Capitalism is more hierarchical than ever

One of the most persistent delusions is the idea that capitalism has entered a new “spirit,” one in which it is no longer “Fordist” or hierarchical in the way it works. As Slavoj Zizek put it,

Capitalism abandoned the hierarchical Fordist structure of the production process…and developed a network-based form of organization that accounted for employee initiative and autonomy in the workplace. As a result, we get networks with a multitude of participants, organizing work in teams or by projects, intent on customer satisfaction and public welfare…

In this way, capitalism usurped the left’s rhetoric of worker self-management, turning it from an anti-capitalist slogan to a capitalist one. It was Socialism that was conservative, hierarchic and administrative.

Right off the bat this seems suspicious, at the most immediate level, do we see a radically different world of freer workers? In films like Office Space, were people complaining about how autonomous they were? If anything it is the exact opposite, we are entering an age that is more hierarchical than in centuries.

The idea that the workplace changed to be freer comes from Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s 1999 book, The New Spirit of Capitalism. In it, they look at the managerial literature from the late 1800s to today and look at how corporations tried to internally resolve some of the critiques that were offered. Of course while the evidence is vast, the conclusion does not follow; by examining how managers talked to each other, all it shows is the propaganda that companies used, not whether the structure actually changed.

In contrast, organizational studies show that the organization did change but not in the way Boltanski and Chiapello predicted. What is called “guard labor,” that is, the labor that is used to keep people under control rather than to do something productive, has dramatically increased. As one study shows, management has gone from about 10 percent throughout the 1940s-60s to 16 percent today. The authors even wrote about it in the New York Times (blog), and the problem could conceivably be getting worse.

supervisors

If this has shown anything, it is that capitalism is inherently hierarchical, and that, instead of following corporate propaganda, we should be looking for ways to change it.

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The Conservative Fantasy of Godzilla (Analysis and Spoilers)

Some people have looked at the political message of Godzilla (2014) because of how surprising frequent it is, given it’s a giant monster movie. On the one hand there is the heavy handed anti-nuclear message: literally, giant monsters emerged because of nuclear submarines and the past 50 years of tests were secret attempts to pacify them. In fact, one of the complaints was that there was not enough Godzilla and too much story. But on the other is the hidden symbolic message that this supposedly progressive movie has.

To put it simply, the film argues that we’ve angered the gods. Humanity was doing fine until nuclear power came about which led to an “imbalance” by attracting giant monsters. As Ken Watanabe says explicitly:

“The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.”

Thus the solution is Godzilla, as the “Alpha Predator.” As Watanabe says, his role is to restore order and the only thing humans can do is to “let them fight.”

Human Responsibility for Our Actions

One of the great appeals for having a mythical “natural order” is that it alleviates human responsibility. It’s something that Eric Fromm pointed out in Escape From Freedom, if we are no longer the agents in control of events, then we are not responsible for them.

Surprisingly, even though Godzilla tried to make nuclear power look bad it ironically did the opposite. Instead of just having disasters and fallout because of horrific policies and technology, in the film’s universe they were defenses against giant monsters. That is, the injuries from nuclear power was out of self-defense, rather than a catastrophe in-itself (If the movie went one step further, it might have negated the 1954 original by arguing that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were really just attempts to kill Godzilla.)

In a sense this is an easier story to take, instead of governments and corporations inflicting pain on their own people (as the US and USSR did in their nuclear tests), they can be rationalized as defensive measures, as almost all horrific crimes are.

Return To a “Natural” (Read: Overtly Patriarchal) Order  

Nuclear power is in many ways the perfect folly because it gets liberals on board with “restoring nature.” The problem is what kind “nature” is movie is implying. One is overt male hierarchy, as Wantabe illustrates there is a prophecy for the “Alpha” Predator to kill the other Muto monsters: a smaller male and larger (read: dominant) female.

If that symbolism wasn’t obvious enough image this: Godzilla is a giant MRA rampaging through San Fransisco while the male Mutto is a fedora-wearing Nice Guy and the female Muto is an All Powerful Feminist. This follows a slew of recent sci fi/action films of men “taking back” control from women like Doghouse (2009) or Wanted (2008).

This of course is usually a chauvinistic fantasy which in real life leads to things like the recent Santa Barbara shooting. The only science fiction film that accurately portrays men “taking back” control is Chronicle (2012) where the main character uses telekinesis to become an “Apex Predatory” (not unlike the Alpha Predator of Godzilla) and essentially became a murderer.

Restoration of Fatherhood

As Zizek pointed out, if there is one thing any conservative/patriarchal movie needs it’s a restoration of paternal authority. Godzilla doesn’t just have one father restoring himself in the eyes of his children but two. The first is Bryan Cranston, who through Malcom in the Middle to Breaking Bad, is sort of the epitome of fathers taking back respect. Anyways, he goes from conspiracy-theory cook to justified in proving that that were actually giant monsters! (and to insult to injury, he was the only decently acted character in the whole film). Next is Aaron Taylor-Johnson who is too aloof and removed from his kid. Ultimately, he helps save the city and is reunited with his family by the end.

Did I mention that in addition to two fathers reconciling that are three kids that end up getting fathered? In addition to Taylor-Johnson and his son, there’s also a separated kid in San Fransisco that Taylor-Johnson basically fathers on the side.

The Director Made A Film About Immigrant Space Aliens Destroying Society

But wait, maybe I’m looking too deeply into this. Well that would be the case if Gareth Edwards wasn’t so on the nose reactionary. In Monsters (2010) the whole premise is that space aliens crashland on the US-Mexico border (Get it? Space/Mexican Aliens!) and have “infected” and essentially destroyed the US (oh…).

It just goes to show how a progressive premise (nuclear power bad!) can be executed in such an absurdly reactionary way.

Prisoners (2012) Is Hobbesian As Hell

After seeing the thriller Prisoners, the title became obvious: everyone is imprisoning everyone else. Whether it’s child kidnappers or Hugh Jackman kidnapping suspected kidnappers, or even one kidnapper holding himself captive(?)  the film showcases how under duress people engage in terrible behavior, not limited to torture and zealotry.

Ironically, there is one group of people who don’t unethically imprison people: the police. Throughout the film they only make two arrests with one leading to no charges and another which probably would have led to the same thing. Likewise, by the end it’s the officer Jake Gyllenhaal who ends up saving the day.

If this isn’t some giant Hobbesian defense of the state I don’t know what is. Hobbes made it a point to say that people fight each other in a war of “all against all” and that only a leviathan, or central authority, can stop it. The film portrays seven people in a small Pennsylvania town who are either directly or indirectly involved in kidnapping and torture (as if kidnapping and torture is the norm) while the police’s only problem is not charging/killing enough people.

It’s a sad state of affairs when Hollywood portrays people as the problem and not the police themselves.

Spring Breakers is actually Terrible

When I watched Spring Breakers (2012) it was almost like watching a reverse Rebecca Black “Friday”: it’s a pure form of what not to do for an indie film. While it’s been polarizing and recently better received by the indie film community, all the hype for how it’s Harmony Korine’s subversive satire of American culture falls flat on its face.

The biggest problem with the film is its mismatch between tone and character. On a tonal level, there is no comedy, dark or otherwise. It is, to quote some reviews, “deadly serious” and “take[s] itself seriously.” indeed, in many ways the film has the sincerity of a made-for-TV Hallmark drama.

But then come the characters.

In what seems like it was out of a play from Bertold Brecht, all the characters are pathologically flat. Indeed throughout the film they engage in the excess and debauchery of spring break like mindless machines without any kind of deepness or insight whatsoever. The immediate response then is “of course, that’s the point!” Well here lies the problem of Spring Breakers, it tries to be both completely serious while examining the internal world of characters who are empty. You can’t have it both ways.

The whole point of having unrealistic characters is to put a distance between the audience, so that they can critically analyze what their watching. As the Swedish novelist Elfriede Jelinek put it:

Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the “luxuriousness” of personality…The writer’s task is to block this maneuver, to chase us off to a point from which we can view horror with a dispassionate eye.

However, the seriousness of the film tries to remove this distance, making it contradictory. Thus it does not work, you can either have passionate realism or a satirical distanced critique, not both.

Spring Breakers tries to do both and fails spectacularly.

Has Zizek Ever Read The Dispossessed?

Whenever I hear Slavoj Zizek’s famous phrase “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” I immediately think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. As a best-selling science fiction book, it has been unapologetically presenting anarcho-syndicalism as an alternative to capitalism for 40 years now. In fact it was so unapologetic, Philip K. Dick called it a “political sermonette all gussied up with literary style…when you strip the style away, it’s all from the poli-sci department at the University of California at Berkeley.”

So can we please stop pretending like our society is brainwashed into submission when many of its renowned books actively challenge it?

Anarchist consciousness for the Golden Age of Television?

Since 1999 we have apparently been living through the “golden age of television” which, with the end of the first season of True Detective, is still very much occurring. By looking at the recent slew of “golden age” shows I noticed that while they aren’t overtly political (with the exception of The Newsroom) but do focus on a political element: power. Who has power, who is trying to get it etc. are questions that anarchists deal with and seek to abolish. This is not to say that the shows are promoting anarchism, but anarchists do focus on these issues and try to change society by analyzing them. Thus to explore issue of power-consciousness, I will look at five “golden age” shows and see how explicitly they tackle the issue of power.

As such they go through a spectrum pictured below:

Power Chart  copy

1. Mad Men (2007)

If there is any kind of power struggle happening in Mad Men, it is the social transformation of the 1960s. Featuring the ad man Don Draper and his attempts to get accounts for different companies the struggle is in the background: many traditional roles faced by women, children, students and minorities begins to be upended  as the series carries throughout the decade. There is also the occasional (somewhat) power struggle at work where Don feels threatened by people rising through the ranks (although never actually in a position to take his place). As such, this show is the most subtle when it comes to the issue of power, and despite the time period, not very anarchist-conscious.

2. True Detective (2014)

Taking place in some of the darkest areas of Louisiana, True Detective is a police procedural/character study revolving around two detectives trying to uncover a serial murder plot from 1995 to 2012 and how it effects their personal lives. While on the surface very little explicitly deals with power,  as they go through the investigation the detectives confront a government cover-up, an investigation trying to pin the blame on one of the detectives, organized religion and the disturbing rituals and coercion from the killers themselves. While the focus is on the detectives, especially Rust Cohle played by Matthew Mcconaughey, looking closer reveals vast hierarchies all trying to protect themselves. As such, it keeps a strong view of authority not far in the distance.

3. Breaking Bad (2008)

If there is one saying that applies to Breaking Bad, it is that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” By now the story of Walter White is almost universally known: starting off as a high school chemistry teacher he is diagnosed with cancer and begins cooking meth with his former student Jesse to pay for the treatment. However as the show unfolds we learn that the meth has very little to do with his treatment and much more with White’s drive to dominate his environment.  The more obstacles he is given, the more powerful White becomes until he is in control of a drug empire. As such, this is not just an examination of personal ambition but of (illicit) capitalism and the economic domination that many left-wing anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin criticized.

4. Game of Thrones (2011)

Based on the best-selling fantasy bookseries, Game of Thrones takes on the issue of state power directly. Taking place in the fictional continent of Westeros where the Seven Kingdoms make up what appears to be a kind of confederate monarchy where the heir apparent to the Iron Throne is killed, plunging the known world into a war to be in control (the author George R.R. Martin was inspired by the War of the Roses but apparently mixed up that this was a civil war between houses in one kingdom, not multiple kingdoms, but back to the show). Thus members of the different houses/kingdoms kill and manipulate each other (not to mention themselves internally) to rise to the top of kingdom or sometimes just to survive each others’ plans.  Thus it showcases the problems of institutions and competition which seems to only be used by people for their own ends.

5. House of Cards (2013)

There’s absolutely no doubt which show is the most explicit when it comes to state power; House of Cards hits the issue so hard on the nose it comes across as a reductio ad absurdum of Machiavellianism. Based on the original British series, it follows Francis Underwood who was cheated out of a cabinet position he was promised by a newly-elected Democratic president. Vowing to take revenge, Underwood and his wife Claire plot their way to the top of the US government. The show almost acts like its own anarchist critique: the Underwoods are cunning and psychopathic, taking any measures necessary, whether blackmail, manipulation or murder, to advance through state power. This is not very subtly either, Frank directly tells the audience what predicament he is in and what kind of measures he needs to take to get himself out of it. Thus it comes a long way from idealistic shows like The West Wing where statecraft was seen as benefiting a greater good but rather taking the anarchist position that governments are simply evil.