House of Cards and the dark underside of liberal democracy

Political dramas have never been quite my thing. The image I’ve had of them is about a bunch of grey bureaucrats having petty fights over office positions. Yet I did check out House of Cards for the good reviews it has gotten. Plus, I was interested in the supposedly cynical and realistic depiction of White House politics that the show seemed to offer. After two seasons my feelings are mixed: As the upside-down American flag in the show’s logo implies, HoC presents itself as a critical unraveling of what we liked to call “democracy”, putting shamelessly on display all the corruption and manipulative maneuvers politicians engage in. But, on the other hand, the show does not seem to be aware of its own ideological underpinnings and – paradoxically, perhaps – does not go deep enough in its critique of ideology.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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Frank Underwood in the series poster – appropriately with blood on his hands

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For those of you not familiar with the series, the story is about a Democrat congressman Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) who, after being denied the position of the Secretary of State, decides to go solo and starts acting on his plan to climb the ladder of power. He is supported by his wife Claire who is running a charity organization. As the story goes on, Frank gets ever more ruthless and pragmatic, ready to lie and to manipulate, to blackmail and even to kill journalists to cover his tracks. If Frank ever had any ideological commitments, it is clear that he’s lost them all, as he’s ready to sign any piece of legislature if it serves the purpose of advancing his career.

I won’t go into any further detail about the plot (see it for yourself!). From this rather short introduction it should be quite clear what “politics as usual” looks like for the creators of the show: the Congress consists of a group of self-interested and power-hungry representatives, ready to engage in tactical maneuvers to act on their motives and to sell themselves to lobbyists if the situation calls for it. It is a very cynical universe. If the ideology of democracy calls for politicians to represent and act on the will of the electorate, it is clear that this is not the vision House of Cards subscribes to.

The show seemingly has a very anti-ideological edge. As Randy Shaw explains in his piece on Huffington Post:

House of Cards portrays a political world where nobody (except perhaps the Tea Party) is driven by actual beliefs. That’s why its characters betray unions after winning their votes, environmental groups are shown making deals with corporate polluters, and reporters who actually believe in searching for “truth” are portrayed as hopeless knaves.

The White House is all about realpolitik. The only person in the series who makes an attempt to stand for the promises made to the electorate, Peter Russo, faces a gruesome end as Frank kills him and stages it as a suicide. His fate was essentially the same as that of naive and optimistic Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot”. It is not ideology, which is the driving force behind politics. Only the most ruthless ones succeed in the game of power.

This cynical universe is what Margaret Canovan – modifying terms adopted from Oakeshott – calls the “pragmatic” aspect of democracy. According to this view, democracy is about an institutional framework, within which groups and individuals act according to their particular interests, form coalitions and try to build consensus via discussions and compromises. What this institutional framework does is to provide a space for peaceful reconciliation of conflictual interests in an era of mass communication and mass mobilization. Although Frank Underwood might be a ruthless egotist, his actions do not take place in an institutional vacuum. He might try to circumvent the rules but they are, nonetheless, there, and they limit what he can do. Sometimes he even takes advantage of the rules, as seen, for example, in the scene where he – in the position of the President of the Senate – delivers a motion called “call of the house” to compel absent Republican senators to be present at the Senate Chamber so that a quorum would be present.

Opposing the pragmatic aspect, we also have what Canovan calls the “redemptive” aspect of democracy. The redemptive side is all about the People (with a capital P). According to this view, democracy is simply another name for executing the Will of the People, and in this way it is able to bring salvation through politics. The redemptive aspect has an anti-representational side to it: democracy should be about people taking charge of their own lives directly and not being controlled by a bunch of bureaucrats, who conduct discussions in secret and engage in corruption. In fact – since it is the very ideology of democracy – this redemptive vision is what we hear all the time whenever we hear politicians and intellectuals praising democracy in public speeches. It is also what politicians rely on when they try to appeal to voters (“Vote for us, for we will make sure your voice is heard!”). House of Cards mocks this view of politics. We are all the time shown how the public appearance of politicians, their appeals to the electorate, contradicts their actual practices (secret to the public, of course). Frank Underwood is definitely not a singular exception but merely the pinnacle of this rule.

Canovan’s point is that we can’t have one without the other. Both aspects of democracy exist simultaneously side by side. As she says, pragmatic politics without the redemptive aspect is like keeping a church going without faith: a self-defeating process. When politics gets too complicated, too corrupted, too opaque, and too alienating to the public, the redemptive side is going to reassert itself with a vengeance. This is how Canovan understands populism. It is an inherent part of democracy, keeping the pragmatic part of it in check. Where we find populist parties winning ever larger shares of votes, we will also find a technocratic, corrupt and bureaucratic government, to which these parties are reacting. This seems not to be the case in House of Cards though. There appears to be not much redemptivist-populist agitation going on. In fact, the only close picture we get of political protesters in the show portrays them as fakes (they were quickly assembled together by a teachers’ union and were easily derailed by Frank). And anyone acting with such motives is doomed to a miserable failure.

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Now, as I see it, there are two ways to interpret this cynical-realistic universe of House of Cards (that is, if you don’t want to accept it as it is). The first one is to say that it is a kind of criticism of contemporary politics. Nobody wants to live in a society where all that politicians do is acting according to their own self-interest. Nonetheless – and this is what House of Cards seems to be saying – that is the reality of our situation. There’s a kind of journalistic ethos going on here: the ultimate political act is to expose reality as it really is, without the veil of ideology.

One could find some support for this view in the fact that many of the “good guys” in the show are either journalists or hackers, both of whom pose a serious threat to Frank and the business of politics in general. Even Zoe Barnes – the nosy journalist from season 1 – who seemed to side with Frank for a moment turned out to be very dangerous to him in the end, so much so that he decided to kill her. Much of season 2 consists of Frank trying to stop two of Zoe’s journalist colleagues from uncovering his master plan, and he succeeds in this in the end. A depressing moment for journalism.

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Zoe Barnes

In spite of these crushing defeats, the media is depicted as quite an omnipotent force in the show. Good PR is everything to these politicians. Make one mistake in your public appearance and your political career is over. Many of the battles between Frank and his antagonists are played in this very field. For example, during the teachers’ strike early on in the show, Frank was able to end the strike simply by staging a fist fight between him and the teachers’ union’s lobbyist Marty Spinella, ruining Marty’s media reputation. Frank also used this tactic to bring down Peter Russo by having him appear drunk on the radio.

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Peter Russo

Not to underestimate the weight of Frank’s crimes and his certain demise if those crimes were exposed to the public, but I think the show is a bit too optimistic about the force of media. The problem today is not that we’re lacking information – especially after Wikileaks – but that we’re unmoved by it. Was the United States forced to cut back on its war operations after Wikileaks exposed the war crimes and all the collateral damage of American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Moreover, the conditions in Guantanamo Bay have been known even before Wikileaks and – after more than 10 years – the prison is still standing. But, you might say, how about the personal reputation of politicians? Couldn’t you at least take an individual person down by discrediting him or her publicly in the media? Well, as much as I would like to believe in that, I think the careers of people like Silvio Berlusconi prove otherwise. He’s been accused of illegal activities many times but has kept on returning to the political arena. Besides, we live in an era where politicians can even belittle and make fun of themselves in public (which makes me doubt whether political satire has lost the subversive core it might have once had).

But somehow I doubt that the creators of House of Cards are on a mission to expose the realpolitik of the White house in the hope that this might perhaps make us more critical of politics. The second interpretation would be that perhaps there’s really no agenda here. The world is fucked up and that’s it. Maybe the writers of the story are really just cynics and want to document reality as it is, without happy endings to please utopians and idealists. This would put the show to the same category as Game of Thrones – a series even more cynical than House of Cards. If we interpret the story this way it becomes a kind of an exposition of the egoistic nature of human beings and the corruptive effects of power and money.

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The kind of a world presented in House of Cards (and Game of Thrones) is very tempting. There is something very alluring about the unveiling of appearances and getting to know the real motives behind the characters. Moreover, the appearance of cold hard realism is tempting; it’s a bittersweet pleasure to see the world in all its ugliness. But the alluring effect of shows like House of Cards should make us question why we’re drawn to the kind of realism presented in them. If we enjoy the show, it’s a sign that we’re ideologically engaged with it, that it caters to our fantasies about reality. In fact, the anti-ideological edge of House of cards is misleading, because it presents as reality the kind of a world that we find in the predominant liberal ideology, albeit in a dark guise.

What does the ideology of liberalism tell us? That we’re ultimately singular individuals acting on our own self-interests. Our actions might not be carefully considered and calculated (as the rational choice theory and game theory – commonly used in mainstream economics – suggest) but there is always a selfish motive behind them. Even if we seem to act altruistically, it can always be said that it’s only because we want to feel good about ourselves. From this singular self-interested actor we can then derive the values associated with classical liberalism and contemporary individualism, such as personal liberty, the individual’s right to freedom of action and self-expression.

It is, of course, possible to criticize the kind of views liberalism presents to us. It is possible to say, for instance, that we are not atomic selves but that our selfhood is constructed in our social relations and, therefore, that we’re social actors. Moreover, if you are psychoanalytically aligned, you could say that we’re, in fact, split subjects (the conscious and the unconscious). In this view the human being is characterized by antagonisms and contradictions. It is impossible to reduce actions merely to simple selfish motives because it’s in our nature that there is always a conflict of various motives. But this is not the place to advance a criticism of the liberal human being. My purpose was merely to show that the cold realism of House of Cards is alluring precisely because it appeals to the kind of ideological fantasies we’ve all been raised into.

Where do we find the symptoms of this liberal ideology in House of Cards? Putting the general outlook of the series aside for a moment, the most obvious sign for me is the lack of collective action/actors in the show. The closest we come to that is during the teachers’ strike early on in the show. But, as was already explain above, we don’t really get a good picture of the protesters. And the whole conflict was personified and resolved as a conflict between two individual people: Frank and Marty. Peter Russo’s rallying of the shipyard workers also died before it even begun and – again – in the form of Russo’s personal failure. There’s not even much party discipline in the show. Democrats are as eager to deceive each other as Republicans. Individual careerism is the only game in town.

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Marty Spinella’s futile protest

Big business is also personified in the form of greedy lobbyists and businessmen (a story written from another perspective would have maybe shown them as disposable parts of bigger automatic machine called “capital” – an abstraction but a real one). However, it is to the benefit of the show that big business is such a huge presence in House of Cards. There are three constraints for political maneuvering in the show. The first is the law, the second is PR and the third is business. Politicians are shown to be not only dependent on lobbyists and in tightly knit relations with business people but also constrained by business interests in the range of decisions they can make and the kind of options they have on the table. This is especially relevant considering that the last 30-40 years in the United States and Europe have been a period of low investment (and, therefore, low growth) and the rise of global financialization – trends, which have increasingly limited the scope of governments’ policy options and increased public debts, therefore placing states at the mercy of their creditors (for a compelling account of this history, see Wolfgang Streeck’s “Buying Time”).

Another curious symptom of ideology at work in the show is the figure of the innocent president. Garrett Walker is quite a sympathetic figure. He doesn’t seem to be engaged in political scams and, together with his wife, is portrayed as a kind of a human figure with normal human problems (he goes to marriage counselling with his wife). Unfortunately, he is also easy to fool, as Frank constantly demonstrates throughout the series. This figure of the innocent president is not a singular peculiarity; it can be found in many other (American) TV series and movies. For example, in the latest season of 24, president James Heller expresses his anger for not having been told about a drone strike, which killed civilians somewhere in the Middle East. If my memory serves me right, he is given a perfect reply: in order to keep his hands clean, Heller shouldn’t be informed about such dirty activities happening on the ground. The point is clear: the president should be above realpolitik and saved from the dirty business of politics as usual. By the way, this is also the kind of a relationship, which Frank has with Garrett in House of Cards. Frank keeps serving Garrett (with his own hidden motives, of course) by ethically questionable tactics with Garrett’s discreet approval. He is OK with Frank’s methods, as long as he is kept in the dark.

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Garrett Walker

Why is this figure of the innocent president a symptom of ideology? Once again, I need to refer to Žižek and his views on cynicism. For, according to him, total cynicism is impossible because the cynical worldview – that the world is cruel and full of egotists, etc. – is sustained by an object, which, as it were, remains ignorant and innocent. Žižek has many examples to illustrates this logic. One of them is the connection between the late 60’s sexual revolution and the figure of the innocent child. As we all know, the sexual revolution loosened up our moral standards, diversified sexualities considered pathological before and even lead to extremities, which remain controversial to this day. However, this development was coupled with another trend: the emergence of the figure of the innocent child. Whereas in psychoanalysis and during the times before the sexual revolution, children were considered sexual beings (Freud among others), in modern times children are extremely desexualized and the figure of the pedophile has become like an incarnation of Satan on earth. It is as if, even though sexuality is now perhaps more diverse and visible than ever, there has to remain an innocent gaze, someone who is not aware of what is happening – and this gaze is embodied in the figure of the innocent child. To take another example, from TV this time, there is a wonderful depiction of this same logic in the vampire series True Blood. Sookie’s (the protagonist) grandmother dies early on in the show but Sookie seems strangely unaffected by this, as if her beloved grandmother’s death didn’t have any emotional impact on her. However, the secret to her unaffected state of mind is soon revealed. Before she died, Sookie’s grandma had baked a pie. It is only when Sookie takes the pie out of the fridge and starts eating it that she breaks down in tears. The pie was a stand-in for her grandma; as long as the pie remained intact, the fact that the grandma was really dead hadn’t really hit Sookie on an affective level.

Going back to House of Cards, the figure of the innocent president is, I think, a stand-in for the purity of politics. As long as the head of the White House remains ignorant of it, realpolitik can go on. The cynical universe of House of Cards needs a character like Garrett Walker to sustain it; he is a symptom of the kind of an ideology House of Cards propagates. so what would have been the way out of this deadlock? I would say: go all the way! Attack the object, which sustains one’s ideology. In other words, deprive the president of his innocent status and portray him as a corrupt politician like everyone else, or, perhaps even better, as a person corrupted by his office and status. If the authors had done it that way, they would have rendered visible the corruptive nature of the political system as such. Now the show seems to sustain the illusion that politics would be different with different actors: remove the corrupted politicians and all would be fine.

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It’s time for a conclusion: House of Cards, in spite of its attractive cynicism and anti-ideological edge, remains caught in the ideological constraints of contemporary liberalism. Frank Underwood, far from exposing to the audience the real nature of politicians behind their democratic rhetoric (as if didn’t already know), complies just nicely with a) the figure of a liberal human being acting on his or her own self-interest and b) the image of politics as a play field of individual actors trying to climb the ladder of power, which, I think, is the dark underside of consensus politics. The latter, as explained above apropos Canovan, refers to the pragmatic view of democratic politics, which emphasizes the role of institutional constraints as peaceful containers and reconcilers of conflicts between adversaries with their own specific interests. The goal of these constraints and deliberative proceedings is, of course, to establish a consensus among all parties, therefore coming to a solution, which serves everyone involved. Of course, the implication of this is that the parties involved should be able to leave their particular interests aside and come to a compromise, which benefits all. Frank Underwood, although able to circumvent the rules and use them to his own advantage, exists solely within this ideology of consensus – as its dark shadow. He doesn’t stand for universality but particularity; his motive is not the universal interest but his own private one.

I do not think politics should be about reaching an agreement between adversaries. what this consensus view of politics hides is the irreconcilability of deep antagonisms, which constitute the society. Apropos class struggle, it is impossible to find lasting agreements between capitalists and the rest of the people (workers and the unemployed), for the very existence of the former depends on the exploitation of the latter. To take a very concrete example of this, during a time of crisis higher wages cannot be in the interests of capitalists because to raise wages is the same as to cut profits. Moreover, mass unemployment, especially if welfare programs and labor legislation are weak, actually benefits capitalists: it is a way for them to pressure people into accepting lower wages and poorer conditions of work. Welfare of the mass of people is not in essence aligned with the interests of capitalists, who are always forced to act on the basis of the profit motive.

What this exploitative relation between capitalists and the rest of the people also implies is the asymmetricity between their respective positions. Whereas the former stands for particularity, the latter stands for universality. The interests of capitalists are particular interests, only serving the class of capitalists, while the interests of the rest of the people stand for the universal interest of the demos, of people as such. The ideology of consensus politics implies the particular nature of the actors involved in the decision-making process, therefore obscuring, not only the antagonistic relations of the actors, but also the place of universality – for universality is not represented in the reached consensus but in the interests of one apparently particular party in the debate, the party standing for the people (as opposed to the capitalists).

So, if Frank Underwood is not the kind of a figure of a politician we need, what would be? I’m willing to take cue from Žižek, who has issued a call for a new master figure for the Left in the form of a Leftist Thatcher. As we all know, Margaret Thatcher was relentless in her attacks against the working class. Most famously, she was able to suppress the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Žižek attributes to her the ability to change the entire coordinates of political debate, transforming the way we talk about the economy and what is possible:

Margaret Thatcher, the lady who was not for turning, was such a Master, sticking to her decision which was at first perceived as crazy, gradually elevating her singular madness into an accepted norm. When Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement, she promptly answered: “New Labour.” And she was right: her triumph was that even her political enemies adopted her basic economic policies – the true triumph is not the victory over the enemy, it occurs when the enemy itself starts to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation of the entire field.

So, it would be interesting to decouple the particular egoistic motives of Frank Underwood and the relentlessness according to which he acts. Do we not need someone who is as determined as he is on our side? Do we not need someone who is able to push through our views without resulting in a weak compromise? Do we not need someone who would not accept the rules of the debate as given but have the debate on our terms instead? Iron determinacy and an uncompromising attitude are not necessarily bad features for a politicians to have. In fact, they are precisely the kind of features we should expect from a political figure who acts according to the interests of the people, or, in other words, the universal.

Lessons in Revolution: Snowpiercer, Marx, Rancière

During the last few years cinema has been penetrated by class struggle in the form of “Hunger Games” and “Elysium”. The spectacle of visual effects in both of them has blasted on the screen the dire situation of rising inequality all around the world, a trend which is far from a red herring. The Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho – who also brought us “The Host” and “Mother” among other movies – and his crew gave their contribution to the list and produced their own cinematic representation of class struggle in the form of “Snowpiercer”, possibly the best film of the year and definitely the most revolutionary one.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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Poster, with Curtis on the front.

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The film takes place in the near future when the earth has frozen up (making life impossible on earth) due to a failed experiment of climate engineering (large-scale manipulation of the atmosphere in an attempt to stop global warming). The remains of humanity are packed on a gigantic train called Snowpiercer, which circles around the globe with the power of a perpetual motion engine. The train is extremely stratified along class lines: the tail of the train is inhabited by poor rabble while wealthy elite take up the rest of the train. In a Marxist fashion, there exists a relation of exploitation, which sustains the class system: children of the inhabitants of the tail are frequently taken from their parents and brought to the front of the train (to work the train’s engine, as it is revealed later on).

The film follows a rebellion iniatiated by the tail inhabitants and lead by a man called Curtis. With their collective force they’re able to defeat the elite’s guardians and move towards the head of the train car by car with the aim of overthrowing the rule of Wilford, the creator of the train and the head of its social hierarchy. In addition to Curtis and Wilford, there are also some other characters whose roles are central to the story. One of them is Minister Mason, who acts as the representative of Wilford (and the elite as a whole) and commands the guardians. Another central character is Namgoong Minsu, a prisoner released by Curtis. He designed the security system of the train and Curtis persuades him to help the tail inhabitants advance towards the head. Curtis also has a mentor, an older man named Gilliam, who dies during the rebellion. As will be seen later on in a plot twist, he turns out to be a double-faced character who has been plotting behind Curtis’s back.

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Curtis and his people facing the train’s police force.

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Namgoong Minsu

The film is a showcase of Bong’s characteristic style of film-making. The physical setting of the story – the train with all its various cars – allow him to play out his genre-smashing and pace-shifting technique. The atmosphere of the movie keeps shifting as Curtis’s forces move through the train. The film starts from the decayed tail cars, creating a dystopian atmosphere, but quickly erupts into action as the revolt starts moving. After Curtis captures Mason, who he uses as a hostage and a guide to advance further to the prosperous cars of the elite, the film takes comedic turns and even has a surreal flavor to it, reminding me very vaguely of Godard’s “Weekend” and less vaguely of Gilliam’s “Brazil”. When we finally get to Wilford’s car at the front, the film has shifted its shape from a rather clearcut class struggle form into a multifaceted work of art and social critique.

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The thematics of social stratification in this film shine through immediately in its visuals. The tail cars are dark, trashy, crowded, precisely the kind of a visual representation of deprivation one easily imagines. The tail’s poverty seems to culminate in disgusting protein bars, which serve as food in the tail (considering the popularity of protein snacks in the fitness boom nowadays, what an irony!). Later the tail inhabitants learn that the bars are actually made of insects that are being processed in one of the cars. In contrast to the tail, the cars reserved for the elite are clean, technologically advanced and filled with interior design. The film also drives home the point that fashion is a symbol and privilege of social status: whereas the tail inhabitants wear ragged clothes, Minister Mason looks like a judge from Project Runway.

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Tail inhabitants, with Gilliam on the right.

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Tyranny goes Gaga: Minister Mason

However, the immediate setting of social inequality is not what makes this movie progressive or revolutionary in its logic. What I will try to do in this text is to show the intrinsic Marxist framing of class struggle in the film, which sets it apart from similar movies. It is this framing, which challenges the audience to think about revolution in ways movies like Elysium never could. The analysis that follows is going to focus on two points. First, the role of ideology in legitimizing class hierarchy (or what is called the spirit of capitalism in the Weberian tradition of sociology). And second, the anti-systemic logic of the ending twist (watch out for spoilers!).

i) There is another benefit in the train setting than just allowing Bong to play freely with his approach to film-making, it also allows Bong to show glimpses of contemporary Western capitalist societies in a kind of satirical light (the train’s society is, of course, not capitalist, but it is fairly obvious what it’s supposed to represent). As the tail inhabitants march towards the front of the train, we get to see all sorts of facilities and places of leisure provided for the elite. The classroom car is especially memorable as it embodies in an almost embarrassingly straightforward form the orthodox Marxist account of how ideology operates: ideology is a veil covering, legitimizing and naturalizing the class hierarchy and relations of production, obfuscating the true nature of the society for its inhabitants. The classroom car is a satire of school as an ideological state apparatus: children are being indoctrinated to comply to the social order of the train by a ridiculous ideological song about Wilford and the sublime properties of the train’s perpetual motion engine.

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Education or indoctrination?

There’s also a materialist philosophy of religion at play in Bong’s movie. In the beginning of the film Minister Mason gives a lecture to the tail inhabitants who have been showing signs of disobedience where she speaks of Wilford and the train’s engine as holy beings, elevating them to a god-like position. I was immediately reminded of something I read in Chris Harman’s People’s History of the World where he notes that in pre-historic societies granaries and other systems of distributing food and resources in the society were commonly elevated to the status of religious worship along with their guardians. In Snowpiercer the perpetual motion engine is what keeps the train moving and all its inhabitants alive, i.e. it is the material basis for the reproduction of the train’s society. Is it not natural for such an object to be mystified in a religious vein? And doesn’t this elevate the engine’s creator to the status of a god?

As we know from the critics of orthodox Marxism, the conception of ideology as a veil covering up the true relations of domination and exploitation in the society – while there’s truth to it – does not quite capture all the ways ideology operates and is linked with the economic conditions and relations of the society. A range of thinkers from Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello to Slavoj Žižek have noted how ideology is not just some kind of a discourse or a rhetorical trick to fool the oppressed into submission, it is also a structuring principle of social reality in itself; ideology is not just a way to legitimate the actually existing social order, it also helps to bring this social order about. For example, Žižek understands ideology as a set of unconscious beliefs, which we follow in our daily actions. The mystery of beliefs is in the way they work seemingly without anyone actually doing the believing. Žižek likes to illustrate this in connection with the Marxist notion of commodity fetishism: Nobody actually believes that the stupid paper bills in my pocket are valuable as plain physical objects but, nonetheless, they will accept them as means of payment as if they had some magical properties, which make them valuable and allow them to serve as money. In this sense ideology is not in what we believe but in what we actually do.

But this is a digression. What I wanted to show here is that Snowpiercer employes very consciously the orthodox notion of ideology as a veil obfuscating the true nature of the society. It’s a very simple satire but serves to remind us that contemporary capitalist socities are far from post-ideological. Ideology is very much alive and kicking, even if we would better off to resort to the likes of Žižek rather than orthodox Marxists in order to understand how we’re being persuaded and bribed to submit to the imperatives of our economic system.

ii) The Marxist punch proper only appears in the very end of the movie. Curtis, Minsu and his daughter finally get to the front car, the home of Wilford and the location of the perpetual motion engine. Curtis is finally going to execute his plan: to overthrow Wilford’s rule and take control of the engine. Minsu, however, has other plans. He wants to blow up the door next to the front car, which leads to outside of the train. His intention is to abandon the train and live outside, on land, in the hopes that the earth’s climate has warmed up enough to sustain life. What is at stake in the choice between these two options? Who should we side with? Let’s examine these questions in the light of the course of events the film takes.

Wilford meets Curtis with a very unpleasant surprise: he had planned everything all along. As he explains to Curtis, the train has a very delicate eco-system, which is founded on maintaining the hierachical social order of the train. As this balance is disturbed, measures have to be taken in order to establish harmony once again. At this point, the population of the tail had grown too large. It needed to be cut down drastically: precisely 74% of the tail inhabitants had to die for the sake of restoring the train’s eco-system. In a kind of trade-off, Wilford’s intention was to let the rebellion advance a few cars further from the tail and stop there. This was planned together with Gilliam, Curtis’s mentor, who is now revealed to be one of the bad guys.

Curtis also learns what the children kidnapped from the tail inhabitants are being used for: the perpetual motion engine is sustained by child labor. Bong plays out an incredibly effective contrast here. Wilford’s car is beautifully decorated, even if slightly anemic, while the engine appears on the background like a sublime relic from ancient times. However, one only needs to remove one of the floor plates to expose the horror that keeps the place from falling apart: one of the children is being kept in a very tiny place in the middle of complicated machinery beneath the floor. The sight of exploitation is being kept at bay by only a thin layer of floor plates.

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Wilford and the perpetual motion engine.

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Underneath the floor…

To add insult to injury, Wilford crowns his master plan by telling Curtis that he wants to make him the new head of the train. Wilford is getting old and is in need of a replacement and he thinks Curtis is up for the job. Curtis is now faced with a very strange dilemma. What he thought he needed to fight for is being offered to him on a plate. The horror of this confrontation is that he is completely at a loss as to what to do. He thought he was fighting against the elite’s greed and Wilford’s lust for power. What he intended to do after overthrowing Wilford was to lead the train’s society differently, in an equal and democratic vein, without exploitation and oppression. But now – having been informed by the inevitability of social inequality – he can’t see any other options than turning into another Wilford, as despotic and as cruel.

It could be said that Bong shows here how even class struggle itself can be incorporated into the capitalist social order. The working class is kept at bay by reformist bribes, which will keep them calm and satisfied, while relations of domination and exploitation continue to exist. However, I think Bong’s point goes a little bit further than this and ends on an optimistic note. What Snowpiercer does is invoking the old line from Marx from his The Civil War in France: “[T]he working class cannot simply lay hold of the readymade state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” (The First International and After, p. 206) The tail inhabitants cannot simply march in to Wilford’s car, take the power to their own hands and establish a just social order. The (eco-)system by which the train operates is inherently unjust regardless of who pretends to rule it; there’s no other way to keep the engine alive and the train’s (eco-)system in balance than by domination and exploitation. This is the hard lesson in revolution Curtis faces.

It is hard not to see the analogy with present day capitalism. The train’s perpetual motion engine bears too much resemblence to capital that it cannot be a coincidence. What is capital – the self-propelling movement of money for the sake of making more money, production for the sake of expanding production, consumption for the sake of consumption – if not a perpetual motion engine, which feeds on human lives? And doesn’t Wilford’s cruel calculation – 74% – of the required loss of human lives resemble the quantitative logic of present day austerity with its reductions in public spending and cuts in labor costs? What Snowpiercer challenges us to think about is this: What if austerity is just a consequence of the logic of the capitalist system as such? What if austerity is the best capitalism can offer?

So, what’s the way out? Bong seems to credit Minsu with an answer: the goal is not to take power within the current system but to abandon the whole system as such. In the end the door to outside is blown up open and the train goes off the rails. Only two kids are left alive. They wonder outside the train and see a polar bear walking on the snow. It’s a proof that the earth’s climate has become inhabitable again and there’s life outside the train. In spite of the collapse of the train, it is a profoundly optimistic ending; another kind of a society is possible, but the hard lesson in revolution is that it will require overthrowing the entire system.

III

What’s the meaning of politics in Snowpiercer? The film essentially culminates in a very anti-systemic and revolutionary view of politics: politics is the collective resistance to oppression inherent in the system as a totality. However, there’s another opposition at play in the film, which can be approached from the perspective of Jacques Rancière’s philosophy of politics, laid down in his Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. The crux of his argument is that politics begins when oppressed and marginalized groups render themselves visible in the public arena, posit themselves as beings equal to everyone else and identify themselves with the totality of the society/social system. In politics the notion of equality disrupts/displaces the established social order.

Rancière contrasts politics with what he calls the Police. This doesn’t refer to actual police forces but to the ideologico-institutional social order, which assigns every individual to his or her proper place in the society. This can be conceived through social roles, which can be professions, gender roles, etc. (such as “woman”, “man”, “father”, “mother”, “teacher”, “student”). The Police reduces society to its individual parts, leaving no residual. It is the proper functioning of its individual parts, according the logic of the Police, which sustains the smooth running of the society and guarantees social harmony. For Rancière, the notion of “consensual democracy” is a system of this kind: it reduces the society to its individual parts (demographic groups, professions, special-interest groups, identity groups, etc.) and attempts to reconcile all the various interests of these individual parts into a coherent whole (for example, by parliamentary forms of governance and decision-making). In Snowpiercer, Wilford also obeys the logic of the Police. But his view of society is not consensual democratic but social darwinist: the train forms a delicate eco-system, in which every social group and individual has its proper place, the displacement of which results in disruptions in the eco-system.

In opposition to the Police, politics proper disrupts/displaces the established ideologico-institutional formation. Real democracy begins when an oppressed and marginalized group, which doesn’t have a place in the society, asserts itself on a political arena, declares itself equal to everyone else and identifies itself with the totality of the society/social system. Politics emerges precisely from the above mentioned residual, which isn’t supposed to exist in the calculations of the Police. For Rancière, the paradigmatic examples are proletarians (the working class) and women. Proletarians, as we know from Marx, do not have a place in the bourgeois social order. In contrast to the bourgeois fantasy of equal individuals making free decisions and contracts in the market, the capitalist social order is actually penetrated by class inequality: the class of owners of the means of production exploit the class of proletarians, who do not possess anything but their own labor-power, which they are forced to sell to their employers. As for women, what makes feminists political in the Rancièrean sense is their non-identification with the gender role they’ve been assigned to; a feminist will not accept the role of, for example, a submissive domestic housewife assigned to her by conservative ideologies but demands equality. In Snowpiercer, politics encapsulates in the struggle of the tail inhabitants against the place assigned to them by Wilford and his crew.

Rancière warns us about the temptation to conceive of politics as reconciliation of various interests achieved by rational discussion (à la Jürgen Habermas). Before any discussion can take place, social groups have to be constituted as legitimate parties in the discussion. It is here, on a level below reconciliation of interests by rational discussion, where politics takes place. It is the struggle of a social group to constitute itself as a party in the discussion. It is only after this has taken place when their demands can be recognized and conceived, not dismissed as incomprehensible noise (take the common image of a protester spouting meaningless nonsense). What Snowpiercer warns us about, in a Rancièrean vein, is the conception of politics as technocratic governance of the society, especially its economic system. Technocracy reduces politics to the management of economic policy by “experts” and limits our options to austerity and regulation of interest rates. As Marx reminds us, the governance of our economic system is always a political question.

Snowpiercer also rejects another Police logic, one that is perhaps more ideological, namely the logic of social darwinism (or, if you prefer a similar demographic version of the doctrine, Malthusianism). The usual formulation of this “theory” goes something like this: Social darwinism – ridiculously popular on discussion forums on the internet – reduces the society to the struggle of individuals for survival. The logic of the survival of the fittest is not only a gross distortion of the actual science of evolution but also a way to naturalize all the inequalities we perceive in our society. Poverty becomes a weakness of character, the result of natural incompetence and failure in the struggle for survival. Social darwinism – in spite of its cynicism – is a theory of social harmony: every individual is assigned to his or her place by the logic of survival while the society appears to form an eco-system where the strong succeed at the expense of the weak. Inequalities get naturalized and grounded in bad genes. The falsity of this logic is apparent to every social scientist. We don’t live in a state of nature (an imaginary construct if there ever was one) where the struggle for survival is supposed to take place but in a society dominated by the logic of class relations and other social systems, all of which are historically contingent and subject to change.

All it takes is collective resistance.

The Pitfalls of Pride, Patriarchy and Redemption: On Breaking Bad

I am late. Very, very late. This series already ended with ridiculously positive response from the audience and its critics already last year, after 5 seasons worth of psychological torment and ethical challenges. After having avoided the show for a long time due to its rather non-interesting setup, I finally decided to watch it. And, as usual with critically acclaimed series, it sank in. So, I’ll take an unusual path and write some thoughts on a non-anime series (applying theory to not so a substandard production for a change!)

SPOILERS AHEAD

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I

Here’s a short recap of the show for those who, for some reason, have no clue what it’s about:

Walter White is quite the average American citizen. He’s a chemistry teacher in high school, married to a woman named Skyler, he has a 15-year-old son (who suffers from cerebral palsy) and a daughter on the way and – best of all – he lives in a typical American suburb in New Mexico, sealing the stereotypical American Beauty type of a picture of the banal everyday life of the American white middle-class. Yet life doesn’t go to smoothly for Walt. Due to his small salary he needs to work two jobs, helping out at a car wash to make some extra cash. Yet this is not the biggest of his worries: in the beginning of the series he is diagnosed with lung cancer.

Knowing what the health policy in the United States is like, it is no surprise that Walt runs into quite big money problems after his diagnosis. So, he decides to earn some extra dollars in a business that promises high returns quick and easy – manufacturing and dealing methamphetamine. A series of events leads him to partner with Jesse Pinkman, a former student of his who is very much in the meth business (the trademark of Jesse’s cooking is a touch of chili, apparently). After a rough start their business starts to grow and their product gains fame due to its extraordinary purity (Walt is a chemist, after all). Walt and Jesse get ever deeper in the drug circles until they’re finally hired to cook meth for a drug lord who is running the biggest drug empire in South America.

The series grows progressively darker as Walt goes through his character development from a scared and cautious suburban father into a bold, cynical and heartless criminal mastermind. If, in the first season, Walt ponders days and days whether he is able to kill a man locked up in the basement to save his ass, in the final season he is able to order the killing of a series of characters without a second thought. As for Jesse, his development is more ambiguous as he struggles to break free from the drug business while being simultaneously drawn – and forced – back to it. Yet, in spite of a couple killings by his hand, he does not go through the same journey towards nihilism as Walt does.

As for Walt’s family, for a long period of time Walt managed to keep his meth business a secret from them. However, after a series of exposed lies and unbelievable (in the literal sense of the term) explanations for his behavior, his wife Skyler finally finds out something is wrong and learns the truth – at least a part of it, since she likes to retain her ignorant bliss about all of Walt’s wrongdoings. Experiencing some conflict whether she should expose her meth cooking husband, she finally decides to help him launder all the money he is making. As for the kids, Walt Jr., the teen-aged son, only finds out in the final season, as do Walt’s brother-in-law Hank (who works for the DEA) and Skyler’s sister/Hank’s wife Marie.

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Aaron Paul’s depictions of emotional breakdown make an essential part of Jesse Pinkman’s character.

II

Walt’s dark character development is sustained, at least on the surface, by his devotion to his family. In the story he tells himself and others, he is able to go to such great lengths to compromise his humanity because he is doing it for the best of his family. Indeed, he is so eager to protect his family that he is willing to risk their lives for it. What we get here is his patriarchal fantasy of fulfilling the role of the bread winning father, a rather private project as it turns out his actions are only supported by himself.

This fantasy of adopting the role of the authoritative and powerful father should be read together with his powerlessness depicted in the beginning of the show. Not only is Walt portrayed as a quiet and privately repressed character, his life seems to be dictated by all sorts of external events; his dire economic situation, his son’s needs and his wife’s surveillance, and, foremost, his cancer diagnosis all render him powerless. Turning to drug dealing enables him finally to take control over his own life and turn around the family dynamics – he is no longer going to be afraid and take his wife’s nagging, he is the one providing for and protecting the family, and he deserves respect.

All this is turned on its head during the second half of the show. Skyler is unable to turn his husband in and helps him launder his money while keeping everything secret from her son. As things progress she spirals deeper into emotional despair. She can’t go to the police, she’s afraid for her family and hates her husband. She has effectively become her emotionally abusive husband’s hostage. But here’s the catch: is this not the flip side of Walt’s private fantasy? He got what he wanted – his wife is subordinated to him – yet their family life has turned into a nightmare.

It is also quite interesting to read this series in the light of the concept of a subject-supposed-not-to-know (yes, I can’t write anything without referring to Žižek’s terminology somewhere!) It is possible to read Walt’s twisted character development in the light of the fact that he is able to outsource his humanity onto his family, especially his son. He can go on doing bad things, as long as they don’t know, as long as Walter Jr. doesn’t know. Indeed, the final breakdown of the family happens precisely at the moment Walter Jr. learns the truth about his father, after which Walt decides to disappear with his new identity.

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When Skyler is sad, Skyler smokes.

III

These dynamics are interwoven with the thematic of pride. This is already clear in the first episodes. Walt is being offered baits to exit from the drug business, yet he refuses due to his pride. Perhaps the most crucial of these baits was the offer made by Walt’s friends and former colleagues Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz to pay for his cancer treatment (and consequently he wouldn’t need the drug money). Elliott and Gretchen are running a successful company called Grey Matter, a company that Walter helped to found. Due to his resentment and frustration for leaving the company early on, Walt refuses the money Elliott and Gretchen are offering. He is not going to succumb to charity.

In fact, Walt is too proud to do a lot of things in the show. For instance, he gets angry at people who are trying to replicate his product or work in Heisenberg’s (his street name, so to speak) name. Also, in a childish spurt, he shoots his former business associate after being accused of screwing up things and told that he should have known his place in the food chain. He keeps piling up money, a lot more than he or even his children could ever use, and holds on to it for the piles of dollar bills are nothing less than a physical manifestation of the value of his work. His pride is ultimately dependent on others’ recognition, yet he can’t get it from his family so he has to build his fame in the drug world.

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Demanding recognition.

The value of pride and meritocratic individual achievement, relying only on oneself and not accepting dependency on others, is deeply ingrained in the American culture, at least if we believe Jennifer Silva who interviewed 100 working-class young adults and wrote a book about her findings called Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. In her text, Silva finds that many young working-class people harbor almost pathological distrust towards other people and public institutions. This distrust could be dismissed as delusional if it wasn’t based on actual experiences of abuse and betrayal. The flip side of this distrust is the ideal of self-sufficiency: if others can’t be trusted, the only thing I can count on is myself and, consequently, the responsibility of my successes and failures in life is mine only.

The field, which offered the seemingly neutral place to put one’s individual action at work, was the market; an individual can prove himself by earning money from his labor. The labor market as a field of equal exchange is an illusion already exposed by Marx who showed that in the exchange of labor-power for money the worker always produces more value than he gets in return as a wage. The labor market, although seemingly a field of free contracts and equal exchange, is a fundamentally unequal institution. Yet this is not how the working-class young people in Silva’s sample saw it. For them, any shortcomings were necessarily the cause of one not trying hard enough, even in the cases of obvious racial discrimination. This is how the neoliberal subject comes into being: we learn to blame ourselves for the structural inequalities and exclusive mechanisms of the society.

It is in this context where one should locate Walt’s sense of pride and obsession with his money. Up to the very last episode he treats his millions as a manifestation of HIS efforts. He earned them by his own hard work, not by some external circumstances, charity or pure luck. In the final episode where he forces Elliott and Gretchen to launder his money and give it to his son on his 18th birthday, he explicitly stresses that all possible expenses should be taken from the stash of money left by him, for he is only going to pay his son with what HE has earned and he refuses the idea that Elliott and Gretchen should pay with their money. Granted, the market Walt earned his money from is not exactly the legally legitimate one, yet the logic of engaging in seemingly neutral market transactions as a way to prove one’s worth is deeply held by Walt.

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A fair exchange?

IV

And now, finally, the ending. A lot of people seem to have liked it, yet it is not without its critics. And I tend to side with the latter. For a short recap:

After having disappeared and changed his identity, Walt returns to New Mexico on his 52nd birthday, two years since his first meth dealings. What he has in mind is first, to leave the millions he still has left to Elliott and Gretchen so they can leave it to his son later on, and second, to take revenge on a gang of neo-nazis who stole the rest of his money and killed his brother-in-law. The first goes as described above and the latter is also a success. The gang members all wind up dead, including Lydia, Walt’s former business associate now dealing with the gang. In the process Walt also manages to rescue Jesse who has been held captive by the neo-nazis. As for closures in the family drama, Walt briefly visits Skyler in her new home, finally admitting that he did everything only for his own sake while protecting his family was just an attempt to rationalize it. He also gives her map coordinates, which will lead to the place where Hank is buried and which Skyler could trade with her prosecutor. In the very final shot Walt is lying on the ground, dying from a gunshot wound, while the camera moves slowly upwards. It is clear that Walt has achieved a sense of inner peace.

The reason I’m siding with the critics of the finale is that, as they say, it all seems to go too smoothly for Walt, for he gets absolutely everything he wanted. As Emily Nussbaum writes in the New Yorker:

[I]t was troubling, and yes, disappointing, if only because the story ended by confirming Walt’s most grandiose notions: that he is, in fact, all-powerful, the smartest guy in the room, the one who knocks. Anyone other than Walt becomes a mere reflection of this journey to redemption […] It’s not that Walt needed to suffer, necessarily, for the show’s finale to be challenging, or original, or meaningful: but Walt succeeded with so little true friction—maintaining his legend, reconciling with family, avenging Hank, freeing Jesse, all genuine evil off-loaded onto other, badder bad guys—that it felt quite unlike the destabilizing series that I’d been watching for years.

It is slightly off-putting to see Walt, who has caused so much devastation to those around him, die so happy and managing to bring closure to his life, tying up loose ends, just to way he wanted to. What kind of a strange universe is this one, where karma doesn’t punish those who do wicked actions? I’m even tempted to interpret his broken family ties as a secret aspect of the patriarchal fantasy: does the role of the providing but distant father have to be negative? Is it not also a conformist fantasy where one is able to fulfill his role as a financial provider, the fatherly breadwinner, while retaining complete independence? Is the lack of emotional ties not the secret condition of possibility for playing this role?

Yet it would be a mistake to focus on Walt’s personal redemption. In fact, it is obscene no matter what happened, whether he suffered or not. The failure of the finale consisted, at least in my view, in its explicit focus on Walt. That is understandable because the show is very much about Walt and his personal development. But the flip side of this is that everything then becomes, as Nussbaum puts it, “a mere reflection of this journey to redemption”. Except, and this Nussbaum doesn’t say, it also works also if you replace redemption with personal tragedy. In fact, the latter may have been even more obscene: the victims of Walt’s actions would then become characters in a great narcissistic play of sublime self-blame.

If you don’t believe me, watch Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing. It follows the right wing “gangsters” (as they are called) responsible for the anti-communist purge of Indonesia in 1965-1966 40 years after the killings. Oppenheimer and his crew allow the gangsters to capture their memoirs on film, staging the actual killings and arranging all sorts of imaginary scenes, which are supposed to symbolize their actions and frames of mind. The most shocking part of the movie, if you don’t count all the horrible acts of killing, is that the gangsters seem, for the most part, to harbor no guilt for their actions. On the contrary, if anything, they’re proud of taking part in the slaughter of over 500,000 people. There is no karma here: Anwar Congo, the “star” of the documentary who personally killed over 1,000 people, and his gang enjoy their privileges as a part of the ruling class and keep running their corrupted business.

In the end of the documentary Anwar, as an exception to the rule, starts feeling regret for his actions. During one of the staged scenes depicting his killings, he is playing a victim in front of the camera and starts tearing up, saying that he is feeling what his victims felt (Oppenheimer is quick to comment on the obscenity of this). Later on, we see him on a rooftop where many of his killings took place and he keeps gagging as the memories of the killings are coming back to him. There’s something poetic in this (your actions will haunt you forever) but it is obscene as well: one can easily imagine how Anwar might play this in his head, where it all probably adds up to make a majestic dostoyevskyan moral drama – which is all about him.

The proper way to have ended Breaking Bad, at least in my mind, would have been to shift the focus from Walt to Jesse, who still had some humanity left in him, to let him escape from captivity and progress from there (To which direction, I don’t know. Perhaps to Brock, the kid he felt responsible for?). As for Walt’s family, it would have been great to have a deeper glimpse of the everyday life of Skyler and her kids, and to see how Walter Jr. was affected by everything. And what about Walt himself? How about we let him freeze to death in his cabin, all alone and powerless? Because, you know, fuck Walter White and whatever he might be feeling.