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Death of the Art House Revolution: Can the Americanized West Ever Stage a Real Rebellion?

Photograph Source: Theatrical Release Poster – Fair Use

The great religious fabulist Billy Graham once crooned to his audience of wide-eyed acolytes, “I’ve read the last page of the Bible. It’s all going to turn out all right.” The assembled flock then fell into a rousing rendition of, “How Great Thou Art.” Ah, to have such simple-minded faith. This is evidently what we long for, after all, the credulous faith of children. And you don’t have to cast your gaze back to the Nile River Valley or the saline shores of the Dead Sea to discover the human proclivity for savior motifs. Just check the nearest cinema signage or streaming app. From Westeros to Wonder Woman, the public seems to have a bottomless appetite for saviors sweeping in to save civilization–or perhaps to purge it of its more unflattering excrescences. Through the nimbus of a nacreous sky, out of a thick wood, cresting over the roiling waves, dredged up from the sea floor, every corner of the planet has been ransacked for sources of redemption, while the tinseltown scribes continue to scribble their visions of apocalypse. The urge to be saved and the fear of Armageddon come together to a screen near you every six months or so. There’s an odd kind of mutualism at work between the Cassandras and Christ-figures.

Consider that since 2008, the filmic output of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grossed more than seven billion dollars. Mind you, this is not DC Comics, so no Superman, Batman, or Aquaman. This is Black Panther, Spider-Man, Thor, Avengers, X-Men, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and so forth. And don’t kid yourself. These days it is mostly adults flocking to the theaters in anxious anticipation of how their childhood heroes will rescue the world from the latest miscreant or megalith or monstrosity. For its part, DC Comics has grossed some five billion with its Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Justice League, and Suicide Squad fare, but DC also reaches back into the Seventies, when Christopher Reeve was inhabiting the Clark Kent attire. Marvel commands the throne of comic-book fantasy at the moment. And Disney has some 20 new film slotted into the starting gate in the next few years.

In many respects what all this superhero cinema reveals is the startling infantilism of the American mind. Benjamin Barber foresaw this some years ago in his excellent cultural exposition, Consumed. The infantilization of the American masses produces the ideal state for consumption: blissfully ignorant and driven by impulsive desires and fears, largely uninformed by any evaluative research let alone the consequences of spending. The critical faculties of adults are absent in the infantile consumer. Surely adults that continually appease their fears (or boredom) with fantasies of caped crusaders rescuing the sheeple from certain destruction participate in this sophomoric recidivism. This is not to say there isn’t plenty of good product out there to enjoy. There is, but it is rather to suggest that our level of indoctrination is such that any thought of radical revolution, real rebellion, is almost immediately derailed or redirected into consumer escapes.

It is instructive to see the disposable dollars we fling into the coffers of Hollywood, because we do not put nearly that amount of money or time into producing authentic change for the tens of millions of us who labor beneath the extractive engines of neoliberal capitalism. Rather than construct real transformation, we opt for escapism. Our revolutions happen on cinema screens rather than side streets. Perhaps the scope and reach of the neoliberal world is too large a task, so that it stuns us into inaction. For our vantage point, the exploitation economy rolls over the horizons of our vision, no end in sight. But imagine if just half that movie money had been poured into the coffers of a socialist third party. Or a party that simply insisted that public needs be solved by socialist government ‘intervention’ rather than some shoddy pretext of market efficiency. Instead, Bernie Sanders has to flood your inbox with hectoring prophecies of doom just to scrape together a pile of $27 donations to run his campaign.

On some level, it’s understandable. You don’t have to deconstruct why we are often satisfied to place our faith in entertaining fictive solutions rather than engage in the tedious ‘years of struggle’ repeatedly called for by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, who understood the grim realities of political transformation. The lined faces of lifetime activists serve as testaments to the cut and thrust of battle against the depredations of faceless multinationals and their ever-growing databases of information, through which struggles are defused and disarmed. From mobile phones, from fiber lines, from five-eyed satellites, from wirelines, from surveillance cams innocuously hung from every string of traffic signals. But is it simply the scale of the job that keeps us from banging pots in the streets like Argentines before they threw the parasitical IMF from their country, or like Venezuelans rallying behind an embattled administration because it represents a movement whose colors they proudly wear? Or, of course, like the emergency-clad French who turn out in the public square week after week despite increasing repression. Are we fatally distracted? Or is it our creature comforts that dissuade us?

The Bourgeois Revolt

British novelist JG Ballard published Millennium People in 2001, a novel about a middle-class rebellion in London’s fictive Chelsea-Marina neighborhood. Darkly comic, but with serious questions at its core, the novel suggested a seemingly absurd concept, that people who enjoyed a modicum of material comfort would ever stage a rebellion. Ballard said at the time, “People are telling me the book made them laugh out loud. Terrific! But it also suggests how brainwashed the middle-class is that it considers the very idea of a rebellion to be laughable.”

The leader of the bourgeoisie revolution is a film lecturer at a local college, Kay Churchill. She rails against the declining fortunes of middle-class life. When narrator David Markham wryly comments that London’s wealthier enclaves, “…looks very pleased with itself. No sign of rickets, scurvy or leaking roofs” Churchill sets him straight, “Salaries have plateaued. There’s the threat of early retirement…(we’re) all locked into huge mortgages. People have sky-high school fees, and banks breathing down their necks….Knowledge-based professions are just another extractive industry. When the seams run out we’re left high and dry with a lot of out-of-date software. Believe me, I know why the miners went on strike.”

Her group of bourgeois revolutionaries see education as a vast brainwashing institution, but also travel, which is another pacifying agent designed to suppress more radical instincts in the middle class. “All the upgrades in existence lead to the same airports and resort hotels, the same pina colada bullshit. The tourists smile at their tans and their shiny teeth and think they’re happy. But the suntans hide who they really are–salary slaves.”

She also declaims on the infantilizing character of Hollywood, refusing to acknowledge even the value of film noir. Listing her favorite films, Markham asks,

“No American films?”

“I don’t like comic strips.”

“Film noir?”

“Black is a very sentimental colour. You can hide any rubbish behind it. Hollywood flicks are fun, if your idea of a good time is a hamburger and a milk shake. America invented the movies so it would never need to grow up. We have angst, depression and middle-aged regret. They have Hollywood.”

Bumptious, then Bought Off

The question at the heart of this novel is one we might still pose to ourselves, even as wage stagnation and plummeting purchasing power rile larger and larger elements of the populace. Will a slight elevation of conditions, a watered-down New Deal, green, gold, or silver, keep our revolutionary instincts at bay? That’s what Bernie Sanders proposes. A return to FDR government programs designed to create jobs and pull a majority out of economic insecurity. But such a program, though initially helpful, will inevitably be attacked by capital. Read Alex Carey’s Taking the Risk Out of Democracy for a look at how quickly and earnestly business ramped up campaigns to savage labor and ultimately unwind the programs designed to benefit them. As David Harvey has said, capitalism will ultimately cannibalize its own source of wealth. Will this sort of New Deal policymaking be a step forward, or backward lurch, for socialism, as many said the ACA was, a kind of generational punt on true healthcare reform?

What German author Florian Cord notes in his excellent work on Ballard is how he depicts the ways in which resistance movements are ultimately incorporated into the capitalist system, and then commodified and sold to lapdog consumers ready for their next fix. What so easily happens is, as Cord writes, “…revolution is entirely reduced to its material dimension. By presenting themselves as responsive to some of the concrete grievances that initially started the revolt, the authorities cleverly transform these into the sole matter of contention and utterly cast aside its much more important ideological dimension.”

Proposals for this kind of incorporation abound, for the very reasons mentioned earlier, that the working class has been offshored and automated into desperate straits, while the middle-class have lost their privileges in similar fashion. Only when conditions deteriorate far enough for the populace to appear threatening to elites–only then are ameliorative proposals countenanced. Sanders New Dealism, trendy candidate Andrew Yang’s $1,000 monthly supplement to consumer bank accounts, Obamacare, etc. These are all forms of pacification in the interest of salvaging the established order, status quo neoliberal capitalism. By addressing the concrete, the ruling class sidesteps the ideological. French elitist Emmanuel Macron has tried this very thing with the Gilets Jaunes, hoping to fob them off with a wage lift here, a canceled tax there. Pacify the insurgents, and never address the core protest, which is against the capitalist ideology itself. Thus far it hasn’t worked on the multi-sectional insurgents of the French uprising. But it has worked here far too many times. Interesting how much of the antiwar anger of the bourgeoisie, stirred up by the Vietnam War, fairly well vanished once the draft was abolished. A nice cultural analogue might be this: the day Pearl Jam appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, the grunge movement was doomed, its outsider angst soothed by incorporation. A nascent rebellion strangled in its crib. In Millennium People, the revolt fizzles out, and Kay is ultimately welcomed into the intelligentsia, produces a documentary about the aims of the Chelsea-Marina rebellion, and becomes gainfully employed by the MSM, which commodifies her edginess and markets it to the masses.

The Dilemma

The word ‘dilemma’ could be visualized as a determined matador standing before an angry bull, dusting the arena floor with an impatient hoof. He faces two horns, neither an inviting prospect. The dilemma asks which horn you would rather be speared with. So it seems with our American political prospects. We’re faced with two barriers. First, the need for a broadly cast recognition that New Dealism is a stopgap solution that will be instantly sabotaged by capital, forcing labor to wage war simply to retain what insufficient victories it won within the capitalist system. It is a de facto bribe from the stakeholders of the status quo, a pacifier for a choleric infant. Second, there is the vast mystification of socialism and any kind of government planning or intervention, the mere idea of which sends half the population into spirals of seething contempt. It is likewise largely unknown that socialism is not a path to tyranny and slaughter, but a sane and humane program for human development, one that, in its very essence, combines the demands of our Machiavellian identity politics liberals. And there we are: on the one hand, hush money; on the other, a stifling hallucination.

How far does our standard of living have to fall before the mass of people stage a revolution? How far does the fading middle-class have to fall before they join in? As the Kaiser Report’s Max Kaiser points out, “You have a situation where people in America have no money, and house prices are skyrocketing relative to their wages, but the government says that’s not inflation. Healthcare costs are galloping ahead, ten to fifteen percent a year inflation, but the government says that’s not inflation.” The federal government couldn’t care less about healthcare or housing or asset price inflation. But it cares deeply about the threat of wage inflation. Wages have risen five percent since 1960 while rents have risen 61 percent.

The question then becomes, if the situation becomes dire enough, and a critical mass of people rebel, can they be quickly bought off? Or will they reject every sweetener and finally capsize capitalism itself, and begin the project of building socialism? There are decades of indoctrination that militate against this prospect. Yet France looks to be a modern hothouse experiment in a cross-section of class interests challenging the neoliberal regime.

What Ballard’s book doesn’t tackle is the possibility that ‘first world problems’ like rising utility bills and heavy property taxes are miniscule set next to the depredations our capitalist governments visits on foreign nations–the overwhelming violence of resource wars led by Washington and London and Paris–and that this contrast, and the startling reality of the latter, might prove a fusible and durable raison d’être for political action. Or maybe that, too, is too remote a reality for our insular, attention-deficit West to embrace. Unless, perhaps, it became a cause célèbre, fatality figures blazoned across well-designed pennants carried by Bono, Beyoncé, and George Clooney through Bel Air, their fierce protests breathlessly reported by Variety and TMZ, and quickly optioned by Disney for its next summer blockbuster.

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Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.  

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