: The lowest common denominator for the maximum amount of profit, floating on a bubble of empty hype, inherited privilege, labour oppression, lazy conformity, market terrorism, and aggressive self-importance. Their class wouldn't settle for anything less. 

Loath as I am to judge a society according to taste, it's unavoidable considering Baron Webber's astronomical success. From the mid-70s onwards, his 'songs' were everywhere. Even people who could sing did versions of them. During the 80s, they flooded our ears like a Biblical deluge; as though we were suffering divine punishment for privatization and the Miner's Strike. That his cheap, nasty exploitation spectacles could be sold as a 'big night out' (on both sides of the Atlantic), laden with Tony and Olivier Awards, hundreds of millions in (tax-free) profits, and still turn big moolah via that most powerful medium - television - is too depressing to contemplate. Now he's maintaining theatrical hegemony via the sadistic bread and circuses of 'reality' TV, it's positively Dystopian. Those who wouldn't go near a theatre can watch desperate wannabes vying for his approval, as he sits in solemn judgement, upon a throne funded by regressive taxation. Theatre might be dying, but Baron Webber's tat certainly isn't. He too may make it to 110, surrounded by weeping slaves and the spoils of ill-gotten Empire; with the BBC's Grovel Correspondent tearfully reporting the funeral proceedings of a Great Briton.

Baron Webber's definitive 'boffo' sensation was Joseph's Technicolour Dreamcoat: An idiotic title for an idiotic show, about the most frigid creep to worm his way into the Old Testament. A character so tediously craven and sanctimonious, we can forget how ruthless he actually was. Dreamcoat sung to a decade when enclosure, neo-primitive accumulation, cronyism, profitable famine, illusory prosperity, financial imperialism, self-help snake oil, labour subjugation, legislated dispossession, moral fraud, and devotion to power for its own sake became openly celebrated from corner to corner. And make no mistake - like Baron Webber, it's still being celebrated. Somewhere right now, the career of the God's first management consultant is being reproduced with gaudy lights, tacky costumes and sub-literate hymns sang to packed auditoriums. It's happening in quite a few schools too (over 20,000 school and amateur productions); even in those too overworked for any other kind of storytelling. The show has proven to be so profitable, its institutionalization may be more assured than that of health, welfare, libraries, or any other public utility.

Lavishly depicting the authoritarian - but sycophantic - acquisition of power and wealth, paying lip service to dynastic 'family values' as an afterthought, Dreamcoat is the ideal tableau for an ideology drunk on its own bankruptcy; representing a class that encloses farmland into deserts and forces the peasantry into 'grateful' servitude. Render your wealth, resources, dignity, community and autonomy unto Pharaoh. If you're lucky, you can get a matinee, a hotel room and a ride to Oxford St. for a hundred or two. Who cares if you actually 'enjoy' Baron Webber's senile, inert pantomime? His side served it up; so consume it or go hungry - it's there. No Utopia on (or at) this stage. With bigger fish to fry, the ruling class washed its hands of any 'cultural responsibility' decades ago. That was just another pretension they downsized in the name of productivity. Let them eat Webber, Tory soothsayer of stage, screen and sickbag. The market's knackered 'invisible' hand carries on regardless, with a masturbation marathon of its own spectacle. They have no need to justify their mess either. Any dream will do.


Alex Niven said...

Kasper strikes back!

I'm gonna give this some serious attention later on today ...

Anonymous said...

Hurrah! I never got the appeal of Joseph myself, but I never saw him as such unpleasant shill he is 'til now(he just seemed like a whiney brat to me). What a hero of the age.
-Concrete Walls

David W. Kasper said...

Well, Jacob wasn't too cool either. It's pretty disgraceful how conned his 'prolier' brother Esau. There's also Joseph's brothers, with that racist massacre they carry out when their sister hooks up with 'the wrong kind'.

It's funny how Genesis follows this 'side of the family' in so much detail - but then, Abraham's dodgy pimping/rent-a-priestess arrangement with Sarah doesn't set the healthiest precedent for the three main world religions. History truly is written by the victors.