“How do you get a “Headstart” program going that isn’t about implanting early entrepreneurial ambitions in toddlers but one that gets a head start on that sort of brain ownership? More difficult: How do you develop a resistance to such ownership by the surround we are born into without falling into the illusions of an individual will-to-power?”
Let’s assume that the wealth/power axis has such a hold on democracy in the U.S. that Americans are voting for either one corporate candidate or another, and that the minds of too many of those brought up within a corporate democracy are filled with stories the wealth/power axis has implanted there. For instance, it’s not the fatal effects of global warming that threaten the planet and all living creatures, or a monstrous wealth divide that has turned democracy into plutocracy, or purposeless wars that are spilling blood right now. It is rather the National Debt we need to focus on, a debt that a present plutocracy now blames on the largesse of an egalitarian democracy that has vanished. Let’s further assume that the distractions and personal freedom of online reality are steadily replacing — in the fashion of soma tablets in Huxley’s Brave New World — offline political involvement.
What to do?
If these assumptions hold true — that is, we are listening and speaking, reading and responding within a corporatized Brave New World — then we need to assume that the reader already in that world has ready-made answers, answers that put my assumptions aside. The “wealth/power axis” dissolves into a “level playing field” upon which freely choosing citizens assert a personal independence. The idea of “manufacturing minds” by a resident plutocracy dissolves into personal autonomy and self-empowerment. And the idea of cyberspace as the new soma tablet dissolves into a self-designed reality space inciting a social networking that can effect real changes in the world; witness the Arab Spring Revolutions.
I cannot resolve or dissolve this dilemma by taking some middle position; I must align myself with one or the other way of imagining.
How do you get a “Headstart” program going that isn’t about implanting early entrepreneurial ambitions in toddlers but one that gets a head start on that sort of brain ownership? More difficult: How do you develop a resistance to such ownership by the surround we are born into without falling into the illusions of an individual will-to-power?
I’ve always favored the movies to answer life’s complex questions, especially ones that deal with an already existing entrapment of our “reason” and “faith.” Movies work into our imaginations, engage our emotions and set us up for expanded empathies, which, in turn, have real political consequences. Except for the movie part, I’m merely repeating what poet Percy Shelley pointed out in his “A Defense of Poetry,” 1821. The imagination is the driving engine, the Primal Force, out of which we constitute our world, a world already packaged with a rationality and logic, a common sense and sense of realism that defends what we have imagined.
If Shelley is a reference too arcane and “back in the day,” consider how some twenty minutes of commercial advertisement in a sixty-minute TV show works itself into your imaginary, mostly by repetition, by a steady bombardment of images of erectile dysfunction, sleepless nights, restless legs, sudden heart attacks, flatulence, bone loss, memory loss, acid reflux, facial wrinkles, obesity, and so on. Endlessly.
In every case, your imagination is fired up to reveal the possibility of some corporate construction of reality and the necessity of responding as advised. We are in desperate need of a counteracting imagination, one that aligns us more closely to our own desperate economic and political needs at this moment than to the needs of a wealth/power axis. And this counter cannot be seductive and distracting as, say, a Walt Disney production, or a surfing of porn sites or a play by play absorption in Cubs or White Sox baseball.
We face a real difficulty in developing this counter campaign because while the wealth/power axis etches a clear image of us and the world — we’re totally free to become hopelessly rich and everyone else is free to do the same — any counter to that runs into the counter-intuitive. Think here of the Beatitudes of the New Testament or the less than “proactive” nature of Buddhism, for example. I mean if you want to create a cultural imaginary that displaces “money, power and babes,” that displaces “show ME the money,” that displaces “profits to shareholders and quick return on investment,” you need first, I think, to reconstruct the whole hierarchy of human desire and drive.
That being said, as they say, it is possible to broaden the imaginative range beyond the Seven Deadly Sins and toward some erosion of the wealth/power axis. The way you do that I believe is to darken the image of wealth and power to the point that a politics of suspicion and interrogation for the sake of one’s own self-protection develops. And of course the risk here is that such suspicion underwrites a total dismissal of political engagement, which is about where Americans have been up until Obama’s campaign and now I believe are returning to that rejection.
Such a stance of dismissal of all politics has always been to the advantage of the wealth/power axis that has the wealth and power but not the numbers. More and more people are excluded in the plutocracy that our democracy has become. The very tricky thing to do is to reveal corruption without leading the viewer to universalize it but rather keep the audience focused on the perpetrators of the crime. We’ve not got a great deal of experience with this lately as we have failed to bring to justice the Bush cabal who deceptively started a war and have failed to bring to justice those Wall Street financiers who looted the country in 2008.
I see something of an instructive focus and indictment in two recent films: Unstoppable and The Lincoln Lawyer.
The Great Wall Street Looting predisposed me to linking the title Unstoppable with those Wall Street looters and, by extension, with an unregulated, Wild West sort of capitalism. Call it a runaway globalized financial sector or a runaway train, but what it amounted to in the fall of 2010 when this film was released in the wake of the midterm elections was, to my mind, a force that democratic elections couldn’t stop. Instead of voting for those who would, firstly, investigate and indict accordingly those who had brought the country to its knees, and, secondly, advance legislation that would bridle an unregulated financial industry in the hope of preventing another such collapse, voters preferred to elect candidates who would neither investigate, indict, nor regulate.
A majority of those elected were intent on unraveling whatever regulatory powers the federal government yet possessed as well as continue a transfer of wealth from the looted to the looters. There was no sign in any of this that globalized market free play could be stopped or even slowed down. This train was not a “coaster.” This train was ten thousand tons hurtling down the track at fantastic speed and no one was at the controls. This was a train in full market “free play.”
Once you make this connection — and why wouldn’t you is an interesting question but perhaps one already answered in my first two paragraphs — the struggle to stop the train becomes symbolic of the class struggle itself. In Unstoppable, you have an engineer, Denzel Washington, whom we discover is being forced into retirement at half pension, a young conductor who is resented for his youth and connections, a mid-level manager, a federal inspector who is treated as a nuisance, a high-level manager, and corporate ownership. Think now of the unstoppable train as a tsunami about to strike Japan’s coast, an easy thought because it has happened and a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions is still possible. Our unstoppable train is not carrying radioactive plutonium, but it does have enough toxic chemicals to cause its own catastrophe. We don’t know how the drama of governmental leadership and corporate ownership is playing out right now in Japan, but it seems corporate is in the position of revealing and concealing what it chooses.
This is rather like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. What had occurred, what damage had been done, and what remedies were proposed were all, in the crucial early stage, totally a corporate matter. Independent evaluation of the Japan nuclear site has not supported what the Tokyo Electric Power Company has revealed. Why would this be so? Our film dramatizes an answer: When corporate is notified of the runaway train and the cost consequences, the CEO wants to not only know in dollars what the loss would be but what the stock devaluation would be. That information prompts a strategy that is the most cost-effective: slow the runaway down by running a braking train in front while helicopting an Afghanistan vet onto the train. The mid-level manager supports a solution that is not cost-effective: she wants to derail the train in open, unpopulated terrain and thus avoid the destruction of lives, although the train would be destroyed. This is not an option corporate will consider at this point because it wants to buy time not only to save their investment — the train — but to sell off stock before it is devalued by catastrophe.
Perhaps this sort of unstoppable train/unstoppable capitalism comes to my mind because I imagine within the assumptions I’ve already asked you to consider. We live now in a surround that supplies ready-made rejoinders to such assumptions. Just as our dream imagining of a cigar is, as Freud reminded us, sometimes just a cigar, an unstoppable train is sometimes just an unstoppable train. We imagine it’s a runaway globalized technocapitalism not because our imaginations have been instructively expanded but because some socialist ideology has already shaped our imaginations. Or we could say that a socialist-oriented imagining has shaped a supportive political ideology and that both have no difficulty in re-orienting anything, including a film, toward that imaginary.
Once again I cannot take either a nonpartisan nor a pragmatic position that will resolve this dilemma. But I can say that every art form, every imaginative re-creation of the world, moves us onto a different plateau of consideration.
What is easier to unravel than our assumptions and counter-assumptions is the position the film has in mixing and constituting a realness that is not reality, or a reality that is not real, in such a way as to bring to conceivability or sharpen the conceivable probability of what had been unseen, unthought, unrepresented. And in that lies an expansion of perception and, most urgently at this moment, of political awareness of what wealth and power axiomatically conceal.
The Lincoln Lawyer takes on a greater intricacy of awareness than does our unstoppable train, although it begins with all the trappings of superficiality, of the glitz and glamour at its center — Matthew McConaughey, who plays Mick Haller, a lawyer in a chauffeur-driven Lincoln. But the film slowly enters a devious labyrinth spun by a degenerate family of wealth whose power enables concealment. Rule by the wealthy in what is ostensibly a democracy —a democracy with yet remaining pretensions to egalitarianism— requires concealment, requires gated compounds, elaborate security and respected mantras of “private” and not “social” space. Concealment here is not in need of a Tahrir Square, nor for a public space where injustices, deceits, thievery, rape and pillage, murder, and all manner of sick private passions can be exposed.
It has taken a very long time, but we are beginning to suspect a boundless hidden debauchery among our heroic capitalist “Winners,” a debauchery lying just below the surface, just behind the smiling insolence of young Louis Roulet, whose family makes their fortune in real estate, in property, in buying and selling the country. Outside this private domain of wealth and power is Mick, who has a chauffeur because a DUI prevents him from driving himself. Mick has a Lincoln because he is a lawyer without an office. So we have a virtually property-less defense counsel taking on the propertied class.
The tradition of “Defender,” perhaps hapless like Don Quixote or moody and reluctant like Mifune the wandering Samurai in Sanjuro, is here minimized to Southern Cal Mick, too smooth to be raw-boned Honest Abe, and certainly more like a “Philadelphia lawyer,” i.e., a shyster. But think of Mick as the best peripatetic Defender this well-advanced plutocracy of ours will allow. I mean that we are so deeply entrenched within a culture framed for the deluded “self-empowered” by the Louis Roulets, who actually wield the power, that we cannot conceive the need of a Defender. We can just manage to imagine Mick Haller, not an anti-hero in the manner of Rick in Casablanca or Sam Spade, another of Bogart’s anti-hero portrayals, for the antihero’s dark moral complexity has a disturbing allure and charisma that Mick lacks. Mick Haller has the surface sheen of a used car salesman, of a hustler who trawls in this film in deeper waters than he’s used to. Expecting to feed on unexpected bigger prey, he winds up on the hook himself. Then he’s where most of his audience are.
Mick represents the margins in court—the biker gangs and the Latinos who can’t escape being used, imprisoned, thrown away — but as a Defender he represents all who do not “own,” that lack the “ownership” that would grant them citizenship in this plutocracy. In this film Mick will get a chance to get the dispossessed some justice, or at least one of them. This is what is called the naïve realist fulfillment of justice, a requirement that involves a clear display of good and evil, a hero or anti-hero the viewer can identify with, an innocent “tied to the tracks” sort of crisis, and a resolve or resolution in which we — as the hero on the screen—triumph.
Because Mick lacks the grandeur of what we imagine as any kind of heroic Defender, a knight errant or cynical but foundationally noble anti-hero, the film itself lacks a grandeur of high seriousness of purpose. At the same time, Mick is a Defender who may not meet fully our imaginative needs, but he fully represents them as they are now. Again, we can just manage to imagine a Defender. Mick is the best we can do. But he is also an imaginative beginning of what may become in time a deeper darkening of wealth and power and a deeper defense of American egalitarian democracy.
Our imaginative reconstructions, in film and elsewhere, stand as exercises in the expansion of our imagination to a level that may at some point reach an enactment and fulfillment of equitable justice in the face of a seemingly unstoppable play of wealth and power.