Analysis of Aeschylus’ ‘Persians’

The Persians is a historical tragedy Aeschylus wrote, and which won first prize in the dramatic competitions in 472 BCE. It is his earliest surviving play, and the only one we have of his based on historical sources, rather than on Greek myth. It tells the story of Xerxes‘ disastrous invasion of Greece, Persia’s second humiliating defeat after the failed attempt by his father, Darius I, to invade Greece.

The translation I’ll be basing this analysis on is a brand new one by Mark Will, which can be found here on Amazon. It’s a literal translation that comes as close as possible to paralleling the poetry of the original Greek. It also includes an excellent introduction that not only explains the historical background of the play, but also, in a timely way, relates imperial Persia’s losses to contemporary concerns, making it a kind of cautionary tale about what the US’s current imperialist excesses will most likely lead to.

Here are some of Will‘s translated lines:

“Oh, wretched me, having met/this loathsome, obscure fate/because a demon savage-mindedly trod upon/the Persian race!” –Xerxes, beginning of Episode 4, page 68, lines 909-912

“My son found sharp the vengeance/of famous Athens, for they did not suffice,/the barbarians whom Marathon destroyed before./Intending to make retribution for them, my son/has caused so great a plethora of calamities.” —Atossa, Episode 1, page 45, lines 473-477

“Groan and mourn,/cry heavy and/heavenly distress!/Strain the sadly wailing,/clamorous, wretched voice!

“Torn by the whirlpool,/they are mangled by the voiceless,/by the children of the undefiled sea!

“And the deprived house mourns/the man of the family, and childless fathers/are demonized by distress,/and old men bewailing/everything perceive pain.” –Chorus, Choral Ode 2, page 49, lines 571-583

Structurally, the play can be divided into four parts: 1) premonitions and fears for the Persian army, as felt by the Chorus of Persian Elders and by Atossa, Darius’ widow queen and King Xerxes’ mother; 2) the calamity of the Persian army’s defeat at the Battle of Salamis, as told by a messenger; 3) the Ghost of Darius’ report of further Persian woe, and counsel not to attempt an invasion of Greece again [lines 790-792]; and 4) Xerxes’ despair when he returns to Susa, his clothes in tatters.

[Bear in mind that my four-way division of the play differs from Will’s, whose Episode 1 combines my parts one and two, as described in the previous paragraph, and his Episode 2 is a speech by Atossa, just before his Episode 3 and my part three, with Darius’ ghost. Each of his Episodes is preceded by a Choral Ode, with strophes, antistrophes, and epodes; whereas I’m dividing the play in terms of thematic contrasts I’ve seen.]

The choral poetry comments on the fortunes of the Persian empire, past and present. We hear of the great glories of Persia’s imperial past, her conquest of Ionia, and the achievements of Darius the Great (Choral Ode 4, pages 66-67).

While it’s more typical in Greek tragedy to start the play with a hubristic character who experiences a sudden reversal of fortune (peripeteia) and a realization (anagnorisis) of some terrible truth, both of these elements propelling the action towards tragedy (e.g., a fall of pride); there seems to be very little of such contrast in The Persians. The flowing of the plot, from beginning to end, seems a sea of undifferentiated sorrow.

Xerxes’ hubris is felt offstage, while he’s creating the pontoon bridges for his army to cross the Hellespont (lines 65-72; also lines 743-750), and when his troops commit sacrilege (lines 809-812) by destroying the images of Greek gods at their temples. This hubris is described by the characters in Susa, where the whole play takes place. Instead of seeing a boastful king, we hear the Chorus expressing their fears, for the Persian army, who at the beginning of the play (lines 8-15, 107-139) have not sent any reports on the progress of the invasion. The Chorus’ pride is only in Persia’s past.

This fear morphs into sorrow from the messenger’s report; then further sorrow from what Darius’ ghost knows of the army’s other misfortunes, coupled with his not-so-comforting advice not to invade Greece again; and finally despairing sorrow on shamed Xerxes’ return. Fear, woe, more woe, and the worst. The whole play is a continuous descent into sadness.

As I’ve said above, Mark Will parallels this Persian woe to the predicted fate of the US’s near future, with–as I would add–the ascent of China and Russia as against American imperialist overreach, with its absurd military overspending and over trillion-dollar debt, a ticking time bomb that will destroy the US sooner than the military-industrial complex expects. Will also asks us to use this play to help us sympathize with Iran (Translator’s Preface, page 11), the modern Persia threatened with invasion from, ironically, the American Persia of today.

While I affirm Mark Will’s parallels to contemporary events as perfectly true and legitimate, I see another parallel between The Persians and the recent past: the decline in Persian might, and its military humiliations, can be compared to those of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Hamartia in political leaders should be understood as a warning to them that “missing the mark” can lead to political catastrophes for the nation. Xerxes’ foolish overconfidence in his army and navy leads to missteps and his huge losses. This missing the mark is easily seen in the military misadventures of the US over the past twenty years, as Will observes. I’d say that a missing of the mark (quite an understatement, given the growing treason in the USSR, especially from Khrushchev onwards) is also attributable to Gorbachev‘s mismanagement of Soviet affairs.

A series of woes befell the USSR that parallel those of Xerxes and his army. The US lured the USSR into a war with Afghanistan, a war that was a major factor in the weakening of the socialist state (this is rather like Xerxes being manipulated into planning “this voyage and campaign against Hellas” by “evil men” [lines 753-758]). The USSR’s loss against the mujahideen, who were proxy warriors (including Bin Laden) for the US, was a humiliating defeat comparable to that of Xerxes.

Furthermore, Xerxes’ listening to the Greeks’ plans to flee at night, and taking them at their word (lines 355-371), is comparable to Gorbachev thinking he could negotiate with the US and NATO over whether to open up the Soviet economy to the West, and to allow the reunification of Germany, breaking down the anti-fascist protection Wall. Xerxes’ gullibility caused his humiliating loss at Salamis, as Gorbachev’s caused not only the USSR’s dissolution, but also the eastward advance of NATO.

The Persian loss is considered a momentous turn of events in Western history; for if the Persians had won, the West, some argue, would likely have been inundated with Persian, rather than Greek, culture. Their loss is assumed to have been a good thing, with Greek democracy triumphing over Persian despotism. Certainly Hegel thought so in his Philosophy of History:

“The World-Historical contact of the Greeks was with the Persians; in that, Greece exhibited itself in its most glorious aspect…In the case before us, the interest of the World’s History hung trembling in the balance. Oriental despotism–a world united under one lord and sovereign–on the one side, and separate states–insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free individuality–on the other side, stood front to front in array of battle. Never in History has the superiority of spiritual power over material bulk–and that of no contemptible amount–been made so gloriously manifest.” (Hegel, pages 256-258)

On closer inspection, however, it can be argued that the Persians under the Achaemenid Dynasty were closer to real democracy than the Greeks. Achaemenid-era Persians had far fewer slaves than Greeks, and Persian women enjoyed far better rights than their Greek counterparts.

This point is especially salient when we parallel it with the propagandistic portrayal of American “democracy,” with its history of racism, slavery, genocide of Native Americans, income inequality, and mass incarceration, as against the USSR‘s having considerably fewer of these evils. Certainly, Paul Robeson felt far more at home in the USSR than in his native US.

Paralleled with the end of Persian hegemony over the region, and thus the liberation of Greece, is the notion that the USSR’s dissolution meant the triumph of American capitalist democracy and “the end of history.” Consider how the rise of neoliberalism under the Clintons, coupled with the near ubiquity of American imperialist war, have shown the lie of this democracy.

With the end of the Achaemenid Dynasty came the rise of Alexander the Great, whose imperialism–justified as a spreading of Greek culture and civilization to the barbarians of the East–parallels American neoconservative arrogance.

The Ghost of Darius advising the Persians not to invade Greece again seems to me like the ghost of Stalin wishing to advise the Soviets of the 1980s to revert to Socialism in One Country, rather than attempt to bring it about in other countries like Afghanistan.

The Messenger, by his own admission, describes only a fraction of the misfortunes that have befallen the Persian army and navy. Though they outnumbered the Greeks, they’ve been mostly destroyed. Most of the survivors have perished on their journey back home, through hunger or thirst (lines 482-491).

Darius’ Ghost also informs the Chorus and Atossa of newer woes. This piling up of one misfortune after another is, on the one hand, a warning of the karmic future of US imperialist overreach, as Will maintains; but on the other hand, as I am arguing, this accumulation of woe is also something that can be paralleled with the growing suffering in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

The US and NATO were scheming at how they could bring about the USSR’s downfall. There were shortages of food, which was Gorbachev‘s responsibility. Through the establishment of “free market” economic policies, the traitors in the Russian government privatized and seized state-owned assets, and removed the Soviet social safety net, throwing millions of Russians into poverty and starvation, and allowing the ascendance of Russian oligarchs; and when the people tried to bring back socialism, not only did the US’s puppet, Yeltsin, use violence to stop them, but the US also helped Russia’s extremely unpopular leader get reelected in 1996.

Some have called the suffering of Russians in the 1990s an “economic genocide.” This woe after woe after woe is easily paralleled with Persian suffering in the play. Russians have consistently, in poll after poll, regretted the end of the Soviet system, especially recently. Apart from the lost social services, Russians are nostalgic of when their country was once a great world power; as the Chorus, in their lamentations, reminisce of Persia in Choral Ode 4. Putin is well-known for having said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

So when we get to Xerxes’ return to Susa, with his clothes in tatters, we see the final amalgamation of Persian suffering and despair. Back and forth between him and the Chorus, we hear “Ototototoi!” [Philip Vellacott, page 151], “Ay, ay!” [Will, page 76], and “Woe!” during their exodos from the stage. This quick cutting back and forth of brief one-liners, as opposed to the long speeches heard before, symbolically suggests the psychological fragmentation and disintegration each Persian is experiencing.

We may wonder what the ancient Greek response was to Xerxes’ humiliation. For many, it must have been Schadenfreude to see their oppressors finally brought so low, knowing it really happened: remember Xerxes’ words, line 1034, “Distressing, but a joy to our enemies.” (page 76) Similarly, many on the left, including American socialists, are eagerly awaiting the downfall of the American empire, which some experts say may happen by the 2030s.

There’s also a sympathetic reading of the play, though, in which one pities the Persians; and after all, the whole point of tragedy is to arouse pity and terror, as well as to bring about the catharsis of those emotions. At least some Greeks in the audience must have felt that pity for Xerxes and Atossa, or else how could the play have won first prize in 472 BCE?

Certainly, we leftists can pity the Russians, who lost their great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither I nor many leftists agree with Reagan’s projection that the USSR was an “evil empire”; though Maoists, during the time of the Sino-Soviet split, thought it was an empire. I see the USSR rather as a check against imperialism, though a flawed one.

In the end, we can see my paralleling of the play with modern problems, in a dialectical sense, with Will’s paralleling. And his thesis, with my negation, can undergo a sublation to give a deeper message about US imperialism: it destroys any attempts to end its evil, causing oceans of woe; then it will destroy itself, bringing karmic woe on itself.

Evil empire, indeed.

Aeschylus, Persians, a new translation by Mark Will, Cadmus and Harmony Media, 2018

Analysis of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’

In the Court of the Crimson King: an Observation by King Crimson is a 1969 progressive rock album by King Crimson, the band’s debut. Its dark, lugubrious, and portentous sound, combining woodwinds and the Moody Blues symphonic sound of the Mellotron with rock, helped define the art rock genre that would soon be represented by such bands as Yes, Genesis (the Peter Gabriel/Steve Hackett era), Jethro Tull, ELP (whose L was Greg Lake, King Crimson’s original bassist/singer), Gentle Giant, and Van der Graaf Generator.

Pete Townshend endorsed the album, calling it “an uncanny masterpiece,” and while it initially got a mixed critical response, it was commercially successful (making an unusually good ranking, for a King Crimson album, on the charts), and it’s now considered a classic.

Here is a link to all the lyrics.

The cover, a painting by Barry Godber (1946–1970), shows a closeup of a terrified face, reminding me of Edvard Munch‘s The Scream. The inside cover, a dominant blue to contrast the dominant pink of the outer cover, shows a face with an evil grin to contrast with the outer face.

The album was released in October 1969, when opposition to the Vietnam War was at its height. I’ve always thought, mistakenly, that “King Crimson,” coined by lyricist/light-show man Peter Sinfield, was meant as a synonym for the Devil; apparently, a ‘crimson king‘ is historically understood to mean a ruler mired in blood, one governing during a period of great civil unrest and war. Somehow, though, the Devil metaphor doesn’t seem too far off the mark. Certainly, US imperialism was, and is now even more so, a devilish crimson king for our time.

The first song on the album, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is prophetic to us now, from its title alone. “Schizoid” should be understood to mean the fragmented character of the modern personality. We’re all split, not in the schizophrenic or split personality senses, but in the sense of dividing the inner representations of our objects (e.g., other people in relation to oneself, the subject) into absolute good and bad–friends and foes, rather than the actual mixes of good and bad in each of us and them.

This dichotomous attitude, taken to an extreme, has led us to all of these horrible wars–the Vietnam War of the time of the album’s release, and all the wars we’ve had in this schizoid 21st century. The psychological fragmentation of modern man is symbolized in these lyrics–disjointed, standalone images of violence: “Cat’s foot, iron claw…Blood rack, barbed wire…Death seed, blind man’s greed.”

Neurosurgeons scream for more/At paranoia’s poison door.” I suspect, given the song’s focus on “paranoia” and being “schizoid,” that neurosurgeons is meant more metaphorically than literally. This seems especially plausible, since Freud shifted from neuropathology (via a study of neurosis) to psychoanalysis. Hence, for neurosurgeons, read psychiatrists, who have often forsaken their duty to their patients for the sake of profit. Also, there has been all that psychiatric complicity during the ‘War on Terror.’

“Politicians’ funeral pyre/Innocents raped with napalm fire” is an obvious reference to the Vietnam War, though of course the use of napalm can equally apply to any modern war from WWII till Nam, and a number of wars fought since this album was made.

The fast middle section of the song, mostly a change from 4/4 to 6/8, is called “Mirrors.” Given how Lacan‘s mirror gives us a falsely unified sense of self, to the point of alienating oneself from the reflected image, the title of this frantic, dissonant (i.e., Ian McDonald‘s alto sax solo) section–and with its awkward time changes during the fast-picked, alternating 4/16 to 6/16 “down-up” guitar part, doubled by the sax, towards the section’s end–reflects that spastic alienation from oneself, as “I Talk to the Wind” (the following track) reflects alienation from other people (more on that later).

The last verse demonstrates the root cause, the “Death seed,” of all this madness, killing, and suffering: “blind man’s greed,” also known as capitalism. The blindness of these greedy men comes from the capitalist’s denial that his economic system is responsible for the woes of the world–typically blaming the problem on the state, while proposing a ‘free market‘ solution instead…as if we haven’t had enough deregulation and tax cuts for the rich as it is. “Poets starve” because the profit motive has no use for art unless it can make money, thus cheapening art and turning poetry into the titillating superficiality of performers like Nicki Minaj.

Imperialist war makes “children bleed”: consider what happened to Phan Thị Kim Phúc, or what’s happening to Yemeni children now, to see my point. The super-rich have so much money, they don’t know what to do with it; so on the one hand, they avoid taxes by putting their money into offshore bank accounts, and on the other, their addiction to money drives them to cause more wars for the sake of profits for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, et al. Hence, “Nothing he’s got he really needs.”

Because of all these horrors, the song’s chaotic, dissonant ending shouldn’t surprise anyone: ever-increasing neoliberal, capitalist imperialism will inevitably lead to barbarism. Small wonder guitarist/bandleader Robert Fripp once introduced the song in a 1969 concert, dedicating it to Spiro T. Agnew. Here’s a live version of the song, done by the Cross/Fripp/Wetton/Bruford lineup of 1973, which I really like. 

The very title of the second track implies social alienation. “My words are all carried away,” and not listened to. Capitalism brought the madness expressed in the first song because it also brought the alienation described in this song. While I prefer a more uptempo version sung by Judy Dyble, the sadder, slower version on the album seems more thematically appropriate.

Where has “the late man” been? He’s “been here” and “there” and “in between.” He hasn’t been with “the straight man”: he was late. He didn’t care enough about his commitment to meet the straight man to arrive on time. Alienation causes this apathy.

It also causes one to be “on the outside, looking inside,” seeing “confusion…[and] disillusion.” Those who alienate us “don’t possess,” “don’t impress,” “can’t instruct…or conduct” us…they just “upset” us and waste our time.

Epitaph,” with its “March for No Reason,” evokes such things as the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is an allusion to Macbeth, and to that crimson king’s famous speech, upon learning of the death of his queen, when he speaks of the meaninglessness of life, and our day-after-day misery.

The lyrics of “Epitaph” put our present-day troubles into historical context. The words of the writers of scripture have little meaning for us today, for the wall of their etched words “is cracking at the seams.” “The instruments of death” are historic and modern ones, and the sunlight is our knowledge of such Vietnam War atrocities as the My Lai Massacre.

We’re “torn apart with nightmares and with dreams,” for the latter are rarely fulfilled, while the former all too often come true. Media “silence drowns the screams,” for we know of far too few of the atrocities of war, especially the wars of our schizoid 21st century.

We feel “confusion…as [we] crawl a cracked and broken path” paved by the lies of those who fraudulently got the US into the Vietnam War…and now the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and “I fear tomorrow” Iran, China, and Russia.

Part of what makes this album great, sadly, is that it’s even more relevant today than it was when it was released. We’re in a new Cold War with Russia, with NATO troops along the Russian border (and in the Arctic), ready to fight. The trade war with China could escalate, especially with tensions in the South China Sea. If we can prevent these problems from getting worse, “we can all sit back and laugh, but I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.”

Fate has “iron gates,” for it seems to have an implacable will. “The seeds of time were sown” between those gates, “and watered by the deeds of those who know”–Lake’s voice seems ironic with that last word–“and who are known.” Those in authority, the ruling classes, have dominated history and our collective fate; we know them all too well. What they know–how to manipulate us, keep us divided, and make us kill each other–“is a deadly friend” without ethical rules. Our fate “is in the hands of fools,” especially today, when MAD is being disregarded in the temptation to use nukes.

The song’s ending is one of the most emotively powerful ones, if not the most powerful, of the whole album, with Lake’s expressive voice, “Crying,” and backed by Ian McDonald’s weeping Mellotron string section tapes, as well as the kettledrum rolls by drummer Michael Giles.

[As a side note, I’d like to mention that these three songs each have their own ‘new versions’ on Side One of King Crimson’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Fripp wanted to rework the first album his way, with “Pictures of a City” paralleling “Schizoid Man,” “Cadence and Cascade” paralleling “I Talk to the Wind,” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” paralleling “Epitaph.” In fact, on Side Two, towards the end of “The Devil’s Triangle” (adapted by Fripp and Ian McDonald from “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s The Planets), a little bit of the “ah…ah-ah-ah…ah-ah-ah” singing from “The Court of the Crimson King” can be heard in the background.]

Now, let’s come to Side Two.

Moonchild” begins with “The Dream,” which is the section with Lake’s singing. She is “dancing in the shallows of a river,” “dreaming in the shadows of a willow,” “gathering the flowers in a garden,” and “playing hide and seek with the ghosts of dawn.” Throughout the darkness of the gloomy night, her frolicking and “waiting for a smile from a sun child” represents our long-held hope for peace and a better world. The long instrumental improvised section, however–with its almost Bartókian night music, seemingly going on for hours in a sad minor key until McDonald’s vibraphone switches to a major key, bringing on a happy daybreak of hope–is fittingly titled “The Illusion.”

The Court of the Crimson King” includes “The Return of the Fire Witch” and “The Dance of the Puppets.” A witch casts spells, mesmerizing and transforming those under her spells; fire is desire, craving, attachment, greed, hate, and delusion. Since the Fire Witch is in the court of the crimson king, her spells keep the fire of our desires aflame, and distract us from his evildoing, keeping us ignorant of it. Similarly, the puppets’ dance keeps us mesmerized and distracted, so we’ll ignore the bloodshed, carnage, and oppression the crimson king is responsible for.

The other songs of the album have dealt with the wars, as well as the suffering, greed, alienation, fear, and misguided hope we all feel; this last song deals with the bread and circuses, the entertainment and titillation used by the bloodthirsty ones in power to keep us at bay.

“The rusted chains of prison moons/Are shattered by the sun.” The prison of dark night, of lunacy, no longer keeps us in chains when we see the sunlight of truth. “I walk a road, horizons change”: I explore what’s out there in the freedom of my thoughts, and my whole perspective changes because of this sunny enlightenment. “The tournament’s begun”: the powers-that-be are ready to contest my freedom by attempting to put me back to sleep, back in the “rusted chains” of my former lunacy, a mental illness that comes from being denied the truth. 

To lure me back into hypnotized compliance, the “purple piper plays his tune/The choir softly sing/Three lullabies in an ancient tongue…” The three lullabies seem to represent the Trinity of the authoritarian Church, tricking me into thinking all these wars are for the glory of Christ (e.g., as against Muslims, etc.).

A king’s court is full of servile flatterers, and the contemporary equivalent–the media as part of the superstructure of the ruling class–is no improvement. All this lulling, hypnotizing music of the piper, the choir, and the orchestra symbolizes the deceitful narrative we get in the mainstream media, a problem every bit as real back in the days of the Cold War–with Operation Mockingbird–as it is today, with similar mind games going on to make one wonder if Operation Mockingbird ever really ended.

“The keeper of the city keys,” who controls who can enter and leave, and thus controls us in general, “put shutters on the dreams,” preventing us from realizing them. The “pilgrim” wishes to go on a far-off journey to a far better, holier place than our corrupt city, and “I wait outside” his home, thinking of how I can help him escape, but my “insufficient schemes” can’t get us out of town.

The “black queen” of Thanatos, the death drive that inspires war and lulls us into joining her with her “chants” and ringing “cracked brass bells,” more mesmerizing music to fan the flames of desire and hate, “To summon back the Fire Witch.” We take pleasure in satisfying our desires and in causing death.

The ruling class seems to do good in one place–that is, it “plants an evergreen/Whilst trampling on a flower,” or doing evil elsewhere. Distracted by all this, “I chase” empty pleasure, “the wind” (which I aimlessly talk to, knowing it won’t hear, much less satisfy my yearnings). In Shakespeare’s day, a juggler was a “trickster, deceiver, fraud” (Crystal and Crystal, page 248); lifting his hand, the juggler makes the mesmerizing, “orchestra begin/As slowly turns the grinding wheel” of the empire of bloodshed.

“The Return of the Fire Witch” section has a pretty flute solo by McDonald. We’re lulled in the bower of bliss of our desires, not noticing the death and destruction elsewhere in the world.

The “mornings [, when] widows cry,” are “grey” because the Moonchild’s illusory hope for a sunny morning never came true: the widows’ husbands came home from Vietnam (and the other wars of recent memory) in bodybags. “The wise men [who] share a joke” are the academics of today who are full of witty, clever observations, but are cut off from the common people because they’re all in ivory towers. 

I read the newspaper propaganda, the “divining signs,” because I want to be reassured in my prejudices of what’s going on in the world, “to satisfy the hoax,” and not face the truth. This propaganda is part of what the “jester” does as he “gently pulls the strings/And smiles as the puppets dance”–all part of the ruling class’s control of the media, the minds of the public, and therefore the political direction of the world, pushing us further and further towards even more bloodshed, inequality, and despair.

“The Dance of the Puppets” section, like the “Fire Witch” one, has a sweet melody played by multi-instrumentalist McDonald; again, we’re tricked into thinking all is well, so we never hear the screams of the suffering.

The dissonance heard coming towards the end of the song (including Giles’s magnificently precise and fast drum licks) suggests the pain and sorrow hidden behind the pleasant melodies of the “Fire Witch” and “Puppets” sections. In fact, the song ends almost as chaotically and abruptly as “21st Century Schizoid Man,” fittingly bringing the whole album full circle, and reminding us of the horrors that are hidden, because the crimson king uses silence to drown the screams. 

Analysis of ‘L’Age d’Or’

L’Age d’Or is an hour-long French surrealist film made in 1930 by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Salvador Dalí. Since Buñuel had a falling out with right-wing leaning Dalí, his collaborator on Un Chien Andalou, leftist Buñuel was now free to finish this new movie by attacking the bourgeoisie and the Church as much as he liked.

The movie’s title, “The Golden Age,” is surely ironic given his attitude towards capitalism, then in a great state of crisis with the Great Depression, as well as with the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, and his native Spain, where clashes between right-wing tradition and the left were soon to reach a boiling point.

Though not as famous as Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is nonetheless considered another landmark in surrealist cinema, and because of Buñuel’s liberation from the fascist-tending Dalí, this film perhaps deserves even more attention.

Here’s an interesting quote from the film, in English translation: “I have waited for a long time for him. What joy to have our children murdered!” –young girl, to her lover

As with Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is a set of vignettes that seem unrelated; if seen, however, as a series of free associations and dreams put up on the silver screen, one can play the role of psychoanalyst and link the apparently random visuals to show a coherent chain of themes, revealing the meaningful world of the unconscious.

Scorpions, crawling phalli that sting you with an ejaculation of death!

The film begins with a kind of short documentary on scorpions. These vicious, phallic, predatory arachnids–which attack with lightning speed, are unsociable, and prefer hiding in darkness to being seen in the light of day–set the tone of this film, with its themes of quick, impulsive violence and sudden deaths. Therefore, it shouldn’t be dismissed as an unintelligible opening to the film.

“Several hours later,” we see a beggar-soldier up high on the rocks of an inlet, watching some archbishops chanting among the rocks. (An instrumental rendition of Mozart‘s Ave Verum Corpus is playing; knowing Buñuel, the inclusion of this music, significantly excluding the Latin text, is ironic.) The man goes back to his hideout to tell his fellow beggar-soldiers that the Majorcans have arrived, so their leader (played by Max Ernst) tells them to get up and go fight them. Part of the scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is played during this scene; scherzo in Italian means, ‘joke,’ suggesting the pitiful condition of these beggar-soldiers.

Here we see a representation of the revolutionary proletariat, starving and weakened, yet ready to fight the bourgeoisie and Church authoritarianism. The archbishops are on the rocks, for the Church was built on a rock.

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter [Πέτρος], and upon this rock [πέτρα] I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The hardness of the inlet rocks suggest the stony rigidity of Church dogma, as opposed to the mystical peace of the sea, as I’ve described it elsewhere. Indeed, it’s easy for many to go from the heavenly bliss of having been ‘touched by God’ to the hell of being forced to obey the dictates of religious authority…a dialectical shift from freedom to slavery.

Upon these rocks, they’ve built their church.

This preoccupation with Peter, the Rock and the first Pope, is a statement on the establishment of the papacy, the head of the authoritarian hierarchy of the Church that Buñuel so despised. Hence the use of rocks and rocky ground as motifs in the film, as well as any variation on them and their hardness–mud (a mixture of water with loam, silt, or clay–tiny, granular rocks), dirt (tiny rocks and sand), statues of marble (limestone), brick buildings reduced to rubble, even the hard, rocky background of the warring scorpions. The clergy and bourgeois are our stinging human scorpions.

A fleet of boats carrying bourgeois arrives on the inlet, the people aboard disembark, and they go up and down the rocky hill (symbolically rising and descending a hierarchy) to meet with the chanting archbishops, who are now a group of skeletons. When Nietzsche’s message in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science has reached the ears of the ruling class, they carry on with their ceremonies as if God were still alive. After all, such religious authority is still politically useful.

As the bourgeois are about to begin their ceremony, they suddenly hear a woman’s scream of pleasure. They look over and see her and a man making love in the mud. They go over and separate the two lovers.

The two are fully clothed at the time, so what’s the problem? Oh, yes, we always forget: public expressions of affection aren’t to be encouraged in polite, bourgeois society, especially during a religious ceremony.

The man and woman, making love in the mud during the ceremony.

Since the man and woman aren’t married, their lovemaking is tantamount to adultery. The repeated frustrating of their attempts to be together reminds one of the myth of those fated adulterers, Tristan and Isolde: indeed, both when they’re separated, then reunited about twenty to thirty minutes later in the film, we hear Wagner‘s Liebestod

This urge to be together in love, a union constantly being thwarted in the film, represents capitalist alienation. Since Church hierarchy helps the ruling class keep the people in their place, it’s appropriate in this film to see the symbolism of the rocky Church juxtaposed with symbolism of the people’s plight.

The ceremony involves a huge brick as a symbol to commemorate the Church’s rule–that brick, a rectangular rock, essentially–a man-made rigidity. The removal of the young woman from the man’s arms is followed by a scene of her at home; then we see a toilet, we hear a flushing, then slimy mud slobbering on the ground, suggestive of diarrhea flushed away, just as his love has been flushed down the toilet by a prudish Church, an ecclesiastical excrement that projects its own filthiness onto others.

The movie narrates the establishment of the rock of the Church of “imperial Rome,” once a pagan dominion, now a Christian one. We communists know what to think about the imperial world, past and present.

The man (Gaston Modot), after his lover has been taken from him.

The present-day Rome of the movie shows us a number of odd but explicable visuals. A man walking out of a café brushes dirt off his suit jacket: as with the two muddy lovers, capitalist society and Church morality makes all ordinary people feel soiled and unclean.

“Sometimes, on Sunday,” we see the demolition of a few houses on a street. Families’ homes reduced to rubble, to a mess of rock: this is what Peter the Rock does to families and communities with his repressive religious authority, backed by the bourgeoisie. 

Recall Marx’s words: “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 this crime we plead guilty.” (Marx, page 52)

A man walks on a sidewalk, kicking a violin, then smashing it under his shoe; the profit motive commodifies, cheapens, and ultimately destroys art.

The rock of St. Peter’s Church, weighing down on the heads of the people.

Elsewhere, in a park we see a statue of a man wearing a crucifix, holding a large book (presumably the Bible), and oddly, he has a long, flat, almost rectangular block of stone balancing on his head (reminding us a bit of the rectangular clay cube we saw during the religious ceremony). A man is passing by the statue with an almost identical rock balanced on his head. The rock of the Church rules over idealized religious figures, so naturally that rock will rule over the average man, too.

On the streets of Rome, we see the man being escorted by two agents. Separated from his love, he has already demonstrated an angry, aggressive, even violent disposition (kicking a small dog, stepping on an insect). This viciousness is what we all too often resort to when we’ve been denied love. Class antagonism makes scorpions of all of us.

WRD Fairbairn described this splitting of the personality with his replacement of Freud‘s id/ego/superego structure–a structure of pleasure-seeking drives,–with an object-seeking endopsychic structure. Fairbairn’s approximate equivalent to the id is  the Libidinal Ego, linked to an Exciting Object. In the film, we see this configuration whenever the escorted man stops at the sight of advertisements of such things as silk stockings, etc., which remind him of his lover.

Fairbairn replaced Freud’s ego with the Central Ego and Ideal Object: these are respectively represented in the film by the man and his beloved whenever they are together, for they represent an ideal relationship between two people in the real world. 

Fairbairn replaced the superego with something only vaguely similar, the Anti-libidinal Ego (originally, the Internal Saboteur) and its Rejecting Object. This configuration is the internalized part of us that hates and rejects others. We see this aspect of the man whenever he’s violent to others.

WRD Fairbairn, who replaced Freud’s id, ego, and superego with an object-seeking endopsychic personality structure: the Central Ego/Ideal Object, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object, and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Lavinia Gomez, in An Introduction to Object Relations, explains that the “anti-libidinal ego is the split-off ego fragment that is bonded with the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego [corresponding roughly to Freud’s ego, as explained above] and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez, p. 63-64)

For Fairbairn, a healthy libido seeks objects (i.e., people other than oneself, the subject), rather than seeking mere pleasure (as Freud had maintained); pleasure-seeking becomes a main pursuit only when there’s been a failure in object relationships. In Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140)

When one cannot enjoy loving relationships with others (i.e., the Central Ego/Ideal Object configuration), one resorts either to mere pleasure-seeking (drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, pornography), a province of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object; or one becomes hostile, rejecting, and adversarial, the domain of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Back to the movie. As the man is escorted down the street, he is confronted with, and momentarily mesmerized by, a number of advertisements: apart from their reminding him of his girl, they also represent our being manipulated by the allures of commodity fetishism and the media, a tried-and-true tactic used by the ruling classes to hypnotize us, and make us forget about taking our world back for our own rightful use.

The young woman (Lya Lys) the man yearns to be with again.

Erich Fromm once said in To Have Or to Be, “The puzzling question why contemporary human beings love to buy and to consume, and yet are so little attached to what they buy, finds its most significant answer in the marketing character phenomenon. The marketing characters’ lack of attachment also makes them indifferent to things. What matters is perhaps the prestige or the comfort that things give, but things per se have no substance. They are utterly expendable, along with friends or lovers, who are expendable, too, since no deeper tie exists to any of them.” (Fromm, page 34)

Back to the film. In the young woman’s home, she and her mother are planning a large party that evening. Some more incongruous, but explicable (in terms of Freudo-Marxism), things are seen. One of them is a cow on the young woman’s bed, which she shoos away. Apart from the cruel commodification of farm animals (especially in today’s world), we can see in the cow a representation of the Third World proletariat, always seen as animals from the bourgeois and First World perspective. We try to ignore their plight, and put them out of our sight…thus, out of mind. 

Other such odd scenes include, during the party, a large horse-drawn wagon going across a large room filled with guests in tuxedos and evening gowns. Later, a maid screams leaving a fire in the kitchen. The guests show no interest in either of these strange occurrences, which represent how the ruling class refuses to acknowledge the very existence, therefore also the suffering (for existence is suffering, according to the Buddhists), of workers and peasants. The girl’s father has flies on his face: the bourgeois pretend to be above us, but underneath it all, they are filthier than we could ever be.

Back on the streets, the man manages to get rid of the two men escorting him by showing them a document proving he’s a member of ‘the international goodwill society.’ We see a memory of his, when he has been assigned a mission from this society to protect the men, women, and children of his ‘Fatherland.’ He speaks of his mission to the two agents in a visibly insincere tone, as if making fun of the mission; this suggests that this is his False Self, a socially acceptable front he puts on so he can mix in capitalist society…however unwilling he is to do it.

The cow in the young woman’s house.

The insincerity of his commitment to this mission is evident (as it will be again, later) when he hails a taxi near a blind man, leaves the agents, and just before getting into the cab, kicks the blind man. Here we see a fusion of Freud’s moralistic superego, which inspires hypocrisy, with the antisocial nastiness of Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration.

The man arrives at the party in a clean, new suit, and he’s delighted to see his love there. The Anti-libidinal Ego in him, however, causes him to be rude to some of the other guests, him brusquely shooing them away or grudgingly tolerating them, as he does her mother, for a while. The ruling classes reject the poor, and they often reject each other, so bad is capitalist alienation in our society.

This alienation extends even to family relationships (recall the quote above, from The Communist Manifesto). Outside the house, we see an armed man and his son, a little boy. At first, they seem affectionate, but then a small prank by the boy provokes his scorpion father to shoot him, to sting him with the phallic rifle. Similarly, back inside the house, one would expect the amorous man to want to get the good graces of the mother of the woman he loves; but a mere spilling of wine on his clothes, from a glass the kind old lady gets for him, provokes his Anti-libidinal Ego to slap her. The scorpion in him strikes again!

Finally, he and the girl go outside to have some time alone together (for they are as antisocial as the scorpions), to get away from all the other pesky guests, who go elsewhere outside to hear an orchestra perform the Liebestod…appropriate music for the two lovers.

‘Tristan,’ as it were, sucking on those clitoral fingers.

Their lovemaking includes sucking on each other’s fingers, which are symbolic of genitalia. Indeed, this scene is like a non-pornographic version of the sixty-nine position. This mutual introjection/projection of digits also suggests their wish to be at one with each other, physically and spiritually. In other words, their desire for each other is much deeper than mere lust. 

Yet again, our twentieth century Tristan and Isolde are frustrated in their efforts to be together when a man comes over and tells ‘Tristan’ he has a telephone call. Annoyed, he leaves her to receive the call. 

Meanwhile, she–her Central Ego being deprived of its Ideal Object–begins fellating the phallic toes of a nearby statue, her Libidinal Ego getting off on an Exciting Object. When we lose human relationships, we’re reduced to using things, including things that have an idealized human form, like the statue, or like objectified pornographic models, who today are photoshopped so consummately, we see no bodily imperfections.

‘Tristan’ is in Anti-libidinal Ego mode again, the dialectical opposite of his lover, and on the phone, he’s being barked at by the Rejecting Object, the man from ‘the international goodwill society.’ He’s angry with ‘Tristan’ for his dereliction of duty, for having neglected his mission to protect the people.

‘Isolde,’ as it were, performing fellatio on a statue’s toes.

When the angry caller, the minister of the interior and head of “the international goodwill society,” is complaining about the deaths of the people, we see an army of people rushing in to a city area and causing the death and destruction. Should we connect this violence with the beggar-soldiers towards the beginning of the film, those weakened men who go off to fight the arriving Majorcan bourgeois? Is this violence, from which ‘Tristan’ was supposed to defend the people, actually a proletarian revolution? Were ‘the people’ actually bourgeois?

As a surrealist film, L’Age d’Or can be considered more dreams projected onto the silver screen, as Un Chien Andalou and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie were. Thus, it can be seen as Freudian wish-fulfillment for Buñuel; and so this violence, which so upsets the bourgeois telephone caller, can represent the insurrection of a strengthened working class, led by a revolutionary vanguard of the kind that defeated the Nazis, rather than the weakened beggar-soldiers from earlier, men who seem more like the anarchists of Catalonia, who weren’t strong enough to fight off Franco’s fascism.

‘Tristan’ no longer wishes to listen to the caller. He yanks the telephone cord off the wall, and so leaves without letting the caller finish the conversation. The screen is black and void for a few seconds, we hear a gunshot; then we see the caller’s shoes on the floor, then his dead body (after having shot himself in the head)…on the ceiling.

As with Hitler’s suicide, this is how those at the top die: never wishing to come down to the level of the people, they destroy themselves, for all they are is a black void of nothingness without the backing of the masses.

The bourgeois at the top ultimately destroy themselves.

‘Tristan’ returns to ‘Isolde,’ and we hear more of the Liebestod. They hold each other, and we can see their love is more than merely physical. Though they’re as bourgeois as all the others at the party, they feel stifled by the capitalist system, too. They don’t want to have to keep maintaining the system; they just want to be together. He shows uncharacteristic tenderness to her, asking if she’s cold; for the moment, he isn’t a scorpion.

They’re now, if only momentarily, in a mentally healthy state. Their Central Egos are enjoying each other’s Ideal Objects, a proper relation with the external world, rather than the unhealthy, inner phantasy world of splitting, the world of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration, or that of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Though Fairbairn’s reworking of Freud’s id/ego/superego structure wouldn’t come until about twenty years after L’Age d’Or was made, we can still see how Fairbairn’s theories can explain the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the man and woman.

When she speaks of the joy of having murdered their children, and when we see blood all over his face, as he says, “Mon amour,” we can interpret the ‘murdered children’ and blood as their ridding of, and projection of, their bad internal objects, those ‘children’ they created in their minds, which caused the lovers to replace each other with Exciting Objects to suck on the toes of, or Rejecting Objects to do violence to.

Finally reunited with his love, he can release his bad internal objects, symbolized by blood on his face. His wounds are thus, paradoxically, a symbol of his emotional healing.

The conductor of the Liebestod gets a headache and has to stop the performance (understandable: he’s been playing the interminable, syrupy chromaticism of Wagner). Holding his head in agony, he walks out of the performing area, leaves the audience, and finds the garden where the lovers are.

The girl sees the aching old man and feels compassion for him; but this is a misguided pity, for it’s directed at someone she doesn’t know, making her abandon her lover, who should have all of her attention at the moment. Fromm had some relevant points about this kind of situation:

“In this situation there is one other thing we do: we are sentimental. Sentimentality is feeling under the condition of complete detachment...You have feelings, but you do not refer really, concretely to something that is the reality. You are sentimental. Your feelings overflow. They appear somewhere…They are stimulation words, which make you weep, which make you howl, which make you do anything, and yet it is a performance in which the feeling is not really related to something with which you are concerned, but which is an empty thing.” (Fromm, page 31)

The young man, overcome with jealousy at seeing his lover go over to the conductor and kiss him, is furious. He gets up and hits his head on an overhanging flowerpot, making him hold his head in pain as the conductor is. We hear drums playing a military beat in triple time, suggestive of wartime aggression, and expressive of his anger. He leaves the garden, goes into the house and into a bedroom on an upper floor. He grabs random things and throws them out the window: a burning fir tree, a bishop, a plow, the bishop’s staff, a giraffe statue, and pillow feathers.

The jealous lover, his mind in the Anti-libidinal Ego mode, grabs onto a phallic plow, symbolic of the libidinal desire he’s rejecting.

This splitting of the lovers symbolizes the split in the personality when the search for healthy object relations is frustrated. The Central Ego/Ideal Object (‘Tristan’ and ‘Isolde’) configuration gives way to, on the one side, the Libidinal Ego (‘Isolde’) and the Exciting Object (the conductor), and on the other side, the Anti-libidinal Ego (‘Tristan’) and the Rejecting Object (everything he throws out the window, largely phallic symbols–a rejection of his erotic desire to be with her–and symbols of the Church that Buñuel hated so much).

Finally, the last vignette of the film takes us from Rome to Paris, on the last of the 12o Days of Sodom (of which Sade‘s novel, by the way, took place in the Black Forest). We’ve encountered the oppositions between the Libidinal and Anti-libidinal Egos, and between the life (e.g. sex) and death drives (as explored in my two previous Buñuel analyses); now we see these oppositions dialectically fused in the sexual sadism of the four libertines, as graphically depicted in Sade’s most notorious novel.

The duc de Blangis walks out of the Château de Silling (Selliny, as given in the film’s subtitles) on a snowy, wintery day at the end of February. Oddly, his long dark hair and beard, white-robed attire, and ‘pious’ manner make him look like Christ, the dialectical opposite of the sadist of the novel. This is obviously another of Buñuel’s attacks on the hypocrisy and abuses of the Church.

One of the eight female victims of the libertines also emerges from the castle, with blood on her chest (in Sade’s novel, there are eight girls and eight boys as victims, as well as the libertines’ four daughters, who are also sexually abused). Blangis goes back to her, seeming to comfort her (representing the outside display of the Church’s love for its flock), then takes her back inside the castle, the Hell of her torments. We hear her scream (representing the inside, hidden reality of historical Church abuses, including the largely unpunished sexual abuse).

The Duke of Jesus…er, Blangis.

Blangis comes back outside, but now he’s beardless. His beard was a mask of virtue; with it removed, his wickedness is revealed–he has a frown of shame on his face. The loss of his hair also reminds one of Samson‘s lost source of strength; knowledge of the Church’s crimes weakens it. All this time, we’ve heard the banging of military drums, suggestive of war and death…an appropriate juxtaposition with a corrupt Church.

The film ends with the sight of scalps of hair hanging on a cross, blasphemously transforming it into a phallus with symbolic pubic hair. The Church is a stinging, phallic scorpion. The jaunty, merry music heard during this display adds to its absurdity.

Just as Martin Luther advised us to laugh at the devil, Buñuel advises us to laugh at the absurdity of the demonic Church; for there is nothing that makes the Church so angry as when we attack it to its face, and tell it that through dialectical materialism, we are more than a match for it.

How are we more than a match for Church and capitalist authoritarianism? Those scalps, hanging on the cross and blowing in the wind, seem to be those of six of the victims. As the loss of Blangis’s beard suggests a loss of his power, the accumulation of scalp hair, that of his victims, suggests the rise of the oppressed, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, but in materialist form. We suffer, we rise, then we conquer. The scorpions that stung before will now be stung. The bourgeois will lie dead on the ceiling of their arrogance.

Analysis of ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie) is a 1972 French language surrealist film (with some Spanish) directed by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Jean-Claude Carrière. It stars Fernando Rey as Rafael Acosta, ambassador of the (fictional) Republic of Miranda. He and his upper middle class friends keep trying to have dinner together, but one form of ill fortune or another keeps thwarting their plans.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and was a hit with filmgoers in Europe and the US. As a surrealist film made by a communist director satirizing bourgeois hypocrisy, it can be seen as an example of a kind of Freudo-Marxism.

Here are some quotes in English translation:

“You’re better suited for making love than for making war.” –Rafael, to Guerrilla Woman

“Finally, if you think about it, the only solution to starvation and poverty is in the hands of the army. You’ll realize it in Miranda, when you have to open your pretty thighs to an infantry battalion.” –Rafael, to Guerrilla Woman

[the Senechals are preparing to make love. There is a knock at the door]

Henri Sénéchal: What is it?

Ines: The guests are here, sir.

Henri Sénéchal: Tell them we’ll be down. Serve them drinks.

Alice Sénéchal: They can wait five minutes. Come on.

Henri Sénéchal: No, no, not here. We can’t.

Alice Sénéchal: But why?

Henri Sénéchal: You scream too loud. You know it.

Henri Sénéchal: Any news from Miranda?

Rafael Acosta: Yes.

Henri Sénéchal: The situation?

Rafael Acosta: Quite calm.

Henri Sénéchal: And the guerrillas?

Rafael Acosta: There are a few left. They are a part of our folklore.

Alice Sénéchal: You have problems with the students?

Rafael Acosta: Students are young. They must have some fun.

Simone Thévenot: How’s your government treating them?

Rafael Acosta: We are not against the students, but what can you do with a room full of flies? You take a fly-swatter and Bang! Bang!

Colonel: Marijuana isn’t a drug. Look at what goes on in Vietnam. From the general down to the private, they all smoke.

Simone Thévenot: As a result, once a week they bomb their own troops.

Colonel: If they bomb their own troops, they must have their reasons.

Colonel: I didn’t know that chivalry still existed in your semi-savage country.

Rafael Acosta: Sir, you just insulted the Republic of Miranda!

Colonel: I don’t give a damn about the Republic of Miranda!

Rafael Acosta: And I shit on your entire army!

Peasant: Father? I want to tell you something.

Bishop Dufour: Then tell me, my child.

Peasant: I really don’t like Jesus Christ. Even as a little girl I hated him.

Bishop Dufour: Such a good, gentle God? How is it possible?

Peasant: Want to know why?

Bishop Dufour: Let me tend to this sick man first, then we’ll talk.

The opening credits are shown with a shot from the point of view of a chauffeur driving Rafael, the Thévenots, and Florence (Mme Thévenot’s younger sister) to the Sénéchals’ home at night. We see through the windshield the black of night and of the road.

They’re all going to a definite destination (though on the wrong night), driven by their chauffeur (i.e., a proletarian working for them). Contrast this with the sextet of bourgeois protagonists (three men–played by Rey, Paul Frankeur, and Jean-Pierre Cassel; and three women–played by Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, and Stéphane Audran) sporadically seen walking down a lonely country road during the day, with no apparent destination. Without workers to help them, or the luxury of transportation, they seem aimless, almost helpless.

Left to right: Florence (Ogier), Mme. Thévenot (Seyrig), Rafael (Rey), M. Thévenot (Frankeur), Alice (Audran) and Henri Sénéchal (Cassel).

Twice in one night is their plan for dinner together thwarted: the first time because Rafael and his friends visit the Sénéchals on the wrong night, the night before the actual agreed dinner date (Henri is away on business); and the second, because they go to a disappointing restaurant (i.e., cheap food and void of diners, implying poor quality, which gives the five bourgeois no narcissistic supply; I’ve discussed elsewhere how close the link is between narcissism and capitalism) where they hear the moans of mourners for the recently deceased manager, whose body is in the next room. Their appetite ruined by such a disconcerting sight, the five of them immediately leave.

This recurring frustration of their plans to dine together gives them all a taste (pardon the pun) of what it is like to go without food–for the six of them, a brief inconvenience, but for the people of the Third World, this is an everyday reality.

The bourgeois sextet is confronted with the reality of human suffering (hunger, death, disease, aging); but they are never edified. Contrast this with the life story of Siddartha Gautama (how much of the traditional telling of the Buddha’s biography is myth, and how much is history, is irrelevant for our purposes; after all, this movie is fiction, too), who as a prince encountered an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man, and thus was inspired to renounce his life of privilege and search for a way to end suffering.

Even the holy man who joins the six bourgeois is neither an inspiration nor himself inspired to righteousness. As contemptuous of the Church as Buñuel was of capitalism, here he takes every opportunity to show how hypocritical the priest is.

Suffering is seen in a variety of forms in this film, from the mildest inconvenience (as the six typically suffer) to the harshest pain (soldiers’ recounting of moments of the loss of loved ones in their lives…in dream or in reality; also, a woman leftist freedom fighter being abducted, and the six being murdered…though in Rafael’s dream). The Buddhist concept of dukkha encapsulates the whole gamut of suffering, from the mildest to the greatest. The whole problem of class is how the bourgeoisie tend to suffer far fewer of the greatest sorrows, on average, than the global proletariat do.

Buddhism links suffering with selfish desire, craving, or attachment, the fire to be blown out by nirvana. Accordingly, the third get-together to eat is thwarted by the sudden urge of Alice and Henri Sénéchal to have a quickie in their bedroom, and they’re about to get it on right when their guests have arrived. Afraid the guests will hear Alice’s squeals of pleasure, she and Henri opt for the absurd alternative of sneaking out the bedroom window, going into the bushes behind the house, and screwing there.

The two lovers have, in effect, subjected themselves–however briefly–to homelessness, rather like a comical version of what happens to King Lear in the play’s third act. Like the vain, proud king, these two bourgeois–examples of the modern version of royalty–would rather “feel what wretches feel” than be embarrassed before their peers.

They sneak back into their house, with pieces of grass in their hair and their clothes needing a few adjustments (reminding us of the untidiness of the homeless), and they’re annoyed to learn that the other four have left (out of a paranoid fear they’ve been found out by the police to be guilty of cocaine possession, as seen in a previous scene).

The priest picks a piece of grass out of Henri’s hair.

The priest appears to the Sénéchals, but dressed as a gardener, because he wishes to do this job for them. Looking like a working class type, he is thrown out of the house; then, back in his priest’s attire, he’s let back in and hypocritically apologized to. The well-off tend thus to judge people by their appearance.

The priest’s desire to be a gardener is an interesting one. He has been inspired by the gardener his late parents had when he was a boy; yet we also learn, by the end of the movie, that it was this beloved gardener who murdered the priest’s parents for having mistreated him while he was in their employ.

The priest’s wish to emulate the man who taught him gardening seems also to be a wish to be like other pious gardeners: Adam, before the Fall, and Candide, who in resisting Pangloss’s absurd attempts to rationalize the capricious ways of the world, knows that “il faut cultiver notre jardin.” We see here the hypocritical false modesty of the priest, who will kill the sick, aging, dying gardener for having killed his parents without ever having been brought to justice.

His change of attitude–from loving and identifying with the man who inspired a wish in him to be a gardener, to hating the man who killed his parents–seems too sudden. The priest must have made a vow, years ago, to kill his parents’ murderer if ever he found him. If my speculation of his commitment to revenge is correct (and this speculation is more than reasonable), it proves the priest’s hypocrisy, for his absolving the dying gardener is nothing more than an outward show of piety.

The choice of name for the fictional country of which Rafael is ambassador–Miranda–is an interesting one. It reminds me of Prospero‘s ingénue daughter, whom he–an imperialist colonizer of Caliban‘s island–jealously protects from the violation of lustful men like Caliban or (Prospero imagines) Ferdinand. Imperialist Rafael is to his country like Prospero: Miranda is like an innocent, virgin daughter being–in one scene–assailed and defiled with, to him, slanders of corruption, wealth inequality, and crime. 

Rafael thus is like any bourgeois who uses nationalism to deflect criticisms of imperialism and class conflict. At the final dinner, he even considers the epithet of ‘butcher’ given to a Nazi found in his country (one Rafael has personally met, also, and considers a gentleman) to be a tad extreme.

Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), ambassador of the Republic of Miranda.

The presentation of a number of dreams in the film means we are going down Freud‘s “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious.” Buñuel’s dream, as wish-fulfillment, is clearly to have the bourgeoisie experience, if only briefly, some of the suffering of the poor: hunger, death, wrongs uncompensated for, humiliation, unjust imprisonment, and fury driving one to violence.

Since dreams lead us into the land of the unconscious, we also see, in the dreams of this film, the inner workings of the unconscious, including unconscious ego defence. This is seen when, as stated above, Rafael is pressured into defending the honour of his country from criticism after criticism, each of which gets more and more intolerable, until Rafael curses at, then shoots, the Colonel (Claude Piéplu). 

M. Thévenot, however, wakes from the dream, not Rafael. This doesn’t matter for the purposes of my analysis, since national differences don’t so much matter to the ruling classes: only the protection of their class interests does. Nationalism, as I mentioned above, is only useful as a deflection of our attention from class war. Thus, it doesn’t matter if a bourgeois from Miranda or one from France has had the dream, and has thus been unconsciously using defence mechanisms against criticisms of Miranda. A bourgeois is a bourgeois, no matter who he is or what country he’s from, for all capitalist countries share Miranda’s vices, to at least some extent, and all bourgeois share the same class interests.

There are the dreams of the bourgeois and there are also those of the common man, the soldier, as in the case of the sergeant’s dream, which he describes when the Colonel and his army interrupt the six bourgeois’ dinner. The sergeant dreams of walking about the streets of what seems to be almost a ghost town, its emptiness (save two men and his mother, with each of whom he chats briefly) and shadows suggesting the desolation that war causes. The first man he chats with, Ramirez, leaves him to enter a store to buy something, but when the soldier goes in later, the interior looks abandoned and dilapidated, again suggesting war’s desolation. We also learn that Ramirez has been dead for the past six years, just as his mother has been long dead. War benefits the bourgeois, but it tears away, from us ordinary people, all of those we care about.

The sergeant then goes back out on the streets, searching for (and not finding) his mother. The other soldiers, Colonel, and six bourgeois listening to the narration of the dream all suggest Buñuel’s wish-fulfillment that the ruling classes would actually listen to, and empathize with, the desires and needs of the ordinary working man.

Rafael enjoys frisking a leftist from Miranda.

This fulfillment of the wish for people’s pain to be heard and cared about happens at another point, earlier in the film, when a young lieutenant joins the three bourgeois women’s table in a café (where…alas! there’s only water to be served) to tell them his tragic life story. His story involves his Oedipal longing for his mother, who appears as a ghost, and tells him (when he’s an eleven-year-old boy about to be sent to a strict military school) his severe male guardian isn’t his biological father, but actually his father’s murderer. The boy then gets his revenge by poisoning the man’s milk, which he drinks at night, then dies in bed.

Since the soldier has still gone to military school (the boy’s listing from side to side as he goes from the study of his strict guardian to his mother’s bedroom, his hands touching the furniture and walls in the hallway, suggests his dislike of any form of discipline), and since his story of seeing his mother’s ghost sounds improbable, it seems safe to assume that the poisoning is more wish-fulfillment, a variant of Freud’s family romance.

The boy’s writing “Maman, je t’…(aime) with her lipstick on the dresser mirror suggests a fusion of the Oedipus complex with Lacan‘s mirror stage: the boy’s reflected False Self in a military uniform is wished to be an illusion; and his reunion with his mother’s ghost, and his learning that his real father is a different, presumably kinder man (this would be what Melanie Klein called the ‘good father’ versus the ‘bad father’) seem to be illusions. And if the man poisoned was the boy’s real father, then we see in this murder the fulfilled Oedipal wish to remove the father, so the boy can have his mother.

On several occasions, we hear the sound of an airplane flying overhead (also, loud typing on one occasion, and on another, a siren) and drowning out the sound of people speaking. What is said is something the bourgeois don’t wish to be heard (the woman ‘terrorist’ discussing Mao, a corrupt politician explaining to the police why the six bourgeois are to be released from jail after being charged, rightly, with cocaine trafficking). The sounds of the airplane, siren, etc., are surrealistically heard at high volumes in indoor places, again suggesting the wish-fulfillment of the non-rational unconscious in dreams, all for the convenience of the bourgeoisie.

Here again, we see the conscious and unconscious manifestations of ego defence. Ego psychology shows us how defence mechanisms, like denial or splitting, sometimes have to be unconscious to avoid detection during therapy. The guilty bourgeois would especially like to keep their secrets undisclosed…including drug trafficking (of which, incidentally, another character played by Rey, only a year earlier in The French Connection, was guilty).

As explained in Freud and Beyond: a History of Psychoanalytic Thought, “…the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way…unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

Now, there is the life instinct, Eros, expressed by the six bourgeois’ desire to eat and drink socially (being together is an example of their object-seeking–and Fairbairn insisted we all, at our core, seek objects, that is, other people to connect with–and object-seeking is also what the lieutenant, telling the three bourgeois women in the café about his sad life, is doing), as well as in their libido (Alice and Henri screwing in the bushes; Rafael wanting to screw Mme. Thévenot behind her husband’s back). But there’s also Thanatos, the death drive.

Not all dreams are wish-fulfillments, as Freud finally admitted (Freud, page 304) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he dealt with such issues as the death drive and “the compulsion to repeat” (in the film, there’s the compulsion to repeat the futile attempt to dine together). There’s the urge to put others to death (Rafael, when he shoots the Colonel in M. Thévenot’s dream; the bishop, shooting the gardener; the boy cadet, poisoning his step-father; and Rafael, shooting at the clockwork animal toys of, as well as pointing a pistol at, the leftist woman from Miranda), and there’s also the unconscious drive to bring about one’s own death, as seen in Rafael’s dream of the gunmen shooting all six bourgeois.

Both pleasure and death bring about a relaxation of tension, or of excitation (Freud, page 276), though in opposing ways, like the ouroboros biting its tail, the head and tail symbolizing meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Death’s relaxation of that tension (“To die, to sleep,–/ No more”) is similar to nirvana, a state of bliss that negates all forms of existence, or paradoxically, of non-existence.

The social bourgeois dinner ought to be thwarted: not only so the ruling classes can begin to understand what it is to go hungry; but also because their every get-together is a façade, a performance of hypocritical, sanctimonious morality. It’s theatre, as literally displayed when the six think they’re dining chez the Colonel, but find themselves on a stage. This phoniness–as shown in them giving a glass of champagne to their chauffeur (then sneering at him, a mere uneducated commoner), disapproving of the smoking of marijuana while dealing in cocaine, asking about the maid’s ex-fiancé who dumped her for being too old (as if the six even care), discussing how Rafael’s sun sign, Pisces–Sagittarius ascendant, reveals his ‘virtues’–is the essence of, sarcastically expressed, the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

I’m no Buddhist, but I think we can gain a few insights here and there from the philosophy. Instead of our endless ego defence, which tends in a narcissistic direction, we need to be selfless, abandoning the illusion of an ego. To end the suffering of humanity, we need to end the selfish lust not only for sex, but also for money, especially the money that is gained by addicting people to superficial forms of gratification, like porn, or the cocaine in the film. Giving up on the self means especially giving up on the narcissistic False Self, the person we think we see as ourselves in the mirror. 

Instead of aching and griping about our own inconveniences, we need to feel compassion for the sufferings of others, to listen when they try to tell us what’s hurting them, as the soldiers do. But we should really listen, not just pretend to, as the six bourgeois do. When we can do this, we can really break out of the chains the bourgeoisie has put us all in. For compassion, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, is what love is all about.

As Che Guevara once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” Love will be a road that we as comrades can walk on together, leading to a definite destination, not as the bourgeois, who look foolish walking along a country road to nowhere.

‘Biohackers,’ a Science Fiction Short Story

Max Henderson, a young man in a red uniform, smashed through a first-floor window, escaping from the InterCorp building. Only some of his injuries were from the fragments of shattered glass that chipped into his skin: others were bruises from security officers’ batons that had hit him on the head, back, and arms.

Then, there was one bruise in particular—the one on his forearm, just below his wrist. It was a huge spot of purple and blue, in which tiny dots of flashing orange could be seen.

This bruise was self-inflicted.

Before he’d pounded his arm, a blue dot would sometimes flash. A green one, too. And a yellow one, whenever he was disobedient…he was given electrical shocks when that one flashed.

He ran, staggering down the sidewalk. Five men in black uniforms with yellow stripes ran after him; they all had batons in their hands, ready to beat him again.

Within a minute, they’d caught up with him. One officer grabbed his arm; the slave picked him up and threw him ten feet away, where the officer’s body struck a tree. The other four men started beating the slave, clubbing him on the head, chest, and arms. Many blows hit him in the face, breaking his nose and knocking out a few teeth. Though he was receiving new bruises, the bloody cuts from the chips of broken glass were already healing, and the original purple-blue spots were shrinking in diameter, even the one he gave himself.

Still, this new, concentrated beating he was getting was not one he could heal from quickly enough to survive; his healing app wasn’t that effective. Those batons just kept slamming down on his body. After about twenty hard blows to the head, his skull cracked, and he lost consciousness.

The flashing orange dots were no longer visible on his arm. He lay there, lifeless. No quick healing from his microchip implant would save him now.

His body had been taken offline.

***********

Lineups of Lumps, men and women in red, green, orange, and blue uniforms were waiting to have their microchip implants tested. Nora Lee, teary-eyed, stood in line with the green-uniformed Lumps, behind a man being tested by an officer in the same uniform as those who’d beaten Max to death.

“OK,” the officer said, handing the slave, or Lump, a handful of nails. “Look at that stack of wood to your left. With the nails, use your implant to make the wood into a bookshelf.”

The Lump raised his right arm and pointed his fingers in the direction of the wood. A white dot began to flash just under the skin on his wrist. The wood was raised up in the air by a signal from his implant, then shaped in the form of a bookshelf, the shape being determined by the Lump’s thoughts, which were transferred through his nerves into the implant. It was as if the Lump had the power of telekinesis, hence the name ‘telekinesis app’ put into his implant.

The hand that held the nails now flattened. A pink dot flashed to the right of the white dot. The nails flew out of his hand, like a shot from a gun, and over to exact points where they were to be nailed to the wood, only it was as if invisible hammers were nailing them in place. The officer examined the bookshelf.

“Excellent,” he said. “Your implants are fully functional. You will do carpentry for Amy Millhouse, starting today,…” then the officer checked his computer to type in the date, “…April 5th, 2037. The blue dot will guide you to her home. Go now.”

The Lump stepped out of line and left. Nora, still sobbing, stepped forward.

“Ms. Nora Lee, former journalist,” the officer said as he checked her information on his computer implant, with a few taps on his wrist. “Made a Lump as punishment for writing op-eds critical of InterCorp. Of all the stupid ways to lose your freedom. Well, that explains your tears. Give me your arm.”

She reached over to him. He tapped her wrist where a yellow dot could be seen. “Ah!” she screamed as she felt an electric jolt shoot through her body.

“Good,” the officer said. “The restraining app is functional. Can’t have you crying and running away on the job, eh?”

She stopped sobbing, but lowered her eyes and frowned.

“Now,” he said. “Your job will be to wash dishes, make beds, take out garbage, do laundry…domestic chores in general…for George and Tasha Jonson, who bought you earlier today. OK, look at the pile of plates on my desk, and the dishrags beside them.” She did. “Use the pink-dotted app, and make like you’re cleaning them.”

By thinking of it, she made the pink dot flash, then raised her hands and pointed her fingers at the dishes and rags. Each dish hovered in the air with a rag, which then rubbed in circles on the dish. The officer smiled to see five floating dishes being ‘cleaned’ by five floating rags.

“Good,” he said. She made the dishes and rags come back down gently on the desk. “You will go to the Jonsons immediate…”

A disturbance was heard from three desks away, to Nora’s right. A large black Lump in a red uniform had lifted a car over his head with the help of his ‘strength app’, and was about to throw it at the officer testing him. The yellow dot was made to flash on his arm by the officer; the electrical shock forced the Lump to drop the car. The fender hit his leg, making him shout in pain and fall to the floor.

“Whatever injuries he has will heal quickly enough, thanks to his healing app,” Nora’s officer said, then looked at her. “See what happens when you don’t obey?”

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

Carl Fredericks was walking down the street when he saw Nora in a green uniform. She avoided his widened eyes in shame, her own teary.

She was his girlfriend.

“Nora!” he said. “They got you, too?”

She could answer only in sobs.

“It was for that last op-ed you wrote, wasn’t it?”

She nodded.

“Oh, I warned you not to publish any more of those! How long must you be a slave?”

“You know,” she sobbed. “For life.”

“I’ve got to free you,” he said.

“You can’t. I have to go. They’ll use the yellow app on me if I take too long getting to the Jonson family.”

“You’re working for George and Tasha?”

She nodded. “We can’t see each other anymore. Goodbye.” She walked away, always sobbing.

Now Carl felt like sobbing. George and Tasha hate each other, he thought; Will handsome George and my pretty Nora like each other? I won’t be able to bear it.

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

A computer programmer, Carl came up with an idea to free Nora. He tapped on his wrist to connect with the central computer, which had control over all the Lumps around the world…though his interest was solely in freeing her.

He knew how to hack through firewalls, and though he was aware of the danger of being caught, his love for Nora compelled him to take the risk. He found his way to the implant that was controlling her, and he put in a virus to free her of her masters’ control as soon as they dismissed her for the day. He knew that slaves’ masters tap a ‘dismissal’ function on their wrist implants to send their Lumps off to sleep. Once that function had been tapped, she would receive a message from Carl, letting her know she’d been freed, and that she should meet him outside of Toronto, in his aunt’s home in Mississauga.

Though she sneaked out of the Jonsons’ house without being seen by anyone in the family, Carl’s implanting of the virus immediately caught the attention of George Jonson, whose own implant was flashing a green ‘alert’ dot.

George had taken a liking to Nora as soon as she entered his home, not just for her brunette beauty, but for the tears in her eyes. The Jonsons were black, and so the father of the house had an instinctive hatred for slavery, though his wife insisted on buying Nora, as Tasha hated having to do housework. He’d fought with his wife over having a Lump at home, but his wife always won their many fights. Their son wept almost every night from the sound of his parents’ yelling.

Should I let her go, or should I get her back? he thought; I’d rather have her than Tasha, that’s for sure. After ruminating over what to do for an hour or so after her having left his house, he tapped his wrist implant, alerting a squad of officers to find her and Carl.

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

The next morning, officers took Carl and Nora to George’s house. George removed the virus and, curious about it, stored it in his implant.

“Nora,” he said. “Go make our breakfast.” She immediately went over to the kitchen. He smiled as he watched her walk by.

“Nora is mine!” Carl protested, his eyes squinting at how George had looked at her. He tried to run over and stop her, but he got a shock from the new apps added to his microchip implant.

“Have him fitted with a blue uniform,” George said to the officers. “That was a clever virus you made, Mr. Fredericks. Your intellectual abilities, enhanced with mental apps, will be a great asset to InterCorp. Take him away.”

“No!” Carl shouted as the officers were dragging him out of the house. “Nora! Jonson, don’t you touch my girl! I know what you want to do with her!”

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

In a blue uniform and with a bluer face, Carl was taken into the office of Brent McDonald, CEO of InterCorp.

“So, this must be Carl Fredericks,” McDonald said, getting up from his desk. “You may go,” he said to the officers who brought Carl in. They left. “I understand that you, originally a software engineer who worked on the fifth floor under Mr. Jonson, attempted to liberate your girlfriend, a Nora Lee, by putting a virus into the programming in her implant. Naughty, but clever. Your obvious aptitudes can be put to good use by doing data analysis and data mining for InterCorp.”

“But I have no experience in those fields,” Carl said.

“The apps we’ve added to your implants will enhance your intelligence to the point that you’ll learn quickly,” Brent said. “And since you’ve been reduced to the status of Lump, as Nora was, for crimes against InterCorp, I can get this normally high-paying work from you for free.”

“I’ve always wondered why slaves are known as ‘Lumps’,” Carl said. “Why, if I may, are…we…called that?”

“You are entitled to know, Carl,” Brent said, smiling. “You’re Lumps because you’re lumps of shit, for daring to challenge the new order established by the Free Market Revolution of 2022! No government will protect your so-called ‘rights,’ because the corporations of the world’s Jurisdictions are the state. L’état, c’est le marché! Now, go to your office and get to work. Your apps will give you all the training you’ll need. Off you go.”

Carl left the office, a blue dot on his wrist guiding him to his new office.

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

That evening, in George Jonson’s house, Nora hid in the kitchen as she heard the yelling in the living room.

“I see the way you look at that Lump scum!” Tasha shouted at George. “If you think that white girl’s so much prettier and shapelier than I am, go fuck her! I’m going!” She stormed out the front door and slammed it.

George let out a big sigh, then ran his hands over his face. He saw Nora standing by the entrance to the dining room from the kitchen.

“Could you go upstairs and make the bed, please, Nora?” he asked. Timidly, she went up to the bedroom. She could hear his son sobbing in his bedroom as she walked by. She wished she had the freedom to hold him, a fellow sufferer.

Standing at the foot of the bed, she pointed her hand at it. The pink dot on her wrist flashed. The messed-up blankets rose up a few feet over the bed, flattened out so the edges would be lined up with the sides, head, and foot of the bed, and then the blankets came down on the bed perfectly.

Knowing what was on George’s mind, she had planned to spin around and leave his and Tasha’s bedroom. But before she could even turn, she felt his hands on her shoulders. “Ah!” she screamed.

“Nora, relax,” he said. She turned to face him, the terror of soon being raped in her eyes. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to…”

The pink dot on her wrist flashed, and a big, hardcover dictionary flew off a bookshelf to his left and hit him on the head. “Oof!” He fell to the floor.

Before she could run out of the room, the yellow dot on her wrist flashed. “Ah!” she felt a shock, and fell to the floor beside him. She looked in his eyes, shaking all over.

“OK, I get it,” he said, rubbing his head. “You don’t like me. You still love Carl. I don’t blame you.” They both got up. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t force myself on you, or use our implants to keep you in my control. I’m not that kind of man. I was just hoping that maybe you’d like me, unlike my wife, who stopped loving me years ago. I understand how you feel about slavery, being a ‘Lump.’ But there’s nothing I can do about it.” He paused and looked at her. “You can go to bed.”

She saw the flash of the brown ‘dismissal’ app on her wrist. She left for her room.

Then, George remembered Carl’s virus, and how he’d saved the program in his implant’s memory.

I wonder if I can improve on it, he thought.

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

The afternoon of the next day, Carl was in Brent McDonald’s office showing him and Gord Hoskins, CFO of InterCorp, some data mining he’d been doing from the morning until then, assessments of spikes in demand for weapons to be sold for use in wars in the ‘Disputed Areas,’ namely, the developing world.

“Good work, Carl,” Brent said as he looked at Carl’s printouts. “I told you those apps would get your mind working faster. In a mere day, you’ve made huge strides. Go back to your office and get some more for us. We need assessments on the acquisition of fossil fuels in the Disputed Areas.”

“Shouldn’t I be allowed some break time?” Carl asked. “I’ve been at this for ten hours now.”

“You don’t feel tired, do you?” Brent asked, glaring at him.

“No, not at all,” Carl said. “But surely, I should be…”

“Then get back to work,” Brent said in an almost angry tone. “You know full well that the apps implanted in you give you boosts of strength and energy sufficient to work twenty hours a day, seven days a week. A food app gives you nutrients without you even needing to chew on anything. Now, get going.”

Carl left for his office, a permanent frown etched on his face.

“I still can’t help worrying about those performance-enhancing apps in the Lumps’ implants,” Hoskins said. “What if they figure out a way to disable the restraining app permanently, through a virus, like the one that very Carl lost his Petty status for, just to save his girlfriend? We could have strongman, red-uniformed Lumps beating us to death one day, throwing us out of windows to our deaths.”

“Gord, you worry too much,” Brent said, laughing. “We’ve been controlling millions of Lumps globally for over ten years now, with only minor, individual acts of defiance here and there. Remember that we members of the Grande class, as well as those of the Petty class, have apps of our own, secret enhancers to surprise the Lumps should we ever have to fight them.”

“The number of defiant Lumps has been increasing in recent months,” Gord said. “Some in the Petty class have secret sympathies for the Lumps, too. Remember Nora Lee?” Gord gestured with his head in the direction of Carl’s office.

“Yes, but she was caught quickly, her op-ed deleted within hours of publication, before too many people could have read it,” Brent said. “Remember Max Henderson, who bruised his arm to damage his restraining app, a common Lump tactic of rebellion, then broke through our window and tried to run to freedom? Our officers chased him, and managed to beat him to death with their normal strength, and neither Max’s strength app nor his healing app could do enough to save him. We could have killed him by simply activating the death app, but we wanted to let the officers enjoy beating Max to death with their own strength. We also did it to test them—to see if their natural strength alone could kill Max.”

“I hope your confidence is justified,” Gord said.

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

Carl was finally released from work at 10:00 that night. As he walked down the street to his apartment, he passed by Nora, whose eyes avoided his.

“Nora?” he said. She ignored him and kept walking past, then entered a 24/7 convenience store to buy groceries for Tasha.

“Mr. Jonson’s had her,” Carl whispered. Whether seduced or raped, she let him have her, I’m sure of it.

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

Back in the Jonsons’ home, husband and wife were having another argument.

“You were hoping to screw pretty Nora, weren’t you?” Tasha said to George with taunting eyes. “I see the guilt in your eyes. She resisted you, though. I see the failure in your eyes.”

George just stared away from her, scowling. “Tasha…”

“She doesn’t like you, because no woman ever would,” Tasha taunted further. “You didn’t use the restraining app on her to rape her, for the same reason you didn’t do her with her consent: you’re not man enough to!”

“Tasha!” he shouted, raising his hand to slap her, but stopping.

“See?” she said with a grin. “You’re not man enough to fight back.” She laughed and walked out of the bedroom. “Go to bed, Ryan!” she shouted at their frowning son, who’d been listening to the arguing in the hall.

I’m man enough to set her free, George thought, remembering Carl’s virus, saved on George’s implant. He left the bedroom and entered his study.

He sat at his desk and went through some notes he’d written about modifications he was about to make to the virus.

Stuck in a shitty marriage, he thought while modifying the malware in his implant. He logged into the central computer, connecting the virus with all Lumps, Petties, and Grandes worldwide. I have to protect Ryan from Tasha. Like Carl and Nora, I’m in a trap. They love each other, but being Lumps means they can’t be together. We’re all slaves to the Free Market Revolution, in one form or another. If I can free them, Carl can love Nora for me. She cares for Ryan; I’ve seen her smile at him. Maybe she’ll kill me and Tasha, who’s the one who wanted to buy her, then take Ryan to safety when the Lumps kill everyone else.

He sent the virus into the central computer. It was 2:00 AM. The virus woke every Lump up. They read a message on their forearms: NOT YET. WAIT.

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

Carl checked the functioning of his apps, suspecting correctly that the message hinted that the Lumps’ electronic shackles, as it were, had been broken.

All the other Lumps came to the same conclusion, but many assumed ‘NOT YET. WAIT.’ to mean, ‘Get what little sleep you’re allowed (four hours, thanks to their energy-enhancing apps); revolt the next morning.’ And indeed, many Lumps did.

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

Brent looked through his office window and saw, in the building across the street, a man thrown out of a ninth floor window, shattering the glass in an explosion, him screaming all the way down till his skull’s bloody cracking on the pavement silenced him. “What the hell?” Brent shouted.

Gord watched video on Brent’s computer monitor showing one of the InterCorp manufactories having been set afire, the whole structure burning to the ground. “I foresaw this years ago, Brent,” he said.

“Security will handle it, don’t worry,” Brent said. He checked his computer for video of the rebellion: he frowned as he saw Lumps assaulting Petties and Grandes, even killing some with knives that flew spinning in the air telekinetically. Then he switched to video of another area, where officers were beating and shooting Lumps, killing scores of them. Now he was smiling.

Carl and Nora were among the smarter Lumps. They never let on that they were free. In fact, amid the chaos and confusion around noon, Carl slipped away and tapped his wrist, making further modifications to the new programming, and stopped all the rioting Lumps’ violence immediately.

Grandes and Petties used their restraining apps on the now-still Lumps, and grinned as they saw the men and women in red, green, orange, and blue shaking from their electric shocks.

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

Back in Brent’s office that afternoon, Gord had been tracing the setup of the virus. “Carl set it up!” he told Brent. “His digital footprint is all over the virus. I told you these enhanced Lumps were dangerous, Brent! He should be executed at once.”

“Wait, no,” Brent said as he scrutinized the digital footprints. “Carl originally used this virus to free Nora, but he also used it to regain control over the Lumps. Look carefully.”

Gord looked again, then said, “OK, but why would he want to help us?”

“I don’t know,” Brent said, “but if you look here, in the middle of the programming, you’ll see the digital footprint of George Jonson, assistant manager of sales, and Nora’s owner.”

“Why would George, one of our managers, want to help Lumps?” Gord asked. “Perhaps he prefers that pretty girl to his overweight wife?”

“We’ll find out the reason,” Brent said. “Then, we’ll kill him.”

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

Back in the Jonsons’ home…

“Now that the Lumps are all under control again, the officers are going to catch me, and kill me, since they’ll know I spread the virus,” George told Nora. “All I ask of you is to protect Ryan in any way you can. Protect him from Tasha. You’ve seen her hit him. I’d hoped the Lumps would plan a more careful revolution…”

They heard a knock on the door.

“Maybe Carl can find a way to modify the…”

The door was kicked open. Three armed officers walked in the house.

“Mr. Jonson, come with us,” one of them said.

As George left his house with them, he looked back at her and said, “Protect Ryan. Please.”

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

“So, that was your reason?” Brent McDonald asked George after a mere five minutes of interrogation in the CEO’s office. George nodded. “A black man, who bought a slave, sympathizes with slaves now? Of course!”

“My wife bought Nora,” George said. “I didn’t want her.”

“But you wanted her back, after Carl here tried to free her,” Gord said. “I hear that Nora’s a pretty one, and that your wife is insufferable.”

Carl, showing Brent more data printouts, those of profits made from InterCorp’s dealings in the Disputed Areas, tried to pretend he wasn’t listening to the conversation. George remained impassive.

“Nora means nothing to me,” George said. Carl saw an actor’s eyes in George. “I just can’t tolerate slavery. My wife insisted that I get Nora back, that’s all.”

“Very well,” Brent said, then tapped on his wrist. “If you really don’t love Nora, who Tasha brought here, by the way, and if all the Lumps are as well under control as they seem to be, we’ll put it to a test.”

Nora, frowning, entered the office. She was holding a large meat cleaver. Her arms were trembling with it in her grasp.

“Nora,” Brent said. “Send that cleaver flying so it cuts off George’s head. Tasha won’t miss him, and he knows it. In fact, he’ll recognize the cleaver from his own kitchen, since his not-so-devoted wife gave it to you to use on him. Indeed, Tasha got a few bruises from the Lump rebellion, and she was furious to know her husband was behind it. Go on, Nora: you know how to make the telekinesis app work.”

Nora was shaking all over now. Tears were forming in her eyes. The app, connected to her nerve endings as all the implants were, sent a signal into the cleaver, raising it in the air a few feet in front of her face. It rotated there, like a horizontal propeller, level with George’s neck.

“Do it, Nora,” Gord commanded, “or do you need a shock?”

Tears ran down her cheeks.

“Remember,” Gord added, “if you’re thinking of using it on yourself, we can shock you so quickly, you won’t be able to kill yourself with it.”

“It’s OK, Nora,” George said. “I don’t want to live anymore, anyway. I can’t face Tasha after what happened. Remember Ryan.”

She made eye contact with Carl, whose blank face made it impossible for her to intuit his thoughts.

“Nora!” Brent shouted.

The knife spun at George. His head tumbled into a corner of the room, and blood sprayed from the stump of a neck all over the floor. The others in the room dodged the red.

“Good work, Nora,” Gord said. “Now, clean up the mess.”

Worldwide, TV screens showed George Jonson’s headless body hanging from the top of InterCorp headquarters, with his head on a spike beside the body. A universal shudder was felt, the Lumps shaking the most.

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

That evening, Carl and Gord were in Brent’s office.

“I must convey my appreciation to you, Carl, for stopping the Lump rebellion,” Brent said. “In fact, as a token of my gratitude, I’m considering restoring you to the Petty class, or maybe even raising you up to our Grande class.”

Gord’s eyes widened. “You can’t be…”

“I’m considering it,” Brent said, “provided Carl…passes certain tests…in order to prove his loyalty to InterCorp. I wonder, though, what motivated you, Carl, to put the online restraints back on the Lumps. Were you anticipating a promotion of the sort that I just described?”

“The thought crossed my mind, I must confess,” Carl said.

“Was there any other motive?” Gord asked.

“Yes,” Carl said. “I wanted George Jonson dead.”

“Why?” Gord asked. “Was it because he had your pretty Nora?”

“Yes,” Carl said with a sigh. “I saw the way he looked at my love—my former love. She’s shown me no affection since she became the Jonsons’ servant. When I’d escaped with her, she resisted; she claimed she didn’t want me to get in danger, but it was already too late to worry about that—she liked her handsome master. Didn’t you see how she wept when she was made to kill him? All proof that not only had he had her, but she’d fallen for him. I gave up my freedom for that disloyal bitch. I don’t care about Lumps; and my life—free or not—has lost all of its happiness. Let the Lumps suffer, even if I stay one of them.”

“And ending the rebellion would facilitate our execution of Jonson,” Gord said.

“Yes,” Carl said. “That’s happiness enough for me, regardless of whether you keep me a Lump, or free me.”

“Interesting,” Brent said. “Still, I’d like to see if you’re worthy of a promotion to Grande. Gord, let’s take Carl and Nora down to Basement Two.”

“Yes, Mr. McDonald,” Gord said. He tapped his wrist to summon Nora.

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

Outside of Basement Two, no one would see or hear what Brent and Gord were doing with Carl and Nora.

“The program modification Carl made to tame the Lumps isn’t exactly the same as that of the original restraints, but it seems close enough,” Brent said. “We just have to test it, as we have to test the death of his love for Nora…which will be a test, also, of his loyalty.”

“What do you want me to do?” Carl asked.

“Use the electrocution app on her,” Brent said. “The one we use in brief zaps to discipline the Lumps. But,…set it to maximum.”

“You mean, you want me to kill her?” Carl asked, and saw a nod from Brent.

Nora, slouching and hanging her head low, as if she were already dying, seemed acquiescent. “In killing George,” she said, “I’d killed myself right then. Killing me now would just be a formality.”

I knew she loved him, Carl thought, then looked deep into her eyes for a few seconds, as if his eyes were talking mouths.

“Well?” Gord said. “Do it!”

Carl tapped his wrist. She did nothing at first, surprised at not feeling anything.

Then…her whole body alternated between shaking and stiffness. She let out staccato screams. She fell to the floor, still shaking and screaming. Finally, she lay still.

A tear ran down Carl’s cheek, beside which was the bitterest of scowls, as he stared at her motionless body. He tapped something on his wrist—‘Juliet’—as Gord approached the body.

After several seconds of checking, he said, “She’s dead.”

“Good work, Carl,” Brent said. “I’d say you’re a Grande already.”

Two Lumps were recruited to pick up Nora’s body and take it away to be buried. Brent, Gord, and Carl got in the elevator to go back up to the executives’ floor.

“Let me take you to your new office, Carl,” Brent said, tapping his app to free the new Grande from his servitude.

“Thank you, Mr. McDonald, but not right now,” Carl said. “I’m exhausted, both physically and emotionally, after all that’s happened today.” He pressed the first floor button. “I’d just like to get off here, on the first floor, and go home to sleep. I can see my new office tomorrow, if that’s alright with you.” The elevator stopped at the ground floor, and he got off.

“Very well, Mr. Fredericks,” Brent said. “I understand how you feel. In fact, we’ll let you enjoy an extra-long sleep—at least ten hours. Hell, you’ve earned it.”

“Thank you, but seven or eight hours should suffice,” Carl said, then walked off. “Goodnight, gentlemen.”

“Goodnight,” Brent and Gord said.

“Extraordinary man,” Gord said as the elevator continued up. “Killed his own girl for InterCorp. She must have really broken his heart.”

“What matters for our purposes is that he’s firmly in our trust,” Brent said as the elevator stopped at their floor. “Who cares what his personal reasons were for doing our…”

A red light started flashing on Brent’s and Gord’s wrists. The men rushed out of the elevator and into Brent’s office, where he switched on his computer. The monitor showed a mob of red-uniformed Lumps running through the streets, a few with knives and a baseball bat or two. They were attacking Petties and Grandes!

“What the hell?” Brent said. “Was Carl’s program deficient?”

“Was it deliberately set up to fail?” Gord asked.

“He killed his own girlfriend for us, didn’t he?” Brent said. “You’re too distrustful, Gord.”

“I’m distrustful because things like this keep happening!”

“Calm down. The officers are already on them—see? The Lumps are getting cut down by machine gun fire.”

“A few of the green-uniformed Lumps are also using the telekinesis apps to throw knives at the officers—see?” Gord pointed at a corner of the monitor.

“A few knives and baseball bats are no match for guns,” Brent said. “I’m gonna contact Carl and…wait a minute.”

“What is it? Carl’s with the rebellion, isn’t he?”

“No. According to the messenger app on my implant, Carl’s life readings are blank. He’s dead, offline. Somebody must’ve killed him.”

“Was it the Lumps? No, he’s still in a blue uniform. He’s still a Lump, as far as they know; why would they kill one of their own?”

“I don’t know,” Brent said. “Maybe he removed the outer blue vest on the way home, and the Lumps saw him in only black, and thought—correctly—that he’s one of us. Maybe they checked his digital blueprint, and saw I’d freed him.”

“That’s a stretch, Brent.”

“Maybe he got hit by a car! Maybe an officer confused him with one of the rebelling Lumps amid the rioting and shot him? Who knows?”

“Wait, yeah, an officer must have shot him by mistake.”

“Anyway, forget about Carl, and let’s focus on finding out what went wrong with their restraints. Let’s analyze the modified program.”

The two men looked through the coding of the program: virtually nothing looked different from before.

“I don’t understand!” Brent said. “The Lumps should be as secure as always.”

“It must be a virus so subtle, our eyes have missed the differences,” Gord said. “Let’s look again.”

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

A group of red-uniformed Lumps broke into a weapons storage area. After breaking down the doors and fighting off the guards with their enhanced strength, they rushed at the officers inside. The officers weren’t fast enough with their guns to stop the rush of Lumps, who practically flew at them.

Though a few Lumps were shot, most of them got on the officers, beating them to death with their bare fists, choking them and crushing their windpipes, or picking them up and throwing them across the room, their backbones breaking against the walls.

The Lumps that didn’t take the guns from the dead officers broke through the glass coverings of racks of rifles. They took those and small boxes of ammo, loaded the rifles, then ran out of the building, shooting anyone who got in their way.

A group of green-uniformed Lumps—racing through the streets under cover of night, the dull green of their uniforms being difficult for the officers to spot in the shadows—were headed for the InterCorp headquarters.

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

Brent looked out the window and down onto the street. He saw the fighting of the officers, the killing of many unarmed, red-uniformed Lumps. He smiled.

“Good,” he said. “It looks as though we’re winning.”

“I’ve been analyzing this code,” Gord said. “I’m starting to notice the modifications. There’s source code, too. Messages like, ‘NOT YET. WAIT.’ Then, next to a modification, ‘TOGETHER. STOP.’ Then, ‘TOGETHER. GO.’ But Carl was killed before the time of this change, wasn’t he? If you check the times given.”

“Yes,” Brent said. “The modification of his life readings switching off –at 9:23—are definitely before the time of that ‘TOGETHER. GO’ modification, which was at 9:29.”

“It couldn’t have been Carl who started this rebellion,” Gord said. “Now we just have to focus on…”

Suddenly, they heard a storm of gunfire and broken glass.

“What the hell?” Brent growled. Both men ran to the window and looked down onto the street. “The Lumps don’t have guns, do they?”

They went back to the computer monitor to get close-up visuals of the fighting, the monitor being linked to video cameras on the streets.

They saw red-uniformed Lumps gunning down officers.

“What?” Brent said. “They’re armed! How did the Lumps get their hands on guns?

“They’re organized, too,” Gord said. “I was afraid this would happen. I knew that implanted tech would be used against us one day. Giving Lumps superhuman strength, telekinetic powers, enhanced intelligence—it was a stupid idea!”

“It saves money,” Brent said. “Unpaid slave labour to build things, lift things, move things about instead of paying for the building and maintenance of machines. We just need to fix the programming, to get the Lumps under control again.”

“Until the next virus?” Gord said.

“The restraints were working well for years, Gord!”

“Who is their leader? It’s too dark to see their faces.”

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

The fighting in the streets raged on. The bloodied bodies of men and women in uniforms of red, green, orange, blue, and black and yellow were sprawled about the roads and sidewalks.

Their leader wore a green uniform, racing out in front with an automatic firearm set to burst mode and filling officers’ chests and bellies with bullets. Still, the darkness of night made the faces of all the Lumps difficult, if not impossible, to identify.

Some green-uniformed Lumps held pairs of knives, one in each hand, and used their telepathy apps to make them fly in the air like propellers at the officers’ chests or faces; as soon as the blades dug into the skin, they were made to fly back, the handles coming back into their throwers’ hands. As soon as they were caught, the knives spun in the air to stab into officers’ guts once again.

Red-uniformed Lumps used their enhanced strength to jump as high as ten feet into the air, dodging officers’ bullets and landing with their feet on officers’ heads or chests. Then they took the officers’ rifles and shot at those behind the ones they’d jumped on.

When the Lumps had beaten back most of the officers, and were standing in a mob in front of the InterCorp building, two red-uniformed Lumps each picked up an officer and hurled him, screaming, through the glass. The army of Lumps stormed the building.

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

“The Lumps are inside!” Gord said.

“Haven’t you made any progress in finding out what’s wrong with the restraints?” Brent shouted.

“No. Whoever set up this virus did a clever job of keeping it untreatable.”

“For God sakes! They’re going to kill us!”

“That’s why I’m opposed to this tech we gave them.”

“We’ll have to use our own,” Brent said, tapping his wrist and getting ready. “Get away from that computer, Gord, and get ready to fight! We’re running out of security officers.”

Gord tapped his wrist implant to get ready.

“Attention: everyone in the building,” Brent said into an intercom. “Weaponize your microchip implants. The Lump rebels are inside the building. Our officers have not been able to fend them off. Kill every Lump in sight.”

Gunshots and fighting could be heard on the lower floors. Screams were also heard, screams that suggested Brent’s employees, unaccustomed to fighting, were losing.

“I can’t believe this!” Brent shouted.

“I can,” Gord said, scowling at Brent. “I saw it coming.”

The men could hear the trampling of feet on their floor, stomping growing louder, approaching their office.

“Are you ready?” Brent asked, then gulped.

“Let’s take as many of them with us as we can,” Gord said.

The windows to Brent’s office shattered into pieces as tiny as the microchips in everyone’s forearms, as red-uniformed Lumps jumped in. Brent and Gord tapped black dots on their wrists.

A swarm of tiny, invisible projectiles flew from Brent’s hand, causing the chests of the first row of Lumps to burst with blood. Then the next row of red-uniformed Lumps entered the office through the huge holes where the windows had been.

Gord’s hand sprayed out a toxic, invisible mist. The Lumps clasped their throats, squinted, coughed, and fell dead on the floor. The next row of Lumps was in green uniforms. Brent and Gord were about to fire on them, but two knives flew in the air, spinning at their upraised hands. The tips of the blades stabbed into the men’s forearms, disabling their implants. They screamed in pain, clutched their bloody arms, and fell to the floor. The crowd of Lumps approached, knives held up high and ready to come down in stabs on the two men.

“No!” a female voice called out from behind the mob. “Don’t kill them. Bring them outside, for all to see our victory.”

Brent and Gord were dragged to the elevator; dripping blood in two red paths, and taken down to the ground floor, then dragged outside. The Lump who’d just spoken approached them and showed her face.

“Nora!” the wounded men gasped together. “But…we watched…you die!” Brent said.

“Just an acting job,” she said. “As was our return to submission. The solidarity app just made us act under one will, and the Juliet app helped me play dead by keeping me still, as well as making my heartbeat, pulse, and breathing undetectable.”

“But you two wanted me to kill her!” a familiar male voice called out from the mob of Lumps, then showed himself, in a blue uniform, to Brent and Gord.

“Carl!” Brent groaned.

“Just as I suspected,” Gord panted. “The message of your death was faked.”

“We were going…to bring you…into the Grande caste,” Brent said. “You two still love each other?”

“The love between Nora and me is no more,” Carl said as he scowled at her. “And I blame our coming apart on you, on your slave system. But this is not the worst thing. I learned, through all that data mining and data analysis, that InterCorp’s plan was to invade more and more land in the Disputed Areas—Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia—to profit off their lands, just as the competing multinationals, who’ve replaced all nation states as Jurisdictions and promised a peace they never delivered, but kept their wars a secret from the public. The tyranny of the Free Market Revolution is about to come to an end…with worldwide revolutions going on as we speak, and with the deaths of these two murderers, right now!” He stared at them with murderous malice pouring out of his eyes.

“No!” Nora screamed. “I want no part in any more of this bloodshed. If even a fragment of you still loves me, Carl, turn off the solidarity app, so we no longer act on your will alone. Those Lumps who still want revenge may do so freely, but I promised George’s son I’d protect him.”

“Very well,” Carl said with a sneer as he tapped his wrist to free all the Lumps. “Do your will, you whore. You slept with George, you loved him; go be a mother to his son after we kill his wife.”

“I never slept with George! He made a move on me, but I resisted, and he respected my wishes!” she protested.

“You expect me to believe that? Pfft. Who cares, either way? Go. You can leave.”

She ran away, sobbing. What happened to you, Carl? she wondered; I’m wishing I had let George have his way with me. I’ve got to find Ryan before those maniacs kill him along with Tasha.

“Now, as for the rest of you,” Carl said to all the red- and green-uniformed Lumps who were surrounding Brent and Gord, their knives and rifle butts raised up high and ready to beat and stab their two oppressors to death. “Are you ready to do this thing we have to do? Are any of you as soft-hearted as Nora? If so, you may leave.”

A handful of Lumps walked away, mostly those in orange and blue uniforms; but the rest, scores of furious Lumps, ready to carry on the revolution, stayed, though some had hesitation in their eyes as for further killing.

Brent looked up at Carl. “The heads of the Jurisdictions will stop you, Carl.”

Carl sneered at him. “What’s happening here is being repeated all over the world,” he said. “All the heads of the Jurisdictions will die!”

Carl looked at the continued hesitation in the eyes of the Lumps. 

“Need I remind you of the suffering you all were subjected to?” Carl said. “Working ceaselessly, without pay, with a mere four hours of sleep every night, kept awake by the energy enhancements in our implants, enhancements that would have lead us all to early deaths from accumulated sleep deprivation, had we not revolted!

“Of course the Grande class can always replace us by breeding new Lumps, by raping women in the Disputed Areas, and conditioning the resulting offspring, from the beginning of their lives, to accept their lot as slaves, for they’ll have no knowledge of even the notion of life as free people.

“But we are free now, thanks to this Lump Revolution. And to ensure no return of the Grandes, we’ll slay them all, them and their families. We’ll do the same to those of the Petty class if they resist us. For by violence did they acquire power, and by violence is how we shall achieve our new society, our freedom, our destiny!”

Carl looked out on the crowd of rapt Lumps, who all stared back at their godlike leader and liberator, ready for their next command.

“So,” he said, “how shall we dispose of Mr. McDonald and Mr. Hoskins here? Shall I reset the electrocution app and fry them to death, as they’d have had me kill Nora? Or shall you kill them the way they had Max Henderson killed, beaten to death by these men’s security officers? Shall McDonald and Hoskins die Henderson’s death? I leave that up to you, my red- and green-uniformed brothers and sisters.”

Still, the Lumps held their rifle butts and knives up high, ready to strike. Brent and Gord, lying on the ground with bloody hands, looked up at the men and women in red and green surrounding them. The two men looked up in the eyes of the rebels with defiant frowns, wanting them all to see the eyes of the men they were about to murder.

Carl looked on the scene with a smirk. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Nora sneaking off with Ryan. He huffed at the perceived treason of his one-time lover. Then he looked back at the hesitant, but loyal rebels.

A few of them looked over at Carl, their eyes asking his for permission to kill Brent and Gord. The scowl Carl had given Nora seemed to be an answer.

As soon as one Lump brought his rifle crashing down on Gord’s head, cracking his skull and splashing blood in his killer’s face; all the other rifle butts, and all the knives, swung down on his and Brent’s bodies, spraying blood everywhere, spotting them all over with bruises, breaking their bones, and squeezing screams out of them to compete with the joyous yells of their killers.

Carl looked down on the bloodbath, and smiled.

Analysis of ‘The Warriors’

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The Warriors is a 1979 film based on Sol Yurick‘s 1965 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Xenophon‘s Anabasis. While the film wasn’t well received critically on its release, it has since grown into a cult classic, its critical reputation improving, too.

There are huge differences between the film and the novel, including different names for all the characters (“Warriors” refers to all the gangs in the novel, not just the the protagonist gang, who in the novel are called “The Coney Island Dominators”); though the course of events in the plot are basically the same.

The novel delves more into the (dysfunctional) family lives of the gang members. The brutality and hyper-masculinity of the gang members makes them far less sympathetic than those in the movie. In the novel, the boys test each other’s manhood by, for example, having a pissing contest (i.e., who can piss the farthest), and they engage in such brutalities as murder, gang raping women, etc. The young men in the movie, apart from Ajax (James Remar), are generally more civilized in their attitude towards women.

Here are some quotes:

Cyrus (Roger Hill): [yelling] Can you count, suckers? I say, the future is ours… if you can count!

Gang Members: Come on, Cyrus! We’re with you! Go ahead, bro!

Cyrus: Now, look what we have here before us. We got the Saracens sitting next to the Jones Street Boys. We’ve got the Moonrunners right by the Van Cortlandt Rangers. Nobody is wasting nobody. That…is a miracle. And miracles is the way things ought to be. You’re standing right now with nine delegates from 100 gangs. And there’s over a hundred more. That’s 20,000 hardcore members. Forty-thousand, counting affiliates, and twenty-thousand more, not organized, but ready to fight: 60,000 soldiers! Now, there ain’t but 20,000 police in the whole town. Can you dig it?

Gang Members: Yeah.

Cyrus: Can you dig it?

Gang Members: Yeah!

Cyrus: Can you dig it!?

Gang Members: YEAH!

Cyrus: Now, here’s the sum total: One gang could run this city! One gang. Nothing would move without us allowing it to happen. We could tax the crime syndicates, the police, because WE got the streets, suckers! Can you dig it?

Gang Members: YEAH! [cheering]

Cyrus: The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth, because we have been fighting for ten square feet of ground, our turf, our little piece of turf. That’s crap, brothers! The turf is ours by right, because it’s our turn. All we have to do is keep up the general truce. We take over one borough at a time. Secure our territory… secure our turf… because it’s all our turf!

Ajax: Well, good! I’m sick of runnin’ from these wimps!

[They stop to fight]

Ajax (to one of the Baseball Furies): I’m gonna shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a Popsicle.

[banging bottles together] “Warriors, come out to play-i-ay!” –Luther (David Patrick Kelly)

Swan (Michael Beck): When we see the ocean, we figure we’re home. We’re safe.

Luther: This time you got it wrong.

Swan: Why’d you do it? Why’d you waste Cyrus?

Luther: No reason. I just like doing things like that!

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Left to right: Ajax, Vermin, Cowboy, Cochise, Rembrandt, Fox, and Swan.

One crucial image, seen at the beginning at night, and in the morning at the end of the film, is of a Ferris Wheel called the “Wonder Wheel.” It is in Coney Island, the home turf of the Warriors. I see it as a symbol of the ouroboros, a mystical symbol of eternity that I see, in turn, as a symbol of the dialectical relationship between all opposites, a circular continuum with one opposite meeting the other, where the serpent’s head bites its tail. The Wonder Wheel could also be seen to represent the Wheel of Dharma, which with the serpent biting its tail symbolize the way forward to an ideal state for the gangs to be in.

The film begins with hopes that a truce between all the gangs of New York City will last. They’ll all meet, standing side by side…and not fight!…while Cyrus, leader of the Gramercy Riffs, gives a speech encouraging the solidarity of all the gangs.

These hopes for a lasting inter-gang peace are like the head biting the tail of the ouroboros–the highest good, but also dangerously close to the worst state of inter-gang violence if matters aren’t handled carefully. Easily-provoked war and ever-so-fragile peace are in a dialectical, yin-and-yang kind of relationship.

Another important visual motif in this film is the subway system. For the unarmed Warriors, the subway is the key to their safety, for it can get them back to Coney Island fast, safe from attacks from other gangs. They, however, cannot rely on quick and easy answers: they must fight their way back home slowly (i.e., go from the bitten tail of war, along the length of the ouroboros’s body, to the biting head of peace); for their battles with rival gangs represent their own inner conflicts, a dialectic of self vs. other.

Though Cyrus (named Ismael Rivera in Yurick’s novel) is named by the screenwriter after Cyrus the Younger in the Anabasis, I see parallels between him and Lenin. The Riffs are the strongest, most influential of the New York gangs; Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the majority party, were the vanguard of Russia’s labour movement.

All the gangs, though mere lumpenproletariat, can nonetheless be seen to represent the Soviets, to whom Lenin would have given all power over Russia. Though many gangs aren’t yet organized, under Cyrus’ leadership, they can be; without a revolutionary vanguard, the Russian proletariat and peasantry had might as well have been lumpen, for without proper organization and leadership, they wouldn’t have had any more revolutionary potential than your average criminals.

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Swan just flipped a switchblade into Luther’s arm.

Charismatic Cyrus is loved by many of the gangs, as Lenin was loved by many workers and peasants in Russia. Lenin also had enemies, though, as does Cyrus, who is shot by Luther, who then frames the murder on the Warriors; an attempt was made on Lenin’s life, too, and though he didn’t immediately die, his injury is believed to have hastened his death six years later. And without his leadership, the leaders of the Russian proletarians and peasants were forced to resort to authoritarian, even violent, measures to keep the ship of the USSR afloat on treacherous waters…as the Riffs have to get tough in catching Cyrus’ killer. Luther thus represents reactionary treachery.

In Cyrus’ speech, he mentions how, if all the gangs were united, they would outnumber the police three to one. “We could tax the crime syndicates, the police, because WE got the streets,” he says. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the crime syndicates, or mafia, can easily symbolize capitalists; and the police have always protected them.

Cyrus is organizing a dictatorship of the lumpenproletariat, which in this revolutionary form means the lumpen is being erased. The taxing of the mafia families and police is reminiscent of what Marx proposed at the end of the second section of the Communist Manifesto, “Proletarians and Communists,” item 2: “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” (Marx, page 56)

Cyrus points out that the “problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth…” Indeed, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie uses a variety of sophisticated methods to keep the people fighting with each other–man vs. woman, black vs. white, gay vs. straight, cis vs. trans, nation vs. nation, etc.–instead of allowing us all to unite.

We can’t see the truth because the bourgeoisie uses the media to distract and dazzle us. As Marx pointed out: “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” (Marx, The German Ideology, ‘Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas’)

“We take one borough at a time,” Cyrus says, reminding us of the notion of ‘socialism in one country,’ which by the way wasn’t just something Stalin invented–Lenin alluded to the idea in a speech back in 1918. The gangs can’t realistically take over all of New York City in one fell swoop: each section has to be taken carefully and secured before taking any more.

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Ajax wants to shove that bat up the Baseball Fury’s ass and turn him into a popsicle.

Cyrus’ assassination could also represent that of Kirov, which similarly set in motion a wave of upheaval, treason, and sabotage leading to the Great Purge of the late 1930s. (Errors, excesses, and cruelties of the time, incidentally, were much more the fault of the corruption of men like Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov in the NKVD than of Stalin himself.) In any case, this lack of solidarity, be it in the form of reactionary violence, or an authoritarian reaction to leftist opposition, is one of many obstacles the people have to bringing about their liberation, as symbolized in the gang violence in this movie.

When the Warriors flee for their lives from the gathering of gangs (without their presumably killed leader, Cleon) and the raid of cops, they find themselves in a graveyard, an appropriate visual representing their predicament. This is the lowest point for them, the hindmost area of the ouroboros, just ahead of the bitten tail, where Cyrus and Cleon have died, with the hope of a lasting truce.

The Riffs, believing Luther’s lie that the Warriors are responsible for the shooting of Cyrus, have–through an announcement from a female DJ, (who, in keeping with the links between this story and ancient Greece, seems to be playing a narrative/commentary role similar to that of a Chorus in Greek drama)–commanded all gangs hunt down and catch the Warriors…dead or alive. Luther’s misleading of the Riffs parallels NKVD corruption (i.e., Luther = Yezhov) in tracking down traitors in the Soviet proletarian dictatorship.

During this tense moment in the graveyard, there’s fragmentation even within the ranks of the Warriors, for after Cleon’s demise, Swan, the new war chief, is arguing with ambitious, obnoxious Ajax, over who should be the new leader. Is this not unlike such power struggles as those between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin’s death?

The Warriors get chased by the Turnbull ACs, and barely escape through the subway. Swan advises not to be too optimistic, for it’s still a long way, even by subway, to Coney Island. Indeed, they soon come to a dead end, a fire preventing the subway from continuing on its course. They’re still in the fiery Hell of the hind area of the ouroboros, and they must continue their way along the length of the coiled serpent’s body towards its head…and now they must go on foot.

Next, they come into the neighbourhood of the Orphans, a low-status gang not included in Cyrus’ park meeting (Is there, in the name of this gang, a trace of Ismael‘s name slipped into the film from the novel?). The Warriors must ask the Orphans to be allowed safe passage through their turf. The Orphans are insecure about their low status among the gangs, and so they are easily goaded into fighting the Warriors by a local neighbourhood girl named–fortuitously?–Mercy (Deborah van Valkenburgh).

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The Warriors confront the Orphans.

Where the Warriors are is still in the hind area of the ouroboros, a depressing neighbourhood for Mercy to live in, so she joins the unarmed Warriors as they escape a fight with the Orphans after Swan destroys a car with a tossed Molotov cocktail. As she and Swan travel, so to speak, up the length of the ouroboros towards the head, where safety and better fortune are in the Warriors’ Coney Island turf, the tension between the two of them will gradually grow into a friendship.

The police aren’t as involved as one would think they’d be amid all this gang violence (after all, this is an allegory of proletarian dictatorship, so the bourgeoisie’s muscle will be scanted here), but cops do at one point chase the Warriors, causing them to split up. Fox (Thomas G. Waites) gets killed in the chase, run over by a train. Swan, Ajax, Snow, and Cowboy end up in Riverside Park, where they have to fight the Baseball Furies.

One of the cheesier elements of this movie is also one of the more interesting, in terms of theme and symbol: the flamboyant costuming of each gang, the colourful ‘uniforms,’ so to speak, of the gangs. These suggest the divisiveness of identity politics, a plague upon the left that vitiates solidarity.

Identity politics, typically associated with the left, can obscure the more fundamental issue of class consciousness, causing legitimate leftism to degenerate into mere liberalism. What many forget, however, is the right-wing versions of idpol, including White Nationalism and similar scourges. Prior to the truce, each gang was just fighting to defend its own “little piece of turf”–nationalism…fascism. That’s crap, brothers!

Ajax, sick of “runnin’ from these wimps,” is happy to fight the Furies, beating one of them without need of a baseball bat. Later, though, he allows his lust to distract him from loyalty to the Warriors, and allows himself to be entrapped by an undercover female cop who pretends to offer him an easy lay. To make things worse for himself, he gets rough with her as they make out; then she handcuffs him to a park bench, and he’s arrested. One of the lessons men on the left need to learn is to stop thinking of a woman as only something for their sexual sport.

[His name, incidentally, is an interesting choice, again in keeping with the connection of The Warriors with ancient Greek culture: Ajax is named after the huge warrior in Greek myth who fought admirably in the Trojan War; but who also went mad killing a herd of cattle he’d been deluded into thinking were warriors, and, after coming to his senses, preferred to kill himself than live in shame over what he’d done in his brief madness.]

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Nasty Ajax.

Speaking of being distracted by femmes fatales, Vermin, Cochise, and Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez) arrive at Union Square and run into the Lizzies, an all-female gang who use their charms to lure them into their lair. These three Warriors foolishly think their troubles are over, and pleasure is about to begin…they think they’re closer to the ouroboros’ head than they really are. As the party goes on–with a joint being passed around, the song ‘Love Is a Fire’ (sung by Genya Ravan) playing, and two beautiful Lizzies dancing erotically (this last observation, combined with the name of a gang in Yurick’s novel, the ‘Intervale Avenue Lesbos,’ should tell us about the girl gang’s real orientation, and symbolically, their political identity)–only Rembrandt grows suspicious.

Suddenly, the Lizzies show their true intentions, shooting at them, slashing switchblades at them, and informing them of the real reason all the gangs are after them: they’ve been framed for the killing of Cyrus! The Lizzies’ Bower of Bliss isn’t the haven these credulous Warriors thought it was, it is no arrival at the ouroboros’ head: they must keep on going, non-stop, to Coney Island to be safe.

Eventually, the Riffs learn the truth of who killed Cyrus; they learn this from a member of a gang who saw Luther, leader of the Rogues (fitting name for his reactionary gang), point a pistol at Cyrus and shoot him. This revelation parallels when Stalin realized how corrupt Yezhov was; he who as leader of the NKVD had suppressed, persecuted, and killed a number of innocent Soviets during the Great Purge, just as Luther has framed the Warriors for Cyrus’ murder.

After Swan reunites with the remaining Warriors and Mercy, who then even helps them a bit in fighting off the Punks in a men’s room in Union Square, our protagonists take the train to Coney Island (sharing it with some people higher than they on the social ladder, people who clearly feel uncomfortable sitting near them) and finally reach their turf. The Wonder Wheel can be seen in the background. The gang is finally “packed.”

Luther and the Rogues are there, too, eager to fight the Warriors. Luther, we learn, killed Cyrus for no other reason than the sheer thrill of it, as he hopes to kill Swan in a one-on-one fight. Luther, as instigator of this rupture in the truce and solidarity of the gangs, is demonstrating his psychopathic addiction to excitement as a relief to boredom.

In contrast to Luther’s viciousness is the Warriors’ pleasure in seeing the peaceful ocean (a parallel to the ten thousand Greeks’ delight in seeing “the sea! The sea!” from Mount Theches at the end of their journey home, after their failed march with Cyrus the Younger against the Persian Empire in 401 BCE). The ocean, my symbol for the nirvana of Brahman, is something I use as another symbol for the gang’s final arrival at their turf, the ouroboros’ biting head, their goal of peace and security.

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Even nastier Luther.

Yet as I’ve said above, there’s the dialectical danger of peace and security shifting into their opposite, the bitten tail of another rumble. Luther, clicking bottles together and chanting his threat in that squeaky, grating voice of his, demonstrates that danger.

Swan is able to fling a switchblade into Luther’s upper arm before he can shoot his pistol. Doubly fortunate for the Warriors, the Riffs arrive to exact vengeance on the Rogues. This parallels how Stalin had Yezhov arrested and executed for his crimes.

In the Riffs’ saying, “You Warriors are good–real good,” to which Swan replies, “The best,” we see the Warriors having earned their street cred. This parallels how Stalin, knowing Yezhov had imprisoned and persecuted innocent Soviet citizens, now had Yezhov’s surviving victims all released and rehabilitated.

So, the Warriors are off the hook. The DJ acknowledges this with an apology to the hitherto-stained gang, who can now roam the beach in peace and enjoy the sight of the ocean, for they have reached the ouroboros’ head of peace and security. This story about a gang returning to their home turf represents the growth all socialists must make: learning from their mistakes, as the Warriors learn from such mistakes as gratuitous fighting and womanizing. We must stick together and go the long haul, avoiding the temptation of quick and easy solutions, such as counting on the trains always running on time…which, by the way, even the fascists never pulled off.

It is useful to see the New York gangs as a symbol for socialist revolutionaries. Both use violence to achieve their ends, which involve an upsetting of the established order. The police protect that establishment–private property, which makes communists seem criminal.

Through a unifying of the many leftist factions–historically, the anarchists, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries, as represented by the many gangs in the movie–under a revolutionary vanguard (symbolized here by the Gramercy Riffs), we see the possibility of replacing the endless violence of permanent revolution with the building of socialism, for the benefit of everyone.

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Taking over one borough at a time (a symbol for socialism in one country), the unified gangs–with their truce resumed–can transform society into one that provides for everyone, exposing who the real criminals are: the capitalist class and their mafia gangs of politicians and police.

Can you dig it?

Analysis of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the name of the first two of four films based on Jack Finney‘s 1955 science fiction novel The Body Snatchers. Though the writers of the novel and the first film vehemently denied any allegory or political subtext surrounding the “pod people,” one finds it irresistible to read such meaning into the story; for however one may insist that the story was just meant as an entertaining thriller, there are subtle, if unconsciously given, meanings to be gleaned from it.

According to the Wikipedia article on the novel (sadly, without a source to verify it, so I have to take it on faith), a “pod person” tells a human that the latter’s race is no less parasitic than the former, what with man’s using up of resources, wiping out indigenous populations, and destroying ecosystems in order to survive. Assuming Wikipedia is accurately referencing the novel, is this not a clear political subtext?

Then, in the 1956 movie, Dr. Miles Bennell says, “In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind… All of us — a little bit — we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.” Such a line doesn’t seem necessary in a mere thriller without any sense of, at least some, social commentary.

Here are some more quotes.

From the novel:

“I saw my father’s wooden filing cabinet, his framed diplomas stacked on top of it, just as they’d been brought from his office. In that cabinet lay records of the colds, cut fingers, cancers, broken bones, mumps, diphtheria, births and deaths of a large part of Mill Valley for over two generations. Half the patients listed in those files were dead now, the wounds and tissue my father had treated only dust.”

“Why do you breathe, eat, sleep, make love, and reproduce your kind? Because it’s your function, your reason for being. There’s no other reason, and none needed.”

“If we believe that we are just animals, without immortal souls, we are already but one step removed from pod people.”

The 1956 film:

“It started — for me, it started — last Thursday, in response to an urgent message from my nurse, I hurried home from a medical convention I’d been attending. At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.” –Dr. Miles Bennell (voiceover)

“Sick people who couldn’t wait to see me, then suddenly were perfectly all right. A boy who said his mother wasn’t his mother. A woman who said her uncle wasn’t her uncle.” –Bennell (voiceover)

“Keep your eyes a little wide and blank. Show no interest or excitement.” –Bennell

“Look, you fools, you’re in danger! Can’t you see?! They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! THEY’RE HERE, ALREADY! YOU’RE NEXT!” –Bennell

“I want to love and be loved. I want your children. I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty. I’d rather die.” –Becky Driscoll

“It’s like the first impression that’s stamped on a coin. It isn’t finished.” –Jack Belicec, describing a body he’s found.

“A strange neurosis, evidently contagious, an epidemic mass hysteria. In two weeks, it spread all over town.” –Dr. Kauffman

“You say it as if it were terrible. Believe me, it isn’t. You’ve been in love before. It didn’t last. It never does. Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them, life is so simple, believe me.” –Kauffman, as a pod man

Ambulance Driver: We had to dig him out from under the most peculiar things I ever saw.

Dr. Hill: What things?

Ambulance Driver: Well, I don’t know what they are, I never saw them before. They looked like great big seed pods.

Dr. Hill: Where was the truck coming from?

Ambulance Driver: Santa Mira.

The 1978 film:

Elizabeth: I have seen these flowers all over. They are growing like parasites on other plants. All of a sudden. Where are they coming from?

Nancy: Outer space?

Jack: What are you talking about? A space flower?

Nancy: Well, why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?

Jack: I’ve NEVER expected metal ships.

Elizabeth: I hate you.

Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), as a pod man: We don’t hate you – there’s no need for hate now. Or love.

Matthew: There are people who will fight you, David.

Elizabeth: Will stop you.

Dr. Kibner: In an hour you won’t want them to. Don’t be trapped by old concepts, Matthew, you’re evolving into a new life form.

“We came here from a dying world. We drift through the universe, from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we survive. The function of life is survival.” –Kibner, as a pod man

“It’s like there’s some kind of a hallucinatory flu going around. People seem to get over it in a day or two. All I can do is treat the symptoms.” –Kibner

Now, as far as political interpretations go, liberals see the 1956 film as an allegory about the excesses of McCarthyism and conformity to American values during the Cold War. Continuing with the Cold War theme, conservatives see an allegory on Stalinism.

As for the 1978 film, which I’ll be focusing on the most, I’ll examine the story from my more decidedly left-wing stance, as such a position, to my knowledge, seems lacking in any interpretation of the films.

The anti-McCarthyist and anti-communist interpretations of the 1950s were fitting, what with the realities of the Cold War and the Red Scare. It is also fitting that the novel has a happy (if unconvincing) ending, and the 1956 film has a hopeful ending, with the defeat of McCarthyism, the rise of the radical 60s as a cure for the bland conformity of the 50s, and (from the capitalist class’s perspective) the substantial end of communism by the early 1990s.

The 1978 film, however, has not only a pessimistic but outright frightening ending, which I find fitting for the political allegory I propose: the metastasizing of neoliberalism, which substantively began around the time of the film’s release, and which has continued unabated to this day.

This idea of metastasizing–of growth, spreading (as of a disease) is important when we consider an important motif, developed the most in the 1978 movie: pods–plants–flowers…Just as seeds spread out over the land, and themselves grow into plants; just as a contagion spreads and infects more and more people–so do pods replace more and more humans with unfeeling automatons, comparable to Winnicott‘s False Self.

How can this idea of a contagion be related to our world, especially since the late 1970s? I normally find little inspiration in Richard Dawkins (i.e., his anti-Muslim attitude), but he had one good idea–how ideas spread in the form of memes.

One of the memes that started spreading from around the mid-twentieth century was the ‘philosophy‘ of Ayn Rand. Government involvement in the economy should be minimized, or at any rate only used in the service of capitalism. ‘Rational’ self-interest has a way of benefitting everyone. The individual will outweighs collective needs in importance. (The individual would never, ever subordinate the needs of the many, causing them to conform to the dictates of the individuals in the ruling class! No, no!)

Rand’s ideas, combined with those of Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek, resulted in a hijacking of libertarian thinking, changing an originally left-wing ideology into a right-wing one. Pods, all four of them.

Doctors and departments of health do all they can to stop the spread of contagions, and the Doctors Bennell of both films (Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy in the 1956 film; and Matthew Bennell, played by Donald Sutherland in the 1978 film) do all they can to resist the pods.

One of the ill effects of ‘small government’ right-libertarian policies is cuts to healthcare coverage, with a risk of thousands of poor people acquiescing to sickness and death annually. Single-payer healthcare is just something the rich don’t want to pay for.

As a health inspector doing a thankless job searching for health violations in a fancy restaurant, Matthew finds “a rat turd” in a pot; the owner of the restaurant insists it’s just a caper. Matthew suggests he eat the “caper,” which of course, he won’t.

As a capitalist, the owner hates Matthew, a man working for the government in the Department of Health in San Francisco; the restaurant employees, dependent on the restaurant’s survival and without a sense of class consciousness, also hate the health inspector, showing their hate by smashing the windshield of his car.

Those promoting health go against capitalism, forcing regulations on bosses, which limit their ability to make profits; those supporting capitalism, including workers without class-consciousness (i.e., workers who are asleep) tolerate the spread of germs…of pods…

Recall that the pods come from a dying alien world, adapting to Earth and taking over for the sake of their survival. This, an invasion, is akin to the capitalist form of imperialism: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall endangers the survival of the capitalist, and when markets dry up in his native country (the “dying world“), he must seek out new markets in other countries, steal their resources to enrich himself, and either take over or kill off the locals, as the pods do on Earth.

The pods “adapt and [they] survive”…as does capitalism: ‘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

A well-known ill effect of capitalism is alienation, not just that of workers, but of society and of one’s species-essence. This alienation is vivid, even literal, in this story. People are made alien: alien to each other, and alien to themselves.

The pod replicas’ creation causes the disintegration of the original humans. On the other side of the coin, Miles and Matthew destroy the pods about to replicate them. As we can see, the feeling of alienation is mutual.

Little Jimmy Grimaldi, in the 1956 film, is crying because his mother isn’t really her; in the 1978 film, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) complains that her boyfriend (Art Hindle) is no longer himself. Characters constantly complain about imposters at the beginning of both movies…then many of the original complainers stop complaining, because they’ve become pods themselves who, like capitalists, deny any evil intent.

By a strange (dialectical?) irony, it’s plants in the 1978 film that destroy humanity, instead of vice versa, as in real life; or, more accurately, the invasion of alien imperialism poisons the environment, which in turn destroys humanity–like Monsanto, Agent Orange, or land mines; then there’s what Jair Bolsonaro wants to do to the Amazon rainforest…

So with this invasion, instead of people bonding together in love, they exist merely to survive–just like the ‘sleeping’ proletariat (i.e., those without class consciousness); and as those ‘woke’ proletarians who fight to end this scourge of imperialism are hunted down and destroyed, so are Miles and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), or Matthew and Elizabeth. Furthermore, they are branded as crazy (as how left-leaning people may be labelled ‘nut-bars,’), extreme, or conspiracy theorists…how familiar. Paranoia about neoliberalism is as justified as it is about pod people.

Recall Kevin McCarthy, both as Miles and as the ‘running man’ in the 1978 movie, frantically yelling to all the drivers passing by, “They’re coming!” and “You’re next!” In the first film, drivers shout at him to “Get outta here!,” and call him “crazy,” “idiot,” and “drunk”; in the second, Matthew and Elizabeth lock their car doors. This is the average person’s response to such desperate warnings.

When the ‘running man’ is hit by a car and killed, pod people surround the body and stare at it with unfeeling faces, yet they’re satisfied that the threat to their ascending hegemony is removed. This is like the ruling class’s response to warnings about the growth of neoliberalism.

Outwardly as replicas of the humans whose bodies they’ve ‘snatched,’ the pods have all their memories, and can even mimic emotion on a superficial level, causing us often not to know for sure when the switch to pods has happened. This is the case with Nimoy’s character, Dr. David Kibner, who, a third to halfway into the movie, still shows some emotion, but has no sympathy for Matthew’s fears about the pods at all. As a celebrity pop-psychologist, pre-pod Kibner represents the capitalist tendency to exploit people’s emotional problems by selling them happiness in the form of self-help books, so the blurred line between him as human and as pod makes sense.

So many of the ‘left’ are pods, people who are publicly known as progressives, but who are actually, directly or indirectly, helping the neoliberal agenda. George Soros is one: he helped with the demise of the USSR, yet he pretends to be concerned with the excesses of contemporary capitalism. Slavoj Zižek critiques capitalism, but doesn’t offer any real solutions. I’ve written about how the Clintons, in ‘left-leaning’ guise, have caused enormous damage to the lives of ordinary people, as have Obama and Tony Blair. Justin Trudeau is doing this in Canada, though he’s seen as ‘progressive.’ Pods, all of them.

Neocons like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have pretended to be progressives, too, in their opposition to religion; yet they were and are content to let imperialism in the Middle East carry on unabated. Pods, pods, and more pods.

The memes that people such as these have spread–“socialism doesn’t work,” “communism killed 100 million people,” “the freer the markets, the freer the people,” “TINA,” ‘only the state is the enemy of the people,’ etc.–continue to infect the entire world in a pandemic. No matter how loudly we yell to warn people about neoliberalism and growing fascism, we aren’t listened to…or we’re struck down and killed, like Kevin McCarthy’s frantic runner in the street, in the 1978 film.

Matthew, Elizabeth, and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) learn that they can fool the pods by hiding their emotions whenever they have to walk among them. This is like how crypto-communists have had to hide their sympathies about the Comintern…yet it seems left-leaning George Orwell turned into a pod when he helped the IRD compile a list of those people.

Becky, or Elizabeth, can hide her humanity for only so long before something shocks her–like a dog hit by a car, or a busker sleeping too close to his dog, causing a pod to merge the man’s head with the dog’s body.

Note how the pods don’t care if an animal is killed, or if a dog-man monster is created, symbolic of the bestial nature man is reduced to by neoliberalism. Similarly, the pods don’t bat an eye, or make that ugly shriek, if a pod is walking about naked outside…but they will react if a human is still among them, as chagrined Nancy learns.

I’ve argued elsewhere that–citing Shakespeare’s use of the word in Hamletnaked can be used to mean ‘without any possessions or means.’ Pod-Elizabeth’s nakedness can thus be seen to represent those deprived of basic necessities by neoliberalism. Many of the deprived, like her, would rather rat out (or ‘squeal out’) those unlike them, as working-class supporters of fascism do, instead of banding together with other workers in solidarity against the ruling class. Neoliberal capitalists, like the pods, don’t care about the deprivation of the naked, such as those suffering in Yemen or Palestine.

The pods are spread by boat from San Francisco (or by truck from fictional Santa Mira in the 1956 movie) to the rest of the world, just as the contagion of neoliberalism spread from Austria to the US and UK, and then to the rest of the world.

And how do humans turn into pods? By falling asleep. What a powerful metaphor for how one’s liberty…one’s very humanity…dies. Only through endless vigilance–indefatigable class consciousness–can we prevent our dehumanization, our mutual alienation.

So, to recap, the contagion of the pods can be seen to represent the spread of capitalist imperialism, in its neoliberal form, through tax cuts to the rich, deregulation, and pro-capitalist/anti-socialist propaganda in the form of memes spread in a market-friendly, corporate media. We lose our humanity to wage slavery, with soulless False Selves that are alienated from each other.

We’ve allowed this to happen because we’ve lost our sense of awareness–we’ve fallen asleep. What had been a thriller with a happy ending–due to the tireless efforts of humanity to repel the pod people in Finney’s novel–grew into an increasingly pessimistic story in these two movies (even the 1956 film originally had a dark ending–that is, before the studio wanted the framing story with the psychiatrist [Dr. Hill, played by Whit Bissell] listening to Miles tell his story, to add a hopeful ending).

But such is the nature of a contagion: to cause a problem to be more and more desperate. Such has been the metastasizing of neoliberalism, to bring the problem of capitalist imperialism from a formidable struggle–in which at least there had been hope of victory–to one in which defeat seems almost a foregone conclusion.

In the 1978 movie, we go from a vigorous Department of Health, with human Elizabeth and Matthew aggressively trying to find out where the flowers and pods came from, to one with pod-Elizabeth and pod-Matthew sitting around lazily at their desks, doing nothing of importance. No one is interested in healing the sick, or stopping the spread of disease. The 1956 film would have ended with Miles shouting his hysterical warning to the drivers on the highway, and perhaps–after the film’s end–hit and killed by a car, as he is in the near-sequel 1978 movie…a dire prognosis for the world.

Can we, our bodies snatched by neoliberalism, find a way back to Finney’s ending?

Analysis of ‘Caligula’

Introduction

Caligula is an erotic historical drama film made in 1979, based on the rise and fall of Gaius Caesar, and starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Paolo Bonacelli, Guido Mannari (his English dub voice done by Patrick Allen), and John Steiner. It was produced by Bob Guccione for Penthouse magazine, in an attempt to fuse a feature film narrative, with high production values, with the explicit, unsimulated sex scenes of pornographic films.

Gore Vidal produced a screenplay for the film, for which Tinto Brass was the original director, but both of them disowned the film after constant fighting and a falling out. Guccione added hardcore pornographic content, which with the violence of many scenes resulted in a film that created a storm of controversy on its release. Accordingly, the uncut movie was, and still is, banned in many countries.

Here are some quotes from the film:

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man, and therefore I am a god.” –Caligula (McDowell)

Caligula: Tell me, how is the emperor?

Nerva (Gielgud): Old, like me.

Caligula: I mean, how is his mood?

Nerva: Like the weather.

Caligula: The weather is good today!

Nerva: Changeable.

*********

Caligula: You are a god, lord.

Tiberius (O’Toole): No I’m not, not even when I am dead.

Caligula: Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, they are gods.

Tiberius: So say the senate, and so the people prefer to believe. Such myths are useful.

*********

Nerva: For a man to choose the hour of his own death is the closest he will ever come to tricking fate, and fate decrees that when you die, Macro will kill me.

Tiberius: I’ll arrest him and have him executed.

Nerva: You can’t. He controls you. [Looks at Caligula] Anyway, even with Macro dead, how could I go on living with this reptile?

*********

“If only all Rome had just one neck!” –Caligula

“You see how I have exhausted myself to make your wedding holy. My blessings to you both.” –Caligula, after raping Livia and fisting her groom, Proculus

“As if there ever could be an antidote against Caesar!” –Caligula, after having Gemellus arrested for treason (because the boy’s breath smelled of medicine…a poison antidote?)

*********

Caesonia (Mirren): They hate you now.

Caligula: Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.

Caesonia: They are senators and consuls. They are important men.

Caligula: So important that they approve all I do? They must be mad. I don’t know what else to do to provoke them.

Despite Caligula now being a cult classic, as well as the performances of McDowell, O’Toole, Gielgud, and Mirren being praised, it always has been critically derided…which leads me to my next point…

Why Analyze Caligula, of all Films?

Normally, I write up film or literary analyses of classics, or works otherwise considered ‘great’ in some sense. Now, I’m about to analyze something of the (dialectical?) opposite: a film widely considered among the worst ever made.

Why? Have I, like the Gaius Caesar of legend and rumour, flipped my lid? Am I ascribing immortal, divine status to a film generally deemed a monstrous travesty, like the man the movie’s about? I’ll answer the last two questions in reverse order: no, and I certainly hope not.

As for the first question, here is my answer. There’s something about the movie, in spite of (or rather, because of) its many flaws, that makes it a perfect representation of today’s political world.

I’m going beyond the obvious theme of the corruption of power, as well as beyond a rationalization that the pornographic aspects of the film symbolize the obscenity of all this political corruption. My point is that this movie is a sensationalization of the crueller moments of history for the sake of titillation, the same way much of the reporting of current events is meant more to entertain than to inform. These shocks are a distraction from the real evil of class antagonisms, past and present.

You’ve heard of ‘fake news.’ Now, let’s read about fake history.

An Ahistorical Historical Drama

Any serious historian knows that Tiberius and Caligula, as bad and hated as they were during and immediately following their reigns, were nonetheless nowhere near as depraved, perverted, or mad as they are portrayed in the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter’s Twelve Caesars especially being, in my opinion at least, little more than glorified gossip. So when Guccione (in the documentary ‘Making of Caligula‘) tried to justify the excesses in his film as necessary to give an “historically accurate” portrayal of the wickedness of these two emperors, you know he was being as ignorant as he was being pretentious.

Now, this Penthouse production was of course not the first one to take Tacitus and Suetonius at their word. The author of I, Claudius, Robert Graves, was known for his scholarly but mischievous renderings of historical events; when he wrote the historical novel (and its sequel, Claudius the God), while he tried his best to remain true to the narrative of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, he also felt free to invent wherever the historical record was doubtful. The dramatically superb (though low-budget) BBC miniseries of 1976 that was based on his books sometimes played fast and loose with the history in ways that went beyond even Graves’s own indulgences (compare Graves, page 342, to the end of this I, Claudius episode).

Let’s now consider the excesses that Caligula and Tiberius have been accused of. First, the notion that Caligula committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, is highly doubtful. Roman historians often slandered the emperors they hated with claims of sexual perversity or madness.

Young Gaius grew up watching his family members taken from him, one by one: his father, Germanicus, died when Caligula was a boy; his mother, Agrippina, was banished by Tiberius to the island of Pandateria, where she starved herself to death (G.P. Baker, page 277); his brother, Nero, was also banished (to Ponza), and his brother, Drusus, was imprisoned for treason and left there to starve to death, reduced to chewing the stuffing of his bed (Baker, page 276). Gaius’ sisters were all he had left of his immediate family–it’s only natural that he’d have been more than usually close to them, but in the normal, loving sense. Anything beyond such closeness is gossip.

“With his brothers and parents dead, and without a compatible wife, it might be expected that Caligula would have looked for affection from his three sisters. The enormous favours that he heaped on them at the beginning of his reign had a political purpose, but they also suggest considerable affection within the family. It was doubtless this affection that led to the stories of incest with all three sisters. Such reports are to be treated with scepticism. Suetonius claims that Caligula was actually caught with Drusilla when they were staying at Antonia‘s house, but admits that the story was hearsay. Neither Seneca nor Philo, contemporaries of Caligula who both adopt a highly moral tone, make any mention of incest. Also when Tacitus deals with Agrippina‘s incestuous designs on her son, the emperor Nero, he makes no hint of any improper relationship with her brother–although the context was certainly appropriate–and attributes her moral corruption to her association with Lepidus. The charge of incest has been traditionally levelled against despots, from antiquity to Napoleon.” (Barrett, page 85)

Tiberius was accused of being a lecherous old goat of a man, yielding to such vices as child molestation. Again, it’s mere rumour, with Suetonius giving all kinds of salacious details (Suetonius, ‘Tiberius’ 43-45). The fact is, old Tiberius lived out the remainder of his years on the isle of Capri, unmarried (Augustus forced him to divorce his beloved Vipsania to marry Julia [Baker, page 51], from whom he later separated [page 66]) and alone, brooding over his son Drusus‘ murder by two-faced Sejanus (Baker, pages 268-269), among the few people whom Tiberius had once trusted; the emperor even called Sejanus “the partner of my labours” (Tacitus, pages 157-197). He should have been in Rome, managing the affairs of state: what was the old man doing on Capri? Behaving as some lechers do with underage girls in Thailand and Cambodia today?

Was Caligula’s claim to be a god evidence of madness? A man speaking of himself in such a way today would have been such proof, but not so much a king or emperor in the ancient pagan world. It was a fairly common practice to deify ‘good’ emperors, even to have temples dedicated to them when they were alive. (See Barrett, Chapter 9, ‘Divine Honours,’ pages 140-153; in particular, “Among the Romans the distinction between man and god was not a sharp one. While this blurring is usually associated with the phenomenon of emperor worship in the Imperial age, its origins go back to the republic.”–page 140)

What of his making his horse, Incitatus, a senator? Again, a mere legend. If he did so, he may have meant it as one of his many insults to the senate, not out of a mad belief that his horse had a senator’s abilities.

And Caligula’s occasional cross-dressing? Did that indicate madness? Apart from how offensive such a judgement is today in light of the experience of the transgender community, Barrett notes, “Caligula certainly did have a predilection for dressing up, as Alexander, as a triumphator, even as a woman. To dress up as a god was a natural progression. Suetonius mentions his dressing up as gods or goddesses in the general context, not of his religious ideas, but of his exotic costumes, and Dio notes that dressing up as Jupiter was a front adopted to seduce numerous women. Such behaviour was not unique to Caligula.” (Barrett, page 146) Furthermore, Josephus claimed that Caligula’s apparent devotion to the goddess Isis involved dressing up in women’s clothing and a wig…to perform as a priest of Isis (Barrett, page 220).

Then there was Caligula’s bizarre invasion of Britain, apparently to collect seashells. Again, Barrett notes, “This episode has provided much grist for the scholarly mill. Most scholars assume that a real invasion was planned, but cancelled at the last minute. [One scholar suggested]…that the Britons united in the face of attack, while…[another scholar claimed, perhaps] the soldiers were simply afraid to undertake the crossing of the Channel, and that the emperor ordered them to pick up the shells as a form of humiliation, which, to say the least, would have been a courageous gesture on Caligula’s part.” (Barrett, page 135)

Anyway, to make a long story short (if it’s not too late), the corruption in power in ancient imperial Rome wasn’t all that much more shocking than it is today: the rich and powerful oppress and exploit the poor. As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In today’s world, that class contradiction is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppression being in the form of wage slavery. In the ancient world, class conflict was between masters and their slaves. Though the forms of class war have changed over the centuries, the basic material conditions remain the same: the land-owning rich get away with the enslavement, rape, and murder of the poor. This contradiction must be seen beyond the veil of sensationalism seen in Caligula.

The Beginning of the Movie

It’s ironic that such a sinful film should begin with a quote from The Gospel According to Mark, 8:36: “…what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

We see Caligula and Drusilla (Savoy) openly displaying their incestuous love out in the country, near a shepherd and his sheep. Apart from what I said above, about the dubiousness of the classical sources on this brother/sister relationship, given the particularly strong taboo against incest in the ancient world (consider the Oedipus story, for example), we should find it most unlikely that they would risk revealing their forbidden love to anyone they know fortuitously passing by the scene.

Mixed in with some original music composed by ‘Paul Clemente’ is an excerpt from the Adagio love theme of Spartacus and Phrygia, from Aram Khachaturian‘s Spartacus ballet. This theme is used repeatedly, at sporadic moments, throughout the film. Also featured is the “Montagues and Capulets” (or, alternatively, the “Dance of the Knights“) theme (during the credits), from Sergei Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet ballet.

In all likelihood, these famous themes (from two of the most famous of the Soviet composers, incidentally) were chosen only for the emotional force of the music, and without any thought for their programmatic content. Indeed, that programmatic content seems diametrically (or dialectically?) opposed to the content of the movie’s story. Still, I find it irresistible to find some kind of connection–however consciously unintended, however dialectically antithetical–between the music and the movie.

The Spartacus ballet is about the lawful love between its title character, the once King of Thrace, and his once queen, Phrygia, who have been conquered and enslaved by Crassus. Antithetically, there’s the taboo love between Caligula and Drusilla, he originally being a prince fearful for his life–because of Tiberius’ caprices–then ascending to absolute power. Finally, while at the end of the ballet, Spartacus dies (having tried to free the slaves) and Phrygia mourns him, Drusilla dies and Caligula mourns her (but rather than try to free the slaves, he just insults and offends the other men in power until they get sick of him and kill him).

The “Montagues and Capulets” theme is meant to dramatize the tension and hatred between the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet, as well as that hate between Caligula and the Roman senate. If, Dear Reader, you’ll indulge and forgive my deforming of the Bard’s immortal opening verses, you’ll see how one can relate the thematic content of the greatest love story with, arguably, one of the most outrageously depicted (if not simply one of the worst) love stories.

“Two classes, both alike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, here I refer to the conflict between the imperial family (i.e., the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and the senatorial class.

Another reading (and another butchering of the Bard, if again you’ll pardon me, Dear Reader) could be, “Two classes, both unlike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, I now refer to the conflict between the masters (i.e., imperial family, consuls, senate, patricians, plebs) and their slaves. This second conflict, often bobbing up to the surface from the hidden depths, is the one I urge you to pay more attention to.

Classes Unlike in Dignity

Just as I argued in my Analysis of The Omen, the violence in Caligula (as well as the sex) can be seen to symbolize the material contradictions between master and slave in the ancient world, contradictions as apparent as those between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat today. The slaves in the film, typically naked, are exploited in sexual situations, beaten, or subjected to other forms of sadism. Caligula is like Salò (in which Paolo Bonacelli also appeared) in this respect, except for the problem of the clashing visions of feuding Guccione, Vidal, and Brass, among so many other obvious issues.

Nakedness for the slaves represents their vulnerability and utter lack of possessions. I recall Act IV, Scene vii of Hamlet, when the Danish prince has returned, surprisingly, from a boat trip to England, and in a letter to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet says he’s “naked.” He doesn’t mean he isn’t wearing any clothes; he means he hurried off the boat without belongings or means, for a pirate ship has attacked his boat, and the pirates are holding him for ransom. (See Crystal and Crystal, page 292)

When Caligula arrives in Capri, we see a row of male slaves with hammers breaking rocks into smaller pieces–these men are all naked. At first glance, we’d assume that seeing all these musclemen frontally nude is just one of many examples of the film’s soft-core, indulgent titillation; but consider what I said above about naked slaves.

This observation is especially true of the naked slaves Tiberius uses as his “speaking statues,” who “do more than speak…they do.” What they “do” is engage in all the acts of debauchery that the classical sources spuriously accuse the emperor of indulging in.

Then, there are Tiberius’ “fishies,” the naked swimmers–with shaved pubes–in his large swimming pool; his “minnows,” as Suetonius claimed the emperor called them, are supposed to be the children he molested. Again, as history, there’s no reason to believe this sexual abuse was true of Tiberius in particular; but in a world where masters could do anything they wanted with their slaves–including getting sexual favours from them and getting away scot-free without even an investigation to be then acquitted of–there is merit in using the myth of Tiberius the pervert in a metaphorical sense.

Classes Alike in Dignity

As the emperor–covered in welts, sores, and scabs from all of the sexually transmitted diseases he’s said to have been covered in (another obvious symbol of his moral corruption–Howard, page 57)–talks with Caligula and corrupts his mind with a tour of his speaking, screwing statues, he warns the prince of the wickedness of the senate. Recall the many treason trials in which Tiberius had men executed on trumped-up charges from Sejanus; this is where the emperor got his cynicism about Roman politics.

Of course, slaves weren’t the only sufferers of the whims of those at the top. Wrongly-convicted senators suffered, as did soldiers (in the film, consider loyal Proculus, or the misfortunes of Roman virtue; also consider the guard Tiberius kills for being suspected of drinking wine while on duty).

Finally, even the men at the top suffer. In the movie, Macro strangles Tiberius in his bed (other versions have the emperor smothered with a pillow by Macro [<<<John Rhys-Davies] or Caligula [<<<John McEnery…at 36:00). Caligula was assassinated in a conspiracy led by Cassius Chaerea (Bonacelli), Claudius was fed poisoned mushrooms by Agrippina, and Nero committed suicide when he fell from power.

The fall from power of those at the top reminds us of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic. Caligula, with Macro’s help, rose against his master to become the new master, as Spartacus attempted to do. Caligula’s constant provocations of the senate and army represent the power struggle between them and his family, ultimately leading them to kill him, as Spartacus was killed.

My point is that, in spite of the emperor’s ‘absolute’ power, there’s always a dialectical tension between the ruler and the ruled, the latter struggling to be free of the former, and the former struggling to be free of the danger of assassination. Hence, once Caligula becomes emperor, he must be rid of Macro, then Gemellus…even if they don’t actually pose a threat to him, for always is the emperor paranoid.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. —King Henry IV

(Incidentally, the film’s depiction of Macro decapitated by a kind of giant lawnmower, so to speak, is more fake history: Macro, having been falsely promised the governorship of Egypt, committed suicide after falling out of favour with Caligula. See Graves, page 341.)

Drusilla’s Death, Caligula’s Despair

With Drusilla’s death ends Caligula’s own will to live, so everything he does after his mourning of her is to provoke the wrath of the senate, the army, and the Praetorian Guard in so blatant a way that it must be the expression of a death wish comparable to that of CamusCaligula (“Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.“–Men die and they aren’t happy. [Act I, Scene iv]). His wife, Caesonia (Mirren), warns him not to provoke those powerful men, but her words fall on deaf ears…or rather urge him further.

Devastated by his loss, he disappears from the sight of the Roman nobility, as does the Caligula of Camus’ play (Act I, Scenes i-ii). He wanders among the common people in a blue robe, looking as if he were one of them.

He watches a group of actors putting on a show, standing on a triangle representing the social classes of Rome: the slaves, the people, the army, tribunes, senate, and emperor. None of this display offends Caligula, because he of course benefits from the hierarchy; but when an actress portraying Drusilla mockingly sings of her wish to make love with Caligula, the grieving emperor is infuriated. He shoves the actors off the triangle, making them fall to the ground.

His mingling with the poor, including sharing a jail cell with them (where he meets the ‘giant’ [Osiride Pevarello]), suggests his sympathy for them, but it shouldn’t. As emperor, Caligula only feels antipathy for the other powerful men of Rome, as Tiberius did. Beware of politicians who, however hated they may be by the establishment, only pretend to care for the people.

Fatal Provocations

When Caligula returns and appears before the senate, he begins his fatal string of provocations by declaring himself to be a living god and requiring the unanimous support of the senate, annoying Longinus (Steiner) and Chaerea. His next insult is to make cuckolds of the senators by making whores of their wives.

The soundtrack of the Imperial Bordello, again with naked slaves dancing about, includes an amusingly ironic use of an excerpt from, of all pieces, Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet! At the moment in the music when the clock strikes midnight, and Cinderella must go home, in the movie we approach the money shot!

I can’t help thinking this choice of music was a private joke of the film’s producers. Hearing music programmatically representing the ending of the traditional girl’s fantasy is juxtaposed with seeing the ending of the prurient man’s fantasy: one of the many ways the ruling class divides us is to promote male and female fantasies that are diametrically opposed to each other.

And just as the slaves and senators’ wives are degraded, so were the Penthouse Pets in the pornographic scenes in the movie. Consider the sad fate of “Anneka Di Lorenzo” (playing Messalina) to see my point. Consider also how Proculus (and the actor who plays him) is degraded: cuckolded before his eyes, then fisted, on his wedding day (in Howard’s novelization, Caligula sodomizes Proculus [pages 154-155]); stripped frontally naked before laughing Messalina and Agrippina (Lori Wagner), then stabbed to death slowly and sadistically; then after he passes out, he’s pissed on and emasculated.

Caligula’s provocations continue with the ‘invasion’ of Britain; he has his soldiers run naked (i.e., he degrades them to slave-like status) into some water and make war…with papyrus. Later, at a banquet, he displays the spoils of his ‘conquest’ of Britain: oysters and pearls placed in naked slave-women’s genitalia are presented by slave men carrying the women.

Caesonia warns Caligula that the “important men” of Rome now hate him; he replies, “Let them hate me–so long as they fear me.” In a provocation comparable to that of Camus‘ Caligula, he confiscates “the entire estates of all those who have failed Rome.”

He then discusses, with Longinus and Chaerea, a conspiracy against him that he’s heard of; he and Caesonia laugh when he brings it up. Caligula finds the notion of a plot against his life amusing because he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. Life is painful, absurd, and meaningless, because happiness–even as lord of the whole world–is impossible to attain. Camus’ Caligula is cruel to everyone for the same reason: even emperors are Spartacus-slaves in life, liberated only by death.

Caesonia still fears for him, and when she sees a bird flying about their bed one night, she screams at the omen–while Caligula looks at it and gives a slight smirk. He’s glad his death is coming soon, for he can then join Drusilla in Tartarus…a happy hell for them, since at least they’ll be able to suffer together.

Finally, Chaerea assassinates the emperor, who defiantly says, “I…live” as Chaerea’s sword cuts into him. He falls down dead, as do Caesonia and their daughter when the latter has her brains dashed on the steps. In death, Caligula is finally happy, as were Cleobis and Biton (Herodotus’ Histories, 1.31), and as Tiberius claimed was the soldier he killed for drinking wine while on duty.

The idea that Longinus and Chaerea choose Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi) to be the next emperor is more fake history, for it was the Praetorian Guard who chose to make him Caesar (as the last man living in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Claudius as emperor was the only way to avert civil war). Claudius would have Chaerea executed for the killing of not only Caligula, but also Caesonia and the child.

In any case, we see–in replacing Caligula with Claudius–the unchanging reality of the contradiction of master vs. slave. Even if Tiberius and Caligula weren’t the depraved madmen/perverts that Suetonius claims they were, they were still masters oppressing their slaves, as ‘virtuous’ Claudius would also be: this latter evil is the one we should be paying attention to…but we don’t.

Conclusion

My original curiosity in this film (as I suspect is the case with many, if not most, other viewers) came in spite of–or rather, because of–its bad reputation. I had a morbid fascination with the thought…just how bad is this movie? How outrageous is it? How shocking? How disturbing? How revulsive? I sure learned how much. (Furthermore, I’d be dishonest if I were to claim that I had no interest in the sexual content in the movie, having written much erotic fiction myself.)

Having already been familiar with other dramatizations of imperial Rome under the Julio-Claudians (the I, Claudius and A.D.–Anno Domini TV miniseries), as well as writings on that period of history (Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and Robert Graves’s Claudius novels), I assumed the depravity of the emperors was true. Then, after reading such writers as G.P. Baker and Anthony A. Barrett, I learned otherwise.

Therefore, I have concluded that if we’re to take a serious look at the wickedness of imperial Rome (and, by extension, of the ancient world in general), the best way to look at it is in the class antagonisms of the time…just as we should focus on the class antagonisms of today. The masters’ brutal exploitation of their slaves is what should be focused on, not dubious reports of sexual perversity or madness in individual emperors.

However virtuous Augustus, Claudius, or Marcus Aurelius may have been in the eyes of their fellow nobiles, and however vile Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Nero, or Domitian may have been in the ruling class’s opinion, what the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors had in common is far more important than what was different between the two groups.

History would have been kinder to Tiberius–who had been an excellent general, and never wanted to be emperor–had he died around AD 23, for that was before the treason trials. Caligula, far from being the ‘anarchist’ that McDowell portrayed him as, actually strengthened and enlarged the personal power of the emperor, as opposed to the power of such men as those of the senate, directing much attention to construction projects and beginning the building of two aqueducts in Rome.

What must be emphasized is that the ‘bad’ emperors were vilified for injuries to the senate and other powerful men in Rome; both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ emperors kept the practice of slavery going unabated, with at best, only minor reforms to address the issue of the slaves’ oppression. We must learn to ignore the sensationalist narratives, the fake history, and focus on the banal evil that really happened, just as we should turn our heads away from the sensationalist fake news of today (i.e., what naughty things did Trump say last week?) and focus on the real wickedness committed all the time, year after year, regardless of who’s the leader or which political party is in power…a harsh reality that is largely ignored by the mainstream media.

We rightly condemn the Nazis for the roughly 11,000,000 people they murdered, but wrongly forget King Leopold II of Belgium, whose regime was responsible for the killing of up to ten or fifteen million black Congolese. We remember the former killers, because their victims were white; we forget the latter killers, because their victims were black. Similarly, we remember the wickedness of Tiberius and Caligula because their victims were fellow members of the upper classes; we forget the wickedness of all emperors and the other upper classes because their victims were slaves.

The sensationalism of Caligula is tasteless in the extreme, but in a way, appropriately so; for it reminds us of how unhelpful sensationalism and fake news are in understanding the true, everyday, unchanging reality of oppression in the world.

William Howard, “Gore Vidal’s Caligula”, Warner Books, New York, 1979

Robert Graves, I, Claudius, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1934

Albert Camus, Caligula, suivi de Le malentendu, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1958

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Classics, London, this translation 1956

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics, London, translation first published 1957

G.P. Baker, Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, Cooper Square Press, New York, 1929

Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, London, 1989

Analysis of ‘Apocalypse Now’

Apocalypse Now is a Vietnam war film co-written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979. It stars Marlon BrandoRobert DuvallMartin SheenFrederic ForrestAlbert HallSam BottomsLaurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper. It is an adaptation/updating of Joseph Conrad‘s novella, Heart of Darkness, which was about the ivory trade in the Congo Free State back in the late 19th century.

Both the novella and film involve a man named Kurtz (Brando), who has carried the exploitation and oppression of the indigenous peoples to a bloody, mad extreme; both stories also have in common the theme of the evils of imperialism.

Apocalypse Now had a mixed reception at the time of its release; now it is considered one of the greatest films of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

Colonel G. Lucas (Harrison Ford): Your mission is to proceed up the Nùng River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Kurtz’s path at Nu Mung Ba, follow it, and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.

Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen): Terminate the Colonel?

General Corman (G.D. Spradlin): He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.

JerryTerminate with extreme prejudice.

Lucas: You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.

*******

“Charlie don’t surf!” –Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore (Robert Duvall)

“You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like . . . victory. Someday this war’s gonna end.” –Kilgore (bolded line is ranked #12 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema)

*******

Captain Benjamin L. Willard: Could we, uh, talk to Colonel Kurtz?

Photojournalist (Dennis Hopper): Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet-warrior in the classic sense. I mean, sometimes he’ll, uh, well, you’ll say hello to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you, and he won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say “Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you’…” I mean, I’m no, I can’t – I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s, he’s a great man. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas” … (Note: The last sentences here reference first Rudyard Kipling‘s poem If— and then T.S. Eliot‘s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.)

*******

Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?

Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.

Kurtz: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?

Willard: I’m a soldier.

Kurtz: You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.

*******

“This is dialectics. It’s very simple dialectics: one through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without like, you know, with fractions! What are you going to land on: one quarter, three eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics, okay?” –Photojournalist

“I’ve seen horrors, horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that, but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror! Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.” –Kurtz

“We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!” –Kurtz

“The horror! The horror!” [These are Kurtz’s last words, and parallel those of the novella’s Mr. Kurtz character.]

What’s interesting in this story is how it’s the US army that want Captain Willard to find and kill Colonel Kurtz, calling his “methods…unsound.” Certainly, Kurtz’s setting up of a kind of Cambodian pagan death cult, worshipping him as if he were a demigod, is shocking. But were the methods of the US army, in the execution of its military campaign against the Viet Cong, in any way sound?

Throughout the movie, we see the Americans impinging on the lives of the Vietnamese in ways that regularly use needless violence, needless even by the standards of war. Aptly named Kilgore does an airstrike on “Charlie,” including using napalm on tree-lines near a lake, just so a surfer he admires (Lance B. Johnson [Sam Bottoms]) can surf there! As the attack is carried out, racist Kilgore plays Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ over the helicopter loudspeakers because it “scares the hell out of the slopes”…and recall which political ideologues had a fondness for Wagner.

As Willard says in a voice-over, “If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for everyone.”

American propaganda portrays the Vietnam War–one in which the US’s aggravated involvement was based on the Gulf of Tonkin lie–as a fight for freedom against the spread of the ‘tyranny’ of communism. Actually, Ho Chi Minh was leading his people in an effort to free themselves of the spread of the tyranny of Western imperialism and French colonialism.

So, seen in this proper historical context, the US never intended to liberate Vietnam: the war was an invasion. Vietnamese got murdered and maimed merely for defending themselves. Consider such atrocities as the My Lai Massacre (by no means an anomaly during the war) and when little Phan Thi Kim Phuc was forced to run naked in terror after a napalm attack set her clothes on fire and burned her back.

What Kurtz is doing is an extremity of what the US army had been doing the whole time…had done in the bombing and nuking of Japan…had done when they bombed North Korea…and would do (with NATO’s help) to Yugoslavia and Libya, would do to Iraq, and would have proxy armies, in the form of “moderate rebels,” do to Syria.

Still, Kurtz is portrayed as an anomaly in US imperialism…as Trump is portrayed today in the media, rather than just an extreme manifestation of what is otherwise usual in imperialism. The US army will have Willard “terminate [Kurtz] with extreme prejudice,” but they “terminate [‘gooks’ and ‘dinks’] with extreme prejudice” (literally) throughout the movie…as they did throughout the Vietnam War, and have in every war since.

As Willard says in the narration: “How many people had I already killed? There were those six that I knew about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time, it was an American and an officer. That wasn’t supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. Shit… charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?”

On the boat of Quartermaster George “Chief” Phillips (Albert Hall), for example, Willard and the crew meet a group of Vietnamese in a boat loaded with food. Paranoid that there could be hidden weapons on the Vietnamese boat, Chief has Engineman 3rd Class Jay “Chef” Hicks (Forrest) search the boat, then–when tempers flare–the troops shoot the innocent Vietnamese. Willard himself shoots a wounded Vietnamese woman to make sure she’s dead. He has no time to take her to get medical care: he has to find Kurtz.

As we can see, Willard himself can be needlessly violent. The beginning of the film demonstrates his pathological tendencies (as it demonstrates those of the US army and its napalming of a Vietnamese forest). The captain is in a hotel room in Saigon, musing over his obsession with returning to the jungles of Nam once he finished a previous tour of duty, went home, and ignored his wife to the point of divorcing her.

As he says in voice-over, “Saigon… shit; I’m still only in Saigon… Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour, it was worse.”[grabs at flying insect] “I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now… waiting for a mission… getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.”

Having gotten drunk in that room in Saigon, he puts his fist into a mirror, bloodying his hand. Punching his reflection: he must already have terrible guilt over what he did during that previous tour. And now, for his sins, they give him a mission: to kill a US officer possibly not all that much crazier than himself. That’s the point of Apocalypse Now–every soldier’s a Kurtz, in his own way.

Remember crazy Kilgore, who seems to think he’s Achilles, or something; for he barely stirs whenever Vietnamese ordnance fires upon the ground, mere metres from his feet. Indeed, it seems he’ll leave Vietnam without as much as a scratch. He thinks an area “hairy” with “Charlie” is “safe to surf.”

“Safe to surf”: that could sum up what imperialism is all about. The US army bombs, maims, and napalms the Vietnamese and their land so American troops can enjoy such frivolous pastimes as surfing and USO shows with Playboy Bunnies. The locals can only watch the show from behind a fence.

Willard says in voice-over, “Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.”

(Walter Sobchak, who personifies neo-con imperialism in The Big Lebowski, says, “I got buddies who died face-down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!” Shut the fuck up, Walter: millions of Vietnamese were maimed, or died face-down in the muck, so imperialism could enjoy exercising its dominance ever since.)

Elsewhere, as the river patrol boat is motoring on the water, Mr. Clean (Fishburne) is dancing to the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and as the boat races by some Vietnamese on the bank, it splashes water on them. Two Vietnamese men get knocked into the water. This scene, along with that of the USO show, illustrate symbolically how Western imperialism forces itself on the world through its all-too-often vulgar pop culture.

Later, the boat reaches the Do Lung Bridge (on the Nùng River, which doesn’t exist–I see a pun on ‘dung’ in the river’s name as well as that of the bridge) at night, and a soldier delivering mail tells Willard, “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain.” They’re entering Cambodia, where Kurtz and his pagan death cult are…deeper into the rectum, which reeks of fetid death, where Mr. Clean and the Chief die. Where Chef will be decapitated by Kurtz. Now, they’re really in the shit.

Finally, Willard, Chef, and Lance find Kurtz and his cult. It’s a horrifying sight, with decapitated heads, and dead men hanging from trees. They’re met by a photojournalist (Hopper), who maniacally praises Kurtz with frenzied verbiage.

This photojournalist, along with a man seen earlier (played by Coppola himself) filming a battle and wanting the troops to keep from looking at the camera (i.e., spoiling the illusion), represent the kind of dishonest media we see far too often, especially these days, people who gloss over and ignore the horrors of war while celebrating the excitement and ‘glory’ of imperial conquest.

Even though the photojournalist (who parallels the Russian in Conrad’s story; both men say that the Kurtz has “enlarged [their] mind” [Conrad, p. 146]) recognizes how crazy Kurtz can be, he downplays the colonel’s extreme moments, while extolling his talents as a poet, etc. How like the mainstream media’s whitewashing of all these wars of the past few decades.

A soldier named Colby (Scott Glenn), who’d been sent earlier to find Kurtz, is now practically catatonic. How symbolic of what happens to soldiers: they’re trained to hate and kill the enemy, and they lose their souls. Like the media, they, and the civilians who worship them, tend to be silent about military excesses.

When Willard meets Kurtz, who is fittingly shrouded in darkness at first, the colonel speaks to the captain as if he were a perfectly reasonable man, all calm and in control. We learn of Kurtz’s cynicism about the US military when he calls Willard “an errand boy.”

Later, we hear Kurtz begin to recite T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” a poem about the emptiness and meaninglessness in people’s hearts. This is most easily seen in the soullessness of the soldiers. The poem was also influenced by Heart of Darkness. The photojournalist makes a reference to the end of the poem when he says, “This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man! Not with a bang, but with a whimper. And with a whimper, I’m fucking splitting, Jack.”

After Willard is tied up by Kurtz’s “children,” we get a taste of Kurtz’s madness when he drops Chef’s head in Willard’s lap. Later, Kurtz describes his admiration of the willpower of those who remorselessly hacked off the arms of south Vietnamese children inoculated against polio. Kurtz contemplates “the genius” of such an unwavering will: if only he had such men, he could win the war quickly.

Finally, Willard–camouflaged as Kurtz was when he beheaded Chef–makes his way with a machete in the darkness to Kurtz. As he prepares for the assassination, a group of Cambodian Montagnards gets ready to sacrifice a water buffalo. We see the Montagnards dancing in their ritual, and their hacking into the animal is juxtaposed with the killing of Kurtz.

What is being implied by this juxtaposition is that the killing of Kurtz is a rite of human sacrifice: Kurtz is the old god-king being killed and replaced by a new god-king–Willard, or so the locals imagine him to be when he emerges, holding the machete and a book of Kurtz’s writings (a holy book, as it were?), before the bowing Cambodians.

Willard won’t be their new god, though. He takes Lance with him back to the boat, and they leave his would-be worshippers. In Heart of Darkness, though, there are suggestions that Marlow, on whom Willard was based, has an almost god-like nature. He is said to sit in a Buddha posture when telling his story (Conrad, pages 69 and 184); and when Mr. Kurtz (who did “live his life…in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender”) dies, saying, “The horror! The horror!”, Marlow blows out a candle (Conrad, page 171), suggesting the etymology of nirvana, the blowing out of a flame–that of desire and suffering, of which the Buddha would have us all free ourselves.

Just as the suffering of the Vietnamese is vividly shown in Apocalypse Now (along with the racial slurs used against them), so is the racism against, and suffering of, the blacks in the Congo (often called “niggers”) graphically expressed in Heart of Darkness. African railroad labourers are horrifically depicted as diseased and starving (Conrad, pages 85-86). It was Belgian imperialism that caused the suffering of the Congolese during the years of the Scramble for Africa, under the cruel reign of Leopold II, responsible for the deaths of as many as fifteen million people.

Lenin noted that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, or its final stage in the pursuit of greater profits. Since the beginnings of capitalist imperialism in such examples as the Belgian oppression of the Congo (using forced labour to collect rubber), and then the imperialist atrocities in Vietnam, we’ve seen imperialism metastasize to its current Kurtz-like form, in which it’s hard to see the human race surviving for much longer, what with the combination of all the current wars as well as the ecocide we’re rushing headlong into.

“This is the end,” Jim Morrison sings at the beginning and the end of the film. The apocalypse is indeed now…or so it seems, at least. [Footage of an airstrike destroying Kurtz’s compound was shot (with full credits shown), but Coppola didn’t want it to be considered part of the story. Handouts of the credits were given to theatre-goers; this is why we never see any credits in the movie, at the beginning or at the end, for Coppola wanted us to “tour” the film as if it were a play.]

“The horror…the horror…” of the story (Conrad’s or Coppola’s) is that the worship of remorseless capitalists and military men will continue after psychopaths like the Kurtzes are killed. Death and destruction will continue in the Middle East, to the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Yemenis, and far too many others; while we in the West worship celebrities and ignore what’s going on in the Third World. We worshippers won’t die in explosions of airstrikes, we’ll slowly fade to black, as the film does, in our state of apathy.

And that’s why this is the way the movie ends–not with a bang, but a whimper.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, Pocket Books Enriched Classics, New York, 2004

The Ouroboros of Neoliberalism

Introduction

The years between the end of World War II and the economic crises of the 1970s were, needless to say, far from ideal. The catastrophic creation of the state of Palestinian oppression and suffering (opposed by many Jews [including leftist Israelis], and supported by many non-Jews), aided in part by an otherwise normally anti-Zionist USSR that–as soon as they realized Israel wasn’t going to be socialist–quickly repented and showed firm solidarity with the Arab people, is one example of the bad things that happened then. There are, of course, many others.

Consider the many CIA-aided coups of left-leaning governments over the years, including those of Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. Consider the merciless bombing of North Korea in the early Fifties; the constant fear of nuclear war; the Gulf of Tonkin lie that gave the US the excuse needed to engage more directly in the Vietnam War; the killing of 500,000-1,000,000+ Indonesians in an anti-communist purge to replace Sukarno with Suharto; and Kissinger’s idea for the bombing of Cambodia. These are but a few examples of all the evil that occurred from 1945-1973.

Still, in spite of these many problems, it can be reasonably argued that there was much reason for hope back then, hope that the world would one day be liberated from the oppression of capitalism and imperialism. The Soviet Union, though flawed in general and weakened by Khrushchev, continued to be an effective counterweight to imperialism, giving aid to national liberation movements in the Third World. The Cuban Revolution, handcuffed as the island was and has been by the US embargo, transformed a Third World dictatorship of the bourgeoisie into one of the proletariat, providing near-universal housing and generally among the lowest of unemployment rates, with free education, and the best healthcare system in the developing world.

Even in the capitalist West, left-leaning concessions were made, providing stronger unions, better wages, and higher taxes for the rich. This was done merely to appease the working class and to stave off communist revolutions in the First World, of course, but for what it was worth, it was a damn sight better than the neoliberal cesspool we’re stuck in today, ruled by narcissists and psychopaths.

Nothing ever stays in the same state. All things flow, like the waves of the ocean. Those relatively good times shifted counter-clockwise–that is, we’ve been going backwards on the counterrevolutionary clock I call the ouroboros of capital (pardon the mixed metaphor), starting in the mid-70s and continuing to the present day.

The Myth of the ‘Free Market’

Right-libertarian ideologues like to claim that unregulated capitalism, by freeing business owners of taxation, allows them to reinvest, create jobs, and grow the economy. The state, they claim, is like a ball and chain, stifling economic development with its taxes and pesky regulations.

If this is true, though, then how did China (a political system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, or one of state capitalism, a kind of arrested NEP development?) grow into one of the strongest economies in the world, with its state-planned economy? Similarly, the countries in Europe, including those of the Nordic Model, largely with social democratic market economies, showed larger growth in 2007 than did the more free-market-oriented US during that time (see Chang, pages 104-105).

Of course, the free market fundamentalists like to guffaw at the labelling of the US as capitalistic in any sense, especially “free market” capitalist, since the mere existence of a government, with its taxes and regulations, apparently precludes any possibility of there being an American free market. Supposedly, Democrats like the “socialist” Obama had something to do with this putting of capitalism into a “communist” straitjacket.

Actually, there is no one objective definition of the “free market,” Ha-Joon Chang observed. One cannot have capitalism without a centralized state to protect private property, and what does a government do, if it doesn’t make regulations and collect tax revenue to function as it needs to do?

The market fundamentalists’ notion of “free market” capitalism, as opposed to a state-planned economy, is more of an idealized abstraction than an actually existing thing. It sounds good on paper, but when it’s actually implemented, something quite different happens…

Generally, right-libertarians–as opposed to the “anarcho”-capitalists, whose brains are in outer space–acknowledge the need for at least some state involvement, to the extent that it protects private property, but they’ll allow for no more than that. If, as Chang noted, there’s no standard definition of the “free market,” then where do we draw the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ levels of state impingement in the market? Here we have the continuum fallacy.

Speaking of continua, I have a way of representing how the dialectical relationship between the “free market” and a state-planned economy can be understood. As I’ve written elsewhere, the ouroboros can symbolize a continuum coiled into a circle, with the serpent’s biting head (e.g., the “free market”) as one opposite meeting and phasing into the other opposite (e.g., state planning), the serpent’s bitten tail.

Going Counter-Clockwise Along the Ouroboros

What right-libertarians fail to understand is that capitalism is a process, a growing, developing, evolving entity, not some fixed, static, unmoving thing. As David Harvey observed:

‘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

For the past 100-130 years, capitalism has been in its highest stage, imperialism. It’s no longer just an industrial phenomenon, with Mom-and-Pop stores ‘innocently’ selling things to people. It’s called capitalism because it involves the accumulation of capital, which leads to centralization.

Industrial cartels merged with banks, resulting in finance capital and monopolistic businesses’ and the great powers’ division of the booty of the developing world. When markets dried up locally, capitalists had to go abroad to expand their businesses as a way to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF).

Capitalism is competition, but it needn’t (and generally mustn’t) be a fair fight. Capitalists’ greatest enemies aren’t necessarily socialists, but they are very often other capitalists. “One capitalist always strikes down many others” (Marx, page 929), so please, right-libertarians, stop all this blather about the “free market” bringing about a “level playing field.”

Back during the years of the Scramble for Africa and afterwards, the monopolistic companies found themselves competing for the largest slices of the market in the conquered countries of the world–hence the capitalist form of imperialism. This is why World War I happened, as Lenin observed. It’s also why the US and Europe have been competing against Syria, Russia, and Iran over who will profit over a gas pipeline to be built through Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Right-libertarians claim that these wars are the fault of the state, rather than capitalism’s use of the state. They are deluding themselves with their masturbatory invisible hands.

In the 1980s, Reagan spoke of “smaller government,” as did the Koch brothers (who still do, of course!). What they’ve actually wanted is more government in the service of the bourgeoisie, and less government for the people. They’ve gotten what they wanted.

Reagan busted unions, deregulated, and lowered taxes for the rich (as did Thatcher). His administration also expanded the state (i.e., the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned not to allow to grow) with the arms race and the capitalist class’s efforts to win the Cold War. The biting head of the “free market” led to the bitten tail of a stronger imperialist, bourgeois state.

George HW Bush wanted to sign NAFTA into law, but couldn’t, because of liberal misgivings about it. It took charming Bill Clinton to negotiate and persuade liberals into allowing NAFTA to be signed. The biting head of conservatism was too much for ‘left-leaning’ people of the time to accept (though ‘left-leaning’ people today would allow neocon and neoliberal legislation with barely a peep of protest, because opposing Trump is the only thing that matters to them), but a counter-clockwise revolution along the serpent’s body, from the liberal tail to the conservative head, was permissible.

Conservatives learned (but never publicly acknowledged, of course) that the Clintons, right-wing wolves in ‘left-leaning’ sheep’s clothing, were their best friends when they helped ruin Russia (by shoving capitalism down her throat), kill Welfare, and, by deregulating the converging broadcasting and telecommunications markets, allow mergers and acquisitions in the media. All “free market” stuff, courtesy of the state. More counter-clockwise counterrevolution along the body of the ouroboros.

Replacing socialist Yugoslavia with the “free market,” and done in the bloodiest way (the biting head of capitalism), led to the creation of a huge NATO base in Kosovo (the bitten tail of an expanded, imperialist state).

In today’s imperialist world, the power of the state is not a simple matter of each country being run by its own government. Transnationalism has led to multinational think tank organizations (such as the Atlantic Council, a NATO adjunct that just made a sweet deal with Facebook to monitor “disinformation campaigns” [translation: censor social media], the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO), as well as capitalist globalization, which means multinational corporations can take advantage of deregulation and free trade to have cheap labour make their products abroad.

To prevent proletarian defiance of this unaccountable corporate tyranny, military bases get set up in the exploited, poorer countries, as has recently been done in Argentina by the US. The biting serpent’s head of the globalizing free market leads to the bitten tail of ever greater state intervention, in the form of foreign armies.

The US government never blushes about building up a huge deficit with its unbridled military spending, yet also giving tax cuts to the rich, thus depriving themselves of the kind of funding that could pay off that deficit. Meanwhile, Flint, Michigan has been without clean water for ages, yet the US military, which is like a huge employment agency for people who can’t find work elsewhere, get to play with the highest-tech toys.

Consider how George W. Bush et al started the “War on Terror” to justify the plunder of Iraq for oil and Afghanistan for such things as heroin, while cutting taxes for the rich and establishing TARP; Obama continued and expanded these depredations and socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor, as has Trump. The free market and an expanded state go hand in hand.

The Freer the Markets, the Greater the Cronyism

The main thing refuting the right-libertarian notion of a dichotomy between the “free market” and “corporatism” is how lowering taxes for the rich and deregulating to allow more corporate profits actually results in the very cronyism that the “free market” is supposed to free us of.

Lowering taxes and deregulating to allow higher profits, to allow the rich to get richer, do not result in huge waves of job creation or economic growth. First of all, many jobs are outsourced to Third World countries (the Trump administration has not reversed this problem for American workers, nor does Trump hire only Americans; Ivanka’s clothes, incidentally, are also made in sweatshops in such countries as Indonesia and China), for the sake of getting cheap labour. Second, a huge portion of that extra money is put into offshore bank accounts, as the scandals of the Panama and Paradise Papers have shown. Third, and most importantly, much of that extra wealth is used to buy politicians.

As I stated above, capitalists are often the worst enemies of other capitalists; the big ones strike down the smaller ones. The state is a big help in doing this striking down, and allowing the big capitalists to get bigger, through tax cuts and deregulation, is another such great help.

Why would a big capitalist’s “rational self-interest” go along with a “level playing field” if he has the money to buy favours from the government in order to enjoy an unfair advantage over small capitalists? When capitalists lose in competition, they don’t just shrug their shoulders, chuckle, and say, “Oh, well, that’s the way the ball bounces in the good ol’ free market.” They cannot allow themselves to lose, and they’ll use every dirty trick they can to ensure they win, including getting government favouritism.

All these recent presidents–from Reagan to the Bushes, and the Clinton and Obama “New Democrats,” rivals of the right–have demonstrated how “free market” deregulation and tax cuts allowed the rich to be rich enough to buy, essentially, the entire US government, both political parties, and ensure that the military-industrial complex works only for them. American politicians hunt for funding in the millions to get Super PACs: we all know which classes they’re approaching, and which classes they’re ignoring, because only the rich can provide such gargantuan funding.

This bias in favour of the rich has always been a problem, of course, but it has gotten progressively worse over the past thirty to forty years, all thanks to the Reagan counterrevolution. The “free market” biting head leads to the bitten tail of more cronyism, which on the one hand wants regulations to benefit the rich in one set of ways, then more deregulation and tax cuts to benefit them in other ways. This means a counter-clockwise move along the ouroboros’s body back up to its head, then past the head to the tail in a repeat of the cycle…a downward cycle.

While these counter-clockwise cycles are happening again and again, the right-wing propagandists at the Cato Institute, the Mises Institute, etc., are shouting that the problem is the state, and that its dissolving, or at least its minimization, will free up the “free market,” and all will be well. Actually, all they’re promoting is an acceleration of the downward neoliberal spiral described in the preceding paragraph.

The propaganda has confused the problem. Instead of acknowledging two kinds of government, a bourgeois state and a workers’ state, the two are conflated into one. According to right-libertarian ideology, all states–fascist, social democratic, centrist mixed economies, bourgeois liberal, and of course communist–are the same, or at least variations on the same tyrannical, totalitarian model. Anti-Stalin propagandists like Orwell and Djilas have been helpful to the right, whether they’d intended to or not.

Conclusion

The right-libertarians have an absolutist, black-and-white kind of thinking because they don’t understand dialectics, how a unity of opposites shows that contradictions can be resolved and sublated to form higher levels of truth. In fact, irony of ironies, the very withering away of the state that the right-libertarians crave so much (or merely claim to crave) can be achieved only through communism. Here’s the formula, for the sake of simplification: thesis–bourgeois state, deregulated; negation–proletarian state, regulated; sublation–no class differences, no need for regulation, because the state, being no longer necessary to suppress one class for the sake of the other, has died out by itself.

Going from the thesis–as painfully apparent as it is in today’s world–to its negation, a situation comparable to the 1945-1973 period described above in the introduction, will require a ruthlessness that would make Stalin seem a softie in comparison. For recall all the horrors I described at the beginning of this essay; defence against such imperialist horrors will require a powerful workers’ state. Gorbachev’s weakening of that state lead to Yeltsin’s faux democracy, and an unleashing of the neoliberal agenda, a letting slip of the capitalist dogs of war.

I say, no war but the class war…and we socialists must fight it to end it, because the capitalist class intends to fight unendingly…