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.

I

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.

II

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.