Analysis of ‘Reservoir Dogs’

Reservoir Dogs is a 1992 crime film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It stars Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen, and Lawrence Tierney. A neo-noir film, it is to a large extent inspired by The Killing by Stanley Kubrick.

With Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs helped cement Tarantino’s reputation as a fresh, new talent. This is especially so with respect to his scriptwriting, given its rapid-fire dialogue–that is, the pornographic profanity, the breaking of politically-correct taboos (i.e., Tarantino’s fetishizing of such slurs as “nigger”), as well as the embracing of gratuitous violence, and the plethora of pop culture references.

Here are some quotes:

“Let me tell you what Like a Virgin is about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song. It’s a metaphor for big dicks.” –Mr. Brown (Tarantino)

“Shit, you shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.” –Mr. White (Keitel)

*************

Nice Guy Eddie (Penn): C’mon, throw in a buck!

Mr. Pink (Buscemi): Uh-uh, I don’t tip.

Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t tip?

Mr. Pink: I don’t believe in it.

Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t believe in tipping?

*************

Mr. Blonde (Madsen): Nobody’s going anywhere.

Mr. White[about Mr. Blonde] Piss on this fucking turd! [To Mr. Pink] We’re outta here.

Mr. Blonde: Don’t take another step, Mr. White.

Mr. White[screams] Fuck you maniac! It’s your fuckin’ fault we’re in so much trouble.

Mr. Blonde[calmly to Mr. Pink] What’s this guy’s problem?

Mr. White: What’s my problem? Yeah, I gotta problem. I gotta big fuckin’ problem with any trigger-happy madman who almost gets me shot!

Mr. Blonde: What the fuck are you talking about?

Mr. White: That fucking shooting spree in the store, remember?

Mr. Blonde[shrugs] Fuck ’em. They set off the alarm. They deserved what they got.

Mr. White: You almost killed me! ASSHOLE! If I had any idea what type of guy you were, I never would’ve agreed to work with you.

Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?

Mr. White: What was that? I’m sorry I didn’t catch that. Would you repeat it?

Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite? [throws away his drink]

*************

Joe (Tierney): Here are your names… [pointing to each respective member] Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Pink.

Mr. Pink: Why am I Mr. Pink?

Joe: Because, you’re a faggot, alright?! [Mr. Brown laughs]

*************

Mr. Brown: Yeah, but Mr. Brown? That’s a little too close to Mr. Shit.

Mr. Pink: Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy.

*************

“I’m hungry. Let’s get a taco.” –Mr. White, to Mr. Orange

“The man you just killed was just released from prison. He got caught at a company warehouse full of hot items. He could’ve fuckin’ walked. All he had to do was say my dad’s name, but he didn’t; he kept his fucking mouth shut. And did his fuckin’ time, and he did it like a man. He did four years for us. So, Mr. Orange, you’re tellin’ me this very good friend of mine, who did four years for my father, who in four years never made a deal, no matter what they dangled in front of him, you’re telling me that now, that now this man is free, and we’re making good on our commitment to him, he’s just gonna decide, out of the fucking blue, to rip us off? Why don’t you tell me what really happened?” –‘Nice Guy’ Eddie, about Mr. Blonde

I see this film as an allegory of the contradictions between different facets of capitalism, similar to my analysis of The French Connection. The LAPD cops represent the state-regulated version of capitalism; and Joe Cabot, his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie, and the six men hired to rob a jewelry store of diamonds, represent the deregulated, “free market” version. Both groups are after a coveted commodity, and both groups use violence to get it. Recall that I see the mafia (criminal businesses) as symbolic of capitalism, and the police, of course, protect the bourgeois state.

The story takes place in the early 1990s, around the time of the dissolution of the USSR (not that Tarantino, filming in 1991, would likely have known that that dissolution was coming, of course, but it’s still an interesting coincidence). Pop culture references are made to music from the 1970s (i.e., the nostalgic K-Billy [KBLY] radio station) and the 1980s (Madonna songs), as well as to 60s and 70s movies (with Lee Marvin and Pam Grier) and TV shows (Get Christie Love! and Baretta). The 70s and 80s were a time when regulated capitalism in the US was beginning to cede to the “free market.” Nostalgia going as far back as the 60s suggests a desire to go back to a happier time.

Along with this symbolism of the economic shift to the right is a cultural shift in that direction, heard in the characters’ casually racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks.

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is described by Mr. Brown exclusively in terms of macho phallicism, when the actual metaphor for the song is the hymen (or rather, the simile for the song is virgin). Madonna herself wrote to Tarantino in response to his amusing, but ultimately wrong, interpretation of her song: “Quentin, it’s about love, not dick.” While it’s certainly entertaining hearing Brown talk about how the “fuck-machine” apparently felt vaginal pain during sex with the “John Holmes motherfucker,” the fact that she sings, “Feels so good inside” doesn’t exactly help Brown’s argument.

This macho rejection of a “sensitive,” “nice fella” represents a moving away from the cultural ideals of the 1960s and 70s, which was in its beginning stages in the 1990s, but would soon balloon into the aggravated hyper-masculinity of people like Roosh V today.

An early example of the casual racism of these thieves is how Mr. White gets annoyed with Joe about his old address book and talking about a Chinese girl named “Toby”; White calls her “Toby Jap I-don’t-know-what,” ignorant of any differences between Chinese and Japanese.

Now, this kind of off-colour language may have been humorous and understandable on some level at the time, that is, as an inevitable reaction to the strident political correctness prevalent in the late 1980s and early 90s; but when allowed to slide as it has since then, it’s a slippery slope from the mere verbal naughtiness of back then to the blatant, shameless white nationalism and neofascism of today, as seen in the recent shootings and the rise of the far right in the US, Ukraine, Brazil, Poland, and elsewhere.

Next, Mr. Pink discusses why he doesn’t tip. He says he doesn’t tip “automatically” just because “society says [he has] to,” but he will “give them something extra” if the waitresses “really put forth the effort.” This is the essence of the bourgeois attitude to the worker: try to get as much work out of the proletariat as possible, but also pay them as little as possible.

Granted, all the other men at the table (save Mr. Orange, who we don’t yet know is an undercover cop), personifying “free market” capitalism in my allegory, argue in favour of tipping; but this variation only goes to show you how, as Ha-Joon Chang argued in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, there is no one objective definition of the “free market.” There are as many different lines to draw where ‘legitimate taxation and regulation’ (i.e., to limit profitability) ends as there are market fundamentalists.

Furthermore, the whole concept of tipping has historically been a ploy used by bosses to keep hourly wages as low as possible, especially for blacks and women, so even the ‘generosity’ of the other tipping men isn’t as altruistic as it might seem. Mr. Pink is simply the extreme version of the right-wing libertarian, who in his saying “society says you have to [tip waitresses]” sounds as though he means ‘socialism says you have to pay workers more.’

Pink is annoyed that, as a former minimum-wage worker, he had a job not “deemed tip-worthy”; so instead of showing solidarity with shafted workers, he’d rather support a “free market” version of the same capitalism that’s shafted him and waitresses. Indeed, he imagines that, just because the waitresses are making minimum wage (which, incidentally, can be as low as $2.13 an hour!), “these ladies aren’t starving to death.” Not taken into account is the fact that wages have stagnated since the 1970s, while the cost of living has steadily risen since then. What’s worse, Clinton would kill welfare several years after the making of this film.

Libertarian Pink is opposed to how “the government fucks [waitresses] in the ass on a regular basis” by taxing their tips, but he won’t “help out with the rent.” (Pink has missed out on his true calling: he should have been a landlord.) Note how, in Pink’s opinion, it’s government, and not the capitalists who control the government, that is at fault–a typical libertarian argument.

Mr. Orange, as an undercover cop who–in my allegory–represents the state-regulated version of capitalism, is “convinced” of Pink’s argument and wants his dollar back; here we see how blurred the line is between so-called corporatist and “free market” ideology.

As the men walk outside the restaurant and go off to commit the robbery in that iconic slow-motion scene, we hear the song “Little Green Bag,” by George Baker Selection. The song is about the wish to acquire American dollars, not weed! (“Lookin’ back on the track for a little greenback,” etc. One is “Lookin’ for some happiness” of the kind that money is believed to give people.) So, properly understood, this song is a perfect soundtrack to a movie about an attempt to acquire diamonds.

The thieves would steal diamonds to exchange them for greenbacks, another exchange value. Commodities as exchange values are what capitalism is all about: one produces commodities for profit and accumulation, not to provide use-values for people, this latter goal being what we socialists want.

And just so we’re clear, the jewelry stores that acquire and sell diamonds aren’t exactly innocent, either; nor are the police who protect the interests of the owners of those stores. All too often, diamonds are mined by African slaves, those “damn niggers” the thieves keep denigrating.

We see the preparations for the robbery. We see its aftermath: but we never see the robbery itself. Capitalism, in its regulated or deregulated forms, similarly conceals such things as theft of wages (e.g., tipping, or lack of tipping, to allow bosses to overwork and underpay workers in the service industry), imperialist plunder of resources in the Third World (e.g., those diamonds in Africa), and concentration of wealth upwards to the 1%.

Mr. Brown dies with blood in his eyes from a gunshot (a similar fate happens to Clarence Worley, who dies with blood in his eyes, in the original script for True Romance [p. 128], Tarantino having identified with Clarence [p. x]). At the end of the film, Joe says Mr. Blue is “dead as Dillinger,” a role played by a young Tierney in 1945.

Mr. Orange is dying from a gunshot in the belly. Mr. White tries to comfort him as he drives him to the rendezvous, a warehouse Joe owns. White lays Orange on the floor in the warehouse; Orange is bleeding profusely, but White doesn’t even attempt to clean or dress the wound by making an improvised bandage out of, say, his shirt. Granted, we may not expect a thief to know how to make a proper bandage, but Mr. White could at least try to make one!

Instead, White says he can’t do anything for Orange, but as soon as Joe appears, White promises he’ll urge their boss to get a doctor for Orange. Since these characters represent neoliberal capitalism in my allegory, their pitifully inadequate response to Orange’s dying can be seen to represent the utter failure that is the American healthcare system, the only non-universal healthcare system in the First World.

Pink storms into the warehouse, already convinced that someone has set them up by informing the police of the planned heist. The ensuing inability of the thieves to trust each other is symbolic of the alienation that capitalism causes: instead of trying to help each other (the “solidarity” that, ironically, Pink pleads for, but which neoliberal politics will always preclude), everyone is fighting.

When we see police in their uniforms enforcing the law, we see a quasi-fascistic authoritarianism imposing its will on us. In the case of the thieves, however, we see a similar, if not even greater, uniformity and rigid following of rules: the six men wear identical black suits, with white shirts, thin black neckties, and black sunglasses–in effect, a uniform; furthermore, they must refer to each other only by their colour names. Not only must they never reveal their real names, the six mutual strangers must never reveal any personal information about themselves.

These personifications of libertarianism and neoliberalism, ironically, are more rigid and oppressive with rules that most of us are, even cops; they’re also more mutually alienated from not being allowed to get to know each other. Bosses Joe and Eddie are free to wear whatever they want, to be addressed by their real names, and to discuss whatever they want, but then again…they’re the bosses, not the grunts doing the difficult work and heavy lifting.

Pink and White discuss the violent excesses of Mr. Blonde, who we learn is a trigger-happy psychopath who has shot and killed a number of innocent bystanders at the jewelry store, his reason being that the alarm was set off by one of them. When Pink is contemplating which of the men could have tipped off the police, he’s sure that Blonde can’t possibly be the rat, since he’s “too fuckin’ homicidal to be workin’ with the cops” (an odd observation to make, given how trigger-happy way too many cops are). Furthermore, it’s telling how Pink, personifying an extreme version of libertarian capitalism in my allegory, considers a psychopath to be on the level.

Indeed, Pink outdoes the other thieves in their callous attitude toward dying Orange by adamantly refusing to help White (the only thief who halfway cares about Orange) take him to a hospital, all because White went “against the rules” by telling Orange his real name (Larry) and where he is from.

As we’re drawn into the world of these characters, from Orange’s injury to Pink’s fears of a set-up, then to the introductions to the backgrounds of White, Blonde, and Orange, and finally to Officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) pleading for his life when Blonde–having slashed his face and cut off his ear–prepares to burn him alive, we find ourselves actually sympathizing with these men.

As with the temptation to sympathize with D-FENS (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to sympathize too much with these thieves and murderers, as charming as they may be in their idiosyncrasies and their wit. For that’s the thing about the whole resurgence of the right ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union: there’s a charismatic appeal to notions of ‘individual liberty,’ something that actually translates to licence, which in turn is used for selfish ends.

Since I allegorize Reservoir Dogs as a conflict between the regulated (cops) and deregulated (thieves) versions of capitalism, I find the film cleverly lures us into caring for these criminals and cops, these symbols of oppression in the world (as does Falling Down with D-FENS). Not that it’s these films’ intention to do so, of course; I imagine the writers and directors are trying to do a kind of psychological experiment on the audience, to see where our loyalties truly lie.

This leads to a discussion of the major themes of this film: loyalty and betrayal. White has been trying to show loyalty to Orange by insisting that Eddie call a doctor to help Orange, all the time not knowing that Orange, an undercover cop, has betrayed them all.

Joe and Eddie are touched by Mr. Blonde’s loyalty when he, “caught in a warehouse full of hot items,” never betrayed Joe and Eddie, “no matter what [the cops] dangled in front of him.” Again, psychopathic Blonde, or “Toothpick Vic,” is deemed “a good fella” by his capitalist mafia bosses.

If, Dear Reader, you think my allegorizing of the conflict between the cops and thieves, as representing the contradictions of capitalism, is just me imposing a Marxist agenda on the film, consider the thieves’ extensive use of language related to capitalism: job, “do some real work,” business, boss, professionals, etc. As with The Godfather, I equate the mafia with capitalists; that the police, in protecting bourgeois private property, protect the capitalist class, should be too obvious to need elaborating on.

Nostalgia not only for 60s and 70s music, movies, and TV, but also for comic books that originated in the 1960s (The Fantastic Four, The Silver Surfer), represents a wish to escape the ugly realities of today, to go back to a time before neoliberalism took root.

Mr. Orange, or Freddy Newendyke, meets with Holdaway, the only black person in the whole movie, to discuss the plan to slip Freddy in with the thieves and set them up. Holdaway is wearing a Maoist cap and a red Che Guevara shirt: I’m not about to say that he represents communism, as tempting as that would be.

He’s a left-leaning liberal dressed that way to look edgy, as far as I’m concerned. His involvement with the police set-up is not even symbolically like a socialist revolution; in helping the police, Holdaway is on the side of those I allegorize as representing the regulated version of capitalism. Holdaway represents reform, not revolution. Lots of moderate leftists (e.g., social democrats) work within the system to curb its excesses without making the fundamental changes needed, all while posing as radicals.

While Holdaway is posing as a radical in those clothes, so is Freddy posing in front of Joe and Eddie, pretending to be a thief with an amusing anecdote about selling a bag of marijuana and almost being caught with it by police in the men’s room. This being of one political persuasion, while acting as if being of another, represents how slippery all reactionary politics are. In order to preserve the class structure of society, the liberal will on one occasion pose as a radical progressive (Holdaway), and on another occasion pose as a libertarian (Freddy as Mr. Orange). Betrayers by definition pretend to be loyal.

In this reactionary world, people other than white males tend to be marginalized, as we see in a movie with an almost all white male cast. The only two women we see, in exceedingly brief roles, are in cars–one stolen by Pink, the other by White and Orange–we don’t even really see the women’s faces (in a deleted scene, a woman named Jodie works with Freddy and Holdaway–pages 80-82 in the script).

The police in “the commode story” prove to be every bit as crude and offensive in their language as the thieves (i.e., the cop who mentions the “sexy Oriental bitch”; this same cop threatens to shoot her boyfriend “in the face”). In my allegory, regulated capitalism (the police) isn’t much kinder than the deregulated variety (the thieves).

Now, the blurry distinction that I see between regulated and deregulated capitalism is seen as much more sharply distinct from the point of view of the people in these opposed pairings. Hence, as Orange watches, with a pained expression, White shooting the cops in the car pursuing them, Orange feels as though he is betraying those cops because he can’t blow his cover and shoot White. Blonde’s torturing of Nash, however, pushes Orange over the line. He must show at least one instance of loyalty to the cops, and so he shoots Blonde.

When Eddie, Pink, and White return to the warehouse at the end of the movie, Orange has to fake loyalty by making up an excuse for killing Blonde by claiming he was going to kill them all and steal the diamonds. Eddie, knowing Blonde’s tested and true loyalty to him and his father, knows Orange must be lying, and therefore Orange is the one who has actually betrayed the thieves.

Here we see the conflict and contradiction between loyalty and betrayal, all coming to a head. White, feeling responsible for Orange’s having been shot, can’t accept the idea that he is the traitor. With Joe now among them and pointing a gun at Orange, the ensuing Mexican standoff of White pointing a gun at Joe and Eddie pointing a gun at White, underscores this extreme contradiction of loyalty and disloyalty.

White wants to stay loyal to Joe (“Goddamn you, Joe. Don’t make me do this.”), but not at Orange’s expense; this tension goes double for Eddie and his loyalty to his father over his friendship with Mr. White (“Larry, it’s been a long time, a lot of jobs. We’ve been through a lot of shit. You respect my father and I respect you, but I will put bullets in your heart if you don’t put that fucking gun down now.”).

After all three shoot each other (Joe having shot Orange), Orange must admit to his hitherto protector, now-wounded Larry, that he’s really Freddy…a cop. The betrayer must admit his guilt to the man who is about to stop being loyal to him.

The movie ends with a novelty song by Nilsson called “Coconut.” The lines, “Doctor, ain’t there nothing I can take…to relieve this belly ache?” remind us, as a form of black comedy, of Mr. Orange’s bullet in the gut. The song’s story is of a “silly woman” who mixes lime in a coconut, drinks it (to treat a stomachache), and feels worse instead of better; then in the middle of the night she calls an exasperated, reluctant doctor for help, getting him out of bed. He prescribes the very lime in the coconut drink to treat the stomachache that it causes. Thus, the song reminds us of how Orange never gets the medical help he needs…just as how so many poor Americans never get it.

Consider the following: the intermixing of police with criminals (Freddy’s undercover work); the police’s knee-jerk shooting of people (Freddy’s immediate shooting of the woman who’s shot him; the cops shooting Larry immediately after he’s shot Freddy), showing that the homicidal cops are in principle no better than the criminals they’re chasing; the cops’ use of crude, offensive language (Holdaway referring to “that invisible bitch“); and finally, all this struggle over diamonds (mined either by African slaves, or in all likelihood at least, by an exploited, overworked, and underpaid Third World proletariat; that is, the full fruit of their labour has been stolen from them).

The ‘legitimate’ capitalists that the cops work for, therefore, are no less thieves than Joe’s criminal gang. The cops fight one group of thieves to protect another group of thieves. All these considerations show how blurred the distinction really is between, essentially, two capitalist mafia organizations–those who obey and enforce bourgeois laws, and those who disobey them. Still, people imagine there’s a huge difference between conservatives and liberals: believers, respectively, in the deregulated and regulated versions of capitalism.

The obeyers (cops and their capitalists) and disobeyers (Joe’s men) in this film thus can easily be compared, respectively, to the kind of left-leaning’ Keynesian capitalist who regulates the economy to curb the excesses that an unbridled market results in, and that very right-wing, unregulated “free market” that leads to the chaos, violence, alienation, suffering, and death that has resulted after this latter form of capitalism really came into its own–right around the time of Reservoir Dogs‘s release in January, 1992.

Clowns to the “left” of us, jokers to the right: here we are, stuck in the middle with them.

Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs, Faber and Faber, London, 1996

On Ideological Theory vs. Practice

There’s this irritating refrain we leftists hear from time to time, coming from those on the right side of the aisle, so to speak. Whenever critiques of capitalism are made, a response often heard from the right-wing libertarian crowd is that what is being criticized isn’t ‘real capitalism.’ Instead, the problems of the world (and of the US in particular) are being caused by ‘corporatism,’ or ‘crony capitalism.’ Only the ‘free market’ is ‘real capitalism.’

I have already debunked this nonsense in previous posts, on many occasions, so the reader can go to those if he or she is interested; I don’t wish to go through the annoyance of rehashing those arguments in detail here. The point is, as far as this post is concerned, that there is a huge difference between the ‘free market’ in theory and how it works out in practice.

Of course, the right-winger will retort by saying, ‘Well, what about communism and socialism, you hypocrite? Those ideas all sound good on paper, but when put into practice, one hundred million people were murdered by power-hungry dictators! Everybody knows that socialism has been a failure everywhere it’s been tried!’

Oh, sure. Do you know what else? Iraq really possessed WMDs, Gaddafi really oppressed his people and thus had to be removed, Assad really bombed, killed, and gassed his own people, Russia hacked the 2016 US election, and Iran‘s bellicosity must be stopped through an invasion.

Really, all of the above is true! I know because the mainstream media told me. They know the facts because the CIA, that paragon of truth-telling, has been enlightening the West ever since the days of the Cold War.

But seriously, all sarcasm aside, there are many leftists, many of them anarchists or other left-libertarians, who argue in a manner paralleling right-libertarians and their twaddle about ‘real capitalism,’ that the USSR, Maoist China, Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnam, the DPRK, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc did not, and still do not, practice ‘real communism,’ and for the same reason as that of the right-libertarians–that these Marxist-Leninist states were just that…states. (I used to think that way, too.)

The right-wing libertarians’ idealized abstraction, which they call “free market” capitalism, involves a belief that, without the corrupting influence of the state, capitalists will have a ‘level playing field’ allowing them to compete fairly. (As I’ve stated above, I have refuted these arguments elsewhere.) The idealized abstraction of the left-wing libertarians (or anarchists), on the other hand, involves a belief that a socialist revolution can be more or less immediately followed by full communism: no class distinctions, no centralized state authority, and money is replaced by a gift economy.

More moderately left-wing libertarians would allow for the temporary existence of a state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would wither away once all signs of capitalist counter-revolution have been thwarted. No classes, no state, no money.

I have tended towards this more moderate version, though I have in recent years grown even more patient than that. The reason for this need of patience is that thwarting counterrevolution is easier said than done: look at the lessons of the twentieth century to see my meaning.

Ultimately, the achievement of the goal, the idealized abstraction of communist society, should be understood as a process, a gradual flowing ever closer towards the ideal, rather than an immediately achieved utopian stasis.

The objection will still be raised: “But the socialists never achieved anything but tyranny and murder!” Now, I must give such readers a history lesson, free of bourgeois propaganda and lies. (Again, a full debunking of the whole communist death count thing is beyond the scope of this article, so click here for that. For the short explanation, here it is: blame Yezhov and famines, not Stalin or Mao. Furthermore, consider the capitalist death count.)

Remember what Russia was like before the revolution of late 1917. The tsar and capitalists were holding the industrial proletariat and peasants down under a feudalist and bourgeois boot. The provisional government following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II improved things a bit, but the people were still stuck in an unpopular war the provisional government didn’t want to get out of. Lenin, however, got them out of it.

The USSR enshrined equal rights for women in their constitution early into its existence, allowing equal rights in education, employment, access to high-ranking positions in the government, and paid maternity leave. All of these rights had been established by the 1930s, light years ahead of such improvements in the capitalist West.

Improvements were made to aim at affordable housing for everyone. Granted, these homes weren’t exactly palatial, but so what? Even the worst quality homes were much better than the epidemic of homelessness seen today in such cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Dublin, or Toronto, often with people living in tents.

Full employment was provided, as well as free education up to the university level (sure beats student debt, doesn’t it?), and free healthcare. With such benefits as these, it’s easy to see why majorities of not only Russians, but also other east European countries look back at their socialist pasts with smiles, and generally tend to regret the switch back to capitalism.

Benefits similar to these given to citizens of the USSR were also given to people in all the other socialist states, benefits that already, and all by themselves, justify the left-wing revolutions that occurred, even without the withering away of the state that those in the libertarian camp (right and left) so fetishize. But what was so impressive about the USSR doesn’t stop there.

Returning to my point above about what Russia was like before the revolution of over a hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks inherited a largely agrarian society, with mostly peasant farmers living off the land, at the mercy of Mother Nature. If there were bad harvests (which often happened), people would starve.

The implementation of Stalin’s three Five Year Plans in the 1930s changed all that. Rapid industrialization (in large part to prepare for a Nazi invasion), collectivization of agriculture (to end the exploitive rule of the grain-hoarding, wealthy, land-owning kulaks), which included getting the mechanized farming equipment needed to end the famines (which, by the way, makes nonsense of the absurd Holodomor hoax), and the acquisition of nuclear weapons (in defence against the American nuclear threat) all brought Russia from being a backward nation to a modern nuclear superpower in a matter of not much more than two decades! Impressive.

Next, we need to remember who the real heroes of WWII were: not so much the late-arriving US and Britain, as mainstream history books would have you believe, but Stalin’s Red Army. Their commitment to justice is what saved the world from fascism, not the mere inter-imperialist conflict of Hitler and Mussolini on one side, and FDR and Churchill on the other.

Jump ahead almost two decades later, and we have even more impressive Soviet feats: the first man in space, the first woman in space, and even the first dog to orbit the Earth. Also, the Soviets did the first spacewalk. So, what is all this nonsense about socialism ‘not working‘? Actually, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to believe that when people cooperate, work together, and help each other, they will achieve a lot more than all those mutually alienated people competing with each other under capitalism.

This leads me to my next point: right-wing libertarians like to believe that an unregulated market–somehow, by the magical waving of an invisible hand–regulates itself and makes life good; and therefore a state-planned economy lacks the rich growth and innovation of the “free market.” Again, the USSR’s history debunks this claim.

As I said above, the Soviet Union went from being a backward agrarian society to a fully industrialized, nuclear superpower in a matter of a few decades. The Western capitalist countries went through this process much more slowly (i.e., starting from the Industrial Revolution). When the Soviet Union began industrializing around 1928, Western countries like the US and UK were already fully industrialized, so it isn’t fair to compare the USSR’s development to that of the USA. A comparison of the USSR to most of the rest of the non-Anglo-American, non-European world would be more apropos.

Over those few decades between the late 1920s and the early 1950s, the USSR shot ahead of the Third World. Though behind the West economically, the USSR was catching up. The West was feeling threatened, especially with the loss of face the US felt when the Soviets beat them into space. Indeed, the US took a few leaves from the Soviet book and started using more government-funded forms of technological innovation (e.g., NASA, DARPA) and social welfare–though in a capitalist context, of course–to save face and resist the threat of communist revolution in the West.

Economic growth was slowing down in the USSR during the Brezhnev years, but it was still happening. There were fears that, if left unchecked, the USSR would soon overtake the West economically. So by the 1980s, the Carter/Reagan administrations’ strategy was, through the arms race, the Soviet-Afghan War, etc., to drain the Soviet economy.

It worked. The USSR was forced into focusing its budget on the military when they’d have much preferred to continue building socialism. The USSR didn’t “collapse” in late 1991; it was dissolved, thanks to schemers inside and outside the Soviet Union.

Here’s the thing: if socialism ‘doesn’t work,’ why did the West (and why does it, vis-à-vis Cuba, Venezuela, and the DPRK, continue to) put so much effort into draining the socialist states of their lifeblood through economic sanctions, sabotage, etc.? Why not just be a little patient and let these ‘failed’ economic systems self-destruct of their own accord, over a presumably short time?

Despite the crippling sanctions and economic embargoes, the DPRK and Cuba are, within reason, still surviving…and that’s all the way from the wholesale destruction wrought by US imperialism during the Korean War, and from such things as the over six hundred attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, to the present. If the “free market” is so superior to state planning, how did China go from being a Third World country to the second largest economy in the world in a mere four decades?

So we see here that, even though the ideal of communist society–a classless, stateless society without money–was never attained, the progress made towards that ideal in the building of socialism is proof enough that it’s worth striving for. The practice of developing the socialist mode of production, and the benefits obtained, justify the effort even if the theoretical end wasn’t attained.

As for the failures and difficulties that inevitably were a part of this process, many, if not most, of these problems can be blamed on imperialism. The capitalist class has been ruthless in its attempts to thwart the development of socialism, right from the Paris Commune up to the present day. Such things as the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, properly understood as an invasion by several capitalist countries to help the Russian bourgeoisie restore their rule, put pressures on Lenin’s government that forced the Bolsheviks to become authoritarian.

Similar pressures were exerted on Maoist China, the Eastern Bloc, and the other socialist states, necessitating authoritarian rule, the aggravation of class struggle under socialism. And who was–and still is–doing the pressuring? All those forces that regard the ‘freedom’ of capitalism as their ideal. If, according to right-libertarian thinking, the US isn’t–and has scarcely, if ever been–‘truly capitalist,’ then why were they so adamant about stopping the spread of communism during the Cold War?

Let’s now look at how the abstract ideal of the “free market,” though never perfectly attained, of course (because it never can be–even some right-wingers admit this!), has nonetheless been approached, step by step, in the process including tax cuts for the rich, union-busting, deregulation, and cuts to social programs and welfare.

The oil crisis of 1973 caused many at the time to believe that Keynesian economics–a form of capitalism with intensive government interventions whenever there were economic crises–had run its course. Economists like Milton Friedman argued for minimal state involvement in the economy, as had Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, etc. Pinochet‘s government, which in 1973 forced “free market” capitalism on Chile, by the way, was portrayed in right-wing media as having brought about prosperity for the country, when in fact only the ruling class was doing well.

This kind of ‘prosperity’ encouraged the market fundamentalists to apply their dogmas to Western countries, in which the ruling classes were growing weary of paying high taxes and having regulations limit their profits. The stage was set for Reagan, Thatcher, et al, who busted unions and cut taxes for the rich. The process of gradually moving towards a “free market” had begun.

Reagan, of course, claimed ‘government is the problem,’ though even more obviously he did not shrink it. He deregulated and cut the rich’s taxes, to be sure, but his increase of defence spending only bloated the US government. This bloating, all the same, doesn’t disprove the existence of capitalism in the US, for this was the bloating of the bourgeois state. Note that in capitalism, there is deregulating and re-regulating, depending on the convenience of the capitalist. (And incidentally, in the US, there is private property; in the US, businesses produce commodities for profit; ergo, the US is a capitalist country…even if it isn’t the kind of capitalism the right-libertarians prefer.)

Right-wing libertarians have this absurd notion that the state per se is socialist, when in fact the state has been used by people of all political persuasions to further their agendas: fascists, “free market” capitalists (yes, them too!), social democrats, conservatives, liberals, and actual socialists.

Americans have been so indoctrinated by bourgeois propaganda that they think that all of the Orwellian things we’ve seen plaguing the US (the media as propaganda arm of the government, the state helping the rich get richer and leaving the poor to get poorer, the endless wars, the militarized police, surveillance, etc.) is the result of “communists” infiltrating the US. Oh, would that it were true!

What right-wing libertarians don’t understand is that capitalism is not the utopia they think it is. It’s an inherently contradictory, unstable economic system, given to financial crises about every ten years (indeed, we’re due for another one any time now, I contemplate with a due sense of exhaustion and dread).

Though the USSR’s economy stagnated during the Brezhnev years, their economy had soldiered on through the 1930s, just as the capitalist world was mired in the Great Depression. Similarly, as we in the West reeled for years after the 2008 global financial crisis, only ever so slowly crawling out of it, China–with its state-planned economy–bounced back and has continued to grow into the powerhouse it is today.

In sum: the ideological theory of socialism was meant to lead to a communist society that never materialized; still, in practice, the building of socialism in the twentieth century had successes that, outside imperialist interference, outweighed its problems, and therefore, socialism in practice was justified.

As for the ideological theory of the “free market,” that stateless capitalist utopia has never been, and will never be; while in practice, what is properly called neoliberalism has very much happened, and the appalling income inequality, imperialist wars, and all the other attendant miseries have shown how bankrupt that right-wing ideology is.

So, the left’s solution to current problems is, “More socialism!”, which, if carried far enough, might one day actually lead to the withering away of the state. Their ‘solution,’ on the other hand, is, “More free market!”, which will, if carried far enough, lead to the withering away of our Earth as we know it.

I wonder if it’s ever occurred to the free marketeers that their invisible hand isn’t seen because it isn’t there.

Analysis of ‘The Tempest’

The Tempest is a play Shakespeare is believed to have written around 1610 or 1611; it is therefore probably the last play he ever wrote alone. It isn’t easily categorized: it’s part comedy, part fantasy/romance, part semi-autobiographical (in a metaphorical sense), and part allegory on the European colonization that was current at the time.

A number of interesting film adaptations have been made of The Tempest, including the BBC TV adaptation with Michael Hordern as Prospero, the homoerotic 1979 Derek Jarman adaptation with Toyah Willcox as Miranda, and Julie Taymor‘s 2010 adaptation with Helen Mirren as a female Prospero…’Prospera.’ Other adaptations include the 1991 film Prospero’s Books, with John Gielgud in the title role, and Aimé Césaire‘s Une Tempête, a stage adaptation set in Haiti.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Ferdinand, 
With hair up-staring, — then like reeds, not hair, — 
was the first man that leapt; cried Hell is empty, 
And all the devils are here.
” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 212-215

“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, 
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first, 
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me 
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how 
To name the bigger light, and how the less, 
That burn by day and night; and then I lov’d thee, 
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle, 
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile. 
Curs’d be I that did so! All the charms 
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! 
For I am all the subjects that you have, 
Which first was mine own king.” –Caliban, I, ii, lines 331-342

“Come unto these yellow sands, 
And then take hands; 
Curt’sied when you have and kiss’d, 
The wild waves whist, 
Foot it featly here and there, 
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 375-380

“Full fathom five thy father lies; 
Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes; 
Nothing of him that doth fade, 
But doth suffer a sea-change 
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
Ding-dong. 
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.” –Ariel, I, ii, lines 396-404

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, 
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. 
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices, 
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep, 
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, 
The clouds methought would open and show riches 
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak’d, 
I cried to dream again.” –Caliban, III, ii, lines 130-138

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and 
Are melted into air, into thin air; 
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on; and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.” –Prospero, IV, i, lines 148-158

“But this rough magic 
I here abjure; and, when I have requir’d 
Some heavenly music — which even now I do, — 
To work mine end upon their senses that 
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, 
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, 
And, deeper than did ever plummet sound, 
I’ll drown my book.” –Prospero, V, i, lines 50-57

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I; 
In a cowslip’s bell I lie; 
There I couch when owls do cry. 
On the bat’s back I do fly 
After summer merrily. 
Merrily, merrily, shall I live now, 
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.” –Ariel, V, i, lines 88-94

“O, wonder! 
How many goodly creatures are there here! 
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!” –Miranda, V, i, lines 181-184

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown, 
And what strength I have’s mine own, 
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, 
I must be here confin’d by you, 
Or sent to Naples. Let me not, 
Since I have my dukedom got 
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell 
In this bare island by your spell; 
But release me from my bands 
With the help of your good hands. 
Gentle breath of yours my sails 
Must fill, or else my project fails, 
Which was to please. Now I want 
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; 
And my ending is despair, 
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer, 
Which pierces so that it assaults 
Mercy itself, and frees all faults. 
As you from crimes would pardon’d be, 
Let your indulgence set me free.” –Prospero, Epilogue

Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, was stripped of his dukedom and banished with his daughter Miranda twelve years before the play’s beginning. Gonzalo, a kind and optimistic giver of counsel, gave them provisions so they’d survive on the seas, ultimately arriving on the island where the two have been living since.

His usurping brother Antonio, along with King Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian, Stephano the drunken butler, Trinculo the jester, and the king’s son, Ferdinand, have been sailing on a ship at the beginning of the play. They find themselves in the middle of a tempest that Prospero, a sorcerer, has created to cause their ship to crash-land on his island, for he wants to right the wrongs done to him.

In this wrong done to Prospero, we see the main theme of the play: disenfranchisement. Now, his disenfranchisement doesn’t give him the right to do the same to others, which indeed he does. He uses his magic to control a number of spirits, Ariel in particular, who expresses his displeasure at it and demands his freedom (I, ii, lines 242-250). Prospero offers a weak justification for making Ariel his servant by reminding him of how he freed him from a spell the witch Sycorax put on him, having caged him in a tree.

Sycorax, banished from Algiers and subsequently the first colonizer of what’s now Prospero’s island, was undoubtedly cruel in her treatment of Ariel; Prospero’s freeing of the spirit, however, in no way absolves him of similar colonizing and enslaving. Such an absolving would be like saying that the Spanish Empire’s brutal treatment of the natives (of what is now Latin America) makes US imperialism’s subsequent treatment of ‘America’s backyard’ negligibly oppressive–a truly absurd argument.

Mention of Sycorax brings us to a discussion of her son, the deformed Caliban, another native of the island forced by Prospero into servitude. Caliban is a near anagram of cannibal, and a pun on Caribbean; such associations give us a vivid sense of how he is a victim of colonialism, a native denigrated by his oppressor as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘savage.’

Indeed, Prospero rationalizes his enslaving of Caliban by claiming originally to have been kind to the grotesquerie, that is, until his attempted rape of Miranda, which he gleefully admits to. Not to excuse Caliban for his scurrilous behaviour, but the degradation of slavery, often with torturous punishments for being slack or slow in service, nevertheless seems a bit much. After all, Prospero’s denigration of Caliban’s bestial nature reminds us of the racism colonialists have used to justify their dehumanizing of the natives they subjugate.

Indeed, for all his faults, Caliban has his virtues, too. He speaks poetically sometimes, as in the above quote from Act III, scene ii, lines 130-138. This quote shows how he is sensitive to the poetic, reminding us of the creativity of indigenous people; colonialists like Prospero make little of natives’ artistic gifts, but kinder souls like Gonzalo show their appreciation of what’s good in people like Caliban. Recall his words in Act III:

“If in Naples
I should report this now, would they believe me?  
If I should say, I saw such islanders—
For, certes, these are people of the island—
Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet note
Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of
Our human generation you shall find  
Many, nay, almost any.” –Gonzalo, III, iii, lines 26-34

Prospero, hearing Gonzalo’s words, agrees with them, but only insofar as they describe the Neapolitans present, whom he describes as “worse than devils.” (III, iii, line 36) He makes no mention of agreement that the natives have virtues. He should also consider including himself among the Neapolitan devils; recall Ferdinand saying that Prospero is “compos’d of harshness.” (III, i, line 9) What must be kept in mind is how Prospero prospers by using others. Wealth causes poverty, and this is especially true of imperialists and neocolonialists in relation to the aboriginals they exploit.

Prospero’s magic exploits nature, e.g. the tempest, to bring Alonso’s ship ashore; this symbolically can remind us of how big business today degrades nature for their gain. Prospero openly admits that he exploits Caliban: he says of his slave, “he does make our fire,/Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices/That profit us.” (I,ii, lines 311-313)

Prospero uses his magic on Miranda, putting her asleep (I, ii, lines 184-186); in this way, he controls her sleeping and waking moments to limit her acquisition of knowledge. She and Ferdinand don’t merely fall in love; her father manipulates their meeting, for in their future marriage he hopes to consolidate his power as the restored Duke of Milan. Prospero may be giving up his magical powers, but in return he wants political power.

It can be argued, in fact, that he has never been truly worthy of being a duke; since during the time that he ruled the dukedom, prior to Antonio’s usurpation, he was so absorbed in his books (I, ii, lines 68-77, 89-93) that he cared little for his people. He admits this when he speaks in gratitude of Gonzalo’s help: “Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnished me/From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom.” (I, ii, lines 166-168) Note here that “prize” is in the present tense: Prospero admits he still loves his books more than the people of Milan; remember this Freudian slip when we consider his later promises to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book.”

Yes, he promises to renounce his magic (which we never see him physically do!), and so as the reinstated Duke of Milan, he’ll presumably focus on the needs of his people; but he says that in Milan, his “every third thought shall be [his] grave,” (V, i, line 311) suggesting he’ll still be too self-absorbed and retiring to think about his people.

So, Prospero enslaves and exploits the natives of the island, always promising to free them in the end (though we never see him use his magic to unbind them, so for all we know, these promises could be empty); he manipulates his way back into power, assuming he deserves this reinstatement (though the above two paragraphs put this worthiness in doubt); and he uses his daughter to make a political alliance with the king, manipulating her emotions to make her fall in love with whom he wants her to love.

Thus, in Prospero we see not only an exploitative colonialist, but also a man taking advantage of the authoritarianism of the patriarchal family. His cunning is contrasted with the naïveté of his daughter, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Where Prospero is artful, these latter four are artless. Indeed, where there’s a dialectical relationship between wealth and poverty, as noted above (i.e, the one causes the other), there is also such a relationship between ability and inability, between cunning and innocence.

Consider the sweetness and innocence of Miranda. She sees the good in everyone indiscriminately. She has compassion for all the sailing sufferers of the storm; she’s oblivious to how her wicked uncle Antonio is one of the men on the boat. In her naïveté is kindness, in Prospero’s worldly-wisdom…not so much kindness.

Having seen so few people in her life, and assuming goodness in all humanity, she is delighted to see all those men before her at the end of the play (V, i, lines 181-184), rather than mindful of the possibility that a few of them (Antonio and Sebastian) aren’t so “goodly.”

Her artlessness is outdone by the outright stupidity of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. In his drunken stupor, Stephano can’t recognize supine Trinculo’s legs sticking out from underneath Caliban’s gaberdine (being the court jester, Trinculo is presumably wearing distinctive motley colours); instead, he imagines the supine monster Caliban has four legs. Trinculo, having originally assumed that Stephano died in the tempest, later looks the drunken butler in the eyes and has to ask him twice if he’s “not drown’d” (II, ii, lines 100-105). Finally, Caliban, after drinking Stephano’s supposedly divine wine, thinks the drunkard is a god!

In their foolish simple-mindedness, the trio think they can kill Prospero and rule the island. They can’t even avoid falling into a smelly pond, though, Trinculo later complaining of smelling “all horse-piss.” (IV, i, line 199)

Later, once they reach Prospero’s abode, Stephano and Trinculo can’t help but be distracted by the sorcerer’s “frippery.” (IV, i, line 226) The two fools try on Prospero’s clothes while Caliban warns them to focus instead on the plan to kill his hated master. They don’t listen, and Prospero has Ariel chase the fools away with hellhounds.

The way alcohol and fashionable clothes can make fools of people is paralleled today in how such distractions prevent revolutionary action. We today have every bit as much as, if not more than, an imperialist ruling class that mesmerizes the common people with foolish trifles. We’d all usurp the rule of our hypnotizing politicians and rich overlords…except we keep letting ourselves get hypnotized.

Along with the class conflict between rich land-owners and the poor, between the First and Third Worlds as symbolized in the Neapolitans on the one hand, and the island natives and spirits respectively, there’s also conflict between different factions of the ruling class. This latter conflict is evident when Alonso and Gonzalo are put to sleep by Ariel, then Antonio convinces Sebastian to make an attempt on the king’s life.

Later, this group experiences a sensual distraction that is comparable with the wine and finery that dazes the three drunken fools. An illusion of a table covered with a delicious feast is put before the nobles’ eyes. Sweet music is heard. The men prepare to eat, but Ariel appears in the form of a harpy and makes the feast disappear; the scene reminds us of the one in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, when King Phineus of Thrace was tormented with a feast that got ruined by attacking harpies.

This depriving the nobles of a meal reminds one of a modern equivalent in Luis Buñuel‘s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Tantalizing Alonso et al with a meal is punishment for what the king and Antonio deprived Prospero and Miranda of. The illusory meal, as a distraction from important political matters, is also–like wine and “frippery” for Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban–an example of bread and circuses.

The ‘bread’ aspect of Prospero’s distractions was noted in the mirage feast table; the ‘circuses’ aspect, if you will, can be seen in the masque with the singing goddesses (Iris, Ceres, and Juno; IV, i, lines 60-138) presented to Ferdinand and Miranda. Recall how their falling in love has been engineered by her father, who is using their marriage to solidify his power as the reinstated Duke of Milan.

He takes advantage of her scant knowledge of men to make her fall for handsome Ferdinand, “the third man that e’er [she] saw; the first/That e’er [she] sigh’d for.” (I, ii, lines 445-446) Prospero’s test of the boy’s virtue, by enslaving him and making him do essentially Caliban’s work (fetching wood), is a weak test–as if mere diligence were enough to prove Ferdinand’s worthiness of her. It’s ironic how making Ferdinand play the role of Miranda’s would-be rapist should prove him a good husband. Prospero even says to her, “Foolish wench!/To th’ most of men this is a Caliban” (I, ii, lines 479-480).

At the beginning of Act V, Prospero has his disenfranchisers brought near his abode (that is, his “cell”), and he immobilizes them so he can upbraid Antonio and Alonso for their collusion in the usurpation of the dukedom, as well as the former and Sebastian for having conspired to kill Alonso. Prospero speaks kindly of his “true preserver,” Gonzalo, of course; and he recognizes that forgiveness is “rarer” than taking vengeance, so he says he forgives his “unnatural” brother, though we can’t be sure if his heart is in his words.

This making of the nobles to “stand charm’d,” just like Prospero’s making Miranda fall asleep and his ‘bread and circuses’ distractions of everyone again shows the dialectical relationship between his power and the powerlessness of all the others. Prospero promises to “break [his] staff” and “drown [his] book” (V, lines 54 and 57), but should we believe he’ll keep his promises? As a duke, he is a kind of politician, and politicians who keep their promises are the exception rather than the rule.

If, Dear Reader, I seem to have too judgemental an attitude towards Prospero, consider the alternative: surely he is aware of the danger of giving up all his powers; one shouldn’t assume he’ll never again be the victim of a conspiracy once “what strength [he has is his] own” (Epilogue, line 2). Antonio and Sebastian are probably still plotting.

Of course, the fact that Shakespeare identified himself, the magic-making playwright, “such stuff/As dreams are made on,” with Prospero suggests that the promise to “abjure” his magic will be kept; after all, the Bard was about to retire from “the great globe itself” shortly after the first performances of The Tempest.

So my next question is: since Prospero represents, on the one hand, the colonialist/imperialist and exploitative/manipulative politician, and on the other hand, the magic-making playwright, what relationship can we see between these two otherwise contrasting representations?

Marx wrote of a base and superstructure that keep the class structure of society intact. The superstructure is composed of such things as the media, religion, and the arts. Now, Marx was describing modern capitalist society, as opposed to the feudalist one Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays in; but the seeds of modern capitalism had already been sown in his day, and feudalism was as much a form of class conflict as capitalism is.

Shakespeare’s plays tended to justify class hierarchies by glorifying kings (the deposition scene in Richard II, so offensive to Elizabeth I, being one of the noteworthy exceptions) and the imperialistic plunder of other countries (Henry V). Contrast this with his tendency to portray poor workers as not much more than buffoons (consider Falstaff, Bardolph, et al in the Henry IV plays, or the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as two sets of examples, to see my point). The tragic flaws of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, etc., ennoble them by inspiring Aristotle’s pity and terror; the faults of the poor in these plays generally inspire our contemptuous mirth.

What I’m saying here, of course, is not true in an absolute sense: there is a considerable grey area between the white of the nobility and the black of the peasantry in the Bard’s plays. Osric, who “hath much land,” is foppish in the extreme. Falstaff has much depth of character, and his passing is grieved most touchingly by his friends at the Boar’s Head Inn; still, he’s also mercilessly ridiculed in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Christopher Sly‘s transformation from drunken tinker into a lord is a mere prank. Malvolio, with his cross-gartered yellow stockings and ridiculous grinning, is the lady Olivia‘s subordinate, her steward. In The Comedy of Errors, the twin Dromio servants are constantly being abused and picked on by their twin Antipholus masters, a form of slapstick humour. The two gravediggers in Hamlet are referred to as clowns in the script.

My point here is that the grey area of relative equal worth between upper and lower classes doesn’t disprove the black and white of the hierarchy that Shakespeare affirmed as a truth in the world. His plays never fundamentally challenged class antagonisms. For all the many faults of the nobles in Shakespeare’s plays, even when they are outright wicked, they have a dignity far elevated above that of even the best of the poor.

In these ways, Shakespeare as Prospero could be seen as part of the superstructure of Elizabethan times, reinforcing notions of the ‘superiority’ of the landowning ruling classes as against the ‘inferiority’ of the poor labourers and peasants of his time. His portrayals of Caliban and Sycorax as monsters and fiends were probably inspired at least in part by the biases of the time, namely, the notion of Christian superiority over the ‘devil-worshipping’ heathens of the rest of the world (i.e., the worship of Setebos by Caliban and Sycorax).

Still, as much as I have issue with the politics of Shakespeare at times, I’ll continue to love and admire his art, as we all should. Many talented artists in remote and more recent history (Shakespeare, Dali, Frank Zappa, etc.) are people with whom we may have issues as regards their political stances. In this way, my judgement of Prospero can be seen, in a symbolic sense, as ambivalent rather than unilaterally condemning.

My leftist worldview must be more forgiving of what I see as politically lacking in the Bard. His aim as a playwright wasn’t mainly to promote a certain political agenda; it “was to please.” Therefore, let my indulgence set him free.

Analysis of ‘Blade Runner’

I: Introduction

Blade Runner is a 1982 neo-noir science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, with Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, and Edward James Olmos. It’s loosely based on Philip K. Dick‘s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I will also be analyzing, as I will the film’s 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049.

Neither Blade Runner nor its sequel fared as well as they should have at the box office, though both have been well-received critically, the first film now regarded as a cult classic, and one of the best science-fiction films of all time.

The stories’ notion of androids–“andys” in the novel, and “replicants,” or pejoratively, “skinjobs” in the movies–raises questions of what it means to be authentically human; for the androids are virtually indistinguishable from real humans. Since these androids are used as slave labour on other planets, they can be seen as symbolic of victims of racism and class conflict.

II: Quotes

From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

‘I’m not a cop.’ He felt irritable now, although he hadn’t dialed for it.

‘You’re worse,’ his wife said, her eyes still shut. ‘You’re a murderer hired by the cops.’

‘I’ve never killed a human being in my life.’ His irritability had risen, now; had become outright hostility.

Iran said, ‘Just those poor andys.’ —Dick, page 1

********

The saying currently blabbed by posters, TV ads, and government junk mail, ran: ‘Emigrate or degenerate! The choice is yours!’ –page 5

********

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”

“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.

“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives out nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody here to fight the kipple.” –page 52

*********

Thinking this, he wondered if Mozart had any intuition that the future did not exist, that he had already used up his little time. Maybe I have too, Rick thought as he watched the rehearsal move along. This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die, eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another; finally the name “Mozart” will vanish, the dust will have won. If not on this planet then another. We can evade it awhile. As the andys can evade me and exist a finite stretch longer. But I will get them or some other bounty hunter gets them. In a way, he realized, I’m part of the form-destroying process of entropy. The Rosen Association creates and I unmake. Or anyhow so it must seem to them.” pages 77-78

At an oil painting Phil Resch halted, gazed intently. The painting showed a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast, soundless scream. Twisted ripples of the creature’s torment, echoes of its cry, flooded out into the air surrounding it; the man or woman, whichever it was, had become contained by its own howl. It had covered its ears against its own sound. The creature stood on a bridge and no one else was present; the creature screamed in isolation. Cut off by – or despite – its outcry. –page 104

Luba Luft…stood absorbed in the picture before her: a drawing of a young girl, hands clasped together, seated on the edge of a bed, an expression of bewildered wonder and new, groping awe imprinted on the face. –page 104

Resch…burrowed a narrow hole, silently, into her stomach. She began to scream; she lay crouched against the wall of the elevator, screaming. Like the picture, Rick thought to himself, and, with his own laser tube, killed her. Luba Luft’s body fell forward, face down, in a heap. It did not even tremble. –page 107

So much for the distinction between authentic living humans and humanoid constructs. –page 113

‘The whole idea in bounty hunting is to work as fast as hell. That’s where the profit comes’ –page 125

…bounty hunters…something merciless that carried a printed list and a gun, that moved machine-like through the flat, bureaucratic job of killing. A thing without emotions, or even a face; a thing that if killed got replaced immediately by another resembling it. And so on, until everyone real and alive had been shot. –page 125

‘You’re androids,’ Isidore said…’But what does it matter to me? I mean, I’m a special; they don’t treat me very well either, like for instance I can’t emigrate.’ –page 129

The old man said, ‘You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe. –page 141

Roy Baty…had probably been a manual laborer, a field hand, with aspirations for something better. Do androids dream? Rick asked himself. Evidently; that’s why they occasionally kill their employers and flee here. A better life, without servitude. Like Luba Luft; singing Don Giovanni and Le Nozze instead of toiling across the face of a barren rock-strewn field. On a fundamentally uninhabitable colony world. –page 145

‘That goat,’ Rachael said. ‘You love the goat more than me. More than you love your wife, probably. First the goat, then your wife, then last of all–‘ –pages 158-159

‘Mercerism is a swindle!’ –page 165

‘The whole experience of empathy is a swindle.’ –pages 165-166

What a job to have to do, Rick thought. I’m a scourge, like famine or plague. Where I go the ancient curse follows. As Mercer said, I am required to do wrong. Everything I’ve done has been wrong from the start. –page 178

For Mercer everything is easy, he thought, because Mercer accepts everything. Nothing is alien to him. But what I’ve done, he thought; that’s become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural; I’ve become an unnatural self. –page 182

The hunger and heat combined, a poisonous taste resembling defeat; yes, he thought, that’s what it is: I’ve been defeated in some obscure way. By having killed the androids? By Rachael’s murder of my goat? He did not know, but as he plodded along a vague and almost hallucinatory pall hazed over his mind; he found himself at one point, with no notion of how it could be, a step from an almost certain fatal cliffside fall—falling humiliatingly and helplessly, he thought; on and on, with no one even to witness it. Here there existed no one to record his or anyone else’s degradation, and any courage or pride which might manifest itself here at the end would go unmarked: the dead stones, the dust-stricken weeds dry and dying, perceived nothing, recollected nothing, about him or themselves. –page 183

************

‘They’re saying now that Mercer is a fake.’

‘Mercer isn’t a fake,’ he said. ‘Unless reality is a fake.’ –page 186

************

‘The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn’t matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are.’ –page 191

From Blade Runner

“Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” –Deckard (Ford)

“Skin jobs”. That’s what Bryant called Replicants. In history books he’s the kind of cop who used to call black men “niggers”. –Deckard (voiceover)

“Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ‘More human than human’ is our motto.” –Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel)

“Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” –Rachael (Young)

“Is this testing whether I’m a Replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?” –Rachael

“You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” –Rachael

“Painful to live in fear, isn’t it?” –Leon

“I want more life, fucker (father).” –Batty, to Tyrell

“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly, Roy.” –Tyrell

“Proud of yourself, little man?” –Roy Batty (Hauer)

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” –Batty, before dying

“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” –Gaff (Olmos)

From Blade Runner 2049

“You newer models are happy scraping the shit… because you’ve never seen a miracle.” –Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista)

*********

Interviewer: Officer K-D-six-dash-three-dot-seven, let’s begin. Ready?’

K: Yes, sir.

Interviewer: Recite your baseline.

K’: And blood-black nothingness began to spin… A system of cells interlinked within cells interlinked within cells interlinked within one stem… And dreadfully distinct against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

*********

Luv: I’m here for Mr. Wallace. I’m Luv.

K’: He named you. You must be special.

*********

Rick Deckard: I had your job once. I was good at it.

K’: Things were simpler then.

*********

“Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger.” –Deckard

“Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.” –Freysa

III: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

One of the things that are supposed to distinguish humans from “andys” is our capacity for empathy. Rick Deckard’s wife, Iran, however, is avid about using an “empathy box” to experience climbing a rocky hill and enduring being pelted with rocks, a shared experience called “fusion” with Wilbur Mercer, the hill climber and eponym of “Mercerism,” the new religion of those living after “World War Terminus” (in the year 1992, or 2021, in later editions of the novel), a nuclear war that has made life on Earth difficult, if not unliveable.

The empathy box allows her, and all other adherents to Mercerism, to experience Mercer’s climb as if they were he. Hence, she can empathize with him and all others sharing in the fusion, and thus grow spiritually in accordance with the religion. Yet, since empathy is, at least normally, an innate human trait, why does one need to use the box? Why not pray or meditate instead, using one’s religious faith to share the experience intuitively? Why use a machine to feel empathy?

The people of this world also have a device called a “mood organ” that they can set at whatever number to provide any emotional state they wish to have, including negative emotions. But again, since these are actual humans who use the mood organ, why can’t they just try to feel these feelings naturally? Devices like this one and the empathy box give us the impression that real people in this dystopia are as machine-like as the androids (who also have emotions, incidentally).

Empathy is the basis of the morality of Mercerism, which has replaced Christianity since the nuclear destruction of the world as we’ve known it. Few animals have survived, and as an expression of empathy, people are expected to own and take care of an animal–preferably a real one, but mechanical animals (e.g., Deckard’s electric sheep) are owned by those who can’t afford the expensive real ones.

The ‘better’ an animal one has (i.e, a real one), the more social status one has, since taking care of a ‘better’ animal implies that the owner has more empathy. We can see in this commodification of animals, bought and sold, real and fake, how the new religion is as corrupt as those of the past.

Rick Deckard’s ambition is to get enough money to buy a real animal. He sees his neighbour, Bill Barbour, with his horse (pages 6-10). He envies Barbour because all he has is that electric sheep. The opportunity to “retire” (that is, kill) a group of androids who have escaped the off-world colonies and come to Earth can give him the money for a better animal.

What is emphasized in the novel and both movies, though in different ways, is that the distinction between humans and androids is meaningless. Similarly, in our world it has been scientifically established that there are no such things as races, yet racists keep insisting on making those distinctions; just as the humans in Dick’s novel use the Voigt-Kampff empathy test to maintain a sense that “andys” are not truly human, and therefore aren’t deserving of basic rights.

Humans create androids to be slaves on the off-world colonies. Capitalists created, if you will, the proletariat through, for example, the enclosures of the Commons in England and forcing the peasant workers into the cities to sell their labour for a meagre wage. White slaveowners created the ‘nigger’ by taking him from Africa, scorning his original culture, and creating a disparaging one for him in the US. The histories of these oppressed peoples were replaced with the new ideology of the oppressor, to justify his ‘superiority’ over his victims.

Mercerism’s moral notion of human empathy, something that androids apparently lack, is used to justify notions of human superiority over “andys”; just as the ‘superior’ morality of Christianity has been used to justify ‘superior’ Western culture in its lording itself over ‘uncivilized’ and ‘heathen’ societies, thus legitimizing imperialist conquests of Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America with no pangs of bad conscience.

In comparing bigotry against androids with bigotry against people of colour, though, we note an ironic contrast. The difference between man and android is invisible, whereas the visual difference between whites and non-whites is obvious. We don’t deny the biology and personalities of non-whites as genuine, yet we treat them as subhuman just because of their darker skin colour. “Skinjobs” (as they’re derogatorily called in the movies) have no skin colour distinct from that of humans, yet biologically, they’re synthetic, and thus are regarded as non-human.

Deckard’s willingness to retire the androids, just to rise in social status by owning a real animal, illustrates perfectly how this dystopian world is symbolic of how dehumanizing capitalism and class conflict are. Subjugate and/or kill off the lower classes and people of colour, and rise in class status by having done so. Religion justifies this class structure, since the upper classes apparently are more moral, have more empathy, and therefore deserve a better life.

Protestantism justifies letting the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, since God rewards the hardworking with more money and, by implication, punishes the ‘lazy’ with poverty. The Hindu caste system in India has also justified privileged ruling classes of Brahmins and Kshatriyas, and the Vaishyas, rewarding their good karma from previous lives, as against the lowest-level Shudras, who are kept in poverty because of bad karma:

“The fundamental social ideal is that of the four-fold division of society…In the accounts of the division of society into four classes (varna) in the sacred texts it is emphasized that the origin of the class structure is divine, not human, the implication being that the right ordering of society is ultimately a religious, not a secular, concern.” (The Hindu Tradition, page 75)

The ’empathic’ caring for an animal (usually a synthetic one) in Mercerism parallels the phoniness of charity promoted in typical manifestations of organized religion. We socialists see through the pretence of using charity to help the poor, since we know that throwing a bit of money at them from time to time does nothing to solve their problems. Giving to the poor is about giving oneself face, and little more.

Alongside the contempt shown to androids is a similar attitude shown to humans adversely affected by the toxic environment after the nuclear war. One common affliction is against the intellect, causing such people to be unfit to live on a colonized planet off-world. Such people are referred to by the slur, “chickenhead.” A gentler term for “chickenhead,” however, is “special.”

John Isidore is a “special,” living alone in a filthy, abandoned building, until he meets Pris Stratton, one of the renegade androids that Deckard has to retire. Isidore’s relationship with her, Roy and Irmgard Baty (whom he later meets) is one of a mutual understanding of each other’s outsider status, with an added measure of android contempt for servile Isidore.

So while the androids are comparable to the scorned working class and people of colour, Isidore is rather like mentally disabled people; so “chickenhead” might remind us of the slur ‘retard.’ While we’re on the subject of people discriminated against and looked down on, consider Rachael’s remark when given the Voigt-Kampff test: “‘Is this testing whether I’m an android,’ Rachael asked tartly, ‘or whether I’m homosexual?'” (page 39–of course, in the movie the words android and homosexual are replaced with replicant and a lesbian)

Indeed, that very test is grating on one’s nerves, in how it probes and discriminates through its taunting questions. The very determination that Rachael Rosen, originally assumed to be human, is an android underscores the foggy distinction between human and android. There’s a recurring worry that these tests may be ineffective in spotting the difference between android and human, leading to the fear of accidentally killing a person.

Added to this confusion is Deckard’s growing empathy for androids like Rachael. After retiring Polokov, having originally thought he was a Soviet policeman, and after helping Phil Resch kill Luba Luft, an android opera singer whose voice he admired, Deckard is beginning to see the futility of distinguishing human from android. The incident at the fake police station (manned by androids, Chapters Ten and Eleven) reinforces Deckard’s confusion, since he’s been manipulated into thinking he could be an android.

Recall the end of Chapter Nine, when Officer Crams (an android pretending to be a policeman) has apprehended Deckard. “‘Maybe you’re an android,’ Officer Crams said. ‘With a false memory, like they give them. Had you thought of that?’ He grinned frigidly as he continued to drive south.” (page 88)

And later, an android, pretending to be a senior police official named Garland, says this to fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch about Deckard: “‘I don’t think you understand the situation,’ Garland said. ‘This man–or android–Rick Deckard comes to us from a phantom, hallucinatory, non-existent police agency allegedly operating out of the old departmental headquarters on Lombard. He’s never heard of us and we’ve never heard of him–yet ostensibly we’re both working the same side of the street. He employs a test we’ve never heard of. The list he carries around isn’t of androids; it’s a list of human beings. He’s already killed once–at least once. And if Miss Luft hadn’t gotten to a phone he probably would have killed her and then eventually he would have come sniffing around after me.’ (page 94)

So we see here a group of androids trying to beat the humans at their own game, by projecting the non-human, Untermensch status onto those who are always doing it to them, and–with respect to “Garland’s motives. Wanting to split [Deckard and Resch] up…” (page 112).

We learn that Garland et al are androids, and after he is killed by Resch’s laser tube, Resch asks Deckard about the “andys”: ‘Do you think of them as “it”?’ With Deckard’s growing empathy for androids, he replies to Resch by saying, ‘When my conscience occasionally bothered me about the work I had to do; I protected myself by thinking of them that way but now I no longer find it necessary.’ (page 99)

Because both Deckard and Resch have doubts as to whether they’re androids or human, they both do the Voigt-Kampff test (pages 111-113). This doubt of theirs again reinforces the unclear line between human and ‘non-human.’

In his shock and unease about realizing he’s empathizing with androids, Deckard buys a Nubian goat (a real one) with his reward money. After presenting it to Iran, he explains his feelings to her: ‘I took a test, one question, and verified it; I’ve begun to empathize with androids, and look what that means. You said it this morning yourself. “Those poor andys.” So you know what I’m talking about. That’s why I bought the goat. I never felt like that before. Maybe it could be a depression, like you get. I can understand now how you suffer when you’re depressed…But when you get that depressed you don’t care. Apathy, because you’ve lost a sense of worth.’ (pages 137-138)

His wife wants to have “fusion” with Mercer because of her husband’s purchase; he isn’t all that enthused about Mercerism, but he has a vision of Mercer during “fusion,” who tells him of the necessity sometimes to do what is or seems to be immoral, or contrary to one’s nature (page 141). This hearing of Mercer’s words must be an auditory hallucination brought on by his stress and confusion over the morality of his work, and his growing, troubling empathy for androids he has to kill.

He meets Rachael, who has agreed to help him with the remaining androids to be retired, in a hotel. They are developing feelings for each other, which is difficult for him, of course, since she’s an android. He tells her of his goat: ‘I bought a black Nubian goat,’ he said. ‘I have to retire the three more andys. I have to finish up my job and go home to my wife.’ (pages 150-151)

This revelation annoys her, since it seems to her that in his hierarchy of values, the goat comes first, Iran second, and Rachel last: ‘That goat,’ Rachael said. ‘You love the goat more than me. More than you love your wife, probably. First the goat, then your wife, then last of all–‘ She laughed merrily. ‘What can you do but laugh?’ (pages 158-159)

She seems to have it right, for Deckard’s whole motivation has been to retire “andys” so he can have a living animal as a status symbol. Middle class types like Deckard rise, retired andys fall; this is symbolic of the class contradictions between the middle and lower classes, or the racial contradictions between whites and blacks.

Deckard’s wife isn’t all that important to him, since he sleeps with Rachael without any pangs of conscience over his adultery. The only aspect of the immorality of his sexual encounter with Rachael is in how he’s broken the law by sleeping with an android; it reminds one of the KKK’s abhorrence of inter-racial sex.

Towards the end of the novel, Deckard reflects on his sexual transgression: “Bed rest, he thought. The last time I hit bed was with Rachael. A violation of a statute. Copulation with an android; absolutely against the law, here and on the colony worlds as well.” (page 186)

The retiring of Pris, Roy and Irmgard Baty is, in my opinion at least, disappointingly anticlimactic, especially as compared to Deckard’s and Roy’s confrontation in the film. Only Pris will be even remotely a challenge, since, firstly, she could be Rachael’s twin, both females being of the same model.

“Tonight sometime, he thought as he clicked off the bedside light, I will retire a Nexus-6 which looks exactly like this naked girl. My good god, he thought; I’ve wound up where Phil Resch said. Go to bed with her first, he remembered. Then kill her. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said, and backed away from the bed.” (page 153)

The second reason it will be difficult for Deckard to kill Pris is because she’s planning a surprise attack as she waits for him to look around Isidore’s building. Again, the stress of the moment causes Deckard to have a hallucination of Mercer, who warns him of Pris. (pages 174-175)

What’s interesting about Deckard’s growing faith in Mercer is how, for pretty much everyone else, the whole religion has been proven a fake. Mercer is dead: thus spoke Buster Friendly (pages 163-166). Still, it’s remarkable how people can cling to a discredited faith, especially one in its fundamentalist form.

Many fall prey to organized religion, not so much out of spiritual conviction as from an emotional crisis of some kind, as is the case with Deckard. The simple, black-and-white solution of fundamentalism for people’s problems has an immense appeal, in spite of the absurdity of the belief system.

Deckard’s original belief system, that of the ‘difference’ between man and “andy,” has been shaken. It’s been suggested that he’s an android, he’s been empathizing with a few androids (Rachael and Luba), he’s made love with one, and he’s killed, among other androids, one that looks exactly like his “andy” lover. All of this is more than enough to give him an emotional crisis needing quick relief.

The black-and-white solution of ‘Mercer’s guidance’ can give him that relief easily, so Deckard hallucinates about him. Similarly, Christians who have brutalized black people can comfort themselves with the visual illusion that black skin somehow makes blacks fundamentally different from whites; the spurious notion that blacks were descended from Ham, who disgraced himself before drunk, naked Noah, has been used, among other rationalizations, to scorn blacks.

Deckard, however, doesn’t have the convenience of a different skin colour to fool himself that androids are sub-human, and therefore unworthy of the same consideration and rights as humans. Ironically, as his empathy for “andys” grows, so does his faith in Mercerism. It is so bizarre that, in a post-apocalyptic world of nuclear annihilation, where androids are either enslaved or killed, and people like Isidore are scorned as “chickenheads,” one believes that the cultivation of empathy can be anything other than a case of ‘too little, too late.’ Indeed, the very idea of trying to cultivate empathy in such a dystopian world is a sick joke.

Deckard’s crisis grows when he learns that Rachael has thrown his goat off the roof of his apartment building, thus making it fall to its death. Recall how irked she was over his preference of the goat, and his wife, over her. On another level, her killing of the goat can be seen to symbolize an act of proletarian defiance against a system that prizes commodities and the bourgeoisie over the working class. Since it’s a real goat, its killing is a misguided defiance, but a defiance all the same.

The androids’ loathing of empathy, as a virtue assumed to be unique among the privileged–since “andys” rarely receive any of it–is also reflected in Pris’s clipping of the spider’s legs (pages 162-166), much to Isidore’s chagrin; this loathing is also seen in Roy Baty’s glee in knowing that empathy is fake, because Mercer is fake (pages 165-166). The loathing is comparable to how class-conscious workers realize that, as Marx observed, “religion is the opium of the people.” Rachael’s killing of the goat-commodity is like workers’ deliberate sabotaging of their bosses’ means of production.

Recall Irmgard’s words on empathy as a supposedly human-only virtue: ’empathy…Isn’t it a way of proving that humans can do something we can’t do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing…’ (page 165)

In Chapter Twenty-One, Deckard, in his growing emotional turmoil, flies his car up to an obliterated area of Oregon, where he climbs a rocky hill, is pelted by rocks, and thus finds himself acting like Mercer, but without one of those VR empathy boxes. His delusion that he is Mercer is the ultimate narcissistic defence against psychological fragmentation, the only thing keeping him from falling apart, from all of his accumulated guilt over having killed all those “andys.”

We see the lead-in to Deckard’s vision of Mercer in his conflicted reflections on what he’s done, his alienation from himself: “For Mercer everything is easy, he thought, because Mercer accepts everything. Nothing is alien to him. But what I’ve done, he thought; that’s become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural; I’ve become an unnatural self.” (page 182)

Then, as Deckard ascends the hill: “The hunger and heat combined, a poisonous taste resembling defeat; yes, he thought, that’s what it is: I’ve been defeated in some obscure way. By having killed the androids? By Rachael’s murder of my goat? He did not know, but as he plodded along a vague and almost hallucinatory pall hazed over his mind…” (page 183)

In his stress, Deckard has seen Mercer, a dark figure in the shadows, twice (excluding the VR “fusion” on page 141): once before confronting Pris (pages 174-175), and now this other time on the hill. This second time, he identifies with Mercer. The dark image of Mercer is rather like Lacan‘s mirror: an idealized version of spastic, hill-climbing Deckard looking back at him like a mirror reflection. He’s alienated from himself, just as that spectral image alienates him and, paradoxically, is identified with him.

“‘Mercer,’ he said, panting; he stopped, stood still. In front of him he distinguished a shadowy figure, motionless. ‘Wilbur Mercer! Is that you?’ My god, he realized; it’s my shadow. I have to get out of here, down off this hill!

“He scrambled back down. Once, he fell; clouds of dust obscured everything, and he ran from the dust–he hurried faster, sliding and tumbling on the loose pebbles…He plucked open the car door, squeezed inside. Who threw the stone at me? he asked himself. No one. But why does it bother me? I’ve undergone it before, during fusion. While using my empathy box, like everyone else. This isn’t new. But it was. Because, he thought, I did it alone.” (pages 183-184)

Deckard also finds a toad that is supposed to be extinct, yet he imagines, in his ‘divine’ self-delusion, that it’s real: “…to find the critter most sacred to Mercer. Jesus, he thought; it can’t be…Did Mercer arrange it? But I’m Mercer. I arranged it; I found the toad. Found it because I see through Mercer’s eyes.” (page 188) He takes it home, thinking it can replace the goat as the object of his ’empathy.’ Iran shows him it’s electric (page 191). “Crestfallen,” he, in all exhaustion, goes to bed, covered in dust (page 192).

This sleep of his is a sleep of sloth. His illusions have been peeled away, one by one: androids have no less a legitimate right to be empathized with than humans have; Mercerism is fake; the radioactivity and filth have probably infected his brain, causing his Mercer delusions as well as his inability to tell a fake animal from a real one, as he has begun to suspect, even during his Mercer delusions: “Maybe it’s due to brain damage on my part: exposure to radioactivity. I’m a special, he thought. Something has happened to me. Like the chickenhead Isidore and his spider, what happened to him is happening to me.” (page 188) Deckard is losing all purpose in life.

In his routine as a bounty hunter, using empathy boxes and mood organs to help him have feelings, he–as well as Iran and every other human on Earth–is more android than android.

Since I see androids as symbolic of proletarians and people of colour, this notion that humanity lives an android-like life indicates how we’re all victims of the alienating, hierarchical world of capitalism, regardless of whether we’re black or white, working class or petite bourgeois.

Deckard realizes his pitiful state, yet gets no edification from it: he just goes to bed and acquiesces to his mechanical life.

Perhaps he’ll dream of his electric sheep.

IV: Blade Runner

[I am basing this analysis on the Director’s Cut. I don’t have a DVD of the Final Cut; if, in the future, I get one and find elements in it that ought to be included in this analysis, I’ll update it accordingly then.]

It’s fitting that I should write this analysis in 2019, though I’m not in Los Angeles (as opposed to the novel’s San Francisco setting), and…why don’t we have flying cars by now?

Leon Kowalski (played by Brion James, and roughly equivalent to Polokov in the novel) is being given the Voight-Kampff test by Dave Holden (played by Morgan Paull). Replicant Leon is nervous, and comes off as not very intelligent. He often interrupts Holden with irrelevant questions and remarks.

Because the test is “designed to provoke an emotional response,” as Holden tells Leon, because replicants are emotionally immature due to their short life span (four years, not enough to develop the nuanced emotions we all take for granted), because the test’s purpose is to help in the discrimination between man and replicant, and because–as I’ve shown above–the oppression of replicants (or “andys”) is symbolic of the oppression of people of colour and of the working class, this test can be seen as a formalized kind of taunting.

Taunting is a tactic often used by bullies and racists against their victims. The provocative nature of the Voight-Kampff questions–especially in relation to my notion of replicants as symbolic of, among other oppressed groups, black people–is comparable to what happens to Marian in Angelica Gibbs‘s short story, “The Test,” published in 1940 and reflective of white racial prejudice against blacks.

Marian is an African-American woman doing a driving test, sitting next to a prejudiced white man who’s both testing and taunting her. He calls her “Mary-Lou” instead of her real name. When he learns she’s 27, he says, “Old enough to have quite a flock of pickaninnies, eh?” He whistles “Swanee River.” He pretends to be astonished to learn she’s from Pennsylvania, saying, “You-all ain’t Southern?…Well, dog my cats if I didn’t think you-all came from down yondah.” She endures him as best she can, until his slurs against her skin colour finally go too far, and she cries, “Damn you!” He loses “his joviality in an instant” and makes “four very black crosses at random in the squares on Marian’s application blank,” failing her, even though her driving has been impeccable the whole time.

The tension the replicants feel in Blade Runner when doing the Voight-Kampff test is similar to how Marian feels. When Holden asks Leon to talk about his good memories of his mother (of which he obviously has none), the replicant, holding a concealed pistol, shoots Holden and leaves him for dead (though we later learn that Holden survives). One endures the taunts and provocations as best one can, but sooner or later, everyone reaches his breaking point.

The notion of a replicant’s relationship with his ‘parents’ is symbolically interesting, from a psychoanalytic standpoint. The lack of a mother for Leon is tantamount to what the object relations theorists would call a ‘bad mother’; Roy Batty’s relationship with Eldon Tyrell is also like a son’s relationship with his ‘bad father’–Roy literally calls Tyrell “Father” (or “fucker,” depending on the version) when demanding a longer life…this shows us how much of a ‘bad father’ Tyrell really is.

The bad mother is derived from a part-object, the bad breast, a Kleinian concept that Wilfred Bion developed by saying the lack of a breast for an infant, frustrating the baby by not giving milk, is a bad breast (Bion, Chapter Twelve, pages 34-37). So by extension, Leon’s lack of a mother is a bad mother, causing a traumatic split in the replicant’s mind that Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. Leon’s nervousness and agitation indicate the paranoid aspect, his persecutory anxiety; the splitting of people into absolutely good replicants and absolutely bad humans is the schizoid aspect.

For Roy, his begging Tyrell to find a way to lengthen replicants’ lives is an attempt at reparation with his ‘father’; but Tyrell the ‘bad father’ insists that lengthening a replicant’s life is impossible (or, maybe, Tyrell simply doesn’t want to lengthen the replicants’ lives, out of a wish to maintain power over them), so Roy kills him. Reparation with the father is impossible; Roy, like Leon, is doomed to being permanently in the paranoid-schizoid position.

The inability to connect with one’s parents, real or symbolic, as in the case of this movie, is the basis of social alienation, since the relationship with one’s parents, be it good or bad, becomes the blueprint for one’s later relationships with other people throughout life. Now replicants, as symbols of the wage slave global proletariat, experience alienation in a particularly stinging way. Taunting remarks from the Voight-Kampff tests, in particular as to whether one has a mother or not, are especially triggering for a replicant, hence Leon’s violent reaction.

In this connection, recall how Marx compared the bourgeois family with that of the proletariat: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To that crime we [communists] plead guilty.” (Marx, page 52) Note the absence of the family among replicants like Leon, hence his shooting of Holden. Note also Roy’s exploitive ‘father.’

Some buildings in Blade Runner have a pyramidal structure, reminding us of those of the ruling class Pharaohs of Egypt, who had peasants build them through forced labour, or those of the imperialist Aztecs who invaded other Central American civilizations and killed their enemy captives in rites of human sacrifice on the tops of their temples (rather like a blade runner retiring replicants, isn’t it?). Other buildings shoot flames up in the air: these make one think of volcanoes, suggesting the fiery wrath of Mother Earth after all of man’s environmental damage to her.

Indeed, the film replaces Dick’s World War Terminus with the results of a more gradual ecocidal degradation that we’re inflicting on the Earth right now. We see a Coruscant-like cityscape of endless buildings and no nature; the electric animals that are so integral to Dick’s plot are of little more importance in the film than to develop theme.

Instead of being eagerly willing to retire Roy, Pris, et al in the hopes of buying a real animal to enhance his social status (as is the case in the novel), the Deckard in the film is dragged back into a bounty hunter life he wants to leave behind. He’s called a “blade runner,” an expression snatched from The Bladerunner, a novel with no other connection whatsoever with Dick’s, or the film’s, story.

The Tyrell Corporation boasts in its motto that its replicants are “more human than human,” and Deckard finds out just how accurate this motto is when he does the Voight-Kampff test on Rachael, who is assumed to be human. Indeed, when we first see her and watch her respond to Deckard’s questions, her mannerisms and facial expressions seem almost robotic; but after we learn that she’s a replicant, she shows the full range of human emotions and body language.

J.F. Sebastian (played by William Sanderson), who is loosely based on Isidore, isn’t afflicted mentally (actually, Sebastian is a genius), but rather physically: he isn’t allowed to live off-world because he suffers from “Methuselah Syndrome,” which makes him age faster, thus shortening his lifespan and making his predicament comparable to that of the replicants. No wonder Pris (played by Daryl Hannah) says to him, “We need you, Sebastian. You’re our best and only friend.” He is one of the few humans who can truly empathize with her and Roy…and he makes robotic toys, rather like what replicants are! The oppressed would naturally have mutual sympathy, even if they aren’t oppressed in the same way.

Roy: We’ve got a lot in common.

Sebastian: What do you mean?

Roy: Similar problems.

Pris: Accelerated decrepitude.

A major motif in the film is eyes. There’s the closeup eye reflecting the fire-shooting buildings at the beginning; there are Leon‘s and Rachael‘s eyes, with the “Fluctuation of the pupil…” and the “involuntary dilation of the iris,” as Tyrell says of the reaction to Voight-Kampff tests; there’s Hannibal Chew, the Asian eye-designer who is bullied by Leon and Roy; and there’s Roy playing with a pair of fake eyes in Sebastian’s home.

Here’s a relevant question: since replicants’ eyes are artificial, shall we associate that with seeing ‘fake’ things? Or, since replicants are “more human than human,” do their eyes–as ‘fake’ as they may be–see even better and grasp more complete truths than human eyes can? Do the oppressed see reality better than the privileged, though the latter gaslight the former into thinking their ‘fake’ eyes see a ‘fake’ reality?

Hannibal Chew: I just do eyes, ju-, ju-, just eyes… just genetic design, just eyes. You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.

Batty: Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!

Speaking of gaslighting, one should note the implications of giving replicants implanted memories, thereby tricking them into thinking they’re human, as has been done with Rachael and…Deckard? Giving people a fake past, then denying them the validation of the truth of their memories, is the essence of gaslighting; and as I’ve argued elsewhere, gaslighting has political manifestations as well as those in relationships involving, for example, narcissistic abuse; and abusive interpersonal relationships are the microcosm of the larger, geopolitical forms of abuse and manipulation.

Now, whether or not Deckard is a replicant (i.e., his unicorn dream and Gaff‘s unicorn origami, implying he knows of Deckard’s supposed memory implants) is irrelevant to me, since I see replicants as, to all practical purposes, as human as humans. If they can be more human, replicants can be equally human, too. They’re just told they’re non-human as a part of the oppression they suffer.

These replicant humans are deprived of life (the four-year lifespan), and thus are denied a childhood. They’re denied a decent stock of memories, hence they’re emotionally immature. Some are given false memories as a “cushion” to make it easier to control them (gaslighting). They’re slaves on the off-world colonies, conquests of Earth’s imperialism; and if they try to escape, they’re killed (or, “retired,” to use the human euphemism). Their experiences are denied validity because they don’t have natural, human eyes. Small wonder Deckard would never believe what Roy has seen: what the replicant could teach us, due to his short life, “will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

The empathy of film-Deckard won’t be lost as that of book-Deckard is, though; so instead of sleeping, he runs off with Rachael as a fellow fugitive.

V: Blade Runner 2049

The meaninglessness of the differentiation between human and replicant (or bioengineered human) is made even clearer through a new development: it has been discovered that Rachael has given birth. Now, if Deckard is a replicant–presumably an older model with memory implants and a long lifespan–this means that no human was involved at all with the baby’s conception.

Whether or not Deckard is a replicant, the fact that K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant blade runner working for Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is itself established proof of a symbolic class collaboration, given my equation of replicants with the proletariat and oppressed racial minorities.

One of the ways we keep the male proletariat in line is with fantasies of beautiful, submissive, and supportive women, as we can see in K’s purchase of Joi (Ana de Armas), a holographic image of, essentially, the perfect housewife. She’s sweet, loving, and willing to do anything K wants, to please him. That she’s not even a replicant, but rather an ideal image of woman emphasizes how unreal she is; for no woman can (or should ever have to) be so perfectly pleasing to a man. That her name is spelled with an i instead of a y adds to the symbolic unreality of the happiness she provides.

When Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a female replicant who is a ruthless killer for Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and thus another example of a class collaborator, meets K and asks if he’s satisfied with the company’s product (Joi), we see not only the commodification of the housewife ideal, but also how women under capitalism, provided they’re in the upper echelons, will often strive to maintain the system as it is, just as much as their male counterparts will. Just look at Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Gina Haspel to see my point. Both Luv and Lt. Joshi represent this ugly reality in the film.

Wallace himself is wicked and cruel on a whole different level. As the creator of so many replicants, he seems to have a God complex: he certainly likes to incorporate Biblical concepts in his speech. “And God remembered Rachael, heeded her, and opened her womb,” he quotes from Genesis 30:22 when he meets Deckard.

Wallace covets the newly-discovered ability Rachael had to bear children. A newly-created female replicant stands nude before him in his first scene. Like a newborn baby, the naked woman is as vulnerable and helpless as any member of the possessionless proletariat; he touches her belly and contemplates how he wishes he could make her conceive, while Luv watches with restrained emotion. He stabs the replicant where her reproductive anatomy is…if only it worked; she falls down dead. Luv’s shock is again suppressed, for Wallace’s replicants are totally obedient (class collaboration). He, like Tyrell to his creations, is the bad father, kissing his newborn ‘daughter’ the way the ‘prodigal son’ Roy kissed Tyrell before killing him.

Recall the eye motif from the previous film. Niander Wallace is blind, using cybernetic implants in his neck to interact with various computers and “see” through flying miniature camera units. He’s symbolically blind to the suffering of the oppressed. Do his fake “eyes” make him see a false reality that flatters his megalomania, or do they allow him to see the elite’s privileged version of reality? Again, the distinction between real and artificial is blurred.

K, for the great majority of the film, shows little, if any, emotion. As a good, obedient blade runner working for the system, he lives a soulless existence, as all proletarians are forced to do. Indeed, Lt. Joshi notes that he’s “been getting on fine without…a soul.”

After investigating who Rachael’s child could be, though, he learns that his memory of a small toy horse isn’t synthetic, as they usually are for replicants–those emotional cushions implanted in their brains in order to control them; this particular memory is real, so he comes to believe that he is Rachael’s son. His whole enslaved life has been a lie, regardless of whether he is her son or not, though he realizes this only through imagining he’s her son. He does have a soul, it seems. So finally, he shows emotion, in the form of an explosion: he shouts, “God…damnit!”

The Voight-Kampff test has been replaced by a new one called a “Baseline” test. K is required to recite five lines from a poem from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire. The section of the poem that K quotes involves a near-death experience of fictional poet John Shade:

And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

Since the fear of death is a major preoccupation of replicants, it’s significant that K is required to recite what, for him or any replicant, must be quite a triggering passage, and to do so without hesitation or emotion. The repetition of the words cells and interlinked, in the context of the film rather than that of Nabokov’s novel, is noteworthy in how replicants’ lives seem trapped in metaphorical prison cells, and replicants aren’t supposed to be interlinked by any sense of mutual empathy.

As for K, though, he’s realized what cells he and his kind are trapped in, and only by being interlinked in mutual love will they ever be free.

His recitation of the baseline is with mechanical precision the first time; but his next recitation, after coming to believe he’s Rachael’s son, is shaky and hesitant, making him fail the baseline and causing him to be regarded as having gone rogue.

K finds Deckard in an abandoned building that was once a Las Vegas night club. Holographic images of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and young women dancing in a 1960s style can be seen; like Joi, they represent an idealized older world that has no basis in reality now. Elsewhere, and earlier in the film, a huge holographic image of a Soviet [!] ballet dancer is also seen…another idealization no longer possible in the dystopia of 2049.

Instead, this dystopia shows us the ugly reality of such things as prostitution. Some feminists have criticized the film for presenting women either in this degrading way or as the housewife ideal in Joi; they forget that, as with American Psycho, the intention is not to recommend such portrayals of women, but rather to comment of these ugly realities. The first step in ridding our society of such ugliness is to acknowledge its reality.

In a noteworthy scene, Joi hires one of the prostitutes seen earlier to merge with her as a body that K can have sex with. Two forms of female fantasy are thus combined: the “nice girl”/”bad girl” opposition; also, the ideal and material forms. It should be seen as a sad comment on alienation in a capitalist society, that a woman has to be a man’s fantasy, rather than be herself, to make love with him.

In Deckard’s and Rachael’s case, however, we can see real love, and it has resulted in a child. That people, replicant or not, can connect and have families, is a threat to the dystopia that Lt. Joshi’s police department, on the one hand, is trying to keep ordered and stable, and that Wallace, on the other hand, is trying to profit from and rule over as its ‘God.’

Lieutenant Joshi: The world is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.

***********

Niander Wallace: Every leap of civilization was built on the back of a disposable workforce,…but I can only make so many.

Normally, capitalists and the state work together in harmony. In this case, the LAPD’s agenda to have the replicant offspring killed is in contradiction with Wallace’s agenda to find the offspring, then learn how to use replicant reproduction to expand interstellar colonization, symbolically a manifestation of capitalist imperialism. Because of this contradiction, Luv must kill Joshi, though one suspects that Luv, as a replicant, has her own personal reasons to find the replicant child, feelings that are suppressed and just under her surface obedience to Wallace.

Now, the prostitute who was with K and Joi is secretly part of a replicant resistance movement. Their leader, Freysa (Hiam Abbass), hopes K will kill Deckard before he can tell Wallace where…as it turns out…his and Rachael’s daughter is. Though K now knows he isn’t their son, he’s been humanized enough, through all his traumatic experiences, to want to help Deckard reunite with her. It’s the most human thing he can do, after all.

To protect his daughter (Dr. Ana Stelline, played by Carla Juri), Deckard has had to keep away from her all these years, making him a kind of ‘bad father’ through his absence from her life, yet also a good father for sacrificing the relationship to keep her safe. K recognizes the need to prevent Wallace from finding her, for the sake of the coming replicant revolution; but K also realizes that the liberation of the oppressed must come through the establishment of human relationships, to end alienation. Hence his arrangement to have Deckard reunited with Ana.

A system of cells interlinked.

What’s it like to hold your child in your arms? Interlinked.

To be freed from our cells, we must all be…interlinked.

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1968

Analysis of ‘The Thing’

I: Introduction

The Thing is a 1982 science fiction/horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Bill Lancaster. Like the 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, it was an adaptation of the 1938 novella, Who Goes There?, written by John W. Campbell (under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart); actually, though, the 1982 film is much more faithful to Campbell’s novella than the 1951 film was.

The Thing stars Kurt Russell, with A. Wilford BrimleyT. K. CarterDavid ClennonKeith DavidRichard DysartCharles HallahanPeter MaloneyRichard MasurDonald MoffatJoel Polis, and Thomas Waites in supporting roles. Though the film garnered praise for its special effects, it was poorly received on its release; some even considered it one of the worst films ever made. Its critical reputation has since improved, though, and it’s now considered one of the best sci fi/horror films ever made.

Here are some quotes:

[talking into tape recorder] “I’m gonna hide this tape when I’m finished. If none of us make it, at least there’ll be some kind of record. The storm’s been hitting us hard now for 48 hours. We still have nothing to go on. [turns off tape recorder and takes a drink of whisky. He looks at the torn long johns and turns it back on] One other thing: I think it rips through your clothes when it takes you over. Windows found some shredded long johns, but the nametag was missing. They could be anybody’s. Nobody… nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired. Nothing else I can do, just wait… R.J. MacReady, helicopter pilot, US outpost number 31.” [turns off recorder] –MacReady (Russell)

“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.” –MacReady

[the Thing roars at MacReady] “YEAH, FUCK YOU TOO!!!” [throws stick of dynamite] –MacReady

[after passing the blood test] “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot. But when you find the time… I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” –Garry (Moffat)

************

MacReady: I don’t know. Thousands of years ago it crashes, and this thing… gets thrown out, or crawls out, and it ends up freezing in the ice.

Childs (David): I just cannot believe any of this voodoo bullshit.

Palmer (Clennon): Childs, happens all the time, man. They’re falling out of the skies like flies. Government knows all about it, right, Mac?

Childs: You believe any of this voodoo bullshit, Blair?

Palmer: Childs, Childs… Chariots of the Gods, man. They practically own South America. I mean, they taught the Incas everything they know.

*************

Blair (Brimley): [showing the remains of the dog-thing to the entire camp] You see, what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates ’em perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

Norris (Hallahan): Finish what?

Blair: Finish imitating these dogs.

*************

MacReady: Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By Spring, it could be all of us.

Childs: So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?

*************

MacReady: How you doin’, old boy?

Blair: I don’t know who to trust.

MacReady: I know what you mean, Blair. Trust’s a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what – why don’t you just trust in the Lord?

*************

Childs: The explosions set the temperatures up all over the camp. But it won’t last long though.

MacReady: When these fires go out, neither will we.

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Childs: If you’re worried about me…

MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.

Childs: Well… what do we do?

MacReady[slumping back] Why don’t we just wait here a little while? See what happens.

**************

[from teaser trailer] Some say the world will end by fire. Others say it will end by ice. Now, somewhere in the Antarctic, the question is being settled forever.

[from theatrical trailer] Twelve men have just discovered something. For 100,000 years, it was buried in the snow and ice. Now it has found a place to live. Inside. Where no one can see it. Or hear it. Or feel it.

The main theme of this film is paranoia, distrust of others, based on the fact that “The Thing” is an alien able to imitate other life forms to perfection, thus making it next to impossible to be sure if any of the men in the research base in Antarctica is really a man, or an alien imitation waiting for its chance to change the other men into imitations.

This ability to pretend to be human or animal, not just in physical but in mental form, too, is also in Who Goes There?, unlike the 1951 film, which is essentially just a monster movie. The alien can slip in undetected and seem to be one of the men, knowing their memories and personality traits down to the last detail. Hence, “Who goes there?” implies the next, and even more relevant question: “Friend, or foe?”

II: Unity of Opposites

This friend/foe duality is merged in how those who seem friends are often really foes…and vice versa. This merging and juxtaposition of opposites is seen in other forms, too, as in the extremes of fire and ice, both of which end and preserve lives (i.e., the flame thrower and the blowing up/burning down of the research base, which kill alien manifestations and save the men; this burning happens in the freezing cold temperature of a winter in Antarctica, which can kill the men and preserve the alien in a state of hibernation…“to die, to sleep”). Also, there are the literally polar opposites of Antarctica versus Scandinavia (i.e., the Norwegians whom MacReady confuses with Swedes, so, the Arctic); then, there’s the 1951 movie’s moving of the setting from Antarctica to Alaska.

Another opposition in the film is in its implied anti-woman versus anti-male attitudes. There isn’t even one actress in the entire film (save Adrienne Barbeau‘s voice-acting of the “Chess Wizard” computer game, which sexist MacReady calls “baby,” and a “cheating bitch” before pouring his glass of booze into its inner circuitry, because he can’t accept losing a chess game to a ‘woman’), something to annoy any feminist. On the other hand, this very lack of females is ironically itself a criticism of masculinity, since the point of the film is the relative lack of empathy, cooperation, and friendship among the characters, virtues more stereotypically associated with femininity.

III: Who Were Our Real Friends and Foes During the Cold War?

The more germane question of the movie, however, is what does this alien represent, this “Thing” that causes so much alienation and confusion among the men? One allegorizing of the film is of the Cold War (indeed, the story is a literal cold war), representing the antagonism between the NATO and Warsaw pacts, and the danger of provoking MAD.

Some might see the alien as representing the Soviets, and therefore its spreading imitations of humans as the fear of the spread of communism; while the paranoid, bickering men represent such right-wing curmudgeons as those in the GOP (and since this is a Hollywood film, all of this hostility between the two extreme sides is best neutralized with a ‘balanced’ liberal mindset [!]).

Those of you who have read enough of my blog posts will know that I have no intention of interpreting this film’s meaning through either conservative or liberal lenses. I, contrarian that I am, plan to flip conventional analysis of this film on its head. So what follows will be, in part, a Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the story.

Though the men fighting off the thing are Americans, and at the beginning, Norwegians (that is, members of two countries that were founding members of NATO, and therefore ideological opposites to the Soviets), I see them as symbolic of any socialist state fighting off the forces of capitalist reaction. US vs USSR, friend vs foe, fire vs ice, all men vs no women: all dialectically related opposites, the one side merging and interacting with the other. Because of the dialectical unity in all contradictions, we can see an interesting irony in Americans representing their ideological foes.

Consider what The Thing can do: taking on any shape or form, it sneaks up on unsuspecting people, attacks them, and replaces them with imitations of them; then those imitations do the same to others, again and again, until–theoretically, at least–the entire Earth has replaced all life with alien imitations. It’s rather like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, actually.

This spreading of a kind of cancer, if you will, wiping out all life and replacing it with the infection–is this not like what capitalism does? Modern capitalism grew out of the mercantilism and merchant capitalism that were dominant in the modernized parts of Europe about five centuries ago. Those two, as well as feudalism, transitioned into capitalism as the new form of class conflict, which then spread around the world.

Capitalism also causes alienation between workers, like the estrangement felt among the paranoid men in the film. It causes alienation from one’s species-essence, symbolized in the film by the contradiction between the False Self of the alien imitation and the True Self of the original man who is imitated.

The alien imitations pretend to be the men’s friends, just as capitalism is made out to be the friend of humanity, according to bourgeois propaganda, liberating us from Bolshevik state tyranny, eliminating poverty, and bringing about economic prosperity. The metastasizing of neoliberalism, especially since the disastrous dissolution of the USSR, has shown what lies these notions of ‘liberty,’ ‘poverty elimination‘ and ‘prosperity’ are, just as when we are shocked to learn that Norris and Palmer are aliens.

So in this context, the US research station in lonely Antarctica can be seen to represent any of the socialist states, past and present, that have been economically isolated by sanctions and embargoes. The Americans’ struggle to defeat The Thing represents the aggravation of class struggle under socialism, as manifested in the Great Purge and the Cultural Revolution. Stalin and Mao knew there were bourgeois traitors hiding among them and pretending to be fellow socialists (just as The Thing hides among the Americans in the film), and allowing them to gain the upper hand would have lead to the defeat of socialism, the actual achievement of which, as we have seen since the 1990s, has lead to the egregious wealth inequality, the constant threat of US imperialist war, and destruction of the earth that we’ve seen and are still seeing.

Now, as we recall, a lot of nastiness occurred in the USSR in the 1930s, and in China during the late 1960s, just as there is nastiness among the Americans in the movie as they try to eliminate the alien: MacReady shoots Clark (not an alien) in the head. Of all the men MacReady–threatening them with dynamite–has tied up, only Palmer is an alien; the men freak out, tied up and helpless, as the Palmer-Thing reveals itself and infects Windows, forcing MacReady to kill them both with the flamethrower. These problems are comparable with the innocent Soviets imprisoned and executed (the fault of Yezhov, not of Stalin), and with the violent moments of the Cultural Revolution.

The film begins with a sled dog (man’s best friend?) running in the snow towards the US research station, with Norwegians in a helicopter pursuing it and shooting at it. The Norwegian with the rifle shouts frantically about the danger the dog poses; since he isn’t shouting in English, the Americans have no idea what his problem is. Because of his constant shooting at the dog, and accidentally wounding Bennings, he seems crazy (Dr. Copper [Dysart] speculates that the “stir-crazy” Norwegian got “cabin fever”)…and dangerous himself; so Garry gets a pistol, points it out the window, and kills the man.

Communists are similarly seen as crazy (as are the victims of narcissists) when warning the world about capitalists (who, especially in the upper echelons of power and wealth, tend to be narcissists); they’re vilified and often killed, as is the Norwegian. My point is that we leftists, like the Norwegians, see a real danger that most other people don’t.

Later, we see that sled dog looking intently, ominously, out a window at the Americans’ helicopter returning after investigating what happened at the Norwegian base. Ennio Morricone‘s keyboard soundtrack was playing when the dog was chased by the helicopter, with an eerie bass synth ostinato highlighting a pair of loud notes making us think of a heartbeat…the alien’s heartbeat? The dog isn’t man’s best friend, but his worst enemy.

When the dog is caught in the middle of making another dog into an imitation, Blair (Brimley) examines the internal organs of the imitation and realizes how indistinguishable those organs are from a real dog’s organs. He is so horrified by the implications of this alien ability (i.e., that it can imitate humans) that he goes mad and violent, and then has to be sedated and confined, separate from the other men.

The imitation is both internally and externally perfect, and so the alien can take on all kinds of shapes and forms. Recall what happens to Norris’s body when Dr. Copper does the defibrillating; a huge mouth opens up from Norris’s chest, with huge teeth that bite off Copper’s hands, killing him. Then Norris’s head rips off the body and grows what look like an insect’s legs and stalks with eyes on the top of each; hence MacReady’s correct observation that The Thing’s body parts, right down to drops of blood, can be complete life forms in themselves. Copper’s mutilation symbolizes the injuries the worker under capitalism often suffers, often without compensation.

Capitalism, too, can adapt and imitate many aspects of leftist ideology, in ways so convincing that many people confuse real leftism with phoney versions of it, for example, mainstream liberalism, social democracy, identity politics, social justice warriors, “democratic socialism,” etc. Tiny parts of capitalism existing within ‘socialism’ are still cancerous capitalism, and thus must be rooted out. Capitalism’s ability to adapt is remarkable, as David Harvey noted in a quote I’ve used in other blog posts, but it’s relevant to reuse it here, too:

“Capital is not a fixed magnitude! Always remember this, and appreciate that there is a great deal of flexibility and fluidity in the system. The left opposition to capitalism has too often underestimated this. If capitalists cannot accumulate this way, then they will do it another way. If they cannot use science and technology to their own advantage, they will raid nature or give recipes to the working class. There are innumerable strategies open to them, and they have a record of sophistication in their use. Capitalism may be monstrous, but it is not a rigid monster. Oppositional movements ignore its capacity for adaptation, flexibility and fluidity at their peril. Capital is not a thing, but a process. It is continually in motion, even as it itself internalizes the regulative principle of ‘accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production.” –David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, page 262

So, with all this shapeshifting and adapting that The Thing does, who are the men’s friends, and who are their foes? Much suspicion is put on Clark, Windows (Waites), Garry, and MacReady, all of whom, it turns out, are not aliens (though we can’t be too sure about MacReady at the end of the movie). Windows in particular has a menacing look on his face as he waits in the shadows for MacReady to dip a hot wire into a sample of his blood, only to prove his innocence.

Similarly, who are the friends, and who the foes, of the working class? Is communists’ preoccupation with the imperialist plunder of the Third World a legitimate concern, or does this concern just make us ‘tankies‘ whose ‘over-solicitude’ is used to justify ‘dictatorship’? Will a few left-leaning reforms, giving the Western working class some free stuff, be sufficient, while we not only ignore but aggravate the exploitation of people in developing countries? Is getting rid of Trump and the GOP all we need to do, or is there something more fundamental that needs to be fixed in American politics?

As I mentioned above, this alien doesn’t need a full body to reproduce itself in imitations: a mere drop of its blood is enough, hence the efficacy of MacReady’s blood test with the hot wire (also used in the novella). Since I see the alien as symbolic of capitalism and imperialism, we should consider what the drops of blood–these ever-so-small parts of the alien’s body as fully-functioning, independent units of existence, each a microcosm of the macrocosm that is the whole Thing–imply about the danger of the existence of even the smallest manifestations of capitalism, that eerie alien (and alienating) heartbeat that never dies.

Social democracy incorporates strong unions, a welfare state, free education and healthcare, among other benefits for working people, all within the context of a market economy. Yugoslavia under Tito pursued a market socialist economy and remained independent of the Eastern Bloc; some say Yugoslavia‘s non-alliance with the Eastern Bloc gave Western imperialism an advantage, helping them defeat communism by the 1990s, thus ushering in the current neoliberal hell. Recall that Lenin’s NEP was only meant as a temporary measure. Stalin put an end to it after a mere eight years.

Even the smallest amounts of capitalism–just like even the smallest amounts of The Thing–can’t be allowed to live and thrive. The microcosm is no less evil than the macrocosm.

IV: The Narcissistic Thing

While discussing the tinier manifestations of evil as seen in The Thing, consider how narcissism or psychopathy (seen in ambitious, exploitative individuals) are the microcosm of the macrocosm of capitalism and class war. People with Cluster B personality disorders will slip in among the crowd of normal people, pretend to be as normal as the latter, and will treat them as extensions of themselves, just as The Thing does to the Americans.

Non-psychopathic and non-narcissistic people will be falsely accused of having either those pathologies (i.e., through projection) or similar ones, as Clark, Garry, Windows, and MacReady are suspected of being alien imitations. Not only will the Cluster-B-disordered one accuse the innocent, but so will his enablers (even the unwitting enablers), as is the case when the non-assimilated men accuse each other of being ‘Things.’

The narcissist or psychopath is, like The Thing, selfish, wishing only to survive, even at the cost of betraying his own kind (this selfishness is noted especially in the novella with respect to “the monster”–Chapter VIII). A game of divide and conquer is played, making the victims hostile to each other instead of to the victimizer. We see this antagonism in The Thing, in the exploitative relationship between narcissists and their victims–that is, on the microcosmic level–and in class relations (i.e., big corporations vs. small businesses and workers) on the macrocosmic level. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Still, the narcissist needs other people to give him narcissistic supply, and the capitalist always needs new supplies of profit to offset the TRPF; just as The Thing always needs a new supply of life forms to assimilate. If the narcissist’s True Self is exposed, he goes berserk with narcissistic rage, feeling the danger of psychological fragmentation; just as the alien goes wild and physically comes apart when Palmer is exposed as an imitation.

Heat will expose the alien, and fire will kill it. It can, however, hibernate in ice. The narcissist, as well as the capitalist, has an icy heart–cold is his home. The Thing, narcissist, and capitalist can all hide in human warmth, though, pretending to be a friend even as they plot our destruction.

V: The Thing-in-itself

So, to recap, The Thing could be seen as symbolizing the threat of the spread of communism, as conservatives and liberals would see it. In my Marxist interpretation, the alien invader represents capitalist imperialism, the microcosm of which (that is, The Thing’s blood) is the narcissistic or psychopathic personality. But this all depends on one’s sense perceptions.

What is The Thing, in itself?

Thanks to Kant, I’ve just answered my own question.

The Thing appears to be a sled dog at the beginning of the film, thanks to the limitations of the Americans’ sense impressions. When they see the thing-in-itself, that is, in mid-transformation into other dogs, they realize their senses have deceived them. The men continue to have this sensory deception throughout the film, as do we, the viewers, right up to when MacReady and Childs share the bottle of scotch and begin freezing to death.

In this sense, The Thing represents the source of human problems, whatever that source really is; it is what it is, in spite of the limitations of our sensory impressions, those of our world view, those of our political biases. Conservatives’ and liberals’ biases would call that source communism, or something similar. Marxists like me would call that source the capitalism that conservatives and liberals defend (in its ‘free market‘ or ‘kinder, gentler‘ forms, respectively).

So, which is the friend, capitalism or communism, and which the foe? According to John Carpenter, one of the two freezing men sharing the bottle is an alien assimilation: is it Childs, or MacReady? Which is the friend, and which the foe? Is the friend the man who–suspected of being a foe–‘Stalinistically’ [!] had most of the other men tied up, and yet exposed Parker; and is the foe Childs, who was opposed to imperious MacReady’s blood testing, yet at the end of the film shows no light reflection in his eyes, and whose breath isn’t visible?

As for the thing-in-itself, some, like Wilfred Bion in his mystical conception of O, might associate Kant’s idea with God, or Ultimate Reality. O is to be understood intuitively through the abandonment of memory, desire, and understanding–no use of deceptive sense impressions. Bion didn’t sentimentalize his mystical idea, though; he acknowledged that O results in moments of ominous and turbulent feelings…feelings the alien certainly provokes in the Americans…feelings that cause one to lose one’s anchor of security in everyday reality.

If The Thing, as thing-in-itself, is some form of Divinity, again we must ask: is God friend, or foe? Is Ultimate Reality a comforting…or a terrifying…reality? Recall that Christians (Protestants in particular) often embrace capitalism, believing that God is rewarding their work ethic, seen as an expression of their religious faith, with financial success. Thus, God is a friend to the capitalists–to the rest of us, not so much.

During the end credits, we hear Morricone’s funereal organ tune and its alien heartbeat bass synth line; a fusion of life and death, more dialectical unity in opposites. The killing alien is still alive. The defeat of communism is a joy to the capitalists, but a catastrophe to us Marxists, who see imperialism‘s continued destruction of the rest of the world, just as The Thing will surely continue to assimilate other humans when a rescue team comes and finds the American research base.

When Childs and MacReady freeze, the human will die and The Thing will hibernate until that rescue team comes and thaws it out. Which man is real, and which is fake? It’s been said that all the men whose eyes show a reflection of light are real, and those without that reflection–like Palmer, Norris, and Childs (at the end)–are imitations. But that’s just the opinion, the sense perception, of cinematographer Dean Cundey, who deliberately provided a subtle illumination to the eyes of uninfected characters, something absent from Childs, with his conspicuously invisible breath, at the end. 

Cundey created that sense impression in the characters’ eyes, just as we all create our own sense impressions of the world through our personal biases. Does light in the eyes symbolize ‘seeing the light’ of human truth, or do we just interpret the symbolism that way? Is the light in our eyes just the limitation of our own sense perceptions?

If, Dear Reader, your senses perceive it to be disturbing that I would consider the communists our friends, and the capitalists–of every conceivable stripe–our foes, remember that The Thing is a horror movie. That’s the whole scary thing about the film: we don’t know who our friends and enemies really are, including our ideological friends and foes; and in spite of the persuasiveness of the light-in-the-eyes theory, we don’t know for sure which man–Childs, or MacReady–is The Thing.

The two freezing men will just have to wait there a little while, and see what happens.

Analysis of ‘Salomé’

I: Introduction

Salomé is an opera by Richard Strauss that premiered in 1905, the libretto being Hedwig Lachmann‘s German translation (with some editing by Strauss) of Oscar Wilde‘s 1891 French play. Wilde’s play, of course, was in turn inspired by the Biblical narratives in the Gospels According to Mark and Matthew.

Wilde transformed the brief Biblical story, making what’s implied explicit, namely how Salomé’s dance sexually aroused the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, elaborating on it as The Dance of the Seven Veils, considered by some to be the origin, however unwitting, of the modern striptease. Wilde also altered certain details, such as when, in the Biblical version, Herodias tells her daughter, Salomé, to demand the head of John the Baptist; instead, Wilde has Salome ask for “the head of Iokanaan” of her own accord.

Both Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera caused scandals on their earliest performances, resulting in performances of them being cancelled or banned, for example in London, for many years. Now, Strauss’s opera is considered a masterwork, a regular part of any orchestral or operatic repertoire.

II: Quotes

Here are some quotes from Wilde’s play (some of which are not in Strauss’s opera), in English translation:

“How beautiful is the Princess Salomé to-night!” –Narraboth, the young Syrian, Captain of the Guard

“You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen.” –Herodias’ page

“How pale the Princess is! Never have I seen her so pale. She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver.” –Narraboth

“The Jews worship a God that one cannot see.” –First Soldier

“After me shall come another mightier than I. I am not worthy so much as to unloose the latchet of his shoes. When he cometh, the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.” –the voice of Iokanaan, heard from below, in a cistern

“What a strange voice! I would speak with him.” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

[Approaching the cistern and looking down into it.] “How black it is, down there ! It must be terrible to be in so black a hole ! It is like a tomb. . . . .” [To the soldiers.] “Did you not hear me? Bring out the prophet. I would look on him.” –Salomé

“Thou wilt do this thing for me, Narraboth, and to-morrow when I pass in my litter beneath the gateway of the idol-sellers I will let fall for thee a little flower, a little green flower.” –Salomé

“Oh! How strange the moon looks. Like the hand of a dead woman who is seeking to cover herself with a shroud.” –Herodias’ page

“Where is he whose cup of abominations is now full? Where is he, who in a robe of silver shall one day die in the face of all the people? Bid him come forth, that he may hear the voice of him who hath cried in the waste places and in the houses of kings.” –Iokanaan, having emerged from the underground cistern

“It is his eyes above all that are terrible. They are like black holes burned by torches in a tapestry of Tyre. They are like the black caverns of Egypt in which the dragons make their lairs. They are like black lakes troubled by fantastic moons. . . . Do you think he will speak again?” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

“Who is this woman who is looking at me? I will not have her look at me. Wherefore doth she look at me with her golden eyes, under her gilded eyelids? I know not who she is. I do not desire to know who she is. Bid her begone. It is not to her that I would speak.” –Iokanaan, of Salomé

“Speak again, Iokanaan. Thy voice is as music to mine ear.” –Salomé

“Back! daughter of Babylon! By woman came evil into the world. Speak not to me. I will not listen to thee. I listen but to the voice of the Lord God.” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

“Thy hair is horrible. It is covered with mire and dust. It is like a knot of serpents coiled round thy neck. I love not thy hair. . . . It is thy mouth that I desire, Iokanaan.” […] “There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth. . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth.” –Salomé

IOKANAAN: Never! daughter of Babylon! Daughter of Sodom! Never.

SALOMÉ: I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth.

“Cursed be thou! daughter of an incestuous mother, be thou accursed!” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

HEROD: Where is Salomé? Where is the Princess? Why did she not return to the banquet as I commanded her? Ah! there she is!

HERODIAS: You must not look at her! You are always looking at her! […]

HEROD: I am not ill, It is your daughter who is sick to death. Never have I seen her so pale.

HERODIAS: I have told you not to look at her.

HEROD: Pour me forth wine [wine is brought.] Salomé, come drink a little wine with me. I have here a wine that is exquisite. Cæsar himself sent it me. Dip into it thy little red lips, that I may drain the cup.

SALOMÉ: I am not thirsty, Tetrarch.

HEROD: You hear how she answers me, this daughter of yours?

HERODIAS: She does right. Why are you always gazing at her?

HEROD: Bring me ripe fruits [fruits are brought.] Salomé, come and eat fruits with me. I love to see in a fruit the mark of thy little teeth. Bite but a little of this fruit that I may eat what is left.

SALOMÉ: I am not hungry, Tetrarch. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Behold the time is come! That which I foretold has come to pass. The day that I spoke of is at hand.

HERODIAS: Bid him be silent. I will not listen to his voice. This man is for ever hurling insults against me.

HEROD: He has said nothing against you. Besides, he is a very great prophet. […]

A THIRD JEW: God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in all places. God is in what is evil even as He is in what is good.

A FOURTH JEW: Thou shouldst not say that. It is a very dangerous doctrine, it is a doctrine that cometh from Alexandria, where men teach the philosophy of the Greeks. And the Greeks are Gentiles: They are not even circumcised. […]

FIRST NAZARENE, of Jesus: This man worketh true miracles. Thus, at a marriage which took place in a little town of Galilee, a town of some importance, He changed water into wine. Certain persons who were present related it to me. Also He healed two lepers that were seated before the Gate of Capernaum simply by touching them. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN, of Herodias: Ah! the wanton one! The harlot! Ah! the daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and her gilded eyelids! Thus saith the Lord God, Let there come up against her a multitude of men. Let the people take stones and stone her. . . .

HERODIAS: Command him to be silent.

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Let the captains of the hosts pierce her with their swords, let them crush her beneath their shields. […]

HEROD: Dance for me, Salomé.

HERODIAS: I will not have her dance.

SALOMÉ: I have no desire to dance, Tetrarch. […]

HEROD: Salomé, Salomé, dance for me. I pray thee dance for me. I am sad to-night. Yes; I am passing sad to-night. When I came hither I slipped in blood, which is an evil omen; also I heard in the air a beating of wings, a beating of giant wings. I cannot tell what they mean . . . I am sad to-night. Therefore dance for me. Dance for me, Salomé, I beseech thee. If thou dancest for me thou mayest ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: [Rising.] Will you indeed give me whatsoever I shall ask of thee, Tetrarch? […]

HEROD: Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: You swear it, Tetrarch?

HEROD: I swear it, Salomé. […]

SALOMÉ: I am ready, Tetrarch. [Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.]

HEROD: Ah! wonderful! wonderful! You see that she has danced for me, your daughter. Come near, Salomé, come near, that I may give thee thy fee. Ah! I pay a royal price to those who dance for my pleasure. I will pay thee royally. I will give thee whatsoever thy soul desireth. What wouldst thou have? Speak.

SALOMÉ [Kneeling]: I would that they presently bring me in a silver charger . . .

HEROD [Laughing]: In a silver charger? Surely yes, in a silver charger. She is charming, is she not? What is it thou wouldst have in a silver charger, O sweet and fair Salomé, thou art fairer than all the daughters of Judæa? What wouldst thou have them bring thee in a silver charger? Tell me. Whatsoever it may be, thou shalt receive it. My treasures belong to thee. What is it that thou wouldst have, Salomé?

SALOMÉ [Rising]: The head of Iokanaan.

HERODIAS: Ah! that is well said, my daughter.

HEROD: No, no!

HERODIAS: That is well said, my daughter. […]

“You have sworn an oath, Herod.” –Salomé

“Well, thou hast seen thy God, Iokanaan, but me, me, thou didst never see. If thou hadst seen me thou hadst loved me. I saw thee, and I loved thee. Oh, how I loved thee! I love thee yet, Iokanaan, I love only thee. . . . I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Iokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire. . . Ah! ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me? If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater that the mystery of death.” –Salomé, holding and gazing upon the severed head of Iokanaan

“She is monstrous, thy daughter I tell thee she is monstrous.” –Herod, to Herodias

“Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on my lips. Was it the taste of blood ? . . . Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love. . . . They say that love hath a bitter taste. . . . But what matter? what matter? I have kissed thy mouth.” –Salomé, still with Iokanaan’s head

HEROD: [Turning round and seeing Salomé.] Kill that woman! [The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa.]

III: Themes and Beginning

Recurring themes in the play/opera include these: lust, with gazing/leering/staring at the object of desire, hence objectification; the conflict between, and complementarity of, opposites (love/loathing, spirituality/carnality, desire/disgust, white/black, male/female roles, beauty/ugliness, life/death, victim/victimizer, etc.); and the decadence of the ruling classes, as against the assurances for the oppressed that revolution, redemption, and liberation are soon to come.

The story begins at night, just outside a banquet held by Herod, his wife, Herodias (widow of his half-brother, Herod II), and her daughter, Salomé, along with all their guests in Herod’s palace. The moon is shining, silvery-white and bright. Silvery-white because, as Narraboth says, “She [the moon] is like a little princess…whose feet are of silver,” and “who has little white doves for feet.”

Narraboth, a young Syrian and Captain of the Guard, amorously declares how beautiful Salomé looks. The Page of Herodias wishes he wouldn’t always stare at her, for the Page fears that disaster will come of his passion.

The moon is a pale, virgin, silvery white, as is Salomé’s flesh. The moon looks so pale and white, “She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman,” as the page of Herodias observes.

The princess-moon, with her innocent white feet, can drive men lunatic, as can Salomé’s virginal beauty; as, in turn, the holy purity of similarly-pale Iokanaan drives her mad with love for him. In this play, virginal innocence is dialectically related to the deadly sin of lust: the one opposite dissolves into the other.

IV: Enter Salomé

Salomé leaves the banquet area, finding it disturbing how Herod keeps staring at her with lust in his eyes. Of course, Narraboth is eyeing her similarly, but she will soon be an ogler herself, for she hears the voice of Iokanaan from the cistern below.

He has spoken harsh words against her mother, Herodias, as well as against Herod (i.e., his incestuous marriage with his half-brother’s widow); Salomé knows of this, but instead of being offended by Iokanaan’s words, she’s intrigued. It seems evident that Salomé has hardly any less contempt for her mother than she does for her adoptive father: alienation, including that between family members, is a typical symptom in a world of class conflict, in this case, that of the ancient slave vs. master variety.

Thus, any speaker of ill against Salomé’s family is a singer of sweet music to her ears. Small wonder she’d like to take a look at that mysterious man down in that dark, yonic pit. She looks down into it, awed by its darkness. This blackness, of course, is associated with Iokanaan’s mysticism. An ominous, eerie tritone is heard in the musical background when she looks into the cistern and notes its blackness, near the beginning of scene two.

Let’s compare some images used so far. Pale Salomé is consistently associated with the silvery-white, virginal moon, an ominous orb portending imminent evil. The cistern is black, as Salomé observes, but since it houses a holy man, a celibate man, it could be seen as virginal, too, the yoni of a virgin such as Salomé herself. The cistern’s blackness thus has a dialectical relationship with the silvery-white moon, which phases from white full moon to black new moon, and back again. Iokanaan, like the moon, also portends an evil coming too soon for comfort.

She insists on having Iokanaan brought out so she can see him, to have his mysteries revealed…just as Herod will want Salomé to dance a striptease for him, to reveal her anatomic mysteries. The lecherous, decadent tetrarch, of course, also hopes to make the young beauty replace her mother as his new queen, so her virginal yoni‘s dark secrets can be revealed to him…just as she wishes to have Iokanaan, the secret of the dark yoni of the cistern, revealed to her eyes.

The parallels between Iokanaan’s display and that of her nakedness continue, first with Narraboth’s and the soldiers’ insistence that the prophet not be allowed out (by Herod’s orders), on the one hand, and Herodias’ disapproval of her daughter dancing erotically for Herod. Also, Salomé entices Narraboth with suggestions of her favouring him (offering a green flower and a smile) if he’ll allow Iokanaan to come out, and Herod entices her with an oath to give her anything she wants if she’ll dance for him. Both Narraboth and Salomé are persuaded to do what they’d otherwise never do.

V: Enter John the Baptist

Iokanaan emerges from the cistern, pale, hairy, and filthy, but always shouting his imprecations against the decadent kings and queens of the world, especially Herodias. His holiness inspires Salomé’s passion for him, symbolizing the dialectical relationship between the erotic and the ascetic (something also explored in Hindu myth, as Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty observed in Siva: the Erotic Ascetic, pages 33-36).

At first, Salomé loves Iokanaan’s white flesh, a parallel of the love Narraboth and Herod have for her pale flesh. The prophet, of course, rejects her wish to touch his body; indeed, he can’t even bear to have this “daughter of Sodom” look at him. She’s angered by his rejection, feeling narcissistic injury, no doubt; but his chastity fascinates her all the same.

Salomé is used to having a train of admiring men following her everywhere, leering at her, lusting after her. Such men bore her, annoy her, inspire her contempt; but Iokanaan is no lecherous pig. With him, the sexes are reversed, and the man is disgusted with the woman’s lechery. She’s hurt by his rejection, but she can only admire him all the more for it. This man’s spiritual willpower is as rare as her physical beauty is, and her desire for him is made all the hotter for this.

As soon as he rejects her, she speaks ill of his whitest of white body, which she’s just finished praising. Now she speaks of loving his blackest of black hair; note the immediate juxtaposition of opposites–loved/loathed, beautiful/ugly, and white/black. When he rejects her wish to touch his hair, she’s now repelled by it and begins loving his red lips.

VI: Baiser

She wants to kiss his mouth, saying in Wilde’s French: “Laisse-moi baiser ta bouche.” Baiser, as a verb, originally meant ‘to kiss,’ but it grew to mean ‘to fuck,’ this new meaning starting as early as the 16th or 17th century, having been used this way in, for example, a few poems by François Maynard. This usage began to grow more common by the beginning of the 20th century, prompting the French to start using embrasser to mean ‘to kiss’ instead.

My point is, given the already shockingly erotic overtones of Wilde’s play, as well as in his choice to write it in French instead of his usual English, did he use baiser as a double entendre? Was he suggesting a secondary meaning, a cunnilingus fantasy of Salomé’s, to get head from Iokanaan?

Now Strauss, in using a German translation for his opera, used the word küssen, which only means ‘to kiss.’ Perhaps he was aware of the growing use of the sexual meaning of baiser, and wanted to mitigate the scandal by eliminating that problematic French word. I’m guessing that my speculations hadn’t been discussed by critics back around the turn of the 20th century, given the-then taboo nature of this subject; but this taboo use of baiser has been discussed more recently.

VII: Lustful Staring

Back to the story. The prophet is so shocked by this “daughter of Babylon” that he curses her and goes back down into the cistern. Salomé’s unfulfillable desire has turned into an obsession; speaking of which, Narraboth’s has caused him to implode with sexual jealousy, since he can see she clearly prefers Iokanaan to him. Thus, he stabs himself and dies, fulfilling Herodias’ page’s dire prediction that his obsessive, mesmerized staring at Salomé would bring evil.

Of course, the young Syrian hasn’t been the only one staring at Salomé to the point of such ogling being dangerous. Herod enters with Herodias; he slips on Narraboth’s spilled blood, an obvious omen.

The tetrarch speaks of the silvery-white moon and Salomé’s pale skin, an evident identifying of the one with the other, just as Salomé has identified the chaste moon with celibate Iokanaan. We see more unions of opposites: virginity and whorish objects of desire, in both her and the prophet.

Herodias is annoyed with Herod’s staring at her daughter, with Iokanaan’s insulting diatribes against her, and Herod’s–to her, absurd–belief in omens and prophecies. She is a purely materialist, decadent queen: the moon is just the moon to her.

She wishes he would just give Iokanaan over to the ever-disputatious Jews, who come out and begin a clamorous storm of debating over whether Iokanaan has seen God, whether he is Elijah having returned, and whether this or that dogma is correct. This is another example of wanting to know mysteries, to see secrets.

In all of this arguing among the Jews, we see dramatized the dialectic of contradictory viewpoints. Added to this is the contradiction between the Jewish point of view and that of the Nazarenes, who now come onstage.

VIII: Revolution

Since the Crucifixion hasn’t happened yet, discussion of how the Messiah will save the Jews from their sins is never in the Pauline notion of a Divine Rescuer dying and resurrecting, so that believing in Him will confer God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins. Instead, salvation for the Jews is understood to come in the form of a revolution against Palestine’s Roman imperialist oppressors. Recall Matthew 10:34.

Revolution! Insurrection! Such words terrify decadent rulers like Herod and Herodias, who naturally don’t want to lose their privileges as members of the ruling class. Thus do we see the dialectic move, from the Hegelian sort we heard among the debating Jews, to the materialist sort that Marx discussed: the contradiction between the rich and poor.

Iokanaan prophesies the downfall of sinful rulers like incestuous Herod and Herodias, as well as the redemption of the downtrodden. As the prophet says at the beginning of Wilde’s play, “the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.”

Such welcome changes can be seen to symbolize revolutionary relief given to the suffering. The blind seeing, and the deaf hearing, suggests the enlightenment of the poor, hitherto ignorant of the true causes of their sorrows. The idea of gladdened solitary places suggests the replacement of alienation with communal love. The suckling child, with his hand on the dragon’s lair, and leading the lions, suggests the end of the oppression of the weak by the strong, replacing it with equality.

Marx similarly prophesied the end of the rule of the bourgeois, to be replaced by communist society. The bourgeois today, like threatened Herod and Herodias, are scared of their imminent downfall, for many believe their days are numbered.

My associating Iokanaan with Marx is no idle fancy, for in 1891, the very same year Wilde wrote Salomé, he also wrote The Soul of Man under Socialism, inspired by his reading of Peter Kropotkin, and in which Wilde considered Jesus to be a symbol of the extreme individualist he idealized. Wilde would also have been aware of the short-lived Paris Commune twenty years prior, which Marx joyfully described as being a manifestation of his notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

IX: The Music

It seems apposite, at this belated point, finally to discuss Strauss’s music. Influenced by Wagner’s musical dramas, Strauss used Leitmotivs (“leading motives”) for each character in Salomé, as well as for many key moments or concepts in the story.

There’s the light, dreamy Leitmotiv heard when Narraboth expresses his admiration for Salomé’s beauty at the beginning of the opera. There’s the Leitmotiv when she sings of wanting “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” which gets increasingly dissonant with her every iteration of the demand for it, to ever-reluctant Herod.

And there are Leitmotivs for Iokanaan and his prophetic abilities, the former being a stately, dignified chordal theme heard on the horns; and the latter melody being a trio of fourths, C down to G, then F down to C, then–instead of another, third perfect fourth–there’s a tritone of A down to D-sharp, then up to E, now a perfect fourth (relative to the previous A). These three sets of perfect fourths symbolize Triune, holy, divine perfection; the tritone, though the diabolus in musica, nonetheless resolves to E, symbolizing a prophecy of sinning imperfection soon to be made perfect, redeemed.

Strauss, as a late Romantic/early modern composer, anticipated many of the revolutionary musical ideas soon to be realized in full by such modernists as Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Webern. Strauss was thus a kind of musical Iokanaan. Strauss, through his extreme chromaticism, pushed tonality to its limits, while not quite emancipating the dissonance, as Schoenberg would soon do. Since some have seen the emancipation of the dissonance as linked with the emancipation of society and of humanity, the music of Strauss–as musical Iokanaan–can be seen symbolically as heralding the coming of that social liberation I mentioned above.

The harsh discords in his score symbolize the contradictions not only in the class conflict between the decadent rulers (puppet rulers for imperial Rome) and the oppressed poor, but also in the conflicts between what Narraboth, Salomé, Iokanaan, Herod, and Herodias each wants. Also, the contrast between these dissonant moments and the prettier, more tuneful sections suggests the dialectical relationships between beauty and ugliness, and love and loathing.

Finally, the choice of ‘harsh‘ (at least from the point of view of English speakers), guttural German–instead of Wilde’s erotically lyrical (if a tad idiosyncratic) French–reinforces the dramatic tension, especially when Salomé demands the prophet’s head on a silver charger.

X: Dance for Me, Salomé

Back to the story. Herod is so obviously troubled, on the one hand by the threats Iokanaan is making against his rule, and on the other by his fear of the prophet as a man of God–which means he can’t kill him–that the soldiers note the tetrarch’s sombre look.

Herod hopes that Salomé will dance for him, to take his mind off his troubles. This escape into sensuous pleasure is an example of the manic defence, to avoid facing up to what makes one so unhappy.

Always annoyed that her husband stares lustfully at her daughter, Herodias forbids Salomé to dance for him. But his oath to give her anything she wants, even to half of his kingdom, puts a sly grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye; so Salome agrees to dance.

Wilde‘s brief stage direction, of Salomé dancing in seven veils, has been made so much of. It says nothing explicitly of a striptease, but why else would she dance in those veils, if not to remove them one by one?

Strauss’s exotic, sensuous music certainly makes much of the dance, starting with a slow, erotic, mysterious aura and building up to a fast, frenzied, and dissonant climax, once almost all (or absolutely all, depending on the boldness of the woman playing Salomé) of the veils have been removed.

XI: Getting Naked

As each veil is removed, more of the mysteries of her body are revealed to horny Herod, just as the mystery of Iokanaan was revealed to lascivious Salomé when he emerged from the vaginal cistern. This story is all about the desire to have secrets revealed, including, as the Jews obsess over, the mysteries of God, through such things as prophecies, as the Nazarenes are concerned with. Mysteries thus may be sensual or spiritual: note the dialectical relationship between these two.

While we usually think of men objectifying women, as Herod is doing with Salomé here, in Salomé the objectifying is a two-way street, since she lusts after chaste Iokanaan. And while it is usual and correct to be concerned with the injuries done to female strippers, sex workers, and pornographic models and actresses, consider how pathetic the men are, those addicted to porn, prostitutes, and strippers, using these as a manic defence to avoid facing their own sadness. Consider their shame at knowing what pigs they’re being (or at least seen as being), each a modern Herod, walking guiltily in and out of strip joints, whorehouses, and the porn sections of DVD rentals.

There are two sides to objectification: the view to destroy, as Salomé does to Iokanaan, and as Herod does to Salomé at the end of the opera; and there’s the view to admire, to worship the beautiful object, as any connoisseur of art understands…and as Salomé and Herod also do to their adored objects. Looking to admire and to destroy are, again, dialectically related. This obsessive urge to look, a pagan adoration of divinity that is–in this opera–thematically related to whether or not the Jew or Nazarene has ‘seen’ God, is also a weakness that can be exploited.

Salomé is certainly using her sexuality to take advantage of this weakness of Herod’s. And since, on the one hand, the tetrarch is objectifying and using her for his pleasure, getting her to strip down to a state of nude vulnerability; and on the other hand, she’s turning his lust against him, we have here a male/female variant of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic, or a dialectic of feminism meeting antifeminism.

XII: Switching Roles

The master (Herod) uses the, so to speak, slave (Salomé) for his own pleasure, but she uses her creativity (her dance) to build up her own mastery over him. Thus, master and slave switch roles, making her especially triumphant, since she’ll cause the doom of two men–decapitated Iokanaan, and the revolutionary toppling of Herod, as it is assumed will happen to him when the Nazarenes (and God!) are so enraged to learn of the execution of their beloved prophet.

Women are perceived to be inspiring of lust and sin (the misogynistic, antifeminist side of the dialectic), yet Salomé and Herodias triumph in thwarting the tetrarch and killing the male religious authority (the feminist side). What’s more, Salomé is all the more feminist in wishing for Iokanaan’s head for her own pleasure, not out of obedience to her mother.

Herod pleads with Salomé to ask for something else. The tetrarch has made himself a slave to his oath, of which she’s the master. He offers her rare jewels, ones even her mother doesn’t know he has; he offers her rare white peacocks. All she does is repeat her demand for “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” each time given more and more aggressively, with increasingly tense music in the background. Finally, he is forced, in all exasperation, to relent.

XIII: The Head

When the executioner is down in the dark cistern, Salomé waits by the hole and listens. Suspense is built when she hears nothing. She grows impatient, thinking she’ll need the soldiers to do the job she imagines the slave who went down with his axe is too incompetent or cowardly to do. Nonetheless, he emerges with Iokanaan’s bloody head. The ruling class’s indulgence of their petty desires always brings about violence of this sort.

Still, there are contradictions even among the desires of the different members of the ruling class. Herod is horrified to see Salomé’s maniacal gazing at the head, but Herodias is pleased to no end. Salomé kisses the mouth, triumphant in having achieved what the living prophet refused to let her do. In her mania, she imagines for the moment that Iokanaan’s eyes should be looking at her, as if the severed head could possibly be alive. She is thus disappointed that the eyes don’t look at her.

She wishes that he could have accepted her love, that if he’d looked at her, that if he’d just let her kiss his mouth, he would have loved her back, for love is a greater mystery than death.

XIV: Decapitation as Symbolic Castration

Since Wilde’s use of baiser has the implied secondary meaning of “to fuck,” and since she says, “Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan,” she is implying that she has a symbolic vagina dentata, which will castrate him when they make love. She compares his body to a column of ivory, a column being a phallic symbol. Thus, ‘fucking’ his mouth with the implied vagina dentata means his decapitation is a symbolic castration.

Herod’s unwillingness to have Iokanaan beheaded is thus an example of castration anxiety, especially since loss of the phallus is a symbolic loss of power. Herod’s fear of Iokanaan’s execution provoking a Nazarene revolution, spearheaded by none other than God, reinforces this symbolic fear of castration. Iokanaan’s “Kopf” is a cock.

XV: Conclusion–Who Wins the Sex War (and the Class War)?

Salomé (and by extension Herodias, since she has wanted Iokanaan’s death from the beginning), having the prophet’s head in her arms, is now symbolically the powerful phallic woman. She, especially in her madness and perversity, is a threat to Herod. Regarding her as “monstrous,” he orders all the torches to be put out. He says, “Hide the moon! Hide the stars!” For the whiteness of the moon and stars resemble her pale skin far too much for his comfort.

Finally, the male/female dialectic sways back in the antifeminist direction, and Herod orders his soldiers to “Kill that woman!” The men surround Salomé with their shields, and crush her to death with them, ending the opera with a barrage of discords.

Still, we know that the days of all decadent kings and queens–as well as those of the tetrarch, it seems–are numbered. Herod is still quaking in fear over the consequences of killing a holy man. The Nazarenes believe the tetrarch cannot stop the march of God through history, just as we Marxists believe the bourgeoisie cannot stop the dialectical movement of historical materialism.

Herod can hide the moon and the stars for only so long. Recall Iokanaan’s words: “In that day the sun shall become black like sackcloth of hair, and the moon shall become like blood, and the stars of the heaven shall fall upon the earth like unripe figs that fall from the fig-tree, and the kings of the earth shall be afraid.”

Furthermore, Salomé may be dead, but her double, that pale moon overhead, is still shining. In his poem, ‘Problems of Gender,’ Robert Graves wondered which gender to assign the moon, asking, “who controls the regal powers of night?” In Salomé, I think we know which sex controls them.

Analysis of ‘Scarface’

Scarface is a 1983 crime film directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, and starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and F. Murray Abraham. It’s a remake of the 1932 film, which in turn was loosely based on the 1929 novel by Armitage Trail, itself based on Al Capone, who also had the nickname of Scarface.

In the 1983 version, Tony Montana (Pacino) is a Cuban criminal who immigrates to the US and lives in Miami, Florida. He rises to wealth and power in the criminal underworld there selling cocaine. He’s always been a bad man, but the acquisition of wealth and power estranges him from everyone around him, leading to his self-destruction.

The film got a negative response initially, with much criticism over its violence (also a criticism of the 1932, pre-Production Code film) and strong language (indeed, the 1983 film is one of those, like The Big Lebowski, in which the word fuck is heard more often than in most other films). Its critical reputation has improved over the years, though, thanks in part to its status as a cult classic, and now the film is generally praised.

Here are some quotes:

Tony Montana: You a communist? Huh? How’d you like it, man? They tell you all the time what to do, what to think, what to feel. Do you wanna be like a sheep? Like all those other people? Baah! Baah!

Immigration Officer #3: I don’t have to listen to this bullshit!

Tony Montana: You wanna work eight, ten fucking hours? You own nothing, you got nothing! Do you want a chivato on every corner looking after you? Watching everything you do? Everything you say, man? Do you know I eat octopus three times a day? I got fucking octopus coming out of my fucking ears. I got the fuckin’ Russian shoes my feet’s comin’ through. How you like that? What, you want me to stay there and do nothing? Hey, I’m no fuckin’ criminal, man. I’m no puta or thief. I’m Tony Montana, a political prisoner from Cuba. And I want my fuckin’ human rights, now! [slams desk] Just like the President Jimmy Carter says. Okay?

Immigration Officer #1: Carter should see this human right. He’s really good. What do you say, Harry?

Immigration Officer #3: I don’t believe a word of this shit! They all sound the same to me. That son of a bitch Castro is shittin’ all over us. Send this bastard to Freedom Town. Let them take a look at him. Get him outta here.

Tony Montana: You know somethin’? You can send me anywhere. Here, there, this, that; it don’t matter. There’s nothing you can do to me that Castro has not done. Nothing! […]

“You tell your guys in Miami, your friend, it’d be a pleasure. You know, I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.” –Tony

“What I try to tell you? This country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman. That’s why you gotta make your own moves.” –Tony, to Manny

Tony: You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ fucked!

Elvira: A true capitalist if ever I met one. […]

[to the guests at the restaurant] “What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!” –Tony

“Okay, Sosa. You wanna fuck with me? You fucking with the best! You wanna fuck with me? Okay. You little cockroaches… come on. You wanna play games? Okay, I’ll play with you. You wanna play rough? Okay! Say hello to my little friend!” –Tony, with a grenade-launcher-equipped M16A1

The film begins with footage of Fidel Castro announcing that the Cuban government is letting go of thousands of Cubans who refuse to cooperate with the Marxist-Leninist revolution. This Mariel boatlift is sent to Miami, Florida.

A huge portion of those on the boat are criminals, like Tony and his friends. They come to the US with nothing, and have to fend for themselves in a country that has never cared for the poor in a meaningful way. Contrast this with revolutionary Cuba, which has provided housing for pretty much everyone, as well as free education, free healthcare (training superb doctors who often go to poor or wartorn countries to give the afflicted medical aid), and usually low unemployment rates. All of this, in a Third World country saddled with an economic embargo for almost sixty years now!

Tony tries to charm his way through US immigration, the officers there not buying a word of his lies. He speaks of all of his family being dead, when his mother and kid sister (Mastrantonio) live right there in Miami. He speaks of being oppressed by the Cuban communists, when he, representative of capitalists, is hardly one to judge the faults of any political or economic system.

The officers ask him about the scar on his left cheek: he says they should see what he did to the boy who gave him the scar when he was a kid. That scar is symbolic of a narcissistic scar, the childhood cause of Tony’s criminal pathologies.

Narcissism on a pathological level is typically rooted in childhood emotional neglect, abuse, and a lack of empathy from one’s parents, as Heinz Kohut observed in such writings as his book, The Analysis of the Self: “The mother’s responsiveness to the child’s needs prevents traumatic delays before the narcissistic equilibrium is re-established after it has been disturbed, and if the shortcomings of the mother’s responses are of tolerable proportions, the infant will gradually modify the original boundlessness and blind confidence of his expectation of absolute perfection. […]

“If, however, the mother’s responses are grossly unempathic and unreliable, then the gradual withdrawal of cathexis from the imago of archaic unconditional perfection is disturbed; no transmuting internalization can take place; and the psyche continues to cling to a vaguely delimited imago of absolute perfection, does not develop the various internal functions which secondarily re-establish the narcissistic equilibrium–either (a) directly, through self-soothing, i.e., through the deployment of available narcissistic cathexes; or, (b) indirectly, via an appropriate appeal to the idealized parent–and remains thus relatively defenseless vis-à-vis the effects of narcissistic injuries…In general…they consist in a hypersensitivity to disturbances in the narcissistic equilibrium with a tendency to react to sources of narcissistic disturbance by mixtures of wholesale withdrawal and unforgiving rage.” (Kohut, pages 64-65)

Now, while Tony’s mother is justified in being–to put it mildly–disappointed in him for his criminal ways, one shouldn’t find it hard to believe, knowing Kohut’s insights, that she was probably lacking in motherly love for him when he was a boy. Tony’s quick temper, his fury sparked by any slight, or by any sense of having been dishonoured, is the essential manifestation of his narcissistic wound, which is central to his personality.

He won’t have the Cuban communists telling him what to do, or what to think, though he’s perfectly content to tell his kid sister, Gina, what to do or think (i.e., not give up her ‘maidenly virtue’ to any man). Indeed, with all his mafia criminal activity in Florida, he’d do well to have the communists tell him what to do and think.

Now in the ‘free’ capitalist world of the US, Tony quickly comes to hate being a dishwasher at a local Miami restaurant. Granted, any worker would rightly complain of the alienation inherent in being a wage slave, helping a boss make profits and not getting the full fruits of his labour; but with Tony, the narcissistic injury of being a ‘lowly’ worker is too much for him. He wants to rise high in the capitalist world, and the upper echelons of capitalism are filled with narcissists.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, gangsters make a perfect metaphor for capitalists, people who get rich off of people’s craving for commodities, here symbolized by cocaine. Hence, Tony becomes a drug lord, killing his way to the top, as many capitalists have done.

Indeed, every rung of the ladder that Tony climbs, he kills people, has them killed, or at least alienates them: first, there’s Rebenga, the Cuban communist he kills so he and his friends can get green cards; then, there’s Hector, with the chainsaw. Hector’s dismembering of Angel Fernandez with the chainsaw perfectly symbolizes the psychological fragmentation, disintegration, and alienation from oneself that capitalism causes.

Next, there’s the murder of Omar, whose arguing with Tony exemplifies the alienation between competing employees. Finally, the killing of Frank Lopez, for his attempt on Tony’s life, demonstrates the alienation between worker and boss.

Tony is alienated from his family–first, from his disapproving mother, then from Gina, who grows sick of his overprotective attitude, really his sense of the patriarchal family’s honour being tarnished.

Indeed, alienation and social isolation permeate this film. Few people are real friends with each other. Men chase women only for sex and to acquire females as social jewelry, so to speak, as is the case with Tony pursuing Elvira (Pfeiffer)…not for love. Manny may feel a bit more for Gina than the women in bikinis he pursues with his laughable ideas of how to pick them up, but Tony’s gun ends the newlyweds’ love fast.

Elvira never feels anything for Tony, or for Lopez, for that matter; she just lives off their money and snorts their cocaine. She judges them and their work, just as a liberal judges capitalism, but enjoys all the privileges associated with it.

As mentioned above, Scarface is among those films in which the word fuck is said most frequently. Many objected to the film’s ‘excessive’ profanity, but I’d say there’s justification for the constant use of the word fuck, since it symbolizes the nature of human connection throughout the film. People fuck each other constantly, if usually only in the metaphoric sense.

The word‘s denotation as sexual intercourse–an entering and connecting of one person with another–is paired with its connotations of violence: one etymology of the word is from the Swedish focka, ‘to copulate, strike, push’). So this combination of denotative and connotative meanings gives us a hint as to the true nature of human relationships as seen in the movie–people connect, and they hurt one another.

This connecting to cause mutual grief suggests Wilfred Bion‘s extensions of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification, that is, Bion’s concept of container and contained, symbolized respectively by a yoni and a phallus. One projects one’s pain into another, like a raping phallus entering a vagina, the contained entering the container, causing the container to hold all that psychological grief, and to become, to manifest, what is projected.

Normally, only a mother in what Bion called a state of reverie could contain the pain of her frustrated baby, and only a trained psychoanalyst like Bion could contain the pain of a psychotic, transforming that pain into something acceptable that is returned to the baby or psychotic, pacifying them. In Scarface, Tony forces others to contain his pain, which they cannot do; as a result, no pacifying return of the projections is possible.

Tony’s scar is a symbolic yoni, a container receiving narcissistic injury from his childhood, and from–I theorize–an unempathic mother who never contained his violent infantile projections in reverie. He therefore projects that pain onto others, symbolized by his every fatal gunshot or stab, and also in how he hurts and alienates his mother, through his criminality, and Gina, through his patriarchal overprotectiveness.

Indeed, Tony’s killing of Manny, after learning his friend has had his sister, is a projective identification causing her to be as violent as her brother has always been. She approaches him in a provocative state of relative undress, firing a gun at him and offering (in bitter sarcasm) her body for his incestuous pleasure. Tony ‘fucks’ Manny–with his bullet-ejaculating, phallic gun–for fucking Gina; she ‘fucks’ Tony back by firing an ejaculating, phallic pistol at him while offering herself to be literally fucked by him. Container and contained switch roles in this dance of relationships of symbolic sexual relations.

These relationships by fucking are explicitly connected with capitalism when Tony complains of the criminalization of drugs by the establishment. Capitalists don’t mind exploitation as long as they are the exploiters; but when the government intervenes and regulates, the capitalist feels exploited from the disrupting of his business, the lowering of his profits. Hence, Tony is enraged at the ‘unfairness’ of it all.

At least Tony acknowledges that this government interference can happen within the context of capitalism, unlike your average right-libertarian. Tony complains, “You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ fucked!” Elvira notes his hypocrisy, though, by calling him, “A true capitalist if ever I met one.” Capitalism is only good when it’s convenient for this or that capitalist.

Capitalism is also about expansion, and seeking out new markets in other countries, other parts of the world, resulting in imperialism. Hence Tony’s interest in doing more business with Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) in Bolivia. Sosa’s drug empire stretches throughout the Andes; Tony builds his in a number of major cities in the US, after he removes the small-potatoes drug lord, Lopez. As Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Sosa and his South American associates have their worries about a journalist who has been investigating their criminal activities. Sosa needs Tony’s help in killing the journalist, who is about to make a UN speech exposing Sosa. A car bomb is set up to kill the man, but his wife and daughters unexpectedly get in the car, too. Tony’s sense of honour is offended: he has no problem killing men, but to kill women and children would cause him intolerable narcissistic injury, so he kills Alberto the Shadow, the assassin operating the car bomb, instead. This infuriates Sosa, causing a mafia war.

This mafia war symbolizes inter-imperialist conflict, since Tony’s and Sosa’s cocaine businesses are those of capitalists from different countries, capitalists with conflicting interests. Tony, always snorting the commodity he sells, is full of narcissistic brashness, fighting to the end, even after the killing of Gina, who injures him with a gunshot.

At Sosa’s men, he fires a huge, phallic, grenade-launching M16A1, calling it his “little friend,” an ironic reference to this extension of his big dick. He narcissistically defies his killers, even after being wounded several times, saying, “You fuck with me, you fuckin’ with the best!” Finally, a shot in the back from The Skull is the one narcissistic wound he won’t recover from.

The world was his…for a while, anyway.

The Liberal Mindset

I: Introduction

As much as I recognize the conservative as my ideological foe, I can at least have a kind of grudging respect for him. We on the left know where we stand with those on the right: they support and rationalize the authoritarian class system we all suffer under, and while they spuriously claim that capitalism is good for society as a whole, they don’t go around pretending they care about social justice in a meaningful way.

With liberals, on the other hand, the situation gets foggy, and it’s in this way that the ruling class is particularly cunning. The liberal claims to care about all the social issues we communists are insistent on addressing (racism, etc.), but he or she backslides right when matters get urgent, or when his or her class privileges are threatened.

What must be understood is that the liberal, in relation to the conservative and fascist–and by these three I include every variety–is just another snake-head on the body of the same Hydra. Slice off Bernie Sanders‘s head, and the heads of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tulsi Gabbard pop out of the same reptilian neck to replace his.

We communists, on the other hand, represent a different kind of serpent altogether: that of the dialectical ouroboros, as I’ve argued elsewhere. We recognize a fluid reality of material contradictions rubbing up against each other, especially in the form of class conflict.

For us, the resolution of class war will not come about in the form of making compromises with the capitalist class, as liberals would have it, by emulating the Nordic Model, or having a market economy with a strong welfare state, single-payer healthcare, shorter working hours, and free education all the way up to university; these social democrat benefits, of course, would be paid off through imperialist plunder.

No, we want to extend those benefits globally, and to rid ourselves of the market as soon as the productive forces of society have been fully developed, for the benefit of all. The liberal will never help us with this project; he, nonetheless, routinely tricks many left-leaning people into thinking he’s our friend. For this reason, we leftists need to be educated not only in dialectical and historical materialism, but also in the psychology of the liberal worldview.

The liberal, as we know, is hypocritical in his claims to care about social justice, and opportunistic in his politics. He says all the right things (well, except for stating a commitment to socialism), but fails to do what needs to be done. At the heart of this hypocrisy and opportunism is a psychological conflict resulting from a confrontation of his material privileges.

The liberal’s superego is making all these moral demands to care about social justice, including resolving class conflict; but his id enjoys all the pleasures and privileges of being part of a higher social class (including his cushy place in the First World), and his id doesn’t want to lose them. So his conflict tends to resolve itself in the form of espousing such things as identity politics: he’ll keep the class structure of society intact, but allow blacks, women, gays, etc., into the upper echelons.

The best way to think is to have neither the id‘s pleasure principle, nor the superego‘s ego ideal, dominant, but to have the ego‘s reality principle at the forefront. That’s why we Marxists are neither id-like opportunists, nor are we superego-minded utopian socialists: we are ego-oriented, realistic materialists, scientific socialists, acknowledging the necessity of revolution and the ongoing, lengthy struggle of making the dictatorship of the proletariat run its course until the day finally comes for the withering away of the state, and the enjoyment of communist society.

II: Defence Mechanisms

Still, liberals must preserve their illusions of having the most sensible solutions to the world’s ills, which are really just resolutions of their psychic conflict. Indeed, they try to resolve their cognitive dissonance with a number of ego defence mechanisms, such as denial, rationalization, projection, splitting, reaction formation, displacement, and fantasy, among many others. We’ll examine these now.

Liberals are in denial about the extent to which they support, whether covertly or overtly, the capitalist system. They will, for example, play the same game of false moral equivalency as conservatives will when it comes to comparing communism and fascism. In their opposition to communism, one every bit as vehement as conservatives’, they’ll pretend that Stalin’s leadership was every bit as cruel and oppressive as Hitler’s, even though it was the former’s army that did most of the work in defeating the latter and his army. See here for a more thorough discussion of the huge differences between the far left and far right, a discussion beyond the scope of this article.

Liberals rationalize their defence of the establishment by pretending to have a ‘pragmatic’ approach to curing the ills of our world. Hillary Clinton has claimed to be a “progressive who gets things done,” when the only thing she and her husband ever got done was to move the Democratic Party further to the right.

The funny thing about the Clintons is that they aren’t even, nor were they ever, liberals–they’re conservatives in ‘centre-left’ garb. Consider all they did in the 1990s: helping to lay waste to Russia with ‘free marketreforms, and keeping unpopular Yeltsin in power; the 1994 Crime Bill, allowing the prison system to ruin thousands of lives; the gutting of welfare with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996; the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which relaxed regulations and allowed mergers and acquisitions in the media, resulting in the great majority of it owned by only six corporations; the repealing of Glass-Steagall, which some believe was at least a factor that brought about the housing bubble and the 2008 financial crisis; and the carving up of Yugoslavia, culminating in the 1999 bombing of the former socialist state, using depleted uranium on the victims. A progressive pair, indeed.

Liberals’ ‘pragmatism’ is set against the ‘utopianism’ of Marxism, when as I mentioned above, it’s the latter of these that’s the pragmatic application of progressive ideas. Liberals, on the other hand, aren’t progressive at all. They like to imagine they occupy a ‘reasonable’ position in the political centre, avoiding the violent extremes on either side. We are not, however, living in a world where reality is static, unchanging.

On the contrary, we live in a world in which everything flows dialectically, like the waves of the ocean. Crests of theses alternate with troughs of negations, the rising and falling of the water being the sublations of all these material contradictions.

What’s more, the current of these waves has been going further and further to the right, ever since the dawn of the Cold War, and especially since the disastrous dissolution of the Soviet Union. That rightward movement means that ‘neutral’ centrism is at best a passive acquiescence to that current, and at worst a collaborating with it. We must move against the current, and that can only mean an aggressive, revolutionary move to the left.

Still, liberals smugly insist that they’re ‘the good guys,’ projecting their support of the unjust status quo onto conservatives, as if only the right is to blame for our woes. Oh, the GOP and their awful wars! Vote in the Democrats, and the wars will end…or, at least, they’ll be tolerable [!]; the same for the Tories and Labour Party in the UK, and for the Conservative and Liberal Parties in Canada.

Liberals not only project all government corruption onto conservatives, but also project their tendency to interfere in the democratic process onto other countries, as in the case of Russia, a country with whose politics they themselves have interfered, as I mentioned above with regard to Yeltsin. Even after the Mueller report showed no proof of the claims of the Steele dossier (in which many, including myself, saw no real evidence right from the beginning), some liberals will surely still claim Russia colluded with Trump to get him elected in 2016. Now, he can use liberal folly and dishonesty to his advantage, and quite possibly get reelected in 2020. Thank you, liberals!

Both liberals and conservatives use splitting, or thinking in terms of absolute black vs. white, good vs. evil, when judging each other. That conservatives do this is painfully obvious: “Either you’re with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Liberals pretend to be above splitting, characterizing themselves as “open-minded,” but they’re just as hostile to differing ideologies as conservatives are.

I’ve known many supporters of the Democratic Party who imagine that all will be fine as long as their idolized party is elected, as opposed to the GOP. This blind devotion continues in spite of how similar their party’s agenda has come to that of the Republicans. In liberals’ universe, the DNC is all good, and only the GOP is all bad, no matter what either party does.

On Facebook, back when Trump had just been elected, and all the liberals were traumatized, I posted a meme that said, “So, you’re Obama‘s biggest fan? Name 5 countries he’s bombed.” A liberal FB friend of mine (then, not now) trolled me, saying, “Who cares? We have Trump.” Now, granted, Trump’s bombing of countries has grown even worse than Obama’s, but this needn’t (and shouldn’t) involve us trivializing Democrat sins. The problem isn’t this party vs. that party, or this charming man vs. that charmless man: it’s the metastasizing of imperialism that’s the real problem; whichever party is manifesting it at the moment is immaterial. Liberals can’t grasp this reality.

This splitting between ‘good DNC’ vs. ‘bad GOP’ is so extreme now that liberals are willing to go to war with Russia for her ‘collusion with Trump.’ These same people who were so passionately antiwar back in the 60s and 70s now bang the war drums, all because they’re such sore losers over the 2016 election results. Recall Rob Reiner’s short film with Morgan Freeman.

When I posted an article saying that Russia is not our enemy, that liberal FB friend of mine trolled me, saying it was a “crock of shit article…Russians are persecuting gays.” I responded sarcastically, saying, “You’re right, Peter. We should start World War III.” He liked my reply. Yes, risking nuclear annihilation is the only way to help gays. Hmm…

Liberals will engage in reaction formation, condemning everything bad they see conservative politicians doing, while resting perfectly content if a liberal politician commits the same egregious acts; in other words, liberals make an open show of hating the political evils of the world, yet secretly either don’t mind them, or even support them. Had Hillary been elected, liberals would be at brunch now instead of protesting Trump; even though she’d have had similar, if not virtually identical, policies as he has. The wars would have continued, the super-rich would have their interests protected, she’d have been tough on immigration (including a US/Mexico barrier), etc.

Liberals engage in fantasy, not only the totally uncorroborated fantasy of “Russian collusion,” but also fantasies that mere incremental reforms will fix what’s wrong with our world. Ocasio-Cortez‘s Green New Deal, apparently, will heal environmental degradation, when nothing less than an immediate, revolutionary takeover, by the people, of the government will do so. Sanders‘s giving away of free stuff will cure everything, it is supposed, instead of merely placating the public and staving off revolution.

A fantasy world of people indulging their desires via legalized prostitution, pornography, and drugs would fulfill people, as some liberals would have it, instead of fulfillment from ending pimps’ and madams’ exploitation of sex workers, and having government-funded rehab programs to get addicts off of junk.

Deeper than that issue, though, is how pleasure-seeking is a mere manic defence against the depressing reality of alienation, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Instead of understanding libido as satisfying drives through pleasure-seeking, we need to promote an object-directed libido (by objects, I mean people other than oneself, the subject; hence, object-directed libido is, as Fairbairn understood it, an urge to cultivate human relationships). And the promotion of loving human relationships is part of what socialism is about.

III: Hollywood and Pop Culture

Entertainment as escape to fantasy is especially apparent in the liberal media empire known as Hollywood. Anyone who has read enough of my blog posts knows that I like to write up analyses of films, many of which are mainstream ones. Sometimes I do psychoanalytic interpretations of them, sometimes I do Marxist ones, and sometimes a combination of the two.

This does not mean, however, that I have any illusions about these all-too-reactionary films. My Marxist interpretations are deliberately subversive: I wish to turn these narratives into various threads of a leftist mythology, if you will, in order to counter the liberal/CIAlaced propaganda narratives Hollywood is brainwashing the public with.

Another reason I believe my Marxist slant is justified in interpreting these liberal narratives is because I see them as reflecting the conflicted liberal psyche I outlined above. The liberal’s superego demands films that promote equality, but his id wants the gratification of pleasure and the maintenance of the usual class privileges. Hollywood may be liberal, but it’s also a business. Hence, there’s a mask of the idealized liberal version of equality (identity politics, etc.) in these movies, but behind that mask are manifestations of class contradictions the liberal would rather you didn’t see.

‘Liberty and equality’ in these films, past and present, are defined in bourgeois contexts, as in Casablanca; peel away the mask, though, and note how subordinate blacks like Sam are. American Psycho is masked as a scathing critique of yuppies far more than of the capitalist world they embody…which you’d see if you removed the mask. The old Planet of the Apes movies idealized a peaceful coexistence between ape (symbolizing the proletariat, in my interpretation) and man (symbolizing the bourgeoisie), rather than promoting revolution (which was toned down in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Political corruption is seen as sensationalistic and titillating in Caligula, while the real oppression of slavery sits almost unnoticed in the background…behind the mask.

With the growing of neoliberalism, though, Hollywood movies have resolved the id/superego conflict, on the one hand, through identity politics (showing us strong women and blacks, as well as sympathetic portrayals of LGBT people, etc.), and on the other hand, through an upholding not only of the class structure of society (e.g., CEOs who are black and/or women, as opposed to promoting worker self-management), but also of imperialism and perpetual war (check out the spate of DC and Marvel superhero movies to see my point).

Whenever class issues are addressed, they’re rarely if ever dealt with in order to promote revolution; rather, it’s just as if to say, “Here, we acknowledged the problem–good enough.” Consider such films as Elysium, Snowpiercer, and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi to see my point. Thus is the superego placated, while the id is indulged.

Liberal pop stars like Bono and Madonna put on a show of caring about human rights, yet they’re bourgeois through and through. Consider her shameful support of Israel through her planned Eurovision concert; on the other hand, she felt morally justified in opposing only the Trump facet of the ruling class, promising blow jobs to those who voted for Hillary, as if Trump’s non-election would have made much of a difference.

IV: Julian Assange

Trump’s election certainly made no difference as to Julian Assange‘s fate, despite all this nonsense of the last few years of him and Russia supposedly helping Trump win in 2016. Trump, who repeatedly spoke of how he loved Wikileaks, and of how fascinating Wikileaks is, now says he knows nothing about it, and that it is of no consequence to him, now that Assange has been carried out of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Now we expect repressive, authoritarian measures from conservatives like Trump against journalists who make them look bad…but where are all the liberals, those who loved Assange when he exposed the imperialist brutality of the Bush administration, but changed their tune when it was the brutal imperialism of Obama’s administration, and of Hillary’s corruption, that was exposed?

On top of liberals’ splitting of the political establishment into ‘good DNC, bad GOP,’ we also see the displacement of blame from the rightly accused (Hillary and the rest of the Obama administration) to the whistleblower (Assange). The same, of course, goes for Chelsea Manning’s persecution, a displacement of blame from the murderous US army to she who accused them.

That same liberal former Facebook friend of mine (Peter) used to speak ill of Assange right up until Trump’s surprise election. Peter went on about how Assange had ‘lost all credibility’ (according to mainstream liberal propaganda, of course), even though not one Wikileaks publication has ever been proven false. He also described Assange with the most eloquent of language, calling him “a fucktard.” He claimed, back in 2016, that Ecuador was sick of putting up with Assange living in their embassy, when left-leaning Rafael Correa wanted to protect him there, and it’s only with Lenin Moreno’s election (and money from the IMF!) that Assange has been kicked out.

V: Conclusion

Liberals backslide and betray the people at the very moment when their class privilege is threatened. That’s what Mao observed in ‘Combat Liberalism’: “liberalism stands for unprincipled peace, thus giving rise to a decadent, Philistine attitude…To let things slide, for the sake of peace and friendship…To let things drift if they do not affect one personally…To indulge in personal attacks, pick quarrels, vent personal spite or seek revenge…It is negative and objectively has the effect of helping the enemy; that is why the enemy welcomes its preservation in our midst. Such being its nature, there should be no place for it in the ranks of the revolution.” (Mao, pages 177-179) This is why liberals are no friends of the left.

Stalin once called social democracy “the moderate wing of fascism.” On the face of it, his words may seem excessive; but when you consider how liberals like Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Gabbard (in spite of, to her credit, Gabbard’s opposition to the war in Syria and defence of Assange) have no intention of overturning the capitalist system–instead, they would just soften it in order to stave off revolution–the logic of Stalin‘s words is revealed.

As I explained in my ouroboros posts, the clock ticks counter-clockwise from social democracy, then to mainstream centrist liberalism, then to neoliberalism, and finally to fascism. It’s not enough to be ‘left-leaning’ to turn the ticking back in the clockwise direction. Only a hard-left stance will have the necessary force to counteract the counterrevolution of the last fifty years: this means such things as ridding ourselves of antiStalin and anti-Mao propaganda, to arrive at the truth of the value of the communist alternative; for imperialism is a formidable foe that requires a resistance far more effective than the pathetically weak one offered by liberals.

The Ouroboros of the Workers’ State

If the ouroboros of the workers’ state were to be compared to a clock, 12:00-3:00 would be a state of ‘NEP,’ as it were (see below); 3:00-6:00 would be the beginning of a real building of socialism, as Stalin did in the 1930s; 6:00-9:00 would be remarkable progress in that building; and 9:00-12:00 would result in the withering away of the socialist state, and the attainment of communist society.

It goes without saying that one doesn’t go from revolution to full communist society overnight. A process of gradual transformation has to be made, starting with the capitalist structure one has just taken over (recall when Lenin wrote of how “difficult [it would be] to abolish classes”–Lenin/Tucker, pages 668-669), smashing the possibility of it continuing seamlessly from before that takeover, and building socialism step by step, changing every facet of what had existed before, each facet examined one by one.

This process of moving along the continuum from capitalism, through the building of more and more socialism, to full communism can be symbolized by the ouroboros, a circular continuum where the serpent’s biting head represents one extreme, and its bitten tail represents the opposite extreme. The tail is the dialectical thesis of the desired communist society; the head is the capitalist negation of that desired society; and the length of the coiled body is the socialist sublation of the contradiction. In other posts, I’ve discussed this ouroboros symbolism before.

We wish to move in a clockwise direction from the capitalist head (i.e., 12:00-1:00) to the communist tail (11:00-12:00); but a counter-clockwise reactionary movement continually threatens to undo all our progress. Because of this danger, the movement towards more and more socialism must be accelerated, to at least some extent; also, proper protections must be established, and acts of treason must be extirpated with the utmost ruthlessness.

In the early stages of socialism (i.e., 1:00-3:00 along the ouroboros’ body), some concessions to the established order are sadly inevitable, as was the case with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty to get the RSFSR out of World War I, a move Lenin had to make to fulfill part of his “peace, land, and bread” promise, yet also a move that angered the impatient left communists.

Lenin, in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, responded to this anger: “It had seemed to them that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a compromise with the imperialists, which was inexcusable on principle and harmful to the party of the revolutionary proletariat. It was indeed a compromise with the imperialists, but it was a compromise which, under the circumstances, had to be made.” […]

“The party which entered into a compromise with the German imperialists by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had been evolving its internationalism in practice ever since the end of 1914. It was not afraid to call for the defeat of the tsarist monarchy and to condemn “defence of country” in a war between two imperialist robbers. The parliamentary representatives of this party preferred exile in Siberia to taking a road leading to ministerial portfolios in a bourgeois government. The revolution that overthrew tsarism and established a democratic republic put this party to a new and tremendous test–it did not enter into any agreements with its “own” imperialists, but prepared and brought about their overthrow. When it had assumed political power, this party did not leave a vestige of either landed or capitalist ownership. After making public and repudiating the imperialists’ secret treaties, this party proposed peace to all nations, and yielded to the violence of the Brest-Litovsk robbers only after the Anglo-French imperialists had torpedoed the conclusion of a peace, and after the Bolsheviks had done everything humanly possible to hasten the revolution in Germany and other countries. The absolute correctness of this compromise, entered into by such a party in such a situation, is becoming ever clearer and more obvious with every day.” (Lenin/Tucker, pages 563-564, Lenin’s emphasis)

Another concession Lenin made was with the NEP, which he himself called “state capitalism” (Lenin/Tucker, pages 511-531) as a temporary measure to deal with the economic exigencies of the early 1920s. Nonetheless, Stalin had already phased out the NEP by the beginning of the 1930s, as it was by then time to move socialism on forward. Indeed, when the concessions are no longer necessary, it’s time to continue clockwise along the body of the ouroboros (i.e., move from 3:00 to, say, 6:00).

In this connection I must discuss China under Xi Jinping, and do so with necessary candour. Nothing would make me happier to believe that the country is going down a genuine path of Marxism-Leninism, but beyond Xi’s rhetoric, I’m sorry to say that I can only see China as being, at best, in a seemingly almost permanent state of arrested NEP development.

China‘s is a mixed economy, partially state-planned and partially private enterprise. This latter part is the beginning of the cancer of capitalism in any country; the small amount of private enterprise allowed in Cuba is enough to make me fear for her future. That there’s so much more free enterprise in China should be enough to make any communist nervous, yet many respectable Marxist-Leninists out there still rationalize what China is doing. I must respectfully disagree with them.

The defences I’ve heard to support Dengism as legitimate Leninism include such arguments as wages have been rising (itself a debatable notion), hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, and of course, theirs is a state-planned economy. All of these arguments can be applied to capitalist countries, where at certain points in history, wages have risen (as they did in the West from 1945-1973), ‘millions lifted out of poverty’ has been claimed to have been a capitalist achievement, and state-planning, or state intervention, has existed–to at least some extent–in both fascist and Keynesian forms of capitalist economies.

How have ‘hundreds of millions of Chinese been pulled out of poverty,’ anyway? The poverty line is defined at making US$1.90/day, so any money earned above that, even US$1.91, is considered to be technically ‘above poverty.’ This World Bank definition is comparable to capitalist boasts of raising people out of poverty. Granted, many Chinese today are now doing much, much better than they were back when Deng Xiaoping had just taken over (including today’s hundreds of Chinese billionaires and millionaires!); but in the rural areas–and in some urban ones–many are still very poor.

According to UN projections for 2019, the population of China is estimated to be at 1.43 billion (1,434,661,888, to be exact). Dengists boast that extreme poverty in China has been reduced to less than 1% as of 2018, based on the World Bank’s US$1.90 definition. Less than 1% of 1.43 billion is less than 14,300,000 (or less than 14,346,618, to be more exact). That’s still a lot of extremely impoverished people.

And there are hundreds of Chinese millionaires and billionaires. Such equality. Wow.

Added to this, how many of these Chinese ‘above the poverty line’ in as recent a year as 2015 were making, say, US$2.00/day, or $2.50, or $3.00, or in any case, under $3.20/day? Up to 7%. How many made under $5.50/day? 27.2%, not a trifling percentage, and not much money. As of the end of 2017, Xinhua acknowledged that 30.46% of rural Chinese were still below the poverty line. I don’t think the average Westerner would be happy to make less than US$3.20/day, or less than $5.50/day, then be congratulated for no longer being impoverished!

Need I remind you, Dear Reader, that the ‘state-planned economy equals socialism’ argument is commonly heard among certain quarters outside the China-defending Marxists?…they’re called right-libertarians and ‘anarcho’-capitalists. It isn’t state-planning per se that makes it socialist: it’s how the planning is used. Does it lift the poor out of squalor in a meaningful way, or does it allow–or even facilitateflagrant wealth inequality?

Recently, the Chinese government has cracked down on corruption; but this can happen in capitalist countries, too, if only with modest success. Socialist government is by far the most moral, but at least some virtue in government can be seen elsewhere. Virtue in government alone doesn’t make it socialist.

It’s not my wish to disparage China, or to speak out of malice; China’s growth since the 1980s has been nothing short of impressive. I certainly have no bourgeois agenda against China; these criticisms I’ve made are not the kind you get from anti-communists; nor are they of the infantile disorder one gets from impatient, utopian socialists who want everything perfect all at once. I don’t wish to see the CPC removed from power. I just want to see China move further clockwise towards the tail of the ouroboros; I want to see the more left-wing factions of the CPC having more of a say in how policy is made. I’m a patient socialist, but my patience has limits.

I would much rather have China (or Russia, for that matter), far less inclined to waging war, as the strongest country in the world than the eternally bellicose US…and I live as a Canadian in Taiwan! But until someone can provide more convincing arguments that China, having joined such capitalist institutions as the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank, is legitimately socialist, I’ll continue to have my doubts.

Consider the working conditions in China’s (and Vietnam‘s) factories and sweatshops. Consider the legal existence of private property in China, and how Marx and Engels told us, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Consider the evidence of imperialistic tendencies, often reduced, by China’s apologists, to investment in the growth of developing foreign countries.

I think I understand the psychological motive for many to regard China as socialist in spite of its obvious capitalist tendencies: it is depressing to see the great majority of socialist nations having succumbed to neoliberal depredations, and so we’d all like to believe that China isn’t one of those casualties. Until I see a genuine Chinese movement away from the tendencies I outlined above, however, and more muscular efforts to even out the wealth inequality, I’ll find it difficult to support Xi’s government.

But enough of ‘NEP-oriented’ politics. Time to move further clockwise along the serpent’s body, from 3:00-6:00. When the productive forces are sufficiently developed, efforts towards universal housing, education, employment, and healthcare must be immediately undertaken. We’re moving towards the ideal of ‘from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs.’ Part of this means taking the ‘his or her’ part seriously, thus establishing full equal rights for women and a way out of the trap of restrictive traditional roles for both sexes (Lenin/Tucker, pages 679-699).

These developments, along with such ones as promoting tolerance for LGBT people, helping people with physical and mental disabilities, and eliminating racial prejudice, will help move us further clockwise along the ouroboros from its head to its tail, from 3:00-9:00.

Proper defences against the danger of a reinstating of capitalism, a move from 6:00 back to 1:00, must be erected. North Korea has done well in that regard with their development of nuclear weapons, the only thing that has prevented a US invasion. Venezuela must do more to protect herself from imperialist aggression: gusanos like Guaidó should be arrested (at least) for treason; let the liberal media lambast Maduro for being firm with these traitors, for they’ll criticize his democratically socialist government as a ‘dictatorship’ regardless of what he does. To ensure the survival of the proletarian dictatorship, not letting it slip counter-clockwise back to the bourgeois dictatorship of ‘liberal democracy,’ one mustn’t flinch at such measures.

To an extent, some concessions have to be made to ensure against the backsliding into bourgeois ways. But sometimes, those concessions really do result in such backsliding. A delicate balance must be made, like walking a tightrope. Moving too much the one way (as Mao was perceived to have done) or too much the other way (as I perceive Deng to have done) leads to a slipping along the serpent’s tail back to its capitalist head.

And once we reach the tip of the tail of the ouroboros (9:00-12:00)–when all remaining traces of capitalism have been eradicated, mountainous class differences have been lowered to the calmly rippling waves of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” the state finally withers away, and money is replaced with a gift economy–we mustn’t assume our new communist society will be a painless utopia. There will be new challenges to be dealt with, new contradictions of some sort or other. The bitten tail will phase into a new biting head, though not a capitalist one. We’ll have to be ready for those new challenges when they come.

Robert C. Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1975

Analysis of ‘Casablanca’

Casablanca is a 1942 drama film/love story directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, and featuring Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, and Sydney Greenstreet. Based on the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s (which was written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison), the movie is considered one of the greatest of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Round up the usual suspects.” –Captain Renault (Rains)

“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By‘.” –Ilsa Lund (Bergman) [Often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam.”]

“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” –Rick Blaine (Bogart), to Ilsa

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” –Rick, of Ilsa

“I stick my neck out for nobody.” –Rick (said several times)

“I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean.  I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” –Renault

“My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” –Signor Ferrari (Greenstreet)

“If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.” –Victor Laszlo (Henreid)

“We’ll always have Paris.” –Rick, to Ilsa

“Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” –Rick

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” –Rick

Refugees hope to escape Nazi-occupied, war-torn Europe and get to the US through politically-neutral Lisbon. Most can’t get there directly, so instead they go from Paris to Marseille, then to Oran, Algeria, then finally to Casablanca, in French Morocco.

Casablanca is a hellhole to these refugees. They find it virtually impossible to scrounge up the money to buy the coveted exit visas to Lisbon. It’s as though Dante‘s sign at the entrance to the Inferno were moved to Casablanca’s entrance.

Casablanca thus symbolizes the snare of poverty most of the world can’t escape, especially those in the Third World. Some, like Ugarte (Lorre), are so desperate to escape that they’ll resort to murder to get the money they need to pay for a visa.

Captain Renault is an appropriate prefect of police in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, for he’s unabashedly corrupt, often taking advantage of pretty young women desperate for a visa. He represents Vichy France, who were Nazi collaborators during World War II.

Richard “Rick” Blaine is the American owner of a night club called “Rick’s Café Americain.” He’s cynical and cold, refusing to drink with customers. The casino’s games are fixed to ensure that Renault, who never pays for his drinks, always wins. Thus, between Rick’s alienating of others and Renault’s control over Rick’s business, we see the two men personifying state capitalism.

Rick has some redeeming qualities, though. We learn that he ran guns to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He’ll redeem himself again, as will even Renault (well…sort of), at the end of the film. So Rick, as a capitalist, is more of a liberal one, loosely comparable with Orwell, who also fought against fascism in Spain, then grew disillusioned with the left.

The idealized hero of the film, though, is Victor Laszlo, the Czechoslovakian leader of an underground resistance against the Nazis. That resistance was historically connected with the Soviet Union, incidentally…not that a bourgeois Hollywood movie would ever admit to such an association, of course. Laszlo, dressed in an off-white suit, has a saintly, if dully stoic, aura about him; his unending, virtuous fight against fascism makes him seem other-worldly, almost…too good to be true. That scar on his forehead seems to be his only fault, physical or otherwise.

Since Rick has his good, idealistic side, how has he become so embittered and cynical? Back in Paris, he had a love affair with the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Bergman), not knowing she was Laszlo’s wife! The husband had been in a concentration camp, and she thought he’d died trying to escape, so she had an affair with Rick. When she learned Laszlo was alive, she left Rick without an explanation, for fear he’d follow her and endanger himself in the flight from the occupying Nazis. Rick thus got on a train to Marseille with Sam (Wilson), with an unused ticket for Ilsa, and with a broken heart.

Ilsa thus represents the beauty of that ideal both Laszlo and Rick have fought for; because she left Rick, he’s lost his idealism and become a politically neutral, cynical man who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody.’

Many who, in their youth, fight passionately for an ideal, such as freedom from fascism, equality, socialism, etc., later grow cynical and bitter because they fail to understand that fighting for such ideals involves sacrificing one’s selfish desires for the greater good. This is what has happened to Rick, and this self-centredness is what he must overcome. Indeed, sacrifice is the main theme of the film.

One such a sacrifice occurs among the minor characters, when a young Bulgarian woman (played by Joy Page) who, it is implied (defying the strict censorship of the Production Code of the 1940s), has slept with Renault behind her husband’s back in hopes of getting a visa in return. She, with guilty tears in her eyes as she asks Rick for help, has sacrificed her loyalty to her husband, and to Church morality, for freedom.

Rick’s late intervention to fight fascism and make the ultimate sacrifice (something Laszlo’s been doing from the beginning) makes him the film’s personification of the US, which stayed out of World War II until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. People in the West knew for years what a problem Hitler was, but did little to check his growing power; for the West was hoping the Nazis would succeed in invading and crushing the USSR. Incidentally, the USSR’s sacrifice (between 25 and 30 million Soviet Russians died) in defeating fascism is given short shrift in Western history.

Laszlo, at one point in the film, knowing of Rick’s love for Ilsa, is even willing to let the American use the letters of transit to take his wife to the US, since her safety is all-important to him. This is the length to which Laszlo will go to sacrifice all that he has to ensure the safety of his wife, the lovely personification of the ideal of freedom.

But in the end, it is Rick who makes the sacrifice, insisting that Renault write Laszlo’s and Lund’s names on the letters of transit. Rick sacrifices his enjoyment of the ideal so others can be free. Even unscrupulous Renault joins Rick in the end to join the struggle of the Free French in Brazzaville.

Now, what must be emphasized is that this fight for liberty must be understood in its proper bourgeois context. The film was released in a rush to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa, to stir up American patriotism. And the Western powers’ real motives for fighting the Nazis weren’t as noble as they may have seemed.

As it says in the ‘Writers Without Money’ critique of the film, “Indeed, early in the war, Churchill and Roosevelt seemed more concerned with retrieving France’s and Britain’s old colonial empire in North Africa than about liberating western Europe from the Nazis.” This is how we should think about Renault’s joining the Free French; it’s not much of a redemption for him. Both Rick and Renault, as personifications of their respective countries, are mainly concerned with their nations’ class/power interests.

Consider Rick’s and Ilsa’s relationship with Sam, the only black character in the movie, and one clearly in a subordinate position. Rick claims that Sam gets 25% of the profits, and Rick makes Signor Ferrari promise to continue giving Sam the 25% when Rick leaves Casablanca (…and will he keep the promise, I wonder? After all, Ferrari understands Sam gets only 10%!); but given how Sam’s popularity as a piano man, singer, and bandleader is practically the lifeblood of the success of Rick’s Café Americain (as against Rick’s coldness to customers), shouldn’t he get 50%, if not much more? If Rick and Sam are such good friends, shouldn’t they be co-owners of the night club? Rick personifies the US in more ways than one.

During Sam’s singing of the song “Shine,” when he sings, “because my hair is curly,” he strokes his hair with a grin, as if glad to internalize the racism of the time. Later, when Ferrari hopes to have Sam work for him, even willing to pay Sam twice the salary Rick pays him, Sam says he doesn’t have the time even to spend Rick’s salary…oh, really? Why not use the money to get an exit visa and go back to the US? It’s almost as if…he is owned…by Rick. Of course, Ferrari wouldn’t mind owning Sam himself.

How deferential Sam is to Rick, Ilsa, and all the other white characters makes one think of the Jim Crow years, which is oddly out of place in North Africa, where there were not only anti-fascist, but also the beginning of anti-colonial, rumblings at the time. Surely expatriate Sam has noticed how the African times, they are a-changin’, but he never gives an opinion about something that should give him high hopes. But maybe that’s just the point.

On top of all of this is how Ilsa, much younger than Sam, refers to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano,” when she knew him personally back when they were with Rick in Paris. So as a personification of that ideal of freedom, Ilsa is only a conventional, bourgeois, and white liberal form, the kind that 1940s Hollywood would have cherished.

Similarly, as mentioned above, her husband, Laszlo, is only dully virtuous; he lacks the revolutionary fervour of the Red Army, who did the majority of the work in ridding Europe of Nazis. Laszlo’s singing of La Marseillaise, as impassioned as it is, hardly compensates for his ‘nice guys finish last’ kind of blandness.

Thus, both Laszlo and Lund represent bourgeois ideals of sex roles in the fight for liberty: him, dull protective Christian stoicism; her, passive, timid beauty…and this was at a time when armed women had fought fascists during the Spanish Civil War a mere three to six years before the making of Casablanca.

And so, Casablanca the city is truly a prison for all living in it. Those film noir shadows–as well as the window blinds, whose shadows showing on characters’ faces look like prison bars–are symbolic examples of indications that, in spite of, or rather, because of, the bourgeois nature of this Hollywood production, the true political problems of the time creep out in the form of Freudian slips, as it were, and expose themselves.

Many on the left will condemn this film as intolerably reactionary, and so the near-universal praise Casablanca has garnered over the years is in many ways just the bourgeois establishment giving itself a pat on the back. Imagine, on the other hand, a socialist Casablanca, with an unapologetically leftist Laszlo, and a militarily-trained Ilsa who won’t stop at just pointing a pistol at someone in her way. Imagine a Sam with dignity. Imagine an anti-fascist struggle willing to go further, and also defeat Franco, the right-wing government in ‘neutralLisbon, and the Nazis on the Eastern Front, actually aiding the Soviets!

Well, we can’t expect much from Hollywood, especially not in the 1940s, even though Curtiz would soon direct the pro-Stalin Mission To Moscow. When you think about it, though, the Casablanca we have is politically appropriate, not for the ‘liberty’ it espouses, but ironically for the sham liberty it actually presents.

I’d say it’s useful to see a movie that pretends to be all liberal and freedom-loving, yet a movie that is also clumsy enough to let the cat out of the bag often enough for attentive viewers to notice the con game being played on them. This is useful because that’s the liberal con game played before us every day in the West.

“The freedom of the Americas” is never seen because it never really existed; the US is a country founded not on liberty, but on slavery, discrimination, class antagonism, and the genocide of the aboriginals; it thus can only make a myth out of liberty, a ‘liberty’ that put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. The building of socialism in the USSR, on the other hand, is never seen because the bourgeoisie would never want us to see it.

Sam is said to get 25% of the profits, but probably only gets 10%, if that. The wife of a freedom fighter is only the ‘behind-every-great-man-is-a-great-woman’ kind of wife. The escape route to the US is ‘neutral’ Lisbon, where there’s actually a fascist government. Sexually predatory Renault has a most charming exterior. Ferrari, who has no qualms about buying slaves, seems an affable enough chap. All looks well on the outside.

My point is that it’s important to see the mask before we can remove it. The political faults of Casablanca are its very virtues, for in order to correct those faults, we must be able to find them…faults one will always try to hide.

Like Rick, we are heartbroken to see our ideals so compromised, as they inevitably will be in the world we see around us. A movie like Casablanca is like Ilsa in how beautifully packaged its message of liberty is; yet it disappoints us, as she does Rick. Still, in our disappointment, if we are willing to sacrifice our selfish wants, we can revive our hopes and fight for our ideals…as long as we watch our backs, with snakes like Renault following us.